Book Quote Friday: The Hours

     A fitting, if sombre, tribute to time passing, the year ending, and hope for 2011. Happy new year everyone.


Your Song

     Because it's (nearly) Christmas, and because it's beautiful...


In Defence of Writing Courses

       Writing courses get a bad rap. A myriad of critical voices exist online (see links at the bottom of the page*) that suggest, often quite vehemently, that writing courses are cynical, useless money-spinners that attempt to teach that which cannot be taught and churn out egotistical literary autobots without voice or individuality. Is that really the whole story though? I would like to take it upon myself, on this rainy Friday afternoon, to present the case for the defence.


Book Quote Friday: Sounds

         For my book quote this week I've chosen a passage from Sounds, a short story by Vladimir Nabokov. He's obviously best known for Lolita and other work like Pnin and Pale Fire, but he wrote a prodigious number of short stories in his time, amongst which are some of the best examples of the form. Sounds was one of his first, and as someone at the very beginning of their much hoped-for writing career, it really interests me to see what other writers were able to achieve at the very beginning of theirs. Suffice to say, I am humbled.


Short Story Serial: ‘Saturday Afternoon, Odessa’ – Part Thirteen

     ...Maybe I'll just lock my bedroom door until he's gone. Click. There. Me on one side, them on the other. Maybe I should escape in a box of oranges like Cheburashka? I can be cute when necessary too.



Short Story Serial: ‘Saturday Afternoon, Odessa’ – Part Twelve

         ...I can't wait for it. I know that there's got to be air above this level, but with a leather jacket in my kitchen and a single thought inside his head even I can admit aspiration seems foolish. I guess I can't blame my parents for not wanting to take the chance.


Short Story Serial: ‘Saturday Afternoon, Odessa’ – Part Eleven

     ...Anyway, there's not much money in the jar to give today's hooligan so he should be gone as soon as he's scared my mother witless. Maybe if we didn't pay and had to flee in the night, bags in hand and possessions on our backs, then we could go somewhere better? Well, perhaps not. That hardly seems like an honourable way to progress and I'd hate for someone to dig that little fact up once I'm well-known and in my proper place. Mud sticks, you know, so I'm gonna keep myself rosy clean and sparkly fresh and in fight stance so I'm ready when my moment arrives.



Short Story Serial: ‘Saturday Afternoon, Odessa’ – Part Ten

      ...I can see now that that vehicle I saw approaching is one of Simeon's vans and can (from my bed) hear it hurtling up the road and hand-braking into our yard. I hope one of the dogs get whichever base-level thug he sent to collect the money this time; although when you consider how the wild dogs round here have thrived and multiplied perhaps I should give them more credit than to go for minion shit like him. Or not; they do live on rats and the anything else that wanders down from Chernobyl. Maybe the dogs succeed so successfully because they don't buy their protection from the same people that pose the threat? Huh.


Short Story Serial: ‘Saturday Afternoon, Odessa’ – Part Nine

       ...As I think I said before, I plan to educate my ass out of this dump as fast as humanly possible, and then I'll be on the first flight, full scholarship, one way. There might be an obligatory year in Odessa whilst I find the right course, but then I will be on my way, leaving a welcome trail of jealous looks and snide put-downs in my wake. Who cares? It's not like I'll write. My teachers think I could do it. They told my parents so at a school visit last year and they just scoffed and laughed and looked at each other with pathetic sad eyes. It must be hard to hear that your daughter is desperate to leave, but that's not my fault: if they wanted me to stay so badly they should have lived somewhere worth living in the first place.


