Reflections on my slow reading experiment

We’re nearly two-thirds of the way through the year and it feels like a good time to take a step back and reflect on how my experiment with slower reading is going. When I set out on this enterprise at the beginning of the year I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought I’d really struggle with it, I was so used to swallowing books down and moving onto the next one, sometimes reading more than one book at a time, that I was sure it’d be really hard to focus my attention on just one book and not feel tempted to move on as soon as I’d finished. That wasn’t my experience at all. Sure I was still tempted by books (that was never going to wear off easily) but having decided to devote at least a week to each book I found that I stopped rushing and stopped thinking about what I wanted to read next. Not buying books became pretty easy too. If I could only read a maximum of four or five books in a month, it became pretty easy to see how fruitless it was to add another book to that list. When would I read it? If I came across a book I thought I’d be interested in, it was satisfying enough to put it on a list and if I really wanted it I could come back to it at some point. Slowing my reading also had some surprising side effects. I found myself thinking more carefully about many things, not just reading. Having quashed one impulse, it became easier to quash others. It felt like slowing down my reading had been the catalyst for some positive change in my life.

That’s not to say it’s not been without difficulty. Temptation waits for those moments when your defences are at their lowest. There have been times when I’ve wanted nothing more than to read unguardedly, without any restrictions. When I’ve wanted to guzzle my book and guzzle down the next and the next and the next. It is hard to hold yourself back when your own resolve is the only barrier and the goal itself seems arbitrary and unnecessary. I have, at times, succumbed to my desire to own a book but I’ve stayed fairly tightly controlled and have tried to read any books I’ve bought straight away so I don’t accumulate yet another stack of TBRs. I have regretted only one of my purchases (so far) and my buying numbers this year are still in single figures which is extraordinary considering my previous habits. I can walk into a bookshop and be satisfied just looking. There have been times when I’ve been intensely dissatisfied with my reading experience, struggled to settle on a book. None of this is unusual, but when your reading is restricted it feels more intense.

Recently I’ve found myself slipping. Partly this is because I’ve been under a bit of pressure and partly it’s down to complacency. I thought I’d cracked it, but I’d just slipped back into not really thinking about it which was exactly what I didn’t want to do. I’ve bought a few books, and I’ve been borrowing more and more books from the library. I always said I would continue to use the library, but I have three library books at the moment and another reservation on the way. That’s a month’s worth of reading, a month when I won’t read any of the books I already own. And it bespeaks a whimsicalness in my reading choices which is one of the things I wanted to defeat. I don’t want, anymore, to be at the mercy of desire and impulse. It sounds a bit weird to say this about reading, but if I’ve learned anything from this experiment it is that being at the mercy of desire and impulse in one part of your life makes you more susceptible to it elsewhere. Reading is, perhaps, the area of my life in which I am most susceptible, perhaps because I have always seen reading as such a positive and laudable activity. But is it? I think there is great benefit it reading, it is one of the best ways to spend time, but when it’s a sticking plaster, or an easy avoidance technique, perhaps it’s not as laudable as it first might appear. When I’ve been listening to the Minimalists recently, they’ve talked a lot about ‘pacifiers’: things we do and surround ourselves with so we don’t have to confront what we really want from life. Our comfort blankets. Sometimes reading feels to me like a pacifier. It is a great way of spending time until it’s used up. No one ever criticizes you for it. In the meantime, other things that need your attention are effectively avoided. And it’s okay to have comfort blankets, and it’s okay to use pacifiers, and there are infinitely worse things to do than reading, but reading thoughtlessly was one of my behaviours I wanted to defeat. I just lost track of it a little bit.

I’ve realised that what I want more than anything is to reintroduce more intentionality into my life. I spend too much time being pulled hither and thither by this and that – the news, this exciting book, that recommendation, this interesting article, that situation that annoys or outrages me. I have come to a realisation of the finiteness of life, or more specifically the finiteness of my energy and attention. If I don’t direct it, it will be directed for me. I don’t want absolute control, just more control. If I read a book in a day I want it to be because I’ve chosen to do so for the pleasure of it (and it is a pleasure) and not out of compulsion or habit. I want it to be a treat, not because it’s just what I always do.

In a way the blog doesn’t help. I don’t have a huge readership, which is a good thing, but I do feel like I should post something once a week. This is something I need to revisit. The blog is secondary to the reading. I enjoy writing it, I enjoy sharing my experiences of books and I still love reading about what other people are reading. But perhaps I need to get myself comfortable with the idea that I blog only when I have something worth sharing and not to a timetable.

I haven’t completely gone off the rails, and perhaps this little lapse has been a good experience because it has highlighted to me more forcefully both the point of starting this in the first place and the underlying need that motivated it. When things go wrong, even if only slightly, it’s an opportunity to take a step back and revisit and reaffirm your priorities. I think I needed this reminder. So I will take those books back to the library, and I will stop reserving new ones. I will delete most of the books from my list. I have hundreds of books available to me, books that I was sure, at one point, that I wanted to read. If I don’t want those books that I add to my lists to suffer the same fate I must find a way to reignite whatever it was that convinced me to buy those books in the first place. I realise I need to add some dimensions to my reading experiment. I need to reinvigorate that intentionality that I was trying to achieve in the beginning. And I think I need to look more carefully at my shelves and rediscover the magic that’s already there.

