Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

prodigal summerIt’s felt like a long time since I’ve been able to absorb myself in a lengthy book. My reading recently has been fitful and focused; a tight, sharp jab at something specific, not without reward but lacking in patience. This book didn’t have a particularly auspicious provenance. I picked this up at the library book sale for the vast sum of 20p perhaps five or more years ago, certainly before the Manchester Central Library refurbishment which stripped the heart out of that glorious place (the pulping remains unforgivable). Perhaps it was the cheapness of the book itself which has held me from reading it. I have wondered about this a great deal, particularly recently, about my capacity for collecting and shelving and never getting around to reading books. Had it cost me £20, perhaps I would have read it immediately. Maybe it is easy not to value books that are immoderately cheap.

Immoderately cheap it may have been, but it’s not a cheap read at all. Instead I found myself entraced by a book bursting with life, a fullsome, luscious read that hooked me with its primal beauty. The book comprises three intertwined stories, all set around the town of Egg Fork in the deep country. The characters in the stories are all linked in a way, though none of them really know it, and the stories explore the idea of community and isolation, family and the relationships humans hold with nature. It’s a frail connection which strengthens as each story develops adding to that sense of being drawn in, as a biologist might be drawn deeper into an understanding of their subject until the relationship becomes more than that of subject an object, something symbiotic. Connected.

One story, Predators, follows Deanna, a woman who has chosen to live in isolation on the Zebulon Mountain, acting as gamekeeper, warden and protector of the wild environment. When the story begins Deanna is tracking something, coyotes she thinks, which have arrived at her mountain for the first time. Coyotes, predators in general, are a love of Deanna’s, the subject of her thesis and something she’d been desiring to encounter her whole life. What she encounters instead is a different kind of predator, in the form of Eddie Bondo, a drifter and a hunter whose presence threatens the successful integration of the coyote population. Deanna enters into a passionate relationship with Eddie, one that is constantly conflicted by the knowledge that she seeks to protect and he aims to destroy and in which she seeks to turn the certainty of his hatred into a grudging respect of the role of predators in the ecosystem.

“The hemlock grove was on a tributary that fed Bitter Creek, in a strange, narrow hollow where long updrafts carried sound peculiarly well. Sometimes she’d heard sounds all the way up from the valley: a dog barking, or even the high, distant whine of trucks on the interstate. That was in winter, though, when the trees were bare. Today, as she worked to pry up boards, she heard mostly the heavy quiet that precedes a summer evening, before the katydids start up, when the forest’s sounds are still separated by long silences. A squirrel overhead scolded her halfheartedly, then stopped. A sapsucker worked its way around a pine trunk. Eddie Bondo had spoken of acorn woodpeckers he’d seen in the West, funny creatures that worked together to drill a dead tree full of little holes, cached thousands of acrons in them, and then spent the rest of their days defending their extravagent treasure from marauding neighbours. How pointless life could be, what a foolish business of inventing things to love, just so you could dread losing them.”

The second part of the story, Moth Love, follows Lusa, an outsider to Egg Fork who married into the Widener family only to lose her husband Cole in an unfortunate motor vehicle accident shortly after their marriage. Lusa, who is from the ‘city’ (for want of a better name, a larger town perhaps), who is of mixed race and who had spent most of her life studying the life cycle of the moth, finds herself inheriting the farm and an extended family she has not learned to trust and who seem to dislike her. Lusa has to find her own path, one, too, which minimises destruction, whilst respecting the intricacies of the lives of her in-laws and the tenacity of those who seek to make a living, as best they can, from the land around them.

The final story, Old Chestnuts, follows Garnett Walker, an old man who is trying in his dying years to cross breed a strain of the American chestnut tree which had been largely wiped out by blight in his youth. Garnett’s wife died several years ago and much of his attention is now focused on his ongoing feud with his neighbour Nannie Rawley who runs an organic apple farm. Garnett and Nannie have a fundamental disagreement on the use of pesticides which fuels their endless bickerings and misunderstandings. Both Garnett and Nannie are old and grumpy and rigid in their own ways, but they are both, too, deeply caring individuals, flawed perhaps, but all the more humane for it.

The three stories interweave throughout the book, revealing more of their character’s ideas, philosophies and dilemmas as they develop. Running through all of their stories is the idea of environment, of community, of the ways in which we can misunderstand both each other and the functioning of other creatures around us. With the exception of Garnett, all of the characters are seeking to live in a more balanced way with the world around them, not pretending that we do not use and consume other creatures, that we will kill those that don’t serve us, but allowing nature rather than violent human interventions (bullets, chemicals) to perform that service. Through Deanna we come to see the role predators play in controlling the populations of creatures that we might otherwise deem pests. Through Lusa we learn how following the traditional use of land does not necessarily yield the results we desire. Garnett is the anomaly, because whilst he espouses ideas which seem to oppose this concept of balanced, natural approaches, his commitment to the reintegration of a native species – the American chestnut – shows that he, too, is committed to his environment, recognising what belongs and what does not. And through his relationship – tetchy and grudging as it is – with Nannie Rawley that he comes to understand that nature has been helping him along the way, although he didn’t realise it.

