World Poetry Day

Happy World Poetry day! In honour of the day I thought it’d be nice to share a few poems and poets that I really like. Quite a few years ago I tried my hand at writing poetry and I liked it, it’s an immersive and challenging experience that makes you look at the world differently. I wish I’d kept it up but instead I changed my job which was a different kind of challenging and immersive experience that pays the bills better but isn’t quite so psychologically rewarding.

Anway, I wasn’t very good at it but because I was trying to write poetry I read a lot of poetry and I found a lot of poets that I love. Here are a few of my favourites. Who are your favourite poets and favourite poems?

October by Louise Gluck (note: this is part 3 and my favourite part of the poem, but it is worth reading the whole


Snow had fallen. I remember

music from an open window.

Come to me, said the world.

This is not to say

it spoke in exact sentences

but that I perceived beauty in this manner.

Sunrise. A film of moisure

on each living thing. Pools of cold light

formed in the gutters.

I stood

at the doorway,

ridiculous as it now seems.

What others found in art,

I found in nature. What others found

in human love, I found in nature.

Very simple. But there was no voice there.

Winter was over. In the thawed dirt,

bits of green were showing.

Come to me, said the world. I was standing

in my wool coat at a kind of bright portal –

I can finally say

long ago; it gives me considerable pleasure.

the healer, the teacher –

Death cannot harm me

more than you have harmed me,

my beloved life.

Although the Wind by Izumi Shikibu (tr. Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani)

Although the wind

Blows terribly here,

The moonlight also leaks

Between the roof planks

Of this ruined house.

close up photo of mushrooms

Photo by Fabian Wiktor on

Looking for Mushrooms at Sunrise by W. S. Merwin

When it is not yet day
I am walking on centuries of dead chestnut leaves
In a place without grief
Though the oriole
Out of another life warns me
That I am awake

In the dark while the rain fell
The gold chanterelles pushed through a sleep that was not mine
Waking me
So that I came up the mountain to find them

Where they appear it seems I have been before
I recognize their haunts as though remembering
Another life

Where else am I walking even now
Looking for me

Black Maps by Mark Strand

Not the attendance of stones,

nor the applauding wind,

shall let you know

you have arrived,

nor the sea that celebrates

only departures,

nor the mountains,

nor the dying cities.

Nothing will tell you

where you are.

Each moment is a place

you’ve never been.

You can walk

believing you cast

a light around you.

But how will you know?

The present is always dark.

Its maps are black,

rising from nothing,


in their slow ascent

into themselves,

their own voyage,

its emptiness,

the bleak, temperate

necessity of its completion.

As they rise into being

they are like breath.

And if they are studied at all

it is only to find,

too late, what you thought

were concerns of yours

do not exist.

Your house is not marked

on any of them,

nor are your friends,

waiting for you to appear,

nor are your enemies,

listing your faults.

Only you are there,

saying hello

to what you will be,

and the black grass

is holding up the black stars.

white and black sail boat on ocean

Photo by Mike B on

Gift by Czeslaw Milosz (tr. Anthony Milosz)

A day so happy.

Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.

Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.

There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.

I knew no one worth my envying him.

Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.

To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.

In my body I felt no pain.

When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and the sails.

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Slow reading the Diaries of Virginia Woolf

A while ago I acquired a full set of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, all six volumes. I had read the Persephone volume, edited by Leonard Woolf, and I grew curious about what her expanded, unexpurgated diaries might be like. At the time I was fascinated by Woolf. I read all her novels and some of her essays (I find her essays significantly harder to read for some reason) and I’d also picked up the huge biography by Hermione Lee which, you may not be surprised to hear, also lies unread on my shelves. It’s a lot of Woolf. Anyway, I’m still fascinated by Woolf, but I haven’t read anything by her for a couple of years now. I have little capacity for re-reading and embarking on a multi-month task of reading her diaries isn’t entirely appealing. Once I start I know I’ll have to go on.

A stack of Woolf

Recently I was listening to a podcast and they were talking about why you should read ‘hard things’; specifically they were talking about reading Ulysses by James Joyce, and in the discussion they suggested that perhaps it’s okay to read it in a non-linear fashion, and perhaps it’s okay that it takes a year or longer and maybe you only read it 5 pages at a time, or 1 page, and maybe you read those 5 pages or 1 page over and over for a week until it really sinks in and you start to get a proper feel for it. This struck me as an interesting suggestion, not least because I have a copy of Ulysses sitting on my shelf unread and this felt like quite a reasonable way to tackle it. I let the thought permeate a bit, and then a bit later on I thought ‘Well, why does it have to be Ulysses?’. After all there are loads of hard books out there, and people always talk about Joyce like he’s the epitome of the ‘difficult’ writer and ‘oh it’s so rewarding to read’ and blah blah blah. It is probably true, and I will probably get to my copy of Ulysses someday and when I do I suspect I will read it in that fashion and no doubt I will find it very rewarding in the end. But before then I figured – well, why can’t I just read Virginia Woolf’s diaries that way? A little at a time, perhaps non-linearly and maybe over a year or so or maybe longer. And maybe when I’ve finished Woolf’s diaries I’ll finally get around to reading that enormous biography by Hermione Lee. I suspect that will also be ‘hard’ and also rewarding. They are all rather daunting sitting there taking up the best part of the shelf.

So that’s what I am going to do. Aside from my normal reading I am going to try to read a little bit of Woolf every day. Maybe I won’t get through much, maybe just an entry or two, and maybe there’ll be the odd day when I don’t read any of it at all. Maybe I’ll forget to read it for a while and then pick it up again. Who knows. I’m going to try, anyway.

Posted in Challenges, female writers, non-fiction, non-fiction by female writers | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

In Ascension by Martin MacInnes

In Ascension is the first book I encountered which really made me regret my book buying ban. I have been interested in other books, of course, my desire to acquire is significant, but something about In Ascension appealed to me beyond a basic curiosity. It felt like a book I had to read. Fortunately it was on order at my library and I was able to reserve a copy. I am so glad I did. Everything I had hoped for in this book really delivered and it’s very likely I will buy myself a copy when my book buying ban is over. I would like to read it again.

In Ascension follows the story of Leigh, a Dutch marine microbiologist whose primary interest is the algaes and the ancient archaea that live deep in the ocean vents. She first became interested in marine biology when she started swimming at Nieuwe Maas as a way to escape her father’s unpredictable violence. As she swims she has an experience, a transcendent moment which changes the course of her life.

There was no gap separating my body from the living world. I was pressed against a teeming immensity, every cubic millimetre of water densely filled with living stuff. These organisms were so small I couldn’t see them, but somehow I felt their presence, their fraternity, all around me. I didn’t look through the water towards life, I looked directly into water-life, a vast patchwork supporting my body, streaming into my nostrils, my ears, the small breaks and crevices in my skin, swirling through my hair and entering the same eyes that observed it. In what felt like minutes, but must have been only seconds, I saw a completely different world, a place of significance and complexity, an almost infinite number of independent organisms among which I floated like a net, scooping up untold creatures with every minor shift and undulation of my body.”

“I gazed at the scene, hanging horizontally, suspended beneat the surface, no movement to cloud my vision, and as if from nowhere I realised, suddenly, with appreciation, that absolutely everything around me was alive.

As part of her studies, Leigh joins an expedition – The Endeavour – to investigate a mysterious trench that seemed to appear out of nowhere in the Atlantic. The trench seemed to be deeper than any trench previously observed, significantly deeper. This discovery coincides, strangely, with another new discovery – a kind of propulsion that is more efficient and permits exploration of space at much greater distances than had previously been possible. Leigh’s position on the ship is a meagre one, mostly she is responsible for delivering food, but this lowly position does allow her to observe the other members of the crew and follow the investigations. When they reach the trench the levels of trepediation and fear increase, enhanced by the initial soundings which suggest it is more than 200km deep. This, combined with Leigh’s evident knowledge about sub-sea microbiota, lead to her joining the first, and only, diving expedition to explore the trench. Something strange happens to all involved. She suffers memory loss, fever and cramping. All of them become sick and all of them become obsessed with going back in. After their sub-sea drone is damaged exploring the trench a decision is made to return to land. Leigh returns home, but she is changed immeasureably.

Juxtaposing the scientific explorations, we see something of Leigh’s family life, a part of her life which is difficult, in which her sense of connection is significantly more broken. As a child she was subject to violent abuse from her father, an abuse her sister was somehow spared from and which her mother, a mathematician working at the local university, did little or nothing to prevent. Later, after her father’s death, she struggles to reconnect with her family. Her sister, Helena, is both younger (in years) and older (in behaviour) than Leigh but is far away in Jakarta where she practices law. Leigh is left home with her mother, Fenna, a quiet and self-contained woman who may be in, and perhaps hiding, the early stages of dementia. Leigh is never able to resolve the abuses of her past, somehow she cannot discuss it with Fenna or bring herself to properly raise it with Helena. Instead they show affection by a kind of mutual respect for each other’s private space, coming together quietly for meals and little else. When Leigh leaves for her new job in California she seems to know something isn’t quite right with her mother, but she moves on anyway. The algal bonds are stronger than her familial ones. She is following the research.

She finds herself working for an international organisation, ICORS, that was set up to exploit the benefits of ‘the power’, the mysterious propulsion method that came to several engineers at once in a kind of dream-like state. By this point it is evident that all is not well on planet Earth. Climate change is well and truly underway, though it is referenced here in a less-than heavy handed way, appearing only as a backdrop – intense heat, fires, sicknesses in the population like Fenna’s early onset dementia. By the time Leigh joins the programme things are pretty bad and there’s no a lot of support for ICORS, in whom vast sums of money have been invested which people think, perhaps understandably, might be spent on correcting things here rather than reaching for space. It doesn’t help that the power isn’t as powerful as people hoped, it would not permit interstellar travel but might permit the outer-reaches of the solar system to be reached within a considerably shorter length of time. This disappointment in the programme means that Leigh has to keep her involvement secret. As far as her family are concerned she is working for NASA. Secrecy is key.