Short Story Serial: ‘Saturday Afternoon, Odessa’ – Part Eight

       ...I don't see the attraction of the city, I really don't. The kids in my class dream of the day they can live in their own little box of post-Soviet slum and either date or be one of the guys who managed to bring his weapon back after completing his National Service. It's disgusting. The guys who run the place (the bratva, if you'll excuse the use of my native tongue) are usually Ukrainian-Ukrainians, rather than Russians like me, who wield their state-issued firearms around like they're something to be proud of. If I was ever in charge, ensuring the proper return of military kit post-conscription would be the first thing I'd do, as for years now it's been a fucking joke. Give a kid a weapon, teach him how to use it, scramble his brain with hideous sights and then set him free, telling him he'll never get a job. Government-enabled mafia boys under the steely grey sky. Forgive my slight lyrical turn there again; I have words running through my head in a way that people here don't understand. I rarely get the chance to flaunt my mind.


Short Story Serial: ‘Saturday Afternoon, Odessa’: Part Seven

               ...There's a dust cloud drifting towards me on the breeze from the direction of the 'highway' meaning a car must be coming this way. Ugghh. The dirty air coming off the rubbish is faint corrosive yellow as it hits the window pane. I have absolutely no desire to gaze out the window to watch the 'workers' down tools (only figuratively, you understand) and look longingly at the person who has either enough influence or the right contacts to be able to put petrol in his car. We manage it occasionally, but then where do we drive to? My mother will put on a skirt and treat it like an occasion, but better the shithole you know I reckon. Odessa city centre is no better than here, just so you know; it's just the extended version with more hip hop, graffiti and crumbling high rise, and the odd restoration thrown in to put the dilapidation in its rightful place. The Potemkin steps haven't changed much though. I guess inside I'm screaming like the mother and the baby rolling down the hill. I'm not sure which one is me though. Ugghh. Who thinks that kind of thing at 15? Better that I was stupid and that kind of thing didn't occur to me at all. 


Short Story Serial: ‘Saturday Afternoon, Odessa’ – Part Six

         ...My mother's a hypocrite, anyway: she's knows what it's like to be part of a great country and yet she'd keep me here to nurse her and feed her in her old age. If only they'd been on the other side of the border. I reckon she'd hand me over to some teenage gangster tomorrow if it meant I'd stay. No thanks Mum. You live your life, I'll live mine. She must have some kind of pension so why does she need me? And I can't imagine my sister will ever leave.


Short Story Serial: ‘Saturday Afternoon, Odessa’ – Part Five

         ...All I want to breathe proper air and have someone look me in the eye and see exactly what I'm worth. I'm not an idiot, but the constant cloud here cover cotton-wools my wit and sometime I can't breathe for disgust and shame. Is this it, really? My mother says I'm a snob but why pretend I'm happy compromising my life to remain in the familiar? I only get to do this once and I won't let my youth be wasted on my youth, or whatever that saying is. It's in my English textbook; in a second I'll go and check. Please correct me, by the way, if I make a mistake; rather I did it now than when I'm on that plane or at that reception, destined for more salubrious skies.



Short Story Serial: ‘Saturday Afternoon, Odessa’ – Part Four

           ...Maybe, instead of heading for the Russia that rejected me and left me here and I should go west like the Poles and forget that Russia every existed for me in any tenuous way. If I speak Russian and look Russian and spend my evenings watching Russian television in a country that used to be Russian doesn't that make me Russian? No, it doesn't. Screw them. There are plenty of other countries waiting to welcome me with open arms. I quite fancy seeing America, with the sunshine and the cherries and the pie. There seems yellow and here seems dull rusty steel and cloudy dishcloth white.


Short Story Serial: ‘Saturday Afternoon, Odessa’ – Part Three

          ...To be a little poetic for a second, I guess that the moment I was proclaimed Ukrainian, by accident of timing and location, Russia became my Ithaca, but I can't sit here and wait, hoping the road is long and boring and useful. Now is my time, and if I wait much longer to go and be a success in the place where things actually happen my time will be over and I might as well come back here to my parent's house and raise a couple of kids. I've yet to find out what these Ithacans mean, I guess. Huh. Apologies, Cavafy probably isn't on everyone's reading list, but why cater to the lowest? My mind will be my fortune one day and they will clamour then for the diary I wrote when I was 15 and stuck on this infernal building site a few miles back from the sea.


