Monday 30 January 2023

Diary of a Void

'Diary of a Void' by Emi Yagi. One of Monkey's lecturers talked about this book and she decided to buy it for me for Christmas. It is the story of Shibata who, frustrated by the way her male colleagues treat her, one day randomly announces she is pregnant and thus cannot clean up the coffee cups as the smell makes her sick. She is not pregnant, but she makes a pretty good job of being, and the experience improves her life considerably; she can go home early and is excused the various jobs that were previously left to her. The simplest thing to do would be to have a pretend miscarriage, but no, she enjoys going home early and having time to cook nice dinners and take care of herself, so she just keeps up the pretence. So you spend much of the book wondering how she gets away with it, and how the situation will pan out when the baby is supposed to arrive. She starts walking because she is worried about putting on weight, then joins a pregnant lady exercise group ... and even goes to the doctor in the end. She appears quite lonely and enjoys the friendship of the other pregnant women, so enjoys sharing the experience with them that it seems to become real for her. I was not sure what to make of it but I enjoyed the book and believed with her that she was pregnant. It was well and truly surreal. I give you this quote from her first experience of the exercise class:

"Utterly dominated by the thudding music, everybody was dancing madly, but the one who was dancing the maddest was the woman in the neon-blue shirt. While everybody else looked sapped, barely managing to keep up with the instructor, she let out a roar like an animal, her breasts shaking like a pair of fruits as she sensually thrust out her belly over and over. It was like she was dancing at some harvest festival. The more she moved, the faster the beat seemed to get.
The heat of the room entered my lungs, and just when I thought my arms and legs were about to fall off, the fierce beat came to a stop and gave way to the mellow sounds of harp arpeggios. Our steps got slower and slower; the mirror ball stopped spinning. The next thing I knew, all these women with round bellies were on their backs and bathing in a soft green light as if we were suddenly in some kind of forest. Deep breaths, everybody. In and out, in and out.

Have a great evening! Get home safe! The kanpyo lady called out as we exited the gym. Up ahead, walking towards the subway, I noticed the woman in the neon-blue shirt. With every step she took, her thick braids swung from side to side.
It was getting dark. The Sunday evening air was crisp and cool. But when I closed my eyes, my eyelids felt hot. There was something warm moving inside me.
As I waited for the light to change, I pulled out my phone and opened Baby-N-Me. I plugged in today's exercise: MOMMY AEROBICS, 50 MIN." (p.109-111)

Stay safe. Be kind. That's enough baby stuff for the time being.

Thursday 26 January 2023

Weird Norwegian Drama

I read this review in the Guardian before crimbo about Vigdis Hjorth. The library had a copy of 'Long Live the Post Horn!' which I ordered, but Claire bought 'Is Mother Dead?' for mum so I will get to read that one later this year when I acquire it. Anyway, who doesn't enjoy a nice novel about the Norwegian postal service. It's good to see that the same issues concern Norwegian posties as British posties. If anything their role as a link for remote rural communities is even more significant. I guess people in urban areas do not consider our presence significant but there are still lots of parts of the country where the postal system is a connection to and reminder of the wider world.

Our heroine Ellinor, who narrates the story, is going through something of an existential crisis, exacerbated by the sudden disappearance and then death of a work colleague. But this results in her taking over his project working for the Norwegian Post and Communications Union that is trying to raise some awareness about the ramifications of a EU postal directive. Alongside this there is her weird love affair that seems somewhat non committal, and her family, whom she seems very fond of but finds disconcerting. So her struggle for meaning is set against the backdrop of the fight against the undermining of the postal system. 

We'll start with some existential angst (Dag is the friend who died):

"I had realised the importance of everything that had been Dag just when everything that was Dag ended. With the benefit of hindsight, I grasped the magnitude of the loss. I went home to bed and wanted to dream, but never sank into the stage where dreams are shaped, and tomorrow's to-do list played on a loop behind my eyes. I could already feel the exhaustion I would feel in the morning because I had missed out on my dream sleep, it tensed my jaw. The stiffness in my back, my footsteps out of the bedroom, the cold floor, the stream into the lavatory and the water, my face in the mirror where all my ridiculous worried had embedded themselves into my forehead. Shower and shampoo in my hair, soap between my legs, under my arms, every morning, every morning. To get dressed and yet not suit myself. Wishing my wardrobe contained something else, to be surprised and then not be surprised, and yet not wear my best clothes in order not to wear them out. Save the best for later. For some day. My most expensive lingerie saved for something that would never happen, which I knew would never happen, which I didn't even hope would happen, and still I waited for the future, the future, for something which would never happen, for the world, such as it was, to change. Then it was morning and I got up to do what i had imagined, practically already lived. Thus I was able to live out the day before I actually lived it and get tired before the actual tiredness set in and not realise the significance of what was happening until afterwards, I was out of sync with myself." (p57-8)

I felt that the book became something of an ode the the postal service and she finds something of an epiphany when she comes to understand it better and care about the outcome of the vote. Here, long quote, sorry, but part of a lovely story a postman tells of his attempts to find an address for a stranded letter:

