Tag Archives: Christmas

Rambling on about books: Reacher Said Nothing by Andy Martin

PersonalIt’s not often that you get to star in a Fairytale where you are The Princess and a real Hero comes to save you, but that’s the story of my Christmas Miracle.

To say that last year was rough for me would be a bit of an understatement. Yet being a glass-half-full kind of person, I will not deny that magic and beauty did not abandon me when all else seemed lost. Both continued flowing not only from the hearts of the amazing people who love me but also from complete strangers.

One of the most magical moments of last year was encountering Jack Reacher, my Hero. Falling in love – fictional or otherwise – is a beautiful gift. When that love allows you to reclaim something as precious as reading is to me, then you let your long braid hang out the window and hope that your Knight In Mattress-Pressed Armour holds on tight. Nearly twenty books later – i.e. approximately 2 000 000 words – he still does! (In my book, that’s a miracle in itself.) I am almost finished with Personal – the last of the existing Jack Reachers for me – trying to make it last by reading only for comfort when Dragon Insomnia rears her ugly head, but soon that adventure will also come to an end and I will have to join the rest of the Reacher Creatures who are counting the days until September when Night School, Reacher No. 21, is published. As a reader, I ask myself what are all the other months in the year for? But I suppose Lee Child should be allowed to sleep at some stage. And I need to get my act together and follow Jack’s example by simply sleeping when I want to. Perhaps I must see whether headbutting works on dragons…?

Reacher Said NothingHaving become one of Jack’s greatest fans, you can imagine my excitement when I found out about the publication of Andy Martin’s Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me. It appeared towards the end of last year and before it became available in South Africa (still waiting for it to arrive on our shores, so that I can share it with friends who love Jack as much as I do), I tweeted about it, saying something like, “What could possibly make me happy for Christmas?”, and adding, “Karina said nothing.” At that stage, I hadn’t clicked that Andy Martin and I were actually following each other on Twitter. My friend Helen Moffett, whom I’d infected with Reacher Fever, saw my tweet, and kindly offered to get me a copy of Reacher Said Nothing as at the time she was staying in the U.S. where the book was already in the bookshops. Lo and behold, Andy Martin saw our Twitter exchange and generously offered not only to send Helen a book for me, but to sign it, get Lee Child to sign it, and to add a second signed copy for her into the parcel. There are moments in life when it is easy to believe in fairytale miracles. And this was only the beginning!

Helen received the promised gifts, but resisted the temptation to read the book until her return to South Africa in mid-December when she delivered my copy to me and we began our Christmas tandem reading of Reacher Said Nothing. And what a joy it has been! The book is everything that a Reacher fan might have wished for, and more.

Reacher Said Nothing signedReacher Said Nothing is dedicated to “all those loyal readers of Lee Child who may have bought this book by mistake” and opens with two epigraphs: a quote from James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, and one from one of my absolute favourites, Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading in which the author writes about the different ways of reading – for the action and characters of the story, and for the detailed exploration of the texture of the narrative. Andy Martin’s ensuing analysis of Lee Child’s creative process is both.

Martin approached Child with the idea for the project in 2014, only days before 1 September when Child traditionally begins writing his next Reacher novel. It was to be the twentieth in the series, Make Me. In an email of 22 August, Martin proposed “a kind of literary criticism but in the moment, in real time, rather than picking it up afterwards…trying to capture the very moment of creation…you would have someone (i.e. me) looking over your shoulder as you are typing the words.” Five days before the first word of Make Me appeared on Child’s computer screen, he said yes. And off they went.

Writing a book as great as Reacher wasn’t easy.

Reacher Said Nothing takes us not only behind the scenes of Make Me’s genesis, but also to the day in 1994 when Child bought the paper and pencil with which he wrote Killing Floor, the first in the Reacher series, and explores much of the before and in-between from uncertain beginnings to stratospheric success. More importantly, it throws light on the magic that happens whenever any writer picks up a pen and begins dreaming. In this respect it is as much a book for readers as for writers. When writing, Child thinks like a reader; that’s his thing. But there is no magic formula. Only a lot of doubt, hard work, and hope. Trust. And when you are lucky, a good story to tell.

Andy Martin has a great story to tell. Reacher Said Nothing itself reads like a thriller. Like a master of the genre, Martin builds up the tension to the moment when Child sits down to write the first sentence. From there, he continues about the power of storytelling – the written word’s extraordinary potentials for both, writers and readers. After all, one particular book Child read as a kid led him to the life he has today. His own books have entertained millions of readers around the world for two decades. Even though I am not particularly fond of crime fiction or thrillers, Child’s books have changed my life, and I am grateful. It is all about the “[h]ope of a hero coming to save you. Hope of becoming a hero.”

“He would have been good around the campfire, Lee – he would definitely make you forget about the wolves or the saber-tooth”, Martin writes.