Leigh’s role is to help to develop an algal strain that can be used to feed a manned crew on a space mission. Initially she knows very little detail, but after pushing and proving her capabilities she is given more clearance and she starts to understand better what the programme is working on. She discovers that at the time the power became known, there was an object in space – which they refer to as ‘Datura’ which was clearly not naturally occurring. Separately they discovered they were receiving transmissions from Voyager II, from a part of space where Voyager II shouldn’t have been. That there is an intelligence behind this seems irrefutable. When Datura disappears the mission focus turns to Voyager II. Leigh finds herself, because of her experience with the algal strains and her relationship with the programme leader, an older woman called Uria, as one of three members of a potential crew, a back up crew, being trained for a mission to locate Voyager II. Her team are the third back up team, but as events develop they find themselves in the number 1 spot, and before she knows it Leigh is heading into space.

There is much about the mission which is still unknown and unnerving, not least of which is the mysterious nature of the power which propels. How this will affect them is still unknown; on Earth it seems that wherever the power is tested, unexpected events occur. Mass extinctions, unaccountable animal behaviour. It is a dangerous and unknown thing, one whose effects cannot be predicted:

“According to some definitions the power technically does not exist. If it cannot be satisfactorily observed and understood then it remains a theoretical property, invoked as a possible explanation for otherwise inexplicible phenomena, but not, in ordinary terms, real. Not felt, not seen, not incorporated into the imagination. This doubled nature – the reality and unreality of the power – has to be built into the craft. The source of the thrust design, the pattern on the object, the thing that will carry the ship. The whole system will be sealed from the crew. It isn’t just advisable, it’s essential. If you try to observe it, it disappears.”

However, the crew seem to survive each burn and the algal strains develop beautifully, in fact they find it hard to stop eating it. As they get further away from Earth and closer to Voyager, they start to change. Will they survive the journey? Well I’m not going to say. You’ll have to read the book to find out.

In Ascension is a gorgeous book, multi-layered and beautifully written. It is satisfying and dissatisfying in almost equal measures. Much is hinted at and some things are not clear, it is like a beautiful mystery written in the words of the tiny single-celled organisms that form most of the life on this Earth; a language we haven’t ever truly learned to read. Was Leigh abused as a child? Was her interest in science just a way of escaping her inability to connect with people? Is she more connected to this mission than it first appears? Her mother is so nebulous she is almost made of mist, and yet there is something concrete about her too. Nothing is just one thing, not much is explained and a great deal is left for you to connect for yourself. This makes it an intriguing read, though I can see that it could be irritating.

I don’t think In Ascension would satisfy a hardcore sci-fi reader; though it is science fiction it is definitely a more literary science fiction and I sense a more committed sci-fi reader might find the lack of resolutions, the limited explainations, quite frustrating. I wouldn’t hand this book to my husband. Yet to me it was beautiful, subtle and deep. Deeply satisfying, too. If it frustrated me in any way it was that I was inclined to read it too fast, it pulled me page by page, when I wanted to really pause and enjoy the prose. It probably won’t win any prizes, science fiction rarely piques the interest of the prize committees, but it’s a winner in my mind. A subtle, gentle and yet fierce read. Transcendent, in a way I haven’t experienced in a long time. I suspect I missed some of its depths, but that just means I have the pleasure of another read later. Which is always a good thing (assuming I ever find the time).

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Porius by John Cowper Powys “I am the fool of fate”

I first came across John Cowper Powys via the Twitter feed of the author Sam Byers (sadly no longer on Twitter). Byers was reading A Glastonbury Romance at the time and tweeted something about how marvellous it was, the way in which Powys would deviate from the plot for 2+ pages whilst his characters were caught in transcendent, mystical ecstasies over the full moon. There was something so whimsical and profligate about it that I was inspired to buy the book myself and it is, in fact, completely marvellous though very long and rather strange. I loved it so much that I bought a bunch more books by Powys including this one. Porius isn’t an easy book to track down, it is currently out of print and second hand versions can be pricey. I think I have the 1951 first edition, which I was lucky to find on the Oxfam website at a cost of £35, the most I think I’ve paid for a book; however, I found out later that this version is heavily abridged. Powys was forced to cut about a third of the book before his publishers would agree to print, allegedly due to a post-war paper shortage. There is an unabridged version which was published in 2007 and the cheapest copy I can find is £60 so it’s off my wish list for now though I would like to acquire and read the full unexpurgated version at some point in the future if I can. Even unabridged this book is a solid 682 pages long, and it’s taken me some time to read it.

I think this is the first edition, not 100% sure though.

The events in Porius take place over a period of a week in October in the year 499 A.D. Porius is the son of Prince Einion, Prince of Edeyrnion who is the great-great-grandson of the Brythonic King Cunedda. Edeyrnion is in North Wales, in the vicinity of Eryri (Snowdonia). The family govern the region at a time of intense stress and upheaval, in which there are schisms in both religion and race. There is a tension between the Brythons (Britons) which comprise the ruling family, the Gwyddyliad (Scots) and the Ffichtiad (Picts) (who, intermarried, comprise the Gwyddyl-Ffichti, a robust and formidable force) who inhabit the regions and pre-date the Brythons, the Saeson (Saxons) who are threatening an invasion, and the aboriginal giants, the native Welsh, also known as Cewri who are more hinted at than seen and appear to be dying out. Overarching this race tension is a religious tension between the worshippers of Mithras, the burgeoning development of Christianity and its own schisms, the followers of Pelagius, and the authority of the Derwydd, the Druids, who are also dying out. There is a separate aristocracy called the Modrybedd which is a matriarchal line, comprised of 3 aged women who are Aunts to Prince Einion. Between all of these factions there are bonds and tensions which strain over the course of this extraordinary week, largely due to the Saeson threat which presents an opportunity to those who might prefer to be relieved of Brythonic control. A cause of further disruption is the presence of King Arthur and his court, who are allied with Prince Einion to counter the Saeson invasion and regain control of the region. Meanwhile many are unsettled by the strange presence of Merlin, known here as Myrddin Wyllt, Myrddin Ambrosius, and Myrddin Emrys whose magic is legendary but who is currently struggling with his own challenges.

At the beginning of the book Porius is watching and waiting, overlooking the valley which his father controls. He has just turned 30 and is on the cusp of being married to his childhood companion, Morfydd. He is pensive. Porius has received a letter and he is mulling it over. He is aware of the nearby presence of Arthur and Myrddin and the disruption their presence has wrought. The brother of the Derwydd is rumoured to have been killed, this event guaranteed to stir up disruption. It is believed that Myrddin may have been involved in the killing, that they two were wrangling over the affections of Nineue, a companion of Myrddin’s sister Gwendydd. Nineue is believed to be an enchantress and her hold over Myrddin is well known, though to what extent that hold is real becomes a key question later on. Meanwhile Porius waits for his closest friend, his foster brother Rhun with whom he will travel to see Brother John – follower of Pelagius and Porius’s tutor – to gather holy water. Along the way he will encounter many others, including the women of Arthur’s court and Myrddin, with whom Porius shares an unusual but significant bond.

Porius himself is a difficult character to grasp. Quiet, thoughtful, stocky and strong. He spends much of his time thinking; there’s a subtle gap between the speed of his thoughts and his movement which make him seem slow and deliberate. He spend a large amount of time thinking about his preferred activity, a kind of mental phoenomena he refers to as “cavoseniargising” something he describes as “those recurrent moments in his life when the gulf between the animal consciousness of his body …and the consciousness of his restless soul was temporarily bridged…” (a term which seems almost intentionally obtuse and which threw me off my reading rhythm more than once). What Porius wants or prefers seems ever secondary, rather as a character he is drawn and responds and acts with a deliberation not driven by any seeming desires of his own. It is kind of relaxing, whilst making the character very difficult to pin down. There’s a sense that Porius is a kind of force of nature, part of nature in a way we are not anymore, he responds like a plant or a animal to the wind, to the mist, to the forces that sustain and surround him, like here when he finds himself exhausted trying to reach Brother John’s cell:

“Porius set himself to imagine himself liberated from this bog, not by a desperate effort of will, nor by a frantic confession of human frailty but in what Brother John insisted was the true Pelagian method; by letting his soul imagine his rescue by his friend, the south-wind, the wind that came from Cader Idris! Using therefore his whole exhausted being, from his mud-caked hunting-shoes to the top of his bare head, as a living bow-string, he imagined himself as vividly as he could sending his soul like a released arrow towards the mountain; and with a sigh of relief awaited the result. And the result came. Whether its coming had in reality antedated this gesture of his imagination he refrained from asking himself; but the wind he prayed for, or prayed to, or simply aroused by a motion of his own soul, certainly did come. Very soon, as it blew upon him, befogged, bewildered, and bedevilled though he was, his natural force began to return.

And it was not only from the huge up-shrugged shoulders of Cader Idris that it came. It came from beyond the waters of Lake Tegid, from beyond the birth-place of the sacred river, from beyond the sand dunes of Harlech. It came from the vast sea that no ship had ever crossed since the sinking of Atlantis. Huge swirling moonlit waves, undulating up and down and carrying with them the sea-weeds and sea-creatures from the rocks of Carbonek and the caverns of Caer Sidi were giving it its power. Phantasmal eidola of colossal ruins, white with sea-brine, sea-spindrift, and sea-scum, and lit by glimmerings of phosphorus in the waste of waters that rolled above lost Atlantis, let their buried mystery loose upon this wind! Nor was it only from mountain-summit and ocean ooze that the wind reached him. He felt it had searched out the deepest hiding-places of the giant-children of the Cader; that it had descended into dried-up tarns and lakes and hollow caverns under forgotten cairns, that it had actually gathered into itself, into its very substance, the dust of the bones of the race whose blood was his blood!”

