Monday, 22 August 2016

Here We Are & There We Go by Jill Dobbe – A Review

It is a while since I read this book but note I have not included my review of it in this blog. Today I rectify that oversight.

Before commencing my review, I would like to remind readers I am not a trained or recognised critic. Consequently, as always, the following comprises my personal observations and views. Readers need to remember reading, when not of technical or scientific material, is primarily a subjective experience. This means when we write a review it is usually about how the story impacts upon us as an individual rather than a series of objective technical observations. At the author’s request I received this book as an exchange for one of mine, agreeing to each review the others.

‘Here We Are & There We Go’ is a personal account of how the author and her husband travelled to a variety of different countries on teaching assignments and of their lives in those places. There may be times when you may feel like agreeing with some of their relatives who thought them crazy to undertake such a life style with their two young children; one and two at the start.

In the prologue Jill Dobbe effectively shares how having been born and brought up in a provincial town she has a desire to travel and see the world; you certainly find yourself empathising with her feelings. However, before she can put any of her plans into practice she marries her soul mate and has two young children. Fortunately, her husband turns out to have similar desires and with both of them feeling restless they ultimately venture out into overseas teaching assignments; they are both qualified teachers.

Now before going on I have to confess I was initially a little disappointed. Having travelled fairly extensively myself I was looking forward to reading about countries and places I had not visited anticipating detailed accounts of the landscapes, architecture, culture, history, social conditions and life styles of the indigenous people. Although the book does in places contain a little of this it is primarily about the family themselves. A point I had to remind myself of. It was I who had made an erroneous assumption and consequently initially took the wrong approach to my reading of the book. Realising my mistake I undertook a second speed read of the story and having set aside my presumptions was able to enjoy the account of their adventures and experiences.

Their adventures start in chapter 1 on the island of Guam in the Pacific and move in chapter 2 to Singapore. In these chapters we are taken from event to event in quick succession with some descriptions of how the local inhabitants celebrate certain events, what is considered bad mannered and how daily life such as shopping was conducted. As I have said I had to remind myself this was a personal account of one family’s experiences and not an exegesis of different cultures and countries. Nonetheless, as previously mentioned it would have been nice to hear more about the places themselves. One of my relatives lived in Singapore for a while so I let them read the second chapter. They did say there was so much to see and enjoy not only in Singapore but also in adjoining Malaya and considered it would have enhanced the read if more had been shared. For example; Tiger Balm Gardens are mentioned but no description of this unusual place is given. Also there is a quick reference to ‘exotic’ flowers but no mention of the myriad of different and wonderful orchids which are grown and cultivated in the area. But again I must remind myself this is a personal family tale.

I found chapter three to be very different and absorbing. Here we have the account of their five year stay in Ghana, Africa. It quickly becomes clear they loved it and in the telling you feel more involved and share in their enthusiasm for the country and culture. How the scenery takes the breath away and how the locals deal, fairly or unfairly, with perceived wrong doing are but a couple of the qualities that come through. You are left in no doubt of Jill and her husband’s pleasure with the place and I would not be surprised to hear of them returning to an African country for a further teaching assignment in the future.

Chapter 4 deals with their stay in Mexico, which they choose on this occasion because it meant a less arduous journey to and from their home in Wisconsin. No longer would they endure twenty-four hour flights and could in fact drive to and from their home. Of course, as Jill points out, it was also nice that they were in the same hemisphere and consequently did not have to get up in the middle of the night to telephone their relatives at a reasonable hour for them.

I found chapter 5 very interesting. Something few of us would have even considered is the idea of ‘reverse culture shock’. The family had been away from the United States for so long that the children really had little idea of what life there was like and their parents had virtually forgotten what it was like. Jill Dobbe’s description of this reverse culture shock creates a feel for what they were undergoing. It also honestly shows how easy it is to be quickly drawn into what is considered acceptable and necessary for life, whereas in fact many of these ‘necessities’ are not such. She also compares how they lived life without these items in the foreign countries they stayed in and got on well enough, even though it was uncomfortable at times. Certainly anyone who is contemplating leading such a life would do well to read this chapter before attempting to resettle in their homeland no matter were that is; the principles apply in general to all life styles.

Besides telling us about the countries they lived in, the author also treats us to additional information regarding the variety of places they stopped over in on their way to and from the USA. Understandably, these are recorded in chronological order however, for me personally, I think it would have been preferable for these to be lumped together in a separate chapter ‘Incidental visits’ or something like that. But we are all unique and different and have alternative ways of doing things.