I’m still glad that I embarked on this experiment. I have learned a lot more about myself over the past few months. I have absorbed almost everything I’ve read, and I’ve had some extraordinary reading experiences. I don’t feel deprived, in fact I feel enriched. Every book has received my focused attention, and considering how much effort goes into writing a book that feels like a respectful way to respond to the writer’s efforts. I am not just devouring their work, I’m savouring it. And I feel like I can take on those works that a more challenging, longer or denser as long as I can convince myself to forget about this little writing corner for a little bit. I know many people can read prolifically and still do these things, still manage an interesting and vibrant blog, but I’ve realised that I can’t. And it’s good to have learned that. If I hadn’t given myself the space and the thinking time to do so, I might never have.

Posted in personal reflection | 7 Comments

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich (translated by Pevear & Volokhonsky) #WITMonth


“There can’t be one heart for hatred and another for love.”

Image result for the unwomanly face of warA while ago I read Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary Chernobyl Prayer, her account – by collating lots of witness accounts – of the Chernobyl incident, the meltdown and the way it affected the people who lived in and around the area both at the time and afterwards. It’s a phenomenal book, hard to read and even harder to understand in many respects, but it’s an important read and it stayed with me for a long time afterwards. Alexievich, a Belorussian writer, won the Nobel Prize in Literature before the whole Bob Dylan affair, and like the Bob Dylan affair it prompted a lot of questions though focused around ‘another writer no one has ever heard of’ challenge as opposed to the ‘is it a writer’ challenge, proving that if nothing else the Nobel Prize in Literature always stirs a little debate. Needless to say, I’m glad that Alexievich was brought to my attention. I’ve had my eye on Second-Hand Time for a while, but when I saw that her first book, The Unwomanly Face of War, had been published by Penguin I knew I would have to read it.

 “I remember like today, the commander, Colonel Borodkin, saw us and got angry: “They’ve foisted girls on me. What is this, some sort of women’s round dance?” he said. “Corps de ballet? It’s war, not a dance. A terrible war…” But then he invited us, treated us to a dinner. And we heard him ask his adjutant: “Don’t we have something sweet for tea?” Well, of course, we were offended: What does he take us for? We came to make war…And he received us not as soldiers, but as young girls.”

Alexievich’s books all follow a similar style, what is referred to as ‘polyphonic’ reporting. She gathers a number of accounts from witnesses, people who were part of the events that the book focuses upon. The Unwomanly Face of War focuses on the Soviet women who served during WWII, largely on the front line as snipers, pilots, sappers, artillery-people (artillery man feeling utterly wrong here), tank drivers, nurses, medics or partisan operatives. She sets out at the beginning how the men’s story has been told, how the stories of war told on behalf of men often focus on the battles, the strategic priorities, the victories and the events, whereas she wanted to hear about how the war made people feel, how women served and how they were affected both before and afterwards. At a time when we have yet another male-dominated drama in the movies – Dunkirk – a movie which is described as ‘epic’ which may glamorise heroism and stoical self-sacrifice, it felt good to read about that part of war which is often left unspoken: the woman’s war. That’s not to say it’s not important to see how men fought and suffered during the war, of course it is, the war affected so many ordinary men and they were called upon to do extraordinary things. But we often think of women as being behind the lines, safe and secure, when the truth is often something quite different. Here Alexievich allows so many women to tell their stories, to speak of how they felt, how they coped, how they suffered and how they continued to suffer after the war.

“We were in hiding, and I was the lookout. And then I noticed one Germany poking up a little from a trench. I clicked, and he fell. And them you know, I started shaking all over, I heard my bones knocking. I cried. When I shot at targets it was nothing, but now: I – killed! I killed some unknown man. I knew nothing about him but I killed him.”

It is hard to describe, here, now, after days of reading these account the effect this book has had upon me. I find myself torn between admiration and horror, the accounts are brutal, bloody, soulful, often tearful and inspiring. There are so many accounts of young women who forcefully demanded to be sent to the front – sixteen, eighteen, twenty year old women. Their Motherland was under threat and they wanted, no demanded, to protect it. They did not know the horrors of war, but they were willing to face the horror of war. Their anger towards the German enemy was boundless, and understandably so when you hear of all the stories of villages burned, people burned in their homes, women raped, their breast cut off, babies smashed into walls, children thrown down wells, people starved, tortured, shot. The enemy was brutal and as an (ostensibly, I appreciate Soviet Russia is a complex society) egalitarian society the women expected to be defend it.

 “we left for the front at the age of eighteen or twenty and came back at twenty or twenty-four. First there was joy, but then fear: what were we going to do in civilian life? There was a fear of peaceful life…My girlfriends had managed to finish various institutes, but what about us? Unfit for anything, without any professions. All we knew was war, all we could do was war. I wanted to get rid of the war as quickly as possible. I hastily remade my uniform coat into a regular coat; I changed the buttons. Sold the tarpaulin boots at market and bought a pair of shoes. When I put on a dress for the first time, I flooded myself with tears. I didn’t recognise myself in the mirror. We had spent four years in trousers.”

For the women the war didn’t end with Victory, having fought their way onto the front line and fought alongside the men, shooting and bombing and defusing mines, communicating, bandaging, dragging away the wounded, the women came back to find themselves ostracised from society. They were treated like whores; many men who’d been at the front didn’t want to marry a female soldier when he came back. Having got their medals, having saved lives and suffered terrible injuries, these women found themselves facing another war. A war in which they were seen as something tainted, something dirty, a war they could no longer talk about. And here Alexievich has done them a service – she has allowed them to speak, to tell of their lives, when the people around them, and the reaction of their society, have kept them silent for so many years.

