My lockdown plans

 

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Lockdown means more reading time! (Image by FotoReith from Pixabay)

What strange times we live in! When I last posted, about two weeks ago, life was going on as normal, I’d just returned from a short trip to France and I was making plans for the coming weeks, including booking train tickets for work trips to London. Sure, there was talk of the Coronavirus in China, a few cases in Italy, but it didn’t seem like it was going to affect me, it was happening somewhere else. How long ago that now seems!

I didn’t post last week mainly because I was in shock. My elder daughter was due to be taking her GCSEs this summer, indeed, I was also going to invigilate at a local school. When the announcement came that exams had been cancelled, I think it hit me then how serious this was going to be. Suddenly, I feared for elderly relatives and neighbours and spent the week calling them, offering (please!) to help. I was comforting my daughter who seemed to be going through all the stages of a bereavement and, having worked so hard for the last two years, suddenly had no clue what she was meant to be doing with her life now. Plus, I could hardly tear myself away from the rolling news and the numbers dying in Spain and Italy increasing by the hundreds. We had to make rapid plans to get my son home from university (I’d only been to see him the weekend before!) and he was finding his local shops were empty by the time he got there – dinner for him one night was a pack of hot cross buns! I found it difficult to focus on anything.

This week is different – the high anxiety of last week has been replaced by a strange calm. We are all now under one roof, school, activities, hobbies, gym, everything now, has been cancelled, even the occasional Flat White at my coffee shop of choice. Unlike some, I’m not too worried about how I’ll cope with the ‘isolation’ – on the contrary, as an introvert who spends most of her days alone, it may be challenging for me to have everyone else around all the time! I think I will actually enjoy the opportunity to take a guilt-free foot off the gas. I will be giving help and support where I can in my community, but I will also be observing closely the need to keep others outside my household at (double) arms-length.

Whilst I don’t want to start creating lists of jobs for myself, I am better when I’ve got some goals, so here’s what I plan to do with all the found time:

  1. Top of the list is reading, of course. I have been wondering how I was ever going to get to The Mirror and the Light, the third and final part of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy….!
  2.  Re-read Ulysses – I am not a big re-reader, but I read this when I was much younger so I want to read it again through more mature eyes. This was one of my aims for 2020.
  3. Appreciate my garden, especially if this wonderful spring weather continues.
  4. Breathe – I’ll miss my yoga classes most of all but can practise at home.
  5. Take a virtual museum tour – perhaps the Guggenheim in Bilbao, somewhere I’ve long wanted to visit.
  6. Write – I have been finding it very difficult to get back into the re-writing stage of my book since my mother died, but perhaps this is the impetus I need.
  7. Keep in touch with my relatives.
  8. Make some photobooks – we don’t really print photos any more do we? I’ve made a few family photobooks over the years, but there are a few years missing.
  9. Clear out our files – paperwork, paperwork! My husband and I are terrible hoarders and keep everything, but do we really still need all those invoices from 10+ years ago?!
  10. Pay attention – we can still go out, once a day, for the moment at least, so whilst we still can I will enjoy my neighbourhood, with all its wonderful trees, and enjoy the lack of vehicle and aircraft noise!

I would love to hear what your plans are for ‘lockdown’ – above all, follow all the advice and stay well and safe.

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Book review – “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E Frankl

This was the February choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a non-fiction book. I’d had some excellent suggestions from others, but when I walked into the bookshop, this slim little volume with the beautifully coloured bird on the front, jumped off the shelf at me. It was only on closer inspection of the cover that I noticed the barbed wire and the unmistakable image of a watch tower in misty monochrome. This book is written by a Holocaust survivor, a former inmate of Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi concentration camp where over a million Jews were murdered; the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was commemorated at the end of January.

2020-02-06 12.42.07Viktor E Frankl was a psychiatrist who is credited with developing one of the most important theories in the field human psychology (logotherapy) since Freud. He was developing his theory before he was captured by the Nazis but his time in the concentration camp enabled him to observe human beings in extreme conditions and further evolve his ideas.

