Making Choices

On Friday I completed what I think will be my last survey for an online market research forum into contemporary books. When I first received the email inviting me to join, I liked the idea of filling in surveys about the books I bought and read. The reality has been surprising, however.

The vast majority of questionnaires have been about supermarket books, the most mass market romance and thrillers to which I don’t pay much attention. The most persistent questions concern the covers and the blurb, as well as the endorsements that feature there. I’m not sure whether I have ever convinced the shadowy forces behind these surveys that I really do not buy books for their covers. And certainly not supermarket books whose covers are far from innovative. Time and again the questions back me into a corner. Of three dull and ordinary covers, which one do I like the best? Reluctantly, I click. And what do I like most about this cover? (Please be as detailed as possible.) I struggle to find a polite way to say: absolutely nothing, but I prefer it to the other two, which I sincerely hate. The survey presses on. Which one of these blurbs makes me most interested in reading the book? Where is the option to say I am not interested in reading this book at all, regardless of blurb or endorsement or cover? In the eighteen months or so that I’ve been responding to these questions, there have only been two surveys about literary books, one of which was about repackaging modern classics for book clubs. The rest of the time I’ve been doing what I thought was impossible – responding to questions about books in which I actually have no interest. It’s not even that I wouldn’t buy a supermarket book from time to time; it’s just that scrutiny of them reveals a sort of painful banality.

Yesterday, in the spirit of Bank Holiday spring cleaning, I decided I would finally tackle the great heap of academic books that came back from my university rooms and which have been lying for almost three years now under a throw. The hope was that they might have the vague appearance of a table, but they have never really looked like anything other than the corpse of my intellectual life. I’ve done a lot of book culling this year, and before storing what I wanted to keep in plastic containers in the loft, I knew I ought to make a serious attempt to reduce their number. When I first took the throw off it was like unveiling a time capsule, packed full of books I had completely forgotten about. I sat back on my heels, thinking how smart I would have been, had I managed to read all of them. The question now was how many to keep, which translated as: how smart did I think I would be in the future? There was an honest answer to that and an idealistic one. Which to choose?

It occurred to me that these two experiences concerned the books at the furthest ends of my reading spectrum. I’ve always really liked reading everything. I’ve never wanted to define myself by being the ‘type of person’ to read only one genre or another, high literature or low. I never wanted the possibility of a book foreclosed to me before I even knew what it was about. When I was a teenager in the 80s, I loved reading Jilly Cooper and Judith Krantz, Susan Howatch and the sort of family saga that reached a zenith with Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles at the start of the 90s. After that, there was a great phase of witty, sharply observed women’s writing, by authors like Kathy Lette, Anna Maxted, Victoria Clayton and Caro Fraser. All the time I was reading these books, I was studying Beauvoir and Proust, Camus and Sartre, Colette and Duras, Hermann Hesse, Kafka, Goethe, Barthes, Freud, Lacan, Nietzsche, Derrida. Why not? As the new millenium approached, I spent an hour a night reading children’s literature to my son and loving that, too. The more the merrier. I loved the feeling of imaginative expansion, all these ways of seeing, all these approaches to storytelling.

But in the past few years something has definitely changed. I suppose it is probably me. I decided with great reluctance to give away the pristine, untouched books I owned by Deleuze and Guattari, philosophers I barely understood when I was at the height of my intellectual curiosity. And I have to say that I don’t like a lot of the mass market fiction that’s currently being written. The Girl on the Train was its epitome (or nadir?) for me – a narcissistic narrator, a silly, overly sensational plot and badly written. It’s that flat, first person present tense narration that I truly hate, all cliché and ultra-conventional emotions laid out as if they were insightful. I find myself much more drawn towards Dorothy Whipple, Angela Thirkell and Barbara Pym for my essential comfort reading, as all three can turn an exquisite and characterful sentence.

