Welcome to the book blog of writer and creative writing tutor, Diane Paul.

Thanks to the publishers and kind PR people who send me books and releases about their clients' books for review. Press releases and review copies of fiction and non-fiction are always welcome. (No sci-fi, fantasy or erotica please.)

Due to the barrage of requests from self-published authors for reviews, I'm unable to deal with them all, although I'm sometimes drawn to non-fiction for the subject matter. And because I love print books, the smell, the touch of the paper and the sight of the words, I don't have an electronic reader or review e-books.

E-mail to: bookblogforbookworms@keywordeditorial.com for the postal address.

My writing website: http://www.keywordeditorial.com/

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Friendly Guidance for the Aspiring Englishman

Mr Rosenblum's List (Sceptre) is a first novel for Natasha Solomons. She promised her grandfather, Paul Shields OBE (nee Schwartzshield) on his 90th birthday that she would dedicate her first novel to him and the story takes its inspiration from her grandparents, who arrived in England from Berlin in 1936 virtually penniless. They were given a pamphlet entitled Useful Advice and Friendly Guidance for All Refugees. By 1970, he had received an OBE for services to British industry, having become a successful textile manufacturer. He had also become a successful Englishman. And this is the theme of Natasha's amusing and insightful book, for it contains a great deal of truth about acceptance, bigotry, snobbery and being an outsider.

Natasha lives in Dorset, where her grandparents enjoyed cottage life and, writing about what she knew provided her with the perfect backdrop for Jack Rosenblum's efforts to be accepted as a German Jewish immigrant into levels of middle English society that were firmly closed to him. 'He wanted to be a gentleman not a gent' and 'He could finish The Times crossword in under two hours'. Jack buys a Jaguar XK120. Meanwhile, wife Sadie refuses to obey Rule 108 on his list: to learn bridge and tennis, to have 'nice nails' and a purple rinse on her hair. Sadie would prefer to be in Israel and doesn't support his wild plans until she reaches a rather extreme epiphany.

Jack's successful East End carpet factory, tailored suits and welcome at smart restaurants mean nothing when he fails to achieve his final Rule: No 150. He is refused acceptance at every middle class golf club in the country (except when he applies under the guise of Professor Percy Jones, when he is welcomed with open arms; he approaches the same club secretary as himself and suddenly the club's list is full). 'Twas ever thus. Jack begins neglecting his prosperous business to follow his obsession of building the greatest golf course in the country in a Dorset village.

At this point, we suspend disbelief to follow Jack and Sadie to their country cottage where she enters a world of her own, baking traditional Jewish cakes for the villagers, who love the baking. But she continues to feel like an outsider and what lunatic builds their own golf course?...puh, puh, puh. Daughter Elizabeth keeps a safe distance at university, having changed her surname to Rose.

As we are pulled further down the rabbit hole, we find Jack surrounded by the sort of cast we might expect to find in a Vicar of Dibley episode or Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream's  Rude Mechanicals; or then again, perhaps Jack has peopled himself with characters from the Thomas Hardy novels he's been studying as part of his entry into English culture. A woolly pig, a dastardly knight of the realm and a brew of special cider lead us further into Wonderland and we laugh and cry with each turn of Jack's misfortunes.  It's best to read the rest for yourself for Jack and Sadie encounter a host of obstacles set in their way at every turn. It's full of intrigue and invention; irony and improbability but dig below the surface and under the molehills is lodged a bucketload of truth.

You can visit Natasha's website at http://www.natashasolomons.com/ She's been shortlisted for The Galaxy Book Awards New Writer of the Year Award and the novel is to be made into a film, so mazeltov Natasha. She's currently writing her second book, The Novel in the Viola.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Too many creative awards? The Orwell Prize opens for entries

I love writing and being able to indulge what some people think of as a hobby. Getting paid for what I do is the cherry on the top of the tree, the apple in the toffee, the chocolate in the brownie or a night out with George Clooney, whatever crumbles your biscuit. That should be enough, it helps to pay the mortgage and keep the vet from the door but out there, beyond the garret lies a fortune in prize money to be had for producing 'the best' the writing world has to offer. They're a great ego booster for the winners and an even greater PR coup for any commercial organisation that chooses to sponsor them.

