Wednesday 30 March 2022

Free at last

Monkey was confined to a room for a week (not even her proper flat, some random room) after someone on the plane tested positive for covid on arrival. Today she is finally out and they have been touring the university and going to see the cherry blossom. 
Stay safe. Be kind. Enjoy some blossom near you.

A Little Life

I have had 'A Little Life' by Hanya Yanagihara from the library twice; I had to send it back first time as I did not have time to get through 700 pages. It follows on quite nicely from my review of Lilian's Story in that it is the story of a little life. Although some small parts follow other characters the main focus of the book is Jude, and the group of friends around him. I both loved it and hated it. It made me cry but it infuriated me. I was angry because parts of it felt like torture porn. She takes this child and gives him the worst life, then bad things happen, then more cruelty, then he escapes, but finds more pain and cruelty, then he escapes again, and finds more pain and cruelty, and on ad nauseam. Why does nobody help him? And through his life, as his self-destructive behaviour deteriorates, none of the people who claim to love him truly help him. I was left wondering just how much pain it is acceptable to inflict on one character. The book becomes the worst parable of how childhood experiences never leave you and shape everything about how you see yourself and affect all your future relationships. And he suffers, and believes he deserves to suffer and envisions no end to his suffering. And then, when he is happy, the author smacks him down again and I cried out in protest (both because she did it and because she telegraphed it in a clich├ęd and lazy way that made me angry). 
I feel like this could become a rather critical review because there were so many aspects of the writing and story that I found annoying. It was repetitive. Tedious unnecessary lists of people who came to parties or Thanksgiving dinner. Repetitive descriptions of Jude's self harming. The timeline was unpredictable; sometimes small incidents being anecdotally inserted, sometimes extended bits of back story. Occasionally the story is narrated first person and I was left wondering who was being talked about. It was as if initially she was going to make it about all four of the friends and then changed her mind. And then there's the whole rich people thing. I wonder if writers do that because it allows the characters to self-obsess more. If your characters don't have to struggle to make a living, if they have a comfortable life, they have time to sit around and muse on the meaning of their existence. Also repetitive descriptions of their beautiful New York lofts (these people are not just rich, they are very rich). It also allows Jude to have endless very expensive medical treatment that normal people would be bankrupted by. There are more hours in Jude's day than a normal person. He would spent hours of his day swimming, or cutting himself and then recovering from it, and still manage to do the kind of work hours that corporate lawyers are expected to do. He works till midnight but still seems to have time to have dinner with people. And if you were really in the amount of pain he was in you would not be able to function, you would not be able to work, you would collapse from exhaustion. And his doctor friend would not see the level of self harm and not do something. It just would not have carried on like that. 
So I hated it, you must conclude. But no, it sucked me right in, mostly because I yearned for Jude to heal, to learn to trust people and accept love as real. And occasionally she did stuff like this, that was just quiet and understated; here Willem is wondering if he will 'make it' as an actor:
"But then the feeling would dissipate, and he would be left alone to scan the arts section of the paper, and read about other people who were doing the kinds of things he didn't even have the expansiveness, the arrogance of imagination to dream of, and in those hours the world would feel very large, and the lake very empty, and the night very black, and he would wish he were back in Wyoming, waiting at the end of the road for Hemming, where the only path he had to navigate was the one back to his parents' house, where the porch light washed the night with honey." (p.55)

Also this, it is so delicate. Jude has broken a mug made by Harold's (deceased) son, and his vulnerability is exposed so rawly here, and Harold's response is so touching:
"Harold went upstairs to his study with the mug in his hands, and he finished his cleaning in silence, the lovely day graying around him. When Julia came home, he waited for Harold to tell him how stupid and clumsy he'd been, but he didn't. That night at dinner, Harold was the same as he always was, but when he returned to Lispenard Street, he wrote Harold a real, proper letter, apologising properly, and sent it to him.
And a few days later, he got a reply, also in the form of a real letter, which he would keep for the rest of his life.
'Dear Jude,' Harold wrote, 'thank you for your beautiful (if unnecessary) note. I appreciate everything in it. You're right; that mug means a lot to me. But you mean more. So please stop torturing yourself.
'If I were a different kind of person, I might say that this whole incident is a metaphor for life in general: things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realise that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.
'Actually - maybe I am that kind of person after all.
'Love, Harold.' " (p133-4)