In one way it’s sensible to focus in on the authors that I appreciate the most. However much I want to read everything, I don’t have the time for it. And I seem less able to tolerate the styles of writing that displease me; I’m more critical than I used to be, and I’m not at all convinced it’s a good thing. I’ve never thought that the greatest powers of discernment when it came to books had anything to do with value judgement. Instead, I valued elasticity, the ability to look at any book on its own terms, and engage with what it was doing and how it was doing it. But my tastes are narrowing. However much I don’t want to make choices in my reading life, I seem to be making them anyway.

Maybe for that reason, I found I couldn’t give away many of my academic books. Instead I sorted them into different areas of criticism and theory, packed them into storage containers and let Mr Litlove struggle under their vast weight to the loft. In all honesty, I’m not getting any smarter. But I decided I’d keep the hope that one day, it might happen.

 

 

 

 

What We Did On Holiday

Well, we are back, and totting up the credit and debit sheet, Mr Litlove had 100% nice time, and I had an 85% nice time. There’s always something, it seems, that means I arrive back with a chronic fatigue relapse. But that’s much later in the story. For once, I took a camera with me, so given I’m still a little tired, we may be able to let the pictures do the talking.

I told you we were staying at Library Cottage, right. Well, this was it:

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You can see we had big double doors onto a really gorgeous garden, and a huge skylight. The weather was excellent for most of the holiday and lying reading on the sofa with the doors open and the sun streaming in was pretty good. Apparently the current owners bought their house off of a barrister, and this was his work room, hence all the bookcases, which are now crammed with the most intriguing and eclectic mix of books:

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We spent the evenings combing through the selection and reading out loud things that caught our attention. In fact, several evenings in a row, Mr Litlove read to me from Christopher Booker’s enormous tome, The Seven Basic Plots; Why We Tell Stories. The seven basic plots themselves were extremely interesting (tragedy, comedy, rebirth, overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return); the problem came when he started to tackle the past 200 years of story writing, most of which subverted or altered the basic plots in ways that Booker obviously thought were wrong and misguided, a form of cultural neurosis in a way. If you have to diss everything written in the past two centuries, the chances are good that there’s something wrong with the guidelines for judgement! Anyway, it was all very interesting.

On the Sunday we decided to visit a stately home and really we wanted to use our National Trust memberships, which we’ve got for the year. However, the owners suggested we visit the nearest to us, Parham House. This was a lucky break as it was by far and away the most amazing place I saw in the week, and so I was very glad we got to see it together.

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This was the house from the approach – a long winding driveway through gently undulating Sussex grounds. It looked like an oasis and it sort of was.  Inside the rooms were full of the most amazingly beautiful antiques. The house had been bought in 1922 by a wealthy couple who enjoyed collecting; they renovated the place, restoring it to its original condition (the Victorians had papered over the panelling and so on) and then filled it with anything relating to the families who had lived there.

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The Great Hall – full of light from a series of high mullioned windows and cosier than most flagstoned halls.

 

The portraits were particularly astonishing. Mr Litlove kept asking the guides if they’d recently been cleaned, they looked so sharp and colourful:

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The lovely Susan Villiers, looking a lot like Helena Bonham Carter.

In this room, the Green Room, you can just make out a picture of a kangaroo by Stubbs near the corner of the room. Apparently, Sir Joseph Banks brought the kangaroo back as a souvenir of his round the world trip with Captain Cook. Well, he brought back the skin of the kangaroo, and so Stubbs then reinflated it in order to paint the picture. This is perhaps why the kangaroo looks a tad… odd. Mr Litlove liked this story a lot.