Unashamedly, I stood up and received two framed certificates from the British Medical Association (not at the same time) thinking my time had come and how proud my late parents would have been. I didn't sell any more books than I'd sold before and still nobody has ever heard of me, according to a family member who once met a journalist who said he didn't know me. I didn't know him either but he still managed to impress her mightily. The sister asked how much I'd won and when I said, 'a framed certificate' she mumbled something like, 'what's the point of that then?' and changed the subject. The fact that I'd won it alongside journalists Bryan Appleyard and the late John Diamond made no odds. She'd never heard of them anyway.

So why do we have to give prizes to writers, actors, singers and artists who a panel of judges decide have produced something far greater than their peers, rather like a beauty pageant where the beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, as Plato would have it, while the rest of us sit and giggle on the couch in front of the tele? (No prizes for that paragraph!) Do we have awards for the World's Greatest Plumber or Electrician of the Year? No we don't, so why do we have them for writers, actors, singers and artists? Answers on a framed certificate please. And here's the latest...

The 2011 Orwell Prize

The theme for the 2011 Orwell Prize is 'poverty', marking the 75th anniversary of Orwell's journey to Wigan Pier and there's £3,000 each for the best political journalist, author and blogger. 

The Orwell Prize is Britain's most prestigious prize for political writing, Orwell's ambition being 'to make political writing into an art'. The prize came into being in 1994 thanks to the late Professor Sir Bernard Crick, so that well written political writing would be aimed at general readers, rather than academics.

Earlier this year Andrea Gillies won the 2010 Book Prize for Keeper, about living with Alzheimer's when she cared for her mother-in-law; Peter Hitchens won the Journalism Prize for his foreign reporting while working for The Mail on Sunday and soi-disant 'social worker' Winston Smith won the Blog Prize for Working with the Underclass.  A special Lifetime Achievement Award went to documentary-maker Norma Percy. Log onto http://theorwellprize.co.uk/ for more details and how to enter. Good luck!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

First Steps Out of Depression

Scientists have been trying to discover why a large percentage of writers suffer from depression. It's just possible that spending too much time alone, not getting enough fresh air, exercise or sunlight and spending their days in a fantasy world are contributory factors. Among the well-known writers said to have suffered from depression:
  • Hans Christian Anderson - James M Barrie - Samuel Beckett - Robert Burns - Truman Capote -Patricia Cornwell - Charles Dickens - Theodore Dostoevski - TS Eliot - William Faulkner - F Scott Fitzgerald - Ernest Hemingway - Victor Hugo - Franz Kafka - John Keats - Edgar Allen Poe - Dylan Thomas - Leon Tolstoy - Tennessee Williams - Virginia Woolf and many more
Sue Atkinson has written several books including Building Self-Esteem and Climbing out of Depression. She is a mathematics education specialist and the wife of a CoE archdeacon with four grown up children. Her latest book, First Steps out of Depression (pub. Lion Hudson) draws on her own experience of dealing with and recovering from depression. In it, she offers advice and writes about her own depression to let readers know that they are not isolated.

It is estimated that 1 in 10 people suffer from depression, more women than men. 1 in 10 men are sufferers, compared to 1 in 4 women and 4 per cent of 5-16-year-olds in the UK. But that is the tip of the iceberg for not everyone consults their doctor. Most of us feel fed up and a bit down sometimes but that is not depression and it can only be imagined if it is experienced. Telling a depressed person to pull themselves together and snap out of it is a complete waste of time for that is just what they are unable to do. It isn't a simple matter of 'cheering up'.

Sue says 'depression can affect anyone - including those we would imagine must be happy and contented, such as doctors, celebrities, rich people. Some people can be more prone to depression than others. It is an illness that requires help to lift sufferers out of the darkness.' Depression is a result of a change in body chemistry, which is often helped by medication. It isn't something we volunteer to suffer from. 'There seems to be no single cause of depression but it can be a mixture of many different things from what has happened to us in the past to what we think about ourselves in the present.'

