Monday Miscellany

1. Finally something properly good has happened for my son. He has a job in a well-known pub in London’s West End. This was entirely his own doing – he put together a CV and went around the pubs in his vicinity, asking if any were short-staffed, gradually widening his circle. Last week he did a couple of trial shifts and today he begins behind the bar. He says the people seem nice and it’s really, really busy. I am so pleased for him; to rescue oneself is a powerful experience. I had a post half written in my head about what it’s been like these past few months, and what we’ve all learned from them, but I can’t bring myself to write it down today. I feel worn out with relief.

2. One thing, though, is that recovery is not a linear event. It is circular. Round and around we go, pressing the bruises, feeling the pain, stepping back, irresistibly drawn to pressing them again. It seems like stasis, like being stuck, but more preparation for change is going on than we imagine. The paradox is that the emotional pain gets worse every time those bruises are pressed, not better, because each time we confront the reality of what has happened with more clarity, each time we can bear to face it a little more.

3. Another paradox: I believe that if we can find someone to help us bear witness to our big emotions and then feel them without any of those complicating problems of shame or embarrassment, then we can work through emotions much faster. But it’s very, very hard to be that witness, particularly for people we love. Their pain is our pain. Watching them suffer arouses unresolved emotions of our own. And emotion exerts a huge pressure of distortion. When we are not in the same place, the emotional person seems quite mad, such is the extent of distortion. And then we long to bring their perspective back in line with the reality we’ve all agreed is sane.

4. I think we have too limited an understanding of what sanity is, and that it’s easy to be afraid of anything lying beyond those narrow confines. I think there’s far too much insistence on people being strong and happy and flawless, that this ignores the reality of what it is to be human. If we don’t acknowledge negative emotions in ourselves, then either they turn inwards and attack us with anxiety, low self-esteem, lack of trust, or else they get displaced. When people rage and rant in an excessive way, about things that are irritating or annoying, yes, but maybe not as bad as all that, then I think it’s displaced emotions coming out over some issue that feels more justified than the one that caused the emotions in the first place. And then there’s the third option: contempt or indifference towards people in pain. The urge to think oneself superior, better than that. It’s a strong position inside but ugly from the outside.

5. Hmm, I’ll stop before I actually write the post I said I wouldn’t write, but I will add that any deduction I’ve made above comes from the trial and error of getting it wrong a lot of the time. I’ve had to do a lot of learning from mistakes.

6. I must apologise for being so bad at commenting on other blogs lately. I’m reading, but my thinking-of-the-right-thing-to-say muscle seems to be weary. I’m not actually in the mood for writing much of anything.

7. I have been watching a lot of television, which is most unusual for me. Mr Litlove was competing in the town rowing races last week, which meant I could watch whatever I liked. I ended up really getting into the first season of Downton Abbey, and whilst I am probably the last person in the world to watch it, I have to say it was completely splendid. Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham is brilliant, and the casting of Mr Bates was a stroke of genius (though I fear for that man’s fate – he has the face for suffering). I really admired the way the multiple storylines were handled; only the very last episode tried to squeeze too much in. My mum has the next two series on DVD and I guess I’ll be borrowing them from her.

8.  I’ve also been enjoying the sheer madness that is Boston Legal. I think these must be the most unprofessional bunch of lawyers ever to tread the far margins of legal ethics, but once again the acting is the thing. James Spader is outrageously good; he manages to be simultaneously arrogant and supercilious and dangerous and endearing and charismatic with more integrity than all the others put together. Plus seeing William Shatner as a complete psycho is a lot of fun, and very un-Captain Kirkish.

9. We’ve also been watching Hustle, which is Mr Litlove’s favourite and the one he always votes for, when it comes to a vote. We’ve watched the first four seasons and there’s hardly been a duff episode. They’re conmen (and woman) but with Robin Hood’s philosophy and it’s a treat to find something that’s a lot of fun as well as neatly plotted and rather smart. I never tire of watching the baddies brought down. If only such prescience were available in reality!

 

 

The Farm, Or It’s Not As Nice In Sweden As You’d Think

the farmA few weeks ago, Mr Litlove was under the weather and so he decided to distract himself with a book. He settled for The Farm, by Tom Rob Smith, a novel I’d given him for his birthday. He started it that morning, ‘this is very good,’ he said at lunchtime, and by the late afternoon he had finished it.

He’d found it both gripping and clever, and since he’s quite hard to please when it comes to fiction, I was very curious about it now. So a couple of days later, I picked it up too.

Daniel has thought that his parents are enjoying a quiet retirement in Sweden, his mother’s native land, where they are running a small, remote farm. Then one day, returning to his London apartment after a trip to the supermarket, his father calls him, clearly distressed. His mother is ill, disturbed; she’s been making wild accusations and suffering from paranoia, and has been taken to a mental hospital. Daniel hardly has time to digest this shocking information and buy a plane ticket to Sweden before he gets another call, this time from his mother. ‘Everything that man has told you is a lie,’ she insists to him. ‘I’m not mad. I don’t need a doctor. I need the police.’ She is on her way to Heathrow airport where she wants him to meet her and provide her with sanctuary.

