The Penguin Rocker and More Books

I have been very remiss in not showing you a photo of the chair Mr Litlove made me for my birthday. Yes, I know what you are thinking: how many more chairs can be deemed anniversary gifts before there is no more room in the house? A very good question, my friends. The answer: not many.

But in the meantime, I’ve always wanted a rocking chair and now I have one. We’ve been unofficially calling it the penguin chair because it just has that flippered look about it. One misconception I’ve been harboring about rocking chairs is that they have their own momentum. Well, they sort of do, but the experience is akin to being on a garden swing. You need to put a little kinetic energy in to keep going. I do think it’s the perfect chair for listening to audio books. I can’t knit as an accompanying activity, so that option is out of the question, but I can steeple my fingers and nod wisely with the best of them.

Now, some more books and let’s plunge into controversy with Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Cather is one of my all-time favourite authors, and at the start of the year I had a re-reading session with her novels. I read The Professor’s House and A Lost Lady again, which are both flawless masterpieces to me. Sapphira is Cather’s last novel, published in 1940 when she was tired and bitter, nostalgic for the past, horrified by the war in Europe and suffering a chronic wrist injury that prevented her from writing in comfort. Maybe for these reasons it’s a darker novel than many, although Cather never loses touch with the beauty of nature and the innate potential for compassion in her characters. It’s set in Virginia way back in the 1850s and concerns the household of local mill owner, Henry Colbert. His aristocratic wife came to him at their marriage with black slaves from her homestead, and although Henry is deeply uncomfortable with slavery, he understands that this is how his wife manages domesticity. He can’t upset the apple cart to the extent of turning the slaves free (in 1850, he’s not sure where they’d go), and so his intention is to treat his people with as much generosity and kindness he can muster, and ensure their lives with him are good.

Sapphira’s relationship to her slaves is quite different. Although we understand that she has been, across her lifetime, a good and generous mistress, just lately a few distressing problems have soured her outlook. First of all, Sapphira has recently become crippled with dropsy – extremely swollen ankles – and must deal with both physical restriction and pain. As a lady she bears it stoically, but it’s not helping her temper. Added to the humiliation of bodily woes, she suspects that her pretty black maid, Nancy, is having an affair with her husband. Now, no such thing is taking place. Henry admires Nancy and he has respect for the attention she brings to her chores. There may be something a tad guilty lurking in the back of his mind, which is why he can’t bring himself to act when he realises a serious problem exists between the women. But Henry isn’t much of an instigator at the best of times. So, lack of communication between husband and wife is consolidated by Sapphira’s jealous mind with suspicion, and the indignity and embarrassment of encroaching old age. Not content with chiding and scolding Nancy and smacking her with a hairbrush at the least opportunity, Sapphira decides to act out in a far worse way.

She contacts the family rake and invites him for a lovely long stay. Naturally, said rake finds Nancy extremely alluring and, since she’s a slave and readily available to him, he’s determined to satisfy his lust. Poor Nancy is in a terrible position. If she becomes pregnant she’ll be thrown out, but how can she avoid the unwelcome attentions of an arrogant, entitled white master? Well, as it turns out, Sapphira and Henry have a daughter, Rachel Blake, and Rachel can’t abide slavery:

It was the owning that was wrong, the relation itself, no matter how convenient or agreeable it might be for master or servant. She had always known it was wrong. It was the thing that made her unhappy at home and came between her and her mother. How she hated her mother’s voice in sarcastic reprimand to the servants! And she hated it in contemptuous indulgence.

Rachel sets out to help Nancy, only it will come at a heavy price for her.

Now here we run into the controversy. This seems to me to be a pretty enlightened tale for 1940, and it would be a humanitarian miracle for 1850. But the criticism that I’ve read of it says it’s still not good enough for the new millennium. The thrust of the story is entirely about the awful consequences that can occur when some people believe they have absolute power over others. But in the general areas of the narrative, there’s enough to offend the sensibilities of some. The term ‘darkies’ is used occasionally. When the slaves are all finally freed, one goes to the bad, which I’ve seen stated as cause for concern. There’s a general sense of the primitive in the descriptions of the servants. I suppose if you have delicate sensitivities in this area, then maybe it’s better to read something else. But it seems to me that if you open a newspaper,  there are far worse examples of racism to be had in the world today than in this book. If you’re okay with historical fiction and its vicissitudes, then it’s worth reading. Myself, I’d rather not miss out on the message that even good people can be corrupted by a fatal combination of misguided entitlement and their own insecurities. In fact, it seems to me vital that such a message be heard right here and now. It seems essential to me to read books like this, flaws and all, to see how much has changed, and how little.

