Wednesday, 19 January 2011

It's terrible to be between books

On January 6, as I was dismantling the Christmas tree, I was also listening to Bookclub on Radio 4. 

The recent Booker Prize winner, Howard Jacobson, was talking about one of his novels -- and to tell the truth, I was listening half-heartedly until he got on to the topic of failure and its relationship to readers and writers.  He started off by saying, quite reasonably, that he was only interested in writing about failure because success didn't make for very interesting characters or plots.  But then, quite startlingly, he flung out the idea that we are writers -- and readers, even -- because we are failures at life.

Did I imagine that the collective intake of breath from his live audience turned into a sort of hissing . . .?

Maybe I remember it wrongly, but I do recall that he start "explaining" (backpeddling, in fact) rapidly.
Apparently what he really meant is that we are readers (and failures at life) because we want the world to be another (different and better) place.  Writers (and also readers) have gone into the imagination to remake and relive the world.

I have been ruminating on this assertion, especially because I find myself hiding out in books at this time of year.  Do I read more when I am depressed?  Well, yes.  But then I always have a book on the go, whether happy or sad, and my involvement in it has more to do with its own intrinsic interest (I will venture to say) than my own emotional state.  Do I actually want to remake the world through reading?  No, I don't think so.  Relive the world?  Well, of course; I appreciate the access to all of those other worlds I would otherwise be ignorant and deprived of.

This time last year I made a resolution to keep better track of what I read.  (Like any avid reader, sometimes I consume books so rapidly that I can barely remember the plot -- much less character names -- by the following month.)  My dear blog-friend Relyn recommended goodreads -- and although it took me a while to get started, and to be consistent with my recording, I have come to thoroughly enjoy and appreciate it.

I was looking through the list of books I read last year, and I started thinking about how some books create such a compelling world that it is always a bit of a wrench to leave that place.  In most cases, it's not that I would want to live there -- even if I could; but rather, that I have been so thoroughly immersed in that imaginative design that it becomes, for a time, more real than the "real world."  I think that I know the characters; I'm swept up into the plot; and yes, I feel a sense of loss when the words run out and I turn the final page.  Do I prefer books to real life?  (Does it make me a failure to admit that is sometimes the case?)

On goodreads, the reader gives each book a starred rating -- from one stars to five (the rather cheesy "it was amazing" rating).  The books on the following list weren't always a FIVE, and I wouldn't claim that they were perfect books and that anyone would love them, but they were the books that transported me to a fictional world that felt quite, quite real.  I was a tiny bit bereft when I finished them.

The Priory, by Dorothy Whipple
The Group, by Mary McCarthy
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore
The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst,
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, Monique Roffey
The Cookbook Collector, Allegra Goodman
Any Human Heart, William Boyd

It strikes me, looking at this list, that I'm partial to a reading experience that begins with The . . .

I leave you with some borrowed words from another delightful book that begins with The:
The Love Letter, by Cathleen Schine

"I need something to read," a man said to Helen.
Her attention shifted to him instantly and completely.
"It's terrible to be between books," she said.
And Johnny marveled at the tenderness of her voice.  It suddenly seemed
terrible to him, too, to be between books, though he was
often between books for months and had never really noticed it before.
"It's so disorienting, isn't it? Helen was saying.
"Like a divorce.  An amicable one, but still."

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Slouching towards 2011

For the past two weeks, my daughter has been working on a sculpture inspired by Winter.
She started with dead tree branches, and a sketchbook full of assocations, and ended up with something rather spidery and menacing.  Here, it looks rather like a large and upright praying mantis.

I'm not phobic about creepy, crawly things, but I do have an uncomfortable relationship with January.
This year it seems to be particularly bad, although -- as one of my friends tactfully told me -- "you are never very good in January.

We had an excessively sociable December, and maybe part of what I'm experiencing is a natural burn-out.
Winter is the time for renewal, as we all know, but I do hate the diminishment of my natural energies and enthusiasm.  I've had no energy for resolutions this year; and no desire for anything other than sleeping, reading and -- while the fleeting pleasure lasted -- watching episodes of Downton Abbey.  It's not that I'm lying prone on the sofa, and in fact I've had some hurry-scurry days, but still I feel like I'm just going through the motions . . . waiting, somehow, for things to begin.

It doesn't help that dusk seems to come at 3 pm, and the sky is a mass of smothering weeping cloud.  I do love England, my adopted country, but my native Texan self does suffer at this time of year.

Still, getting to the point of being able to write about it, is probably a sign that I'm beginning to emerge from the worst of my annual winter funk.  Here is a poem, which I dedicate to my fellow SAD sufferers, by the wonderful Linda Pastan.


Is is seasonal affective disorder
I suffer from?  This special lamp
I bought doesn't help at all,
but I do light up whenever
the sun itself appears.  you say
the blossoms are most themselves
on a cloudy day, as if contrast
is what flowers are about.
But I feel as swollen with useless tears
as the clouds must be with rain,
projecting their shadows
over fields that are simply waiting
to blaze back to green.

The world is always going to pieces,
and we're all growing rapidly
towards our deaths, even the children.
But just one hit of sun,
one almost lethal shot
of pure, yellow light
(like the hand of some saint
I don't even believe in
touching my face)
and I'll forget the whole broken world,
forget the impermanence of beauty.
I'll simply catch on fire from
a single spoke of sun.

With a single exception, everyone in my family has a January birthday.  When I am in a wintery mood, (see the beginning of the second stanza), that seems like an exceptionally grim thing.  Please forgive me; I'm having a morbid moment.  The forecast is nothing but rain, rain, rain, but hopefully I will be myself again soon.

January:  I can't wait to see the back of you.