Though the book is about the Prince Porius the focus is on him in only about a third of the book and he is absent for almost all of the middle section. Instead there are chapters devoted to different characters: Porius’s betrothed Morfydd and her intellectual father Brochvael who is brother to Prince Einion; Myrddin, The Derwydd, Taliessin the poet; Prince Einion’s mistress Sibylla, a Gwyddyl-Ffichti woman. This transfer of perspective allows us to learn more about the different characters as well as creating a strange kind of tension. A battle is coming, that much is certain. There is discord and betrayal at every turn, but often it is only something which is hinted at or happening somewhere off-scene which both mutes and intensifies it. I thought this a clever conceit; when war is happening now, battles are happening now, you can see and hear about it in real time. In the year 499 the battle is something happening maybe just over the next hill, but you only know what someone who has witnessed something can tell you, on the off-chance you bump into someone who has seen it. The uncertainty of who was winning, who was alive and who was injured or dead is really brought home here.

Another key character, not mentioned in the character list, is the environment. Powys has a way of giving the weather, the mist, the mountains, the waters, the trees a presence which is viceral. There is never anything ordinary about it, like here, for example:

“We cry glibly, “How the sun shines through the mist!” or, “How the moon shines through the mist!”, but the first light of dawn, and the greyness of the mist it reveals, strike us as independent phenomena simultaneously generated. By imperceptible degrees the first infinitely faint change in the warm dark bosom of the night reaches us like the tolling of a bell under water and with a tragic greyness, far more death-like than anything to be found in the comfortable embrace and kindly oblivion of darkess; and there comes into existence, thrusting itself between the familiar alternation of night and day, a death-cold, corpse-like alien entity newly arrived upon earth from heaven knows where. And from the first moment we are conscious of the dawn we are conscious of it as a thing in itself, as personal as sunlight and moonlight, but in a curious way less natural than these two. There is indeed nothing on earth more supernatural than the first light of dawn. The life-juices, the life-sap in all living things, sink low with the approach of this stranger from beyond the border. This is the hour for which the dying wait so long, and at the coming of which the waters by the bed shiver and stare at one another.”

Porius is a strange book, in fact I’ve found it really difficult to write about it because it’s so hard to nail down. It’s a slow book, it took me a long time to read because events move slowly and the prose moves slowly and circuitously. The Welsh names caused a challenge because they recur so frequently and I have to try to pronounce them as authentically as I could in my head, this slowed me down quite a bit. Actually I’m a bit ashamed of that, really I should know more about a language which is native to my country. Aside from the Welsh I felt like it was a book that had to be taken slowly, that I ought to take my time to let the words seep into my consciousness. Powys has a way of writing which is like a maelstrom. There are so many words, sometimes a violence of words, such passion, everything whirls and flows. Despite all these efforts, the slowness, the deliberation, there remained something nebulous about it. After all, this is a book centred around a great battle but the battle itself is almost always at the edge of consciousness, happening somewhere else, and instead we follow this slow, powerful character and his stocky thoughts and it dictates a slower pace. There is mysticism – the presence of Myrddin – such a strange, elsewhere character – brings magic into the book, most extraordinarily in a scene close to the end of the book where he turns Blodeuwedd, the owl, into a woman. There are giants, the aboriginals who fascinate Porius so that when he encounters them, after his wedding, he is drawn to a sexual liaison (which ends terribly). There is the mystical Cader Idris, a peak which seems to be a recurring presence in my reading this year. This book is beautiful, but like the mist it is impossible to cling onto. I feel like it passed through me and yet it lingers.

You may be wondering after all this why it is I’d like to read the unabridged version. Yes, it took me a long time and it was hard at times and sometimes I felt quite lost. But it is a book which benefits from slowness and it made me slow down. As I read, it deepened. I grew fond of the characters, I started to recognise the different factions and the religious implications. No one was straightforward. No one was just good or bad. They were…real. Real and yet there was magic; real, and yet it was all so implausible. It was…relaxing. I can’t really say why. It affected me.

John Cowper Powys is, to my mind, a great writer. He is not fashionable and his books are strange and difficult and filled with oddball characters. In a different world he would be as popular as Dickens. In a way I am glad he’s not, but I do think he deserves to be more widely read. I don’t think, though, I would recommend Porius as a place to start, good as it is. It’s too esoteric, I felt like I needed a better grounding in Welsh history and legends to really grasp it, and it reminded me I have The Mabinogion to read and perhaps I ought to get around to that soon. Fortunately I also have Wolf Solent and Owen Glyndower by Powys and I suspect Wolf Solent at least will be a little more accessible. But I am glad I read Porius and I know I will read it again. It’s that kind of book. A treasure.

Posted in fiction, history, myth, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Penguin Great Loves: From the letters of Abelard and Heloise – Forbidden Fruit

The second book in the Penguin Great Loves series is an extract from the letters of Abelard and Heloise, collected under the moniker of ‘forbidden fruit’. After a largely disappointing first book I was hoping that this volume would restore my faith in Penguin’s choice of ‘great’ love stories. I didn’t know much about the story of Abelard and Heloise, I had only heard vague rumours and references to it in other literature, and my understanding was that this was an old, old, classic and wonderful tale of a forbidden love. How wrong I was. And, oh, Penguin. You can surely do so much better.

This slight volume consists of five short chapters. The first is a letter from Abelard to a friend, offering some consolation as the friend has suffered a great loss or trial or disappointment, the detail of which is never revealed. In this letter Abelard seeks to comfort his friend by sharing his greater sadness, his own sorry existence and the trials and tribulations he has suffered. Yes, he’s that kind of friend. Oh you think you’re having a bad time – well let me tell you about my much greater suffering. Unfortunately this is the tone of the entire sorry exchange. This letter is helpful, though, as it sets out quite succinctly the whole story of Abelard and Heloise’s ‘great love’ and how it led to both their downfalls. Perhaps it is fair to say that Abelard doesn’t make any great effort to hide his own errors and mistakes, and perhaps he seeks to place much of the blame on himself. At the same time, he comes across rather boorish, enamoured of his own talents and dismissive of the talents of others, self-righteous, self-centred and argumentative. In short, Abelard is hard to like.

The basics of their story is this: Abelard was originally destined to be a knight, like his father, but became enamoured of philosophy, logic and the dialectic. He gave up his ancestral rights to follow his favoured path and set out learning and teaching his preferred subject. In the process of this he managed to annoy pretty much everyone, but he was also very adept and capable and this also won him much fame. Having jangled around here and there, annoying more people, he settled in Paris and developed a successful school. Here enters Heloise, a young women who was already educated and desires to be educated further. In this era, this means a tutor. Heloise lived under the protection of her uncle who was very supportive of expanding her education. At this point Abelard decides he rather fancies the young Heloise and engineers to become her teacher. How lucky he is when the uncle agrees, putting Heloise under Abelard’s power, giving him “complete charge over the girl, so that I could devote all the leisure time left to me by my school to teaching her by day and night, and if I found her idle I was to punish her severely. I was amazed by his simplicity – if he had entrusted a tender lamb to a ravening wolf it would not have surprised me more. In handing her over to me to punish as well as to teach, what else was he doing but giving me complete freedom to realise my desires, and providing an opportunity, even if I did not make use of it, for me to bend her to my will be threats and blows if persuasion failed?”

Oh yes, Abelard is a groomer. How romantic.

Abelard and Heloise ‘fall in love’, just as Abelard designs, and they set about on a torrid affair to the point that Abelard starts to lose his ability to focus on philosophy. Heloise becomes pregnant and Abelard removes her to the countryside for the period of her confinement. She gives birth to a boy who she calls Astrolabe, a boy who is destined to be raised by his Aunt. Meanwhile, of course, the uncle finds out and is understandably appalled. To placate the uncle Abelard agrees to marry Heloise, though this course of action would have a heavily detrimental effect on his professional standing. Heloise objects to the idea of marriage, but eventually concedes. They are married in secret and go on as though they are unmarried, to protect Abelard’s work and reputation (he still has one, apparently). However, one of the wedding witnesses gabs and the pair, to protect Abelard, lie and say they are not married. The uncle is incensed by this and sends a mob to assault Abelard. Abelard is castrated (yes, rather extreme) and after this terrible event he convinces Heloise to become a nun and Abelard himself enters the monastic life. His desire is effectively quashed by the castration and so his thoughts turn to God (though Heloise’s desire, conveniently switched on as required, may still be fully functional, something Abelard never really seems to consider). From there he mainly annoys everyone. Enemies are everywhere. He is almost excommunicated as a heretic, though it seems this threat is unfounded and motivated by jealousy and dislike on the part of his enemies. He bumps from monastery to monastery, this benefactor to another. His old school he dedicates to Heloise’s order so that she and her wards might live there under his protection. Meanwhile he grumbles constantly about his enemies but still has the time to dictate to Heloise how she should live her life.

This is the summary of their relationship, or certainly how it came across to me in the brief summary explanation from the lovely Abelard. What follows the introductory letter is then an exchange of letters between the two, starting with one from Heloise to Abelard – who had read the letter Abelard sent to his friend – and alternating between the two of them. In the course of these letter Abelard failed, even more so (which I didn’t think was possible) to improve my impression of him. Instead he endeared himself with lovely little nuggets like this:

“Finally, why do they refrain from accusing the holy Fathers themselves, when we have often read or seen how they founded monasteries for women too and ministered to them there, following the example of the seven deacons, who were appointed to wait at table and look after the women? The weaker sex needs the help of the stronger, so much so that the Apostle lays down that man must always be over the woman, as her head, and as a sign of this he orders he always to have her head covered. And so I am much surprised that the custom should have been long established in convents of putting abbesses in charge of women just as abbots are set over men, and of binding women by profession according to the same rule, for there is so much in the Rule which cannot be carried out by women, whether in authority or subordinate. In several places too, the natural order is overthrown to the extent that we see abbesses and nuns ruling the clergy who have authority over the people, with opportuities of leading them on to evil desires in proportion to their dominance, holding them as they do beneath a heavy yoke. The satirist has this in mind when he says that ‘Nothing is more intolerable than a rich woman.'”