Very shortly after Harold tells him about their son Jacob and how he experienced the loss of his son:
"And let me tell you two other things I learned. The first is that it doesn't matter how old that child is, or when or how he became yours. Once you decide to think of someone as your child, something changes, and everything you had previously enjoyed about them, everything you had previously felt for them, is preceded first by that fear. It's not biological: it's something extra-biological, less a determination to ensure the survival of one's genetic code, and more a desire to prove oneself inviolable to the universe's feints and challenges, to triumph over the things that want to destroy what's yours.
The second thing is this: when your child dies, you feel everything you'd expect to feel, feelings so well documented by so many others that I won't even bother to list them here, except to say that everything that's written about mourning is all the same, and it's all the same for a reason - because there is no real deviation from the text. Sometimes you feel more of one thing and less of another, and sometimes you feel them out of order, and sometimes you feel them for a longer time or a shorter time. But the sensations are always the same.
But here's what no one says - when it's your child, a part of you, a very tiny but nonetheless unignorable part of you, also feels relief. Because finally, the moment you have been expecting, been dreading, been preparing yourself for since the day you became a parent, has come.
Ah, you tell yourself, it's arrived. Here it is.
And after that, you have nothing to fear again." (p.163-4)

Jude's fear is focussed on himself and I came to feel that the book is an examination of that fear. After a childhood of abuse it is his ability to be in control of his body that is his only solace, and yet his fear and memories cause him to simply inflict more pain on it. He has only himself he can rely on, and even his own body, with all it s damage, often seems to be against him. His inability to trust and rely on others is at the core of the book. This passage is quite visceral, because you feel both his yearning and his revulsion for physical/emotional intimacy:
"But as self-conscious as he is about appearing normal, he doesn't want a relationship for propriety's sake: he wants it because he realises he is lonely. He is so lonely that he sometimes feels it physically, a sodden lump of dirty laundry pressing against his chest. He cannon unlearn the feeling. People make it sound so easy, as if the decision to want it is the most difficult part of the process. But he knows better: being in a relationship would mean exposing himself to someone, which he has never done to anyone but Andy: it would mean the confrontation of his own body, which he has not seen unclothed in at least a decade - even in the shower he doesn't look at himself. And it would mean having sex with someone, which he hasn't done since he was fifteen, and which he dreads so completely that the thought of it makes his stomach fill with something waxy and cold. When he first started seeing Andy, Andy would occasionally ask him if he was sexually active, until he finally told Andy that he would tell him when and if it ever happened, and until then, Andy could stop asking him. So Andy never asked again, and he has never had to volunteer the information. Not having sex: it was one of the best things about being an adult." (p.305)

And for contrast here is Willem talking about Jude:
"And yet he sometimes wondered if he could ever love anyone as much as he loved Jude. It was the fact of him, or course, but also the utter comfort of life with him, of having someone who had known him for so long and who could be relied upon to always take him as exactly who he was on that particular day. His work, his very life, was one of disguises and charades. Everything about him and his context was constantly changing: his hair, his body, where he slept that night. He often felt he was made of something liquid, something that was being continually poured from brightly-colored bottle to brightly-colored bottle, with a little being lost or left behind with each transfer. But his friendship with Jude made him feel that there was something real and immutable about who he was, that despite his life of guises, there was something elemental about him, something that Jude saw even when he could not, as if Jude's very witness of him made him real." (p.436-7)

And another scene, so sweet and touching, and yet, for all that, in the back of your mind you know all that you know about Jude you think that Jude is not experiencing this moment in the same way that the others are:
"Now he shakes his head to clear the memory. 'I'm going to go up and check on him,' he tells Harold and Julia, and then he hears the glass door slide open, and all three of them turn and look up the sloping hill to see Jude holding a tray of drinks, and all three of them stand to go help him. But there is a moment before they begin heading uphill and Jude begins walking toward them in which they all hold their positions, and it reminds him of a set, in which every scene can be redone, every mistake can be corrected, every sorrow reshot. And in that moment, they are on one edge of the frame, and Jude is on the other, but they are all smiling at one another, and the world seems to hold nothing but sweetness." (p574)