“We’d had enough, we frontline girls. And after the war we got more. After the war we had another war. Also terrible. For some reason, men abandoned us.”

The Unwomanly Face of War is a hard read. It is a book which renders many complex emotions, which asks us to look at these women and try to empathise with their experiences from our place of cushy comfort and relatively undramatic lives. It made me think a lot about what I think adversity means. Our daily, comfortable lives in which the worst thing we might face is some trolling on social media (not to dismiss trolling, it is a horrible experience for anyone and completely unwarranted and should be stamped out) is a world away from the woman who bit what was left of a soldier’s arm off so she could bandage him and stop him bleeding to death, the woman who witnessed the body of a German woman who had been gang-raped, a grenade shoved up her vagina, the woman who lost both of her legs to frostbite. The horrors are unthinkable, but it was war and these women rose to it just like their men did. Their stories deserve to be told.

“I’ll say this: if you’re not a woman, you can’t survive war. I never envied men. Not in my childhood, not in my youth. Not during the war. I was always glad to be a woman. People say that weapons – submachine guns, pistols – are beautiful, that they conceal many human thoughts, passions, but I never found them beautiful. I’ve seen the admiration of men looking at a fine pistol; I find it incomprehensible. I’m a woman.”

And it wasn’t all terrible, people have this extraordinary capacity to find something joyful even in the worst of time. There was love, though somehow the love was harder to speak of than the horror, there was compassion, there was a coming together of people to defeat their enemy, the invader that had tried to take their country from them, inexplicably. There is heroism, but not of a bombastic kind. Just people quietly trying to keep each other safe the best way they can. It is a powerful account which will linger with me a long time after reading. I wish I didn’t know some of it, some accounts are simply awful to read, but I’m so glad Alexievich made it possible for those women to share their experiences with me, and so many other readers who have it, whether we know it or not, so very, very easy.

Posted in #WITMonth, history, non-fiction, translation, war | 11 Comments

The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul (translated by Martin Aitken) #WITMonth

Image result for the murder of hallandI’ve been reading a fairly heavy-going book, something that can only be read in short bursts however attentive or determined a reader I might be, and whilst I have been avoiding simultaneous readings whilst I have been trying to focus more attention on the books I read, I really wanted a bit of light relief. Examining my shelves revealed this slight volume from Peirene Press, books which they describe as the literary equivalent of a movie: something that can be read in a couple of hours. I started reading it on a Tuesday morning, Tuesday being my ‘no internet’ day and I got up at commuting hour on a work from home day and whilst my husband snoozed in bed I spent a lovely two hours reading and finished the book before the working day began. It’s such a long time since I guzzled a book down like that, I’ve been so focused on deeper reading that it’s not really been possible, and it felt like a real treat, a guilty little pleasure. I decided then that I wouldn’t read the book again, I wouldn’t spend a week on it, no analysis or deep reading, just a book, a couple of cups of coffee and a morning spent sitting in a quiet house, the sky all grey outside, and me in my pyjamas, the cat on my knee, all warm and cosy spending my time with a book. Well, there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours.

The Murder of Halland has all the hallmarks of a classical whodunnit – there’s a gun, a murder and a mystery – but there’s something more to it than that. Bess and Halland live in a summer house in a small village by the fjord. They have been living together for a number of years, Bess having left her husband and daughter for Halland. As a result Bess’s daughter, Abby, no longer has anything to do with her, a matter which causes Bess ongoing pain. In the opening of the story Halland has been murdered, a fact which Bess discovers when the police knock on her door finding that Bess herself is accused of his murder. He has been shot. From the beginning Bess’s behaviour is strange and disjointed, she is forgetful and often absent, she loses hours at a time and cannot remember what she had done the night before. She appears to know virtually nothing about the man she has been living with – his desk has been cleared out, his laptop is missing and his phone – and her reaction to his death is both excessive and muted. She doesn’t seem fearful of having been accused, albeit temporarily, nor particularly interested in finding out what happened to him, who killed him or why. There is the suggestion of alcohol abuse on Bess’s part, but she is also a writer and prone, it seems, to writerly absences in which her consciousness disappears into a story. She seems to mix up memory, dream and fictional narrative. In this way she is, perhaps, a classic unreliable narrator but unreliable largely because whole chunks of information seem to be missing, not just about Halland but about Bess herself.

“I never found that the words people said to each other revealed to any great extent what happened between them. A single word never changed anything. A word was not an illumination that lodged itself in the brain and led a person to find a murderer. A word could never would someone fatally. Love couldn’t die on account of a mere word. One word would always be followed by another that compounded or expounded, repaired or derailed. Not even that second word would be decisive. Not in a good way, at any rate. There were times when I lost the inclination to speak. Silence felt simple and straightforward, but also indicated a lack. Silence acted on a person like a prison or a cramped cell.”

