In the Middle of a Heatwave

I’m not sure I can describe what I’m in as a blogging slump when I’ve just finished my 13th review for Shiny and have three more to write over the course of the week. But I’m certainly on my way to being all reviewed out. I’d like to say that I don’t know how I ended up with so many reviews to write, but of course I do. It’s too easy to say yes here and yes there, and over the course of three months, those yeses really build up. And this time around I’ve read quite a few books that were very good but for which I wasn’t exactly the right audience, perhaps. It’s funny how hard it is to tell, even after all these years of intensive reading, which books will fall in the sweet spot. It’s part of the fun of reading, the not knowing, but you can fall foul of it too.

Anyway, I’ve decided to take a break from reviewing on this blog. I’ll still keep talking about books – what else is there to talk about? – but there must be other ways to talk about them. I’ve signed up to write some longer literary pieces for another online journal, Numéro Cinq, and I’m looking forward to that. It’ll be a chance to get arty and complex in a way I haven’t done for a while (I’m wondering if I still know how to, we’ll have to see how it goes). But that’s going to be a big call on my time as well. I’m very conscious, too, that I haven’t left as many comments with my virtual friends as I ought to have done lately. I’ve been reading all your brilliant posts but really, I’m running low on words about books. Or maybe just running low on words.

I know blogging ebbs and flows, and that the best thing to do is go with it. I’ll certainly continue to turn up here at least once a week with some sort of dispatch from the reading life, and I can assure you that the Summer edition of Shiny New Books, out on the 9th July, is going to be fab.

Sisterhood of the World Q & A

The immensely talented and lovely Elle tagged me for this meme, which I was very happy to answer, given that I love the sisterhood. We need to stick together, my female friends.

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  1. What’s the best trait you’ve inherited from your parents?

I was going to say my work ethic, but thinking about it, my parents passed on their desire to be very supportive of family and friends and that’s probably worth more angel points.

 

  1. What fictional world would you live in if you could, and what character or position would you occupy within it.

I’d like to live in St Mary’s Mead, please, and be Miss Marple. I’m doing my best to train up for the role in later life, though at some point I’m going to have to tackle knitting. But I really want Dolly Bantry to be my best friend; she’s a hoot.

 

  1. In what situations, if at all, is it acceptable to talk through a movie?

I can think of plenty of movies I’ve been subjected to seeing by Mr Litlove that I easily could have talked through. Given a preference, I’d rather take a book along, if only someone would turn the lights up a bit.

 

  1. Do you think it is moral to have children?

I think it’s incredibly hard work to have children, and I think it’s a tougher job than one can ever imagine, childless, that parenting will be. I think it puts every part of your personality on trial, and will ultimately challenge many of the values you hold. You have to make a lot of sacrifices and do so willingly. So I don’t think I could ever say that people HAD to have them out of moral obligation. I think if you have them, you must do your very best by them, no matter what the circumstances. Once in situ, children force you to be moral, I think. (Though this does NOT mean that parents never behave badly, or that the childless are immoral. No. Only that children exert a certain pressure.)

 

  1. What is the unkindest thing you have ever done?

I wrote a post, The Lost Photo about this a while back. Read it and weep.

 

  1. What practical skill do you most wish you had?

I’d be happy to have any practical skills; I’m rather low on them. When I was younger, I would have liked to be able to draw. Now I’m older, I wish I were more green-fingered. I’d grow all my own vegetables if I had any talent for it.

 

  1. Tell us about an epiphany or “lightning bolt” moment in your life.

When I was about six months into my first ever job (marketing person for a book printers), the realisation was dawning that this was not for me. I did not like working for my bosses, I did not like keeping office hours, and I was frequently and deeply bored. And it occurred to me, that no one was forcing me to be here. It wasn’t like school or university where you have to hang on in there until the end. Now I was free to make different choices, change my mind, look for other jobs. Or indeed return to graduate studies. But what constituted the real lightning bolt was that work was a choice. So much of life you just have to put up with because you can’t do anything else. But work is not a prison; you can get up and leave. Sure you may have to take a pay cut, or move a rung down the ladder, or do some more training. I don’t think that’s a big deal, not when you consider that genuine freedom is at stake here.

