Don’t call it a comeback

I’ve been here for years, but to misquote LL Cool J I can’t say I’m rocking my peers, as I have been out of the blogosphere for several months now. A few people have been kind enough to ask where I’ve been (or rather what I’ve been reading). In a nutshell, a major work upheaval took up a huge amount of my time, energy and what passes for brainpower. That, and, if I’m honest, trying to plough through all 10 seasons of Friends on Netflix. But things are calmer now!

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The Dream of the Poet or, The Kiss of the Muse, Cezanne

It’s interesting my last post was about re-reading because currently I’m going through all the Merrily Watkins series (by Phil Rickman) again. I find that I look forward to these books with the same delicious anticipation that I look forward to roast turkey or a twice-baked cheese souffle. I take such joy in the intricacies of the sub-plots, the chill of the supernatural and the warmth of human empathy in these books. They just get better with each read, and I’ve found I missed vital elements of the story which made a lot more sense with a fresh eye. I always bang on about Phil Rickman, but that’s because he deserves a big drum. He should be far better known than he is and it’s a crime (ho ho) that he isn’t on every bookshelf in the land.

I have found some new books though! Rather than bore you to tears with everything I’ve ploughed through, here are some of my personal highlights:

Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor

I couldn’t believe how much I loved this book and I wasn’t sure why, but i couldn’t stop thinking about it.  I began reading it again as soon as I finished it. There is also a section of short stories based on the book available on BBC iPlayer Radio. If there is one book I want everyone to go out and discover (apart from Phil Rickman’s!) please let it be this. It’s sparse, beautiful, gentle, slightly chilling, heart-warming, heart-breaking.

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

This is the story of what Abraham Lincoln’s son might have experienced in limbo, where all souls congregate. I got annoyed with it at first and nearly ditched it; I’m so glad I continued. It’s startlingly original and thoroughly enjoyable.

He – John Connolly

Yes, another of my favourite authors; but this book is a huge step away from the Charlie Parker series. He is a biography of Stan Laurel. Initially I got irritated by the constant referrals to ‘he’ but once I got into it I found this a fascinating history of cinema and also a gut-wrenching look behind the smiles of Laurel and Hardy. A fitting testimonial to one of comedy’s greats.

Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

A brief history of mankind – and basically how it’s screwed the planet up. Essential reading, but not something to read in a one-er and certainly not advisable bedtime reading if you’re feeling a little melancholy. I felt so ashamed of being a human being by the time I’d finished it that I began my Friends binge-watch.

Eureka – Anthony Quinn

I absolutely loved this! Set in the world of 1960s London, it focuses on a small group of characters and a film which seemingly won’t be made. It’s breath-takingly original, sad and funny.

Winter – Ali Smith

Read back in January but not forgotten. The story of a family gathering, relationships severed being cautiously knitted together, and time skittering back and forth like a skater on thin ice. Ali Smith’s second in her quartet of ‘season’ novels is slim, as if she measures each word very carefully before using it. Mary Berry will tell you that’s the best way to get results, and Winter is a perfectly risen, light but satisfying Victoria Sponge.

At the moment I’m juggling To Dream of the Dead by Rickman and The Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp. I have two eyes so why can’t I have two brains enabling me to read both books at the same time?

To see which one I finished first, you’d better check out my next post. Which I promise won’t take me as long to write as this one did!

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As an aside, I have also written a story. I attended a training session as part of my new job and we discussed a fatal helicopter crash.

The incident haunted me so much I went straight home and typed out my story without really thinking much about it – a real Homer moment at the laptop. No it’s not as romantic an image as an artist being visited by a muse, or Ted Hughes’s thought-fox, but it’s a bit more accurate. When I sit up from the keyboard, blinking sleepily, with my mouth as dry as Ghandi’s flip-flop, I know I might have written something good – mainly because I can’t remember writing it.

(Thank you sincerely to the people who wrote saying they missed my blog. That made my day!)

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Rereading for Christmas

This post was written over a period of 2 months.

Re-reading is a joy which I don’t often allow myself. As I recuperate from an operation, I have too much to time to think. There’s a perpetual ache I can’t quite handle.  I’m hiding from it by re-reading the Jinny books, which I posted about a couple of months back. I polished all of them off within a couple of days. I remembered phrases, heart-wrenchingly beautiful descriptions, characters as alive as people in my own life, simple, taut plots. It reminded me how much I had admired the author Patricia Leitch and how desperate I had been to write like she did.

I’ve spent a lot of time with my gerbil who is the light of my life; but our partnership is no match for that of Jinny and her Arab horse Shantih.

