A Geography Lesson

No matter how hard I try – and these past six months I have been attempting regular exercise, for crying out loud – I am doomed to hoard stress the way squirrels pack nuts for the winter. Now that things are a little quieter, and the internal imp who scans the horizon for trouble has relaxed, I’ve been feeling quite dreadful. It seems I can only process emotional wear and tear via a form of illness.

archipelagoBy sheer coincidence, a couple of books I’ve read and deeply enjoyed in the run-up to this week, offered an entirely different approach to stress management: the dangerous journey. In Monique Roffey’s wonderful Archipelago, Gavin and his daughter, Océan, take to the Caribbean seas with their dog, Suzy, as a way to deal with compounded grief. Almost a year ago their house was inundated by a freak flood, whose catastrophic results we only learn about as the story unfolds. Close to breakdown, Gavin decides to reawaken an old dream of his youth and take his trusty boat, Romany, west from Trinidad where they live, out towards the Galapagos Islands. Then in the memoir, Wild, Cheryl Strayed recounts her decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail – or at least 1,100 miles of it – after her mother’s untimely death sends her life off course and her marriage breaks down.

The first thing I needed with these books was an atlas. I confess my geography is appalling. It’s even worse than my historical knowledge, and in both cases, what meagre scraps I own come from literature. I am sorry to say that I had a rather shaky sense of where the Caribbean might be, although I knew it had something to do with America, having adored novels by Maryse Condé in the past. For those as ignorant as I was, Trinidad and Tobago are just off the north-east tip of Venezuela, and the Caribbean sits in the shape of a bird in flight between North and South America. The famous islands stretch off towards the North: Barbados, St Lucia, Martinique, and they curve around towards Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba, much larger masses of land that form a rough barrier to the Atlantic. Whereas the travellers in Archipelago hug close to the coast of South America, heading through the Panama Canal and then far, far out west to where the Galapagos sit in solitary splendour.

‘I think I had the Panama Canal mixed up with the Suez Canal,’ I told Mr Litlove.

‘You thought it was the Suez Canal?’ said Mr Litlove, in terms of wonderment, which was rich coming from a man who would hesitate to identify the subjunctive.

wildThe Pacific Crest Trail is a wilderness trail that stretches from the Mexican border in California along the crests of nine mountain ranges, including the Sierra Nevada, Klamath and Cascades, traversing Oregon and Washington on its way. The book had a dinky map in the front of it, useful for following the landmarks in Strayed’s memoir but pretty undetailed in itself. My atlas made it look much more daunting; the colours were the ochres and browns, even into the violet blues, of high altitudes. Despite the huge scale of the atlas, there was absolutely nothing there; no civilisation for inches around.

So two books with one word titles to remind you that serious travellers are a close-mouthed lot. They are too busy struggling with the elements to chat. And in both cases, decisions are made to embark on a physical challenge precisely because words fail and are insufficient for healing the pain. Something intriguingly alchemical goes on in this idea: emotional pain becomes released in physical pain, and physical toughness translates back to emotional toughness. In both cases, the journeys worked their magic, though I wonder whether it doesn’t all boil down to an email apocryphal funny my brother sent me, which said if you want to forget all your troubles, wear shoes that pinch.

Cheryl Strayed does exactly that. Young and inexperienced, she has launched into her hike in a way that shows the difference between things as we imagine they will be, and the lived reality. Her boots are a source of extreme discomfort throughout the trip and I got used to skimming the descriptions of her feet she regularly gave when she took them off at night. She also packs too extensively for her trip, creating an outsize backpack that she calls ‘Monster’, which takes its own toll on her body. You wonder whether she might have saved herself some trouble by just heading downtown and getting herself beaten up:

I did not so much look like a woman who had spent the past three weeks backpacking in the wilderness as I did a woman who had been the victim of a violent and bizarre crime. Bruises that ranged in color from yellow to black lined my arms and legs, my back and rump, as if I’d been beaten with sticks. My hips and shoulders were covered with blisters and rashes, inflamed welts and dark scabs where my skin had broken open from being chafed by the pack.’

This hike is all about her powers of endurance for Strayed, who was only 26 when she undertook it, and all about the methods of transcendence she can teach herself. Ways to bypass the boredom, the fear of all that could befall her out alone. As Archipelago is fiction, it has a lot more scope to explore its ideas. In the novel, nature is on trial, understood to be both beautiful and sublime, feared as both vicious and destructive. Gavin isn’t sure whether he is still fighting a losing battle against nature or learning to accept his place as part of it:

He has had a romantic attachment, notions about the sea, but these are fantasies. Now he is aware that the sea isn’t interested in him – and yet he’s fascinated with her. The sea has no feelings towards him whatsoever, and yet she stirs unfathomable moods in him. The sea doesn’t care, cannot care, one jot for him and his boat, his child, his dog, and yet they’ve been held mesmerised. At best, the sea is an accomplice to his restlessness.’

