Book Review: We are all completely beside ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

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This is the story of an American family, as told through the eyes of Rosemary, the eldest daughter of the Cookes.  It is the story of an everyday family, at one level, and an unusual one at another.  It is a difficult book to review without betraying the big reveal – other reviews do that, but this one will endeavour not to.  It’s not that it is a shock when it happens – the way that Fowler lays out the narrative, you know it’s coming, and when it does, Rosemary’s story makes more sense, adding a layer of ‘ah ha’, and poignancy, and yet another hook.

We are all completely beside ourselves is a first person narrative, a device that works superbly well.  Rosemary talks directly to the reader, narrating, explaining, justifying – even avoiding.  Rosemary, as a college student, is withdrawn – vulnerable and angry.  As a child, she tells us, she was talkative, hoovering language and constantly chattering.  Here is the first hook – what is it that has made her withdraw in to herself?  Rosemary’s father told her as a child to ‘skip the beginning, start at the middle’, and this is where she begins her story.

Rosemary is difficult to get along with.  I found myself niggled with her, impatient with her, and yet I kept reading, all credit to Karen Joy Fowler.  That said, Fowler’s choice of structure had little impact on me as a reader – the fact that it is in six parts made little difference.  Nor did the choice of quotes from Franz Kafka, which also only gave value in retrospect.  They were interesting contexts, but did not add to my enjoyment or appreciation (until after) – perhaps it would have been more a part of the reading experience had I read it as a physical book, and not with the inflexibility of the Kindle.  In fact, the book really sits in three parts for me – the middle, the beginning (after the big reveal) and the consequences.

The American family, the Cookes, are the central point of examination of the book, and you land in a place where the family is largely estranged.  Two isolated parents, from Rosemary and each other, a sister who disappeared and a brother who deserted the family.  The tragedy of the disappearance lies at the heart of the matter, revealing the intensity at which parents and siblings love each other and damage each other.  It is a dark story, both intriguing and unsettling, but it is peppered with humour, mostly at the expense of Rosemary, as she conjures memories from her childhood.  Alongside the theme of family, of loss, of betrayal is a whole ethical dilemma that you find yourself in.  It makes for a bumpy ride.

We are all completely beside ourselves is a beautifully written book; the language is at times delicious – rich and indulgent – but it is not an easy read.  It is the discomfort of being with Rosemary, a character that I found it difficult to be around until much later in the book.  I still cannot decide whether I liked the book, or not.  As the story closes, you are still not sure whether Rosemary was a good witness of her past or not, and this is beguiling.

Would I recommend it?  Yes, because comfy is for shoes, and not necessarily for life.  It is thought provoking and ultimately a very well written book, even though you are left with things unresolved – in you, if not the story.

Being part of the audience at Strictly Come Dancing

Tess and Claudia, keep dancing!
Tess and Claudia, keep dancing

I had the thrill of attending the live performance of Strictly Come Dancing, at Elstree Studios on Saturday 11th October.  What a day!  What a process…

I received the news when I was in Spain, a text some 18 days before the show, telling me that I’d been successful in the ballot.  Much screaming and jumping up and down on my part.  My friend Barbara and I have been applying for 10 years, and we knew that one day our dedication would pay off – but I hadn’t appreciated quite how lucky we were.  There are about 400 seats for the public (and about the same for guests).  Apparently 800 tickets get issued (they don’t want an empty studio), and – wait for it – 1.6 million people applied for the 800.  We were extremely lucky (and no, I didn’t do the lottery on that day).

The tickets came through via email, with very clear instructions and hints.  They tell you that more people apply than have seats, that you will be outside waiting to be validated, that your tickets get validated at 12:00, but people are there before.  I was determined not to miss out on this opportunity, so an internet research yielded some terrific advice (thanks Digital Spy Forums).  Clearly there were people who didn’t read the tickets properly, or thought to do any research.  Several people rocked up around noon (and later), and were handing their tickets to the security at the front only to be told to join the queue… and with some 500-600 people ahead of them, they stood no chance of getting in.  I would have cried had this been me.

