It’s A New Year, Again

Happy New Year, dear blogging friends!  I didn’t intend to take quite such a long blogging break, but just as Christmas was feeling properly passed, I fell ill with, well, I would call it vertigo, but Mr Litlove says you can only get that standing on the edge of a precipice. So I had a dizzy-headed thing that was very annoying because it got in the way of the orgy of reading I had planned with my new Christmas books. And it got in the way of blogging, of course. As you can see, I am much improved, as I could not have tolerated looking at a line of print a few days ago, but my head is still somewhat tender, so this won’t be a long post.

But I did want to talk about New Years Resolutions. I don’t always have them, but when something seems obviously ripe for change, I like the idea of having them, even if I can’t always follow through. This year in particular will be somewhat experimental as I’m not sure I can find the right strategies for change, or if change is actually possible. The dizzy-headed thing was a good example of the way I burn my brain out quite regularly, and I need to find ways to rest it more effectively. I have a very chatty and hyper brain that simply will not shut up, and it is never more exercised than when there are people around for whom I feel responsible. So Christmas is classic burnout time – not, I hasten to add because I am actually responsible for the people around me now, but I still feel it, in an impotent and pointless sort of way.

So, for instance, yesterday was a good case in point. I was in bed still, listening to Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool on audio book (it’s very good) and Mr Litlove was sitting on the bed reading Robert Harris’ take on the Dreyfus affair, An Officer and a Spy (which he has been absolutely super-glued to), when I heard the cat come running along the landing, into our room, where he jumped up on the bed. I instantly saw he had dirty hind quarters and something long and trailing protruding from his backside. Fortunately, Mr Litlove was right on it and scooped him up and took him downstairs (to much feline protesting). I cravenly counted to a hundred and then followed them down to see what had happened. It turned out to be a long, thin string of plastic that we can only presume he had eaten. Our cat does have a thing for plastic, despite the fact that we are all trained in the rapid response technique that means he is instantly removed from the vicinity of any plastic packaging. But who knows what he does on the quiet? Well, I think we have proof positive, should we ever have required it, that he does not poop rainbows, whatever he tries to tell us. By the time I rejoined the action, Harvey was wearing the offended look of a cat who has been doused with cold water and he spent the rest of the evening with his nose pressed against the study door, shut in the kitchen for sins he evidently found incomprehensible.

But the evening seemed to take a bit of a down turn from that point. Mr Litlove, who only yesterday had declared he felt Tigger-ishly bouncy again after fighting off a cold over Christmas, started to wonder if his cold was coming back. He spent the rest of the evening with the long face of a man condemned to return to work in the morning after ten lovely days of holiday. And our son, who has generally the sweetest and most even temper practically snarled at me when I tapped on his knee to give him an apple. Though in all honesty, he was probably involved in an online game at that point and I was caught in the crossfire of a reaction that was directed at something else entirely. See, my point here, really (and you could be forgiven for thinking we were never going to get to it) is that none of these things are in any way strange, serious or unusual. It’s all just ordinary life stuff. But I seem to notice everything, every little shift and nuance, and it bothers me. I begin to wonder whether I should do something. And I wonder whether I should have done something earlier. I wonder whether my loved ones are happy, and wish that they were. What usually happens is by some weird act of contagion I feel miserable for them and they then cheer up no end. And all the time this is happening, I am thinking, Litlove, this is THE most tremendous waste of emotional energy, time and thought and you know that, right?

So somehow, 2014 has to be the year where I Let Them Get On With It. This year is about reinforcing the bubble. It’s about trying to find ways not to let the moods, desires and caprices of other people get to me so much. How does one go about doing this? I have absolutely no idea. I was determined just to let yesterday evening wash over me, and yet when Mr Litlove came up to bed I found myself saying: ‘What made you so grumpy?’ And Mr Litlove replied, ‘Was I grumpy? Did I seem grumpy? I didn’t think I was grumpy!’ said somewhat grumpily, of course, and I thought to myself: let that be a lesson to you, my girl. This is a good and necessary resolution and you had best learn how to stick with it. Or at least, there’s another 364 days ahead in which to fail better.