Unsurprisingly, Daniel doesn’t know what to believe. He hasn’t seen his parents for a while, not because of any rift, but because he is keeping a secret of his own. He’s gay, and doesn’t know how to tell them. His mother, he knows, had a difficult childhood and has made every possible effort to keep his happy and free from care. To Daniel, it’s not the fact of his homosexuality that will bother them, but his own reluctance to confide in them. His mother’s determined creation of a perfect upbringing has in fact disabled him in two ways: the first is that he can’t tell them anything that may blemish the smooth surface of their past, the second that if that smooth surface breaks down, he fears that all sorts of terrible things may emerge. When his mother arrives, it’s the meeting with his partner, Mark, that he worries about. But she is so strung out, so bursting to tell him her strange tale, that she barely notices anything about her surroundings.

She has with her a satchel that she tells him is packed full of ‘evidence’, and she insists on taking him through it piece by piece, convinced that it has been the scattered, disjointed nature of her narrative that has left her open to the charge of insanity in Sweden. Even so, her story treads a fine line – is she overreacting to the things that have happened? Has her troubled past finally caught up with her? Or is there really something dark and disturbing going on that involves the corruption of a small town?

Funnily enough, I found myself distracted in the opening parts of the story by the conviction that it was autobiographical in nature. It was something about the way the narrator described not being able to tell his parents about his sexuality, the urgency of those opening scenes. In fact, a quick online search revealed that the whole premise of the novel actually happened. Tom Rob Smith’s Swedish mother did turn up at his flat to tell him and his brother that she was recently released from a psychiatric institution where she had been placed against her will, after uncovering wht she thought was a conspiracy involving their father. Woah – after that sort of family drama, you probably would have to write about it. In an article in The Telegraph, he says: “with writing it’s like you can retreat from the muddle that is everything else.” Perhaps that’s one reason why the novel is brilliantly plotted.

In The Farm, the narrator, Daniel, eventually takes a trip to Sweden to find out the truth about his mother’s wild accusations, and the truth turns out to be something intriguingly twisted and different. Viewed overall, from a bit of a distance, this really is a clever novel that takes the tropes of Scandi noir thriller and makes something quite unusual out of them. It is very gripping and the mother’s tale is spookily unnerving, her recounting an uneasy mix of insight and extraordinary leaps of assumption. The way that stories generate their truths via the alliance of events and emotions, and the way coherence can be utterly misleading, is beautifully explored. But this isn’t a perfect novel. The first part, the mother’s story, takes 286 pages to tell, the resolution in Sweden a mere 80, and this imbalance has a cost, I think. The thriller element is lost along the way, Daniel’s initial sense of being torn between his parents simply fades. You still end up with a good story; but it isn’t quite the story you thought you had at the beginning.

I felt a bit mean telling Mr Litlove that I’d thought it a tad flawed here and there, after his wholehearted enthusiasm for the novel. But it may well be that this is a book best consumed in a single sitting. It’s very smooth and easy to read, so the prospect is quite do-able. And it is really clever and well written. It’s certainly left me with a strong desire to read his Moscow trilogy that began with Child 44.

 

What We Did On Holiday

For the last couple of months, Mr Litlove has been busy making me new bookcases. It will probably not surprise you to know that we have been experiencing a bit of a book crisis once again. Mr Litlove has been rumbling darkly to the effect that rather than live in a house with a lot of books, we have now veered into the territory of hoarders and eccentrics, and are living in a library that happens to have beds in it. I’m not sure why this should be an issue, but he seems to think it is. So when my new bookcases were good to go, I decided that I would grit my teeth and have a cull.

New bookcase #1: crime, non-fiction and recent acquisitions.

New bookcase #1: crime, non-fiction and recent acquisitions.

Like most difficult things, the hard bit is getting started. I don’t like letting go of any book, and mostly my feeling is that what I own is part of my mind, part of my inner life. Even if I haven’t read a book yet, I’ve wanted it and intended to experience its world, and that says something about the extent of my tastes and interests. But as I get older, I find my feelings are beginning to change. I used to be interested in everything because I believed I had the inner flexibility to appreciate and encompass it. There was very little I didn’t want to read. I wanted the life of my mind to be vast and adventurous, and believed firmly that the job of the reader is to find the pleasure in a book and to stretch their imagination to fit.

But now I am gradually becoming more picky. I accept that there are kinds of writing that I like more than others, ways of handling ideas that I prefer. And it’s beginning to bother me to see books on my shelves that I’ve read once and know I’ll not want to read again. A new ideal library is evolving for me, based not on breadth and depth of literature, but on books that really fire me up when I look at them.

So with this in mind, it was easier to cull than usual. I ended up with a significant pile of books to find homes for – and that was the other part of the equation. I couldn’t throw them away. I love my books tenderly, and I wanted to send them somewhere they’d be appreciated.

