The Story of my Teeth, But Not By Valeria Luiselli

This novel has been stirring a lot of interest in review pages, but I may have to wait a while before I can read it. My tooth is out, I lived to tell the tale, and here it is.

Well, if it hadn’t been for your lovely encouraging comments and my family support team, I’m not sure I would have got over the threshold of the dentists’ on Thursday. Words cannot describe how much I dislike, and fear, invasive medical procedures. But the day before I went, my sister-in-law offered me a great strategy. ‘What’s the best possible outcome?’ she asked. And I had been so busy preparing for all potential calamities that this really struck me afresh. I don’t often anticipate good happening in the medical arena. So I did think about how nice it would be if this infected tooth turned out to be responsible for a lot of the issues this year has brought, and that its removal might be a boost to my overall health.

I was still somewhat shaky when I got to the dentist’s however. Here’s another trick I learned: sixty deep breaths, with all the focus on the out breath, really does take your anxiety down. Well, for about five minutes, anyway. ‘How are you today?’ asked Rachel, the dental nurse, brightly. ‘Terrified,’ I replied. And she laughed and steered me up the stairs to my doom.  I do like my dentist, who can be rather funny and amusing. Though she was in grave mode, explaining to me all the things she is, I imagine legally, obliged to explain in terms of risks, while the anesthetic kicked in. Pity it couldn’t numb my brain, though I had actually lost the power of speech at that point, I was so frightened. Eventually I said, ‘I may have to hold Rachel’s hand,’ to which the dentist said, ‘Oh yes, give it a really good squeeze. Rachel’s got good strong hands.’ This was my mother’s advice: ‘Grab a hold of someone’s hand,’ she told me, and it does really work. The experience moved from intolerable to tolerable, and I just hope that poor woman has some feeling back in her fingers now.

It’s a strange sensation, having the tooth prised out. My dentist was slow and careful, which on the whole I was grateful for, as she’d warned me she might get the drill out if it looked like the tooth would split and she could preempt that. Now I had signed up for a twist and a yank, and the thought of the drill was on a whole other level. I was waiting for the noise like an ancient fence post being ripped from the ground, which was all I could remember from having teeth out aged ten, but this never happened, so the dentist did indeed say ‘It’s out!’ before I was expecting it. ‘You’re not a bleeder, that’s good,’ she then said, which I thought was possibly the most beautiful sentence in the English language at that point. Though she topped it with, ‘Oh you’re an excellent clotter,’ a few minutes later. While we sat, and I clotted, and waited for the tide of fear to recede, the dentist told me the tooth had come out with the abscess intact and it was huge. Subsequently I have felt sort of perversely proud of this, as if it’s an achievement to have anything, even a bad thing, on a magnificent scale. ‘So it’s probably just as well we didn’t try to save it,’ she said. ‘Would you like to see the naughty tooth?’ I shook my head most emphatically ‘no’. I was hanging on by a few threads here, and eyeballing a gruesome exhibit might have tipped me over. ‘You were very good in the chair,’ said my dentist, with immense kindness. ‘So calm. Made my job as easy as it could be.’

When I told Mr Litlove what she had said, much later that day, he said, ‘In other words, you froze.’ ‘Yup,’ I replied. And that was about it. I staggered downstairs to pay at the reception where Mr Litlove had come to walk me home in case I needed support (I was happy to have support). The receptionist was in fine form, too. ‘Now, no hoovering for her for at least six months,’ she told my husband. ‘In fact, better say no housework for a year.’ If I could have done, I would have laughed a lot.

It wasn’t a terribly nice day, it must be said. The removed tooth turned out to be an enormous one, and I couldn’t quite believe the size of the gap it left. Several days later I showed the gap to Mr Litlove. ‘See that tooth,’ I said, pointing to the one on the end of the front row, ‘that’s like the end of the pier. And those teeth right up in the back? That’s America.’  My mouth looks like a provincial theatre on a Monday night, with half the upper stalls empty. It turned out that my tongue rested against that tooth, which meant I tasted blood sickeningly for the rest of the day. And now I have a lisp, which Mr Litlove tells me is cute, but it is NOT CUTE at all. The annoying thing is that my bite is all wrong and two teeth that probably never met with the big old tooth in place, now clash together. By now, I am resigned to all these changes, and just waiting to adapt to the new situation. But on Thursday evening, all the locked down emotions of the day had risen up, dosed with useless adrenaline and curdled into a bizarre mix. I wanted my tooth back! I felt I would never get used to this vast gap, never adjust. In one of the many, rather lovely conversations I’ve had about teeth over the past week, my adorable editor at Numero Cinq called them ‘little gravestones of mortality’ and boy was he right. I was mourning that tooth, and all the useful tasks it had undertaken so modestly, so silently, and I hadn’t appreciated them at the time. It’s an interesting thing, every time I am forced to observe it, how crazy emotions make us. How entirely dismissive of fact, and reason and reality. Do we understand that enough, I wonder?