Other resolutions are much easier because they seem more within my control. I’m not making any reading resolutions because I never stick to them. But I am going to dedicate a part of this blog to chronic fatigue syndrome and anxiety. I’ll be collecting all previous posts on those topics together under a menu bar and writing some new essays. I really hope that it might offer some sort of a resource to other people in the same boat. In terms of writing, I hope to be working steadily across the year on my latest book, which involves a fair amount of research and will certainly not be finished in 2014. Hence the desire to keep my energy more contained and focused and to avoid brain burnout. Oh and this is also going to be the year of tai chi. I have found a local group that actually meets in the morning and is not for the disabled or elderly – result! Classes start on 30th January and doubtless you will hear more about them in due course.

So a very happy New Year to you all and may it be a peaceful and productive one for all of us. If you have resolutions you want to make, do share them here and we’ll make a pledge to stick with them – nothing like confessing in public to strengthen one’s resolve and all that.

In Which Litlove Tries To Party

I did have a book review scheduled for today, but as I was eating a packet of crisps this morning and realising that the sound of crunching was actually painful on the tender inside of my head, I understood that it wasn’t going to happen.

‘I’d say you had a hangover if I didn’t know you never touched a drop,’ Mr Litlove told me.

‘I do have a hangover, ‘ I replied. ‘An over-stimulation hangover.’

For today is the morning after Mr Litlove’s office Christmas party. Yes, I was foolish enough to say I would attend. The urge to please Mr Litlove combined fatally with the knowledge that I really must try and get out more and overcome my social inhibitions, and it only took one half-hearted maybe for Mr Litlove to be sending me menus over the email. He knows he has to take swift advantage of any weakening on my part.

So yesterday I went so far as to put on a party frock and face the problem that a friend of mine so neatly outlined when she said, ‘Science can put a man on the moon, so how come it can’t create a pair of hold-up stockings that don’t fall down?’ This is an excellent question. I was acutely aware that I was in the middle of a rather good book, and as I was putting my coat on in the kitchen a gust of wintry wind flung a rain shower against the windows. Oh lovely. So enticing, that black, wet night outside. The car was dank and chilly, but as I stopped at red lights, mumbling deprecations under my breath, a group of men passed by on the pavement, jogging, and the reminder that there’s always someone worse off consoled me. I parked in the underground car park, where some of my best nightmares have been set, and actually managed to find the steps up to street level (this clearly was a lucky night) and the hotel where Mr Litlove awaited me.

‘Are you all right?’ Mr Litlove asked as he guided me towards the reception room. I realised I must have that look of blind panic on my face. It’s those first moments when you sit down and commit yourself, you know? And you have to begin, not knowing when it will all end. This is, of course, completely the wrong moment to be given a bunch of strangers’ names. I had no sooner been introduced to the other people at our table than the data slid off my Teflon mind into oblivion. What we really ought to do, if only we could change social convention, is to be introduced to another person via a really good conversational gambit. Something like: ‘Now this man thinks that the magenta dress the boss’s wife is wearing is hideous.’ Or ‘this woman has left two children at home with a babysitter who she’s worried isn’t entirely competent, but given it’s her husband’s niece she can’t really say so.’ Then after a few minutes of chatting, you could be told their name with some semblance of hope you might retain it.

The room we were in was small, compared to the number of people packed in, and the volume of talk was already set at excruciating. Hotels are so odd. They have these huge sumptuous entrance areas, all marble and brass and curving lines, and then a range of ill-proportioned conference rooms without windows. They make me feel like a lamb being led up a gilt walkway into a mirrored holding pen in a crate on the back of a lorry, crammed full already of agitated, bleating sheep. The hotel staff were bringing in the starters, squeezing through the insufficient gaps between the backs of the chairs on tiptoe, plates held aloft. Mercifully, the food reduced the volume in the room to bearable, and the disco out in the atrium packed up for a while and I could hear myself think again. Not that this was necessarily an advantage as I then had to listen to my own stumbling attempts at small talk.