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My favourite story of the visit, though, concerned this bed in the Great Chamber:

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It was bought by new (well, new in 1922) owner Clive Pearson for his wife, who was an avid collector of tapestry and embroidery. It was essentially one huge ornament, not intended for sleeping in as it was too precious and delicate for that. The frame dates from Henry VIII’s time and the canopy and bedspread date from c.1585, probably the work of French or Italian craftsmen – because at this point in time such needlework was a valued occupation and was therefore undertaken by men. I overheard the guide telling another visitor this and my first reaction was: of all the cheek! Now I wonder at my reaction and yet… well, okay, I just find that annoying. Mr Litlove said it was no different from male chefs, who had a status that your average cook did not.

And just as we reached the very top of the house, already overwhelmed by all we had seen, we found the Long Gallery, which almost topped the rest.

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But we were a bit sated with beautiful objects by this point and so went out into the gardens. Guess what? They were gorgeous too.

Parham. Sussex. Cool colour borders in summer. Path with view through to dovecote

See more pictures of the gardens at this site here: http://www.gardenvisit.com/garden/parham_house_and_gardens

 

So, that was our Sunday, and on Monday, Mr Litlove went yomping off across the fields to his Windsor chair-making workshop.

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While he was there, I had some more adventures with stately houses and gardens, but we’ll do part 2 another day. That’s enough for now!

 

We Prepare For A Holiday

Yes, the blue moon must have been glimpsed in the sky because Mr Litlove and I are going on holiday again. He is doing another chair making course, this time in a workshop on the edge of the Sussex Downs, and I will be going along for the ride with a box of books. We’re staying in a place called Library Cottage, which should bode well, don’t you think?

In an unexpected twist of fate, the injured member of the party this time is Mr Litlove. Last week he went for a routine eye check up and was sent to the emergency clinic at the hospital. There were some concerns about a thin patch on his retina, though what the upshot of this concern is, we are not entirely sure.

I dropped Mr Litlove off at the clinic at 10.30 in the morning. By 11.30 he had the drops in his eyes to enlarge his pupils and by 12.30 he was finally seen by a doctor. The doctor, however, wasn’t at all sure what she was looking at. ‘I wish your optician had said on the form where the problem is,’ she told him, ‘I can’t see anything wrong.’ Then, having checked the form again, ‘Ah, yes, she did say. Well, the retina’s a big place, you know.’ Once the doctor had located the problem, she still didn’t seem to know what to do with it. Twice she went off searching for a colleague to give a second opinion, and there were no colleagues to be found. ‘Perhaps I should pop you back in the waiting room and see another patient,’ she muttered to herself under her breath, while examining him again. Did she think his condition might deteriorate to the point of certainty within the next half hour? Or was he going to stay there indefinitely?

Towards two o’clock they let him go. The doctor decided he should come back for some treatment and told whoever it is who keeps the appointments diary that it had to be within a fortnight. ‘I’m actually going on holiday the week after next,’ Mr Litlove confessed. And of course there was no appointment to be had in the week ahead. The consultant four doors down was consulted and the message came back, ‘He’s fine, do it when he’s back from holiday.’ The reassurance was nice, Mr Litlove said, and would have been even nicer if the consultant had actually looked at him. But he’s experiencing no symptoms and in fact, he thinks that something similar happened to him four years ago. Only then, the test took place at the opticians and he can’t recall the outcome. Maybe he was supposed to go to the hospital and forgot to make an appointment? Maybe the opticians forgot? But still, if he’s had this for four years at least, it’s unlikely a couple more weeks will make a difference.

When I mentioned this to my mother on the phone, she remembered the same thing happening to my brother. When they next saw each other, she got the full story off of him, and would you believe it, but my brother has been seen twice for thinning of the retina, once 15 years ago, once about four or five years ago. He’s never had any treatment, and hasn’t been able to get out of any doctor how serious this all is. It strikes me as extraordinary, this lack of information that passes between doctor and patient. Why is medical knowledge treated as classified? Is it something to do with doctors being afraid of people sueing them? Or are doctors rarely certain what is going on with a patient?