The core idea of logotherapy (if I understand it correctly) is that human beings have a ‘will to meaning’ and that is what enables them to survive even the most shocking brutality. To illustrate his point, Frankl writes in the first part of the book (about two thirds of the total) about his day to day experiences in the camp. We all know how terrible, degrading and dehumanising these were, but I certainly never fail to be shocked when I see or hear of them. Frankl suffered terribly, but he was also fortunate, as a doctor, to be called upon to look after sick inmates, and this enabled him to observe others at their most vulnerable.

It often occurs to me that it was a particular torture to keep those rounded up into the camps alive when the ultimate goal was extermination. Prisoners were used as slave labour and Frankl describes the horrific conditions they were expected to work in, digging up frozen ground in sub-zero temperatures wearing only the standard issue striped pyjamas, shoes which injured their feet, and surviving on a thin broth that was barely more than hot water. Frankl writes that horror was so commonplace and exhaustion so total that people became inured to feelings – being insensible was a necessary protection. Some inmates effectively ‘colluded’ with their captors and became mini foremen, acting as wickedly as the Nazi guards at times, but Frankl is philosophical:

“No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”

In the face of absolute degradation, where the prisoner’s life had no value, stripped of all freedoms and autonomy, Frankl observes that the only thing left is ‘spiritual freedom’ – the ability to choose one’s attitude in a situation. And this fragment, he believes, is enough to give one hope and purpose. He also observed that once this is lost, when a person can no longer see a goal or meaning, their physical life ebbs away.

Very few of us will ever have an experience like that of Dr Frankl or the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, though a few experience extreme privation, imprisonment and torture. Dr Frankl carried his theories into his work with normal people experiencing difficult things in their life. He cites an example of a bereaved colleague, devastated after the death of his wife, who felt that there was no longer any purpose to his life. Only once Dr Frankl was able to show him that his loss meant his wife had been spared the grief of being widowed, was he able to find meaning in his life again and thus move beyond his grief. Frankl is clear though that suffering is not necessary in order to find meaning in life, rather, that even through suffering, meaning can be found.

According to logotherapy we can find meaning in three different ways: by creating a work or doing a deed; by experiencing something or someone; and by the attitude we take to unavoidable suffering. Even when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are able to change ourselves. This for me, was the strongest message that came out of the book – Dr Frankl’s account of his time in the camp is both harrowing and compelling, but he is nonetheless able to draw from it, wisdom that is relevant to us all.

Viktor Frankl died in 1997. The second part of the book was revised and updated in 1962. I was struck by his reference to what he calls the ‘existential vacuum’, the depression people experience when they seem to lose the meaning in their life. He writes of how increasing automation in the workplace could lead to such a state. Retired an ageing people, he writes, can easily be afflicted by this as their once busy lives become seemingly empty. Here in the 21st century many of us have more leisure time than ever, but many of us don’t know what to do with it and may in fact be lonelier and less fulfilled than ever. Perhaps this explains the ‘Blitz spirit’ that older British people often reminisce about – in the suffering they found community and meaning and purpose. Perhaps it also explains the mental ill-health epidemic that seems to be affecting developed nations all over the world.

All of the above may be total gobbledygook, the ramblings of a middle-aged woman trying to work out her own purpose! I hope what will have come across to you, however, is that this is a very powerful book, that we should all read and which, I guarantee, will give you much food for thought.

Highly recommended, maybe even essential.

If you have read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Facebook Reading Challenge – March choice

Has another 1st of the month come and gone already? It certainly has! Meteorological spring has sprung, though I’m struggling to believe it here in my very damp corner of north west England. It must be time for a new book in my Facebook Reading Challenge 2020. Last month’s choice was a non-fiction title, and I chose Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl, a short book for a short month (though we had Leap Day of course), but one which I read slowly and deliberately, such was the importance and impact of the subject matter. I’ll be posting my review of this very powerful little book next week, so look out for that.