In her book, Sue explains the physical signs and the thoughts and feelings that can form part of being depressed. She advises what to do immediately if you are feeling suicidal and how to take the first step towards getting help from your doctor. The book contains 'Myth Busters' that help to dispel fears and misunderstandings about depression and chapters include:

  • information on staying in bed vs grabbing the moment;
  • hiding behind 'I'm' fine' vs acknowledging the truth;
  • drowning in worries vs developing strategies to reduce stress;
  • doing what others want vs making our own decisions;
  • blaming others vs taking responsibility for ourselves;
  • hanging onto resentment vs deciding to let go;
  • choosing despair vs choosing hope;
  • information for families of depression sufferers
  • a list of useful resources

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Creative writing pupil resisted everything but temptation

People often ask me why I gave up workshopping in schools. The switch from live workshopping to distance learning from the safety of a home office was like leaving a war zone and finding myself in Switzerland. The final indignity took place in an inner city secondary school. You know how when things begin badly, they get worse...sometimes God throws the book at us so that we can learn lessons, the main one from this being never to run a writing workshop in a school again.

I was given the wrong directions to begin with and arrived late. The teacher who had sent them gave me a lecture on always taking my A-Z with me to places I'd never been before (even when the directions could have landed me in Berlin presumably). I was taken to the staff room, where the head was addressing the teachers. Some of the inmates had smeared excrement over the walls in the boys' loo and the cleaner had been sick.

The first writing workshop took place in an atrium with the perfect humidity for cucumbers. Some off-stage machinery noises meant I had to shout. Shouting in the round isn't a useful thing to do as the kids behind me couldn't hear above the machinery and the babble of their own voices as they chatted among themselves and hurled paper darts at one another, generally making the little chaps from South Park look like The Waltons. Empty paper littered the floor and the teacher agreed that the absence of desks hadn't helped and that the location was totally inappropriate.

For the second session, we moved to a classroom. The children began running around and screaming. One jumped out of the window and ran off. A couple of teenage girls sat on the window ledge and chatted. When I said not to write the title yet, they wrote the title. It was impossible to raise any enthusiasm to the sea of blank faces whose concept of 'the next sentence' probably meant three months for TWOCing a car.

Most appeared to be semi literate. Workbooks contained uncorrected spelling mistakes, some of them made by the teachers. 'Loose' instead of 'lose' was common, as was 'its' in place of 'it's'. 'We don't correct them all as we don't want them to lose confidence,' I was told. Shouldn't that have been loose confidence?

But joy of joys when some of the girls completed their short stories. The beautiful heroine, sweetness and light to the end, reached for a sword and hacked off the head of the baddy, releasing a stream of blood across the room. As most of the writers had used the same gory plot, I asked what was going on. 'It's taken from the video games we play.' A poster in the corridor advertising National Reading Week showed the school's chosen theme: Horror.

But it wasn't all gloom and doom. In one class I found some promising work probably because the Head was the teacher in charge and they were all terrified of her. A little boy, who hated writing, worked with me one-to-one and produced a wonderful story about the thing he cared for most - football. We were all staggered and I would have hugged him had I not risked arrest.

I lasted until the end of the third session of the six I'd agreed to run, when it culminated in a mass exodus through the window and the disappearance of my wallet from my bag. It was obvious who'd done it - a special needs pupil who shouldn't have been in my class and wasn't doing any creative writing - but they couldn't find anywhere else to put him. It had taken them months to coerce him back into school after a long absence. They weren't going to jeopardise their chances of rehabilitating him just because my credit cards had got in the way of temptation. Suddenly it was my fault.

The teacher went to find the child and as I left the classroom, a small 12-year-old girl skipped up to me, all smiles. 'Would you like to buy some drugs miss? Cocaine, heroin, whatever you want?'

'Excuse me?'

A little boy intervened. 'She's only joking,' he said, looking alarmed and pulled her away from me. I would like to believe he was telling the truth.

