Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Why I won't write another first person PoV novel.

First person writing has a long and illustrious history – from older classics like Dickens’s Great Expectations or R.L.Stevenson’s Treasure Island, to more modern classics such as Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Kerouac’s On the Road, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, to modern prize winners like Pierre’s Vernon God Little and, if I remember rightly, Martel’s Life of Pi. These are books that jumped into my mind as I am writing this – I hope I have remembered their first person PoV correctly! (If not, tell me.)

So it has come as quite a shock to me to realise - relatively recently - that there are a stack of people out there who simply won’t pick up a book written in the first person, on the apparent assumption that they won’t like it. Not just a few, but a surprisingly large percentage.

Now I can understand John Doe saying, “I don’t read chick-lit” or his wife Jane saying, “I don’t read Westerns”, on the grounds that there is a very good chance that they won’t like that particular genre. We all have our preferences. But the books within each of these genres have a lot in common within one another, and it is probably this commonality that John and Jane don’t like. John doesn't like kiss and tell, Jane loathes horses and ranches.

But to say you won’t read something written in the first person kinda sounds to me like saying, “I don’t read books with red covers”. First person stories have only ONE thing in common – the first person viewpoint. To say you won’t like it, is to banish a slew of stories on every conceivable subject matter and theme, set anywhere on, or off, earth, many of them brilliantly written, and certainly not necessarily particularly simplistic or even linear. You can still have sub plots!

Would John and Jane also say they don’t like it when their friends tell them stories of what happened when they broke a leg mountain climbing and were then attacked by a bear / had a flaming row with their girlfriend only to be arrested for disturbing the peace / made a fortune on the stock exchange? All first person stories. We listen to first person stories all the time.

The reasons people give for not liking the first person written narration are often odd.
Take the “too linear” excuse. Yes, I agree, it can be linear, although there are ways of minimising this (see yesterday’s post). And if you look at many novels, you will find that they are often related from one point of view, the main third person character. Absolutely linear even though they use third person. A good example of this is (once again if I remember correctly) Challion’s Curse by Lois McMaster Bujold. As I recall, it didn’t waiver from the PoV of the main protagonist. A very popular book – and it could easily have been written in the first person. Wouldn’t have made a whit of difference to the story. And that doesn’t automatically make it a bad book.

So I don’t really understand the viewpoint of John and Jane. Not understanding is not why I am rethinking using the first person, though.

I am rethinking because, as a non-bestselling author, I cannot afford to have potential buyers browsing in a bookshop put the book down the moment they pick it up, on grounds that have nothing to do with quality of writing, or subject matter, or theme, or genre. I need readers, and it is just plain silly to put so many people off reading my work on the grounds of my choice of narrator. I don’t want to limit my reading public.

So, at least until I make it ‘big’ (when or if?), I am not going to write another book in the first person. Call me silly, if you like, but I’ve caved in to the exigency of earning a living from writing.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Writing in the First Person

So far I have seven novels either published or on their way to publication. Four of them were written (mostly) using the first person point of view.

My last glimpse through avian eyes appalled me: I saw birds turn into people and fall out of the sky. And then Morthred’s death swept over me, changing every particle of my body into something else.
For a moment I truly died.
There was darkness, a blackness so blanketing it contained only emptiness. Silence, an external muteness so intense I could hear the internal sounds of my body being ripped apart, particle by particle. Numbness, a lack of stimulation so pervading I felt I had no body. I thought: so this is what it is like to die.
I plunged into the darkness, into the silence, into the numbness, into that total deprivation. When I emerged, I was on the other side of death, in a life about which I understood nothing.
Everything had changed. Everything. All my senses had been altered so much I couldn’t…well, I couldn’t make sense of them.
I was Ruarth Windrider and I was human.
From The Tainted

I think I make a good job of writing in the first person. I even know of one writer who was inspired after reading my work to try the first person narrative, and as a result she has her first historical novel coming out next year, written from a first person point of view.

It’s not easy, and few writers bother to master it, believing the advantages (immediacy and intimacy with the chance for gut-wrenching action or heat-wrenching tragedy at a very personal level) are not worth the pitfalls (a possibly linnear story with a difficulty of developing sub-plots, over-emphasis on one character, only seeing the story from one side, only knowing what the “I” character knows at the time, etc).

