In Which I Fight The March of Progress

I love audiobooks. They are so soothing and comforting and nothing says relaxation to me like lying on my bed listening to a great story. Over the years I’ve amassed quite a library, the oldest on cassette tape – which are now hard to listen to because my cassette player is so ancient and well-used that the wheels scream in protest after an hour or so – the next era on CD, and then the most recent on the ipod Mr Litlove gave me for Christmas a couple of years ago. For my next birthday he gave me a docking station, because I prefer that to ear buds and because the docking station has no function buttons on it whatsoever, it comes with a remote.

Now the first little mishap I had occurred one night while I was sleeping. Evidently a butterfly flapped its wings in China, I turned over in bed, the thick corner of the duvet shifted, clipped the remote on the bedside table, and sent it on a neat dive head-first into my nighttime glass of water which was standing half full on the floor. I put the glass there so that it shouldn’t get knocked over and spill onto the pile of books I happen to have beside me. This goes to show that you really can’t think of everything.

Well, you may imagine my horror when I woke in the morning to witness the mischief that had taken place. Without the remote, the docking station is useless. But I dried it off, and by the end of the day it was working again, albeit unreliably. The on/off button worked, even if all the others didn’t seem responsive. I couldn’t honestly tell you it was much different when it was new, as I would often poke and prod it without effecting noticable change to anything other than the volume.

The next little mishap wasn’t even a mishap. I’d taken the docking station downstairs to listen, and then returned it to the bedroom. Obviously it travels as well as I do, because this caused some sort of short-circuit or dodgy connection at the point where the ipod fits onto the station. If I fiddled about with it and pushed it down harder, I could get it to play, but the sound could cut off abruptly if an atom shifted in the universe.

But hey, I could still get it to work, and after a long, frustrating evening, Mr Litlove managed to find a way to continue downloading audio books onto it, after itunes and audible decided that no one uses such obsolete devices as ipods any more. I think I’m supposed to own a swanky phone or tablet instead, so it’s a good job that none of these young turks at the forefront of modern technology have seen my 2004-bought pay-as-you-go phone which beeps every time I press a button, much to the amusement of my son, and can only save about a dozen messages at a time. In my defence, if I decide to commit a crime, I’m pretty sure the police will never trace me.

So having negotiated all these technological pitfalls, I finally discovered there was one thing I simply could not get around – and that was the chaos caused by falling asleep. It’s very hard not to, when you are warm and cozy and doing nothing more than listening to a soothing voice. Recently, I’d used my latest audible credit on Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which I was loving. It’s a wonderful family story, with all the trademark Tylerisms that make it so good to listen to, in particular her ability to turn out both a beautiful sentence and a great line of dialogue. Well, I was enjoying it immensely, but the inevitable happened and without being able to tell you at what point exactly it happened, I fell asleep.

I woke up to silence. This was worse than usual, as it meant that the ipod must have shifted on its docking station and lost its connection. How long had I been asleep before that happened? I’ve woken up before to disconcerting déjà vu when the story has both finished and seamlessly started all over again. But now I had no idea how much of the narration I’d missed. The remote was useless to me, so I went over to the ipod and fiddled about with it until it started speaking again.

My ipod has a touch screen the size of a large-ish postage stamp. It has two little lines or an arrow in the middle, for play or pause, and a triangle either side for fast forward or rewind. If you tap the triangle it skips a chapter (not at all the same thing as a chapter in the book, alas) and if you hold your finger down, it supposedly moves forwards and backwards more slowly so you can skim. HAH is all I have to say to that. I touched the screen and we instantly jumped forward by several book chapters. Now I was even more lost than before. I touched the screen to move backwards, and this time it was enough to cut the connection. After more wobbling and poking and calling it some ugly names, the narration resumed but way further back, back at a part I’d been listening to the previous day. There was more back and forth that I’ll spare you, but eventually I ended up deciding the best policy was to listen again to a chunk I’d already heard.

After the half hour it took to reach the place I fell asleep, I turned out to have missed only a paragraph or two.

What is this obsession with tininess? I don’t have particularly large hands, but this whole poking and swiping business is a nightmare of inaccuracy. My ipod could be three times larger than it is, and it would still be small. It could have buttons on it, so I could actually be sure what function I was selecting. The ‘chapter’ divisions could correspond to actual chapters in the book. And the most smiled-upon solution, to switch to a newer form of technology, means learning a whole new host of instructions on ever more complicated gadgets. What is a dinosaur of technology like me supposed to do?