Anyhoo. As I read somewhere (I forget) just recently, time heals everything, until it kills us. My life now consists in a long series of hot saltwater washes, six or seven a day for a week, thanks to the severity of the infection. I’ll do anything to keep the gap clean and healthy, though I may end the week also pickled in brine. And of course I do wonder just how long I was incubating that infection for, and it does seem likely that at least some of the illnesses of the year were due to fighting it off. Maybe my sister-in-law’s best possible outcome may yet be a possible outcome. Cross your fingers for me.

And thank you again for all the wonderful comments, and stories and advice that you’ve left on this site and added to my life management manual. They were all extremely helpful!

Ten Brilliant Women Writers You May Not Have Heard Of

Okay so my tooth comes out next Thursday, and I don’t want to think about that, so something completely different. A few weeks ago, I saw a post doing the rounds about 11 Brilliant Female Authors You’ve Never Heard Of, and naturally I was interested. I agreed the authors were brilliant, but I didn’t think they were all that obscure. And of course that got me thinking about the sort of list I might put together on similar lines… The following authors are, I think, less well-known than those on the original list, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have heard of some of them, or indeed read them. Mostly these things depend on geography and how keen you are on female authors!

 

Maryse Condé

I titubaBorn in Guadeloupe in 1937, Condé’s native language is French and that’s what she writes in, but most of her career has been spent in America in academia. Her novels are deeply concerned with gender, race and culture and often they are historical, like my favourite, I, Tituba; Black Witch of Salem. She had a particular interest in the African diaspora, especially in the Caribbean, and everything she writes has a sharp political edge. But saying these things doesn’t really connect with the heart of her writing, which is just so vivid and vibrant. Tituba, for instance, is about a young slave girl who escapes her life of hardship to come to America where she gets mixed up in the Salem witch trials because she is black and her cultural beliefs as well as her medical knowledge, are different to the norm. It’s completely engrossing, but it captures the reader’s mind as well as heart.

 

Madeleine St John

The Essence of the ThingMadeleine St John is an Australian writer who’s been shortlisted for the Booker before (in 1997 for The Essence of the Thing) so she ought to be better known than she is. She seems to have this ability to slide off the radar, despite the wonderfully funny, accessible, sparklingly clever novels she writes. She’s got a most intriguing writing history, having spent eight years trying to write a biography of the spirit medium, Helena Blavatsky, and eventually destroying the manuscript in frustration. She finally turned to writing novels in the early 1990s and was successful but found herself deeply uncomfortable with the publicity that brought, which turned her almost into a recluse. Alas, she is with us no more, having died in 2006, but she leaves behind four wonderful novels (though her will stipulates that none shall ever be translated): The Women in Black, A Pure, Clear Light, The Essence of the Thing, A Stairway to Paradise.

 

Anne Hébert

kamouraskaBorn in Quebec in 1916, Hébert had a terrifically successful career in Canada, winning The Governor General’s Award three times, but doesn’t seem to be particularly well known beyond her native borders. She was an equally brilliant poet and novelist though she had to self-publish a couple of her early works in order to break into the literary scene. In her personal life she lost two people she was close to – her cousin and her sister – in sudden and violent illness and this very much shaped her poetic imagination. My favourite of her novels is Kamouraska, set in the 19th century, in which the female protagonist conspires with her lover, a doctor, to kill her husband. It’s based on a true story which possibly adds to the kick it gives, but it’s the atmosphere of the novel I’ve never forgotten, a sort of intense fever dream that manages nevertheless to ask some tough questions about love and morality.

 

Magda Szabó

izasBalladSzabó was a Hungarian writer whose writing was suppressed during the Stalinist rule from 1949 to 1956. She began her career as a poet, her second book of poetry winning the Baumgarten prize which was taken away from her for political reasons on the day it was awarded. During the years that followed she turned to writing novels and from 1958 until her death in 2007 was a revered literary figure. Her novels are gradually coming back into print in English. The Door, the story of the relationship between a writer and her house cleaner, was shortlisted for a number of prizes and turned into a film. Just recently, Iza’s Ballad was translated into English and published, the touching story of an elderly widow attempting and failing to escape the well-meaning but claustrophobic love of her daughter. Her stories are simple, but the depth of characterisation, the psychological insight and the quality of the writing are amazing.