Prodigal Summer is a glorious book, it is like a long, perfectly balanced summer full of warmth and thunder, just the right amount of rain, lush green valleys ripe with fruits and wild butterflies and all the gorgeous abudance of nature.  It is a book which shows how delicate the balance of nature is, and how foolish we are when we seek to control without understanding it. Wiping out predators without knowing how reliant we are upon them, thoughtlessly destroying a whole population of trees out of curiosity for something new. But this question of understanding ripples not just through the relationship of human and animal, but through the relationships of human and human too. As communities we are reliant upon each other, we need to listen and learn and care because in that balanced space between us it is possible to find greater meaning, a way of being that allows us all space to breathe. Kingsolver manages to interweave all of these things in three breathtakingly humane stories which show how something woven together from disparate materials can become something much greater than anything standing alone.


Posted in fiction, nature, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

A Life of One’s Own by Joanna Field (Marion Milner)

“I had set out to try and observe moments of happiness and find out what they depended upon. But I had discovered that different things had made me happy when I looked at my experience from when I did not. The act of looking was somehow a force in itself which changed my whole being.”

Or in other words, is this the quantum theory of happiness?

Image result for a life of one's own marion milnerThis book, published in 1934, charts one woman’s attempts to try and figure out what constituted a happy life for her. Written under a pseudonym, Field (Milner) uses her own life as a template for how one might go about figuring this out. From the beginning she makes clear that the book is a representation of her own efforts, her own journey spanning 7 years, during which she tried several different approaches to rebalance her life, to discover her needs and her purpose and to generate a greater sense of happiness. The title in itself is telling. Virginia Woolf highlighted, famously, the need for women to have ‘a room of one’s own’ if they were to achieve independence, to write, to produce art. Space and economic stability are the basis from which women can grow to be more than mere servants of society. Field takes this journey one step further. It is one thing to have economic freedom, the space and time to direct your life, but none of this is any use if you don’t know what to do with it. As well as achieving economic independence, women also needed mental and emotional independence, to be able to direct their life in a way that met their own needs, not the wider social good, the needs of others or social expectation.

Each chapter follows a particular idea or observation that Field made during her seven year quest. It’s a little rambling, disorganised and I liked this about it because it felt true: the mind is a little rambling, disorganised. It is not logical, but more intuitive. At the outset Field recognises something that I’ve also recognised in my own life, that as women we are led to value the ‘male’ characteristics of logical thought, intellectualism, power, status and to reject intuition or feeling which is considered more ‘feminine’ (I should point out that I balk at these descriptions because I think they reinforce a stereotype which is damaging to both men and women, which is a point Field herself makes at some point but then reconciles herself to them as simple descriptions. I’m not seven years in yet, so my instinctive shudder reflex is still operative. Interestingly the Tao te Ching posits the same hypothesis that there are ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ attributes – yin and yang – yet followers of the Tao seek to maintain these things in balance within themselves i.e. we are all comprised of yin and yang and to be a balanced human being, at one with the Tao, one must embrace and nurture both sides. I feel more at ease with this conceptually). She recognises a need to reconnect with her intuitive powers. This I found an interesting thought. It is something I felt quite strongly on my reading of Women Who Run With the Wolves, that I had disconnected from my intuitive side. I think having worked in a male dominated environ for so long, perhaps I’ve learned to distrust it. Or switched it off out of self-preservation, I’m not sure which. In fact I think my intuition remains intact and emerges most strongly in my dreams, which I’m beginning to pay more attention to.

Field’s approach was to keep a diary and go back over it to see what her diary keeping was revealing to her. She also used automatic writing and attempted some more formal approaches to trying to understand and define her life, such as focusing on a specific purpose or goal or focused meditation. She quickly found that these latter approaches didn’t entirely work for her:

 “I had been continually exhorted to define my purpose in life, but I was now beginning to doubt whether life might not be too complex a thing to be kept within the bounds of a single formulated purpose, whether it would not burst its way out, or if the purpose were too strong, perhaps grow distorted like an oak whose trunk has been encircled with an iron band. I began to guess that my self’s need was for an equilibrium, for sun, but not too much, for rain, but not always. I felt that it was as easily surfeited with one kind of experience as the body with one kind of food, and that it had a wisdom of its own, if only I could learn to interpret it. So I began to have an idea of my life, not as the slow shaping of achievement to fit my preconceived purposes, but as the gradual discovery and growth of a purpose which I did not know. I wrote: it will mean walking in a fog for a bit, but it’s the only way which is not a presumption, forcing the self into a theory.”

And I like this idea, the idea that we need to interpret rather than defines our lives and that this process requires walking in a fog for some time. I feel I have been on a similar quest, that I started on this path in around October 2016 and since then I genuinely feel that I have spent a considerable time mooching around unfocusedly in a fog. This has been disconcerting, but then I remember that I like fog, I like the way it obscures and reveals, and reading this book by Field made me accept, in a way I have not before, that maybe the fog is exactly what I need. Growth is messy, it is hard and it is continually under attack from forces of habit and social pressure. Perhaps what Field happened upon is the recognition that becoming a self-determining being is so challenging that it takes a range of approaches and a considerable length of time to achieve it, and even then it is precious and fragile and so easily lost.