Some of these problems can be circumvented with a little thought and ingenuity. A good writer can even have the narrator tell the reader things that they, the narrator, don’t know – in The Aware, the sharp reader could work out the profession of main male protagonist from what the narrator says long before the narrator realises exactly what the man does for a living. And she’s in love with the guy! And yet her lack of realisation comes across as a believable failure of her acumen, rather than sheer stupidity. It can be done.

Also in The Isles of Glory, the tale was framed by letters of other characters commenting on the main story teller; in adition, it was done as an oral history recorded by an ethnographer, and the “I” could therefore be changed to another character, at different times. (Think of the Wilkie Collins classic, “The Moonstone”).

In her Assassin trilogy, Robin Hobb had her main character, Fitz, able to see through the eyes of his pet wolf (dog?); at the same time, he had access to the spy network of the castle with its peepholes and listening posts – thus he could observe scenes as a non-participating unseen spy. A handy device when telling a first person story.

I chose first person for Heart of the Mirage because I thought it suited the circumstances of the main character. She is set down in an alien society, and sees everything with the eye of a stranger, just as the reader does. Because part of the time she is in disguise, she can’t ask too many questions. As such, the reader rides the adventure inside her head, wondering what is going on, striving to understand along with her.

I have, however, switched to third person point of view for Books 2, The Shadow of Tyr and Book 3, Song of the Shiver Barrens, because the circumstances change and the story widens.

And I don’t think I shall ever write a book using the first person narrative again. Why not? I’ll tell you tomorrow.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

When tropical sizing comes in XXL

Things can grow large in the tropics.
Millipedes, for example, longer than my foot.
Or leaves. Yep, that is a single leaf. I always did wonder how one could be modest with a single figleaf. Now I know. You just have to choose the right leaf...

Saturday, October 28, 2006

A Walk in the Rainforest

One of the things I love about going into the rainforest is that every time you go, you see or hear something different, even if you use the same trail again and again. That is the nature of a rainforest.

First there's the general beauty of the surroundings.

Then there's the perfection of the details. Take this moss-covered log at the base of a tree. See what is growing on it - the green moss, a brown and white round mushroom, a frilled red fungus, an orchid, a fern, the roots of a climbing vine. Taken as a whole, it is a snatshot of nature's fecundity and recycling. And yet it has an almost fairyland beauty to it.

And lastly, there is the wonder of its wildlife. Here's a picture of something I've never seen before. I think it is a blind snake. I ruled out a limbless Caecilian (salamander family) - it has no segments. In fact, it is covered with scales, so it is not any kind of worm either. It's eyes are lodged under it's skin. It wriggled like a worm, though, rather than slithered like a snake, desperate to get under the leaf litter.

If any herpatologists want a better photo in exchange for an ID, email me. It was found at about 1000m up on the western lanks of Mt Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Coming soon

Just been told that the "in-store" date for The Shadow of Tyr (in Australia) is December 11th. In other words, in theory, you should be able to buy it for Xmas.

Sometimes, though, bookstores get snowed under with new stock at that time of the year, and it may be difficult to get them to open the box in their backroom. (Be kind to your bookseller at Christmas time, ok? Keep your harrassment to a minimum - confine it to my books. ;=). Better still, pre-order.)

And let me take this opportunity to remind you to buy books as presents, to ask for books as presents, to get Father Christmas to give books as presents, to fill your house and everybody else's house with books, books, books...

And if you need a reason, read the previous post. Fiction makes for balanced, nicely behaved human beings!!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Finally, something enjoyable is actually good for you

This comes via that wonderful source of reading info, Sharon of Kuala Lumpur, at her bookaholic blog.

"The more fiction a person reads, the more empathy they have and the better they perform on tests of social understanding and awareness. By contrast, reading more non-fiction, fact-based books shows the opposite association."

All this from a University of Toronto study - see Sharon's blog for more details.

"The researchers surmised that reading fiction could improve people’s social awareness via at least two routes – by exposing them to concrete social knowledge concerning the way people behave, and by allowing them to practise inferring people’s intentions and monitoring people’s relationships. Non-fiction readers, by contrast, “fail to simulate such experiences, and may accrue a social deficit in social skills as a result of removing themselves from the actual social world”.

So there you are - go buy/read more fiction. Especially mine... :=D

And in the meantime, back in that post on Trilogies, a book reviewer has placed his take here.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The other side of the mountain

We head out from a town called Kota Belud to the western slopes of Mt Kinabalu (we're on our way back to return the stolen sheets, remember?) pass by an army camp called Camp Paradise (someone had a sense of humour) and on to a bone jangling road heading for Sayap village.