 

  1. What is the first thing you do when you get home from work.

These days I work from home! When I was full time at college, it would be: feed the cat, feed the child, feed the husband. These days I only know I’m not working when I’m reading a book that doesn’t have to be read for review or research.

 

  1. How do you feel about writing in books.

I’m fine with it. I wrote in all my college books as that was how I kept track of my thoughts as I went along. I’d have been lost without those notes. Somehow, I can’t bring myself to write in books I’m reading for fun or reviewing for the blog. It doesn’t feel quite right, though I dog ear pages happily.

 

  1. Do you miss your hometown?

Colchester is a perfectly nice town, but I do prefer Cambridge.

Now at this point, I’m supposed to make up some questions and tag some bloggers. I’m going to do things a little differently by asking a few general questions about sisterhood that people can feel free to answer in the comments, or on their blog, or not at all. But they are questions whose responses I’m very interested in hearing.

1. What does the sisterhood mean to you, if anything?

2. Do you think women are still disadvantaged in the modern world? And if so, how?

3. Have you come across examples of ‘everyday sexism’ in your day to day life?

4. Which book would you most readily recommend as saying something important about women’s lives?

5. Supposing you and some female friends got together to create a publishing house that would be the new Virago. What sort of books would you publish?

 

The Rest Of What We Did On Holiday

So, I had a week to amuse myself while Mr Litlove made his chair. This year we both became members of the National Trust and I was keen to get some use out of my card, especially in order to visit more gardens. I am completely rubbish when it comes to identifying trees and plants and birds and I suppose I thought that visiting gardens would bring me the knowledge by a mysterious process of osmosis.

Getting in my car for my first visit, I realised it was a long time since I’d had to drive myself somewhere new, and I don’t have a satnav. Instead, I’d studied the maps and tried to commit the route to memory, something I was a little concerned about, given that these days I barely make it halfway up the stairs before realising I’ve forgotten what I’m going up them for. But I found my way just fine to Petworth House, an imposing stately home set in vast grounds designed by Capability Brown where the novelist John Wyndham lived (and his son, Max, still does).

What I didn’t realise was that I would undertake solo sightseeing as if I were a Marine commando on a mission against the clock. Memorise maps. Check! Drive to location. Check! Get map of house and grounds from National Trust lady. Check! Three times whilst said National Trust lady was trying to explain which path I should take to the house and what time the tea rooms closed, I rather thought she’d finished (prematurely) and made to take off on my mission. Eventually she asked me somewhat drily, ‘Are you in a hurry?’ and I said, no, no, sorry, just umm… And then I shot off into the grounds as if Big Chief I-Spy himself were in hot pursuit, waving his little tomahawk with menace.

After the glories of Parham, I found Petworth rather disappointing. It was a series of large, empty rooms, their walls thickly coated with paintings that were often hung too high or in strange shafts of light that made them hard to see properly. The paintwork in every room was in desperate need of refreshment and the whole place had a dingy aspect. There was plenty that was spectacular to see – you want a Turner? here’s five in a row. You like portraits of society beauties? Here’s a gallery entirely dedicated to them. You like wood carving? Here’s a room the size of a tennis court, with walls sprouting strange excrescences like a rampant if morbid form of fungi. The part of the house I admired most was the chapel, built in but sunk down a flight of steps, meaning you paused on the threshold at eye level with the scary pictures of saints and angels. It had a shivery power, inhabited by a vengeful god with a connoisseur’s eye for art.