The  narrative develops in an increasingly unsettling way. A pregnant young woman, Pernille, turns up at Bess’s home having heard about Halland’s death. Halland had been renting a room in her house, paying rent on which she relied, and had moved many of his papers there, even redirecting his post. Bess suspects, albeit only in passing, that Pernille may be carrying his child. On a night out (which is strange in itself) Bess bumps into another women who seems to have been attracted to, perhaps engaged in a relationship with, Halland. Yet she is not jealous of these women, neither does she seem to have a great deal of curiosity about them. In fact the village seems to be peopled by very strange people. There’s the doctor next door called Brandt who may have a more intimate relationship with Bess, and who she kisses for no apparent reason, who then disappears. His lodger seems familiar with Bess too, though she doesn’t seem to really know who he is. This sensation is compounded when Abby arrives, and she seems familiar with the lodger too. Even the detective, Funder, is mysteriously tanned and Bess can’t seem to stop herself from flirting with him. In fact her behaviour is often surprisingly and unexpectedly sexual, though at no point does she express any particular sexual desire.

The Murder of Halland is an unsettling book, not because of any graphic or disturbing depictions of murder, the book is largely clinical on that front, but because of the strange, often incomprehensible and erratic behaviour of Bess. Everything is disjointed, her reactions are strange and her behaviour even stranger. She is both incurious and yet investigative, she doesn’t seem affected by Halland’s death and then she is. The tumbling, unsettling narrative reminded me of a cooler-headed version of Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment, or a less self-pitying / self-destructive Jean Rhys and it’s delivered in punchy chapters each with a quotation which the reader is advised to take notice of, which flows like a whirlpool one minute, a torrent the next and a bog a moment after. This makes it both a satisfying, because meaty, but unsatisfying, because unsettling, read. In fact it is a perfect 2 hour read, absorbing and irritating in equal measures but with enough to keep you turning the pages and wondering right to the end.

It’s been a small departure from my plan to read more deliberately, but like any sneaky treat it’s been a pleasurable one. I’m only sad that I don’t seem to have any more Peirene books lying around in my library, so I can sneak another quick read in sometime.

Posted in #WITMonth, fiction, quick reads, translation | 4 Comments

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

I’ve been thinking about and reading a lot about ‘minimalism’ recently, the idea of minimising your possessions and living more intentionally. I watched a documentary about the movement a while ago, right at the beginning of my reading fewer books challenge, and it appealed to me then but I’d half-forgotten about it until recently. It’s a concept that interests me, one that sits quite neatly with the ideals of the Tao, and I’ve been reading around a bit and a came across a reference to this book – Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project – and I’m not sure exactly why but I decided to pick it up. This in itself is an act of extreme strangeness on my part. For one, I am buying very few books (I’ve had a bit of a splurge recently, which is bad, but nothing compared to my splurges last year), book acquisition is quite anti-minimalist (though I will be passing it on to a friend shortly, so I’m not ‘hoarding’ it), but the most strikingly odd issue is this, and I can hardly believe I’m admitting it: The Happiness Project is basically a self-help book. Self-help books are the kind of books I avoid at all costs, I am and have always been snarkily derisory of them – you’re never going to fix your life with a pithy little book telling you how to live. Now I love philosophy, I love reading about culture and ideas and things like Walden which involve changing your life and connecting with nature. But this book is a best-seller firmly in the self-help genre – pretty much the antithesis of everything I value – and I seriously considered not reviewing it, but here I am in full confession. Yes: I read a self-help book. I may actually have finally gone insane.

As it happens The Happiness Project doesn’t have a great deal in common with the ideals of minimalism, though there are some interesting parallels. Irrespective I read it and I read it all the way to the end. Perhaps I read it so you don’t have to, but nothing in life is ever quite that simple and I don’t want to jump to the end of my review right in the beginning so let’s swing back to a more traditional approach. So what is The Happiness Project all about? The clue is definitely in the name. Gretchen Rubin decided to bring more happiness into her life, and she approached this by creating a happiness project. Starting in January she started to try to make changes which would make her life happier. This involved an incredible amount of reading, a large degree of thinking, many epiphanies and lots and lots of wall chart. In outlining her plan she identified a number of distinct areas she wanted to work on: boosting her energy levels, focusing on her marriage, pushing herself in her work, focusing on her parenting skills, playing and being joyful, being a great friend, buying happiness (honestly I kind of skipped this chapter because it was in degrees hopelessly naïve and in other respects so close to a truth it was painful to see it so determinedly missed), thinking about transcendence or eternity(almost skipped this one too, for the same reasons), being more present or mindful, pursuing passions and having a better attitude. She chunked these up into monthly goals and set about building a wall chart – her ‘resolutions chart’ – by means of which she made her commitments and measured her performance. After each month she would add a new set of resolutions and she would strive to achieve those too.

It was a good job she put ‘boosting energy’ at the start of her project because it must have taken a considerable amount of energy to keep it all up. As the tasks increased, the scope of her explorations developed, I found myself growing exhausted just reading about them. In the first month she committed to getting more sleep, exercising more, getting more organised – specifically decluttering which is, perhaps, where the connection to minimalism arises – tackling a nagging task and acting more energetic. Next month she added quitting nagging, not expecting praise or appreciation, fighting right (with humour, not rancour), not dumping insecurities or anger on her partner and giving proofs of love. This involved an incredible amount of work, selflessness and, somehow, organising parties. You can see how exhausting this must be. As Gretchen describes her journey, she also includes some interesting quotes from writers she admires or who have something interesting to say on the subject (Samuel Johnson appears frequently), psychological research which supports or challenges her ideas, as well as extracts of responses she’d received on her blog (there is a happiness project blog, from which this book was born) to questions she’d asked her readers about the subject.