Short Story Serial: ‘Saturday Afternoon, Odessa’ – Part Two

        ...Other than us, that is. Or more to the point, why must I live here in this dump, with a view of six weeks' of rubbish that hasn't been collected so the bags have burst like pimples and the rusty end of a disused rail track that once led away from here to anywhere else? How I'd have loved to be on that train when it was working, travelling away from here on the outskirts of Odessa towards Poltava and onwards to the land that was mine by birth but not mine by the time I entered pre-school. A great land was what I was born for, born in, and is obviously the reason I have this brain, these eyes, this wit; they are my weapons against suffocating mediocrity, but I feel as if before I've had any chance to use them the army has retreated and I've been left standing in a field with tools that are no use because there's no success to be had. When there's nowhere to go, who cares what means you might have to progress?


Short Story Serial: ‘Saturday Afternoon, Odessa’ - Part One

     And so begins November's short story serial, 'Saturday Afternoon, Odessa'. I'd love feedback on this character as this is actually background for a longer  piece that I'm writing, which involves this character (provisionally called 'Ekaterina') 10 years on from this point, after she has tried some of the things she talks about here, and is at the point of having to resort to other means.  


Book Quote Friday: Firework

     And so we find ourselves at our first 'Book Quote Friday', which I talked about in the 'An Update' post of a few weeks ago. Twice a month now, when I'm not serialising a short story, I will be posting literary quotes that inspire and entertain and maybe point you towards some really great literature that you've not thought of before. This is gonna be fun.


A Preface to November's Short Story

     I'm going to use this post today to preface next month's short story, which is called 'Saturday Afternoon, Odessa'. I don't want to give too much away about it at this stage, but I thought the article listed below gives an excellent preface to some of the themes and attitudes that appear in my story:


Marina – the Burger Queen tour

     Ah, ideas. How I love thee. How I love people who love thee.  *sigh* 


A Tonic: 'Get Better'

     A tonic for any apathy that might be lurking within you on this Monday afternoon. Also, some really good advice; for anybody, really. I love this.


An Update

     Apologies for the relative silence this week but I have been beavering away behind the scenes, planning posts for the next few weeks/months and tinkering with some features of this blog. So, some news:


Tolstoy is my Cat?

Quite an assertion, I know, but not one that I've made lightly. It's rare that I say 'Tolstoy is my Cat' and someone doesn't bat an eyelid or ask what on earth it means, so I thought maybe the time had come to explain why my blog has this phenomenal yet slightly nonsensical name. 

Anna Karenina (Oprah's Book Club)First of all, I love him. Tolstoy, that is, although my cat comes a very close second. In the simplest of terms, to me Tolstoy is the greatest of writers and Anna Karenina is my favourite all time book. There is no equal for its breadth, scope, accurate portrayal of human behaviour and its influences and, most importantly, pure, simple wasted heartbreak, which branded itself into my conscientiousness from the first read. It's a triumph, and if I'm going to associate my work with anyone's, why not his? (There's a joke in there somewhere). In any case, at the most basic blogger level, I hoped the mention of Tolstoy might help the reader anticipate literary fiction and the odd short story, which is hopefully what this blog provides. 