Like a child on Christmas Eve, I barely slept the night before showtime.  We were in London anyway, but I would never have come up from Cornwall on the day.  Too stressful. I’d planned out the train journey from Blackfriars, which would see me in the queue at Elstree for 09:30.  I’m happy to report that it all went perfectly.  Even the weather – it was forecast for rain showers, but it held off, and the southerly wind from the Azores meant that it was a balmy day.  Well, relatively for October.  I still had on a sailing coat and boots.  Some of the ladies walking past in scrappy sandals and ballgowns… brrrrrr…. makes me shiver to think about it!  Oh, and yes, there is a dress-code; well it is Strictly (and no jeans, please).

Please form an orderly queue!
Please form an orderly queue!

We queued for about 3.5 hours, all told, to get validated.  Fortunately we were queueing with some lovely people (a Scottish couple from Aberdeen who had applied for the first time for that day as they were in town.. !! A couple from Devon, Kevin and Trev, who were a hoot.. and a couple from Pompey who’d been the year before…even more lucky !!), so the time passed with lots of banter, Strictly observations, thoughts and whenever we’d turn to politics or religion or anything heavy, I’d cry out “Let’s stay with the glitter, people!”  We did laugh – and apparently we were the loudest in the queue.  Because you get validated in order, Barbara and I being 174 and 175, and you go into the studio in number order, we were able to be together in the studio itself.  This added to the gloriousness of the experience, without a doubt.

So, knowing that we were definitely in, we could leave and find lunch and change into our Strictly finery.  Elstree isn’t exactly great on catering options (unless you like a Chinese takeaway or are fine with a Nandos), but I’d spotted a Turkish restaurant which was more than adequate.  We’d booked a hotel room, so we could change and leave our mobile phones safely.  Oh yes, that’s another thing, as stated on the tickets, no mobile phones allowed (bag searches mean they confiscate them, and you get them back at the end of the evening… another long queue).  Although that rule didn’t seem to apply to the celebrities or production staff.

Yes, all this time, and all these words (600 so far) and not a sequin to be seen!  We had to be back at 15:30, same place, to queue to get into the studios.  Or at least, a marquee as a holding pen for the rather presentable Strictly-loving public.  Lots of glitter, sequins, dolly-shoes, and hair straightened within an inch of its split ends.  We were in the marquee before the heavens opened, but there were a number of very soggy people coming through.  I think I would have cried here too (not that I’d bothered to do anything with my hair under my hat).  It was here that the announcer told us that 1.6m people had applied.  Her message was repeatedly to use the loos!  And she was right.  There are no loos at the studios, so practical advice would be to drink very little and channel your inner-camel!  In the six hours that we were in the studio, I impressed myself by not needing to pee at all (mind you, I hardly drank anything, and had a cracking headache later to pay for it).

So, this little girl (remember, not sleeping because it was like Christmas Day) was getting very excitable now that we were about to go and see Santa Claus!  We were called into the studio in batches, 0-30, 50-100, 100-150, 150-175 (etc), rather like loading a plane.  Our tickets were checked off when we went through, and people were gracious by standing back and making a path.  It was a kind of reward for those that had queued longest – and a very British judgment I know!  We were lead through the back of the studio, scaffolding and boards of MDF.  Not exactly a salubrious entry, but then….  Oh wow.

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A thousand sparkles around the studio, the audience filling the seats (not the most comfortable, cable-tied together and on planks so you have so little space to sit), the sound of the band warming up, the crackle of excitement in the atmosphere.  The sight of the dance floor – it looks smaller than you imagine it to be.  We were sitting at the back, opposite the judges, with a view up to Claudia’s gallery, behind the bank of celebrities and the production staff’s guests.  It was now 16:30, and the Strictly experience was about to begin.  My stomach was fluttering, and I had a smile as wide as the Cheshire Cat.  I was in Strictly heaven.

The whole evening was ‘managed’ by the Floor Manager, Adam, and a professional warm-up bloke – who looked like Dale Winton (and used to be on the live tour).  It is very orchestrated, and we had rehearsals, as an audience, in clapping, booing, doing “Len’s lens” oohs, standing ovations (some sections can’t do it because of camera angles at certain times).   Lots of joke telling by not-Dale, and generally winding us all up.  There were a couple of things that were recorded.  The opening pro-dance routine, for one.  It was movie themed week, which I was thrilled about – as I thought the celebrities usually tried a bit harder (some didn’t live up to my expectation).  The opening number involved the judges singing, which was a bit cringe-worthy, but good on the entertainment stakes (I think that was probably more appreciated in the studio than on the TV), and introduced Donny Osmond, guest judge.  They had to do the number twice, not sure why, it didn’t look much different on the second run to us!  Donny Osmond did his rendition of ‘Moon River’, a thoroughly beautiful song, with Anton and Joanne dancing.  They were utterly gorgeous, such a light and fluffy routine.  I always wondered how they did the pro-dance routine and got them changed so quickly to do the grand entrance (the stars of the show), but of course, it’s recorded about an hour before the show goes live.