As she goes along her journey, Gretchen shares her ‘commandments’ – the moments of epiphany in which she could distil something she’d learned into a little phrase which summarised a key learning. This is one of a number of things I found irritating about this book. The First Commandment was “Be Gretchen”, a reminder to always be consistent with herself and her values and not to try to be something different to who she is. So, for example, whilst she might like to read Aristotle what she loves to read is children’s literature so perhaps prioritising children’s literature is what would make her life happier. As she went through her experience she added to her commandments. Often commandments, along with other natty bits of information in the book, required italics. I also found this irritating, perhaps because I recognise my own propensity for highlighting words with italics as though using italics somehow make an observation more important.

The sheer level of control and activity and wall-chartery required in this happiness project was another source of extreme discomfort on my part. It is an issue that Gretchen herself acknowledges when at one point her husband questions whether the whole project isn’t just an exercise in extreme control. The fact that the end of the year is designated ‘Boot camp perfect’ month only adds to that impression. I’m not sure whether the project could actually make someone happy or just so busy they didn’t have time to notice they weren’t happy [stop me now]. And there’s a perkiness to the writing which I found wearing, though Gretchen is keen to point out her flaws – her nagging and argumentative nature, her quickness to anger and tendency to be a bit of a buzz-kill [yet these are all traits I recognise in myself when I’m in my most self-critical hyper-perfectionist mode and I began to wonder if Gretchen was, in fact, all of these things or just a perfectionist with a penchant for organisational stationery. Another trait I might, slightly, recognise] – and there came a point just past half-way through the book when I was reading and I was thinking to myself ‘who does she remind me of?’ and I realised, with shock and awe, that it was, in fact, the unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt fame.

And I realised something else at that point: I like Kimmy Schmidt, and perhaps, deep down, my discomfort was partly driven by the fact that I also like Gretchen. Sure there are flaws in her system, and if you’re not the kind of person who can throw all your boundless energy into everything – creating writing and reading groups, volunteering at scout troupes, going to weird classes (laughing yoga?!? Even Gretchen wasn’t keen on that) being relentlessly forgiving and kind, doing your sister’s holiday shopping, etc etc – it’s all a little bit exhausting but Gretchen is at pains, in the entirety of the book, to point out that this was both an experiment and a journey that worked for her and her key advice was that First Commandment “Be [insert own name]”: find a happiness project that works for you. And I couldn’t help admiring that, just as I admire Kimmy Schmidt with her unflagging positivity and relentless desire to love and experience life.

Gretchen’s project isn’t for me, though I did learn something from her book and how to bring more happiness into my life. Some of her points are obvious, but sometimes the obvious needs some driving home for you to pay attention to it: be yourself, follow your own desires, love what you love, prioritise what matters, if you commit to be happy you will probably become happier. The how you do it is more down to you. And that, in itself, was revealing. It made me think about all the things that have been absorbing my mind recently, the ideas and philosophies which have most struck a chord with me – minimalism and Taoism – and why that is and how those things might lead to a happier life.

In a strange coincidence when I finished reading The Happiness Project I picked up The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton, which I’ve borrowed recently from the library, and in the preface Merton expresses more succinctly and neatly than I have here my reservations about Gretchen’s methods. When Gretchen strives relentlessly to fulfil her resolutions, Taoism sees the acquisition of happiness very differently; it advocates not-striving, the principle of wu wei is that we are most in tune with the world, with ourselves, when we do nothing, that it is an approach of non-action rather than action that puts us in touch with the mysterious Tao. I read the following as an ancient critique of Gretchen’s methods, sent down through the ages, and it was, perhaps, an example of wu wei in action: I felt discomfort with what I had read, I was not seeking the wisdom to explain that discomfort and so the Tao delivered it anyway. But I’ll let Merton express it in his much more capable way:

“He sees “happiness” and “the good” as “something to be attained,” and thus he places them outside himself in the world of objects. In so doing, he becomes involved in a division from which there is no escape: between the present, in which he is not yet in possession of what he seeks, and the future in which he thinks he will have what he desires…”

“The more one seeks “the good” outside oneself as something to be acquired, the more one is faced with the necessity of discussing, studying, understanding, analysing the nature of the good. The more, therefore, one becomes involved in abstractions and in the confusion of divergent opinions. The more “the good” is analysed, the more it is treated as something to be attained by special virtuous techniques, the less real it becomes[…] And as the end becomes more remote and more difficult, the means become more elaborate and complex, until finally the mere study of the means become so demanding that all ones efforts must be concentrated on this, and the end is forgotten.” 

Yet whilst it is true to say it’s a critique there’s another school of thought which is that it is simply a different way of trying to achieve the same thing: to be in harmony with oneself and the world. Gretchen does it one way (not a Taoist way) and the Tao sets out another way. My way and Gretchen’s have parted, but not before I’ve learned some interesting things, been entertained and admitted my foray into self-help hasn’t been quite as painful as I’ve pretended it to be [italics included].

Posted in non-fiction, self-help | 4 Comments

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

“Life is full of stories. Or maybe life is only stories.”