One of the areas Field focuses upon is the phenomena of letting yourself go, of reaching out with your senses and diffusing yourself into something: another person, a landscape, a work of art, music, it doesn’t entirely matter what. She discovers that she can push her focus to her skin, to her extremities, and in so doing she experiences a more relaxed, less anxious state. I suspect what she discovered is what we now term mindfulness, a way of setting aside the ego and existing in the moment, sensing and feeling what is around us as well as our own state of being. Letting go, too, was an important discovery for her. The relief that comes from not fighting how things are, not forcing. Though she first uncovered this when sewing, by stopping thinking about her movements and focusing instead on the needle and thread, she soon found this helped her achieve a more peaceful, transcendent state in other areas. When she stopped trying to appreciate a work of art and instead just looked at it, encountered it, she experienced it in a completely different way. When she stopped trying to be interesting and thoughtful as a companion, she was able to appreciate her friendships more and as a result became more interesting and thoughtful. Letting go is an art which I think as a society, certainly Western society, we’re not very good at. We must learn more, achieve more, experience more. We can only do this by relentlessly directing and controlling our efforts. What Field discovered is that when she stopped trying to be things, she was able to uncover who she was. She didn’t have to be anything more than that.

Despite the fact that this book was written so very long ago, a lot of its ideas, its methods and ruminations feel very fresh and very relevant to this woman living 84 years after its publication. Field pays close attention to her wandering thoughts, to the things the mind keeps coming back to and the feelings generated by it. She admits there’s a childlike quality to her thinking, something I have recognised, also, in myself, and this fear of being wrong, of being disregarded or humiliating oneself which stems back to our conditioning in childhood and the subsequent desire to be seen and perceived as a good citizen. She recognises that sometimes what we focus on is telling us something other than what we think it does, as she references here:

“For instance, when I found that my wandering thought was perpetually straying off to the idea of some special person I learnt to suspect two possibilities: either that blind thought had confused that person with someone who was emotionally important to me in the past, probably some member of my own family; or that that person’s outstanding quality as I saw him was something that was lacking in myself. Like a cannibal eating his enemy’s heart in order to partake of his courage, I was impelled towards someone whose qualities I felt in the need of.”

And again I have recognised this in myself, particularly recently where I have found myself thinking, almost constantly, about someone in particular that I admired in my youth and who, for whatever reason, has come back into mind now. In some way I recognised from my own musings that my admirations are often related to particular qualities I recognise in the person which I desire to acquire for myself (as in the case of DeLillo, whose writing skill and perceptive abilities I envy) and this particular admiration is related to a certain freedom this individual possesses, a freedom they obtain from being entirely themselves, being unrestrained, explorative, experimental. This leads to poor outcomes, sometimes, but more often to something remarkable, brilliant. It is this unrestraint I admire, the willingness to push oneself past self-consciousness and do what feels right. Which comes back to instinct, and the stuntedness of my instinctual self. I think this is something that I have been gradually coming to understand, something I need to address. Field has given me the confidence to explore this in more detail, to follow some of her methods (I am keeping a diary, for example) and accept that unpicking what will be a life of my own might take years, but the effort, in the end, will be worth it.

Posted in memoir, non-fiction, psychology, self-help, Virago | 10 Comments

The Angel Esmeralda, Nine Stories by Don DeLillo

Yes, yes. I know I’ve just read one book by DeLillo and here I am reading another one. The thing is, I was reading something else – something all delicate and thoughtful and gorgeously restrained and while I was reading it all I could think about was DeLillo, I craved DeLillo. I was reading one set of words and in my mind another set were forming. I was thinking of unsettling lists and nuclear war, improbably philosophical conversations and that jazz-meditative flow of writing. I couldn’t concentrate on what I was reading because I was too busy thinking about the zero-oneness of the world, the ‘he speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful…’ and all those memorably deep and slightly oddball obsessions that make a person something more than mere character. I have been thinking a great deal about deep reading recently, wanting to delve deeply into a particular writer’s work, immerse myself, to better appreciate the roundedness of that writer’s work, and I’ve had a few names on my list – Kawabata, Coetzee, Solnit, Robinson, Dillard, Didion, Jansson, Hustvedt – and I might yet still read all or any of them, but then I was thinking there were still a number of books by DeLillo I haven’t yet read and I recall having seen The Angel Esmeralda in Manchester library when I was mooching there recently, and I thought ‘why not?’ largely because I could think of very little else at the time. How odd the mind is. I guess it knew, better than the conscious me (assuming that exists at all) what I really needed. Anyway, I’m not sure I’m committed to a deep reading of DeLillo right now, but it’s possible. I think it’s distinctly possible. Let’s see what happens.