So traumatised is the main word I used when describing to Julie how I felt about this book. I feel like I am a positive person, and so read on, hoping with each page turn that something would break through the protective shell that Jude created around himself, that someone or some thing would reach in to him, that he would find a way to heal, that new experiences would reshape him. But that was not to be. Nasty, brutish and short is a well known description of human life. This book is titled a little life, as if Jude's existence was somehow insignificant, and I think to him he was. He was made to feel he didn't matter and nobody managed to change that for him.

Stay safe. Be kind. Remember you matter.

Monday 28 March 2022

Holiday reading

(Another post sitting unfinished in the drafts, so I have to get it done so I can move on to the next one, which was most infuriating.)
'Lilian's Story' by Kate Grenville was in the charity shop pile (author previously reviewed here and here).  It follows Lil through life a ups and downs, from a childhood heavy with parental expectations to an adulthood of disappointment and an old age of couldn't-give-a-damn. I liked her because of her refusal to conform to society's expectations, but I pitied her because those expectations still managed to hang over her.
Here, an example of how she evokes the place they live (Australia) so vividly, something I loved about previous books, after their slightly deranged father has harangued her and her brother John at the dinner table:
"Some bird flew in and perched on the branch over our heads, blinking at us out of one eye, then the other. When the sun had slid behind the roof of Miss Gash's house and the sky began to turn pink, the bird flew away with a twitter and insects began to croak. Out of the lantana bush Miss Gash's tabby crept, stared at us with a paw raised, and crept on. John lay in his vomit and I watched pink dusk die into grey. Somewhere, streets away, someone was practicing the bugle, sending sad, random notes into the shallow pink sky like something lost." (p.86)

It is just a life, which she tries to create for herself, in spite of the world around her. This sums it up. She meets Jewel again, a woman from when she had been institutionalised, and she asks her about her regrets:
"She nodded seriously as I spoke, as if taking notes. I regretted almost nothing. There was a leather-bound copy of William that Father had given me long ago, before he knew that William was not just words. I regretted that, and it must have bubbled heavily, like a desperate drowning person, as he dropped it over the stern of the boat, but it had already been too late, I had already learned enough to keep me going. There were a few people I regretted not hitting. They might have thanked me for it in the end. I regretted not having said yes to F.J. Stroud, all those years ago. And of course I regretted the islands in the sun, the jungles, the gibber deserts, Niagara Falls, sleds drawn by reindeer, the feel of whale lifting my boat into the air under me. Naturally I regretted all that." (p.256)

I often find myself drawn in by books like this, that just follow a life. I don't need anything very much to happen. In fact some of the best books have very little happen in them. You just let yourself get attached to the person, wonder sometimes at their choices, but in the end a life is just a life, it matters whatever.

'No one is talking about this' by Patricia Lockwood was shortlisted for both the Booker and the Women's Ficton prizes last year. I started out not sure if I liked it; I almost gave up on it quite quickly thinking it was some kind of gimmicky 'internet generation' novel, but it turned out to be something else and I loved it. It is written in these weird disjointed paragraphs, that don't follow on from one another or flow like a story in any meaningful way. It could be described as stream-of-consciousness except it is third person. At times it feels like it is the woman writing, it is so immediate and intimate and often inside her head and her feelings, so it feels unsettling that it is third person. 

Here is an example of the early part, and why it made me cringe. I find that people who are obsessed with their 'online existence' think that it is real, when it's not. And the superficiality of it all makes me nauseous. ('This' refers to a post she had made that went 'viral'):
"This had raised her to a certain airy prominence. All round the world, she was invited to speak from what felt like a cloud bank, about the new communication, the new slipstream of information. She sat onstage next to men who were better known by their usernames and women who drew their eyebrows on so hard they looked insane, and tried to explain why it was objectively funnier to spell it sneazing. This did not feel like real life, exactly, but nowadays what did?" (p.13-14)