Aside from choice opinions like the above, he vaguely admits to rapey behaviour and mostly lectures Heloise on how to be a better nun, to commend herself to God and in the meantime spare no effort in her prayers on his behalf, because his suffering and his persecution is terrible, don’t you know, and so on and so on and so on.

Meanwhile Heloise talks of her love for him and her lack of love for God and how she only entered holy orders because he demanded it and out of her love for him. At some point she begins to suspect that his sole interest in her was satisfaction of his lust and desire, and perhaps he didn’t ever love her or care for her at all.

“Tell me one thing, if you can. Why, after our entry into religion, which was your decision alone, have I been so neglected and forgotten by you that I have neither a word from you when you are here to give me strength nor the consolation of a letter in absence? Tell me, I say, if you can – or I will tell you what I think and indeed everyone suspects. It was desire, not affection, which bound you to me, the flame of lust rather than love. So when the end came to what you desired, any show of feeling you used to make went with it. This is not merely my own opinion, beloved, it is everyone’s.”

It’s a view I can sympathise with, as in all his writings, barring the first explanatory letter, he talks little of his love for Heloise (in fact in the first explanatory letter he talks about lust much more) and once his lust is quashed by the castration, he doesn’t seem to pay much attention to her at all. In the letters they mostly talk about God, he talks a great deal about God and his persecution at the hands of his limitless enemies. Heloise talks of her dissatisfaction and her lack of commitment to the faith that was imposed upon her by Abelard. Mostly they talk about Abelard.

Perhaps I paraphrase a little unfairly, but I found the whole thing 1) rather disturbing as a ‘model’ for ‘great love’, 2) intensely dull, and 3) quite irritating (okay: I found Abelard very irritating). Of course this love story is based in a very different era, when expectations were different and women’s lives were perhaps not as free as they are now (though Heloise seems pretty free until she meets Abelard). Perhaps it is unfair to judge Abelard so harshly, given the culture into which he had been born and perhaps he had to write somewhat carefully in case their correspondence was intercepted and used against either one of them. And yet I could not shake this terribly disturbed feeling that what has been touted as such a great love story essentially stems from a grooming event in which a much older man abused his power in order to ‘convince’ (though I might have used the word coerce) a younger woman to enter into an illicit relationship with him. Kind of like if in 200 years people are touting Lolita as a great love story, instead of the tale of abuse that it is. We seem to hear very little about what Heloise thinks or how she perceived their relationship, particularly when she was young and vulnerable. Perhaps that is the fault of this limited extract and perhaps the more extensive letters will colour their relationship in a different light. I don’t know. I am not sure I will ever be curious enough to find out.

So that’s two down and two failures for me so far. 18 to go. I might have to jump ahead to something more modern because I don’t think I can bear another story of ‘conquest’ and I have Casanova coming up. Will I do better with Updike though?

Very interested to hear if anyone else has read Abelard and Heloise and, if so, do you have a different take on it?

Posted in Penguin Great Loves | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

More books I haven’t bought

It’s been just over two months, now, since I decided to stop buying books. That’s 1/6 of my hiatus and I’m still doing okay. I’ve been tempted but I have not bought. The list really helps, and the library. I have found that if the library has a book I’m interested in I can add it to my library read list and I am not stressed at all, then, about needing to read it straight away. It’s a good job because my reading pace is perilously slow and my desires soundly outstrip my capabilities.

So far I’m glad to have put a pause on the purchases. In an odd way, it has helped me to appreciate the books I have a bit more. The book I’m reading at the moment, which I will blog about when I’ve finished, is a slow read. At one time I would have been inclined to rush through it, to push hard and get it done so I could move on to the next one. Often that pressure would come from knowing there were so many other books to read, or being tempted by other books. In a way it reminds me of my procrastination habits: always looking away from the thing I am doing, until I settle and then I enjoy whatever it is my attention was supposed to be focused on. I don’t yet feel that I’ve mastered it, maybe I never will, but I am starting to understand my behaviour a bit better. I don’t feel the same pressure now. I can take the time I need to take with a book because I’m not building a pile in waiting. I know I already have a pile in waiting, but that’s okay. I just have a lot to look forward to.

The following are the books I’ve added to my list over the last month. I am not quite sure I would have bought all of them, but I would have definitely bought some. What’s really interesting is that I’d completely forgotten about some of them, which suggests that pausing the impulse purchase was a good thing. If I didn’t remember it, then I probably didn’t want it so badly. Other books have lingered and will either be bought later or, where possible, borrowed from the library.

Here are the books I didn’t buy this month:

In Ascension by Martin MacInnes

I read a couple of reviews about this book, one by my nemesis John Self (he is the source of so many of my impulse book purchases) and the other by Adam Roberts. Both were glowing, and the book itself is intriguing – one of those blends of science fiction meets philosophy spanning across time and space kind of things that really speak to my sense of the infinite. I had a look at some of his other books too and they all sounded right up my street. Contrary to my usual style, I am focused on reading this one first. Fortunately they have it on order at my library and so I reserved it. It will arrive when it arrives. Cost to self is £0.75 but offset against a £14.49 cost it’s a relative bargain.

Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell

I used to read a lot of non-fiction but these days, perhaps because of their relative quantity in my library, I have pivoted more towards fiction. However this prize-winning biography of the wonderfully strange John Donne really grabbed my attention. I studied Donne at A Level and he always fascinated me – the way he pivoted from being a randy, skirt chasing romantic to a devout man of God. Always passionate, I wonder what light Rundell is able to shed on this notorious poet. Thankfully they have it in my library, and also in audiobook form so hopefully when it becomes available I’ll perhaps be able to listen to this one.

Xstabeth by David Keenan

I listened to a Smoke Hole Session podcast between Martin Shaw and David Keenan which was completely entrancing and inspiring. He’s an enthusiastic character with an interesting mind. This always makes me want to read someone’s writing. I had forgotten about Xstabeth. I remember being intrigued when it came out and then reading some reviews which maybe put me off, but I’d be keen to give it a go now. Another book which is available from my library so if I’m going to pick this up that’ll be where it’s from.

Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths

Also inspired by Smoke Hole Sessions. I am easily influenced when it comes to books!

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

As above.

Witches by Brenda Lozano

A story that weaves together the story of a journalist investigating a murder and a woman living in a Mexican village who is a genuine curandera (healer / witch, I guess). I saw this referenced in somoene’s Twitter post, I can’t even remember whose seems as I don’t really use Twitter! The premise sounded really interesting, as do others by this writer. Not high on my priority list but something that may fit my mood at some point, and I’ll come back to. And oh, I love that cover.

The Natashas by Yelena Moskovich

I got this book entirely mixed up with Witches (above) though they are nothing alike. When I was looking for Witches I got it in my head it was by a Russian writer and I found this and it sounded very interesting so I put it on the list.

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder

Another non-fiction gem, I love anything which is based on real life accounts, however harrowing the stories might be. I think I got pointed to this one by something I read by Oliver Burkeman, though I can’t quite remember now.

For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain by Victoria MacKenzie

A great review from A Life in Books convinced me about this one, though any story which involves Julian of Norwich was bound to get my attention.

A Mountain to the North, A Lake to the South, Paths to the West, A River to the East by Laszlo Krasnahorkai

I’ve read a few reviews of this and it may be a polarising book, but I think I probably lean more towards the type of person it would appeal to. Described as serene and poetic, the story follows the grandson of Prince Genji (and I loved The Tale of Genji) who lives outside of space and time. Something about it made me think of the movie Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring which I still haven’t seen but is similarly described as meditative and thoughtful. The paperback of this book is out in early January 2023, so maybe if the stars align it will be an early purchase once I’m free, again, to do so.

The Last Pomegranate Tree

Inspired by this review by roughghosts which made it sound amazing.

Akenfield by Ronald Blythe

I read about this in Blythe’s obituary and it sounded really interesting, the sort of slow paced read I occasionally have an inclination for. Then I forgot entirely about it until I looked at the list. Meanwhile I hear there is a movie, so I might watch that instead. It’s still on the list, but I suspect I might never get to it.

In the absence of a buying hiatus I suspect I would have increased my book pile by at least 4 – the MacInnes, Super-Infinite, Xstabeth and A Mountain – maybe more and I’ve decreased it by, if I’m lucky, one or two. What I need to be cautious of is diverting my attention from reading the books I own with books from the library, but I think that is something I can manage. Perhaps if I let myself borrow one book in, say, four then that will keep my attention on my existing books.

Every day is a learning experience, but I feel, most of all, I am learning to love my books again.

Posted in A year of not buying books, personal reflection | Tagged | 8 Comments

Food for Life – the new science of eating well by Tim Spector

I was part way through reading another book when this one became available at the library. I’d reserved it some time late last year, when I reserved it I was something like number 32 in the list so I figured it’d be a long time before it arrived and promptly forgot about it. Then it turned up. This was rather inconvenient but I still wanted to read it and if I cancelled my reservation then it’d probably be another six months before it came round again. I would have to interrupt my other book because with 33 reservations behind mine I was not going to be able to renew it, I would have to read it within the 3 allotted weeks. It’s a 420 page book (excluding tables and appendices) which, at my current reading pace, was going to be a bit of a stretch. This felt like something of a challenge.