Towards the Park, the mountains become steeper – “pointy hat” peaks like those in fantasy maps done by artistically-challenged authors. They are often cleared for agriculture -- and pineapples and hill padi are now planted all over the burned 60° slopes (this all part of the burning that Malaysia refuses to acknowledge responsibility for, let alone consider contributes to the annual haze-hell of the region).

The hill-top village of Sayap has a maze-like conglomeration of houses, a church/community hall and village shops. It is prosperous, now enjoying both the high price of the rubber they tap, and the income expatriate villagers send back from working in oil-rich Brunei.

Strung over a bridge and through a fruit plantation, there is a hundred metres of mist net on bamboo poles. Seems the bat-catchers there have been busy, though, with no concerns for the legality or otherwise of their catch - it all tastes the same, I suppose. There are signs up at parts of the river, however, forbidding fishing – enforcement is done by the villagers and the fine is a buffalo or a 1,000 ringgit. They recognise the value of fish conservation for their own future benefit. It's a start.

We press on to the ranger post at Kinabalu-Sayap, the place they call "the other side of the mountain". When we hit the park boundary, the contrast is startling. It is so easy to recognise the difference between unprotected forest and protected primary forest – and you don’t have to be familiar with a rainforest to see which is healthier.

Inside the forest, the first thing I see is a Bornean Bristlehead flying across the road, one of the region’s rarest and most mysterious endemics, an avifaunal clown that no one knows where to place in the taxonomy, so strange is its anotomy and habits. I wish I’d had a better look. Had I been driving, I would have braked so hard we would all have gone through the windscreen. I’m told by one of the Park folk with us that it is the first record for Sayap.

We are close to 1000m high. Cold water in the bathroom, straight off the mountain. Electricity for a few hours at night by way of a generator. No frig. No phone, not even mobile lines. No internet. No shops. No people but us. And the place is gorgeous with views from the verandah to die for. A river just below us, chattering endlessly over stones, a background sound to whatever we do for the next five days.

Sunrise starts at the top of the hills and sneaks downwards. The mornings are cloudless and hazeless, the afternoons misty or wet as the mountain creates its own weather and then dumps it on us. The evenings are cold as the sunlight creeps upwards to turn Mt Kinabalu red, leaving us below in the valley in the dark, already tucked away for the night.

I go birdwatching. I write. I read. I walk in the forest.
I am rejuvenated.

Friday, October 20, 2006

I have just received the final layout for the cover of "The Shadow of Tyr" [Book 2 of The Mirage Makers] - which has now gone to the printer. It will be out in January in Australia, all being well. For those of you getting your books from UK, not until late next year in all probablility.

And I hear from my agent that there is a full page on me in the Orbit/Little Brown catalogue. Wow. (I haven't seen it yet.)

So all,
Selamat Hari Raya / Happy Id
Happy Deepavali / Diwali

And don't expect anything more up here until next Wednesday - we are heading off into the wilds for the holidays. (see pix)

Praise for Heart of the Mirage:
‘fresh, strange and intriguing’ Sunday Age
‘highly imaginative and entertaining’ The Specusphere
‘bring on Part Two’ The Advertiser Review

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The good old days. [They were so too!]

When I was kid I lived in a farmhouse that had no connection to a water scheme. We had a huge tank sitting on a base just outside the kitchen, which collected run-off from the galvanised corrugated iron roof. And we had a pump down on the Canning riverbank, which my father used to pump up river water to another tank. The river water was used - untreated - for everything except drinking and cooking. Yes, we bathed in riverwater, and drank untreated roof water, which probably explains why I have a cast iron immune system.

Anyway, I can remember many times climbing the old Cape-lilac tree and then carefully edging my way around the outside edge of the covered tank (remember, this was at roof height) so that I could get on to the roof, all while I was under eight years old. My older sister taught me how. Why we didn't fall and break our necks I have no idea. In fact, growing up on a farm was just one adventure after another. My mother found me playing with a poisonous snake when I was less than a year old. A rat crawled in the tank overflow pipe one year, and we drank the water for ages before we found out what that funny smell was, and had to empty and scrub out the tank. And cart water until the summer was over and the dry broke.

Yet somehow nothing much seemed to go wrong with us kids ... a cut foot, a splinter here, a grazed knee there - a dab of some hectic-coloured liquid, or a bit of Bates' salve warmed over a candle and applied at night, and we were off again.