As mentioned earlier some of their relatives thought Jill and her husband were crazy for taking their children on such adventures of life and even irresponsible. In fact some could not understand their desire to live in foreign places, many of which did not have the facilities they took for granted. Such attitudes are regrettably frequently displayed by people who have lived in rural and provincial locations all their lives. I personally think, as difficult as it was, by enduring the hardships and difficulties they have provided their children with a broad, multicultural education and upbringing from which they will benefit all their lives.

I have said this is a personal tale personally told. Although I have never met Jill Dobbe or her family, I do feel that if we did meet it would simply be a continuation of the discussions from the book; it is almost as if I can hear her voice in my head. For those who are considering travelling long term or living in third world countries with young children this would be an interesting read. I give a three star rating. If you are not a regular reader of my reviews, you may like to read ‘Book Reviews - Star Ratings’ to understand my take on ratings.

The book is available in both paperback and e-formats:

Monday, 15 August 2016

You DO have the ability!

Back in April of this year I published a post entitled ‘Afraid to Write?’ in which I briefly discussed how some find the idea of writing, anything that will be seen publicly, a fearful
prospect. In that post I also looked and considered a new company that has been set up to help people, at a cost, to get their stories published. Now, in today’s post, I propose to briefly consider who has the ability to write a book. Naturally, as memoir and autobiography are my primary focus I will tend to look at the subject from that angle nevertheless, I think the principles will apply generally to all writing.

It really is very simple. If you are able to tell people your tale over a cup of coffee or tea or a drink, you DO have the ability to write your story. After all memoir, I use the term to include autobiography, is the relating of how YOU remember, understand, interpret and feel about events in and from your own life.

Now you may say:

  •  I do not know how to create proper phrases.
  • Grammar was never my strong subject.
  • I have never been very good at spelling.
  • I do not understand about punctuation.
  • English is not my first language.
  • People will criticize me if I do not make a good job of it.
  • If I tell everything as it really was I may upset people.
  • Where do I start?
  • What do I include and what do I omit?
  • Etc.

All of us who have written about our lives faced the same dilemma. We had to sit down and carefully consider whether we could in truth achieve our aim. Whether we could in reality ‘publish’ a book. It is from this experience I am sharing with you.

Something you will hear occasionally is the term ‘the author’s own voice’. In other words, the tale has been told in a distinctive style that reflects how the author would be relating their tale if they were actually speaking to you direct. This may be to do with localised accents, terminology, phrases, spellings, customs, understanding and acceptances; in other words, ‘culture’. Of course these may require a little explanation for those not familiar with the locality or country. But that is something we would be doing even when telling the tale over coffee, tea or a drink.

As to grammar, punctuation, English Language, etc. These may be learnt reasonably easily from study guides or books in general. However, we also need to bear in mind the aspect of ‘author’s voice’ as related above. Sometimes, what is referred to as incorrect may in fact simply be a reflection of uniqueness. Make no mistake, I am NOT advocating the creation of poor quality books. We must always seek to achieve the best we can and sometimes to this end it may be necessary to employ a proof-reader and editor, if you have the means. If you are unable to do this please ensure, at the very least, you go through your manuscript several times before publishing. Even better if you have someone else you can ask to read through it.

So how do you get started? Very simple. First decide whether you are going to use ink and paper, typewriter or computer. Someone may suggest recording your story. Though this may be useful to get your ideas sorted I suggest, ultimately, it is not the most helpful means to achieve your aim. You will come to note that the majority of authors find it most beneficial to actually write down their tales: I doubt they are all wrong.

One thing I should point out; it may be necessary to apply some self-discipline to achieve your goal. If you are able, I recommend setting aside some time each day, preferably the same period, when you find somewhere quiet to write, even if you do not feel like it. If you find yourself struggling with what to write it will often be best to just put down what comes to mind. You will frequently be surprised at how much sense it makes when you re-read it. In addition, it is a principle generally accepted that if you do not have anything written down then you have nothing to work on. If you are like me, or in fact writers in general, just keeping your thoughts in your head will achieve little. It is not until you see them on paper, or screen, that you will be able to start properly formulating the story.

There, see how simple it is? YOU DO HAVE THE ABILITY TO WRITE YOUR STORY, whether memoir, autobiography or fiction. If you are still unsure, why not write something down and then ask someone else to have a quick read. Sometimes, as happened with my first attempt, you may be told you have an interesting story even if it requires the wording or presentation to be worked on.