I liked this one because it is astute and perceptive, and witty:
"White people, who had the political education of potatoes - lumpy, unseasoned, and biased towards the Irish - were suddenly feeling compelled to speak out about injustice. This happened once every forty years on average, usually after a period when folk music became popular again. When folk music became popular again, it reminded people that they had ancestors, and then, after a considerable delay, that their ancestors had done bad things." (p.33-34)

I think what makes me bored by the internet is that people 'discover' stuff, but you know what, mostly it is not new stuff, it's stuff we already knew, it's just a new generation getting all excited about old stuff. But then I am an old fuddy-duddy who is confused when her kids are familiar with music that I listened to as a teenager. So this one too:
"Modern womanhood was more about rubbing snail mucus on your face than she had thought it would be. But it had always been something hadn't it? Taking drops of arsenic. Winding bandages around the feet. Polishing your teeth with lead. It was so easy to believe you freely chose the paints, polishes, and waist-trainers of your own time, while looking back with tremendous pity to the women of the past in their whalebones; that you took the longest strides your body was capable of, while women of the past limped forward on broken arches." (p.86)

So then her sister gets pregnant. And life changes. The baby has Proteus Syndrome, and her presence in their lives just takes over. And it is beautiful. Because you see the transformation of a person totally obsessed with herself into someone who comes to see someone else as the most important person on the planet. The style of the book remains the same; disjointed paragraphs, but they are telling someone else's story instead; it documents a tiny life in its entirety and established once and for all what really matters:
"On New Year's eve, she leaned over the baby with a glass of champagne and sang 'Bali Ha'i' right next to her ear and the baby's eyes flew wide, she went to the island. She sang 'Do Re Mi' and the baby followed up and down the stairs; she sang 'Over the Rainbow' and the rainbow went round. She sang 'If I Were a Bell' and that really did it; the baby pedalled her legs with excitement, she gripped her fingers with both hands, she cooed and cooed on the same pitch, she pushed the oxygen mask away and then clutched it to her face; if I were a bell I'd go ding dong ding dong ding.

Why not, she thought, and began to read the baby Marlon Brando's Wikipedia entry. Maybe it was the champagne, but it suddenly struck her as a democratic principle, that everyone should get to know about Marlon Brando: how he looked like a wet knife in a t-shirt, the cotton balls in each cheek when he talked, rumours of him wearing diapers on the set of Apocalypse Now. Nothing useful, but one of the fine spendthrift privileges of being alive - wasting a cubic inch of mind and memory on the vital statistics of Marlon Brando." (p.177-78)

Stay safe. Be kind. Enjoy the privilege of being alive.

Monday 21 March 2022

World Poetry Day

Monkey has gone. She is on the plane as I type. We played M-is-going-to-Japan-and-had-to-remove-from-her-suitcase-to-meet-the weight-limit-and-customs-restrictions alphabet game in the car on the drive down. That kept us amused for a while. We parked in the extortionate short stay and had lunch in Costa. Then she checked her luggage in and we went upstairs to departures. She walked through security and disappeared behind an opaque glass wall without even turning around to wave goodbye. I can see that Tish and I are going to use the lets-do-such-and-such-M-is-having-a-fab-time-in-Japan excuse a lot over the next few months. So she better have a fab time or we are going to feel guilty.

The radio reminded me that it is World Poetry Day so I give you Corinthians 13:11 by Jennifer Martelli that came to my inbox via poem-a-day from

I follow Marcia Brady on Twitter: Mo McCormick, Actor/Author.
She posts a video with her older brother and they dance, a fast waltz,
under an oak tree with dozens of hanging pastel paper parasols.
She holds his hands, looks up into his face: he watches her feet.
I wish we were friends. I'd call her, Mo, too, one syllable, low:
prayerful, bovine. Mo asks her brother, do you have a girlfriend yet?
She leads, spins him around: I love her in a way I couldn't back then.
As a child, I loved the middle girl, Jan, the jealous one, Eve Plumb,
Bible spondee fruit, with a TV J-name, and that blue crochet vest.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child.
When I was a child, I'd see Mo's face on my tin lunchbox, but now I see
her freckles mirrored a small star cluster visible on clear nights - 
Constellation of Bejewelled Silver Studs on Soft Velvet Bell Bottoms.
Constellation of Kindness. Constellation of Purple Devotion.

