While I’ve Been Away…

‘Don’t you think that forty-eight is a good age,’ Mr Litlove began conversationally, ‘to start a jewellery collection?’

We were in town shortly before his birthday and we both knew my reason to be there was to shop for that event. Mr Litlove has always loved a fair bit of hoopla around his birthday. In previous years my wall calendar has been defaced with messages over the start of February that read ‘take out bank loan to buy Mr Litlove’s presents!’ and then later in the month, ‘do you have enough presents yet?’ and ‘don’t forget the cake!’ This mention of jewellery was a nonsense though, from a man who’d needed much persuasion to wear a wedding ring. Still, I was happy to play the game.

‘Shall I get you a big chunky gold necklace?’ I asked. ‘Or maybe a bracelet?’

‘These could be my Mr T. years!’ he declared. ‘I could be the white Mr T. I could wear a lot of gold, get myself a mohawk…’ he sighed happily. ‘The things you can do when you don’t have a job.’

‘But you do still have a wife,’ I pointed out. ‘At the moment.’

Mr Litlove thought that this was a consideration, when it came to jewellery and mohawks.

Oh my dear readers, it has been a while since I’ve posted here, but as you can see, not much has changed in the meantime. We are as foolish as ever. I have had every test known to the human eyeballs and mine are perfectly healthy, which is excellent news. I think gradually they are recovering from what has felt like weeks of eye strain. I’ve been prescribed reading glasses, which I’m really hoping will work a little miracle. Even if, well, reading glasses! And blue-tinted ones at that, to make it easy to look at the computer screen. But if it means I can read again, then so be it.

In the meantime, thank goodness for audio books. I’d just cancelled my Audible subscription when this happened, as I had a whole bunch of books on my ipod that I hadn’t listened to. There had been a sale, and I’d stocked up on three Agatha Christies, which were perfect convalescent material. I also loved Back When We Were Grown-Ups by Anne Tyler, Enigma by Robert Harris and Hot Water by P. G. Wodehouse (glorious foolishness). After that, though, I stalled in The Great Gatsby and The House of Mirth. Who knew that those beautiful, elegant sentences of Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton could end up sounding cumbersome when read aloud? And beyond those books, lay the mammoth forty hours of Can You Forgive Her? and the even more whopping fifty hours of The Count of Monte Cristo. Both of which I had bought in sales (the Count a mere £2.50). I may have been overly concerned about value for money.

Anyway, I happened to be in the bath when there was a knock on the front door and, a little while afterwards, the sound of something being pushed through the cat flap in the back door. I thought it was just the post, as my postman has devised this method of delivering books when I’m out. However, when I got downstairs, I found a big pile of books on CD – The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Simon Mawer, The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, Deaf Sentence by David Lodge…. eight novels altogether. I was in awe. Who had pushed these goodies into my figurative lap? I wondered if it could possibly be the postman. He’s a bit of a local hero, having made the paper over Christmas for rescuing a woman’s cat after it was involved in a hit and run. And I see a fair bit of him because… well, for the reason you probably all know your postman quite well too! He’d been very sweet and sympathetic about my incapacitated state and I imagined it might be the sort of thing he’d do. But magnificent though my postman is, I somehow couldn’t imagine him knowing who Barbara Kingsolver was, and that I’d like her novels. Then when I checked my emails later in the day, there was one from my lovely friend, Rosy Thornton, who hadn’t been able to bear the thought of me unable to read and so had lent me her collection. What a darling! Since then I’ve been alternating The Girl Who Fell From The Sky (very good indeed) with the last of my own audio books, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (also excellent).

Mr Litlove is getting on well with his furniture making. I went for a haircut and procured him another commission – a coffee table for the hairdressing salon. He did have one tragic accident, though, when he dropped his smart phone and the glass cracked on the garage floor. This also happened on the same day that he popped the bag in his vacuum press – it was just one of those days. Although now I think about it, today he put his foot through the knee of his new birthday overalls. It’s no wonder I have nightmares about health and safety. Fortunately, the overalls were very cheap so whilst we hope my mother can perform a miracle with her needle, I could always buy him a new pair.  (They were so cheap that when we were looking online I offered to buy him the matching underwear to go with them, but he declined.)

If you get a chance, do let me know how you are in the comments. I absolutely loved the comments on the post about the menopause. Really, you are the funniest, cleverest and kindest readers in the blogosphere. But I’ve been away for a while.