This year, I am scanning the globe with my reading themes, conscious that my reading is generally quite western and written in English, so this month’s choice is “Something from Asia”. In truth, it’s hard to quite know what that means these days – must the author live in Asia? Should the book be first published in an Asian language? Asia is also pretty big and covers a vast range of cultures and languages, so it is, I admit, a massive generalisation. However, choices must be made.

Please Look After MotherI was tempted to go for Haruki Murakami – after reading Norwegian Wood a couple of years ago, I am really keen to discover more of his work – but that would be a but too easy. So, I have put a pin in the haystack also known as the internet and come up with Please Look After Mother by Korean author Kyung-Sook Shin. This book won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011.

Its central character is So-nyo, an ageing matriarch who has lived a life of nurturing and self-sacrifice, caring for her husband and children. She becomes separated from her husband on a train journey. So-nyo’s family undertake a desperate search for her and as they do so, they recall the influence she has had on them all. It is said to be about family, about mothering in particular, and about what it means to love.

This book has been an international bestseller, though I’m ashamed to say I had not heard of it, or its author.

Please feel free to join me on my reading challenge this month.

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Book review – “The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin

I am a huge admirer of authors who can come up with clever, original, twisty plots. As a writer myself, this is, I feel, not one of my strengths, so I am in awe of those for whom it clearly is. Chloe Benjamin, in this novel at least, is definitely one of those authors. The following review contains one or two spoilers.

The Immortalists imgThe novel begins in 1969 with the four children of the Gold family – Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon – visiting a fortune-teller in her grimy downtown New York apartment, who is said to be able to predict the date of a person’s death. The mystic consults each child privately about their fate. Their reactions vary; Daniel, the second oldest, for example, says he thinks it is all rubbish. The younger children seem more vulnerable and more preoccupied, particularly Simon, who at this point is only seven years old, and who is told that he will die young.

The novel jumps forward ten years when the children’s father, Saul, dies. This leaves their needy mother, Gertie, distraught. It was expected that Simon would continue the family tailoring business, but this is very far from his intention. With the fortune teller’s prediction preying on his mind, he is easily persuaded by Klara to leave New York and make a new life for himself in San Francisco, where, free of family expectations, he can lead a more fulfilling life. Simon is gay, something Klara recognises clearly, but they both know that this truth would be devastating to their traditional Jewish mother. Simon could never follow in his father’s footsteps.

Simon not only moves to the other side of the country, but he breaks away from the family completely, much to the consternation of Daniel, who sees Simon’s behaviour as wilful and selfish. It also means that someone else will have to care for their mother, a role that Daniel expected Simon would take on. We watch with trepidation the hedonistic lifestyle that Simon leads. It is the early ‘80s and there is talk of a terrible new ‘gay disease’. Simon’s behaviour has a kind of death-wish about it.

Spoiler alert!

Simon dies – but that might not really be a spoiler, because you know it had to happen! Once Simon’s death becomes inevitable, the narrative of the book becomes clear. The author teases us by inviting us to consider whether Simon’s death was an accurate prediction by the fortune-teller, or whether being given a date of death drives us towards fulfilling that prediction. To what extent is our destiny within our control, and to what extent mapped out for us? Did Simon in fact escape one kind of destiny (the one his mother determined, life as a tailor in the family business) for another (dying from a horrible incurable disease)?

Next, we are told Klara’s story. Klara is the most bohemian and perhaps the most fragile of the four Gold children. She meets and falls in love with Raj. They have a daughter and after some lean years on the road, they eventually develop a highly successful magic act with a residency in Las Vegas. They call themselves The Immortalists, after their seemingly death-defying tricks. Success is a burden for Klara, however, and this, coupled with her unresolved grief over Simon’s death, leads her into a life of alcoholism. Klara is fascinated by the life story of her grandmother, also a travelling magician, and replicating some of her tricks becomes part of the magic act. Whilst trying to emulate a particularly dangerous one, she hangs herself in a hotel room – deliberately? Was she trying to cheat the prediction?