Our table was split between party-friendly youngsters and middle-aged senior staff. It was funny, the first time in ages I’d had the chance to compare myself to a large group of people. The youngsters were full of fun and vim, enough confidence in their beauty to pull funny faces for the camera and to launch themselves into just about any topic of conversation. They were ready, they’d decided, for the first company wedding, and were trying to decide who’d be a likely candidate to marry. The young woman they picked laughingly put them off, though admitted she’d reached the grand old age of 27. It surprised me slightly to remember that when I was 27 I had a two-year-old child and was lecturing for the university (though I was only a graduate student, no proper post at that stage). No wonder my own careless youth felt like a past life; I’d taken on so much responsibility, so young.

Then chronic fatigue had happened. Listening to the talk on the other, older side of the table where it was all about the food and holidays and children’s schooling, I felt it had been like the experience of sleeping beauty – I’d inadvertently slept for a hundred years and woken to a changed world. It has been such a strange and disorienting experience, chronic fatigue, I haven’t got anywhere near making sense of it yet, understanding what it has been in my life and how it has changed things for me. It definitely shadows everything I do; here I was, gratefully astonished to be well enough simply to attend a party, yet oversensitive still to all the ordinary things that used to spell disaster for my health – the over-adrenalised speed of social talk, the noise, the vivid sensations, food with sugar or alcohol in it, the late hour. It was remarkable to me that we were waiting for our main course at nine o’clock and I was just hungry for it, not spiralling down into a blood sugar low, starting to feel faint and shaky and anxious about having to pretend I was okay because the alternative, trying to explain, met with such complete incomprehension. Even now, I don’t know how to explain to normal, ordinarily healthy people that I struggle with confidence in my ability just to exist after more than a decade of horrible, undermining experiences that even when they were happening to me, I could scarcely understand myself.

Naturally, I didn’t attempt any such thing. I made unremarkable party small talk, just as if I were a normal person. Once the meal was over the room began to clear as people wandered out in search of the bar, or the small table that had been set up as a casino. Mr Litlove wanted a bit of a mingle, and I had just embarked on a genuinely interesting conversation (about books, of course) when the guy with the disco decided it was time to crank the volume up, and we were back to shouting at someone a hand’s span away and still not hearing their answers properly.

I thought we might give in to the party spirit. ‘Do you want to dance?’ I asked Mr Litlove. ‘Oo-err,’ he said. ‘It’s been so long I think I’ve forgotten how.’ We were just about remembering when his boss, the owner of the company, shimmied over to say hello. Now Mr Litlove’s boss is a party animal, thinking nothing of staying up all night, good grief he’d be dancing until the DJ keeled over. ‘What are you doing now?’ he asked me, agilely executing steps on the spot. ‘I’m writing a book,’ I yelled back, or at least I think I did; I couldn’t hear myself at all. ‘Who’s your publisher? Have you got an advance?’ he asked. I filled my lungs with air. ‘No,’ I shouted with all my might. ‘I’ve just got an idea.’ He nodded, keeping time to the beat. ‘So what’s the idea?’

Now this is a torturous twist that publishers haven’t thought of yet. Trying to pitch a book on a dance floor in competition with Ceelo Green’s Forget You song. I wondered how it was I always ended up in these situations rich with absurdity. ‘It’s creative non-fiction,’ I screamed, in response to a question about market orientation. ‘New! Exciting!’ Then I took the chance of looking around to send a pitiful ‘rescue me’ face to Mr Litlove, only to see him back in the room we ate in, deep in conversation. His boss beckoned to me to follow him into the thick of the dancers, but I took refuge in an energetic pantomime that involved a lot of pointing at Mr Litlove and which I hoped showed wifely loyalty but probably said louder than anything I’d managed vocally that I was Desperate! To! Escape!