Claudia and Tess then came on the studio floor to say hello and rehearse a little, and shoot a couple of ‘links’.  They were hysterical.  I never imagined that Claudia Winkleman would be so nervous, but she really is.  I adore Claudia.  She was complaining about the dress and the shoes, and she was staggering around the stage, mucking about.  She told us she had two pairs of spanx on and couldn’t really breathe – the dress is meant for a child, she said.  Her hair really is that glossy, and she really is that impish.  Many lines are on auto-cue, but in her little gallery, she comes to her own, just being herself.  Funny, feisty and enthusiastic.  Some people say that Tess is wooden; well, she isn’t off-screen.  She was joking and chatting.  I just think she has a different nature to Claudia, and anyone would look wooden next to the enigmatic Claude.

All of a sudden, it’s showtime.  Where did the two hours go?  The opening titles rolled, we clapped in time (no da-da-da-ing allowed), and then it is as much as you know from the TV show.  Only, I was there live!  And saw bits that you don’t see.  The amazing work of the floor teams who change the sets, the ripples of tension that the audience feels in response to the judges, or a moving dance.  The power of the singers and the band.  INCREDIBLE!  The floor manager and the not-Dale behind the cameras, orchestrating the audience.  The make-up people that come and take the shine off someone’s head.  The faces on the celebrities/pros as they watch their peers.  You actually get a better view of the dancers on the TV than we did (we couldn’t see their feet, and I do like to see their feet).

My stand out dances were Kevin and Frankie’s Paso Doble, to “America”.  It was unbelievable.  The energy that she was giving off – incredible.  It was a straight standing ovation (and no, the floor manager or the not-Dale have no time to direct, that really is an audience-wide reaction).  If it had been later in the series, it would have had 10s – does a “Donny 10” really count?  The other was Sunetra and Brendan’s American Smooth (can’t recall the music). She was so graceful, so gorgeous and it was a delightful routine.  I wanted to be her on the dance floor in that moment.  That red dress – to die for!

So, by now it’s 20:30 and the TV audience has left us to do the business of the Sunday night show.  We had about 20 minutes, so some were off to the loos.  We were given a KitKat and a carton of Apple Juice by the BBC – we were flagging a bit, so the sugar hit was a nice one.  I watched the stars mingle with their loved ones, or their guests, and watched a very tender moment between Frankie and Wayne Bridge (he looked like a lost soul when he’d arrived). Awwww…

And then it was the recording of the opening dance routine for the Sunday Show.  This was recorded twice, for reasons that it wasn’t clear to me.  Here we’d been moved to the front row, as some of the celebs weren’t back in time.  I had Denis Van Outen’s seat (the obvious body double, hahahahaha), and I thoroughly enjoyed the ring-side views.  The pros are awesome – so slick, quick!  Except Anton, who was given a comic role to slide down the chimneys.  He is Ballroom King, of course, but not always so good on the latin or freestyle routines.  They also recorded the opening sequence for Tess and Claudia.  They were to ‘pop up’ from the chimneys, but Tess couldn’t bend in her very tight dress, so that was hysterical.  They did that a few times.  Claudia had to re-do a couple of times her gag with the eye-makeup and the chimney brush – awkward.  The section of Len’s lens was recorded next, and then I think, on to the first elimination.  This is highly edited on TV, because in the moments before they are all laughing and joking, so the degree of terror must be ‘enhanced’ in the editing.  There was genuine shock for Simon and Kristina, and much muttering in the audience.  There is a short break, they must record something else (links for Zoe, perhaps).   They then do the second round of eliminations, another pause.  Then the dance-off and the decisions are recorded seamlessly, almost like it’s live.  That was great to watch.  22:30 and it’s a wrap.