And over at an elementary school south of Boston, as reported in today's news, a school is forbidding kids from playing catch or touch football and similar games for fear someone might sue them if a kid gets hurt.

Isn't it time law-makers put an end to this kind of idiocy?

[Yep, they were the good old days. After all, I wasn't the one who had to go pump the water up.]

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A Divided Life

My printer is in Kota Kinabalu.
My Oxford 2 volume Dictionary is in Kuala Lumpur.
My thesaurus is in Kota Kinabalu.
My book group is in Kuala Lumpur.
My telescope is in Kota Kinabalu.
My library is in Kuala Lumpur.
My hair dryer is in Kota Kinabalu.
The clothes I want to wear are always in the other place.

And the friends I want to see,
come to Kuala Lumpur when I am in Kota Kinabalu,
or come to Kota Kinabalu when I am in Kuala Lumpur.
And yes, Hrugaar, this one is for you.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Borneo is burning

Last weekend I stayed at home and worked. I couldn't even go out because of the smoke particles in the air, which people here euphemistically call "haze". Perhaps because "Haze" sounds better than"Smoke". You can kid your subconscious that haze is a natural phenomenon.

Smoke from burning forest - our most valuable renewable natural resource - is a result of eco-terrorism, and we can't pretend it is natural. Smoke kills. Go ask the hospitals' admission desks for this week's admissions. Ask the asthmatic kids how they feel this week.

The paper today says the satellite pix show 400 hot spots spread between Kalimantan and Sumatra, Indonesia. It didn't mention what the satellite showed for Malaysia. Malaysia, of course doesn't burn anything. Ever. We are as innocent as the haze.

And if you'll believe that, I'll sell you the Petronas Towers for a deposit into my bank account, and you can go to my July 17th archives and look at the pix I took of burning in Sabah PRIOR to the burning "season". For ten years our politicians have mouthed words on this issue. Words mean nothing. I want to be able to go for a brisk walk outside my house again without choking.

Anyway, I stayed at home last weekend and tried to meet a deadline, while my husband went to the place pictured here.

Tell me why I write again?

Monday, October 16, 2006

Writers' deadlines - who always meets them?

Ok, today Song of the Shiver Barrens is due. For the second time. And it is still not ready. Sigh.

Publication date is June, so it is probably not screamingly urgent yet, but nonetheless, I hate not meeting deadlines. I like to think of myself as professional, and meeting publishers' deadlines is all part of that - but sometimes things won't come right first time around, no matter how hard you work.

So, how many of you writers out there alway meet your deadlines? Go on, make me feel bad.

Back to work.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The worst things about a Trilogy

From a reader's point of view, surely the worst thing must be buying Book 1 and realising that you can't get Book 2 right away, and that the finale is not going to available for as long as a year or two. You have to pause one third of the way through, and again before the end. You forget what happened earlier. You curse and wait, sometimes longer than normal, as a writer struggles with the ending.

If you buy them as they come out but don't read them until you have Book 3, well you may find you hate Book 1 and have bought two more books you will never read!

Even if you don't come across Book 1 until years after it was published and decide to try it then, you have to be careful. You may never find Books 2 & 3 - they are out of print.

For the trilogy writer, the problem is more profound.

The recent Man-Booker prize winner is supposed to have taken eight years to write the winning novel. Look at any mainstream book of real calibre, and you will probably find the author spent at least 2-3 years writing it. They took their time. They crafted every sentence with care. They paused and took time out to stand back, to let things gel before proceeding to the next rewrite.

Most of us trilogy writers don't get that chance. The public wants the next one NOW. The publisher wants it as soon as you can deliver. We have a much more complex story to write and we have to do it one third the time. Because we write fantasy, we often get told our work is inferior by people who haven't even read it. Possibly they are sometimes right - but on quite different grounds. We are obliged to write much quicker, with less time to craft.

It's a wonder we aren't all on Prozac.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Trilogy recaps: a thin line between boring and nonsense

First let me say this: every now and then I feel cheered by the human race. There I was, grinding my teeth and feeling loathing towards all anonymous, horrible, scummy spammers whom I would cheerfully murder if they ever dared to admit their identity - when a whole lot of people left a comment commiserating and/or giving advice. Thank you, people. Some of you I didn't even know, yet you gave of your time to help. A little thing, but you remind me of all that is good with the world...

