The Ideal Reader book 9: The Story of the Stone by Cao Xuequin volumes 2 & 3 (translated by David Hawkes)

Yes, I’m still working my way through The Story of the Stone, though I’m beginning to feel like I’m on the home strait. I’ve been reading for nearly 5 weeks now, which is an age, and I’ve got through about 1,650 pages so far and don’t have a great deal to say about the book itself. The story continues much in the same vein as the first volume: Bao-yu continues to live in the gardens with his various young cousins; he spends much of his time with his maids, loafing around and avoiding his studies; there are arguments and intrigues, many parties, many gifts exchanged, poems written. People live, fight, love. People die. It is life in a microcosm, there are few notable events but lots of inter-relations. Bao-yu’s relationship with Dai-yu is growing, both in intensity and awkwardness. Meanwhile we begin to receive hints that perhaps all is not well with the fortunes of the family – harvests are short and money grows short too.

Rather than focus on the story, I want to take a moment to reflect on the experience of reading this book. More than once I have been reminded of my previous experiences of attempting to read Don Quixote, a book I never finished and could not quite pinpoint the reason why. When I was reading I found the book enjoyable, interesting, yet when I set it aside I didn’t feel any urge to continue. I couldn’t account for it, and eventually gave up entirely. There was nothing at all wrong with the book, I just didn’t need to read it anymore. Towards the end of volume 2 of The Story of the Stone, I started to feel the same way. Perhaps it is the episodic nature of the story, the limited ‘action’ and seemingly trivial details – all the parties, the ‘delicacies’ consumed, the brocade and embroidered robes, the tears, the offences, the little spats and admonishments – which lend a lackadaisical tone to the book and challenge shortened attention spans. Perhaps this is why chunkster books are less prevalent these days. They take patience. Stories develop slowly. We’ve become used to action, points, meaning, developments. But what The Story of the Stone is is a soap opera, perhaps the first of its kind, in which the day to day challenges of an aristocratic family are gently picked over. And perhaps these days such stories are told via TV shows like Meet the Kardashians, but without quite the same level of drama.

Irrespective of this restlessness I continued on, though not before giving myself a little coaching on the need to keep going, to let the story unfold and give it the attention it deserved. And there were hints of something deeper to come. Bao-yu begins to grow dissatisfied with his purposeless life. The family fortunes seem threatened. The cousins are growing up – some are being betrothed or married off, others suffer with delicate health which suggest a premature end. Familiar characters die. And then there’s Wang Xi-feng. I’m not sure if I would have continued if not for Xi-feng. Xi-feng is married to Jia Lian, she is Bao-yu’s cousin by marriage (though referred to as ‘Aunt’ throughout) and she acts as principle housekeeper, purse-keeper and tyranny of servants for both the houses. Xi-feng is quite a character. She is sharp, difficult, tough on the servants, she is avaricious, usurious, grasping and manipulative. Xi-feng’s storylines are the light relief from all the boring parties, the poetry (and I like poetry, but there is sure a lot of it), the refined behaviour. Her storylines are often shocking, her behaviour appalling and yet you find yourself rooting for her because she is simply so entertaining.

I also realised, as I moved more deeply into volume 3, that whilst Bao-yu is the lens, this is largely a story of the lives of girls. Men figure, but they’re often making fools of themselves, being harsh, drunk or seducing the maids. Older women, barring Grandmother Jia, are often behaving pettily or shrewishly. Yet the girls – their lives are cloistered  but still rich and they care for each other and Bao-yu ever so carefully. None of the girl’s lives, from the most aristocratic to the lowliest maid, is deemed too small to examine, and they are presented as principled, caring, thoughtful and generally hardworking, whilst also being forthright, honest and often sharp-tongued. Their lives can be harsh, but they get on with it the best they can.

Overall, I’m glad I kept going. I don’t think I could have done it if I hadn’t gradually slowed my reading and also focused on reading the books I own rather than the books I covet. And as volume 3 drew to a close I sensed a melancholy turn – so much is changing in the lives of the children and I sense that adulthood will strip away that carefree ‘live every day as it comes’ feel that the story has engendered so far. Meanwhile the Jias have become like an extended family to me. People are sharp, witty, vicious, caring, thoughtful, principled, intelligent, reprobate. They come to blows and they do idiotic things. They have wormed their way gently into my affections. I’m looking forward to reading on.

Posted in Chinese, Classics, The Ideal Reader | 4 Comments

The Ideal Reader book 9: The Story of the Stone by Cao Xuequin volume 1 (translated by David Hawkes)

Image result for the story of the stone volume 1The Story of the Stone, perhaps more recognisably known as The Dream of the Red Chamber, is an epic work of Chinese fiction, my copy in five volumes weighing in at a massive 2480 pages long. I bought it ages ago intending to read it over a Christmas holiday but always balked at the length and the commitment to one book of such epic proportions, knowing how easily I get bored and knowing I would burn to move on to the next book, something different, something unknown. In my former book gnashing state, I would never have got around to this book. I may have held onto it, or I may have decided to get rid of it. In my quest to read all those ‘ideal reader’ purchases, this was an obvious choice for the list.

I have a full 3 weeks off work this summer and I’ve been reading a lot about Buddhism and Taoism recently and I was thinking about maybe tackling War & Peace when my eye chanced upon this set and I thought ‘well, how about it?’ and it didn’t feel too terrifying. This felt like a real mind-shift. In slowing down my reading, and focusing on the books in front of me, I have achieved a state of greater calm, of greater endurance, or lesser distraction perhaps. It may help that I’ve been meditating daily for a month and a half, I’m not sure. Whatever it is, the idea of absorbing myself in a book of such unthinkable size has actually grown quite appealing. It doesn’t matter that it will take a long time to read.