A quiet day in sounds wonderful, when you spend your life running around. I’ve had four weeks of quiet days and I’m still exhausted! I have watched Alias Grace and Stranger Things 2 on Netflix; I have read Lifers by Geoffrey Wansell which made me feel a bit ill; Missing Fay by Adam Thorpe which was blandly fascinating in the way his books are; Great Britain’s Great War by Jeremy Paxman (brilliant); The Vampyre by Tom Holland (I never thought I’d enjoy a vampire book); London 1945: Life in the Debris of War by Maureen Waller (excellent); Minette Walters’ latest, The Last Hours, set during the plague  (which left me wanting something. Not the plague, but I felt it was lacking… body).

 

I’m ending the year on The Somme by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore. An deep, damning book, and a vital one, but I am so glad it is over. I have not for a long time read something so visceral it plunged me into the heart of the battle, the horror and suffering, the mud and the slaughter. At one point I found that I could smell death, so vivid is the writing. It was a strange feeling. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strong reaction to a book before.

I have closed it with a sigh of relief.

Now, finally, I can relax and become a little more festive. Last night a group of four very close friends was reunited. In the summer we were close to becoming a trio. I squished S’s illness and my worry about her into a a little stream of fear which ran deep in my gut. It was only when I watched her, vibrant with new life and a second chance, opening her Christmas presents that I realised how terrified I had been that we might lose her. That we were indescribably lucky to have her still with us, at a time when many feel an emptiness in their life like the gap where a tooth was, an ache which will never be soothed.

I’ve had significant downs this year; not a life-threatening level, but certainly life-changing. That rivulet of dread has been trickling through my every waking hour for many months. But now for the first time in a very long while I am looking towards my future with hope, and a certain degree of excitement, rather than fear. I feel I’m being given a chance to turn my life into a very different direction and the uncertainty for the first time is an opportunity rather than a blow.

With that in mind, it’s too late for me to decorate for Christmas, but I will be lighting some candles this evening. Plugging in the sadly neglected fairy lights. Heating up some salted caramel & clementine hot chocolate (that’s not an advert, but if Hotel Chocolat want to send me some freebies I won’t rebuff them).

I’ve opened The Children of Green Knowe now, and will settle down with that followed by the best book ever written (in my very humble opinion): A Christmas Carol.

The world is so flooded with new books I feel breathless with the desperation to wallow in them. My wishlist is full of titles I may never get to open. But, at a time when I’m on the edge of a new life, some of the oldest, most familiar stories are what I need most.

Happy reading, and merry Christmas.

Angry Blackberry Picking

This photo is of the tiniest snail ever, which I found on a blackberry bush. I rinsed him in the colander by mistake, then rescued him; then dropped him in the washing up bowl, and rescued him again. Somehow, he survived. I like to think this is a good omen, as most of my life, to the point of OCD, is about seeing omens – none of which are positive ones.

 

I am angry. The blackberries aren’t, or not so far as I know. But they are going over now, and apparently because the devil has spat on them. That is so bloody typical of the devil. Can’t even leave the sodding blackberries alone.

 

Yes, it’s been several months since I last posted. Thank you to the three people who’ve got in touch saying they’ve missed me! I’m afraid while you may have missed my witterings, you haven’t missed me too much. I’m angry and scared and frustrated. But then aren’t most of us nowadays?

 

 

I am angry about Harvey Weinstein and the fact that the reaction from so many is “Why didn’t they say anything sooner?” rather than “Who the hell did he think he is?” I’m angry at 21 year old me who didn’t complain when she was groped in a club because she thought it was just what men did (and it wasn’t the first time, either) and then didn’t understand, for many years, why other women did speak up. Don’t even get me started on the Chedwyn Evans case (not calling him Ched, he’s no friend of mine) and how it’s impossible for a woman to be raped if she allegedly had and enjoyed sex with other men pre/post alleged assault. That case was the main reason I spend a lot less time online.

I’m angry that I’m being made redundant. That’s all I’m going to put in the public domain about that. I’m scared, too. I am angry at myself that I have screwed up my life so spectacularly that I am facing 40 without a penny (well that’s not true, I do have a pension, but you know, right here and right now!).

I thought going blackberry-picking would assuage this anger but then I saw a collection of beer bottles flung into the hedge and this reignited the rage. WHY? Why treat our beautiful countryside like a rubbish bin? Then I saw signs from the local community campaign group protesting against yet more sodding “affordable” – that’s 3 and 4 bed affordable, you know – homes to be built on greenbelt and I felt red hot rage.