So please do not rob us of your story. Please DO write it. Society, the world, will be the poorer if your tale is lost to it.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Saying Goodbye to Characters

Over the years I have read how some authors often find it hard to leave a book they have
completed and to move on to the next. In each case they have expressed reluctance to say goodbye to the characters they created. Until recently this was not my own experience.

Perhaps I have not felt the same because, until my latest book, my writing has been primarily autobiographical. Except for the last, my books have been a combination of biography (my ancestor’s dramatic tales); autobiography (my own less than normal life) and memoir (encompassing my own recollections of various events and situations). Consequently, the ‘characters’, if you wish to call them such, were not created from my own imagination but are, or were, actual people. They are forever with me whether living or deceased. In a sense I suppose I have said goodbye to those who have sadly predeceased me but I never forget them, whether good or bad.

But now I have a new experience. As said, my latest book is primarily fictional though inspired by actual events from my maternal grandparent’s dramatic lives. The events themselves make for a dramatic read on their own but, so as to make it more entertaining for readers, I decided to develop the tale into a novel. As a result, I needed to create some fictional characters to enhance and support the story and to take it forward. At first I had been unsure if I could do this although I believe I have a reasonable imagination. However, I quickly found I enjoyed the release from having to rigidly stick to facts and chronology. The freedom to let my imagination run where it will has proven quite liberating. The thought of writing fictionally had been wavering in the back of my mind for some years nevertheless, at the time, I had not had the confidence nor the time to do so. Now, however, my latest experience has persuaded me to push forward with the idea; I have sufficient fodder (excuse the expression) for many tales in both my ancestors and my own lives. I therefore intend to write further fiction when time and responsibilities permit. However, I digress from the point in hand.

When it came to writing the last couple of chapters of my latest book I, to my surprise, initially found a strange reluctance to proceed. Why? I wondered. Slowly I came to appreciate I was experiencing what those other authors had been talking about; I did not wish to finish with my characters. I did not want to see them go. Over the many months of writing they had become part of my mind set if not my life. I had spent a lot of time imagining how they would react and speak in their given situations, private or public, confrontational or peaceful. They really had become part of my life and I discovered an emotional attachment, a ‘relationship’ with them. Oh dear! Now I understand when some authors imply if people knew how we behave when writing they would probably consider we should be ‘shut away’. But I know I am not insane; do I not?! Anyway, back to the point, like many have stated before me, I found I did not want to finish with my ‘friends’, my characters, and yet I was also looking forward to starting the next book.

A couple of thoughts or rather questions:

  • Had these characters become substitutes for those from whom I have not received the affection I desired? Had they become ‘people’ with whom I could interact without fear of rejection or reprisal? ‘Reprisal!’ you ask. Regrettably many people in my life have been very unkind hence my thoughts of reprisal or in fact worse. But that is not for this discussion topic.
  •  Is it healthy to be so attached to fictional characters? Well, in all honesty, I do not think we could write effectively if we did not have some sort of attachment. We need to have an empathy with them if we are to convey to a reader their personalities, thoughts, desires, reactions etc. So to that end yes it is healthy. But of course we need to guard against them becoming psychotic hallucinations. Thankfully, in general, this will naturally be achieved by our interaction with family, friends, colleagues, or social contacts. However, those of us who are on our own and do not, in daily life, have such contacts, need to make the effort to get out or at least to speak to others on the telephone if not in person. Alternatively, if the proceeding suggestions are not a realistic option, the simplicity of just going to the shops may help.

So overall I consider it good to have an empathy with our fictional characters provided we retain the reality of the fact they do not actually exist. And, naturally, as with any relationship, we will be reluctant to see them go. For those who write serially of course this is not an issue until they come to the end of the series. But then, for them, it is probably harder to say goodbye when the series ends as they will have spent far more time with their ‘friends’. Nevertheless, if we are to ever publish the book, we must say goodbye and move on. Of course this is true of any relationship but at least for us authors we have the advantage of being able to look forward to the next book and the new characters we will develop and build a relationship with. We may feel a little despondent for a while but it will soon pass as we bond with our ‘new’ characters.

It is also worth noting (and helpful to those of us who may become concerned about our own mental wellbeing) that some readers also discover a reluctance to finish a book they have been enjoying and to say goodbye to the story’s characters. It is also worth noting we are not alone. There are hundreds of thousands of authors who feel and experience the same sensations as we do.