 

Nina Bawden

the birds on the treesNina Bawden is better known as a children’s writer – Carrie’s War or The Peppermint Pig, anyone? – but she also wrote elegant, austere and psychologically piercing novels, too. Circles of Deceit was shortlisted for the Booker in 1987, and in 2010 The Birds on the Trees made the shortlist for the Lost Man Booker Prize. She had a life that seems marred by tragedy, losing a son to suicide, a daughter who died six months before Nina Bawden died herself, and a second husband killed in a train crash in which she was also badly injured. Yet over her lifetime she wrote 55 books. She’s a writer I would rate as highly as Penelope Mortimer or Elaine Dundy yet she seems to be sliding into obscurity at the moment. Time for an enterprising publisher to bring her work back into print.

 

 

Marie NDiaye

ladivineGiven that NDiaye has  been longlisted for this years International Man Booker with her novel Ladivine, I imagine that her name is much better known than it was a few months or so ago. If you live in France, there’s no doubt you’ll have heard of her. NDiaye is a prodigy, publishing her first novel at the age of 17 and winning the Prix Femina in 2001 for Rosie Carpe and the Prix Goncourt in 2009 for Three Strong Women. Her father is Senegalese (and he returned there when she was a baby, leaving her to be brought up by her mother) and one of her concerns is the situation of immigrants in metropolitan Paris, though she writes essentially about identity in the broadest sense. In her most recent novel, the female protagonist’s problems all arise because she can’t bear to admit that her mother was a poor, black housekeeper, and instead claims she is an orphan. My favourite of her novels is Rosie Carpe, though it won’t be to everyone’s taste. NDiaye had a strong interest in a delicate kind of magical realism (not a bit like the Latin American version – you’d have to read her to see why) and I find her novels completely entrancing.

 

Janice Galloway

this is not about meScottish writer, Janice Galloway, is – or at least was in her first three novels – what you might call an experimental or innovative writer. This gives some authors a bad name, like they might be pretentious. But Galloway’s down-to-earth female characters are anything but that. Her first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, is a funny and terrifying account of a descent into mental illness, and that doesn’t sound too appealing either. But if you like Ali Smith, and you get that sharp-edged, black-humoured, rigorous and yet musical Scottish style, you’ll love her. Galloway’s recent volumes of memoir, This Is Not About Me and All  Made Up are excellent places for cautious readers to begin, and I urge you to try her because she has a wonderful voice.

 

Paula Fox

desperate charactersPaula Fox has reached the grand age of 92, which is long enough on the earth to have a great career, get forgotten and then be revived again. She was a highly successful children’s author, but I know her from her novel, Desperate Characters and her memoir, Borrowed Finery. Fox was abandoned at birth by her mother and put in a foundling home. Rescued by her grandmother who couldn’t look after her, she was placed in a series of households, the first belonging to a kindly Reverend who gave her a decent start in life. She worked as a teacher and a mentor for troubled youngsters, so no wonder she went on to write children’s literature, though she was in her 40s before she began to write seriously.  She was also writing novels with mixed success; these were all critically acclaimed but sold poorly. Goodness only knows why, for she’s an amazing writer. In 2011 she was placed in the New York State Writers’ Hall of Fame, and thanks to being championed by Jonathan Franzen, some of her work is now being reissued.

 

Willa Cather

DeathComesNow if you live in America, Willa Cather is going to be a very familiar name to you. However, I don’t think her works have ever become truly widely known outside of the States. And this is madness, because Cather is completely brilliant, probably my favourite prose stylist of all (okay, maybe tied with Colette). She is best known for her ‘prairie novels’, O Pioneers! and My Antonia, but I much prefer the run of novels that followed: Death Comes for the Archbishop, My Mortal Enemy, The Professor’s House, A Lost Lady. Cather really hit her stride in mid-career, and may have continued writing brilliantly right up to her death if critical opinion hadn’t turned against her, something that upset her deeply. Critics have a lot to answer for, in fact, as her work was taken up again by the feminists after her death (Cather was known for cross-dressing and having only significant female friends) and sort of mutilated once again, stuck under yet another label that narrowed her literary accomplishment. If you haven’t ever read her, pick up her novels. She is outstanding.

