Oh deep depression. After an afternoon spent writing yet another proposal, my husband has just read it and declared it ‘sounds like every other academic book you’ve ever written a proposal for.’ No, no! All kinds of wrong! But you know what? I think I just can’t do it. I actually think a commercial proposal is completely beyond me. I don’t understand which buttons to press, I don’t know what I’m supposed to say and never, ever have I felt quite so much like jacking it all in. It doesn’t help that everyone’s a critic. My husband has just come to apologize for depressing me with the words: ‘I don’t know why I was so disappointed; I thought this time you were on to something.’ And was then offended because he didn’t see what was wrong with that sentence. Honestly, I couldn’t make it up.
Well, there’s always consolation to be had in reading. When the going gets tough, the feeble pick up another book and feel grateful for an alternative world. To read my posts last week, you’d think I hadn’t read a thing, but in fact I have been plowing through the books as usual. But several of them haven’t warranted a full post to themselves. The first novel of the new year was The Way Men Act by Elinor Lipman, an author I think I’ve praised on this site before. If I just described the plot to you, you’d assume she wrote frothy chick-lit, but this author has a tongue of steel and a fearless sense of humour. What I note most about her main female characters is that they are not nice. It’s one of the things that can put me right off ‘women’s fiction’ that the main protagonist has to be a paragon, or at least wholly sympathetic. Lipman’s heroines are not made of sugar and spice and all things nice, far from it; in fact in this novel Melinda has a huge chip on her shoulder because she never got a college education, is desperate in a wholly unattractive way for a relationship, gives her mother bad advice and practices double standards. I felt utterly compelled to find out what happened to her, and if the compulsory happy ending was in evidence, at least the journey to it had been wittily acerbic and troublingly accurate in its representation of modern mores. I strongly recommend Elinor Lipman in the intelligent comfort read category, alongside other books that really do deliver well-written comedies of manners.
I’ve decided to begin the year with a four-way split in my reading matter, which is to say four books on the go at any time which represent the categories: fiction, classic, non-fiction and something in French. The French novel was crime fiction from Fred Vargas, a writer widely available in English translation. The book (Debout les morts or The Three Evangelists) opens with ex-opera singer, Sophia Simeonides realizing that she has gained overnight a whole new, unexplained tree in her back garden. This troubles her to the extent that she enlists the help of her new neighbours next door, a bunch of down-on-their-luck academic historians, to solve the mystery, although before they can do so, Sophia is dead. This was a cracking piece of crime fiction; great characters, twisty plot, good writing. I happened to find myself in the local bookstore that stocks foreign language titles and ended up buying two more Vargas novels (they were mostly all available in translation too) a few days after finishing it. I’m really enjoying reading more French. I’ve just started a novel by Philippe Ségur in which a successful male neuropsychiatrist with a terrible fear of women finds he can travel back in time to reexperience the one relationship that might have saved him. French contemporary novels are often fascinated by the fantasies that tenaciously inhabit the new discoveries of science, and whilst this man knows he can account for his hallucinations with medical explanations, his anxiety and his neuroses offer up something far more fantastic. I love how fearless French writers are with their representations of states of mind; they have a way of pushing back the boundaries quite naturally that I find wholly engaging.
The non-fiction book of the week has to be the best book on motherhood I’ve read for a while. Melissa Benn’s Madonna and Child is an excellent account of the difficulties of modern motherhood, with most of her focus resting on the problems of managing childcare and juggling employment. She reminds me of Susan Faludi in her clear-eyed assessment of politics, not one that is drawn from the images the media constructs, but one that comes from her own travels around the country interviewing mothers. She is quite clear that the problems that obsess the mass media, involving supermothers who hold down a partnership in a law firm and have trouble finding a nanny, concern only a tiny percentage of the population. For most women, work is not a choice but a necessity, they barely make ends meet and childcare is inevitably an uneasy reliance on family and friends. The book was published in 1999 when one of the UK’s prime investigative television programmes, Panorama, did a special on ‘Babies on Benefit’, an ugly piece of reportage that suggested tribes of teenage mothers were falling pregnant on their own in order to gain state benefits and bump themselves up the housing list. The government’s response to this was to react quickly (for once) and reduce single parent benefits. Benn travels to the same Cardiff estate where the programme was filmed and finds a completely different story, of course. A story of grown women whose marriages have broken down in painful ways, and who must now somehow see that their family survives on approximately ninety-eight pounds a week. Just under ten years ago, I know, but that amount would represent my food bill alone for the three of us. I don’t know how anyone could get by on that. I know I shouldn’t harp on, but this is what annoys me about the way evolutionary psychology gets applied to women. Benn did not find lawlessness and violence and crime, even though starvation and homelessness was a continual nagging fear:
‘Throughout the long afternoon the women have made deliberate distinction between survival and life. In a way, they’re saying, we do both. We survive and it’s bloody hard. There is a tiredness to all of them, the inevitable tiredness of those that hunt and gather: two historic roles merged into one, giving out all the time and making ends meet. […] But there is much more to them all than just enduring, because of their generosity of spirit and mutual understanding. I am certainly the outsider but they are kind, very kind to me.’
Women play by a different set of rules to men, always have, always will, I fear, and anarchy is not their lot in crisis. I felt very affected by this section of the book, as I loathe the thought of people being without voices, without the authority to speak and having to be instead the recipient of easy prejudice from people who haven’t a clue what they’re talking about. Very little riles me more than authority being unethical, lacking in compassion, in insight.
The last book was Booth Tarkington’s classic, The Magnificent Ambersons. Now that does require its own post, and I will write about it next week. It’s back to term time for me, though, and students to see and my academic book to write, but I’ll still be posting when I can.