Image result for a tale for the time being

I may have mentioned that it’s been a difficult couple of weeks, nothing major just a bit of personal disappointment which has caused me to rethink what I’m doing with my life, and against this backdrop of disappointment I’ve struggled to really settle on something to read. I realised I needed comfort reading: a book which could not fail to cheer me up whilst addressing some of the issues I was absorbed with, and whilst I was thinking about it I thought “I could really use the advice of old Jiko right about now,” and of course that meant I had to read A Tale for the Time Being again. Actually I’ve been thinking about it for quite a while, and events simply turned me to it sooner than I had expected. I think this is the third or fourth time I’ve read this book, but it has never yet failed to soothe and console me and it hasn’t failed me this time either.

I suspect it’ll be an unusual reader of this blog who hasn’t read or heard about A Tale for the Time Being before. The book is the story of Naoko (Nao) Yasutani, a Japanese girl who grew up in the US forced to return to Tokyo when her Dad lost his job in Silicon Valley after the dotcom bubble burst. The family lost everything in the financial downturn. Consequently she moved from a comfortable, secure life to one of difficulties and relative poverty. Her Dad makes multiple suicide attempts and her life at her new Japanese school is excruciatingly bad – she suffers from intense bullying, even from her teachers, and fails to make any connections or friends. When the story begins we find Nao has dropped out of school; she’s spending her days in a French style café writing a diary and avoiding ‘dates’ (e.g prostitution), contemplating suicide herself. She’s also trying to write the story of her great-grandmother – Jiko – who is 104 years old, a Buddhist nun and a radical, liberal feminist whose son, Haruki #1, was killed as a kamikaze pilot during the WWII. Haruki #1 is a hero of Nao’s, as is Jiko (who is a hero of mine too, obviously!).

On another thread, we have Ruth (miraculously similar to the Ruth writing this book) who finds Nao’s diary, with some letters, a watch and another diary written in French, one day whilst walking on the beach on the remote Canadian island where she lives with her husband Oliver (perhaps, too, remarkably similar to the Oliver who is the spouse of Ruth Ozeki). Ruth is struggling with her writing, struggling with her memory and struggling with life on a tiny island with a tiny, and quite nosy community in which secrets are all but impossible. Ruth gets drawn into Nao’s world through reading the diary; she increasingly suffers from difficulties in separating the present time from Nao-time, the time Nao was writing and the things she was writing about. So we are all drawn into the story which sits against a backdrop of terrible events: 9/11, the Japanese tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, war, the slow death of Ruth’s mother by Alzheimer’s. Through the smallness of Nao’s troubled world, the troubles of the wider world are revealed as are Ruth’s own troubles. Everything is strangely connected.

A Take for the Time Being is a complex story, and I’m not going to do justice to it here. It is a book with which I feel a deep connection, I feel it because I think it is full of truth wrapped in a story because life is only stories as Jiko so succinctly puts it, but through stories we can learn about ourselves, about others, about what it means to be human, about how to be a human in the world. Everyone in A Tale for the Time Being is suffering. Nao is suffering the loss of the life she knew and its replacement which is full of sadness and loss, anger and cruelty. Her Dad is suffering because his choices led his family to their demise and he felt powerless to do anything about it, feeling that suicide is the ‘honourable’ way out, unable to talk about what he had done or why. Ruth is suffering because she is lost, because she lost her mother, because island life doesn’t suit her yet the world around her is so strange and cruel and misguided, and whilst all these things are going on she feels that she is losing her mind, that she is sliding into Alzheimer’s like her mother did before her. The world is suffering from war, from climate change, from pollution – particularly plastics in the ocean and radioactive fallout – from terrorism. Everywhere you look there is terrible cruelty. Haruki #1 suffered bullying and the imminence of his death being drafted to a suicide squadron when all he wanted was to study philosophy and French and be a decent person in the world. Even old Jiko, 104 years old, suffered the loss of her beloved son, and then her daughters and the sadness and dejection of her grandson and great-granddaughter. How amongst all this suffering do we live at all? It is a question I’ve found myself reflecting on, though my suffering has been small and insignificant but the wider suffering of the world is ever-pressing and there is so little, if not quite nothing, one person can do about it.

Yet this book, largely though the beautiful musings of Jiko and her family, offers a way. The world, it turns out, is a strange and beautiful and complex place and we can choose how we interact with it. Because we are time beings. As Haruki #1 explains:

“Dogen also wrote that a single moment is all we need to establish our human will and attain truth. I never understood this before, because my understanding of time was murky and imprecise, but now that my death is imminent, I can appreciate his meaning. Both life and death manifest in every moment of existence. Our human body appears and disappears moment by moment, without cease, and this ceaseless arising and passing away is what we experience as time and being. They are not separate. They are one thing, and in even a fraction of a second, we have the opportunity to choose, and to turn the course of our action either toward the attainment of truth or away from it. Each instant is utterly critical to the whole world.”

Our time here is comprised of instants and in each instant we can choose how we respond. This is an important aspect of Dogen’s Buddhist philosophy, as Ozeki describes in one of the appendices to the book in an examination of ‘zen moments’ (of which there are, according to Dogen, 6,400,099,980 in a day):

“If you start snapping your fingers now and continue snapping 98,463,077 times without stopping, the sun will rise and the sun will set, and the sky will grow dark and the night will deepen, and everyone will sleep while you are still snapping, until finally, sometime after daybreak, when you finish up your 98,463,077th snap, you will experience the truly intimate awareness of knowing exactly how you spent every single moment of a single day of your life.

She sat back on her heels and nodded. The thought experiment she proposed was certainly odd, but her point was simple. Everything in the universe is constantly changing, and nothing stays the same, and we must understand how quickly time flows by if we are to wake up and truly live our lives.