Shock horror! The Angel Esmeralda is a collection of short stories which is a large part of the reason I hadn’t read it already. But I figured ‘why not?’. It’s DeLillo after all. How wrong could it go? Not at all, as it happens. The Angel Esmeralda is a collection of nine stories, split into three parts. I’m not sure what the logic of the three parts is, and I’m not sure it matters. It begins with two very different stories: the first called ‘Creation’ tells of a man and wife who are trying to leave an exotic location having just sailed around the Caribbean only to find their places on the limited flights unconfirmed and they are forced to stay and wait for longer than expected. There is another woman similarly trapped. They spend each day going back and forth to the airport together until a slot opens up and the man sends his wife, returning to the hotel with the woman where he takes up a kind of new life with her, though it isn’t clear if this is something that she wants. It’s a lush, sensual story (in so far as DeLillo’s ever are, he’s not an overly sensual writer) and quite a contrast to the second – Human Moments in World War III which is far more familiar DeLillo fayre. Here, two men live in space. They live on a space station or space weapon and their job is to collect imagery and to deploy what appears to be a devastating weapon on demand. It is a cold story, beautifully written, lush with DeLillo’s mesmerising style, like here where the nameless main character reflects on the collection of imagery:

“Our current task is to collect imagery data on troop deployment. Vollmer surrounds his Hasselblad engrossed in some microadjustment. There is a seaward bulge of stratocumulus. Sun glint and littoral drift. I see blooms of plankton in a blue of such Persian richness it seems an animal rapture, a colour change to express some form of intuitive delight. As the surface features unfurl I list them aloud by name. It is the only game I play in space, reciting the earth names, the nomenclature of contour and structure. Glacial scour, moraine debris. Shatter-coning at the edge of a multi-ring impact site. A resurgent caldera, a mass of castellated rimrock. Over the sand seas now. Parabolic dunes, star dunes, straight dunes with radial crests. The emptier the land, the more luminous and precise the names for its features. Vollmer says the thing science does best is name the features of the world.”


The middle section of the book includes the titular story, The Angel Esmeralda, a story which will be familiar to anyone who has read, or got far enough reading, DeLillo’s master-work Underworld. This tells the story of two nuns who work on the projects in the Bronx, dishing out food and support to a neighbourhood where death is just around the corner and the tourists flow in to watch. A crew of graffiti artists have taken to graffitiing angels on a wall every time a child dies, in this case the story focuses on the child Esmeralda, a thirteenish year old girl who the nuns try to help but fail, who dies a violent and terrifying death. Through a confluence of circumstance, her face begins to appear on an advertising board, drawing crowds to the ‘miracle’. The elder nun, Sister Edgar, is old-school, fierce and unbending yet it is she who goes to view the miracle, who believes most firmly that she belongs in this place of disease and disorder. She’s a magnificent character, other-worldly yet horribly recognisable. She’s the nun you’d have been afraid of in school, the one who threw the board rubber and dished out punishments. Yet she was not without her own doubts:

“She doubted and she cleaned. That night she leaned over the washbasin in her room and cleaned every bristle of the scrub brush with steel wool drenched in disinfectant. But this meant she had to immerse the bottle of disinfectant in something stronger than disinfectant. And she hadn’t done this. She hadn’t done this because the regression was infinite. And the regression was infinite because it was called infinite regression. You see how doubt becomes a disease that spreads beyond the pushy extrusions of matter and into the elevated spaces where words play upon themselves.”

The rest of the stories are unremarkable, or rather they often replay events which I’ve encountered in DeLillo elsewhere. A story called The Ivory Acrobat, set in Greece during an earthquake, is reminiscent of The Names. Another called Baader-Meinhof has significant overtones of Point Omega. The final story, The Starveling, follows a man who watches movies. He does nothing but watch movies, living in limited space, trawling from one movie theatre to another where he spots a woman, who also trawls from one movie theatre to another, and decides to follow her. Once he used to write about the movies, copiously, in notebooks. Hours of passionate scrawl. And then there was this:

“He stopped, he said, because the notebooks had become the reason for what he was doing. What he was doing was going to the movies. The notebooks were beginning to replace the movies. The movies didn’t need the movie notes. They only needed him to be there.”

And I recognise this. I have felt this. I have wondered this about blogging, whether blogging becomes the reason rather than the books being the reason. Sometimes I feel I must read variedly for the blog, not because I want to read variedly. I finally recognised myself in DeLillo’s writing. So what if the character is soulless, pointless, almost non-existent. I have wondered if I ought to take a sabbatical from blogging and remind myself what it is to read without one eye on quotations, without a thought of what I might say about it. Yet blogging helps me filter how I feel about the books. Can I do books again without having to analyse how I feel about it?

This collection would be a great introduction to DeLillo, and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the familiarity, the coldness, the ideas, the improbable conversations and the obsessive plotlessness of many of the stories. Some of the stories I read more than once – Human Moments in World War III, Midnight on Dostoevsky – because there was an essence of DeLillo within it that I hoped to extract by close reading. Of course I can’t. It is more of a feeling, something unbearably inarticulate, inexplicable, that defies words in the hands of someone so clumsy and thoughtless. DeLillo could write it, but then he already did didn’t he?