The Faithful Couple

faithful coupleOne of the bits I really like in the film of Bridget Jones’ Diary is the fight scene between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. What makes me laugh every time is how real they manage to make it look – all clumsy grappling and uncoordinated lashing out, the impetus to hurt the other person kept in check by the much stronger desire not to be hurt oneself. They are two boys having a scrap in the playground, not Hollywood actors in a polished and well-choreographed routine and it’s very endearing.

It was the same sense of scrappy realness, a bit clumsy, a bit awkward, often mortified, that kept me engaged and enjoying The Faithful Couple, A. D. Miller’s bromance about long-term friendship between men. Adam Tayler and Neil Collins meet in California while travelling, Adam as part of a gap-year after his degree at Durham, Neil as a treat after he jacks in a pharmaceutical sales job. There’s a distinct, nuanced difference in class. Neil, though he also has a degree, will be trapped on his return into working at his widowed father’s dreary stationary shop in a dull, grubby part of London. His mother died when he was 14, and his older brother has gone off the rails. Adam comes from an entitled family, a jolly, confident bunch, his father in shipping insurance, his mother helping charities. Adam has the money behind him to be idealistic, and is intending to work in television.

But first: California. The young men fall into an easy, feckless friendship, their comfort with one another spiked at the edges by an undercurrent of rivalry. Travelling up the West coast of America, they urge each other on to bad behaviour, running out of a bar without paying. It’s nothing really, they are good boys at heart. But on a camping trip in Yosemite, the competitiveness gets a little out of hand over a young woman named Rose. Adam is aware of her age, and does not pass this information on to Neil. There is an ugly incident, but one that eventually passes over without any dire consequence. Back in England, Adam and Neil cement their friendship, the secret sin that lurks between them exerts a uniting effect, not least in their desire to cover it over.

But as the years slip by and things do not fall out as expected – Adam’s career repeatedly stagnates, his ambition lost to the daily grind of family life, whilst Neil moves from dotcom to property to financial management, making money all the way – the California incident begins to fester. It’s Adam who lets himself become needled with guilt. Partly the birth of his daughter affects him with superstitious karmic fear, but there’s also an unarticulated disappointment to deal with, that on paper, Neil is doing better than he is. In the unwritten laws of his upbringing, Adam realises that this inability to let an old, half-forgotten incident go is as verboten as any other form of weakness:

To moon over a girl was gay. To worry over exams was nerdy. Everyone was supposed permanently to be on good form, as if they were well-conditioned, moodless racehorses… They were all or nothing people, Adam realised, his family, his breed. Their only game plan was to get all the way through, right to the end, thinking as little as possible, in the hope that they could outrun it – whatever it was that they were frantically eschewing, the neglect or abuse or adultery.’

Adam can’t quite leave it alone; he has to use the incident in California as a stick to beat himself with, except of course he keeps missing and hitting Neil instead. The underlying preoccupation of the story is whether the men will allow it to destroy their friendship – something we come to understand is meaningful and important to them – or if they’ll find a way to neutralise their growing resentment.

This is a thoughtful, touching novel that feels unusual in its male-driven perspective. The question of whether men can still love one another as friends in a typical new millenium middle-class life that is far too bothered about money and success and advancement is not one that often gets asked – or at least, not one that gets asked to the exclusion of all else. The prose is supple and clever, though occasionally Miller does ask it to do too much, to fit in too many thoughts – there are sentences that require the reader to put on her wader’s wellies to get across. And I fear women might not care much for the way women are seen through the eyes of the main protagonists. There’s nothing sexist here. It’s just that women aren’t seen very much; the male gaze still tracks other, more self-regarding prizes than the happiness of those who love them. But I fear that may just be realistic. Other than that, Miller is particularly good on class, and on the changing face of life in London, and on bringing up children, and on the relentless, indefatigable competition between men and just about everyone and everything else. It’s that detailed attention to authenticity that makes this novel a pleasure to read.

Stress, Creativity and Dancing Kittens

I didn’t mean to take a break from the blogworld – I was overtaken by events, a busy week which culminated in Mr Litlove coming home early from London one day (unheard of) and going straight to bed (even more unusual) with the flu, and he’s there still. Every time he speaks he coughs – well, it’s not so much a cough as the heaving bark of a walrus with a fifty-fags-a-day habit – so it’s been an exceptionally quiet weekend during which I seem to have been auditioning for the role of under-housemaid in the next series of Downton Abbey, endlessly up and down stairs with trays of food. I’m trying to view this positively, as my own little step workout which will have untold benefits to my thighs.