I feel like I have turned a corner (knowing, of course, that corners are illusory).

So, what is The Story of the Stone about? In the beginning when the goddess Nu-wa was repairing the sky she created a great quantity of building blocks. One of these blocks was left discarded, unused, at the foot of Greensickness Peak. There it lay in its shame and misery until along came a Buddhist monk and a Taoist monk. They picked it up, recognising its magical properties, and inscribed words upon it and promised to send it on an enlightening journey. And so the stone is born as a piece of jade in the mouth of Bao-yu, a son of the wealthy Jia family. Bao-yu is a constant disappointment to his father, being rather dreamy and more interested in hanging around with the girls than in submitting himself to the study of Confucianism. So the story of the stone is the story of a boy, living a transient human life with no recollection of his former status.

Alongside Bao-yu is a bewildering cast of characters, hundreds (it certainly feels like) sharing the daily trials of life in eighteenth century China. The principle characters surrounding Bao-yu are his cousin Dai-yu, a wilful, sorrowful orphaned girl with whom Bao-yu shares a strong emotional connection, and another cousin Bao-chai who is the epitome of the ideal woman: beautiful, restrained, gracious. There is his Aunt Xi-feng who runs the households, his father Jia Zheng who Bao-yu is terrified of, his various helpers and maids – Aroma, being the principle one, with whom Bao-yu loses his virginity – and a billion and one family members. At first the vast array of character is quite overwhelming, not helped, of course, by my ignorance of Chinese names. But as the book develops, this bewilderment becomes less pronounced and by about halfway through I was beginning to more easily recognise the various parties to the story.

Bao-yu himself is fortunate to be born into a wealthy family with all benefits and opportunities available to him. The Story of the Stone follows a relatively conventional narrative arc, recounting the experiences of Bao-yu’s days, along with those of the principle characters that surround him. Despite its enormous size, the book is surprisingly easy to read; it has an easy-going nature, pleasant and often quite funny. It chronicles the daily comings and goings, the ordinary intrigues, the sorrows, tragedies and the virtues of a traditional, though wealthy, Chinese household. There are plays and poems, games, fallings out and assignations. A lot if it is extremely amusing, like here where Nannie Li is having a moment and it all spins out of control:

“Xi-feng happened to be in Grandmother Jia’s room totting up the day’s scores for the final settlement when she heard this hubbub in the rear apartment. She identified it immediately as Nannie Li on the rampage once more, taking out on Bao-yu’s unfortunate maids some of the spleen occasioned by her recent gambling losses. At once she hurried over, seized Nannie Li by the hand, and admonished her with smiling briskness:

‘Now Nannie, we mustn’t lose our tempers! This is a New Year holiday and Her Old Ladyship has been enjoying herself all day. A person of your years ought to be stopping other people from quarrelling yourself. Surely you know better than that? If anyone has been misbehaving, you have only to tell me and I’ll have them beaten for you. Now I’ve got a nice hot pheasant stew in my room. You just come along with me and you shall have some of that and a drink to go with it!’

She proceeded to haul her off the premises, addressing a few words over her shoulder to her maid Felicity as she went:

‘Felicity, bring Nannie’s stick for her, there’s a good girl! And for goodness’ sake give her a handkerchief to dry her eyes with!’

Unable to hold her ground. the old Nannie was borne off in Xi-feng’s wake, muttering plaintively as she went:

‘I wish I was dead, I really do! But I’d sooner forget meself and make a scene like I have today and be shamed in front of you all than put up with the insolence of those shameless little baggages!’

Watching this sudden exit, Bao-chai and Dai-yu laughed and clapped their hands:

‘How splendid! Just the sort of wind we needed to blow the old woman away!’

But Bao-yu shook his head and sighed:

‘I wonder what had really upset her. Obviously she only picked on Aroma because she is weak and can’t defend herself. I wonder which of the girls had offended her to make her so…’

He was interrupted by Skybright:

‘Why should any of us want to upset her? Do you think we’re mad? And even if we had offended her, we should be perfectly capable of owning up to it and not letting someone else take the blame!’

Aroma grasped Bao-yu’s hand and wept:

‘Because I offended one old nurse, you have to go offending a whole roomful of people. Don’t you think there’s been enough trouble already without dragging other people into it?'”

This was not one of Bao-yu’s better days!

Volume 1 of The Story of the Stone has proven a gentle, fun and playful read which explores the growing relationships between Bao-yu and his cousins, as well as the daily goings on in the Jia family. In some areas I grew a little tired of the voluptuousness of the family life – the endless delicacies and taels of silver, the shining brocades and jewellery – but I suppose I have to appreciate that in the era in which it was written the extravagant lives of the aristocracy would have been of interest much as the extravagant lives of celebrities holds interest today, and it’s a minor niggle in what has otherwise been a surprisingly compelling read. And I half wonder if it’s leading up to something which will take the book in a different direction. Either way, I don’t mind. This book was not quite what I expected, but I’m intrigued enough to continue to volume 2 and if it continues in the same vein I’m still going to be happy. It’s fun, humane, often silly and very entertaining. Whatever is in store for innocent (or not so innocent) Bao-yu. I’m on board.

Posted in Chinese, Classics, Epic, fiction, The Ideal Reader, translation | 3 Comments

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