Stay safe. Be kind. Miss your daughter.

Saturday 12 March 2022

Pretty please with a cherry on top


'The End' by Heather  Phillipson is currently on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, and it utterly delighted us. I love the way it slumps over the sides, threatening to engulf the stonework. After Monkey and I had successfully located the Japanese embassy we sat in Cafe Nero and watched the comings and goings on the square for an hour (who knew there were so many we'll-get-your-shopping-for-you apps, every other bus had an advert for a different one). 
Then other thing that delighted me was this wonderful replacement for the 'little green man'. It had never occurred to me that the little man was not just a 'human being' and had no need for it to somehow also represent some cliched skirted version of a woman too. However symbols are important. The world is full of symbols of a male figure that are supposed to be accepted as a generic human. I am sorry (not sorry) if some people (men) get upset at the replacement of these symbols or think that people should "stop making a fuss" about such little things. It is about the fact that the symbols and messages are ubiquitous, and it is time for new symbols that include everyone. We should all feel safe to cross the road.

After our shared lemon muffin we wandered back down Piccadilly and whiled another hour away in the impossibly huge Waterstones. Then we wandered back to the embassy. It is so posh that during the winter when the trees are bare it has a view of Buckingham Palace. I sat in the park while Monkey sat in a queue to have her documents checked. She must do the whole horrible coach journey again next Wednesday to collect her visa, but all being good she will fly out a week on Monday.

I have enjoyed John Green's easy and slightly sentimental novels and also enjoyed 'The Anthropocene Reviewed'; he revels in the human world, what we have done to the planet, both the good and the bad, even when it descended into nostalgia and sentimentality. Each essay just talks about a particular thing that humans have created, how it has impacted the wider world as well as his own life, and then gives it stars, as if it were an online review. He is a thoughtful person and a good writer so although I flicked past the essays on Super Mario Cart and CNN I found myself very engaged in the history of the QWERTY keyboard. Here he talks about a conversation he has with a casino dealer:

"There's a certain way I talk about the things I don't talk about. Maybe it's true for all of us. We have ways of closing off the conversation so that we don't ever get directly asked what we can't bear to answer. The silence that followed James's comment about having been a kid reminded me of that, and reminded me that I had also been a kid. Of course it's possible that James was only referring to Wendover's shortage of playgrounds - but I doubted it. I started sweating. the casino's noises - the dinging of slot machines, the shouts at the craps tables - were suddenly overwhelming. I thought about that old Faulkner line that the past isn't dead; it's not even the past. One of the strange things about adulthood is that you are your current self, but you are also all the selves you used to be, the ones you grew out of but can't ever quite get rid of. I played out the hand, tipped the dealer, thanked the table for the conversation, and cashed out my remaining chips." (p.188)

He, in many ways, tells you far more about himself than I feel might have been his initial intent in any of these essays. But also, of course, about the human condition. Very readable. I will certainly be checking out The Mountain Goats on Spotify and possibly buying his wife Sarah's book 'You Are an Artist'. He ends most upliftingly, and in pleasing synchronicity with Oliver Burkeman:

"Sometimes, I wonder how I can survive in this world where, as Mary Oliver put it, 'everything/ Sooner or later/ Is part of everything else.' Other times, I remember that I won't survive, of course. But until then: What an astonishment to breathe on this breathing planet. What a blessing to be Earth loving Earth."

Stay safe. Be kind. Breathe.

Thursday 10 March 2022

Incomprehensibly miraculous

I liked the way that the train company has lowered it's expectations of human behaviour; the 'quiet coach' is now renamed the 'quieter coach' in the hope that people might be able to just keep it down a bit.

Network Rail on the other hand are my new favourite company as when I went to the loo on York station I found this wonderful *FREE* sanitary towel dispenser in the ladies. How excellent is that. I mean I don't need them any more, but hurray for progress. 
I have been up and down the country, and then down and up the country in the last ten days and was looking forward to a little calm relaxation for the last few days of my leave but tomorrow I find myself getting the middle-of-the-night coach to London to keep Monkey company while she gets her VISA FOR JAPAN!!! It's been a frustrating six months that she should have been there enjoying all sorts of wonderful experiences, but they finally opened the border again on 1st of March and with any luck she might still see some cherry blossom. 