Daniel was the most sceptical of the children. He is convinced that Klara and Simon’s deaths were caused by the fortune teller’s predictions and, with the aid of a police officer who once met Klara, he hunts down the elderly fortune-teller hoping to bring her to justice. The hunt becomes an obsession for him. I won’t reveal the rest of Daniel’s story.

Finally, there is Varya, who was told by the fortune teller she would live to 88. She is working as a senior biologist conducting experiments into longevity using monkeys. Varya, like all her siblings, has some considerable mental health difficulties. She has severe anxiety and OCD, restricting her calorific intake to prolong her life (as she does with her monkey research subjects) and shunning meaningful human relationships – has Varya become dangerously obsessed with fulfilling the fortune-teller’s prediction? Her world is turned upside down when her favourite monkey becomes gravely ill in the experiment and Varya breaks with protocol in a way that threatens the costly research project, an act which damages her professionally. She also she meets a young journalist, who claims to be interested in her work but who is not in fact who he says he is. Varya’s ordered, controlled life unravels and she must face her demons, not just for her own sake, but on behalf of her troubled siblings too.

The story has a brilliant ending with Ruby (Klara’s daughter), and Gertie, the Gold children’s mother, coming together at the end. I listened to this on audiobook and was totally hooked. It’s a long but extremely satisfying book, so many threads, brilliantly woven together. Some reviewers have said it has too many clichés, others found aspects of the plot contrived, but I absolutely loved it.

Highly recommended.

If you have read The Immortalists I would be interested to know what you thought of it.

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Why I’m giving up negative thinking for Lent

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Image by Jess Foami from Pixabay

Sitting down with the family for our traditional Shrove Tuesday pancake feast yesterday evening, we got into the usual conversation about what each of us was giving up for Lent. We are not at all a religious family; I would describe myself as agnostic, and my children have inherited their parents’ religious scepticism. But we are interested in the bigger picture, and do not demur from Christmas gifts and Easter eggs!

In the past I have given up things like biscuits, or sweets. Scratching around for ideas this year, I suggested I might give up cake, but then remembered that I’m going away for a weekend with a couple of girlfriends shortly so that seemed a bit daft! We talked mainly about food items that might be given up, so what else was there – coffee, alcohol? Well, I don’t really consume a lot of either, but my morning coffee and a glass or two of wine now and then are small but important pleasures, so giving up those seems like reckless self-denial. I questioned my elder daughter about what the point of Lent might be for someone like me (she will be sitting her RE GCSE in a few short weeks and so is very hot on these questions at the moment). She said that for religious people the act of self-denial becomes about that person’s relationship with their god, but for the agnostics amongst us, she could see little benefit beyond it being another opportunity to make some sort of resolution, but which does not last a whole year.

I am very content with my relationship with food, and consider my diet good, on the whole. I don’t have many bad habits (I gave up Newsnight already, which was a terrible wrench, but it was a major cause of too many late nights!) and I don’t smoke, but I’m really not perfect. So, I stopped thinking about my body and started thinking about my mental habits. One of my resolutions for 2020 is to address finally my chronic self-esteem problem. I have been working through a book I discovered in my local library (one from the excellent ‘books on prescription’ selection) called Overcoming Low Self-Esteem by Melanie Fennell. I have ended up buying my own copy because I realise it is one I will want to hang onto for a long time, which seems unfair to other library users, and I find myself scribbling on copious post-it notes throughout.

Overcoming Low Self-Esteem imgThe book incorporates cognitive behavioural therapy techniques into exercises for addressing, for example tendencies to be self-critical. Low self-esteem can lead to debilitating inhibition, irrational fears, in both social and professional situations, and, I believe, can truly limit one’s life experience, achievement, enjoyment in life and personal relationships. I have found it really tough working through this book, particularly the chapters which focus on understanding the causes of poor self-esteem. Thinking about my relationship with my parents, in the aftermath of my mother’s death just a few months ago has not been easy.