Anyway, I decided to interrupt my other book and go for it and I’m very glad I did. I am already a fan of Professor Tim Spector, having discovered him via another one of those circuitous routes I can’t quite recall, but which probably started with Michael Mosley. I have listened to a number of ZOE podcasts and they’re excellent, and I seriously considered joining ZOE, even got as far as the invitation stage, but decided in the end that it was the wrong time (and I tend to get obsessive about these things which is, perhaps, counterproductive to healthy living) and instead I took the opportunity to invest via a recent crowdfunding initiative. Bear in mind, then, that I am definitely invested already in the work of Tim Spector, and that may influence how receptive I was to this excellent book.

For those not similarly invested, Tom Spector is a professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, his area of focus has been the genetic/environmental differences between twins, and he has a particular focus on nutrition. Anyone that is alive will have a good idea how murky the world of nutrition is, and how much understanding has changed over the last 50 years, with many wrong routes and unsound advice. It is an area of scientific research which is fertile ground for quackery. As diet is one of the few things we can (or think we can) control when it comes to our health, it’s also a fertile area of interest. Food for Life is Tim Spector’s latest attempt to share what he has learned, and like a good scientist he admits that much is still uncertain and that the scientific studies are still inconclusive or, often, suspect (particularly where sponsored by a particular agricultural/manufacturing interest). He is also prepared to admit where he has got things wrong and talks about areas where his own understanding has evolved, changing his own behaviour.

The book is split into two core sections. The first talks in more general terms about food – covering subjects like whether foods can be healthy, can foods boost the immune system, why we love food and all about the gut microbiome. I have been very interested in the microbiome for some time (thank you Michael Mosley) and it’s safe to say that the microbiome is definitely Tim Spector’s greatest area of interest so our interests are quite aligned here. The second half deals with different types of foods, looking at food categories and diving into more depth into specific food varieties. At the end of the book there are some tables focusing on specific subjects, like how to ‘eat the rainbow’; polyphenol, fibre and sugar content of different types of fruit; omega 3 and mercury content of seafood and processed meats ranked from worst to best, as so:

Not surprisingly, the question of what to eat ‘for life’ is a complex one and there’s a huge amount of information in this book. One of the things the ZOE PREDICT study has been working on is an individualised approach to diet, once of Spector’s core questions is whether it’s really possible to give sound, generalised dietary advice. One of his own examples really stuck in my mind. When Spector was adjusting his own diet, following his own tests in the ZOE PREDICT study, he made a switch from muesli and orange juice at breakfast, which caused a huge sugar spike, to oat porridge which you would expect to be a ‘healthy’ choice. To Spector’s surprise his blood sugar spiked on oat porridge as well, though not as much as on his prior muesli/orange juice diet. What he found was that he could eat steel cut oats, which take a greater time to soak and cook, without too big a hit on his blood glucose, but any other kind was really out of the question. So much for the ‘healthy’ switch.

Obviously this is not very heartening news if you’re hoping to find a better diet without paying the current significant cost of your own ZOE membership and the barrage of tests and information that go with it. That being said, there are still some basic guidelines which most people could adopt which will likely lead to improved nutrition and health outcomes. The key, Spector suggests, is trying different things and following a few basic rules. And he’s keen to point out that the body can perfectly well withstand the odd slice of birthday cake or Greggs sausage roll. As long as we make good nutrition the foundation of our diet then we can still enjoy our treats. Interestingly, however, what we think of as treats might well change as we train our bodies to enjoy better foods.

The question of what to eat is teased out in the sections in which Spector talks in more depth about different foods. These are broadly split into food groups like fruit, vegetables, meats, fish, seafood, processed meats, fungi, breads, grains, pasta, dairy, oils, etc. In each section he looks at how the food is produced, how that production has changed with industrialisation and what to look for as ‘healthy’ vs ‘unheathy’. I found all these sections absolutely fascinating and enlightening, and often appalling. Whilst food production has improved, no doubt, considerably over the years the increasing use of uncertain chemicals and substitutions that are used to mimic artisan processes or to extend shelf life or make a food more appealing in colour or texture is extensive and the effects of those chemicals are still relatively unknown. On the other side Spector addresses the question of ‘superfoods’ and whether these exist or don’t (they mostly don’t) whilst teasing out those foods that are probably worth eating more of if you currently don’t. There is so much in these sections it is hard to pick out just a few, as everything he says is interesting. But here are some examples of things I found both interesting and disturbing. About bacon:

“Cheaper industrial bacon is made in just a few days by dramatically speeding up the process, pumping the meat with water and adding salt and nitrites using micro-injections. Extra additives and preservatives such as ascorbic or citric acide to extend shelf-life are also needed, and phosphate and hydrocolloids like carrageenan or agar to retain water and give it a plump feel. Dried collagen protein is cheaper to substitute than meat protein and adds texture. Poor-quality bacon, which is often four times cheaper, is easy to spot: it will exude a milky moisture in the frying pan from undissolved phosphate and extra water, which to some people tastes soapy. It will also have many extra ingredients, including ascorbates or erythorbate (used as a colour fixative) that tell you it was probably brine injected rather than cured traditionally – though this fact is strange omitted on the label.”

Mmmm, delicious. About sausages:

“Cheap pork sausage is now a major source of human infection with a newly discovered virus called hepatitis E, which is only common in animals reared in cramped conditions. Globally the WHO estimates there are 20 million infections with 3.3 million symptomatic cases and 44,000 deaths accounting for a 3.3 per cent mortality rate, which is higher than another well-known global virus causing headlines today, and most doctors (including myself) had not encoutered it until recently.”

Fortunately this is not such a problem in the UK (also I don’t like sausages). About oysters:

“Although scientists have tried and failed to show these aphrodisiac benefits of shellfish, other websites still pronounce as fact the libidio-enhancing effects of mussels and oysters, claiming the zinc in oysters can help the manufacture of testosterone. Zinc is found in soil, but that doesn’t make mud an aphrodisiac.”

Hehehehehe. About bread:

“Manufacturers know that discerning shoppers will look for healthier bread, so have devised a number of tricks to fool us. The first is ‘freshly baked’, whereby supermarkets and bakery chains heat up from frozen or partly cooked dough that may be up to a year old to sell as fresh artisan-style on the premises. The UK chain Pret a Manger was found to have used one year old baguettes made in factories in France. You may feel reassured by the brown wholesome looking loaf with a few seeds falling off it. But it may be fake. Adding colour to white flour to make it appear darker and wholesome is common, particularly nowadays using ‘natural’ colourants from dried and purified cheap vegetables and fruits like carrots and raisins.”

So is it all lost? Well no, or there’d be nothing much for Spector to say. For every problem he proposes some kind of solution even if it is that you’re best to avoid x type of food, or he’ll give you a way of looking for a better option. In the case of bread, for example, it’s still possible to find a decent loaf in the supermarket, it’s just that instead of the description, which is marketing, look at the list of ingredients. A shorter and recognisable list is better. Also consider the carbohydrate to fibre ratio – a lower ratio the better. I was relieved to find that my supermarket loaf of choice, an Allinson’s loaf (when they have it, which is increasingly rare) has a decently low carbohydrate to fibre ratio of 6:1 and my back up Hovis 5.5:1, and both had a relatively short list of ingredients. That being said I might be better sticking to making my own sourdough, even if it is a bit lumpen and misshapen…I’m getting there.

A slightly wonky sourdough spelt loaf, so proud.

The conclusions Spector draws seem both sensible and potentially contraversial. For one he doesn’t believe either fat or salt are particularly damaging, though reducing salt intake may be beneficial if you have a very high intake, or a hidden intake coming from processed foods. He doesn’t believe in calorie counting, and he has little time for ‘diet’ drinks which have no proven track record of supporting weight loss and include ingredients which may be damaging to the gut microbiome. I was already a little suspicious or sweeteners, as my son definitely experiences a poor reaction to aspartame, and this just convinced me to avoid them even more. Rather, Spector believes, we should be avoiding, as much as possible, ultra processed foods; eating much more plants and where possible eating at least 30 varieties of plants a week, a little organic meat and dairy, fish where it’s possible to do it sustainably (though it sounds like it isn’t) and using extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) for cooking. If you think eating 30 plant varieties a week sounds impossible, it becomes much easier when you realise that within this it includes grains like rice, bulghur wheat, quinoa and wheat; potatoes (hurrah!); pulses; fungi; and herbs and spices count as a ‘plant’ for these purposes too. So your bolognese with tomatoes, onion, celery, carrots, garlic and basil counts as 7 (though you only get to count them once) and if you add extra vegetables then that 30 seems suddenly much more achievable.

If I had a critique of the book it would be that it is impossible to follow all the advice, and Spector acknowledges that this is impossible too. What we need to do is take on board what bits of advice we can and do our best to follow some basic rules. Yet it all felt rather middle class. We can’t all eat grass-fed beef, because there isn’t enough available, and whilst I suspect everyone would do their best to avoid ultra processed foods if they could, if you only have a hob or a kettle or a microwave, and a short space of time after an energy sapping job, a ready meal may be the best you can do. Switching to extra virgin olive oil for cooking is an expensive switch and one someone on a low income just could not afford. Even experimenting with food requires you to have the resources to spoil a meal without worrying there’s no back up option. Clearly there needs to be a massive overhaul of the agriculture and food manufacturing industry for most people to really stand a chance, and yet there is no will or incentive for that change to happen. As Spector points out “Politicians have for decades ifnored the devastating impact of poor diets on health, and it is naive to believe that governments will make critical policy steps anytime soon. There have been signs that this is moving up the agenda, such as the commissioning of the 2021 Dimbleby food report mentioned earlier, but as we saw in 2022 with the UK government’s wimpy response to it, they are scared of taking any real action to reverse the trends, quoting the ‘nanny state’ and personal choice. Many of the recommendations they did accept are unlikely to become a reality without a tougher stance. My hope and belief is that we can change the system via a ground-up approach, empowering individuals to change their habits and educate others.”

