The Ideal Reader Book 5: The Three-cornered World by Natsume Soseki (translated by Alan Turney)

“I wonder how it would be if, while I am on this short journey, I were to regard events as though they were part of the action of a Noh play, and the people I meet merely as if they were actors. Since this trip is concerned fundamentally with poetry, I should like to take the opportunity of getting near the Noh atmosphere by curbing my emotions as much as possible, even though I know I cannot disregard them entirely.”

A while ago I was heavily into reading Japanese writers, exploring a wide range of books from that country from The Tale of Genji to In the Miso Soup. I discovered a great love of Japanese fiction. There’s a sparseness to it, even in its most glorious excess (Miso Soup is extremely violent) which allows the reader space to reflect. Themes of loneliness, isolation; the unspokenness of life. These are all themes that draw me in. No wonder I still feel a frisson of connection when I see a Japanese name on a book.

I bought a lot of books by Japanese writers, borrowed more, and I read most of them but there are still a handful languishing on my shelves unread. For some reason The Three Cornered World was one of them. I’m not sure why. I’ve read Kokoro by Soseki and thought it delicate and under-stated, yet somehow I never managed to get around to this one. Perhaps I had to be in the right mood. I was definitely in the right mood. In the blurb on the back of my copy the book is described as an ‘exquisite word painting’ and I can’t think of a more appropriate description. It is at once beautiful, strange, delicate and bold. It is like a work of zen art – simple, bold brushstrokes suspended in empty space. It is entrancing.

 “I suppose you could say that an artist is a person who lives in the triangle which remains after the angle which we may call common sense has been removed from this four-cornered world.

 Because of this lack of common sense, the artist is not afraid to approach those areas, both in the natural and the man-made world, from which the average person shrinks back, and in consequence is able to find the most exquisite pearls of beauty. This portrayal of beauty where it is commonly believed none exists, is generally called ‘poetic embellishment’. It is nothing of the sort. There is, in fact, no need for embellishment, since in all things there lies beneath the surface an intrinsic beauty which is a reality and which has always existed in all its brilliance merely waiting to be discovered.”

 There is not so much of a story in The Three Cornered World, rather I would describe it as a series of encounters. A young man, an artist, goes on a trip to stay at a mountain hotel intending to create art in the process. Along the way he muses about art, how art is formed, the bones of its creation.

Image result for the three cornered world“Approach everything rationally, and you become harsh. Pole along in the stream of emotions, and you will be swept away by the current. Give free rein to your desires, and you become uncomfortably confined. It is not a very agreeable place to live, this world of ours.

 When this unpleasantness increases, you want to draw yourself up to some place where life is easier. It is just at the point when you first realise that life will be no more agreeable no matter what heights you may attain, that a poem may be given birth, or a picture created.”

The hotel he chooses to stay in is empty, a little run down, not expecting guests. During his time there he becomes intrigued by the owner’s daughter, a divorced woman with a bad reputation, who behaves in an unseemly way which, as it turns out, is just one of those uncomfortable situations in which art can be formed. His encounters with her are strange, filled with a mysterious significance, always unsatisfactory and brief. He sees her at a distance in her wedding dress. In his notebook he writes a series of poems inspired by her, and she replies. She joins him, briefly, in the bathhouse. There is no sense of romance, rather it is more of a recognition – the daughter is a strange, artistic soul seeking expression. She may be lost in the emotional current herself, but as fodder for the artist she is perfect.

Aside from the daughter our protagonist spends time with her father – a man who collects beautiful objects – and a zen Buddhist monk. There is also a nephew who is being sent to fight in Manchuria, and whilst his story is brief and barely touched upon it serves as an interesting counterpoint to the artistic mind, the man who wafts with no object, barely touching his paints, juxtaposed against this boy who is likely going to his death, willingly and without doubts.

The Three Cornered World is a strange and exquisite book. It reads almost like a diary, the musings of Soseki on the subject of art. At times there is a sense of superiority – the idea that the artistic mind is the ultimate elevation – and these moments jar a little because in all other respects this is a delicately drawn book, subtle and expansive. Yet these jarring moments do not spoil the book, they make it more real. There’s a sense that there’s a real person, a bold force, behind these haiku-esque musings.

When I finished reading The Three Cornered World I was left with a sense of something unspoken, difficult to articulate. It is a gorgeous read. There is great beauty in it, but also a great deal of philosophical thinking. It left me with a great deal to think about. Each line feels crafted, but not in a unsettling way. It is like looking at a painting and then looking at it again and finding something different each time, something you hadn’t noticed. There’s a gentleness to it, and a boldness. It is many things and no things. Like mist over mountain landscape, it obscures and reveals. I keep lingering over that description ‘an exquisite word painting’ and I think it is definitely true. Yet it is more than that. It is not just a painting, it is life.