 

What has become clear to me already (and with this book I feel I have started on a journey that will last many months) is my tendency to think negatively, mainly although not exclusively about myself, and this has been a source of pain and of conflict at various times in my life. So, I am going to try to give up negative thinking. Even being aware of when it is happening, will probably be a revelation.

I’ll let you know at Easter how I’ve got on, although I hope I won’t then want to go on a negative thinking binge!

Will you be giving up anything for Lent?

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Books to look forward to in 2020

You would have to have been under a literary rock this last week or two to have missed the fact that the final part of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, will be published on 5 March. An edited extract of the first chapter was published in The Guardian on Saturday – just savour these opening lines:

“Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away. A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner.”

The Mirror and the Light imgI think we can believe the hype – this is surely a writer at the top of her game! A few lucky critics who have had a preview have already tipped it for this year’s Booker Prize (parts one and two both won in 2009 and 2012). I am a huge fan of Mantel, ever since I read “A Place of Greater Safety”, a novel about the aftermath of the French Revolution. It was the book that really got me back into reading after I’d finished my English degree – I was all ‘read-out’ by the time I graduated, so this book saved me!

I am looking forward to reading The Mirror and the Light although at a stonking 912 pages, don’t expect a review any time soon!

2020-02-24 14.54.26There are many other books to get excited about this year. Isabel Allende’s latest book A Long Petal of the Sea was published in English last month. It is a story about escapees from the Spanish Civil War arriving in Chile in 1939, their evacuation having been organised by the great national poet Pablo Neruda. I was lucky enough to attend a talk Isabel Allende gave in Manchester (with Jeanette Winterson!) a couple of weeks ago and she was every bit as impressive and inspiring as I expected her to be. AND I got a signed copy of the book!

Sebastian Barry’s sequel to the wonderful Days Without End, will be published next month. Called A Thousand Moons it follows the story of Winona, the native American girl adopted by the narrator Thomas McNulty and his lover John Cole. Later in the spring look out for Simon Armitage’s first collection of poetry to be published since he became poet laureate, Magnetic Field. Also, new novels from Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage, winner of last year’s Women’s Prize, called Silver Sparrow, and Ottessa Moshfegh, whose thriller Eileen was one of the highlights of the 2016 Man Booker shortlist. Her new novel is called Death in Her Hands and promises to be another novel of drama and suspense when a woman comes across a mysterious note in the woods. I am also looking forward to the next Marwood and Lovett novel from Andrew Taylor – I loved The Ashes of London and The Fire Court and am about to start The King’s Evil. This is a really interesting series of books.

Highlights of the summer for me will be a new novel from the wonderful Elena Ferrante called The Lying Life of Adults, about adolescent shame, set, like her Neapolitan novels, in Naples. Also, the final part of Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, Summer; I read Autumn in 2017 when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker, and recently reviewed Winter. Better get on and finish Spring! Another book that will be hotly anticipated this summer will be the new one from Curtis Sittenfeld, author of American Wife, a book I loved. The new one is said to be about Hillary Clinton and is as yet untitled.

Information on what we can expect in the second half of the year is naturally a bit more sketchy, although I believe there are new novels from Caitlin Moran, Nick Hornby, comedian and Pointless presenter Richard Osman, and William Boyd. On the non-fiction front, I am excited by the prospect of memoirs from Manchester’s punk performance poet John Cooper Clarke, and from trans US military whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

So, it looks like my TBR list for 2020 has well and truly written itself!

There will be plenty more releases announced as the year goes on, and I like to post every few months on what’s coming up, so watch this space.

What new releases are you looking forward to this year?