" 'A letter writer who trusted the Post Office to come to her rescue. Who took a chance and crossed her fingers. Minor details such as a lack of street name or house number didn't stop her writing, so urgent was her business, so great her faith in the Post Office. When there was no reply, she took another chance. Might it be a brave marriage proposal? Information about a child that Helge Brun didn't know he had? The more I examined them, the more I became convinced that the letters were important. Postal workers have strong intuitions, I don't need to tell you that and as it happens, I was proved right'
A buzz of excitement rippled through the room. Go on?
Rudolf Karena Hansen paused rhetorically. Rolf raised his hand, then looked at the postal workers and dropped it.
Their ears had pricked up, their eyes were shining, hanging on Rudolf Karena Hansen's every word, captivated by the tale of Helge Brun, identifying strongly with the narrator and his mysterious letters. Yesterday Rolf had told them to write down 'reliability' because the media wants something people can relate to, but what's the use of knowing what the media wants if you don't know the postal workers?
'From that moment on,' Rudolf Karena Hansen continued, 'I didn't just put letters into the right post boxes when I was out on my round. I knocked on doors and struck up conversations with any old people who were at home in the morning and children who were home alone after school and had time to chat with a trusted postman. I asked about Helge Brun and although no one could point me in his direction, it was the start of a fascinating period in my life. I heard many small stories which together made up a new and bigger story, the story of our district told from different points of view. Details and incidents I had never heard about, but which had had life-changing consequences for the individuals and the community, I gained a better understanding of how people live together and how they depend on one another. Everything made sense and though my round now took twice as long as it used to, and the postmaster wondered at times what I was doing, I did everything I was supposed to and more, and in the evening I sat in the office between piles of dead letters into which I tried to breathe life.' " (p78-9)

If I have piqued your curiosity you will have to read and find out if he ever found the recipient for the wayward letters. I loved the notion of breathing life into dead letters. We send away boxes and boxes every day. They are mostly junk mail, people gone away, but I always sort through the ones that make their way into the cage, and anything that is hand written I always check to find out where it might belong, correct the postcode or fill in a missing blank and sometimes manage to send things on their way.

Stay safe. Be kind. Breathe life.

Monday 23 January 2023

Small Things Like These

So my sister Claire handed me 'Small Things Like These' by Claire Keegan saying it was a quick read for while I was visiting. The covers are smothered in very high praise indeed and I think I will be tracking down one of her short story collections some time soon. Narrated during 1985 (but for rural Ireland read some time back in the dark ages) it tells a brief story of Furlong, a coal merchant in a small town, the town where he lives and works, and the history of his own unorthodox arrival. I have mentioned previously the catholicism that tends to permeate Irish writing; sometimes it just sits there in the background, unspoken but ever present, but here the influence of the church over people's lives is brought starkly into the light. It is such a perfect little book, capturing this moment in time, the relationships between people in the close knit community and within Furlong's family, but mostly we follow Furlong though his days, with the thoughts he has as he drives his delivery lorry. In the course of his busy pre-Christmas week he calls at the convent and on unlocking the coal shed discovers a young girl inside. As he takes her indoors she begs him to find out what has become of her baby. The incident is brushed over by the Mother Superior and the cleaned and redressed girl informs him it was a childish prank. His discomfort about the event is increased when the woman at the cafe tells him she heard of his encounter at the convent and reminds him that access to the secondary school his older daughters attend is controlled by the church: "'They belong to different orders,' she went on, ' but believe you me, they're all the one. You can't side against one without damaging your chances with the other.'" (p.95) But his own history had been playing on his mind, the fact his own mother had been unwed, and was cared for and protected by her (Protestant) employer, and he begins to question things he had previously taken for granted:

"At some point later, an upstairs curtain moved, and a child looked out. He made himself reach for the key, and started the engine. Driving back out to the road, he pushed his fresh concerns aside and thought back over the girl at the convent. What most tormented him was not so much how she'd been left in the coal shed or the stance of the Mother Superior; the worst was how the girl had been handled while he was present and how he'd allowed that and had not asked about her baby - the one thing she had asked him to do - and how he had taken the money and left her there at the table with nothing before her and the breast milk leaking under the little cardigan and staining her blouse, and how he'd gone on, like a hypocrite, to Mass." (p.87)

The novella ends with a page about the Magdalen laundries, the last of which were not closed until 1996, where many thousands of women were incarcerated for the crime of having a child out of wedlock. Many babies died and many more were adopted out. They were financed and run by the Catholic Church in concert with the Irish government. I had a child before I was married in 1988. In my hospital ward of four women three of us were unmarried. No one batted an eyelid. News in recent days reported that statistics for 2021 show more than half of all children were born outside of marriage or a civil partnership.

Stay safe. Be kind. Have a baby when and how it suits you (or not as the case may be).