War and Peace (Vintage Classics)Also, Tolstoy, to me, is a challenge. I am a ferocious and maniacal reader, with the appetite to devour books in a few sittings if they pique my interest. I once read one of my mum's trashy holiday novels in a day to show her that it was flimsy throw-away trash (sorry Mum). There are, to date, only two books that have ever defeated me and kept me, wilfully or not, from their end: Herman Melville's Moby Dick and Tolstoy's War and Peace. At every attempt Moby Dick has aggressively bores me to tears with descriptions of sailing, the sea and 135 threateningly epic chapter heads that stretch out before you like a sentence, meaning that I have never got passed the first chapter even though I've had a copy since I was about 15. Also, I hated the one Melville story I ever managed to get through (Bartleby) and I can't help but feel (snobbish, I know) his credibility has been slightly undermined, through no fault of his own, by the now eternal association of Moby Dick with Starbucks. 'Nuff said. War and Peace, on the other hand, is meaty and substantial and arrogant enough to be 537 pages long and actually consist of 15 books and 2 epilogues, with a few extra notes, just in case we were still wondering, from Tolstoy at the end. When I picked it up that first time Tolstoy threw down the gauntlet and by the time I die I will have finished it, even if it is the act that actually kills me. Suffice to say, I've only got to page 459, the start of Book 5, thus far in my multiple readings. I guess if I was superstitious, finishing it wouldn't be something I'd want to hurry... Anyway, by reminding myself of Tolstoy every time I open my own blog, it reminds me that grandiose arrogance and timeless stories can live forever (a great incitement to labour) and also that, if an old man can sit for years at a time, freezing to death with a pencil and gaslight in 19th Century Russia, then I should really be able to conjure something up, sat at a computer in a nice warm room in 21st Century England.  

Also, as a completion of this theme, check out Literary Traveler for a complete run-down of Tolstoy's life and works, as also the chance to see an oh-so-relevant extract from War and Peace where Tolstoy compares someone to a cat.  
Moab Is My Washpot
The second reason for naming my blog 'Tolstoy is my Cat' is that, to me, it immediately brings to mind 'Moab is my Washpot', which is the name of the first autobiography by Stephen Fry. This pleased me greatly, as it would any Stephen Fry fan (if you're not, get out:), so it remains here as a nice little pun for the initiated. I also like the Old Testament nod, although that's very much the secondary reference. I've also just, as I type this, realised that 'Moab' is much like 'Moby', which brings this blog entry full-circle. Hurrah.  

The third and final reason is simple. My cat is indeed called Tolstoy, and seeing as I feed him and cuddle him and generally enable him, he's probably the closest thing I have right now to a biggest fan. Roll on the rest. :)



     After the slow drip intensity of serialising Cassius' plight in 'The Spirits', I thought it might be time for something lovely and instantly gratifying like this video from Andrea Dorfman and Tanya Davis, who made the 'How to Be Alone' video that I posted earlier in my blog. So many people seemed to connect with that video (quite right too; it's beautiful) that I thought posting another one might be the perfect way to say a huge thank you for getting me to almost 1000 hits in just over 7 weeks.


Short Story Serial: The Spirits – Part Twelve

     The music was heavier, more intoxicating than before, and shimmered across the water like a heat haze. Come to us, this time we are yours they said, wordlessly, and he entered the water without pause. The sunshine beamed off them, through them, even, and Cassius was blinded as their beauty intensified to the celestial, filling the air with light. It shone through the darkness to the bottom of the lake, illuminating Cassius' last breath as it floated, unwanted, from his lips.

      His elegant mother only noticed his absence when he was unavailable to confirm an anecdote at a party.

      The nymphs wait for the next.



Short Story Serial: The Spirits – Part Eleven

      "I thought he'd been with you, darling," said his mother to his father on finding Cassius swaying in the hallway. "What have you been doing all this time Cassius? Nothing productive, I presume. Have you been taking your pills?"  

      Cassius neglected to answer. At the next possible opportunity he was outside, following the now ever present siren call. To the woods, we will be there. Cassius was powerless to resist and lacked any draw to stay. This time they lead him to the estate's western edge, through thickets and thorns, until the trees separated and the deep, glistening lake appeared. There they were, on the island, sweet and seductive as ice tea on a hot day. He tasted the danger on the back of his throat, and swallowed it. The girls were naked now, concealed only by long, long braids and flowering lilies that could be smelled across the lake. Their eyes met his, and he obeyed. Off came his clothes, and shaking hands undid his shoes.