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Book review – “The Water Dancer” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

It’s funny how things happen sometimes; in the last week there has been a political controversy in the UK (yes, I know, another one!) about an adviser recruited to the Prime Minister’s office who got into trouble over eugenicist views he had expressed online. The individual concerned seemed a bit cross that he had been held accountable for things he said in his “past”, which he presumably he thinks should be discounted as youthful ramblings, but given that he is only 27 years old, “the past” is a pretty relative concept. I have a new insight into views about eugenics thanks to having listened last week to an excellent serialisation on BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week programme of Dr Adam Rutherford’s new book How to Argue with a Racist. If you haven’t come across this yet, I would definitely recommend it. Adam Rutherford is a broadcaster, scientist and genetics expert and in this book he sets about exploding some of the myths around concepts of genetic inheritance. Listening to this book has actually saved me money, as I am no longer tempted to do one of those DNA testing kits! I am not a scientist but in other aspects of my professional life I am required to understand what constitutes good research and it is clear, even to a lay person, that there is no place for the broad generalisations about race, class and IQ (itself a deeply flawed concept) in social policy.

Henrietta LacksBy the strangest of coincidences, I have also just read two books which also explore issues of race and class. Rebecca Skloot’s non-fiction work The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Skloot’s book is a detailed and complex account of one woman, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman from Virginia who died in 1951 from aggressive cervical cancer. The cancer cells from her body were special and unique because they were the first ever cells that were able to not only survive outside their host, but were able to continue to thrive and reproduce, at a rapid rate. This perhaps accounts for the very aggressive nature of Henrietta’s disease. Scientists used these cells, known universally as HeLa cells, to create trillions and trillions more of them, which have been used ever since, worldwide and have been directly responsible for the development of life-saving drugs and treatments, for example for polio. The key to the story, however, is that Henrietta died without ever having been advised about or consenting to the use of her cells in this way, neither did her family, and none of her surviving relatives have been given any financial compensation. What makes the story all the more shocking, however, is that Henrietta died at a time of segregation, and almost certainly did not receive the same level of care and respect as a white woman would have done. I will write more about this book in a future post because it is a fascinating story.

The Water Dancer imgThe other book I have been reading, The Water Dancer, concerns the story of Hiram, a black slave also in Virginia in the mid-1800s. His mother was also a slave, but his father was a slave-owner, who allowed his son some elementary education after his mother’s death and then, when he was in his teens, gave him the special status of being the personal servant to his white half-brother, Maynard, the heir to their father’s estate. Hiram is also the grandchild of legendary slave Santi-Bess, one of the original transported Africans who is said to have had magical powers (Conduction), although it does not become entirely clear what these are until towards the end of the book. The first significant glimpse of this is when, whilst chaperoning Maynard on a drunken night out, the two young men somehow end up in the river. Maynard drowns but Hiram somehow emerges alive. The events which follow Maynard’s death eventually afford Hiram the opportunity to escape slavery via the Underground and he soon becomes an agent of that cause. It is not a straightforward choice for him, though, as he is forced to confront traumatic memories of his mother, who died when he was very young, and to face the many complex facets of slavery, its consequences, its victims and what it means to be free.

The book is unlike other treatments of slavery I have read (for example Washington Black, The Last Runaway) as it uses magical realism techniques as a way of differentiating between the enslaved and everyone else; Hiram, and some of the others involved in the Underground, still carry within them the songs and the stories of their ancestors, giving them access to a higher power, something which the others (the whites) have lost due to their self-brutalisation. The novel also takes a more nuanced view of the segregated society than I have seen before – within the enslaved group, there are some who are more courageous, more committed, more able and more educated than others, plus there are the ‘tasked’ (slaves) and those who have secured freedom. Within the, let’s call them the ‘whites’ group, there are the ‘quality’ (slave owners) and the ‘low’, the ‘hounds’ (slave hunters) and there are also a number of non-African-Americans involved in the movement to free the slaves. This is a more complex study of American society at the time and a more satisfying one.

The novel builds to a nail-biting denouement. It is at times brutally realistic, neither does it spare the reader’s emotions on the journey it takes us through. There are a range of good and bad endings here and that feels right. There is also a sense of no ending, the struggle to defeat racism goes on. Given the events at Downing Street this week, it is clear this is the case.

I recommend The Water Dancer. I also recommend every other book mentioned in the above review.

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