In the times when the bell to the master’s bedroom hasn’t been ringing, I’ve been reading some interesting books. All too appropriately, I was sent one called Stress Control by Susan Balfour, and whilst I’m still in the early stages of it, it seems to me a lot better so far than the average self-help guide as Balfour tries to go deeper and think harder about what causes stress and how we can tackle it. I was interested in the way she talks about holding onto both personal truths and received wisdom in times of trouble. We have to work hard to hang onto a mental equilibrium and soothe our minds, she argues, and I think that’s true. It really is hard work to prevent the mind rushing off into disaster scenarios, or disappearing down the wurmholes of self-pity, resentment or hopelessness. Whereas of course we do have a store of strengthening realisations that have usually been hard-won from other battles with fate. It’s impossible to say what mantra or truth or acknowledgement will work the trick as it’s such a personal thing. But Balfour suggests that such ‘truths need to be polished up and put on display in our lives…we must be proud of displaying our spiritual wealth.’ And that struck home with me as I know I am often indifferent in stressful situations to the wisdom I’ve gained elsewhere. Or perhaps not indifferent exactly, but too distracted to bother with it.

Naturally there are pieces of advice that also strike me as unhelpful, such as the suggestion that one way to rise above the muddle of an argument is to throw in some observation from outside it, for instance: ‘Just look at that beautiful sky’, which sounds to me like a good way to vex the other person beyond all reason. Balfour says this is effective with tantruming children, though in my experience a tantrum occurs when you go beyond the point of ordinary distraction being enough to divert escalating trouble. But what do I know? Maybe I’ll try it next time Mr Litlove has a coughing fit.

The mind in all its magnificent trickery was also centrestage in Christopher Bollas’s book, Cracking Up. Bollas is examining the constant freeflow of ideas, images and thoughts that race through the mind mostly unobserved. Like rush hour traffic, these mental elements congregate around experiences that have a particularly intense emotional resonance, though often they may be simple things, scarcely worth the charge they give us on first appearances. So for instance, Bollas describes one of these intense moments when, passing a record shop he notices an advertisement for Philip Glass’s opera, Akhenaten. He isn’t going to go in, but somehow finds that he does after all, his mind swimming in the memories of the evening when he saw the opera and all that happened then. At the same time, the mention of Akhenaten makes him think of his son who became interested in Egyptian history when he was about five, how the two of them talked about the school project he was working on, and this takes him on a chain of thought back to his own Greek ancestors and Bollas’s conflicted feelings about that part of the world. All sorts of lines of thought are generated by this chance encounter with the memory of a piece of music and when he has finally bought the record and carried on with his day he discovers in the library that he has momentarily misplaced his glasses. Of course he has: glasses, Philip Glass, the glass of the shop window, the slippery glass of the surface of his thoughts. He finds his glasses again.

We live in this soup of dynamic, ever-shifting mental elements that become dense and meaningful when we are brought into chance contact with vivid parts of the external world, and which then disperse in all directions, often simultaneously, as they spawn various emotionally-charged trains of thought. Bollas talks about ‘psychic bangs, which create small but complex universes of thought.’ This is effectively the work of free association that goes on all the time inside our minds; its effects are felt in how we react, experience and respond to everything around us, for every encounter is caught in a sticky web of associations. It’s impossible to experience in the moment – or at least the closest we come, I think, is when we are still ‘reading’ only the book is face down on our laps and we are staring into the middle distance – but parts of it can be reconstructed in retrospect. And because this is the source of all creativity, I think the more aware we are of the existence of these deep layers of thought, the more sensitive and creative we are as individuals.

Susan Balfour talks about how essential daydreaming is to keep our minds free and limber, and for Bollas, too, the freedom of the mind to pursue its endless avalanches of unexpected signification is an important part of mental health. I think this is also why the internet exerts such a power of fascination. When we begin with quite a respectable and justifiable reading of an online review of a book that looks interesting, which leads us on to author interviews in the Paris Review, and then the lyrics of a song we’ve been meaning to look up and then before we know what’s happening, we’re watching videos of synchronised dancing kittens, it’s like we’re just following the normal patterns of the mind, so normal that at some point the process becomes unconscious. Which is how you wake up, faintly alarmed, to find those kittens bobbing their heads to MC Hammer. The internet is just a vast externalised daydreaming mind. But ultimately it’s a time wasting distraction, the video equivalent of looking at the beautiful sky outside the window, because it’s not your own associations that are freewheeling in space, but the borrowed associations of other people.

Thinking about this brought me (via my own rhizomatic byways) to the conclusion that while freedom of mind and pleasure is a beneficial thing, stress plus a freewheeling mind often ends up in catastrophising. We’re back to that difficult place where it’s hard to prevent our thoughts from delivering us into dark alleyways where we’ll likely get beaten up. The mind needs strongholds, places of solidity which we can cling to while the turbulent stream of thought tugs at our legs. And maybe, the more as a culture we permit ourselves all sorts of freedoms, the less able we are, paradoxically, to make sensible calculations about the risks we run, the fears we suffer. Perhaps stress – in the moment we are experiencing it – is the place where we have to limit our creativity and value self-discipline instead.