After all that, I picked 12 blackberries. 12! I’m now angry at the bushes for their dearth of berries, and myself for not putting in the devoted picking time I normally do. A few weekends ago a couple starting picking on the same bush as me and I went into picking overdrive, my hand a blur from bramble to bucket. That also made me cross. Though not angry.

Things That Have Made Me Less Angry

A walk at lunchtime, kicking through piles of yellow leaves with the canopy of trees embracing overhead. I’ve rushed through autumn; I’ve missed her beauties, her gentle warmth. Hopefully, if I’m still here next year, I will take more time over her.

Cavalier chocolate – it shouldn’t, but it does. And it doesn’t have sugar in it, which makes it less bad.

The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert and The Chimp Paradox by Prof Steve Peters, read in tandem. It’s taken me ages to read The Compassionate Mind and I’m very glad I did. Even if the end made me curl up in a little ball of despair because the author is heralding a more compassionate age thanks to the inauguration of Barrack Obama. We all know how long that lasted! A reign of compassion appears to have lit the touchpaper for the intolerant, the ignorant, the racist, the phobic, the selfish, the fascist. It’s an enormous backlash as if certain people just couldn’t stand having a decent human being in charge of their country.

I keep having to reign in my own chimp – the part of my mind which is uncontrolled, which is primitive and works on instinct. For the first time I can separate the Wouldbegood from the Wouldbebad and notice when my chimp gets out of her cage. The chimp has her uses – her instinct is to protect – but she’s left me lonely and bruised, if no longer broken. To have control over her, to be her mistress rather than at her mercy, is something to aim for. Perhaps all this anger isn’t a waste of energy if it means I have heightened awareness of when she’s about to go on the rampage.

Those are the only books I’m going to talk to you about today. I’m done, for now. Off to the gym to be, somehow, less angry. To exercise my chimp in a safe environment so that hopefully tonight, unlike the last few weeks, she gets some sleep.

So the devil wants to spit on my blackberries? Bring it on Lucifer – but you needn’t think I’ll let you do it without protest. Like thousands of other women, I’m done holding my tongue.

We’re angry.

Snog, Marry, Avoid

The last few months’ reading, in a nutshell…

SNOG.

 The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve
I haven’t enjoyed the last few of Anita Shreve’s but I felt this one shows her back on form. The story of Grace, Gene and their children in post-war Maine gradually unravels, in a way you don’t expect it to. I had no idea about the great fire of Maine, so I was reading without having the sense of impending doom that others who know its history will experience. This in no way lessens the impact of the writing and the rebirth of the shattered family. Shreve’s prose is spare, which gives every word a heightened resonance, and can be read in one sitting.

Never Alone by Elizabeth Haynes
Sarah lives alone, and is not prepared for an old aquaintance coming back into her life. Nobody in her social circle trusts him, and it appears with very good reason… While not hitting the spot the way Into the Darkest Corner did, this is an improvement on her other work and has given me hope we’ll get back to the strength of her debut novel.

Moranifesto by Caitlin Moran
Caitlin Moran’s zany bounce does make you want to squash her like a mosquito sometimes, but I enjoy her refreshing zest for life and passion for everything.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill
I very much liked the way this novel was written. The comparisons to Angela Carter are spot on as this is in so many ways a twisted fairytale with thorns of truth poking through amongst the roses. The writing is often beautiful and the story of orphans Rose and Pierrot, separated just as their love begins to blossom, is fascinating. Pierrot hides from his past in drugs, Rose in sex, before they are reunited – but we all know real fairytales do not end with ‘happy ever after’.

The story goes on too long, and loses its way. Having initially been desperate to eat it up, I found myself wanting it to end. Nevertheless this is a startlingly beautiful and original story and I have already checked out this this author’s other work from the library.

I’m Right Here by Yvonne Cassidy
I didn’t expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. The tale of a teenage girl who starts hearing the thoughts of a slave-girl from 150 years ago is taut, human and very intelligent. Interwoven into the stories of both Cassie and EL are the experiences of slavery, friendship and family. Cassidy understands all her characters very well, and although there are a few loose ends – the story of EL in itself, and that of Cassie’s grandfather – in a way these don’t matter because the reader draws their own conclusions. I walked away from this powerful story finding that I didn’t leave it alone. I wrote my own ending, thought about the back stories of the characters. This is the sign of a good book and I look forward to reading more from this author.

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne
A visceral tale about a woman who discovers her father has escaped from prison. The story flags a little, but starts to pick up the pace towards the final third of the book and one twist made me gasp out loud. I would be interested in reading more from this author who displays a confident tone with regards to nature both human and animal.