Posted in fiction | 4 Comments

The Thrifty Forager by Alys Fowler

My Dad was always really interested in plants. He had a greenhouse at the bottom of the garden in which he grew tomatoes and cucumbers, and he tended our small garden with great care. He always wanted an allotment, though he was never lucky enough to acquire one. When we went walking in the local hills he would pick blackberries and bilberries and we would eat them as we walked. His interest in the countryside rubbed off on me, his green fingers did not. I am not sure if it’s my garden or me, but I have a very poor record when it comes to growing things (I suspect it’s me, not attentive enough). So perhaps that’s why the idea of foraging is so appealing. I have always balked at the idea of uprooting the nettles in my garden; I’m not afraid of stings (nettle stings are more annoying than painful) but rather I worry I’ll be decimating a population of butterflies. Dandelions, too, are a lovely treat for my bunnies. What if I could use my weeds? I did a little research into the various uses for nettles, I already drink nettle tea regularly, and was surprised to find how versatile a plant it really is – something which could be used as a substitute whenever you might otherwise use spinach. I’d just missed the best picking window when I had this realisation, my nettles had just bloomed and it’s best to harvest before. But it started me wondering: what else might my garden be harbouring which is freely growing and available for me to use?

Image result for the thrifty foragerI have no idea, is the answer, and the depths of a soggy, unpleasant winter is perhaps not the best time to try to find out, but I came across this lovely book by Alys Fowler when perusing the library catalogue and it looked like an interesting place to start.  The book begins with a confession. Alys admits to her husband that she’s been feeding him foraged food and weeds for the past 2 years. The statement piqued my credulity; after 2 years of marriage I’m sure he must have had an idea about the foraging, I can’t imagine that it hadn’t come up at some in conversation probably before the marriage happened, but incredulity aside it’s a neat introduction to the idea of using the abundance that’s available around us. The book begins with a general overview of foraging, what the book is and what it isn’t. It’s not a book about mythology or the folklore of foraging. She doesn’t imbue plants with magical abilities or medical benefits. Instead it covers a lot about plants in general, a bit about the legalities of foraging, best places to forage and how to recognise plants. There are a few case study examples: a Norwegian ‘plant monk’ growing and eating ancient breeds on his land; a Californian urban fruit foraging scheme which has spread the idea of foraging and mass jam making to the masses; and the ‘incredible edible’ growing scheme in Todmorden, which I knew about because I have a friend who lives there, which is an inspiring use of common land towards the common good, which is what common land is supposed to be for after all, right?

Most of the book is devoted to the plants that can be easily discovered in accessible places like country parks, canal sides but also car parks and city pavements. Alys doesn’t limit the idea of foraging to the countryside, which is perhaps the place we most associate the idea of it. She forages as much in her local cinema car park as she does on country lanes. There are a wide range of plants mentioned in the book, most of which are unfamiliar to me, and each plant has a short guide to where it might be found, what time of year to look for it, how to recognise it, how not to mistake it for other, often poisonous plants, and how to use it. Some of the plants I recognised, many I did not. Mostly Alys seems to recommend growing your own, which perhaps defeats the idea of foraging for them, but I guess if you can forage them in your own garden it does make things a little easier and as all the plants are considered ‘weeds’ they are generally quite hardy and, possibly, invasive so perfect for my brown thumbed capabilities. The book is full of gorgeous photographs, bringing each type of plant to life.

Reading about the various edible plants was truly fascinating, but there are a couple of downsides to reading books of this type. Firstly, the real benefit of the book comes with going out and finding plants and then bringing them back and identifying if you can eat them or not. Although there are plants which can be foraged in winter, it’s really not the best time. I had a little bit of a scout whilst on a run, checking out the various verges and hedgerows, but it didn’t take much of a look to determine that there wasn’t much growing beyond grass and what was there was likely tainted with pollution (lots of cars) or excrement (lots of dogs). I definitely need to go a little further afield. The other point I noticed was that many of the plants listed are referred to as being bitter, or often bitter, and there’s a need to either heavily prepare them or harvest only the young, tender leaves. Perhaps it is a matter of confidence, but I’m not sure I’m adept enough in my observation skills to be able to forage effectively and I suspect there will be a lot of errors before I manage to get into the practice of foraging successfully. Then again that’s the point of learning something isn’t it? You start off with no skills and gradually build them. But perhaps to begin with I will be the only one to eat my foraged goods, and perhaps I’ll start with plants I feel confident recognising. And maybe, in the meantime, I’ll start growing a few herbs. I don’t expect I’ll end up eating a large amount of foraged food, but having the ability to recognise what’s edible and what’s not feels like a good place to start.

This book did give me a lot to think about. I thought about how important it is to actually see the environment around us, and how the act of foraging can help us build our observation skills and make connections with the world around us, appreciate it more. It made me wonder why, when local authorities plant trees in villages, towns and cities, they don’t include a quota of fruit and nut trees which the local residents can pick from freely (particularly considering the alleged desire to get people eating more fruit and vegetables) and why they don’t create community gardens like that inspiring scheme in Todmorden. It made me realise I could, perhaps, do more for my community. Maybe I could guerrilla garden a few fruit trees on the green walkways, or maybe I could approach the residents association to do something more formal (and legal). But most importantly, it answered a niggling question for me. There’s a local park nearby where I go walking with my kids. In a wooded section, with a stream running through it, in summer it smells strongly of garlicky onions. It a heady smell, assuredly green, and it makes me want to eat whatever it is that’s creating such a wonderful scent. And I think I know, now, what it is: allium ursinum, also called wild garlic or Ransoms. I even recognise the flowers. And it’s wonderful to know that in the next couple of months I can probably don my wellies and go secretly acquire myself some of the leaves and flowers, and then, perhaps, I’ll start my foraging journey.