At the end of the corridor that led past the great kitchen (where I doubtless slaved in a past life) and the shop and tea room, there was an entrance into the small town of Petworth itself, quaint and fairy tale-ish, its narrow cobbled streets built on a steep slope. And here I struck gold – the only book shop I found during the whole week, but the most delightful indie packed with excellent stock. I could have bought up the entire non-fiction section, but even I think I have a lot of books to read at the moment. So I made a concerted effort at restraint which I naturally regretted for the rest of the holiday. I bought Diana Souhami’s Murder at Wrotham Hill, a narrative non-fiction account of a crime that took place in the 40s, and James Wood’s short collection of literary essays, The Nearest Thing To Life. I spent longer in the shop than I did in the house and grounds.

The next day I had another stab at sightseeing, this time visiting Nymans and remembering to take the camera. It was a properly hot day and it took a while to get there, half an hour or so, a journey that began to seem to me like an awful lot of bother just to go look at a garden. I do realise I am not naturally gifted with the instincts of a tourist. Still it was a very pretty garden, and I saw it when the rhodedendrons (one of the few shrubs I can identify) were in flower.

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I have a photo of much bigger specimens but it came out blurry! This was obviously the rhodedendron nursery.

Nymans itself was a much smaller place than either Parham or Petworth, and not many rooms were open. As we entered the hallway, the sound of piano playing floated on the dusty air, and there in the main drawing room was a little old hunchbacked lady, surely in her 90s, playing her heart out. It was both atmospheric and disconcerting. Inside the house it was like visiting your posh Granny, rather lovely portraits and small sculptures in niches, great quantities of chintz, tartan curtains, piles of books and magazines, a little too much furniture, cold slate floors but cosy throws and cushions.

IMG_2403Part of the house was a ruin, destroyed by a fire in 1947.

IMG_2406Outside the gardens were amazing, even I could understand that much. There were all sorts of features, a sunken garden, a rock garden, a long pergola, a rose garden (not yet in bloom), all sorts of outdoor rooms created cleverly.

IMG_2398I speed-walked my way around lots and lots of plants. Goodness knows what they were.

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By judicious hanging around in the shop I managed to stretch my visit out to an hour and a half. I mean, I’d looked, it was lovely, what else was there to do? Mr Litlove asked me which parts of the houses I was most interested in and would most like to take home, and I said, the stories. The history of the houses does really interest me, but Nymans had to remain a mystery, as the guidebook the NT produces was out of print and they were trying to persuade the publisher to bring it back. I bought Patrick Barkham’s book Coastlines in lieu of it, even though there was no coastline in sight.

So Thursday it rained all day, and Friday was our last, and the one I had to vacate our cottage since it was a Friday-Friday let.  On our last holiday, I’d struggled under similar circumstances, waiting all day for our journey home and then too anxious to undertake it. So this year, we booked a hotel for Friday night, so I wouldn’t have to face the M25 on its worst time of the week. And yet, still I woke that morning full of anxiety. The owners of our cottage had kindly invited me to spend some of the day with them, which I did. And then late morning I drove out to Arundel for something to do (enormous castle on a hill, its petticoats full of tea rooms), and then I drove to Mr Litlove’s workshop for the afternoon. I was very tired and very anxious by now, though the workshop was fun in its way and I was glad to visit. Anyway, to cut a long story short I was pretty much gripped by anxiety until we were finally home early on Saturday (very early, I wasn’t sleeping anyhow so we thought we might as well do the drive).

What had gone wrong? I’d been fine all week. When I saw my reiki practitioner a few days later, she suggested it was a ‘safe place’ issue, and the light dawned. Most of you fortunate, normal people out there probably carry your safe place around inside you. Perhaps what distinguishes the phobic and the anxious is that our defences feel insufficient, and some other, physical, form of protection is required to reach basic safety levels. I was okay using the holiday home as a temporary base, but stuck in limbo on Friday my anxiety began to rise. And as anyone who suffers anxiety knows, it’s all too easy to reach the point of no return. Still, you live and learn, particularly when you have a preternaturally insightful reiki practitioner. And we did have a lovely week.

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.