As to why the results aren’t leaked – well, you can find them online if you search – but they ask us to abide by the “Strictly Oath” and not post anything on social media.  I decided that if someone asked me, I’d answer, but I wouldn’t be the snitch!

It was an immense day, everything that I hoped it would be (getting in was the biggest hurdle).  It was a very long day, and I got back into London long after midnight.  Hungry, headachy and on a high – so I didn’t sleep well the Saturday night either.  Would I go again? Only if I could have Denise van Outen’s seat throughout!

Update for 2015 …

Some very lovely people have made comments which update the picture for gaining entry this year (2015).  Thank you all for your updates. It’s becoming a Strictly Public Service Broadcast, which I rather love. It’s grown since my ‘need’ to blog about it!

Thanks to Gema, Elaine, Paul, Sarah J, Steve O, Nick, Judy, Janie, Natalie, Bob, Maxine, Marty, Sarah, Graeme, Mrs B, Hannah, Bob, Arthur, Sharon, Gemma and Clare for additional feedback.

  • There are still no ID checks.
  • Amendment to procedure – only one person need queue to validate both tickets. This has been confirmed by several people, and is in supplementary information provided by the BBC.
  • There’s a Tesco nearby for loos!
  • Validation takes place at 09:00 (or thereafter) and NOT 12:00 as was the case in 2014.
  • The IBIS is 5 minutes walk away, and Premier Inn 20 minutes away.
  • Variable views on the temperature in the Studio… advice would be to have layers (as well as glitter!).
  • The BBC have been helpful in helping with the transfer of ticket names. Telephone number reported to be 0370 9011227 (not checked by me!).
  • There’s a public car park next to The IBIS, £5 for the day, but free before 08:00.
  • In the holding area, there’s a photo booth for entertainment. Still not enough chairs!
  • The studio doors are opposite the entrance to the holding area – top right. In my memory they were large black, double doors (??)
  • 4.8 million people applied this year (2015) for tickets… so how lucky are you to get a pair?!
  • Seat allocation/queue times seems variable, but here’s a summary. Earliest arrivals seems to be around 02:00. So, on different dates the reports were… 02:10 3/4. 03:30 11/12. 05:30 25/26. 05:30 50/51. 06:00 79/80. 06:15 76/77. 06:20 77/78. 06:35 159/160. 06:45 116/117. 07:00 129/130. 08:00 197/198. 08:00 297/298. Anecdotes of people arriving at 10:00 and ‘getting in fine’, and another day when at 13:30, people still got in.

Blackpool is still a bit of a mystery, but hopefully, will be able to make some observations on that one!

Keeeeeep dancing!

Thank you also to Gema for the photos (I did crop out the loo in the background, very un-Strictly!) …

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Gema and friend meeting Aljaz (nope, not jealous, not one bit... )
Gema and friend meeting Aljaz (nope, not jealous, not one bit… )

My thoughts about conflict between characters

I’ve been giving a lot of thought since my Literary Adventure about character, particularly about the conflict between characters.  It’s rather timely, as this is the phase I’m currently at within the Snowflake method of developing a novel (yes, it still seems to be working for me).

I’m taking each of my main characters in turn and developing a kind of super-CV.  A rather full-on biography.  I love this phase!  It shouldn’t come as any surprise, given my background in studying people (what else is counselling training, really?), but what has taken me by surprise is how much I’ve gone back into my own ideas/views about personality theory and personality development.

Conflict is one of the words that gets chucked around a lot in creative writing classes and courses.  I remember it in the very first programme I did at Morley College, but I don’t think that I really bought it then!  Conflict is such a loaded word; but perhaps another way of thinking about it is in the tensions that arise between people, because of who they are and what they do – which has an impact on the other.  In Spain, we looked at conflict styles, a fascinating exercise (and a hysterical role play) in order to play with conflict. I took an action away to give some background material on conflict styles, but I’ve come to the realisation that we need to understand the nature of our characters, before we can apply a conflict style.  In the role play in Spain, my colleague was asked to play the role of a ‘hoodie in a gang’, and given a conflict style that meant they were non-resistant (symbiotic, whatever you want).  They couldn’t play it, because it was incongruous to the role.  It didn’t occur to me at the time, but they were dead right to ignore the conflict style (instead going for domination, a more bullish approach).  Everything is lead by the nature of the person, of the characters we create, and therefore this drives as much as how someone eats an orange as reacts to another.