 

Jane Gardam

crusoe's daughterAnother name that will be very familiar to some, Gardam is a British writer whose recent trilogy of novels, Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends have definitely had some critical and commercial recognition. But Gardam has been writing for donkey’s years, and the novels from the early part of her career are every bit as wonderful and worth your time. I remember reading Bilgewater in my early 20s when it was one of the first coming-of-age novels I’d come across and being hugely impressed by it. She began writing in her 40s when her children had grown up enough for her to have time to herself, and from that moment on she was highly prolific. She is the only writer to have won the Whitbread Prize for best novel twice – for The Hollow Land in 1981 and Queen of the Tambourine in 1991. She was shortlisted for the Booker in 1978 for God on the Rocks. And yet despite the critical acclaim, I don’t think she is as well-known as she deserves to be. It’s like her zenith has passed, but that would be premature; start with Old Filth or Crusoe’s Daughter if you’ve never read her before.

 

And feel free to mention any other brilliant women writers who you think should be better known!

 

 

 

And After Another Long, Unexplained Absence…

The new edition of Shiny is out! – but you probably already know this, as we went live last Thursday and I am only now managing to produce a blog post.

SNB-logoAnd why is this, I hear you cry? Well, let me give you the details.

Casualties so far in 2016

Mr Litlove

Trapped nerve in shoulder.

Throat infection.

Monster cold from family party at Easter.

 

Litlove

Uveitis in eye followed by WEEKS of chronic eye strain.

Cystitis once.

Cystitis twice.

Yeast infection from antibiotics.

Mr Litlove’s cold – though I caught this mildly and it is negligible in the scheme of things.

Abscess in tooth, resulting in more antibiotics and the prospect of an unpleasant trip to the dentist.

 

This last one was the worst. I came home and wailed that this was AWFUL. I’d barely got past the last batch of antibiotics and now I had another and the supremely dreadful choice between root canal work or extraction.

‘But this is great!’ said Mr Litlove. ‘You’ve got something definite and it has a name and they know how to fix it.’

Well, I’ve had a good run at health issues with names so far this year and frankly, you can keep them. I’ll take my nebulous chronic fatigue any day, which usually leaves me safe in my own home and without the need for medical intervention. Ten to one I’ll have the tooth extracted, as it’s been nothing but trouble since I concussed the nerve and the root canal work may well not be entirely successful. My mother assured me most comfortingly that an extraction is the sort of thing that’s worse in anticipation than in actuality and it ought at least to be quick. The dentist did warn me I wouldn’t be able to chew so well on that side of my mouth, but I pointed out I hadn’t chewed on it for the past two and a half years anyway. So. Now I just have to hope the antibiotics work (they are working, just more slowly than I’d hoped) and that I can avoid a second yeast infection. Sigh.

It’s been kind of Mr Litlove to keep me company in ill health. We were sitting on the sofa, staring at the walls not that long ago and he said: ‘We ought to be living the dream. We have an idyllic lifestyle and all we’ve done so far this year is be ill.’ ‘Tell me about it!’ I said. We are as usual oddly opposite. Mr Litlove is someone who can’t be ill quietly; there is never any need to ask him what the matter is. Whereas I get more still and more silent the worse I feel. He said he found himself wondering at one point if he’d caught chronic fatigue from me (I thought it was a bit late in the day for contagion) or whether we should have the house checked for poisonous gasses. I can understand Mr Litlove’s chain of events easily – he’s in the middle of a huge life change after all, which is tiring, and he got the throat bug from going back and forth to the doctors for me, and then his cold from a family party where it was rampant. He thinks that my run of illnesses have been provoked by fighting off this abscess for a while, and the dentist did warn me the swelling probably wouldn’t go down completely because of the scar tissue, since it had been there some time. I don’t know. I like it as a theory and wish it were true, which means I distrust it. What if this is just all about my heading-towards-fifty-hormones? What if this is the new reality?

On a more positive note, I have recently been able to read a bit again – up to two hours a day if I take plenty of breaks to rest my eyes. Which was absolute bliss after such a long, long drought. Before that I’d been forced to entertain myself with Woody Allen-esque scenarios in which I imagined travelling around the different departments of my body. So I might visit my brain to find the operatives bored and cranky, complaining there’s not enough to do. To which I would point out that the place is in a mess, half the cooling fans have burnt out, there’s litter everywhere, a good clean would make a lot of difference, etc. But they tell me that it’s no use, they can’t get any help from Maintenance. So I then visit Maintenance, where they suck in air through their teeth and say it’s a difficult time and what with all the recent problems, resources are low, maybe if they could get more supplies…? So I go to Accounts and Distribution, who are up in arms; they really need more nutrient income but they keep being ram-raided by that criminal, Stress, who makes off with all the good stuff the moment it’s delivered… And just recently I had a little fun with antibiotic ninjas storming the besieged Northern Gum Territories.