Posted in nature, non-fiction | 6 Comments

Point Omega by Don DeLillo

“The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever. The true life takes place when we’re alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreamingly self-aware, the submicroscopic moments.”

Point OmImage result for point omegaega is one of DeLillo’s odd books, one of those ‘late DeLillos’ that polarise people, that you either love or hate. It’s a tiny book, a mere 148 pages long, and nothing really happens in it and I think that’s the point, the omega point, whatever that is. I think that’s why so many people have difficulties with it, and I also think it’s why I was drawn to read it, to re-read it because of course I have read it before, perhaps more than once. There is something in this time of year that spurs within me a desire for silence and darkness, emptiness, a blank-meditative calm in which I can rediscover who I am, what I’m for, what I want and, perhaps more importantly, what I don’t. I’m not quite sure how reading Point Omega, or any book like it, helps with this. But it does. I think it is a book that makes me think.

 “He said we do this all the time, all of us, we become ourselves beneath the running thoughts and dim images, wondering idly when we’ll die. This is how we live and think whether we know it or not. These are the unsorted thoughts we have looking out the train window, small dull smears of meditative panic.”

There’s a symmetry to the book which begins and ends with a man in an art gallery watching an installation. He has been there all week and will go there to the end, unsure himself of what draws him to it. The installation takes place in a darkened room and it involves the movie Psycho slowed down so that it plays over 24 hours. That is all it is. No sound, no dialogue, just the movie running silently, immeasurably slowly. The man watches it in the darkened room, drawn to its slow pace, the way it forces you to confront a different kind of movie, how it makes you think, see things differently. He imagines watching it with a woman, a woman joining him, how he would ask her questions and how she might reply, what she might be wearing. Meanwhile he reflects on the action, if you can call it that.

“In the time it too for Anthony Perkins to turn his head, there seemed to flow and array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things, or maybe he was seeing too much. But it was impossible to see too much. The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion.”

Two men visit the installation: an older man with white, braided hair and a much younger man. He imagines that they might be student and teacher in the field of filmography. They visit and then leave, much to his disappointment. The men are Richard Elster and Jim Finlay. The middle section of the book follows these men as they spend time in Elster’s desert hideaway, whilst Jim tries to convince Elster to take part in a movie he wants to make. The movie will be Elster standing against a blank wall recounting his experiences as an expert contractor in the war rooms during the Iraq war. There is nothing more to it than that. Elster and Finlay talk, they drink, they reflect on the desert, on time, on being. Elster’s daughter Jessie joins them, she has been sent there by her mother to avoid a man who she’s been seeing, whose been calling and making her mother nervous. Jessie is a grown woman. Whilst they’re out at the grocery store one day, Jessie disappears. The impact on Elster is significant, he unravels as does Finlay’s movie. Whilst they look for Jessie, they do not find her. Eventually, they leave her behind.

“I looked out into blinding tides of light and sky and down toward the folder copper hills that I took to be the badlands, a series of pristine ridges rising from the desert floor in patterned alignment. Could someone be dead in there? I could not imagine this. It was too vast, it was not real, the symmetry of furrows and juts, it crushed me, the heartbreaking beauty of it, the indifference of it, and the longer I stood and looked the more certain I was that we would never have an answer.”

This is not a book of action and plot, in a way the plot is like the installation showing Psycho, slowed to a heartbeat. And this is what I like about it: its meditative, detailed, almost obsessive quality. I read somewhere, afterwards, when I’d finished reading it for the first repeat, that it is a book about autism, about autistic experience and it made me wonder what it is about the idea of autism we’re so troubled by, so afraid of, that we have to name it, categorise it, pigeonhole people into its diagnosis. What’s the opposite of autism? Normality, I suppose. It is normal to be fragmented and emotive, reactive. Sociable, I suppose. I find the idea of absorption to the exclusion of all other things to be fascinating, an ideal to which I can only aspire because I am fragmented, emotive, reactive. My attention span is insufficient to notice the number of rings on the shower rail as Janet Leigh sinks into the shower, pulling it away. Yet this attention is also the ideal that meditation offers to us, the living in the moment, being absorbed by the moment. Not something to be labelled and analysed. And I think, too, that Point Omega is like this. Something which absorbs for the moment, that defies analysis, categorisation. It is a slow, methodical book, ripe with thought. Does it need to be something more, or less, than this?