Posted in Art, fiction, Japanese, The Ideal Reader | 11 Comments

The Ideal Reader book 3: The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen

“Amazingly,we take for granted that instinct for survival, fear of death, must separate us from the happiness of pure and uninterrupted experience, in which body, mind, and nature are the same. And this debasement of our vision, the retreat from wonder, the backing away like lobsters from free-swimming life into safe crannies, the desperate instinct that our life passes unlived, is reflected in proliferation without joy, corrosive money rot, the gross befouling of the earth and air and water from which we came.”

 I read The Snow Leopard and I read it again. I had heard it was a transcendent book, a ‘must read’ both for the seeker in the world and the seeker of the inner world, and it’s all true. Yet it’s more complex than that. On the one hand, Matthiessen’s journey is one focused on the mundane, the difficulties of daily life – eating, moving, sleeping, being cold and wet, being tired, being cross, being impatient. On the other hand it is a journey to inner discovery, an exploration of someone seeking something beyond themselves. In the physical world Matthiessen is seeking both the Crystal Mountain monastery, a fabled buddhist temple in a remote area of Tibet and the fabled, elusive snow leopard. In the spiritual world he is seeking a resolution, a deeper kind of buddhist experience and a reconciliation with the death of his wife – Deborah Love – a woman with which he had a tumultuous relationship. He left behind his children to go on this journey. Perhaps it was worth it.

“But when I came across these cautionary words, I already had what Kierkegaard called “the sickness of infinitude”, wandering from one path to another with no real recognition that I was embarked upon a search and scarcely a clue as to what I might be after. I only knew that at the bottom of each breath there was a hollow place that needed to be filled.”

Image result for the snow leopard peter matthiessen vintageThe book is split into four sections each representing a period of travel: Westward, Northward, The Crystal Mountain, The Way Home. His travelling companion is George Schaller a naturalist who is seeking insight into the bharal – the Himalayan blue sheep. Schaller may be familiar to those who have read Gorillas in the Mist as the man who influenced Dian Fossey to deepen the research into the mountain gorilla, amongst other accomplishments. Along with Schaller there are a troupe of various porters and scherpers, some of which stay for the whole journey and others which fall away. One in particular, Tukten, has a profound impact on Matthiessen. He feels a connection he cannot explain, though Tukten is believed to be unreliable.

The book takes the form of a diary which includes details of the journey as well as Matthiessen’s reflections on his buddhist experience as well as his late wife. It is a strange blend: part expedition diary, part naturalist diary and part spiritual journey, with some of the history of Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, woven into the blend. It makes a compelling tapestry, perhaps less so for those disinclined towards any religious exploration, but even taking this element out the book remains compelling. What ensues is something greater than the journey alone. Whilst the principle hunt, on Matthiessen’s part, is for the leopard, this element fades into the background as he discovers the greatness of what is already there in front of him: the treacherous and magnificent landscape, the strangeness of the goats, the hunting behaviour of wolves, the delicate yet resilient wildflowers, the resilience of the people that live in this difficult landscape, the darkness of night, the wonder of a lone voice singing. There is a strong parallel between the life of a naturalist and the inner life of a committed buddhist which centres around the importance of observation, the attention raised on the here and now, not inserting the ego but simply watching, seeing what actually happens rather than imposing the human will. It brought to mind the wonderful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the way Dillard observed and allowed herself to be absorbed into the landscape. Matthiessen struggles here to do the same thing. He is more revealing of his challenges – the moments of anger that he submits to, the difficulties of interrelationship and how this impedes his progress towards the inner peace, the negation of self, that he so desires.

“The search may begin with a restless feeling, as if one were being watched. One turns in all directions and sees nothing. Yet one senses that there is a source for this deep restlessness; and the path that leads there is not a path to a strange place, but the path home. (“But you are home,” cries the Witch of the North. All you have to do is wake up!”) The journey is hard, for the secret place where we have always been is overgrown with thorns and thickets of “ideas”, of fears and defences, prejudices and repressions. The holy grail is what Zen Buddhism calls our own “true nature”; each man is his own saviour after all.”

