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!

Various Updates

I realised that there have been a few ongoing plotlines chez Litlove that I haven’t updated lately. For instance, my painful arm and shoulder which I thought for a long time was due to a trapped nerve. You may recall (though I forgive you if you don’t, it’s been a while) that I had had both osteopathy and phyiotherapy with no particular result. My arm seemed to be settling into its compromised movement and nothing made an impact on it. So I decided to try the Alexander Technique.

Well, never has there been a better example of brain triumphing over brawn. The Alexander Technique is extremely gentle, a lot of patting and smoothing by my practitioner who has gradually been easing the knots out of my nerves and muscles. I’ve had about five or six sessions and almost unbelievably, the situation is improving. I can move my arm far more freely than I could before, and with only the odd twinge here and there. After seven months of zero progress and being cracked and twisted and pummelled in often painful ways, this feels nothing short of miraculous. My only problem is I’m too scared of tempting fate to triumphantly announce my cure. So we won’t go there. But my goodness, has she made an improvement! People, if you have muscular-skeletal issues, find yourself an Alexander Technique practitioner. It’s not just effective, it’s actively pleasant. My practitioner is not a great talker, though she likes a laugh, and my memory of our sessions will be of her uncluttered room with sunlight streaming in and the extreme peacefulness of her gentle attention. And of course the tap-dancing skeleton, who has also become a serene witness, his skull a little on one side in quizzical observation.

The problem has been caused not so much by repetitive strain as repetitive bad posture. My left hand is the one I hold books in, and my practice has been to tuck my elbow into my side while I read and bend my head down towards the page. Over the winter months, when I get chilly from sitting still, I tend to carry around my microwaveable wheat baggie, which I also stick under my left arm – it’s got a book at the end of it and is clamped to my side anyway, hence the arrangement. And my left side is the one I go to sleep on, often with that arm wedged underneath me. So twenty-four-seven that arm has been held at an awkward angle without my noticing what I was doing. The muscles at the back of my neck and down into my shoulder have probably scrunched up into a big clump that was putting pressure on the bone, and muscles have a long and persistent memory. It will take a while to remind them that they do not have to exist in their old, embattled position. I need to make long-term adjustments to my practices – books propped on cushions on my lap or in book stands on a table, a writing slope for taking notes and much reduced use of my laptop.

I’m still considering taking up pilates in the summer, but I’ll definitely be sticking with tai chi. I started in the beginners’ class back at the end of January and have recently moved up to what they call ‘continuing’ classes. This was a shock to the system. I’d grown to love my beginners’ class and our tight little group of four initiates and four experts. We spent our weeks slowly learning a whole ‘set’ of tai chi which has over a hundred moves in it. I can do it, so long as I’ve got people around me I can follow – as our instructor said, the one thing tai chi really improves is your peripheral vision – and I think it’s beautiful. The movements are slow and graceful and often satisfying in a profound way I don’t have words to describe. This alone is probably very good for me – the fact it’s a couple of non-verbal hours in my life. Oddly enough I’ve turned out to be good at it, which is surprising after all those years of being a sports dunce and the last person picked for any team. And of course I don’t feel particularly good at it; it just feels sort of straightforward to do. Doubtless years of ballet as a child helped. Being twenty years younger than the others is my secret weapon.

So, anyway, I’ve moved up to the next class which is packed. There must be thirty or so people who turn up for it, and after the expansiveness of being eight in a large hall, we’re now all crammed in sardine-like which has proved hot the past few weeks. We begin by going twice through the full set, which feels like it might last forever (in reality it lasts about 40 minutes). And then we do a bunch of foundation exercises, which we do for another long, long time. After that comes a 25 minute break and then a final half hour working on a small part of the form. I’m gradually meeting a few people as they are all very friendly. Two sisters introduced themselves to me, one of whom, poor woman, is currently fighting two types of cancer which is more courage than I can imagine having. She was cheerier than me, too, which was rather humbling. ‘Did you tell her about your bad arm?’ Mr Litlove asked me when I recounted this. ‘And your sore gum?’ Husbands, dontcha love ‘em? I actually told her sister that I’d had 13 years of chronic fatigue and felt let off lightly by comparison. Lots of people in the class have health reasons for being there, as it’s supposed to be a very gentle but effective exercise. Gentle and effective is certainly what’s working for me right now.

And then my son is still not exactly what you’d call happy, but he has recently signed onto a temp agency that supplies waiters and bar staff to social functions. He’s done this mostly under his own steam, and is hopeful that it will earn him a bit of cash and give him useful skills and experience. In about ten days time he is going on holiday to Spain with ten of his friends, which is the good news. The bad news is that his ex-girlfriend is one of them and they began organising the trip before they split. Goodness only knows what will come of this trip; it could be anything from some necessary closure to emotional chaos. But my son has evidently thought it all through and decided he wants to go nevertheless. Even though he knows it’s not likely, I expect there’s a part of him that hopes they might get back together, which Mr Litlove fears but I doubt. ‘Though if we do get back together, I won’t tell you and Dad,’ he said, to which threat I couldn’t help but smile and say that the list of things I didn’t need to be told was surprisingly long and included dangerous expeditions, late night emo showdowns and trips to the ER. My neighbour was telling me her theory the other day that we have been too nice to our kids while they were growing up and so are involved in their adolescent shenanigans when their normal response ought to be to keep them well out of our sight. I like that theory; I may just run with it.

 

Why I’m Rather Quiet

I haven’t been posting as much as I usually do, because I’ve had one or two books to read for the magazine.