Posted in fiction | 6 Comments

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)

I started reading The Book of Disquiet during that very quiet, reflective period immediately after Christmas and it was both the perfect and the worst time to start it. Perfect because I was in exactly the right frame of mind to absorb it; the worst because I was in exactly the right frame of mind to absorb it. It is a book redolent with sweet sorrow, a kind of gorgeous melancholy that seeps out of the pages and under your skin. Each brief passage drags you deeper in, and the more I read the more lovely it was but also the more sorrowful it became. At times the perceptions were so sharp it almost hurt; I could see my own life, my own thoughts, emerging from the pen of this writer living in a very different time and place writing with such extraordinary clarity and hopelessness. It was unsettling. I began to feel as Pessoa felt. That life had no meaning, that the sorrow was inconsolable, that I was living a life of pointless activity punctuated with moments of sudden insight in which the meaninglessness of everything was laid plain. In short, it was making me depressed. Or rather, perhaps, I was in the mood to be depressed and Pessoa’s words coalesced around this mood creating a melancholy fog from which it grew increasingly difficult to emerge.

Image result for the book of disquiet

“Brief, dark shadow of a city tree, the light sound of water falling into a sad pool, the green of smooth grass – a public garden on the edge of dusk – in this moment you are the whole universe to me, because you entirely fill my every conscious feeling. I want nothing more from life than to feel it ebbing away into these unexpected evenings to the sound of other people’s children playing in gardens fenced in by the melancholy of the surrounding streets, and above, the high branches of the trees, vaulted by the ancient sky in which the stars are just beginning to reappear.”

The Book of Disquiet comprises a collection of short passages observing the life of a man who works in an ordinary office in the Rua dos Douradores in Lisbon, Portugal. Sometimes the passages are no more than a line, other times they extend to 2 or 3 pages long. The book is credited to Bernard Soares, a heteronym of Pessoa’s, a kind of fictional character who lived through Pessoa’s writing. It is a fictional account, yet it has the currency of non-fiction. It could be a memoir written straight from the mind of an ordinary accountant, living an isolated and small life, absorbed by daydreams, metaphysical observations and this fragmented, unsatisfying, writing. The passages are loosely connected, yet the book as a whole has a character which is heavy and assured. It feels as though you are reading a diary, but the saddest diary you’ve ever encountered.

“The rustic, the reader of novels, the pure ascetic: these three are the truly happy men, because they have all renounced their personality – the first because he lives by instinct, which is impersonal, the second because he lives through his imagination, which is oblivion, and the third because he does not live and, not yet having died, sleeps.

Nothing satisfies me, nothing consoles me, everything – whether or not it has ever existed – satiates me. I neither want me soul nor wish to renounce it. I desire what I do not desire and renounce what I do not have. I can be neither nothing nor everything; I’m just the bridge between what I do not have and what I do not want.”

It is an astonishing book, so astonishing that I find it hard to put into words how viscerally it affected me. I had to set it aside for a day or so, as its insights, its sharp observations, were too close and too personal. I felt I could be reading my own life, if only I could write so beautifully and with such lucidity. There is a word in Portuguese, a famously untranslatable word, saudade” which refers to a form of melancholy longing for something missing or absent, a kind of nostalgia perhaps reminiscent of the Japanese concept of mono-no-aware. The Book of Disquiet is steeped in saudade. Each passage drips with it, with this longing for whatever is missing – love, social acceptance, meaningfulness, an active life, a valuable life. Pessoa recognises the beauty in emptiness, and the pain too. Through Soares he explores what it is like to be so painfully aware of all that you lack and the meaninglessness of desiring something more. It makes for painful reading at times, and yet I felt compelled to go on.

“It falls lightly, the end of this certain day, on which those who believe and blunder are caught up in their usual work and who, in the midst of their own pain, enjoy the bliss of unconsciousness. It falls lightly, this wave of dying light, the melancholy of the spent evening, the thin mist that enters my heart. It falls lightly, gently, this indefinite lucid blue pallor of the aquatic evening; light, gentle, sad, it falls on the cold and simple earth. It falls lightly, like invisible ashes, a tortured monotony, an active tedium.”

Tedium: I have a wholly different perspective on it now. I recognised myself in Pessoa’s descriptions, yet I also recognised that I had it within myself to do something about it. Had Pessoa, via Soares, considered the same for even a moment it would have destroyed the delicate beauty of this book. The Book of Disquiet is like a misty mirror which obscures everything other than a distorted vision of ourselves and the captivating power of our dreams. It is an encounter. It is the opposite of uplifting, but despite this absence it remains oddly life affirming. I’m not sure it will ever be possible for me to read it uninterrupted without wanting, at the end of it, to slit my wrists, but as a book to dip into and out of, for its grasp of stunning sadness and its insights into the ordinary human life, it is ravishing.

Posted in fiction, memoir, outwith, translation | 6 Comments

The Art of Frugal Hedonism by Annie Raser-Rowland & Adam Grubb

Image result for the art of frugal hedonismAfter reading a review on ANZ LitLovers’ blog I put this book on a wishlist as it looked to be the kind of book I would definitely want to read, and that’s where I left it because as a budding Frugal Hedonist I haven’t been buying books recently (note that’s the frugal part, the hedonist in me would buy and buy and buy all the books in all the world). Then, oh happy day, a lovely lovely generous and wonderful friend popped it in my Christmas stocking for me and, in honour of the sheer considerateness of it, I felt I ought to read it immediately.  And the post-Christmas consumer bloat/depression might have influenced me a little bit too. Could frugal hedonism offer an alternative, better option than the false promise of mass consumerism that blights Christmas every year?