Yes. And about the pain of grief…
Make Me and Reacher's Rules
From the start when I began reading Killing Floor, I recognised and was captivated by a quality in the novels that intrigued me: an attention to word choice, syntax, punctuation – a kind of poetry that I now realise is fully conscious, intentional. “It all mattered, linguistically”, Martin writes. It’s about noticing things. And to see the process unfold is fascinating. Child writes only one draft, but the meticulousness with which he constructs the narrative allows him to.

I loved the humour of Reacher Said Nothing, the banter between the two authors, and Martin’s often hilarious commentary. An early scene:

“‘It’s reverse Freudian,’ Lee said. ‘You’re on the couch and you are analyzing me.’
I said nothing.
He flexed his fingers. ‘Naturally I’m going to start, like all good writers, by…checking my email!’”

There are numerous smileys in the margins of my copy of the book. I have scribbled, underlined, single and double, all over.

Martin and his subject emerge from Reacher Said Nothing as two people who are really passionate about what they are doing, are prepared to work their fingers to the bone in pursuit of their visions, and know how to have fun while doing it: “I live in a permanent daydream. I get paid to daydream narratives”, Child says.

It pleased me no end to discover that they both eat cheese and marmalade sandwiches. And to read about “the grape in the fridge”.

Lee Child’s relationship to his fictional hero is highly interesting. Anyone who has non-existent people – I am hesitant to write – living in their heads, knows what it’s like. Creation is a thrill. All of us, readers and writers alike, are junkies.

My final verdict on Reacher Said Nothing? Allow me to quote:

“‘Outstanding,’ said Lee. He pointed out that it was one of Reacher’s favorite words.”

Completely unrelated to me, the name ‘Karina’ is mentioned in Reacher Said Nothing. It made me smile. A Karina is rumoured to appear in Andy Martin’s next book, Reacher Said Something, but that’s another story about writing about writing about writing… Another daydream.
Karina in Reacher Said Nothing
In Make Me, Reacher is concussed. “He’s rambling on about books. A bit like you,” Child says to Martin when writing the scene.

And I am about to headbutt a dragon, and live happily ever after.

To be continued…

Christmas Story: A Silver Spoon

IMGP2891Sanna never liked polishing the silver. She would have preferred to iron the white damask tablecloth the new Mrs Joubert brought over from home. She told Sanna her mother had given it to her as a parting present. Sanna listens to the huffs and puffs of the iron in the next room. She puts aside the last spoon and continues with the forks. Forks are tricky. You have to work the cloth carefully around the tines; the task is too much for her impatient chubby fingers. She takes a deep breath, trying to keep her cool. A cinnamony smell penetrates her nostrils. She looks at the big pot of stewing dried fruit, bubbling happily on the stove. It could also be the half-moon cookies Missus has put in the oven.

Rubbing Silvo into the cutlery, Sanna thinks of going home this afternoon; of her sister’s house in Worcester; the kitchen there buzzing with activities; her nieces and nephews, eagerly awaiting the next morning. She takes a sip of coffee Mrs Joubert has made for her before ironing. She still cannot get used to the idea of having anything served to her, especially not by the Missus – or Zosia, as she insists on being called. Old Mrs Joubert would never even have thought of it. But this one, this one was not born and bred here; she is different with her strange European ways. Sanna likes her.

In the other room, Zosia glides the iron over the intricate patterns of the white tablecloth. She breathes in the damp, warm smell of ironing. Her mother taught her to do it, insisting early on that she must know how to take care of herself. Housework always makes Zosia feel close to her. In this house, having Sanna to do most of it for her is difficult to get used to, but she understands the necessity of providing her with a job. When the tablecloth is ready, Zosia walks to the dining room holding it up between her outstretched arms. She places it carefully on the table and smoothes it around the edges with her hands. She puts the red placemats she bought for the occasion on top. She can already see how beautiful the silver will look on them.

‘Sanna, how are you coming along?’ Zosia calls into the kitchen.

‘Almost ready,’ Sanna replies, polishing the last knife.

Zosia puts long red candles on the table, then takes out some plates and glasses from the side cupboard. As Sanna comes through with the cutlery a few minutes later, Zosia is busy placing red and silver cone-shaped napkins into the neatly arranged soup plates.

Sanna sees the three placemats and is perplexed, but remains silent in her inscrutable way. Zosia smiles at her raised eyebrows and, bending over the table to put another wineglass into place, explains: ‘We have a tradition in Poland. On Christmas Eve, we always set the table for one extra person, just in case somebody stops by.’

Sanna shakes her head slowly, placing the cutlery next to the plates. ‘The most important Christmas meal on the 24th; twelve different dishes; no meat, just fish; waiting for the first star in the sky to appear before sitting down to dinner; opening presents on Christmas Eve; setting the table for a guest who never comes…’ In her head, Sanna repeats the list of strange customs Zosia has told her about in the last few days.