I fell upon Mr Litlove’s neck and we did in fact leave at that point, before I could embarrass myself any further. My stockings were saying it was time to go home. We had that final test of initiative beloved of party-goers: locate the paystation in the vast multi-storey car park. And then we returned to the blissful quiet of our home and a sulking cat, who had been left lapless all evening and wanted to register a complaint about it. Oh I will never be a party person, but at least I didn’t have to endure the all-too-familiar experience of being made ill by things I don’t even enjoy. I’m a bit wrecked today – my throat is sore, my head still pounding – but it’s better than it used to be. I got through the whole evening intact, and that, my friends, counts as a success.

How Easy Am I To Please?

On my last post, the lovely Ruthiella left a comment wondering whether it was easier to buy presents for book lovers, because there would always be, after all, any number of books we’d be lusting after at any given moment in time. When Mr. Litlove read through the comments, he found particular entertainment in this one and said, you should tell your friends just how easy it is for me to buy books for you.  And so I offer my humble strategies up to anyone who wants to give their loved one(s) a really good shove in the right direction:

1. The fait accompli

Such a pretty, pretty book

Such a pretty, pretty book

I was in the Fitzwilliam Museum before Christmas, doing some gift buying when I happened to come across this rather gorgeous book on the art of Japanese painter, Hokusai.  I knew instantly that I wanted it, and it occurred to me that it would make a splendid present. But, could I risk sending Mr. Litlove off on his own to tackle the really quite large shop they have in the museum? I could tell him exactly which table it was on, but what if the staff moved the display around in the meantime? Disaster! And it is so sad to have your wife look at you on Christmas morning and say ‘How can you possibly have got this wrong?’ So I bought it and gave it to him, saying, here, you can wrap this up for me and stick it under the tree.  Guaranteed success.

2. The ten ton hint

Twist your monitors, can't figure out how to make it go straight!

Twist your monitors, can’t figure out how to make it go straight!

When Notting Hill editions first started sending me publicity emails about their box sets, I tried to be strong. I looked at all the books I still have to read and told myself I could withstand. And then they offered me a discount as a special Christmas bonus. And it struck me that these books were exactly what I needed in preparation for more essay writing in the New Year. Mr. Litlove was right nearby, doing stuff on the other computer, and so I simply told my captive audience all about them, and read out the blurb and showed him the pictures and pointed out the discount. ‘Would you like a set for Christmas?’ he asked me. ‘Well, only if you’re sure,’ I said, no doubt looking desperately pleased. ‘I’ll order it for you right now, it will be no trouble!’ Take my advice: never leave the ordering to someone else, all sorts can intervene to make the order placer forget their laudable intentions.

3. The easy-access wish list

Some of my Christmas haul

Some of my Christmas haul

I always have a fairly extensive amazon wish list on the go, after all, you want to offer people a bit of choice when it comes to present giving. You need to get this circulated around family and friends nice and early in the run-up to Christmas and birthdays. But it’s good to have one just as an aide memoire for the rest of the year. For instance, when Mr. Litlove behaves in a way that is annoying or thoughtless, relations can instantly be smoothed over by the purchase of a little something from the list. I purchase it and tell him about it later, usually when it comes through the door. ‘Look,’ I say, ‘this is what you bought me for that time you went to London and forgot to tell me you’d be home very late. Nice, isn’t it?’ And Mr. Litlove says, ‘I did? Then I am the most considerate of husbands.’

4. The commission

Such a bargain

Such a bargain

Mr. Litlove hates doing the supermarket shopping. He’ll man up to it if he has to, but given he is a generally serene person, the supermarket on a Saturday morning is the only time you’ll see the whites of his eyes. I don’t mind it, not least because you can buy two books there for £7. On the whole I tend to resist book buying here, because I don’t want the supermarkets to control what gets published in the UK and we are distinctly headed that way. But just occasionally, because I know Mr. Litlove would want to reward me with a spot of commission for all that pushing and shoving and trolley wielding, I do indulge. Even better when one of the books on special offer happens to be a novel your husband has told you all about quite enthusiastically,  having heard some programme  on Radio 4 referring to it. ‘I saw that book you were talking about, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and picked it up for you as a treat,’ I say.  Mr. Litlove clearly wracks his brains to recall the event. ‘Oh?’ ‘Yes, and if it’s any good I’ll read it after you, if you like!’ Ahh, it’s special moments like these that keep a marriage together.