That’s what it means to be a time being, old Jiko told me, and then she snapped her crooked fingers again.

And just like that, you die.”

Yet it is not just an idea that exists in ancient Buddhist philosophy, it’s also a key principle of quantum physics. Quantum physics posits a strange, incomprehensible universe in which cats can be simultaneously alive and dead, in which there are many worlds – a branching, endlessly complex universe in which every decision, every action, creates a branching storyline – a new universe – in which the story unfolds the same or differently. It’s an interesting concept, but the important point for me was that being reminded that we are time beings is a reminder to wake up and to truly live our lives not in a constant state of input and response – instinct – but in an intentioned and deliberate way. We do not have to react, we do not have to allow events to shape us. We can choose to shape ourselves, our every moment. At any point we can snap our fingers and make a choice, change direction, do things differently. And this applies to everything. We do not need to be angry or hostile, defensive or aggressive. We can choose to love, to forgive, to accept and to learn. And we know, deep down, without the framework of a religion that this is the better way to be. We don’t really need an old Jiko of our own (though I wish, I wish) just a little voice in the back of our heads that points us in the right direction when we feel sad or pressured or even disappointed, so that we do the right thing not just the reactive thing. A Tale for the Time Being was the right direction for me, and thankfully it is both an instructive, fascinating and beautiful read. I am so grateful that it exists. Thank you, Ruth Ozeki.

Posted in fiction, Japanese, re-read | 4 Comments

Findings by Kathleen Jamie

“This is what I want to learn: to notice, but not to analyse.”

Image result for findings kathleen jamieWhen I read that line I realised that Jamie had latched on, somehow, to my very thoughts, and I realised that most of my reading this year, my most rewarding reading experiences, has been aimed towards this particular goal. Reading, for me, for everyone possibly, is a way of learning, it is a way of learning how to be in the world because we read how people behave and decide how we want to behave and we learn how to be those things through books. Jamie is an excellent example of someone who has learned how to notice, but not to analyse. It is, perhaps, the ultimate way of being in the moment, of observing something and enjoying it for what it is – seeing the bird looping in the wild air and not wanting to capture it by naming or description but simply observing the way it whoops and whirls. It is a state I have been struggling to overcome, it is not my nature to just watch and accept I am always trying to capture and own. I saw two birds walking along a wall at the side of the railway line last week, two black and white birds with long orange beaks, and they were walking single file and they looked beautiful and strangely hilarious and my first thought was ‘wow’ and my second was ‘what are those’ and the answer is oystercatchers, but I would rather the second part had remained somewhat unknown.

 Findings is a series of essays by Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie. There’s no particular theme beyond Jamie’s desire to see, to observe and be present in the world. It begins with Jamie’s foray into light and darkness, her questioning of the ways in which we perceive darkness as something negative, an absence, a place of death:

“I imagned travelling into the dark. Northward –  so it got darker as I went. I’d a notion to sail by night, to enter into the dark for the love of its textures and wild intimacy. I had been asking around among literary people, readers of books, for instances of dark as natural phenomenon, rather than as a cover for all that’s wicked, but could find few. It seems to me that our cherished metaphor of darkness is wearing out The darkness through which might shine the Beacon of Hope. Isaiah’s dark: ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.’

Pity the dark: we’re so concerned to overcome and banish it, it’s crammed full of all that’s devilish like some grim cupboard under the stair. But dark is good. We are conceived and carried in the darkness are we not? When my son was born, a midwinter child, he cried pitifully at the ward’s lights, and only settled to sleep when he was laid in a big pram with a black hood under a black umbrella. Our vocabulary ebbs with the daylight, closed down with the cones of our retinas. I mean, I looked up ‘darkness’ on the Web – and was offered Christian ministries offering to lead me to salvation. And there is always death. We say death is darkness; and darkness death.”

She travels to the Orknay Islands to Maes Howe, a Viking tomb which captures the midwinter sun yet the trip doesn’t quite work out as she’d hoped. In other essays she watches peregrine falcons and ospreys,  she hunts the  elusive corncrake (which many will remember from Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun), she watches salmon attempting to leap, unsuccessfully, up a burn, she visits an abandoned island where she finds the decaying body of a whale and hacks the head off a dead gannet with her Swiss Army knife. She visits the Surgeons’ Hall and observes the many body parts which are collected there, the misshapen and tumorous, and leaves in tears. Here, where her husband is extremely sick with a fever, she observes the cobwebs gathered under the gutter of her house:

“Under the gutter of our house are many cobwebs, each attached at a slightly different angle to the wall. It’s an east-facing wall, so on sunny mornings the cobwebs are alight.

The cobwebs make me think of ears, or those satellite dishes attuned to every different nuance of the distant universe. One cobweb after another – a whole quarter of cobwebs, like an Eastern bazaar with all the cobblers, all the spice-sellers, all the drapers together in their own alleys. He biggest web measured about a hand-span and a half, a pianist’s hand-span. I wondered if all the spiders were related, a family group.”

The essays are at once detached and highly empathetic. Jamie has a beautiful way of writing, whether she is writing of tumbledown old shielings or the Edinburgh skyline, she has a fresh gaze and an eye for the unusual and whilst some of her subject matter can seem harsh or lurid – as when she hacks off the head of the gannet – there is an underlying reverence which elevates the experience to something more than mere violence. Jamie is one of those writers who can capture the magnificence and extraordinary beauty of the natural world and bring it dispassionately, or passionately, to life, a secular Annie Dillard or Mary Oliver. I remember being entranced the first time I read this book and that entrancing withstands, or in fact benefits from, re-reading. It is a gorgeous book, sparse and wonderfully written and it was exactly what I needed this week (it’s been a rubbish week) to remind me of what’s important and what the world offers us when we step outside the everyday.