 

New Year, New Us

This year I am determined I am actually going to make some changes. Every year it’s the same old resolutions and every year the default setting quietly settles back into place. And it’s understandable when the past three years have been fraught with violent upheaval. I find myself sort of annoyed at the universe for having given us such a persistent diet of unexpected changes, though in all honesty I suppose they were heading our way for a long time in each case. Anyway, it would be nice to focus just on the changes I actually choose, rather than those that have been forced upon us.

The first thing I really want to change is my tendency to book myself up with work and deadlines for months ahead. It’s an old bad habit and I’m tired of it. That means I’ll be cutting right back on reviews. I’ll do a few for Shiny (BookBuzz remains my prime responsibility) and I have a couple outstanding for this month. After that, enough for the time being. So this blog is also getting a shake-up as I’ll be writing here once a weekend and it will be more of a diary format. Given that my activities, such as they are, mostly include reading, there will still be some talk about books.

My related resolution is that I am going to try not to buy any books this year. No, Mr Litlove doesn’t believe I can do it either. And I might not be able to. But shortly before Christmas I began to tot up how many unread books I own and… well, let’s say it’s enough to keep me busy for a while. For years I’ve been a big supporter of the publishing industry, but I think it’s fair enough to let others take on that role while we have no income.

Last year was somewhat hogged by CFS, but the long-term resting strategy that I’ve been following since the autumn is gradually making a difference, I think. If I can keep going with the pacing, and stay patient, I might be able to improve my health significantly. And if I could work again, I have to wonder what I would do. Supposedly, since I left college in 2012 I’ve been devoting myself to writing, but then the past three years happened, and I haven’t had a decent stab at it. So my plan is to give it one last try, one more year, and if at the end of that I haven’t made any progress, then it’s time to think again. I’ve been considering finding part-time work as a counsellor of some kind, probably working with students one way or another. I have lots of experience but no qualifications, and the qualifications are really expensive to get and will mean going over ground I’m very familiar with. Well, we’ll see; it’s a way off yet. But when I think about what motivates me, I realise I have no desire to be an important person, but I really do want to do something that I think is important. I would like to feel useful again.

One way that I can be useful at the moment is supporting Mr Litlove. This is such an enormous change for him, leaving 25 years of life in industry behind to make furniture. This past week he has had a number of moments of – well, I think the technical term here is ‘wobbliness’. I thought back to when I was made redundant from college and what I remember most clearly is Mr Litlove telling me what a fantastic opportunity it was, and me feeling the most disinclination to write that I had ever felt in my entire life. In many ways, this is the sort of moment that I want most to capture. Because we think that when change comes along, or indeed when we try to be creative, it should all be plain sailing. We’ll make progress like people do in the films, when they show that five-minute training montage. But human nature is contrary, and it is complex. I think we seriously misunderstand creativity, what it feels like, what it demands of us, and that’s something I’d like to think about in much more depth. I daresay Mr Litlove will feel rueful about it at times, but he seems to have become my private study support student.

So, to sum up, 2016 is all about a sharper focus for me. I need a sturdy triage system and essentially this means that I’m only doing things that are a) important, b) really interesting to me and c) fun. And I’m going to try to give up feeling guilty about everything I don’t do (you would not believe my capacity to feel guilty about anything) – as if it helps! And I’ll try to keep myself honest and up to the mark in a weekly blog. This year I mean business – at least until the next thing happens to throw us off course!

My Experience Is Not Your Experience

I walk into the supermarket. I know exactly where I’m going. I head to the shelves of books for sale and start flicking through them, trying to ignore the glare of the neon lights that fills my peripheral vision. And as I flick through I come to a conclusion: they all sound exactly the same. I call it the deadpan first person present. You know what I mean. Short sentences. The occasional long lyrical one thrown in to prove the author can do it. It’s pitifully easy to write. And quick to read. And I absolutely loathe it.

Gah! Yuck! Awful! Where on earth has it come from and why has it taken over mass market fiction so completely? This year I’ve had a lot of this sort of contemporary fiction sent to me and I’ve found myself increasingly unable to read it. It puts my teeth on edge, like vinyl wallpaper and crepe dress fabric. It’s a very particular and personal response, though, as I’ve never come across anyone else expressing the reservations I feel. After a lot of thought, I realise that what I dislike is the lack of musicality in language like this; which essentially means no affect to the words – no deep-rooted emotion. Oh it says a lot of stuff, and often it’s used in thrillers to talk endlessly about the crisis the female protagonist is going through, but it’s language which is dead behind the eyes.