Obsession With Words

obsession in deathWhen I accepted Obsession in Death by J. D. Robb to review for a blog tour, I had no idea that the author behind the series was actually Nora Roberts. The name J. D. Robb was vaguely familiar to me and I like crime fiction a lot, so I thought I’d give the book a try.

Nora Roberts, in case you are wondering, must be a candidate for the most prolific author of all time. Since she started writing in 1981, she has published well over 200 romance novels and just over 50 novels in the In Death series. Given that her early days were spent writing for Silhouette, it’s true that quite a few of those books are short. But even so, her annual output regularly reaches ten or more novels, which truly boggles the mind. Kind of makes you wonder what you’re doing with your life, doesn’t it? Apparently she writes eight hours a day every day, revises each manuscript three times and likes to write three romances in a row followed by three police procedurals, so as to linger a little in each fictional realm (rather than zip in and out in a fortnight, I presume). And she’s hugely successful – since 1999 every one of her novels has been on the New York Times bestseller list. Whatever you might think of such astounding output, Nora Roberts also wins the award for most philanthropic writer around, channelling a large cut of her earnings into charities for children, the arts and humanitarian aid.

I’m not sure whether it’s surprising or not that I couldn’t finish Obsession in Death. On the one hand, I love Agatha Christie and Lee Child, so I’m no stranger to the prolific author, and the premise for the book sounded intriguing enough. Robb’s police detective is NYPD superwoman, Eve Dallas, and in this outing she is called to the adroit killing of a high-profile criminal defence attorney, a woman with whom Dallas has clashed in court. The job looks neat and tidy enough to be professional, but an inked message on the wall above the body makes it personal. The killer is a self-confessed admirer of Eve Dallas, out to right the wrongs committed against her and clearly seeking her approval. Effectively it’s a serial killer who also happens to be a stalker, leaving dead bodies as love gifts. I thought this had plenty of pulpy potential, a swift easy read with a dash of sensationalism, a spritz of angst and plenty of headlong rushing towards an eleventh hour climax.

On the other hand, I had read a completely ruinous book before picking up Obsession in Death. One of those books that is so outrageously wonderful that everything else pales in comparison. It was Deborah Levy’s novella-length memoir, Things I Don’t Want To Know, written as a response to Orwell’s extended essay, Why I Write. It was devastatingly good. (And yes, I’ll review it soon, once I’ve got over it enough to write something sensible about it.) Undoubtedly that was a factor.

And whilst we’re on the other hand, I should also point out that nothing had warned me in advance that this would be a sci-fi series. Nothing on the blurb or the jacket cover, although the opening lines inform the reader that we’re in 2060. Which is a funny in-the-middle-of-nowhere time to pick, as it’s essentially a recognisable world with slightly different vocab and a few more gadgets. If I’d got further into the story, I would probably have discovered good reasons for the futuristic setting. But I didn’t so I can’t tell you what they were.

Then there’s the romance element. Apparently, Nora Roberts wanted to write in the manner of Mary Stewart, which is why she took on a pseudonym and began a crime series in the first place. It was a way of combining mystery and thriller writing with love stories. Well, by the time of this book, you may imagine that the relationship between Eve Dallas and her now husband, Roarke, is pretty well advanced. Roarke used to be a criminal, but now he simply runs his multi-billion company and helps out with Eve’s cases when she lets him for the fun of experiencing the other side. He is tall, dark and handsome, quite possibly the richest man on the planet, and utterly devoted to Eve. In the opening sections of the story when Eve returns home after a tough day, having forgotten she’s supposed to attend a social function with Roarke, he cancels for both of them and stays home so he can rub Eve’s shoulders and program her dinner into whatever command central produces meals in 2060. He is perfect. It was probably mostly due to Roarke that I gave up about 130 pages in. I just couldn’t stomach him.

It was a perplexing book. The situations were interesting, the characters okay, the dialogue felt natural, there ought to have been all sorts of enticing subplots opening up. But I struggled to get engaged with it at all, felt the crime was approached in a very superficial way and the investigation was flat and forced. I really wanted to like it – how great to enjoy a book in a series and realise you have another 49 to catch up on! But indifference and the press of other books to read meant we parted ways. Fortunately, Nora Roberts does not need my good opinion, nor the royalties from my sales. But if this novel appeals to you, do give it a try; it probably fell into my hands at the wrong moment.

WEEK 2 BLOG TOUR POSTER (2 of 2)