Posted in nature, non-fiction, re-read | 7 Comments

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Jennifer Croft)

“Human life is comprised of situations.”

Flights is one of those books which is hard to describe. It is hard to describe and it is even harder to review because reviewing requires some description and the nebulousness of this book makes description impossible. In fact not just impossible but actually counter to the philosophy of the book itself which posits description, in one posting anyway, as an act of destruction in itself:

“Describing something is like using it – it destroys; the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear. This applies most of all to places. Enormous damage has been done by travel literature – a veritable scourge, an epidemic. Guidebooks have conclusively ruined the greater part of the planet; published in editions numbering in the millions, in many languages, they have debilitated places, pinning them down and naming them, blurring their contours. Even I, in my youthful naivete, once took a shot at the description of places. But when I would go back to those descriptions later, when I’d try to take a deep breath and allow their intense presence to choke me up all over again, when I’d try to listen in on their murmurings, I was always in for a shock. The truth is terrible: describing is destroying.”

So let me attempt a little act of destructive description here. Flights is a book about travel, it is about maps. It is about different kinds of maps: maps of places – which themselves figure in the book – maps of the body, in particular the work of the anatomists who Image result for flights by olga tokarczukhave both described and destroyed the body, captured and mapped it and shared it like those multi-language guide books do; maps of the mind, of consciousness, of the art of travelling and the question of motion. It’s about ‘kairos’ – the Greek God of moments, time captured in a bubble, the opportune or momentous time. It is about plastination, the art of preserving the body in a form which allows it to be both captured and revealed. All these ideas, these concepts, mingle together to make a complex, yet strangely cohesive whole. It is all interlinked, and through clever placement and clever repetition, Tokarczuk reveals this interconnection in surprising and, often, entertaining ways.

“The more experienced a biologist you become, the longer and harder you look at the complex structures and connections in the biosystem, the stronger your hunch that all animate things cooperate in this growth and bursting, supporting one another. Living organisms give themselves to one another, permit one another to make use of them. If rivalry exists, it is a localised phenomenon, an upsetting of the balance. It is true that tree branches jostle one another out of the way to reach the light, their roots collide in the race to a water source, animals eat each other, but there is in all this a kind of accord, it’s just an accord that men find frightening. It might appear that we are actors in a great bodily theatre, as though those wars we wage were merely civil wars. This – what other word to use? – lives, has a million traits and qualities, so that everything is contained within it, and there is nothing that might lie outside of it, all death is part of life, and in some sense there is no death. There are no errors. There are no guilty parties and no innocents, either, no merits, no sins, no good or evil; whoever thought up those notions led humankind astray.”

The structure of the book is equally unusual, or rather it is a kind of usual that is unusually deployed. The book comprises a collection of short pieces, many of which are less than a page long, some as short as a line or a single paragraph. Each piece contains an observation, or a story. Those stories are factual and fictional, they blend the idea of fiction and non-fiction in a way which is unusual to the Western ear (in many cultures there is no separation of fiction and non-fiction, there are stories and there are text books and books like memoirs are considered just another kind of story). Interspersed between the shorter pieces are a handful of longer sections, one of which is a continuous story of a man called Kunicki who lost his wife and son on the island of Vis, and the way this loss affected him. The quality of the writing is quite extraordinary; it is at once clear and enticing, it is reflective and clever and very compelling. Tokarczuk weaves her tales so convincingly that when the purely fictional stories come, it comes as a bit of a surprise.

“’In reality, movement doesn’t exist. Like the turtle in Zeno’s paradox, we’re heading nowhere, if anything we’re simply wandering into the interior of a moment, and there is no end, nor any destination. And the same might apply to space – since we are all identically removed from infinity, there can also be no somewhere – nothing is truly anchored on any day, nor in any place.”

Flights is a difficult book to grasp whilst being extremely easy to read. It reminded me of a kind of mash up between Renata Adler and Maggie Nelson, not as philosophical as Nelson but rippled through with philosophy yet not as person-centric as Adler but with a very personable, and character driven tone. Style-wise the book is similar to these two as well, but somehow there is less formality and more playfulness and in this respect it also reminded me of Calvino in some of his more esoteric writings like Mr. Palomar or Invisible Cities. There’s a playfulness there, an experimentality, you get the impression that Tokarczuk is writing what she feels and seeing where it goes, yet the construction, the style and the skill of her pieces belies that level of spontaneity. No, Tokarczuk is a writer of power exercising her power in a fascinating and entertaining way. It’s like finding yourself in a museum in which each exhibit is both different and connected and as you walk along you find yourself being more and more drawn into it, its dizzying array of styles and perspectives, forms and presentations, and you emerge from it blinking and slightly unsettled, unsure of what you’ve just seen but yet dazzled by it. It has cemented my (not inconsiderable) respect for Fitzcarraldo Editions as a publishing house with spark and an eye for innovative writing and it has made me desire a subscription even more (if that was possible), a desire I’m going to have to work hard to quash after this.

Posted in fiction | 10 Comments