Whilst I am fortunate that I can probably make some lifestyle adjustments which will improve my health and wellbeing, too many other people are condemned to a diet which is going to be, long term, detrimental to their health. I find that not just depressing but criminal. It appals me that this is how people are forced to live, and then blamed for making ‘lifestyle choices’ which end up making them sick. Like there is a choice.

To be fair to Spector he acknowledges this, to a degree, and in no place does he ever blame any individual or group for making the food choices they do based on what’s available to them. Neither is quite all of the advice out of reach. For example, he points out that tinned and frozen fruit and vegetables are as good as, and often better, than fresh varieties, tinned beans and pulses are perfectly fine (though baked beans are high in sugar so perhaps best enjoyed intermittently rather than regularly), cheaper types of fish may be generally better e.g. tinned sardines and mackerel; and parboiled rice – like microwave rice or that ‘quick cook’ rice, which I have avoided – may be better for you than uncooked rice, thus reducing both cooking time and expense. Whilst some of the solutions – like artisan cheeses, wild salmon and extra virgin olive oils, may be out of reach, making some sensible swaps can still improve your gut bacteria, and that could still make a difference to your health outcomes.

This was a fascinating book written in an easy style which made it very easy to read. In the end I read it in a week, which is a recent record, and I’ve had time to go back over some bits I wanted to read again. It has made me think a lot more about what I choose to buy and eat. I am already a fermented foods geek so that part is easy, and Spector’s recommendation to eat fungi every day is happy news to me. I’ve seen first hand how sharing a batch of kefir grains has helped someone beat their daily heartburn, with just a few grains, a bit of milk and a jar and a seive. Maybe we need a bit more of that. I am incensed that the industry can get away with some of the things they do, and genuinely appalled at some of the things I’ve learned. But perhaps we can all do things a little bit differently and it’ll make a difference overall. I’m not as hopeful as Spector, but I guess we all have to start somewhere.

Posted in food, gut health, microbiome, non-fiction, nutrition, science | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Snowy Tower by Martin Shaw : soul-nourishing mythology

I encountered Martin Shaw’s work a few years ago and in typical fashion I was interested in one book (A Branch from the Lightning Tree) but bought another one (Courting the Wild Twin). I am not sure why I just don’t buy the book I fancy, this is something I definitely need to unpack. Anyway I so much enjoyed Courting the Wild Twin that I went and bought his trilogy about mythology and the importance of storytelling which includes Lightning Tree, Scatterlings and this book: Snowy Tower. I read Lightning Tree a while ago and it was excellent. Snowy Tower is the next in the series, though I don’t think they really need to be read in order. Each book is a self-contained piece. If you haven’t encountered Martin Shaw before he has a series of podcasts called Smoke Hole Sessions which are worth a listen. He’s an interesting person, very deep and thoughtful. A bit quirky (like all the best people).

Snowy Tower examines the story of Parzival, based on the poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach, which is the story of Parzival’s (or Percival’s, as he may be more commonly known in English) quest to find the Holy Grail. It is a story set in the Arthurian era, a story of gallantry and knights, of forests and kings, of battle, of love, of failure and success. Most importantly it is a story of growth, of growing from a rude, unseasoned individual into a fully rounded person. Of emerging from hubris and defeat to spiritual awakening.

Shaw breaks down the story into sections and each chapter takes a section and examines it in detail, using it as a basis to draw learnings about life and how to be in the world. It’s probably worth a quick overview of Shaw’s own life here, and how he ended up becoming a master storyteller. Shaw was a drummer in a band, I guess quite a long time ago. His band were just achieving some success but for Shaw himself something was not working. He went on a wilderness quest (if you’re not familiar, a wilderness quest involves spending some time alone, fasting, out in nature. Often the fasting period is around 2 – 4 days. This fasting period is preceded by a period of preparation and bonding, and it is ended by a period of reflection and reintegration. In many respects it is the kind of rite of passage that all members of pre-industrial society might have gone through. Now we have proms). Quite how or why he decided to do this I am not sure. The wilderness quest so affected him that he quit his old life and went to live in the woods for 2 years, learning how to be a different person. From the woods he began giving his own wilderness quest experiences. These books are a culmination of the things he has experienced and learned through living this alternative lifestyle, as well as experiencing how other people have responded to their own wilderness quest. A huge part of the preparatory experience is the storytelling, as this helps the individual integrate their experience into their life.

The story of Parzival is integrated with Shaw’s wilderness experiences which he uses to illustrate the value of a closer connection with nature, as well as what feels ‘natural’. Shaw is keen to point out that none of this is ‘magic’, there’s no ‘woo-woo’ involved, but a closer connection with nature, a willingness to pay attention, to be with your discomfort, to rely upon your senses and be open to what is happening around you can help you to see and be in the world differently. It interests me, because I have toyed with the idea of doing a wilderness quest for a few years now, really just to reset myself, a purge perhaps, from the things that clutter my daily life. I haven’t taken the plunge yet, I am always conscious that my family will probably think I’ve gone mad, but it is interesting to read about it and see just how such an act can affect the course of your life. Like here, as Shaw shares the experience of one quester who is caught in the shadow of the mountain, Cader Idris as it happens (putting me very much in mind of Susan Cooper’s wonderful book The Grey King). It is indeed a magnificent edifice. Shaw explains that he became aware that one of his questers was struggling, after experiencing a kind of vision from a stone the particular quester left by the fire. Shaw went out to check on him, and this is what he found:

“Sure enough there he was. It had been raining on and off for twenty-four hours, and there he stood like a scarecrow in waterproofs, in the midst of it. I followed his gaze across the valley. Caer Idris. I pulled out some fruit, boiled sweets and a little tobacco. I just stood around quietly next to him, gently talking, until he finally broke the gaze of the great mountain and sat down on the moss, shaking. clearly exhausted.

He had indeed been caught in a mountain trance. This epic hill of the old stories had wrapped its stony gaze on the boy and had no intention of letting go. Whatever he saw in the hours of the night and early dawn he never spoke of, but he was changed, confirmed in some way, when he finished his fast and returned to camp.”

A transformative experience.

The whole of the Parzival story is included as an appendix at the back of the book and you can read it first or read it later depending on your preference. I read it first and then wasn’t sure if that was a mistake or not. I find something of the way it is told a bit annoying, I am not really sure why. I think it is possibly because it is a story best told – verbally – as opposed to written down, it is written in the style of a performance (which is what it is). Maybe it makes me feel a little uncomfortable, I do not know. I read the story of Parzival and got a bit irritated. Then I read the book and felt like my eyes had been opened. I guess in this way it was a kind of experience. Maybe I needed the irritation to gain the learnings? To open up to it? I am still not sure.

Anyway, the story of Parzival is a relatively simple one. His mother is a Queen who decides to search for a love match. She holds a tornament and meets an exceptional Knight, a man from a foreign land who is maginficent and exotic. They fall in love. She falls pregnant. He, as a true knight, continues to campaign. He hunts, he fights, he commits acts of gallantry. In the course of one campaign he is killed and she is left bereft. She gives birth to her child, packs up her court and goes to live in the forest. She is determined that her son will not follow the path of his father. Instead she gives him the close scrutiny of the woods and a life outside of what would be normal for a man of noble birth.

Over time she becomes more controlling, but she cannot prevent Parzival encountering three knights in the woods and, dazzled, deciding that he will go and join Arthur’s court. She cannot prevent him, but instead gives him some advice which is both sound and very unsound. It is designed to both support and to check him. What she wants is for him to fail and return to the safety of the woods. When he leaves, she dies suddenly. He does not see this, as he is so focused on the road ahead.

Off Parzival goes to meet his destiny. On the road to Arthur’s court he assaults a woman and kills a great knight, the Red Knight, in a manner which is unbecoming, ungallant (in a manner which was similar to the death his father suffered). Parzival does not know this. He is full of hubris and impressed with his own strength and skill. He meets Arthur, but whilst his skill is impressive he is not yet ready to be a member of Arthur’s court, lacking any self-control or any semblance of gallantry. He puts on the Red Knight’s armour and takes his horse and rides away.

His horse takes him first to a mentor, an old man who was once a knight. The mentor teaches Parzival about honour, about how to behave, how to be chivalrous. Parzival learns eagerly and begins to understand his previously uncouth ways. The mentor desires him to stay and marry one of his daughters, but once Parzival has learned all he needs he leaves again. This time his horse take him to the land of Condwiramurs, a Queen whose lands are besieged by unwelcome suitors who wish to force her into marriage. Parzival and Condwiramurs fall in love, like his parents they make a love match. Parzival defends her kingdom. Condwiramurs falls pregnant. Like his father, Parzival is called away. He decides he needs to look for his mother, he leaves Condwiramurs expecting to only go on a short journey.

This time his horse takes him to a mysterious forest where he meets an angler who invites him to stay at his castle. Unbeknownst to Parzival this mysterious angler is the keeper of the Grail. That evening at the castle Parzival observes the terrible wound this keeper of the Grail has suffered, but takes no action to understand or alleviate it. Parzival, whilst seeking to observe the teachings of his mentor, remains mute. This muteness is an error, Parzival is expected to ask a question. He does not, instead he goes to bed. When he wakes in the morning the castle is deserted. The forest is dark and wasted. A stain lies upon the land. People are starving. Everything suffers.

Parzival returns to Arthur’s court, this time with a solid reputation behind him. He has been sending his defeated knights to serve the great King. This time Parzival is celebrated, he is to be asked to join the Round Table. However, before that occurs, a strange woman appears, Cundrie, who reveals Parzival’s mistake at the Grail castle. He is shamed before the whole court. He leaves in disgrace, feeling separated from his honour and from God. He goes out into the wilderness hoping to find the Grail castle again and redeem himself.