Short Story Serial: The Spirits – Part Ten

       Cassius remained in his room for several days, sleeping with the depth of the drugged. He didn't wake for meals, for water, for alcohol, for air. He dreamt of them relentlessly: their music, their skin and their eyes occupied his mind until there was little left to salvage; they serenaded him so sweetly that he had not will or ability to wake. When he finally stumbled from his room, starving and sallow, with a bleariness to challenge the heaviest hangover, he found that no-one had realised he was still there. Over-privilege and under-parenting made easy targets of the wasted rich.


Short Story Serial: The Spirits – Part Nine

            At the last instance, Cassius realised what was happening and swung the wheel wildly sideways until he was over the pavement and had made alarming contact with a tree. Dramatic smoke hissed from the bonnet as he slumped back from the wheel; he asked of the girls but no-one had seen them, so flagrantly there in the middle of the road. The police took him and the totalled car home, and Cassius received a weary remonstration for being late and drunk at the wheel. It felt too much of an effort to protest. His mother ordered the staff to keep an eye on him, and to keep him in the house until he was feeling better.


Short Story Serial: The Spirits – Part Eight

       Talk eventually reached his father's ears, causing him to propose the only remedy he knew: inviting his son with him and his associates on a jaunty 9-hole round. Cassius agreed, but confirmed his father's expectations by over-sleeping, so had to borrow his mother's classic Jag to drive up to the course.

          Speeding past the ice cream parlours and Italian eateries that hosted the socialite flock, Cassius suddenly saw the girls, resplendent and half-naked, standing with their instruments in the middle of the road. Their eyes bore into his and their mouths curved intimately upward as if relishing Cassius' surprise. The pedestrians remained oblivious as Cassius sped towards them, too distracted to check his increasing speed.


Short Story Serial: The Spirits – Part Seven

        The next day he sought them again and found them further in, further from the house, playing with the sunlight incandescent on their faces. Cassius felt the sweet, strange music weave its way under his skin, into his fibres, and he missed the moment when their playing stopped and they disappeared from view. With a jolt he realised that it was sunset, and that he'd been out all day. 

         The days that followed echoed the first, but all he could ever recall of them was a flood of incoherent colour. Their music was lost to him the instant it finished, but the sensation quivered on within him like an empty bow. Once or twice the maid found him drunk, calling entreaties and obscenities into the stygian night.


The Spirits


Short Story Serial: The Spirits – Part Six

     Two creatures, women in form, perched high above him, glowing like angels with the lute and the harp in their delicate fingers, and fragrant flowers scattered through their long, blonde hair. They gazed down at Cassius with such come-hither intensity that a hot, white flame of desire ran through his body, scorching his skin and stealing his breath. Beguiling smiles shone on their lovely faces as one of them rose silently and stepped down, twisting her instrument and continuing to play. The other followed, turning her hips and hands to grip the branches as the lute reverberated across the silence. No-one spoke.         

     As they disappeared amongst the trees they glanced back with such a wordless entreaty that Cassius felt compelled to follow; but there was no sign of them beyond the clearing, and no music.


Short Story Serial: The Spirits – Part Five

           Cassius ventured towards the trees that same morning, squinting in the summer glare, Nabokov simmering in the pocket above his deck shoes (no socks). It was cooler amongst the trees. He found a bench and languorously crossed his right leg over his left. He wished he'd brought some cigarettes.
           Upon this thought, acrid smoke drifted towards him from the idle trees. Who else would be out here, he wondered; perhaps I could borrow one. He straightened himself to find out where it was coming from, but was halted by the timorous high notes of a lute and a harp playing in perfect accord. Chilled by its incongruity, Cassius moved hesitantly to find the source of the smoke and the heavenly, ethereal music. After a time of getting neither closer to or farther from the sound, Cassius stepped into an opening and saw them there, high in a tree.