Well I have wittered on so long that once again I’ve used up my thousand words with many more books still to be discussed. Hope to come visiting you all soon, too, and see what you’ve been reading.

Agent Hunter and other stories

So, where were we? Ah yes, we had finished the Barbara Pym part of the narrative concerning Mr Litlove and we were moving onto the Stephen King part of the narrative that involves me.

But first! Let me tell you about Agent Hunter. You may recall before Christmas I mentioned a novel I was thinking of selling, and I probably grumbled about the selling part because it’s so not fun. Any of my blog friends who’ve been around since I started blogging may remember that we’ve been here before. Back in 2008 I started working with an agent on non-fiction ideas. Now she was a lovely agent and I very much liked her; the problem was a cultural one. I was still theoretically teaching French (though on sick leave) and undoubtedly my mindset was very academic. I just could not put a proposal together that sounded the way the agent wanted it to sound. She even sent me a proposal under cover of darkness that she thought was a good one and between you and me, I didn’t think much of it. It was very vague, very unstructured and by this point I was beginning to feel as if I really ought to write something rather than plan endlessly to write something. We drifted our separate ways, with no hard feelings but I didn’t feel much the wiser about the commercial world.

The thing about working with an agent is that it’s a very, very strange relationship. When you start to write commercially an agent is presented as the Holy Grail. Find an agent, we are told, and then you have someone who believes in your work and who will sell it tirelessly to big name publishers like Penguin and Bloomsbury. And because the ratio of literary agents to people who have written a book is atrocious, the odds of getting an agent are slim. So, even more frenzy is whipped up. It’s impossible! But you must do it! And when you do you will be validated forever!

Ah well, life is never like the movies. I had a very nice agent. She liked my writing well enough and I liked her, but we couldn’t make it work. This is because having an agent is a lot like marrying a virtual stranger with whom you’ve shared a couple of internet dates.  The splicing together of agent and writer is such a high pressure, hardscrabble affair that you never get to know the really important things about one another until it’s too late. Then of course the commercial publishing world is such a viper’s nest that every new book becomes another hurdle in the agent/writer alliance. Most of the authors I know seem to spend their time switching agents.

Anyhow, I digress. When I began looking for an agent again, I have to admit that my heart wasn’t much in it, my confidence was low and my desire to trawl through the internet even lower. So when I saw that a site called Agent Hunter was offering a trial period for an honest review, I gratefully signed up. And thank goodness I did. This site is fab. You can search it for agents who are actively looking to build up their client list; you can search for publishers who don’t require an agent at all. When you find an agent there are often a lot of helpful interviews included that tell you what the agent is looking for. I’ll pass on the information right now that the vast majority want a chilling psychological thriller with a great twist. This makes my heart sink, but never mind, we’ve established that I’m jaded. The point is that in half an hour of my time I had a list of seven possible candidates with notes about their specific requirements in terms of submission materials. Sorted!

And then, not quite. Oh dear friends, I have been up and down the streets and around the houses with this question of an agent. As good as the Agent Hunter site is, it does not have a search criteria for agents who are willing to take on the medically challenged. And I keep imagining scenarios in which I have to explain that no, I cannot charge up and down the country giving author events, and no, I cannot turn my galley proofs around in 24 hours after six months of waiting for them because the editorial department has mysteriously got behindhand. In the wild dating world of the agent, I am not at all an enticing proposition as a go anywhere, do anything kind o’ gal. I’m more your refuse everything kind o’ gal.

I had an okay January, and it was definitely a busy one. Part of it involved doing interviews for an article  with friends of mine, one a poet, one a painter, about their different kinds of creativity. This was a lovely experience with two incredibly talented women. And then we were more booked up socially than usual. Towards the end of the month I saw my eye specialist and he was pleased with me; he decided I should try to come off the medication. I skipped out of the surgery… and then found myself straight back in it a week later, with keratitis back in one eye and a stye in the other. I’d never had a stye before but it didn’t bother me. The second one that came up did. And when I developed a third, all in the same eye, I was distinctly unhappy about it. I sort of had this feeling that CFS would form an unholy alliance with the perimenopause and February was all about that. I asked my eye specialist if hormonal imbalance could be at the root of the problem and he said, for sure. Apparently changes in hormones can completely alter the chemical composition of your tear film – hence the ongoing mayhem. By this point I also had a mouthful of ulcers, sciatica and a lovely new symptom involving muscle spasms and twitches up my diaphragm and esophagus. Think that’s nothing to do with perimenopause? I found this very interesting article that did make me feel better, in a dispirited kind of way. There was much in it that made sense to me, not least because I’ve always felt that my own brand of CFS has a lot to do with my hormones.