So there you have it, my top tips for making book gifting as easy and painless as it can possibly be. I mean, Mr. Litlove isn’t even aware he’s had to do anything at all most of the time. How could it be simpler?

 

Rook

Rook 2For all of us in the Northern hemisphere, plunged into the bleak midwinter, what happens if you try to imagine summer? In my mind’s eye, I find a series of vignettes, slices of memory brilliant with light and heat, intense and real and yet oddly distanced, too. Well that feeling dominated the reading of Rook by Jane Rusbridge, a novel thick with the atmosphere of sultry midsummer heat and deeply imbued by the landscape in which it takes place, the mud flats, shallows and sand dunes surrounding the pretty village of Bosham in Sussex. It is an exquisitely lyrical novel whose rhythm is based on the ebb and flow of time and tide, of memory and history and of the relationships between the characters.

Nora has come home and no one, least of all her ageing mother, knows why. She has abandoned an international career as a cellist and is now teaching locally, promising schoolgirls and game middle aged ladies with whom she cannot really connect. In fragments of memory we begin to learn something of her trouble; an affair with a charismatic teacher, which resulted in a pregnancy, unwanted at least by him. There is clearly no baby now, though, which begs a question whose resolution Rusbridge will tease the reader with until the very end. In the meantime, there’s Ada to look after, her fragile but determined mother whose grip on rationality is slipping but whose interest in the young men around remains all too lively. An odd-job man, Harry, seems to have moved into a caravan on their property, helping out with changes to the garden, and, Nora fears, plying her mother with too much drink. And then jogging in the dunes one day she spots a man getting out of a smart car and mistakes him for Isaac, her former lover. Instead he turns out to be a producer from London, down to make a television programme about the unmarked graves in the local church.

There are two graves; one smaller belonging to King Cnut’s illegitimate daughter, according to local legend, and another larger one belonging, some suggest, to King Harold. Nora’s father was an archaeologist, and Ada who still has his archives, and her own racy memories of the dig team, feels importance finally beckoning. The arrival of Jonny from London will bring to the surface all the tensions between mother and daughter, as Nora silently but relentlessly undermines Ada, telling Jonny about the possible link to King Harold and stepping into the flirtation that her mother would dearly like to have with him.

The unspoken battle with her mother is one of a number of ways that Nora blindly but instinctually tries to come to terms with her past. The other is in her adoption of an abandoned fledgling rook, which she frees from the cruel teasings of a gang of young boys and takes home as her own. Rook becomes her endearing, eccentric baby, the chance he offers her for nurture and companionship providing a counterbalance to the losses and sorrows in her life.

This is quite a tricky book to talk about as a lot happens in it, but it’s not about the plot. The events that take place are often ways of rehearsing possibilities that turn out to be dead ends for the characters, or of releasing ghosts from the past. Elements of the narrative recur and echo, illegitimate children, passionate affairs, the elusive truth of what lies under the surface, the impossibility of reversing tides or fate. Atmosphere and sensuousness dominate the narrative, which pays delicate and close attention to physical things: an arrowhead dug out of the mud flats, the first glamorous dress Nora performed in, Rook hiding scraps of food in the crumbling plaster walls of the kitchen. It’s a mosaic of a story, in which scenes are vividly rendered but little is explained, the physical world carrying the freight of memory and meaning. This isn’t a book for psychology or even for abstract truth, it’s a book to live in and to feel in all its textures and layers. Jane Rusbridge can do this because her lyric writing is excellent – accurate, potent and evocative. Definitely a book for the connoisseurs of language.

On this unseasonal note, I will wish everyone a very happy Christmas – I’m going to have a brief blog break now until Christmas has passed as there’s just too much to do to blog properly. However, I really hope to catch up with you all over the holidays and with your comments. Have a wonderful festive season!