Seeing the dubious look on Sanna’s face, Zosia continues, arranging a few fir twigs around the tall candles. ‘There is a German saying, Andere Länder, andere Sitten. Other countries, other customs. I won’t be cooking twelve dishes for Johan and me tonight though,’ she reassures Sanna. ‘But there won’t be any meat, and we’ll have to cheat about the first star. We’ll starve if we wait for one to appear in this summer sky,’ Zosia looks outside. ‘In Europe we have snow for Christmas,’ she says and turns back to Sanna, ‘What is your sister cooking for your family?’

‘Chicken.’ Sanna does not say more. The single word fills her memory with smells and sounds of home and she looks at the grandfather’s clock in the dining room. Zosia catches the furtive glance. ‘You must be eager to go. Please, could you just vacuum the lounge and put the fresh linen on I have laid out on our bed.’ Before Sanna turns away, she adds, ‘Thank you,’ and, ‘I will make a small salad for us for lunch, and make sure that Johan remembers about taking you to the station on time.’

The ancient Hoover reminds Sanna of the old Mrs Joubert, always insisting on having the house vacuumed daily. She never said ‘please’ or ‘thank you.’ She passed away at the beginning of the year. After the funeral Johan decided to move back home with his outlandish wife whom he had married overseas without inviting the family. His mother never forgave him for it.

Sanna tucks the duvet in underneath the mattress and smoothes over the bed before putting the pillows in place. She hears Zosia call that lunch is ready. In the kitchen, she picks up her plate and takes it to her room in the back of the house where she always eats alone.

‘I wish she’d join us,’ Zosia tells her husband sitting at the kitchen table.

‘Years of conditioning. And you know how shy she is; give her time.’

Zosia sighs impatiently.

In her room, Sanna enjoys the salad. Her little suitcase is packed and ready to go. An extra bag leans on it. With the unexpectedly generous Christmas bonus she has bought some treats for her family.
Sanna wants to wash up the dishes after lunch, but Zosia tells her to leave them. ‘I can do it, no problem, and Johan is ready to take you to the station.’

‘Thank you,’ Sanna says and before she turns to go adds a shy ‘Merry Christmas’.

‘And merry Christmas to you, too. Enjoy your holiday, Sanna. We’ll see you after New Year.’ Zosia walks up to her and gives her a cautious hug. Sanna does not know how to react. She rushes out of the kitchen.
At the station, the bus is late. Johan insists on staying until it arrives, but Sanna tells him not to worry and to go back home. Half an hour later it is announced that the bus to Worcester has broken down and no other will be going there until the next day.

Back at the house, Johan helps Zosia with the preparations for their first Christmas dinner together. For the first time in years he is excited about the festive season. Overseas there was nobody really to share the occasion with before they met, and he never felt like coming back home to his mother’s overbearing presence and suffocating piety. He’d left on a job contract the moment an opportunity arose. Meeting Zosia on one of his business trips to Berlin where she was working at the time was like discovering a new continent.

All day long Johan has been watching her rituals for the festivities, which felt refreshingly like a safety net and not a wet bag. He has been delegated to set up the Christmas tree and get fresh Cape salmon from town. Zosia insisted on a local fish and recipe for tonight. He happily obliged.

While she is busy with the last touches on the dinner, Johan goes into the dining room to admire the decorations on the table and choose a wine to go with the Cape salmon. They both look up at the sound of the door bell.

‘Who could…?’ Johan strides over to the intercom, followed by Zosia, wiping both hands on her apron.

‘Beggars?’ she asks.

‘No, it’s Sanna!’ Johan buzzes the gate open for their housekeeper. Flustered, she explains about the bus. While Johan considers other options for getting Sanna safe home for Christmas, Zosia comes up with a simple solution.

‘You must stay with us for dinner, Sanna. Please, we would love to have you. And first thing tomorrow morning, we can both take you to your family in Worcester.’

‘But…’ Sanna is at a loss for words.

‘No buts, please, come. You can tell me how the salmon turned out. And for once, the extra plate at the Christmas table won’t remain empty.’ She smiles reassuringly and ushers Sanna through to the dining room, taking her luggage from her.

A while later Zosia is busy dishing out the food in the kitchen and Johan opens a bottle of wine. Sanna sits alone at the decorated Christmas table and does not know what to do with her fidgeting hands. With the left one she raises her fork, turns it, and watches the candlelight reflect off its polished tines. She puts it down again. Then with her right hand she picks up the spoon and inspects her image in its concave surface. Upside down, her head looks small, her torso elongated. She likes the slimmer version of herself. She turns the spoon and sees her still distorted face, but now the right way up, staring back. Her mouth is bigger than all her other features. She twitches her lips, opens them slightly and smiles. Slowly, from ear to ear.

‘Dinner is served,’ Zosia enters with the salmon from the kitchen.

First published as “’N SILWER LEPEL” in By on 20 December 2008.