In both books, nature is an accomplice at best – willingly offering up vistas of breaktaking loveliness as reasons in themselves for the pain and the trouble of the undertaking. In Archipelago, nature wears a much crueller face, too, the devastation of catastrophe a magnified version of the ordinary battle for survival. But a lot happens in a silent beyond, in the place where human and nature interact. This is where the humans heal, though as Gavin realises, it is an oddly one-sided attachment where we manage to find far more than just what is visible. Perhaps it’s the sense of perspective that saves all the protagonists in the end; the awareness of their own diminutive size in relation to a wild, dangerous, tenderly indifferent world.

I loved both these books – they were highly engrossing, the Roffey full of glorious descriptions, the Strayed balancing its material well between accounts of the trip and her past life leading up to it. And they both have plenty of adventures to recount. But I am left feeling that the Existentialists were right – people are either thinkers or doers and it’s hard to be both. Travel is not the answer to angst for me: instead I have to be attentive to my internal geography. When I was much worse with chronic fatigue, I used to consider my body as a wild and lawless land, with sacking and pillaging going on in ways I couldn’t control. These days, there is much more of a community feel about my internal world, though every so often we have to hunker down when the Visigoths of stress maraud through.

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 Very Inspiring Blogger Award

very-inspiring-blog-award-logo

I was immensely chuffed to find that two dear blogging friends – Susan and Annabel – had nominated me for this award (and I would nominate both of them right back if they hadn’t done this already!). It’s even more touching because I’ve been a rather intermittent blogger these past few weeks. Though that’s just been the force of circumstances, I hesitate to add. I love my blogging community and would be lost without you all and your brilliant posts and wonderful comments here.

So this award comes at the perfect time to celebrate blog friends. These are the rules:

  • Thank and link to the person who nominated you.
  • List the rules and display the award.
  • Share seven facts about yourself.
  • Nominate 15 other amazing blogs and comment on their posts to let them know they have been nominated (15 is a few too many for me, particularly as several of the ones I would have included have nominated me so I hope 10 will do)
  • Optional: display the award logo on your blog and follow the blogger who nominated you

I’ll give a special shout out to my other fellow editors at Shiny – Harriet and Simon – who are just wonderful, and then my nominees for this award (I’m supposed to have 15, but it just had to be 16 and there could have been more!), in alphabetical order:

 

Acid Free Pulp – just love these intelligent and thoughtful reviews.

 

A Gallimaufry – Helen makes me laugh every time; she is pure delight, and finds the best art, too.

 

A Work in Progress – should be on everyone’s Top Five Perfect Book Blogs list.

 

Beauty is a Sleeping Cat – great reviews and the best community readalongs.

 

Dolce Bellezza – one of the biggest, warmest hearted bloggers I know.

 

Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings – I am in awe of Karen’s seemingly effortless, wonderful reviews, and her secondhand finds!

 

Listenwatchreadshare – fantastic writing about books and life (and moving house!)

 

Mrs Carmichael – like having a drink with your funniest friend; the best family and travel adventure tales ever.

 

Necromancy Never Pays – brilliant reviews peppered with poems that I have a) never heard of and b) find hugely intriguing.

 

Novel Readings – such intelligent analyses of books; you feel smarter just being there.

 

Reading the End – no one reviews like Jenny; she is such an original and hilarious.

 

Ripple Effects – gorgeous photography and amazing film reviews; I get all my viewing recommendations here.

 

Shelf Love – Jenny and Teresa cover such an amazing range of books between them; and yet often they seem to be reviewing a book I’ve read or want to read.

 

Smithereens – what book blogging is all about, real passion for books and writing, squeezed into daily life.

 

So Many Books – one of the all-time great book blogs; classic and timeless.

 

The Curious Reader – mostly life, padded with books, and always wise and loving. I just wish blogger would let me comment more!

 

The Modern Idiot – social and political comment, a laugh, a rant and full-on passion all the time.

 

Thinking in Fragments – dangerously full of crime fiction I want to read! And deliciously readable reviews of all kinds.

 

And while I’m at it, I have to send love to Lilian and Pete, who do blog, but not often enough (because they are particularly busy!).

I’m supposed to add seven facts about me. But guys, I’ve been blogging for 8 years here – I don’t think there’s anything you don’t know by now! Though if there’s anything you want to know, you only have to ask.

 

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!