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The pile on the left are the ones awaiting review, the pile on the right are the ones I still need to read and then review. By the end of June. Ye-es, that’s what I think, too. Some of them I requested on behalf of SNB from publishers (which has made publishers more willing than normal to send me books) and some of them are my own copies. But we won’t mention that to Mr Litlove, right? That’s just between us. I’ve read some wonderful books though – in particular a memoir of a writer’s first job at a literary agency where the prize client was J. D. Salinger, and the most surprisingly twisty portrait of grief from an American novelist. More about those on the 1st July when our next edition comes out.

If you’re wondering about the outrageously pretty sofa they are resting on, yes, it is new. We had a makeover of the study when our old brown leather chairs more or less fell apart. Here’s a better picture of it:

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When it first arrived (and there was some doubt whether we could get it through the door – it’s certainly not going anywhere ever again), it was wrapped up in a huge plastic bag, tied with a cord at one end. Oh the urge I had to keep it safely nestled in plastic! Mr Litlove comes in all sawdusty from his workshop, or sweaty from rowing and throws himself down on it, at which point I make him get up and change before he is allowed to sit down again. The cat, who is rather elderly these days and jumps onto soft furnishings with a wince-inducing scrabble of claws, has been banished. The one evening he snuck in, he lay on the sofa in the most ridiculous position, front legs stretched out as far as they would go as if to cover as much surface area as possible. He has not been invited back. My favourite thing to do is to shut all the doors to the study and then look at it through the panes of glass. Oh I know it won’t be long before we’re sitting on it to eat our dinner and lying with our feet up, if we can get the cat to give us a bit of space. But for the moment, I am trying to preserve its exquisite newness.

One final thing: the last ever critical essay I wrote has recently been published online. It’s about the work of Gabriel Josipovici, an author I love who isn’t well known enough in this country, and on whom a special journal edition has been put together. My essay is called The Cost of Creativity in the Work of Gabriel Josipovici, and is about the way his poignant relationship to his mother has influenced his books. If you click through to the journal, you’ll find there are all sorts of other fantastic essays on his writing.

Back with reviews later in the week.

How Not To Give Good Advice

I’ve been on a run of books lately that all deal with heartbreak and grief. In one a man flies aimlessly around the world for two years, unable to come to terms with the loss of his beloved. In another, an otherwise staid headmaster takes off his clothes and walks naked through a snowy Central Park, in what turns out to be the last of a series of hallucinations produced by an unhinged mind. In a third, we don’t know what happened, only that there was an ominous silence in the story for six years. I’m not sure if the gods of literature are trying to make me feel better or worse about my son, who is still often lost and lacking direction after his brush with heartbreak. The novels are all in agreement, however, about the state of mourning love: the mourner needs people and pushes them away, he wants to do things but cannot summon the energy, there is a blank absence of purpose and nothing makes much sense. Many people give well-meant but infuriating advice, larded with the usual platitudes.

The latter has been me, it seems, lately. Honestly, you’d think I’d never dealt with a troubled student before in my life. For four years, I calmly accepted whatever the students threw at me in terms of personal problems and I barely flinched. I felt great compassion, usually, for their struggles and a firm, steady belief that they would get past them and find their way again. In fact, I was generally convinced that what they were doing in their personal wilderness would turn out to be very valuable in the long run. As painful as their experiences might be, it was quite likely they were losing comfortable illusions that really didn’t do them any good, and getting closer to the inconvenient truth of who they were. In other words, they were growing up.

But when it’s my son who’s miserable, it feels completely different. Here I am, instantly exhorting him to buck up and feel better, to try something new and take a chance, all things that frankly you have to be feeling strong to even comtemplate doing. Forget taking the time it takes to heal, I want him back up on his feet right now, or yesterday, ideally. We fell out on the phone at the start of the week because he was expressing a feeling that he had no future, and I was instantly trying to point out how ridiculous such a statement was, coming from a 19-year-old. And I really should know better! If I had forgotten that we calculate the future by taking a snapshot of the past, I should remember at least that when we feel properly miserable, the only way forward is one day at a time, or a half-day on the bleak stretches.

What becomes very clear to me is that when we say ‘Buck up’, we are really saying, please take your pain out of the public view because it is causing me discomfort. And we’re also saying, a little bit, I am superior, because if it were me, I would recover quicker and easier than you are doing; I wouldn’t make such a fuss. Things, in other words, that are designed to make us feel better, and have nothing to do with the person who’s sad. The nicest interpretation of the buck-up is that sometimes we have to hold a positive image of the other person’s strengths while they have temporarily lost access to it. And sometimes we can remind them of all the possibilities and opportunities that they still possess. But the main thing that study support taught me – and which I seem daily to forget – is that healing emotions and minds is exactly like healing physical ailments. If you’ve broken a leg, you can’t just get up and walk on it, there’s a process to be gone through. If you’ve broken a heart, there’s all sorts of feelings that can’t be accessed until the time is right for them.

But this is much easier to accept when you are not invested in the life and happiness of the person who suffers. I am caught by my longing for my son to feel happy again, because I love him and I hate the fact he’s sad. I would do anything to make him better. In fact, the one saving grace of late is that when I have clumsily counselled him and he has got mad at me, it does seem to relieve some of his feelings. I find this reassuring – I can mess up and yet somehow this turns out to be okay! When I’m feeling sensible, I do realise this is the extent of my possible involvement, as the most powerful thing he can do is to rescue himself. In the meantime, I have plenty of novels reminding me of this, though once I’ve finished the one I’m reading, I may look for something with jokes. It seems there’s only so much good advice that anyone can take.