I found the teacher in the staff room chatting to a colleague. Had she found the child, I interrupted? Not yet, she would go and look for him in a minute. When I mentioned the word 'police', she shot out of the room like a human cannonball. I was persuaded not to contact them and my wallet was returned intact with no explanation or apology. I was ushered out of the school rather more quickly than I'd gone in.

A supply teacher said the children were lazy and idle and lacked motivation but the teacher who had given me the dodgy directions said, 'they are wonderful when they get used to you. They always play up with strangers.' Well, that's all right then,' I thought, went home and had a nice cup of tea.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Mysterious past of the Sarajevo Haggadah

The Sarajevo Haggadah is a medieval Jewish prayer book and in her novel, People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks's brilliant history of its origins and survival through the upheavals of Jewish persecution through the ages is not all mythology, for there is such a Haggadah and some of her story is based on fact. Like all authors who possess a creative imagination, she weaves her own story from what she learned about the book during her research. In effect, this novel covers several genres - history, religion, mystery and detective work - and having read books before that attempt mixed genres, she succeeds where others fail. Having a background as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal may have helped with her knowledge of the various countries where the action takes place but it certainly helped with her ability to research; no detail is left uncovered and we receive lessons in the minutiae of book conservation, the art of painting miniatures, wine analysis and much more. Most of it was fascinating and illuminating but I have to say that by the end of the book, the words 'too much  information' came to mind and I wondered why the author felt the need to air quite so much erudition. It happens sometimes. Apart from that, I devoured the book's 368 pages as though I'd just come off a fast.

Some people have compared this book to Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code and I wasn't surprised to hear that. The thought had already flashed across my mind while the protagonist was flitting from one continent to another without stopping for a loo break or a hamburger and chips and I wondered who was paying her airline bills; this was what I disliked most about Brown's book and what smacked it in the credibility face. That apart, I found People of the Book beyond comparison in that it had far more literary style and a more realistic and original plot and it's written by a seasoned journalist and Pulitzer Prizewinner. The main characters were well developed and had their own lives stranded around the plot until its resolution but there was a cutoff point at which I felt it was time to end and it didn't.

The Haggadah* in question is rescued from the ruins of war-torn Sarajevo - ironically by a muslim (not for the first time) - having originally come to light there in 1894. Ozren Karaman, head of the National Museum library saves it under intense shelling and stores it in a bank vault. In 1996 rare book restorer Hanna Heath is asked to work on the ancient book, which belongs to the Museum. The book, with its lavishly painted miniatures, has survived for 600 years on its journey through wars and persecutions and times of peace where people of all faiths have lived together in harmony. Hannah becomes fascinated by its history - I would even say obsessed - and the clues she picks up from objects she finds trapped within its pages - salt crystals, a hair, wine stains, a butterfly wing - provide the basis of its story as we backtrack in time through its adventures to its origins. It's a fascinating jigsaw of people through the ages, linked by the theme of persecution and how people survive or perish in times of terror.

*What is a Haggadah? It's a prayer book and instruction book for young people used during the home service of Passover and it tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt, when the Jews fled from bondage. It includes songs and psalms recited to celebrate the Festival. It was introduced nearly 2,500 years ago to comply with words from the Old Testament Exodus, first published as a book in the 13th century and there have been many alterations made over the years with each new version.

People of the Book is published by Harper Perennial, 2008. Geraldine's website is at http://www.geraldinebrooks.com/ and on it she gives the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Howard Jacobson wins the Man Booker Prize 2010

Author Howard Jacobson has waited a long time to win the Man Booker Prize for Fiction and last night he pulled it off with his novel, The Finkler Question, published by Bloomsbury. Long-listed twice - in 2006 for Kalooki Nights and 2002 for Who's Sorry Now - this was the first time he'd been shortlisted and he won on a three to two vote.

Jacobson also takes home a £50,000 prize, quite apart from the prestige, which will result in a boost of sales and a lot of media interest. The novel's themes include love, loss, male friendship and what it means to be Jewish today.