Short Story Serial : The Spirits – Part Four

           Amongst the deciduous trees that encircled the Hoytenberry estate, two pairs of fringed eyes observed him with interest. Since the last death, siblings had socialised, visits had been fleeting and loners had found company with the Chucks, Muffins and Bitsys of the world. To some, Cassius' isolation made him tantalizing, solitary prey.


Short Story Serial: The Spirits – Part Three

          After suffering a few days of excruciating pain at the dinner table and over gin on the western patio, Cassius began to refuse all invitations in favour of staying on the terrace to smoke. The fragrant parents had grumbled, and then carried on with their lives – how could one possibly stay in when there were deals to be done and lovers to be had? He'd spent July smoking and drinking alone, calling up purchasable company and using his trust fund to tip them with dismissive aplomb. August had brought with it only heat.


Short Story Serial: The Spirits – Part Two

          "Cassius, darling, how are you?" his mother had asked, her heels sinking into perfect green as she brushed down his pastel lapels with her expensive manicure. A plaque on a nearby tree commemorating a lost patriarch flashed absent-mindedly in the sun. 
           "It's been too long, we missed you so. You simply must come back with us to Vienna once September comes around."
           "Thank you mother," Cassius replied, taking a step back, "but in September I'm expected back at St. Jude's…"
          "Oh yes darling, of course. So, one more year is it? After that, then."      


Short Story Serial: The Spirits – Part One

          Cassius Hoytenberry threw open a window one hazy August morning on his family's Hamptons estate, driven by a new urge for some fresh air. He'd secreted himself away at the beginning of the season, his wan appetite for summer parties and club tennis tournaments entirely extinguished by the wounding brutality of his first parental snub in nearly a year.  


Film and Pie Friday

     Ok, I have a confession to make. I had great plans for a fabulously witty post today (what other type do I have?) but, like all best laid plans, this one has been thwarted by a late, late night last night and the subsequent hangover today. To give you an illustration of the severity of this slump, you should probably know that I could be found in my kitchen in the early hours spreading the Kalle’s Kavier that I brought back from Sweden on a still slightly frozen pitta bread and feeding parts of it to the eponymous Tolstoy…Lacking both the strength and ability to engage brain now, I will ramble for a minute and then wish you all a wonderful bank holiday weekend (except if you're in Scotland, haha). 


Armenian Woman, 1910


    I find this photo incredibly affecting: she looks quite ghostly, and the colours are so intense that the image looks like something from a dream.


Lessons in Lifemanship # 2 "How to be the Bounder doing the Taking"

     A small pick-me-up on this gloomy Monday - the scene from the classic film 'School for Scoundrels' where Henry, having been to the School for Scoundrels and learnt 'how to be a bounder doing the taking', manages to sell his terrible car back to the salesmen who duped him into buying it. Classic.


Book Quote Friday: 'Terry Bell: Failed Killer'

     Or the most pathetic, depending on how you look at it. I found this excerpt in a book whilst browsing the bookshelf at my in-laws' (I think some kind of sport may have been on) and I could not breath/speak/explain for a good, well, 10 minutes at least.

     If only this guy had meant his actions to have been funny; as it was, he was just a VERY poor assassin.


Pensively Planning

     Only a half day at work today, so I'm sat here with a cup of tea and a scarf wrapped around me (how cold is it for August?!) and I'm planning. Rather pensively, in fact. Anyone else wish they had a road map telling them how to navigate life? No, just me then...


How To Be Alone

     If you want to write, you will have to get used to being alone. Hell, if you want to read or travel or lay awake at night dreaming of your future, you will probably need to get comfortable inside your own head to find any peace. It is also beyond important if you want to be creative - silence is often the only place that creativity can live unbattered or undiminished and free.


My new blog

Hello everyone,

     Welcome to my blog! This is a first foray for me, so you must bear with me whilst I find my feet. I plan to put the little bits of 'flash fiction' that I've done up, and also serialise my short stories, interspersed with whatever I'm thinking at the time.

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