I also was thinking about personality types (and an exercise that we did in therapy training) and also defence mechanisms (how we handle difficult news, which might include conflict).  I’ve had a good old dust in the recesses of my mind and I realise that I have resources within me to create ‘real’ feeling characters… the danger with me, of course, is that I don’t end up putting them in therapeutic relationships, and therefore killing any chance of conflict.  I have had feedback in the past that said my dialogue was too ‘therapy speak’.  One to watch.

However, I’ve created a little bit of work for myself in formulating my ideas on personality, defence mechanisms and then conflict – if I can follow it all through and summarise it, I think it will help my peers on my Literary Adventure.  I’m looking forward to doing that.  And of course it’s not procrastinating…. is it?

 

My Literary Adventure with TLC

The writing room
The writing room

The Literary Adventure was a rich experience.  This is not a programme for beginners – as the value comes in having something substantial to benefit from the input, the discussions and the creative space. I was right to prepare as I had (see previous blog) because I was constantly able to apply the taught elements to my work.

We opened in Malaga, in a perfectly adequate hotel.  Most of the group met for supper before we transferred to Casa Ana in Alpujarra the following day, a Saturday.  It had the feeling of a school outing, with everyone in high spirits and ready for the week ahead.  It wasn’t until the Sunday (some two days after I’d arrived in Malaga) that we got down to the business of the creative writing tuition.  Our tutor was Becky Abrams, a writer with an enviable CV and excellent teaching skills.  Over the five mornings of the course she lead, demonstrated, shared, encouraged and delighted the group.  The programme covered openings, description, narrative arcs, character (getting a three-dimensional feeling of character), narrative perspective, narrative voice, and finally, dialogue.  We had writing exercises throughout, sharing and critiquing work, and a daily homework activity… as well as plenty of time and space to write for ourselves.  In this way, the afternoons were somewhere towards a retreat; although I often chose to go walking.  I couldn’t resist the mountains.  Becky Swift, Director of TLC, sat in some sessions, and lead optional sessions in poetry, publishing industry and a Spanish film viewing.  The compliment of the two facilitators, the two Beckys, was perfect.  I’m not sure I could have asked any more of them.

I was nervous before I went – after all, I’d never done anything like it, and I hadn’t been in a training group since my therapy training.  All students/delegates/clients (?) are ‘vetted’ before hand via a telephone interview.  This merely assesses the level of your writing experience, and I guess therefore, your potential fit into the group.  I have to say, it was one of the nicest groups that I’ve been in a learning environment with – which can only serve to increase the learning potential.

The course finished with one-to-one sessions with the two Beckys (individually), which were incredibly valuable to me.   In thirty minutes Becky (A) has probably saved me thousands of words in draft that wouldn’t go anywhere.  In looking at my synopsis, she spotted a major flaw in the narrative arc – the plot engine, to be precise.  My take-away is worth the course fee alone.

The village of Ferrirola, Alpujarra.
The village of Ferrirola, Alpujarra.

Casa Ana is in a small village, Ferrirola, perched on the sides of a deeply wooded gorge.  It is remote; perfect for writers.  The accommodation was quirky, and very comfortable with a mix of room types.  I had my own room, but shared a bathroom (explained beforehand).  It seemed to work for all of us.  The food prepared at Casa Ana, by their chef Wes, was superb.  We had breakfast and lunch there each day, with two evening meals  – at the beginning and end of the programme.  For the remainder, we ate out (at extra cost, clearly stated in advance), three a short walk (15 minutes) to the next village, and then the remaining night, an excursion to a nearby town – complete with market!  Each meal was about 20€ a head, good value for quality food.  Personally speaking, I enjoyed the local Spanish food over the more fussy fusion and the eastern-influenced vegetarian, but all were enjoyable.

We wrapped up with a wonderful meal by the talented and creative Wes followed by an evening of performances.  We all read something of our own work – not related to the course.  It was a perfect ending, even though I was unsure of it earlier in the week.

I’ve come away from the Literary Adventure more skilled, more confident, and more certain… with more writing friends and a network in TLC that I would trust with my writing life.

My morning view
My morning view; food for the soul