Former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion, who chaired the judging panel said: 'The Finkler Question is a marvellous book, very funny, of course, but also very clever, very sad and very subtle. It is all that it seems to be and much more than it seems to be. A completely worthy winner of this great prize.'

The judging panel included Rosie Blau, Literary Editor of the Financial Times; Deborah Bull, a former dancer and now Creative Director of the Royal Opera House and a writer and broadcaster; Tom Sutcliffe, journalist, broadcaster and author and Frances Wilson, biographer and critic.

2010 Man Booker Winner Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson (58) was born in Manchester, studied at Cambridge University and taught literature at Wolverhampton Polytechnic. He has written 15 novels and had always wanted to win the Prize. The novel is sad, occasioned by the deaths of close friends and he describes it as 'a dark novel', though it also contains humour. Sir Andrew Motion has described it as 'funny but so nearly adjacent to tragedy...it's highly articulate, everything works in it very well.'

Author Hilary Mantell's novel, Wolf Hall was last year's Man Booker winner. Since then she has sold over half a million copies in the UK and rights in 37 countries.

Your favourite short story survey

The organisers of National Short Story Week want us to tell them about our favourite short stories. So if you log on to http://tinyurl.com/32zg3o7 it will only take you a minute to fill in their survey. What do they want to know?

  • Your favourite short story writer
  • Favourite short story
  • Where you usually read short stories
Not sure about the last one. Does that imply people read short stories in places where they don't read novels or newspapers? (Does anyone still read newspapers?) Would I read novels in bed and short stories in the loo for instance? Or does it mean do I read short stories in magazines or short stories in books? Or am I being obtuse? Or a bit thick?*

Moving on swiftly, you can pass the link to friends and family and find out the results of the survey nearer to National Short Story Week, which takes place on 22-28 November. 

Michael Arditti recommends James Joyce's The Dead, Joanne Harris, Ray Bradbury's Pedestrian and Alexander McCall Smith, Somerset Maugham's The Outstation. My own choices appear in the previous blog where details of the Week are given.

*Having just done the survey myself, they did explain away the ambiguity of the third question but I still don't get its significance. Log on to http://www.nationalshortstoryweek.org.uk/ for more about the Week and read the blog below entitled What's Your Favourite Short Story?

Monday, 11 October 2010

Manchester Lit Fest and Blog Awards

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney

One award I won't be winning is this year's Manchester Blog Awards. If only I'd known...I could have nominated myself in the absence of anyone else wanting to do it. It's all part of the current Manchester Literature Festival, which kicked off on Thursday and continues at venues across the city until Monday 25 October. Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Children's Laureate Michael Rosen will be appearing while Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney will bring things to a close on the 25th.

Some of the interesting highlights include:
  • Jeanette Winterson at Manchester Cathedral on 21 October delivering the Manchester Sermon
  • Historical novelists and historians Sarah Dunant and Alison Weir
  • Bernard Cornwell talking about his latest novel, The Fort
  • Short story collection Mud: Stories of Sex and Love from Michele Roberts on 20 October at Waterstone's bookshop on Deansgate and Amanda Craig with Hearts and Minds;
  • Crime writers Val McDermid and Sophie Hannah discuss gender roles in fiction and other women's issues in crime fiction at The Whitworth Art Gallery on 22 October.

    Crime writer, Val McDermid
Sixty events on the programme gives participants loads to choose from. A great innovation for Gaskell lovers offers a literary coach tour to the newly restored home of Cranford author Elizabeth Gaskell in the Manchester suburbs and on to The Gaskell Memorial Tower in nearby Knutsford.

Award-winning TV writer and producer, Paul Abbot, a Patron of the Festival, (now in its fifth year and originally a poetry festival), said: 'I am delighted to be a patron of such a ground-breaking festival that brings writers of international repute to the city. Since the festival began, it has not only nurtured emerging local talent, but has also provided these new writers with a valuable showcase for their work, which is so important in today's competitive market.'

Full information can be found at http://www.manchesterliteraturefestival.co.uk/ or phone 0870428 0785.