Also so much for all the blog posts I was going to get written (travel time can mean plenty of reading time) but this is due back today so will just get the one done.

I have followed Oliver Burkeman's column in the Grauniad and he has written lots of books, of which 'Four Thousand Weeks' is the most recent. Four thousand weeks sounds like a lot in one way, but hardly any in another (it is only an average, I plan on having well over 5000). I liked this book because it is more about having some perspective on our ideas about time and how we use it, rather than yet another time management tome. I am not one of those busy busy people anyway. I fritter my life away in huge swathes some times. I can't remember what I have done with the last decade. And I have developed my 'saying no' skills over the last year. I noted when I looked at my payslip yesterday that I have earned less this year than last, and that's because I have done less overtime, taken my days off and enjoyed them. But I do still worry about wasting time and that I should have some kind of long term plan with things I want to achieve. Along comes a book that basically tells me not to stress about it. 

He talks here about how people try and 'clear the decks' of all the small clutter of life before they feel about to apply themselves to the big important projects:

"One can waste years this way, systematically postponing precisely the things one cares about the most.
What's needed instead in such situations, I gradually came to understand, is a kind of anti-skill: not the counter-productive strategy of trying to make yourself more efficient, but rather a willingness to resist such urges - to learn to stay with the anxiety of feeling overwhelmed, of not being on top of everything, without automatically responding by trying to fit more in. To approach your days in this fashion means, instead of clearing the decks, declining to clear the decks, focusing instead on what's truly of greatest consequence while tolerating the discomfort of knowing that, as you do so, the decks will be filling up further, with emails and errands and other to-dos, many of which you may never get round to at all." (p.50)

I liked the book because it is a philosophical musing on existence as much as it is advice:

... but now here comes mortality, to steal away the life that was rightfully yours.
Yet, on reflection, there's something very entitles about this attitude. Why assume that an infinite supply of time is the default, and mortality an outrageous violation? Or to put it another way, why treat four thousand weeks as a very small number, because it's so tiny compared with infinity, rather than treating it as a huge number, because it's so many more weeks than if you had never been born? Surely only somebody who'd failed to notice how remarkable it is that anything is, in the first place, would take their own being as such a given - as if it were something they had every right to have conferred upon them, and never to have taken away. So maybe it's not that you've been cheated out of an unlimited supply of time; maybe it's almost incomprehensibly miraculous to have been granted any time at all." (p.66)

This one drew my attention because it coincides with my own feelings about parenting and children. Too much parenting focuses on what the child will become and does not allow them to just be, though it is just as applicable to adults:

"In his play The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard puts an intensified version of this sentiment into the mouth of the nineteenth-century Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen, as he struggles to come to terms with the death of his son, who has drowned in a shipwreck - and who's life, Herzen insists, was no less valuable for never coming to fruition in adult accomplishments. 'Because children grow up, we think a child's purpose is to grow up,' Herzen says. 'But a child's purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn't distain what only lives for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment ... Life's bounty is in its flow. later is too late.' " (p.132)

And this, most of all, because it proposes the idea that a life well spent does not mean you have to achieve something significant, and it is the one I felt that I really took to heart from my reading:

"No wonder it comes as a relief to be reminded of your insignificance: it's the feeling of realising that you'd been holding yourself, all this time, to standards you couldn't reasonably be expected to meet. And this realisation isn't merely calming but liberating, because once you're no longer burdened by such an unrealistic definition of a 'life well spent', you're freed to consider the possibility that a far wider variety of things might qualify as meaningful ways to use your finite time. You're freed, too, to consider the possibility that many of the things you're already doing with it as more meaningful than you'd supposed - and that until now, you'd subconsciously been devaluing them, on the grounds that they weren't significant enough." (p.212)

He ends the book with some questions and some points of advice but also with a quote from Jung that says, to paraphrase and abbreviate, put one foot in front of the other and quietly do the next and most necessary thing.

Stay safe. Be kind. Relish the miraculous.