The idea of frugal hedonism is really simple, and it aligns with a lot of the things that have been influencing me over the past year or so: minimalism, paring back, trying to live a more purposeful life. Frugal hedonism is about spending less money, whilst enjoying life more. Sounds impossible, right? Well it does, but largely because we’re so heavily conditioned, through years of exposure to smart advertising and a cultural push towards materialising everything, into believing that owning things will make our lives better, easier, more productive, more fulfilled. But if that was true, we wouldn’t need to keep buying things. Eventually we’d reach that point of satiation. But that’s not how it works at all. Instead we buy more, want more. Frugal hedonism turns that on its head, or at least a little. Maybe, they suggest, that what we need is less of most things (frugality) and more of the things that bring us joy (hedonism) and, perhaps, the things that bring us joy don’t always need to be bought:

“Many of us tell admiring, nostalgia-drenched tales about the resourcefulness and spirit of our grandparents in the face of harder times. We marvel at how war-time rationing improved people’s health and forged strong communities as neighbours came to rely more on each other than on purchasing power for both necessities and recreation. We speak with a twinkle of envy about the simplicity of life in ‘the olden days’, or the unencumbered freedom of cattle-drovers and swagmen. We digest the stories of long sea voyages to strange shores, or of forging a life in a new land, and we quietly ache to put our own tenacity to the test in such a way, if only a little.

Partly these undercurrents of emotion come from a basic human appreciation for strength. Partly they speak of a yen to feel that we are living ‘real lives’, challenged to capacity. Perhaps even that part of us which has noticed how food is tastier, rest is sweeter and love is more vivid when we aren’t so swaddled in cottonwool, craves a little more deprivation for the sake of the stronger joys that come with it.”

The book is split into short little chapters, maybe a page or two or three, all of which suggest ways in which you can quite easily incorporate frugal hedonism into your daily life. They advise things like recalibrating your senses, learning to hate waste, being more creative about how we meet up with friends – perhaps a little pop-up pub of your own by taking some chairs and some wine and pitching up on a street corner, or a picnic in the park, a visit to a museum, rather than the all-you-can-eat lunch. They suggest setting your new normal: instead of measuring yourself and your needs and desires against others, spend some time thinking for yourself about what things will make your life joyous and fulfilling and then to pursue those things ruthlessly, become a ‘character’ by being entirely and completely yourself instead of trying to ‘measure up’ and ‘fit in’. They remind us to think about the ultimate cost, the hidden costs, of conspicuous consumption – the children working in poor conditions in sweatshops in other countries, the cost in damage to the environment through using our cars for short journeys. Is it worth the cost? Maybe it is, but we should make that choice consciously. They ask whether all this choice, this abundance that’s available to so many of us, is a good thing? I have often wondered, when staring confusedly at the cooked meat aisle in the local supermarket, why it is that they think we need 20 different types of ham to choose from and what it is that offering all these different types of ham says about our lives and the way that we shop and eat. But the Frugal Hedonists express all this much more succinctly and better than me:

“The Frugal Hedonist does not expect perfection. The Frugal Hedonist expects that life will be a multi-coloured journey of pleasures and struggles and joy and death and adventure and boredom and epiphany and love and loss and getting drenched in storms and dry by fires and sometimes eating slightly stale bread but not minding and sometimes eating freshly plucked raspberries and being jubilant. He regards most shops and restaurants as giant lumps in the landscape, to save himself from adding more candidates to his ballot paper of potential consumables. She recognises that although endless choice promises endless freedom, it also entraps us in an endless series of fine-tuned decisions that that we feel must be well-made to encourage success and accurately reflect our identity. So, she makes some broad decisions to spare her brain this gruelling banality.”

Reading The Art of Frugal Hedonism was exactly what I needed at a time when I was suffering a surfeit of boredom and dissatisfaction post-Christmas. Whilst it could be a heavily, moralising subject the authors have approached it with a super-light touch and consequently it is creative and humorous and very easy to read. Inspiring, I would say. It has certainly inspired me to think a lot more carefully about what I spend my money on, and to give some very serious thought to how I can introduce more creativity into my life not by buying more things but by living more, connecting more, letting myself experience both pleasure and boredom, using and treasuring the things I already own. Or letting them go, if they’re a burden to me. It reminded me that my dissatisfaction is mostly with myself, because I know I can do things differently but I fall into old habits because it is easy…or I think it is, but in the long run it just makes things harder. The Art of Frugal Hedonism is a joyous read about how we can fulfil our needs without having to work a joyless job 60 hours a week, dreaming of retirement. Maybe not all of their ideas will resonate with every reader, but I expect enough of them will to make this a worthwhile read for most. Maybe we can aspire to something different? I certainly believe that, and thanks to The Art of Frugal Hedonism I might just be able to make that belief a reality.

Posted in lifestyle, non-fiction | 10 Comments