For ages I’ve been putting off donating a whole load of my French academic texts to the library. This had nothing to do with the books and everything to do with the weirdness of returning to my old faculty. Walking up the stairs in the Raised Faculty Building is one of those deeply ingrained memories that make regular appearances in dreams. The stairs have such a particular smell – cleaning fluid, concrete, hot book dust – and haven’t changed at all since I was a first year student. In consequence, whenever I walked up them as a lecturer, I could still remember exactly how it felt, as an overawed 18-year-old, to be heading off to the terrifying experience of a language class. I wasn’t sure how it would be to return with no connection to the university at all. The power of oppression that the building made on me fed into my sense of status when I was teaching. I had taken on that building and won. I wasn’t sure how it would feel to walk up the old stairs having lost.

In the end it was the rather lovely librarian that made all the difference. I’d rung up that morning to test the waters.

‘What would you say to a donation of books?’ I’d asked her. ‘I used to teach here.’

‘I’d say ooh lovely and thank you very much,’ she replied.

That made me laugh. It’s always such a pleasure to come across a human being.

‘But would you mind if we gave the books to the students rather than put them on the shelves in some cases?’

‘I wouldn’t mind in the least,’ I said. ‘I just want them to go to good homes.’

Mr Litlove and I loaded up the car and set off for the faculty. Any tension I might have felt at the site was dissipated by the fact that I couldn’t locate the Raised Faculty Building; since I’d left, they’d put up a whole new block of Criminology. (I would have liked a peek at that library!) When we carried the boxes in, the librarian was delighted.

‘There’s lots of good stuff here!’ she said. ‘I’ve already seen several set texts.’

(Yes, I thought, they were the among the first to go.)

‘The students will be so pleased with these,’ she said. ‘Thank you!’

I felt so buoyed when I got back in the car.

‘It’s just like being Father Christmas,’ I said to Mr Litlove.

‘I suppose that makes me Rudolph,’ he replied.

We didn’t get such a rapturous welcome at the local library. I’d brought a large number of old review copies, mostly hardback, that were in pretty perfect condition. One volunteer took a distracted look at me waiting with my bags at the desk and headed into the staff room to make herself a cup of tea or something. The other had her back to me and was checking out some very complex selection of books and DVDs (and was still involved in that by the time I left). Eventually the first woman returned and accepted the bags with unrelenting vagueness. They may still be where I left them.

Finally we had a big box of paperbacks to take to the charity shop in the village. The woman there was initially suspicious – over her shoulder we could see a back room that was full to bursting with junk – but she accepted them happily enough when she could see they were good quality. I knew how she felt. I’d seen enough donations come in to the Amnesty bookshop to know how discouraging boxes of mildewed, gritty books can be.

When I got back home, I felt much lighter somehow. I was almost ready to start weeding again. My head wishes I was still that wide-open-minded reader, curious about everything, keener to find meaning and skill in a book than to appease a desire for reliable comfort. But my heart was happier to look around my shelves and see only books I loved or felt excited about. Perhaps now, I thought, I can keep to a one-in, one-out policy.

New bookcase #2 comfort reads (well it IS in my bedroom).

New bookcase #2 comfort reads (well it IS in my bedroom).

So when six review copies arrived over the course of this week, do you think I found six books to throw out? Nope, you’re right, of course not!

Holiday!

Mr Litlove decided, quite at the last minute, to take a week’s holiday this week. We have an assortment of plans and half-plans and I’m not sure of our final program, but I will be absent from the blog for the week. Whatever else we do, I’ll be working my way through the last batch of reviews for our second edition of Shiny New Books. There’s going to be a new colour scheme, a brand new competition and masses of reviews of new books.

Before I go there’s a question I’m curious to hear people’s thoughts on. I read a review a little while back that became very angry with a certain novel because of the way a secondary character was portrayed. This was a gay man (and the book was set back in the early 70s when homosexuality was not considered to be publicly acceptable) who behaved quite badly towards his wife; their relationship was complex in many ways, but he could at times be quite mean and unkind towards her and there was a sadistic element to their sexual relationship. There was also deep attachment between the two of them, even if that was not always healthy. Well, the reviewer said that such a portrait of homosexuality was not acceptable, that it ruined the book for her and that no one wanted to read such a thing in the 21st century.

So my question is two-fold. The first part a) is whether as a reader you find you can be completely put off a book by a relatively small part of it? The second b) is whether you feel writers should not portray once marginalised identities in a negative way? I’m most curious to know what people’s instinctive reaction is to these issues….

 

ETA: It occurred to me that it wasn’t fair not to mention where I stood on the questions. Although it doesn’t happen very often, I can be completely put off by a small thing. I remember reading a novel last year where the excessive repetition of the speech tag ‘whispered’ really irritated me, to the point where I could barely concentrate on the story. Then Mr Litlove read the same book and said he hadn’t noticed it at all. As to the other question, I don’t think special pleading is a very good idea; to my mind, equality is about treating everyone similarly, which is to say understanding that first and foremost we are all human and all human beings do good and bad things, and often behave badly when their vanity or safety is in some way threatened. Plus, in novels, I think paragons of virtue are boring and implausible. But this is not a fixed view and I’m more than open to hearing other sides of this particular argument. I’m very curious about it.