 The Snow Leopard is one of those books I have had extreme difficulty expressing my thoughts about. It has made me think a great deal and I think I could read it over and over and each time absorb something a little different. There’s an echo, a reflection perhaps, of my own experience though I am not embarking on an epic journey in which I will suffer privations and difficulties, in my interior life I sense similarities between where Matthiessen found himself and where I now reside. I have, I have had for a long time, that restless feeling. I encountered that same sense of recognition that Matthiessen makes reference to when I first read the Tao te Ching and I have been seeking something ever since. I have considered embarking on a spirit quest, odd as that sounds, which involves a period of isolation and fasting and in which everything that sustains and contains us is stripped away, revealing only whatever is left. Matthiessen’s journey expresses that experience in a very visceral way with all the difficulties and the errors, the everydayness of emotions piqued by lack of oxygen or hunger. What I realised as I read this extraordinary book is that there’s no need to go anywhere to explore these feelings, we can do it here and now. Because, for all of these experiences:

 “The ground whirls with its own energy, not in an alarming way but in a slow spiral, and at these altitudes, in this vast space and silence, that energy pours through me, joining my body with the sun until small silver breaths of cold, clear air, no longer mine, are lost in the mineral breathing of the mountain. A white down feature, sun-filled, dances before me on the wind: alighting nowhere, it balances on a shining thorn, goes spinning on. Between this white feather, sheep dung, light, and the fleeting aggregate of atoms that is “I”, there is no particle of difference. There is a mountain opposite, but this “I” is opposite nothing, opposed to nothing.”

 Eventually we have to return to daily life and daily life will intrude wherever we are, unless we take ourselves away forever, live off-grid, outside society for all time:

“The part of me that is bothered by the unopened letters in my rucksack, that longs to see my children, to drink wine, make love, be clean and comfortable again – this part is already facing south, over the mountains. This makes me sad, and so I stare about me, trying to etch into this journal the sense of Shey that is so precious, aware that all such effort is in vain; the beauty of this place must be cheerfully abandoned, like the wild rocks in the bright water of its streams. Frustration at the paltriness of words drives me to write, but there is more of Shey in a single sheep hair, in one withered sprig of everlasting, than in all of these notes; to strive for permanence in what I think I have perceived is to miss the point.”

So: does Matthiessen find the snow leopard? I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book to find out for yourself. And if you do I hope you found, as I did, that the experience was worth it whatever the outcome; because that, I think, is the core message that Matthiessen is trying to convey, the truth his Buddhism leads him to, that it is the experience of the journey that counts; the outcome, for us all, is always the same.

Posted in philosophy, religion, The Ideal Reader, travel | 8 Comments

The Ideal Reader

When I started out book blogging I was super-excited about the prospect of reading lots of books, reviewing lots of books, maybe getting my hands on some free review copies and adding, exponentially, to the groaning weight of paper on my bookshelves. And for a time, that’s exactly what it was like. I read lots, reviewed lots, I met lots of amazing book bloggers (still the best thing about blogging is the amazing community of fellow bloggers) and it was wonderful. And then it began to feel like a burden, or perhaps not a burden perhaps more of a machine that began driving itself and I, its hapless passenger, was just being carried along. Not an operator, but something being operated. Meanwhile my shelves groaned all the more, the weight of words became crushing and I began to notice that even when I’d really enjoyed a book very little of it stuck with me after 3-6 months and the prospect of re-reading it, that deeper reading experience, seemed an impossibly distant dream. Reading has always been a pleasure to me, something of a daily necessity, but I began to wonder what this relentless reading was doing to me. I knew I had to slow down and so I embarked on my year of slow reading which helped to rebalance the way I felt about my books.

Still, slow reading was only the door opening a crack. I needed to push more to find my way out.

In slower reading I managed to find a kind of equilibrium with book buying. I stopped acquiring so many books and started to read the ones I had, but I still felt that urge of desire, the relentless pull of the new, and so I borrowed lots of books from my library and I read lots of books and neglected the ones gathering dust on my shelves. There were two underlying causes of my ignorance – one, of course, is the lure of the new, the idea about which I was interested and excited at that moment in time which made it easy to read the book that satisfied that particular need. The other one is a cause I’ve been relunctant to admit to. I would look at the books on my shelves and think they were too difficult, too challenging, my head was not in the right space for it. I wanted to glide over the surface of my reading without effort, because I was still largely reading for escapism, pleasure and relaxation. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Reading has often been a vehicle towards calm for me and I’m never going to give that up. But on my shelves were a hoarde of books that I had bought for idealistic reasons – because I wanted to read philosophy (it has fascinated me for some time, though my experience of reading books of philosophy has been like trying to kayak upstream with a broken paddle on a windy day when the tide is against you), because it was a ‘classic’, because it was innovative or clever, because it was chunky or ‘important’, because I was suddenly interested in a particular thing (read: books on exploration, travel, nature, neuroscience and mathematics) – and then been too afraid, lazy or caught up in something else to read them. Reading this passage (from a book I’d borrowed from the library) really brought it home to me:

“The stuff I wanted the ideal version of myself to use was everything I had once bought in hopes that it would somehow make my life or myself better. There were books I thought smart Cait should read, clothes I thought professional Cait would wear, projects I thought creative Cait could tackle. Classic novels, little black dresses, scrapbook materials and more. At one point I’d put thousands of dollars on my credit cards for this stuff – stuff I purchased with every intention of using but only because I told myself it would somehow help. I wasn’t good enough, but this stuff would make me better. Having these items in my home proved it was possible. I would do it one day, and become a better person one day. This time, one day never came.” [From The Year of Less by Cait Flanders]

In the case of Cait Flanders she took a long, hard and unforgiving look at her life and realised she had to just get rid of all those things she’d bought in the hopes of becoming that idealised version of herself. She adopted a minimalist lifestyle. Minimalism has become something which I’ve been investigating in more depth over the past couple of years, a symptom, perhaps, of the overwhelm I’ve felt in all parts of my life, including my reading experience. I’m not really a minimalist (I own many unnecessary things) but a lot of the ideals that minimalism draws on have great appeal to me. Getting rid of things you don’t use is one of the key tenets of the philisophy, because stuff is burdensome and stuff you don’t use is draining, rather than life affirming. I feel that. I looked at all those books I’d bought in an idealistic frame of mind and considered the relief in donating them all, reducing the books on my shelves to those which I thought it likely I would read, or those I love that I might read again. I would no longer be burdened with those choices I had made either thoughtlessly or aspirationally. I wouldn’t have to face being a lesser reader than I felt I could be. So what if I didn’t ever read those philosophy books, or if my copy of War and Peace found its way to the secondhand bookshop in pristine condition? It doesn’t matter to anyone but me. I could feel the burden lightening just thinking about it. I started pulling books off the shelf.

Then I thought: no. What if I just read them instead?

Because once upon a time I felt enthusiastic about all of those books. I believed I wanted to read them and I believed I was capable of doing it. Once upon a time, those books were the ‘new’ I was drawn to and only the act of acquisition – acquisition without immediately following through – dulled that desire. As I passed the books through my hands I began to think about what had drawn me to them in the first place, and whether I was really willing to let that pass by without even attempting to read them. I thought about why I hadn’t read them and knew deep down the reasons were pathetic. Fear, laziness, the excitement of other things. The unknown. Was that really who I wanted to be? Or did I want to be the ideal reader I once believed I could be?

I had to try. I have spent a lot of time reading to escape, reading to solve a particular problem or reading to relax. As I said earlier, I’m still going to do those things. But how do I know those books I was willing to discard won’t, equally, entertain and divert me as well as challenging my thinking, my understanding of the world, taking me out of my tiny mind into the minds of others? I won’t know until I read them. I felt a little ashamed that I was willing to discard them without giving myself a chance to discover what those books have to offer. I was throwing them away purely on the expectation of what I thought they might be (which is exactly why I bought them, by the way. I’m not sure resolving the issue in the exact manner in which it was created exactly constitutes addressing the problem).

[interlude: it’s important to state here that I judge no one for deciding to give up their books, to donate them unread and move along to something else. Buying 100 more books to replace the ones they got rid of? Fine. Whatever makes you happy. If I had decided to give up my books I would have got myself comfortable with it, and I would be writing a slightly different story here but I think, somehow, it would be just as difficult. Each of us is an individual who has individual desires and needs, makes choices based on those things and faces our challenges in our own way. I was inspired by Flanders. Because she inspired me, forced me to confront myself, I chose this path. I could have chosen a different one. Someone else will choose something different. Maybe even give up books entirely. No judgement.]

I dug out all those books that I’d bought for those idealistic reasons and put them together in my bookcase. There are around 100 or so, slightly more I think because some of them comprise multiple volumes (e.g. The Story of the Stone) or contain multiple books (e.g. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live). Then I made a few simple commitments:

  • I will attempt to read all of those books.
  • until I have read them all I cannot buy or, crucially, borrow any other books (I will accept gifts, however. It would be churlish not to!).
  •  I cannot give up on a book until I’m at least half way through. This is to prevent me from cheating and giving up easily, especially for the longer books which often take some time to get going.

But I can still read other books that I own and I’m not going to work to a particular timeline. It will take as long as it takes.

I intend to review at least some of the books I read on this blog, though I don’t intend to review all of them and my posting will, I think, continue to be patchy. One of the things I realised in my relentless reading cycle was that I was beginning to read in order to blog and that was entirely the wrong way around. The reading comes first. I’m learning to remember what that means.

Posted in The Ideal Reader | 24 Comments

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 | 4 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