He wanders for many years before encountering a group of travellers. They ask why he is carrying arms on Good Friday, reminding Parzival of his schism from God. He follows the group to a shrine where he meets a holy man who is also a relative. He stays with the holy man for 2 weeks during which time he learns about the Grail keeper and his suffering. When he leaves the holy man he encounters another knight. This knight is extraordinary and whilst Parzival fights him, for the first time he considers the real possibility of defeat. They fight until both reach a point where they realize that they are evenly matched. When they talk they discover that they are brothers, Feirefiz is the son of his father’s first wife and he has come looking for his father. Parzival is the one who has to tell him that their father is dead. Though their father is gone they are united as brothers, evenly matched and equally magnificent. The pair return to Arthur’s court where Cundrie reappears to reveal that Parzival has been named as the next keeper of the Grail. After some celebration Parzival, Feirefiz and Cundrie return to the Grail castle, which is now easy to find, and Parzival asks the question, freeing the Grail keeper from his suffering and pain. All that remains is for Parzival to be reunited with his wife and children (twins), an event which happens quickly after his acquisition of the Grail.

From this relatively straightforward story, Shaw unveils a cornucopia of learning. At its root it is all probably quite basic psychology with a little psychoanalytical thinking, but captured in a way which which is much easier to understand. Instead of talking about the shadow self, he talks about the dark side of personality / behaviour. Instead of talking about archetypes he talks about stages of life. The language is earthier, but it is no less insightful. In fact I suspect it is more so, because it is wrapped in language which is just much easier to understand and told in a way which makes it much easier to put into context. I am not a knight, but I can understand Parzival’s journey, his errors and his flaws and how he learns to accept them and become a whole person. And it really made me think about a few things, in particular the way that we live now and the polarising nature of the internet and how it affects our society. Perhaps Shaw just articulated much better some of the things I was thinking, but there is so much wisdom there. Like this on our lack of ‘community’:

“An issue seems to be the tyranny of harmony. What we like to call a community is often a network – likeminded people singing from the same hymn sheets. A real community holds village idiots, scoundrels, and folks running up against each other with entirely different views. It’s often tense. But lack of tension rarely makes great art or truly rousing conversation. When you focus entirely on harmony you create an invitation for the dark side to come visit. Harmony is not the same thing as love. Harmony is not exactly our natural state. To be clear: moments of genuine accordance and confirmation are wonderful.; pseudoharmony as tyranny is not.”

Which I thought was interesting in the context of the internet and how it allows us to choose our ‘community’ whilst not holding the traditional values and schematics of what a community really is. I miss the sense of community. I feel in my neighbourhood that we are not a community, just a collection of houses, because there is nothing to bring us together. So many of us have to travel far for work, suddenly our workplaces are our communities even if they are miles away from where we live. In this distance something has been lost. Have we lost our ability to manage conflict, to live with it, because it has become so easy to avoid? Yet at the same time conflicted behaviour, aggressive behaviour, has become so ubiquitous? All those below the line snipes: do they exist because we do not have to manage our way through real conflict in our lives, to learn to give and yield or hold ground and see the other person do the same? Instead conflict, those little rubs up against each other, is either conflated or avoided. What Shaw counsels is that neither choice is a good one. We have to learn to live with the things we do not like, because that is life. And in that learning, the acceptance of the ‘other’, we can find true community.

When Parzival encounters the Grail-keeper he sees the Grail-keeper is suffering from a terrible wound. At the time he does nothing, says nothing, and this is the wrong thing. But Shaw asks us to consider, is there value in a wound? As someone who has been very interested in ‘wellness’ I have become increasingly concerned that ‘wellness’ has become an industry and what it means to be ‘well’ has become very distorted. Shaw asks us to think about what it means to be wounded, what a wound may offer us and, perhaps, to understand that there is some dissonance in the idea of being without a wound, or healed, or always recovered from our wounds. It has not been my experience of life:

“It is too easy to see the wound simply as a travesty, an outrage. It is an opening, a difficult opportunity. When you go and fast on a mountain it is often the first destination you enounter on the inward expedition. The golden chair of societal privilege is pulled from under you and you settle on the cramped deck of the cripple’s boat. Forms peer up from the abysmal waters – the wan faced orphan, the deciever, the letch, the great devourer of any shred of power we can get out bony fingers round. As these terror forms reach up from the water, we panic, we want to row frantically away. But the old stories tell us to hold their gaze. It is a stone-cold fact that some part of us dies out there on the lake, in any underworld experience. The cripple kind examines the fatigue of his position, the impossiblilties of heaven and earth, the dichotomies of love through hard clear eyes. His would is a seer and an ally.”

This whole section made me think a lot about avoidance, about how I may avoid conflict and how I may fail to accept the parts of myself, of my life and my behaviour, which are less than chivarous. We are all flawed and broken, but that does not mean that we are discarded. Our lives, all of our lives, have meaning. So if we are wounded we do not have to rush desperately to become ‘well’ (in any event this often means other people are only discomforted by our discomfort and don’t want to see or be confronted by it). Maybe it’s time to admit that something is off and only by acknowledging it, by embracing it and allowing it to be, to learn and to grow, will things improve. I worry, often, for my kids growing up in an increasingly sanitised society in which their every mistake is permanent and iremediable. I do not think this is a healthy way to live. At the same time I avoid conflict, because I have always been too afraid to confront it. I am like a child. Shaw calls this out. In a world of children, someone has to be the adult. Maybe it’s time that I started.

Reading this book felt like medicine, like soul-medicine. As I read I began to feel, not healed exactly but like I had the tools, the potential, a route path towards a more integrated life. It made me believe in the idea of the medicine ‘man’, the traditional healer who could see into the wounds of the heart and prescribe the path, however difficult, to being the better version of yourself. It doesn’t need peyote, the sweat lodge or a spirit animal, though those things may be helpful I suppose. What it does need, what Shaw believes we need, is a key story and a willingness to believe it, to believe in it. The story that shows us how we sidle up to our shadow self, all the bits of us that we hate and despise, that we bury deep and far out of sight, and offer it a welcoming hug. It isn’t easy, but worthwhile. That’s what I took from it anyway. As I read I felt myself palpably moving from vague irritation and resistence into a state in which real personal growth has become possible. When I started the book I was hoping it might prompt me to get back into writing, and it definitely helped with that. It helped me realise that any kind of creative endeavour can only be attempted from a position of true openness and exploration. The story grows from you if you allow it to. Maybe I’m ready for that now, maybe not. But unless I try I’ll never know.

Posted in Arthurian, myth, personal reflection, storytelling | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Penguin Great Loves series; book 1 – Doomed Love by Virgil

I was watering my plants recently, I have a bunch of cascading plants on the top of my bookshelves, when my eye happened upon this set of books which I’d somehow managed to ignore before. Perhaps I had considered them a kind of interesting decoration, rather than a collection of 20 books. I bought this collection a long time ago, it was at a time when The Book People still existed and I remember it distinctly because that particular day I bought 47 books and I think that was the point when I realised my book buying habits had got a little out of hand. Perhaps that is why this collection has languished, unacknowledged, for so long. But no more! I am making a clean start and I cannot pretend these books are not part of it. No more hiding. I have added them to my backlist – increasing my ‘to read’ pile to 262 books – and I’m going to work my way through them. Which sounds terrible, really. I hate the idea of ‘working through’ books. No: I am going to read them, read them and hopefully enjoy them. It will be an experience.

Mercifully they are all quite short, and in a way that may help me because I think I’ll try to filter them in between the bigger books which will make it easier to pick the next book (I always struggle to pick the next book) and will make me feel like I’m making some progress. I think I might as well read them in order, and I’ll include Bonjour Tristesse, which I have already read, because I read it so long ago I don’t really remember much about it anyway.

Even more books, yikes!

So I started with Great Loves book 1: Doomed Love by Virgil.

Doomed Love is an extract of the Aeneid which is the story of Aeneas – son of Venus – a soldier who escaped the fall of Troy, travelled to Italy and became the seed through which the Roman empire was founded. I have not read The Aeneid so this little book is as much as I know about it. The extract deals with the time in which Aeneas and his people find themselves ashore in Africa in the city of Carthage which was founded by Dido. The Trojans have fled the fall of Troy, but since their flight have been sea-battered and thwarted in their attempts to make the Italian shores, said to be their destiny, by a vengeful Juno who desires the destruction of all Trojans. On the other side Aeneas is aided by his divine mother, and her desire to protect her progeny and see them achieve their destined end. Venus sees this sojourn in Carthage as a potential threat, an opportunity for Juno to further thwart and obscure their goal. So she determines to protect Aeneas from any potential threat by making Dido fall in love with him. Once in love it will be impossible for Juno to turn the queen towards evil ends. So Venus hatches a plot:

“But meanwhile Venus was pondering new plans and new devices. She decided to make Cupid assume the form and features of the charming Ascanius and go in place of him; he should give Dido the presents, and as he did so enflame her with a distraction of love, and entwine the fire of it about her very bones. For Venus could not help fearing the uncertainty of a home menanced by Phoenician duplicity; Juno’s savage will tormented her, and as night drew on her anxiety returned. Therefore she spoke to her winged son: ‘Son, you alone are my strength and all my might is in you. Son, you even scorn the Father’s Typhoean thunderbolts. Now I appeal to you, and humbly pray to your divine majesty for aid. You know how your brother Aeneas has travelled storn-tossed on the ocean round every coast solely on accunt of merciless Juno’s persistent hate, you have often sympathised with me in my sorrow. And now Phoenician Dido detains him and talks to him, coaxing him to stay with her. I am anxious about the outcome of any entertainment which Juno sanctions; she will certainly not be slow to act at this critical moment. Therefore I plan to forestall her by a trick of my own and enclose the queen in such a girdle of flames that no act of divine power may divert her from submitting, as I intend, to a fearce love for Aeneas.”