I loved the discussion on last Saturday's thread. Many thanks for that too. As was mentioned there, it is always difficult to decide how to treat the question of recapping the story of the previous volumes of a trilogy for readers who have a time gap between reading the three books. A summary synopsis at the beginning? Subtle reminders scattered throughout the book?

I've always preferred the latter. Reading a synopsis inevitably leaves my head stuffed with information, which, out of context, seems incomprehensible in such abbreviated form.

The Mirage Makers trilogy (Book 1 Heart of the Mirage already out in Australia and due out in May in UK; book 2 The Shadow of Tyr already delivered to the publishers and Book 3 Song of the Shiver Barrens way over deadline...) offers particular difficulties for this reason:
In Book 2, apart from a few chapters, the main characters are in a different location from Book 1. So much of the mystery that was covered in Book 1 does not get resolved until Book 3, (nothing unusual in that) - the trouble being that it is only mentioned in passing in Book 2. The reader is not being constantly reminded of it.

When my beta readers (bless 'em) read the early draft of book 3, they were thoroughly confused because I didn't have enough recap.

So now I am trying to get a balance between boring readers silly, especially the ones who remember everything about the Mirage and the Ravage from Book 1, or being totally incomprehensible to other readers who remember very little. All relevant to the discussion of whether a trilogy is best if it is one book divided arbitarily into three, or three linked books each with an ending.

What a writer aims for is a "Oh, why didn't I see that coming?" moment, not a "Where the hell did that come from?" moment, and certainly not a "Geez, this is boring" moment. And achieving the right balance in those subtle recaps is tough.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

What can I do about this?

Let's be clear about one thing first - I have just about every filter, anti-viral medication, anti ad-ware/spyware, firewall and patch known to humankind and alien invaders.

But someone is using my email address (at least the @glendalarke.com part of my email address - they seem to be able to put odd letters in front of the @ and still have it delivered to my box) to send out spam. Most of this spam seems to be just plain gibberish.

How do I know this? Because I keep getting it bounced back from mailboxes that were full or defunct.

Is there any solution to this?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Who would have thought...

Who would have thought the simple question: What is a fantasy trilogy? could have raised so much comment. (See the post for last Saturday.)

And here is Donna in Kuala Selangor (the mouth of the Selangor River.
The NGO I belong to, The Malaysian Nature Society, is proud of what we did there to build a nature park in an area that others wanted to be yet another empty golf course for the wealthy. The first pix shows the park. Love that place, especially at dawn (when the otters are about) and at sunset.

The monkeys are Silvered Leaf Monkeys (not a macaque but a langur) very rare now, except in Kuala Selangor. The babies are bright orange for the first three months of life.

The final pix is a sea food restaurant in the fishing village where we ate and watched the sun go down, before going for a boat ride to see the fireflies.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Donna's trip and the discussion continues...

Here's Donna in Fraser's Hill.

And the "what is a fantasy trilogy" discussion continues on the blog below for Saturday 7th. There's another interesting discussion on originality in sff, over on Russell Kirkpatrick's blog.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Read the comments section of previous post!

There is such an interesting discussion going on in the comments section of the post below, I won't post anything today except these photos of Donna's visit to West Malaysia.

All taken in Malacca...those shiny statues in the street were decorations to the front of the trishaw! Yep, we became decadent Westerner tourists for a day...

Saturday, October 07, 2006

What is a fantasy trilogy?

I have been having an interesting email discussion with a Sydney specialist bookseller about the expectations readers have when they pick up a trilogy - in other words, what they expect a trilogy to have extra, over and above a stand-alone novel.

Now obviously it will have better world building, because there is simply more words to do it in.
But what else do you expect to be different?

A trilogy has more room for an author to shift focus between characters, to have more characters, more complexity of plot.
Are you disappointed (or delighted) by a trilogy that ...
Shifts focus?
Has huge complexity in, say, the politics?
Concentrates on more depth in fewer characters? Prefers to expand into more characters? Kills off too many of the characters - after all there are lots more!? (A complaint I have heard about G.R.R. Martin's present epic.)
What makes you stop reading a trilogy (i.e. fail to buy the second or third book)?
What do you expect of the story arc in a trilogy? e.g. do you prefer a story that follows one or two characters from childhood through to hero/ine status? Or are you happy if it deals with a shorter time frame? What about one that switches from one generation to the next?

Do you prefer trilogies to series? How would you define the difference?

And for those who have done tons of reading: What's the best trilogy you've ever read?

If you have any opinions on any of the above, I'd love to hear them!