Sitting in the waiting room without his contact lenses in and thus forced to read his rowing magazine with one eye closed and the paper held an inch from his nose, Mr Litlove said he thought this must be how the NHS runs an efficient service at a low cost. ‘You don’t worry about the patients’ time, but keep them all together so they can be seen when the doctors are ready,’ he said. ‘But your experience wasn’t one of efficiency,’ I told him. ‘How long did the doctor dither over your diagnosis?’ ‘Well I’d rather not have a doctor who is cavalier with my health,’ he replied. ‘I completely agree,’ I said. ‘So wouldn’t it have been good if she could actually have had that second opinion she wanted?’

So, we are going away hoping he’ll be fine, and having been told if he has any strange disturbances of vision we must rush him to the hospital. I have to say I am impressed by my husband’s stoic calm. I do not deal with these sorts of medical issues well. But I’m also quite sure that he’s had whatever he’s had for a long time, just like my brother. I think it’s one of those things that, if you’re unlucky can be problematic, but is most likely not an issue the rest of the time.

Talking of being unlucky, our neighbours who usually feed the cat in our absence are also going away too. So Harvey is headed for the cattery for the first time in his life. It’s an imposition to ask people to come round twice a day to feed him (and even that is a lot less than he’s used to, now he’s an old, querulous, whining cat) but at least we know he can keep his routine and that he’ll be safe if we board him. Harvey has already suffered the great indignity of having to get his shots updated and will not be at all pleased to learn his fate. The other evening, Mr Litlove was checking the cattery out online and was surprised to find they have a facebook page. ‘That’s good,’ he said, ‘Harvey can drop us a line while we’re away, let us know how he’s getting on.’ I could envisage it already: ‘O hai, hoomans. Kamp suks. Git me now.’

And finally, what books am I taking? You’ve been very patient waiting until now to ask. I am taking:

Pleasantville by Attica Locke

Early Warning by Jane Smiley

Alfred Hitchcock by Peter Ackroyd

This Is Not About Me by Janice Galloway

I’m halfway through a thriller that I’ll take too, and then I’ll probably not be able to resist throwing one more book in. I’m thinking either Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (which I am one of the last remaining people on earth not to have read) or Us by David Nicholls. Have a great week next week, and don’t forget to visit our new Extra Shiny, out on May 14th, debuting our book club with Laline Paull’s The Bees – which is now looking like a controversial choice!

A Double Anniversary

SNB-logoYes,  it’s our first year anniversary at Shiny New Books and we’re celebrating with our 5th edition. Please do go over and check out our reviews, features, interviews and articles. Plus, we’ve got a special announcement about our new Shiny Book Club.

And on the 2nd April, this blog marked its 9th anniversary. That’s scary, isn’t it? It doesn’t feel as if nine years have gone past, though a lot has happened, admittedly. Nine years ago, I had just come off work on sick leave from the university, my son’s voice hadn’t even broken, and Mr Litlove was working for a different company. We were all quite different people, I think; there’s been a lot of changing and growing and developing going on here in all that time.

But the main constant – and the loveliest gift of all from blogging – has been the company of many dear virtual friends. So many of you have been visiting here faithfully for years, and I can’t thank you enough for that. And it’s been an extra delight to have good friends from the Reading Room become good friends at Shiny, too.

So a special thank you to Annabel, Harriet, Simon and Bookgazing, who are all on the Shiny Adventure.

And I am so pleased to direct you towards some of the fabulous reviews and articles in our 5th edition by these wonderful people:

Danielle picks us Books for Spring

Jean encourages us toward Reading in Translation

Arti considers the role Stefan Zweig played in Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ingrid interviews American giant of letters, Phillip Lopate

Stefanie reviews Orlando and The Waves

Susan reviews the new Patrick Gale, A Place Called Winter

Denise reviews Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy

Karen reviews The Man In A Hurry by Paul Morand

And now that Shiny no.5 is finally out, I catch up with my email correspondence! If I owe you an email, a thousand apologies – I’ll be writing very soon!