Tuesday 3 January 2023

First book post

'Must I Go' by Yiyun Li would have pretty much failed the Bechdel Test for books. In it Lilia spends the entire book talking about Roland, a man she had a couple of brief sexual liaisons with. She had a daughter by him, something of which he remained unaware, and the death of their daughter Lucy seems to have been the catalyst that reignites her obsession with him. So the book follows her reading of his published and abridged diaries. He seems a singularly uninteresting man and I kept asking myself why I was still reading it. I kept waiting for Lilia to say something more about her own life but she seemed to have so little sense of herself. So I read on until the point where it was too annoyingly close to the end to give up. I have got better at abandoning books that do not engage me so it is a sign of my listlessness that I let myself drift through it just turning the pages, towards the end only reading Lilia's thoughts and skipping the bits of Roland's diary. So, a disappointment since I must have read about it somewhere to request it. Never mind. What it is is a picture of maternal loss, one that she allowed to swallow her whole:

"Right after Lucy's death I thought of walking away permanently. Not because I didn't love my children, but other than Molly, they were old enough to be motherless, and Molly had a good father. Gilbert picked no favourite among his children. Everyone had his whole heart. I'm not like that. Love is like a savings account. You make a deposit, and use it here and there, sometimes subtracting an amount when you least expect it. You can say there is interest but that's not much to speak of. The account was more or less in the balance until Lucy died. When Lucy died everything was drained from it. Then nothing was left." (p.136)

'Dinosaurs - a novel' by Lydia Millet on the other hand, I read in one sitting on New Years Day. Sometimes you just need a book that reaffirms the decentness of human beings, and I needed this book. In it, Gil (it wasn't till the end when he is referred to as Gilbert that I realised consecutive books had the same character name) walks across America to get away from heartbreak and makes a new life for himself. He is independently wealthy (something that emerges as an issue in a variety of ways) but applies himself to contributing to society in whatever way he can, finding in his new home a local women's shelter, but it is the relationships he develops with his neighbours, Ardis, Ted, Clem and Tom, that shape the story. He befriends the lonely son Tom, just hanging out with him and eventually taking on ferrying him back and forth to activities. It's just nice, nobody has an agenda, he socialises with the family, adults and kids alike, and becomes part of it, but always without seeming to intrude. Then there are the birds that he becomes attached to, and that he finds shot in the dry riverbed behind his house, a crime that he is determined to get to the bottom of. Old friends from his previous life ask for help, and an encounter with his former love allows him some closure. New friends and acquaintances gradually attach themselves to his life until things come to a bit of a head, but not in a bad way. I have no idea why it's called Dinosaurs. Here, Gil and his money:

"Gil told her how once, when he was straight out of college, he'd decided to give up his grandparent's ill-gotten wealth. And fend for himself.
For several weeks after he had made this decision, he's felt euphoric. So excited he could barely contain it. As though he was standing on the edge of a great abyss, not dark but filled with light. Towering cliffs and a sparking river.
Like the Grand Canyon, maybe. Although he'd never seen it.
A realm of possibility - his life no longer set. His life could be anything.
Everywhere he went, everything he did during those few weeks was coloured vibrantly. He listened to inspiring music, full of extra energy every morning when he woke up. He broke into a run on sidewalks, only realising as he slowed down that he was grinning crazily.
He'd told Hadley of his revelation at a rare in-person meeting.
Saying it, though, he found he couldn't do it justice.
Couldn't explain to Haldey, in his oak-and-leather office with its fine appointments and wide views of the Manhattan skyline, how heavy the money was. A coat of shame he always had to wear.
Or how the thought of not having it anymore was like discovering how to fly.
Most people, Hadley said, felt just the opposite. For the reality was, it was money that set you free. Not the lack of it. Gil couldn't know this yet because he'd always had money. But the second he didn't, he would see." (p.142)

Stay safe. Be kind. Look into the abyss.

Sunday 1 January 2023

Thankful for 2023

My sister was born during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a moment in time when the world was at its closest to nuclear war. Even when my son was born in 1988 the threat of nuclear annihilation felt like the most likely way the world (as we knew it) could end. In the years since the nuclear threat has receded (the current conflict notwithstanding) but a whole new level of 'end of the world' has become so much more real. The arrival of my grandchildren has brought the existential anxiety to a head, the feeling that they will grow up and I will not be there to protect them from what is happening to the planet. And then browsing on The Atlantic the other afternoon and came across this article, where the author discovered that her father had worked at Raven Rock and had to face the notion that in the event of a nuclear attack he would have had to leave his family behind. She wonders how he lived with the idea. It concludes with the following sentiment that I found quite reassuring:
"What do we do, then, if we cannot stop time or prevent every loss?
We carry on with ordinary acts of everyday caretaking. I cannot shied my beloveds forever, but I can make them lunch today. I can teach a teenager to drive. I can take someone to a doctor appointment, fix the big crack in the ceiling when it begins to leak, and tuck everyone in at night, until I can't any more. I can do small acts of nurturing that stand in for big, impossible acts of permanent protection, because the closest thing to lasting shelter we can offer to one another is love, as deep and wide and in as many forms as we can give it.
We take care of who we can and what we can."
So for 2023 I resolve not beat myself up about what I can't do and try and focus on the ordinary acts, for my family and for the planet.