Manchester Blog Awards logo

As for those blog awards, the shortlist has been decided and this year's event takes place at The Deaf Institute on Grosvenor Street on Wednesday, 20 October. You can read more about it at http://www.manchesterblogawards.com/

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Open College of the Arts pilots mentored writing course

OCA course leader Jane Rogers
I'm a little late mentioning that the Ilkley Literature Festival began last Friday but there's still plenty going on there until 17 October so it's not too late to download a programme from their website - http://www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk/ - or to ring the box office on 01943 816714 - it's easier to get through in the afternoons. A lot of events are sold out, as you can imagine, including the workshop on Character and Voice in the Short Story, on 9 October led by writer Jane Rogers but it isn't my tardiness that robbed you of a great experience, as it sold out immediately it went on the Festival website. Jane Rogers heads up the creative writing courses at the Open College of the Arts (OCA), based in Barnsley but you can drop into the Manor House for free at 1.30pm the same day to hear Jane talk and meet OCA director Gareth Dent and writer Livi Michael, who has recently written a children's course for the College. (Livi's workshop, Write An Historical Children's Story is also a sellout event.)

The Open College of the Arts is an educational charity set up in 1987 'to widen participation in arts education.' Courses include photography, fine art, writing and music and students can gain credits towards a degree, accredited by partner university, Bucks New University - http://www.bucks.ac.uk/ The creative writing courses include poetry, basic writing skills, lifewriting, fiction, and writing for children. The College was founded by Michael Young - Lord Young of Dartington - with the aim of offering distance learning high quality arts courses to the general public under the guidance of professional artists.

The courses are at three levels and students receive professional feedback on their assignments and access to student forums so they can discuss their work with other students and staff. Students enrol from all walks of life, the oldest to date being 92. Around 2,000 people enrol each year and OCA have enrolled over 50,000 worldwide since it began, mostly from the UK. Not all of them want a degree and many study to boost qualifications or just for leisure.

A recent OCA innovation is being piloted for people who don't want to follow a structured writing course but who do feel the need for a mentor to help them develop a work of their own. Forty three-year-old Akiel Chinelo is the first student to enroll on this scheme so that he can develop a book idea. Akiel is a performing storyteller and poet but when it comes to tackling a book, he feels the need for ongoing guidance and support. This is where I come into the picture for I'm the tutor piloting the project. I will be giving Akiel constructive criticism and feedback on various sections of his novel as he submits them and I'll be keeping a careful eye on its structure and development. This is a level three course and if it's successful, it will be open to anyone with a project they would like to develop under the watchful eye of a professional writer and tutor. You can see and hear Akiel talking about his work in the OCA video below.

Akiel Chinelo from Open College of the Arts on Vimeo.

To find out more about OCA courses, visit  http://www.oca-uk.com/ or email enquiries@oca-uk.com or phone: 0800 731 2116 (0044(0)1226 730 495 from outside the UK).

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

What's your favourite short story? National Short Story Week

The first National Short Story Week is nearly upon us. The idea is to focus attention on short story writers, publishers and events and promote literary events and publications nationally and locally. It's up to you what you do about it, so you can organise your own events. The brainchild of audio producer Ian Skillicorn, the aims of the Week have the support of an independent steering group composed of experts in writing, editing, publishing, teaching, producing, broadcasting and performing. Ian, the Week's director was the founder of Short Story Radio and he produces and broadcasts short stories and supports short story writers.

The short story has been a much-neglected form for a long time and I'm glad to see it's becoming popular again. Although there have always been multitudes of writers and would-be writers beavering away and sending their stories out to magazines, there are more writers than outlets for their stories, many of which wing their way back fairly quickly. Publishers of short story anthologies are thin on the ground too, so it's all very well encouraging people to get to work on them if there aren't enough outlets for them.

I expect the Week is as much about reading as writing, so what's your favourite short story? Let's have a vote on it. Mine was ever Oscar Wilde's The Story of Dorian Gray followed closely by Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis.