Well, for me it is. As I was thinking about why I disliked it so, I realised that the world has changed enormously when it comes to reader response. When I read up about it in college, it was stuck in the realm of theory, because no one really knew what readers en masse thought. Nowadays, with millions of blogs and sites like Goodreads we’re awash with the opinions of readers of every shape and size. And what becomes clear is how bizarrely picky we are.

Not long ago, I was at an author event where Sophie Hannah was speaking. She told us about a reader who had come up to her and tackled her about a detail of one of her books. In it, the protagonist had driven a car three weeks after a caesarian section. Given that no one could possibly drive for at least six weeks after such an operation, the woman said, it had put her right off the book. Oh, Sophie Hannah had replied, really? I drove two weeks after mine.

If I ever visit Goodreads, it fills me with terror for the human race, for much the same sort of reaction. I remember reading a review of Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Sisterland on it. The reviewer had had a complete tantrum over the fact that a character engaged in a sexual act fervently wishes her partner would hurry up. Whoever would do such a thing? the reader fumed. How impossibly rude! She had hated the book after that, given up on it and put it aside as a badly written novel. It was an extraordinary response in many ways, not least because the character in the book is committing adultery at the time, and whilst she enters into it willingly, she is assailed by guilt as the scene progresses. All the context for this event had been removed when the reader read the passage; some idiosyncratic trigger had been sprung and irrational but powerful feelings had taken over.

I think to some degree or other, no reader can really escape this sort of reaction. It’s very human – and equally human to blame the book rather than our own crazy emotions. The greatest incidence of such trigger responses seems to be around this issue of likable or sympathetic characters. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read reviews that bewail ‘horrible’ people in books that haven’t struck me as horrible in the least. And I’ve read enough books myself with characters endlessly justifying their behaviors (which annoys me) or responding in ways I think are odd, to know I do the same thing.

What it boils down to is, I think, that understanding my experience is not your experience remains one of the hardest laws of reality that we ever have to get our heads around, right up there with getting the fact that people can only give love in their own fashion, not in the way we might want to receive it. When characters in books react in ways that are alien to us, or in ways we think are wrong, or in ways that awaken old memories of hurts and slights, or in ways that are simply not borne out by our own experience, we become distanced from them. They are – quite literally – not sympathetic any more.

Margaret Heffernan in her brilliant book Wilful Blindness, goes deep into the psychological research around this desire for the familiar. We marry people who are like us, we are friends with people who are like us, we search out views and opinions that confirm our own. And mostly, we hate to think this might be true. ‘Human beings want to feel good about themselves and to feel safe, and being surrounded by familiarity and similarity satisfies those needs very efficiently,’ she writes. In one experiment, subjects were led to believe that they shared a birthday with Rasputin, and subsequently they ‘were far more lenient in judging the mad monk than those who had nothing in common with him.’ Trivialities matter. Since 1998, over 4.5 million people have taken Implicit Association Tests that measure bias, and especially the sort of bias we aren’t conscious of having, the kind that makes white doctors friendlier towards white patients than black ones. No point in being complacent – more than 80 percent of us are biased against the elderly. Nobody comes out of this particularly well, even if, as Heffernan insists, we all want very earnestly not to feel these ways.

Well, our book reviews are pretty clear that we are all full of foibles and prejudices, and that we are pretty hard on fictional characters who don’t match up to the internal yardstick. It’s an intriguing thought that books give us one representation of human nature, and book reviews give us another, more revealing, one. Reading is a trick way of looking into a mirror, because we read in the most private part of our minds, well away from witnesses and onlookers. Stories tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the lives in their pages. And what does my own irrational dislike of some innocent writing style say? I’m not entirely sure. But I do know I still have residual fear towards people whose emotions I can’t read, or who are saying one thing while feeling another. I love reading because stories do go beneath the surface, on the whole, they do show you the whole picture. I think I’m irritated beyond all proportion by stories that don’t have emotional depth, while this currently fashionable style is a way of depicting women in crisis who don’t make the reader feel like they’re ‘whining’ or ‘moaning’, which gets a very bad press. But that’s only my reading of the situation… and we all know that’s just personal.

Today Is Extra Shiny!

SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245I’m particularly excited by today’s Extra Shiny because my section, BookBuzz, is full of all sorts of new and thrilling things.

There’s the discussion for our book club on Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests

There’s an announcement of a poetry competition we’re holding.

There’s brand new YA special features.

There’s an interview with one of the judges on the Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize panel.

And Annabel has given us a new links page.

I don’t think I’ve ever had so much new stuff happening all at once! I think I’m going to lie down in a darkened room for a while, if you don’t mind…but you go on over and have a look.