Well, you have to find amusement wherever you can.

This is true more than usual this week as Mr Litlove, now pretty much fully recovered from his cold, has gone away to Devon for a chair-making course. We’d agreed much earlier in the year that he’d go alone as a five-hour car trip is well outside my comfort zone at the moment, and normally I don’t mind a week on my own to watch what I like on telly and eat chicken risotto every night. But he’s only been gone an hour and I am missing him dreadfully. I think I’m a little lower in spirits than usual, what with this run of illnesses. But hey, I’ve hardly read any of the reviews in this edition of Shiny – and I must mention the kindness and understanding of the other eds, which has stretched beyond the pale this year! – and I’ve been feeling too rough even to look at what’s going on in the blogworld lately, so I could catch up. And I can make myself chicken risotto and watch an old movie I’ve watched so many times that I don’t need to strain my eyes on it (and I prefer rewatching movies to seeing them for the first time). And I have Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Solitary Summer by my side to read a few pages at a time, because there was a woman who really knew how to make the most of time alone. So I will do my very best to avoid a pity party.

If you happen to stop by, tell me what you are doing this week. I’d love to know!

 

 

In A New Light

So, I have my new reading glasses.

They are quite nice though the thicker arms, which I can catch out the corner of my eye, make me think I’ve left the price tag on. I went to the opticians on Friday afternoon to pick them up, and whether it was the effect of being able to see more clearly or not, I noticed that all the assistants seem to be getting younger and younger. I was assisted by a charming young man of about twelve, who put the glasses on me and said ‘They look lovely!’ So I liked him instantly.

Then he gave me the card with all the tiny fonts on it and asked if I could read one in about the middle of the page.

Yes, I could.

And could I read the sentence two lines down?

Yes, surprisingly enough, I could.

And what about the smallest line at the very bottom?

YES, I COULD!!! And then I said to him, ‘At my age, young man, this is what constitutes real excitement.’

In the subsequent excitement, I managed to snap the flesh of my little finger between the particularly ferocious jaws of my new glasses case, so I kind of tuned out of the next things he said, though I kept smiling brightly. If he told me these glasses self-destruct in the rain, or something, I’m in trouble. But then we were pretty much done. As I was leaving, I swear to you these were the exact words he said: ‘If you need the screws tightened, or you’d like them cleaned, or if you just fancy a chat, do come in and see us. Use us and abuse us, that’s what we’re here for.’ I thought this was very funny, but I also thought it fair to warn him he should be more careful what he offered me. I might pop in and get them to read me a chapter of a book, for instance. It could happen.

So now I own reading glasses and a whole world of gesture has opened up before me. Now I understand why people go around with glasses on top of their heads. And why you find glasses sitting upside down on all manner of coffee tables and desks. And why people peer at you over the top of the frames. It’s because you can ONLY look at small type with them, and everything else is lost in a misty blur. Okay! I get it! I really did need reading glasses, it turned out, because now I recognise how out of focus most close-range type was. Have they helped with my sensitive eyes? Hmmm, well, not yet, but I hope over time they will. In the meantime, my eyes remain stupidly over-reactive to either concentration or light, becoming more bloodshot in the space of twenty minutes or so (at which point I don’t like to push it and usually give up – and they calm down again). I don’t suppose anybody else out there has had an issue like this? I doubt it. I regularly defy medical science and chronic fatigue is the weird and innovative gift that keeps on giving. But it’s getting easier to see the telly, that’s certainly less trouble than it was, and some days the computer is a bit easier too.

Talking of people who may need to alter their glasses, I found Mr Litlove peering at the spine of a review book I’d recently received, trying to read the title. The title was actually Superabundance, though I admit it wasn’t easy to make out. ‘What’s it called?’ Mr Litlove asked. ‘Super-bunny-dance?’ Once I had finally finished laughing, I put him right. But imagine my surprise when, a few days later, another book arrived, this one a collection of essays by Annie Dillard called The Abundance. ‘Oh look,’ said Mr Litlove, standing at my shoulder. ‘More bunnies dancing.’  I am intrigued to see what will arrive next. Will other animals be allowed to join the party? I will let you know!