Writer Katie Fforde, short story week patron
National Short Story Week takes place from Monday, 22 November until Sunday, 28 November and you can learn more about it and how you can get involved on http://www.nationalshortstoryweek.org.uk/ They have a list of magazines that publish short stories, which you can search for online.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Lessons in Living from a Feline Zen Master

If you think my relationship with Harry the Cat is a little bizarre, it's boringly normal compared to Kat Tansey's Choosing To Be, where she explains how she discovered her cat was actually a Buddhist Zen Master. Through hearing and intuition, Kat communicates with her pet, a beautiful Maine Coon cat called Poohbear Degoonacoon. And in this day of new discoveries and spiritual awakenings, who's to say that she doesn't. Harry the Cat and I have jokey conversations but he always responds to my comments with grunty noises and I think if he had a voicebox he'd be able to express himself properly. He almost always does what I ask of him as though he understands everything I say and when I ask where the birds are his head goes back and he looks straight up into the sky; he makes my piano students laugh when he barges through his door shouting 'hello' at the top of his voice.

So maybe it's not as mad as it sounds. Eckhart Tolle, author of the best-selling Power of Now says, 'I have lived with several Zen masters - all of them cats.' Kat, an American writer, was felled by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in 1993 and found herself in the depths of a suicidal depression. She'd spent the previous 20 years following a high-pressure career in change management when she suffered burn out. How she regained her physical, emotional and spiritual health is described in her book and we follow her journey based on Poohbear's advice according to Buddhist teachings. He tells her to get a kitten and little Catzenbear joins the family. Observing cats in action or even sleeping is a lesson in itself. I learnt the art of perseverance from mine. Never give up, no matter how loud the 'no' becomes. Don't take the shouts personally. They always give in in the end and give you what you want just to get rid of you. But I digress.

Kat Tansey
Poohbear advises meditation and Kat learns how to practise Insight Meditation at a Buddhist meditation centre, which 'helps develop concentrated awareness and gain insight into the changing nature of the mind'. She learns to let her thoughts come and go and to observe them and reflect back on them after they've passed; how to focus on the still points on the body to become more grounded and get rid of the mind chatter. She begins to move forwards with her experiences, each step monitored by Poohbear, until she allows herself to unblock her frozen feelings and respond, first to joy, then to other emotions. 'My dog doesn't worry about the meaning of life. She may worry if she doesn't get breakfast but she doesn't sit around worrying about whether she will get fulfilled or liberated or enlightened,' says Charlotte Beck in Everyday Zen. Animals just are; they do what they do without analysing every movement. They live in the moment; they don't wallow in past hurts or disasters, nor do they worry about the 'whaf if?' of the future, like humans do. These are chains and living in the Now gives us freedom to appreciate our lives and the world around us. Kat Tansey learned to let go of her thoughts and gradually began to live a more peaceful, happy life. With each setback in her meditation, she became ready to take the next step and to see it as an opportunity. She freed herself from what the Buddhists term 'ordinary mind'  - 'a mind hindered by clinging, anger, sleepiness, restlessness and doubt' - the Five Hindrances she conquers with the help of her feline Zen Master.

Julie Lines from Voice of the Animals

Jean Davies from Whiskers Pet Care
For anyone who would like to enjoy a better relationship with their pets, Jean Davies, who runs Whiskers Pet Care in Manchester, http://www.whiskers-petcare.co.uk/ is running 'playshops' in animal communication. She spends most of her time with animals as she looks after people's pets for them when they're away from home. '...I spend a great deal of my time communicating with animals,' she says. 'There are lots of ways that we do this, including verbally, through body language and intuitively. We all have the ability to communicate intuitively, albeit rather dormant in many people, but this is so easy to re-learn.' She co-facilitates the 'playshop' with Julie Lines of Voice of the Animals, http://voiceoftheanimals.org.uk/  on 27/28 November in Manchester. 
Contact Jean Davies for more information at jean@whiskerspetcare.co.uk

Choosing To Be - Lessons in Living from a Feline Zen Master by Kat Tansey is published by Findhorn Press. Kat is an award-winning author of creative non-fiction books on topics that arrive in her life demanding her attention. She lives on the west coast of America. http://www.choosingtobe.com/

Catzenbear, Poohbear's muse