When I hit menopause I can go get myself some lovely HRT and feel better. But until that point, which may be a couple of years off… Well, extreme forms of dating are not very appealing. When I laid this problem out to my friend the painter, she was wonderfully clear sighted about it. She reminded me that I was selling the book, not myself, and that if anyone wanted the book, then they’d have to take its owner no matter what state she was in. ‘Litlove,’ she said, ‘we are just too old to be anything other than totally honest about the people we are.’ Which I absolutely agreed with. I think a lot of my problem here is that I did SO MUCH hoop-jumping in the Cambridge University years that my spring is sprung. I do believe we all have a hoop-jumping quota in our internal systems and once it’s exhausted, there’s no going back. And then she said that maybe the book deserved a chance to have its own life as an artwork. Oh, she is one clever woman.

So I am still just about in the game, though I promise faithfully that this is the last time I will mention this book as it’s a tedious topic. But I did promise Agent Hunter their review and it really is an extremely helpful site that I would like to recommend. Next time, I’ll talk about the books I’ve been listening to.

 

 

Watch Me Turning That New Blogging Leaf

These past few weeks, I’ve made a new friend. It so happened that, in an idle moment in the weeks running up to Christmas, I clicked on one of those advertising links online that offered me a free in-depth tarot card reading. The reading I received surprised me by being more generous and detailed than I had expected. And since that day, the tarot reader has sent me regular emails, once or even twice a day, offering me limited edition fortune-telling goods of dubious nature, and never failing to inform me of challenges and opportunities on the horizon. I get a daily prediction addressed to ‘Dearest Litlove’, and at the end she always reminds me that she wants the very best for me, and will be delighted to help me out with any dilemma I should encounter. All of January, she has been a more than constant fixture in my relatively empty inbox.

‘You do realise you’re talking to a computer, don’t you?’ Mr Litlove asks me.

‘Surely not,’ I say. ‘I think she really likes me.’

Here’s a general rule of the universe: your inbox will never be more of a wasteland than when you are waiting for emails. At the end of last year I embarked on the wearyingly tedious business of finding a literary agent (or making an attempt at it). I have a novel I’m trying to sell, and I’ve got the novel itself with various friends, and the submission materials with various agents and the result is that now, no one  writes to me. I think it’s going to be a pretty quiet year.

Mr Litlove has also had a quiet start to the year, though for slightly different reasons. He took a fortnight off for the festive season which was very pleasant for both of us. The first I knew about it was the week before Christmas when we were in the car together, headed into town after my first time of asking. ‘You’re being unusually amenable,’ I remarked. ‘Are you feeling okay?’ But as with all pleasant episodes, the end is mired in denial and obstinacy. Mr Litlove is supposed to be making a rocking chair (and I can’t tell you how delighted I am to have a rocking chair in prospect; I’ve long wanted one). But even with my very limited knowledge I can see that drawing the design is not easy. Much procrastination has followed, with Mr L. succumbing to rocking chair fear, and that’s totally a thing. He came into the study the other day, saying ‘Can we have a meeting? I used to have end-to-end meetings all day when I was at work and didn’t feel like doing anything.’ I’d rather staple gun memos to my forehead than have a meeting, and alas, his earlier suggestion of having a works Christmas party for the two of us fell on similarly stony ground. My heart does go out to him. It’s hard to procrastinate with goal-oriented introverts.

Where he can and does get me, though, is in the long-running row debate we are having over the news. For once I have to congratulate President-Elect Trump on providing a story that we can both of us enjoy. Not only an entertaining story, I understand today, but a story so like an old generic spy thriller that the very happy estate of one deceased author has actually brought forth the book with the exact same Russian blackmail plot (cue reprint, I imagine). Anyhow, I digress. Mr Litlove is a news hound. Every day he gets up and reads The Guardian and The Telegraph on his phone for 2-3 hours with Radio 4 playing in the background. In my world, if I did that much reading, it would be called research and it would be intended for a specific project. But the real problem arises between us because I take a very skeptical position in relation to the news. I scarcely believe one partisan word of it. And I am deeply unimpressed with Radio 4’s coverage, especially on the Today programme, which takes a ludicrously adversarial position towards any and every subject, with grumpy, negative, argumentative people intent on making sure all possible arguments are heard regardless of whether those arguments have any value or not. In short, it drives me nuts.