Cupid fulfils his mother’s demands and Dido dully falls in love with Aeneas. Meanwhile Aeneas, over successive nights, is encouraged to tell his story, the story of the fall of Troy and their travels thereafter. This comprises much of the story: their escape from Troy, the loss of Aeneas’s wife in the retreat, their travails over the seas, the death of his father, the aid of Mercury and the prophecies that guided them towards the shores of Italy, where their future empire would be built. As Aeneas talks, Dido falls more and more in love with him. Eventually they are married, but the fates and the Gods demand that Aeneas fulfil his destiny. Portends from Mercury remind him he has to leave, but the ensourcelled Dido cannot bear it. When her entreaties fall on deaf ears, there is only one path left to her:

“It was final. Dido was lost; and she saw with horror the fate starkly confronting her. Her one prayer now was for death. The sight of heaven’s vault was only weariness to her. And, as if to steel her will to fulfil her design and to part with the light of day, as she laid her offerings on the altars where incense burned, she saw a dreadful sight; for the holy water turned to black and the poured wine by some sinister transformation was changed into blood.”

And so the tragedy of Dido unfolds. Always the woman pays the price for a man’s love, or so it seems anyway. The more powerful the woman, the greater the price.

My reflection on this book is that it’s a strange, and highly tenuous component of a series entitled ‘Great Loves’ and whilst I was reading I found myself constantly questioning how it ended up in this set. That the set includes something classical is not odd, in fact I applaud it. It is good to have the opportunity to read one of the great classical texts when that might not be something you’d actively seek out, and the classics have no end of options when it comes to love stories. So why this one? About 3/4 of the book dealt with the fall of Troy and the difficulties the fleeing Trojans found themselves in afterwards. The love story, such as it was, felt highly secondary, almost negligable up to the point where Dido realises he love has been for naught. That it was a doomed love, doomed because as toys of the Gods there were other plans for these two, is not at odds. But was it a ‘great’ love? I didn’t think so. I suspect this coloured my whole experience of reading it, because whilst it was interesting in itself, and it definitely sparked an interest in perhaps reading the Aeneid in full at some point, as a love story it fell kind of flat. And it got a bit tedious. No question that Aeneas was going to kill himself for love. That’s the woman’s job. Dido had a lot going for her, and her story would have been an interesting one to follow once Aeneas had gone. Yet her role here was set. She was the one bound and she was the one who would see no future after Aeneas had move on. Sigh. So tedious.

So I am conflicted about this one. On the one hand it was an interesting read, I found the story of the aftermath of the downfall of Troy to be a fascinating one and I’d have happily read more about that. As a love story, a ‘great love’ story, it wasn’t great. It was mediocre. And through that lens, this didn’t feel like a success to me. When I remove the lens, it feels a lot better. I am sure there is a good reason for this inclusion, but I can’t help feeling that classical literature has much greater love stories to offer than this.

Posted in Classics, Love, Penguin Great Loves | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Books I haven’t bought

It’s been six weeks since I decided not to buy any books for a year. So far it hasn’t been too bad, really I haven’t found it too difficult to resist the temptation. I suspect Christmas helped, it focused the mind on other things rather than the pleasures of book acquisition. I suspect it will grow more difficult as six weeks stretches into two months, then three, then six, and so on. It doesn’t help, or perhaps it does, that my birthday is within a few days of Christmas so if I get desperate I can’t even ask someone to buy something for me (which will feel a bit like cheating, anyway). But perhaps that is for the best. Really I just want to crack the very reflexive and easy way in which I add books to my pile, never to be read.

I thought it would be a good time to reflect on how the picture might otherwise look if I hadn’t imposed this little ban, maybe just as a little pat on the back to myself for having lasted this long. And perhaps as a little motivation to double the time and double it again. These are the books I might now possess, and may yet possess in the future if they make it onto a long-term book I must read list.

All of the cost savings below are based on the prices at which is where I do most of my online book buying. I could perhaps have bought cheaper if I’d used AbeBooks.

  • 10-Minute Sourdough: Breadmaking for Real Life by Vanessa Kimbell

When I imposed my buying ban I didn’t really think about more practical books like recipe books or books of instruction or learning but the ban is for all books and it must include these too. At Christmas I decided I wanted to have a proper stab at making sourdough and I was able to borrow this book from the library. It’s very helpful, a bit technical but a good and straightforward enough guide to follow. I managed to generate a nicely active starter and I’ve baked a couple of the easier breads. So far it’s going okay, I am not making amazing bread but it does taste good and I am learning. However, this book was reserved by someone else and had to go back to the library. In my pre-ban world I would have just gone and bought my own copy, but instead I dug out an old unused notebook (I have many, I am almost as bad with stationery as I am with books) and noted down some of the recipes that I’m more likely to have a go at. I have a shelf in my kitchen which is full of recipe books that I make maybe one or two things out of regularly. So I didn’t add another one and I can probably carry on okay without reading this book again or, if I do need to, I can just wait until its available at the library again.

Money saved: £18.24 (£18.99 minus the £0.75 reservation cost at the library)

  • The Hearing Trumpet: Leonora Carrington

I have been interested in Leonora Carrington since happening on some of her art, via Etsy I think, and then reading a biography (which I borrowed from the library, go me) – this one by Joanna Moorhead – which is both fascinating and excellent. In reading the biography I discovered that she was born not far from where I live – there is a placard dedicated to her just off a sad little roundabout near Lidl, good that she has been recognised at least – and in February my son almost got a job at Carrington Textiles, which was her family business. She was also heavily into tarot, which is something I took up out of curiosity in early 2021. Too much coincidence! Anyway, her art is amazing. I love the surrealists and she was a great one. I wish I’d known more about her sooner. She was an extraordinary women.

I almost bought The Hearing Trumpet before but didn’t get around to it, and my library has a book of her short stories in audiobook form which I might get around to listening to this year. However, the recent review on Radhika’s Reading Retreat really convinced me that this was a book for me. I’ve added it to the list and suspect it is one I will request for birthday or Christmas.

Money saved: £9.05, though it will probably be spent later.

  • Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

This was inspired by a reading the Twitter feed (yes, I am still lurking around Twitter) of Hanif Kureishi, following his terrible accident and the impact it has had on his physical wellbeing. Despite facing something truly terrifying, he continues to demonstrate a curiosity, a vibrancy, and a love of life which spills out in those little tumbles of text. I am in awe at his capacity for extraordinary writing, as much as I am in awe of his bravery and endurance. I am not sure if I’ve even read a book by Hanif Kureishi, but he is going on the list. Anyway, at some point he mentioned that the only book on writing that ever really helped him was this one, and as I aspire to get back into writing this year I immediately wanted to read it.

However, they do not have it at my library so, meh. I will have to make do with what I have and maybe I can pick this up later.

Money saved: £9.69

  • Alien by Ali Raz

Inspired by this blog entry by roughghosts. This sounds fun, and interesting, also the cover is amazing. Like proper old-school sci-fi. I am a sucker for an interesting looking cover.

Money saved: £13.99 (though this is out of stock on Hive and I suspect I might have had to seek out on AbeBooks to track down a copy).

  • The White Goddess by Robert Graves

This one was inspired by a book I’m reading at the moment, and I have heard good things about it before. I am not sure if I’d bought this I would have ever got around to reading it, but as it happens they have a copy at my library so if I do decided that I want to read it I can just borrow it.

Money saved: £14.95

  • A Hut at the Edge of the Village by John Moriarty

Also inspired by the book I’m reading at the moment. This is a common theme for my book acquisitions: a book I’m reading references another book, or is similar to another book, and suddenly I want to read those associated books too. It’s a killer when I read non-fiction, always very difficult to resist.

Money saved: £12.49

  • Faith Hope and Carnage by Nick Cave and Seán O’Hagan

For a long time I have been reading The Red Hand Files, a blog/newsletter by the musician and all round amazing dude, Nick Cave. Each Red Hand File is a response to a reader posed question, or multiple reader posed questions. For a long time this irregular newsletter, dropping like a gift into my inbox, has been giving me comfort, amusement and moments of wonder. It was not something I expected, and yet it is something that has sustained me over several years now. I am grateful. I am always grateful that these little treasures are offered freely and without condition. There is no payed for version, just these lovely thoughts, filled with wisdom, compassion, creativity offered freely to my inbox. I want to give something back. Perhaps reading Faith, Hope and Carnage is it, perhaps not. I suspect that this one will appear on my gift list come Christmas, but in the meantime I have started listening to Nick Cave’s music (it is good, why have I never listened before?) and I am spreading the love a little bit. If you haven’t encountered this lovely soul, I heartily recommend. Subjects range from the profound, to the sublime to the ridiculous, but the consistent theme is the lovely, flawed, vulnerable beating humanity of the writer. Why not start with what is the point in life, do you like your tattoo, in your opinion what is God (which was written after the death of his son, Jethro, may we all be so balanced after such a terrible loss) or do you have tinnitus?

Money saved: £19.35 but I suspect it will just be spent later. Something to look forward to.

I also might have bought all the old Puffin versions of the Susan Cooper The Dark is Rising Sequence, if I could have tracked them all down. Nostalgia is a dangerous thing (I already have an old copy but it is the collected books, not the individual ones. I don’t really need another copy. Just covet them, is all).

Anyway, I think I’m doing okay. I suspect that the list of desired books will start to diminish as time progresses, as I get used to the idea that I can like the sound of a book but not have to possess it right away. In the meantime the list is helping, and I’ve had a little idea of a small gift, a reward, I can give myself once I’ve cleared, say, 10 books from the backlog. But that’s for later, and I’m not in a hurry. For once, I just want to enjoy what I’ve got.

Posted in book ban, personal reflection | Tagged , | 6 Comments