Friday, October 06, 2006

How to beat your pregnant wife

There was an interesting article in this morning's "New Straits Times" newspaper, p16, written by a lady called Zainah Anwar, who is, I believe, one of a group of local women called the Sisters in Islam. They attempt - sometimes in the face of considerable nastiness - to bring some sense and compassion and equality to the way Islamic women are treated here, while still conforming to Islamic precepts. And I bless their grit and determination.

They have much to do. She describes how, while attending the compulsary pre-marital course for all Muslim couples about to marry, the male teacher told her group that one of the characteristics of a good husband is a man who does not listen to his wife, while at another such course, the male participants were told how they could easily circumvent the local law that severely restricts taking a second wife, by crossing into Thailand and marrying there.

And in another class, a female religious teacher carefully explains to men just how they may beat their wives in the Islamic way: with a knotted towel all over the body but not on the face. And, oh, not on the stomach if she is pregnant. Apparently, according to that teacher, beating a pregnant woman is just fine as long as you do it correctly. Well, thank you very much, ustazah, for that.

I try to be upbeat. Even in the face of the news that some official religious teachers freely prescribe absolute tyranny within marriage, and the physical abuse of women - including pregnant ones - by their husbands, and multiple marriage as long as you don't do it here, we have to remember that the newspaper above is one of the primary English language newspapers, and they feel free to print an article which is highly critical of the present situation. While that can still happen, there is hope for the Islamic women in this country.

What century was this again?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Nine to five....

I just spend the day at a meeting on the new project I will be working on over the next nine months.

We started at 9 a.m. and stopped at 5 p.m.
I spent well over an hour getting there and over an hour and half getting back.

And sitting in the car on the way back, surrounded by stationary vehicles emitting fumes, under a sky thick with the haze from forest burning in Malaysia and Indonesia, I remembered just what is good about being a writer: you don't have to go to work.

All you have to do is get up.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Malaysian life in short

Well, Donna has gone back to Canberra.
In the short time she has been here, I have introduced her to, in no particular order:

Glenda's Malaysian driving skills (- or is it lack of them?)
Fireflies on a river in the middle of the night
The joys of shopping in KL (and yes, she came close to rivaling Jenny Fallon's shopping skills in KL)
Glenda's liking for Bombay Sapphire except when it is accidently mixed with soda
The Malaysian squat
Malaysian Indian food
Malaysian Chinese food
Malaysian Malay food
Malaysian food
Malaysian mangoes
Neighbours washing the dishes outside your window at 4 a.m. during Ramadan
Being blasted out of bed by recitations from Mosque loudspeakers at 5 a.m., just after you went back to sleep after the dish washing
Trishaw rides
Tropical rainforest
Sweating in the tropics
Did I mention Malaysian culinary expertise?
And, oh yes, wild mushroom soup, Malaysian style.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Life's little mysteries

Life, I have decided, really doesn't make sense.
And it's really better not to ask questions, expecting an answer.

For example, I remember asking for an aerogramme at the post office near the station in Venice. 'Sorry,' says the man behind the counter. 'Not sell aerogramme Fridays.'
Now I could have asked him why not, but what possible answer could there be to make sense of a statement like that? Let it remain an intriguing mystery to haunt me for the rest of my life.

Um, well, maybe there are times when it might be better to ask.
After all, I really should have asked what that sign meant on the ricefields that day. It was just that it seemed so idiotic. We often went birdwatching there, roving up and down the bunds in a car, setting up telescopes and observing such gems as Imperial Eagles or a couple of Paintedsnipe, or two thousand egrets following a tractor.

But that day the access road bore a sign that read: Please vacate the area by 2 p.m. No reason was given. We promptly forgot all about the sign and drove on. In retrospect, we really ought to have asked someone why it was necessary to leave by two...

Come 2 p.m. we were still in there. And then this plane came over ... and we found ourselves being crop dusted. I've never driven so fast in all my life - down a gravel bund just as wide as my car, hotly pursued by a Cessna spewing insecticide or herbicide or something equally toxic. I swear, I burned rubber off the tires and hit eighty kph in three seconds flat, with my telescope still tucked under my arm and winding up the windows at the same time. Bet the fiendish pilot was laughing his head off.

However, I refuse to ask why on earth Mr Bush thinks the Iraq war is not making Americans less secure. I know there is no answer he could give that would make sense to me, or to anyone else who doesn't live in a glass bubble fantasy. It just has to remain one of life's little mysteries.