But that doesn’t stop Mr Litlove from inflicting it on me, and so I feel that he should be made aware of the rules in my world. In academia, you can’t put forward an argument unless it is a) fully backed up with evidence, b) grounded by sources whose authority you can prove, c) ready to challenge its own stance because nothing is black or white, it’s always more complex than it first appears, d) ready to show the gaps in its knowledge, or the questions that remain unanswered but eschewing all speculation and unsubstantiated claims and e) acknowledging that stories and arguments are powerfully distorting because they assume shapes that reality does not have, and this must be taken into account. Oh, and there has to be a clear understanding of what’s important and what is not. Doesn’t sound much like the news, does it?

In all fairness, the only decent programme I’ve ever heard on Radio 4 was broadcast last week. It was a meditation on the supposedly post-truth world that we live in. And its conclusion was that we don’t live in a post-truth world, but we do live in a world where the sources of information we trust are deeply polarised. It made the excellent point that to believe anything, it must come from a source – be it person or authority – that we trust, and fit into the framework of knowledge that we accept. So, in other words, if you want to persuade a Christian religious fundamentalist of climate change, throwing more scientists and scientific data at the problem is going to have a counter effect. It’s a bit like saying, if you want to convince Spanish people of something, you can’t go in talking German. So if we apply this thinking to our household problem with the news, the media are going to have to produce arguments more like those I consider to be useful and accurate, if I’m to believe them. But given Mr Litlove is already fully on board with the media, he will resist all criticism (and he does) to the hilt.

As so the individual family mirrors the wider world. We all have radically different sources we trust. But we live in a culture in which all those different voices, all those different opinions are considered to have truth value. How on earth are we going to agree on anything?

Still, if I argue with Mr Litlove for long enough, it does finally make the workshop look more tempting to him….

Glad Tidings (For Those Fed Up Of The News)

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I imagine most people are looking forward to some festive holidays of one kind or another. And probably looking forward to the end of this year as well; 2016’s been quite the curve ball, hasn’t it? I’m tempted to take it back and see if I can get a refund. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, I hope you are feeling as peaceful as this beautiful illustration by P. J. Lynch.

j_toomey_city

One thing I wanted to share with you that gladdened my heart a few weeks ago was an article in the CAM magazine that comes to alumni of Cambridge University. There’s a modest, one-page piece by Professor Simon Goldhill right at the back that talks about the group of academics and policy makers from the Middle East whom he convenes three times a year for two intensive days of debate. These people cannot meet on their own territories for all kinds of political reasons. But they come to the neutral city of Cambridge to discuss basic, pragmatic issues like civic infrastructure over the entire region of the Middle East. This is an extract from the article:

The debates are riveting – and properly collaborative. A young female colleague who grew up in Jenin was holding forth about how the United Nations’ plan to widen the streets in the camp was seen as a plot to bring in tanks. Another participant interrupted: “You had better blame me, then,” he said, “I drew up those laws. But that wasn’t their idea…”. The Palestinian instead of holding forth had to speak to the actual person who wrote the regulations – and the regulator had to face the recipient of his rules on the ground. Both learned from the exchange. Both had to recalibrate. The hope is that slowly such exchanges will eventually produce material that will change other people’s minds, too.

I thought this was uplifting in so many different ways. An excellent idea, brilliantly executed, safe, sensible and progressive. We don’t hear enough about the people out there in the world working with intelligence and insight to solve the problems that seem so threatening.

And I thought it was timely to remember that the media would not consider this to be newsworthy. It isn’t an emotionally manipulative, sensationalized, negative, fear-inducing piece of propaganda. Because that’s all the news delivers. The media keeps us in a state of anxiety, craving the next terrible thing they can tell us, the thing that proves yet again that everyone in authority is stupid, ignoring all the obvious solutions that seem so obvious to us. That’s simply a perspective on reality that the media creates; it isn’t reality. How many people, I wonder, are out there involved in properly helpful initiatives, like the one above at Cambridge? How many people are quietly going about their important work, far from the spotlight, unbeknownst to us all?

Lots of people. Lots and lots of them. We’ll just never hear about them.

But I was very grateful to Simon Goldhill when I read about his work, so grateful for the hope that work like his brings. Isn’t it time we reconsidered what constitutes the news?