Howards End on the Landing by Susan Hill
A year of re-reading books – an interesting premise, but perhaps more a memoir than a simple delve into the book shelves. Still, there are authors here I haven’t read, and need to investigate so it is worth a read.

The Whitby Witches by Robin Jarvis
This is a book aimed at young adults, but I enjoyed it as an oldish adult. Orphans Jennet (could that be a taste of a future Pendle-witches story?) and Ben come to Whitby to live with their great aunt. It soon becomes clear that Aunt Alice is not the harmless old lady she first appears. Not great literature, but very readable.

MARRY.

The Great Silence by Juliet Nicholson
Stretching across gender and class – how people recovered from the catastrophe of World War 1.

A Game of Ghosts by John Connolly
John Connolly just keeps upping his game and this latest Charlie Parker novel is the best to date. Not only is it a tense story about the Brethren, a family linked by dark means to the supernatural, but it is a story of Charlie’s relationship with his daughter Sam and his friends Louis and Angel. There is a hugely unexpected death – one I was surprised I felt saddened by – and I get the sense a denouement is not far away. The story is getting taut and I felt a bit breathless reading it.

In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant
Fascinating, rich book about the Borgias, particulary Lucrezia in the Italian city of Ferrara. Great stuff!

The Good Daughter – Karin Slaughter
I enjoy Karin Slaughter’s Grant County novels, but I also enjoy it when she goes off piste and writes about other characters. It doesn’t always work well – Coptown was a big disappointment – but The Good Daughter shows Slaughter at her very best. Sisters Charlotte and Samantha Quinn are torn apart both physically and emotionally by what happens one evening in their home. Almost 30 years later they are forced to confront the events of that night, their relationship with their father, and their relationship with each other, when there is a shooting at the local school. As always in Slaughter’s books, things aren’t quite what they appear.

This is a painful book. I found it very hard reading certain scenes, but that is because Slaughter writes so well. She pulls no punches, yet words everything gracefully and tenderly. I gobbled down this book and cannot wait for her next one.

Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
The emotional side of the book is actually a great deal more interesting than the thriller bit and would have worked perfectly well on its own right. Lehane is such a leader in his genre because of these touches, the care he takes over character history and emotion. I don’t know anyone else who does it so well.

The Holocaust: A New History by Laurence Rees
A fascinating study which answered many questions I’d had, thinking of a hopeful “no” as an answer, with  a damning “yes”.

Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum by Kathryn Hughes
Fascinating look at Victorian life, blood, guts, beards and all. I will never say “Sweet Fanny Adams” again!

Together by Julia Cohen
This is a book written backwards, with the most dramatic event in the story happening in the early few pages. I like this device, and it encourages the reader to carry on – to find out the WHY. I itched to discover the reason behind Robbie’s suicide and what happened in 1962 throughout the whole book. Cohen doesn’t tease her reader, but she develops her characters and story well, so when the denouement comes, you feel empathy rather than perhaps a more traditional response.

This is beautifully written and while it lost its pace occasionally (the modern family dynamics aren’t as clear as I’d like them to be, and the story stays more in the past than the present) I thoroughly enjoyed it. It also made me think about ethics, morals and all the stuff which appears so clear cut until we’re in these situations. I would recommend this author and read more of her work. While I’m not a big believer in ‘true love’, romance and all that, this book allowed me to suspend my disbelief for a few hours.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Gorgeous, rich, authentic story of two young soldiers during the Civil War.

All That Man Is by Dazid Szalay
Clever, inter-connecting stories.

Moonglow by Michael Chabon
NOT a real memoir as I thought! Very convincing though. Michael learns about his past and that of his forebears during the last week of his grandfather’s life.

AVOID.

Crimes of the Father by Thomas Keaneally
This is a worthy book, and similar to Schindler’s List in that it tells of horrendous doings and one man’s attempt to change them, but it leaves the reader strangely unmoved. Perhaps the emotional distance kept by the narrator is what’s needed in this, but I found I was struggling to maintain my interest in the story, which is of a priest who coincidentally meets with several victims of an abusive priest and decides to try and help them bring the perpetrator to justice.

The most interesting thing in this book was the twisted justification used by two of the priests for their actions. Otherwise I, as a reader, felt so much at a distance that I was not drawn into the story at all, and the subject deserves better. A History of Loneliness by John Boyd deals with a similar subject in a much more engaging fashion and with the sensitivity it deserves without shying away from what happened.

Beyond The Wild River by Sarah Maine
On the surface, this is a a pretty interesting story: a young gamekeeper flees the country estate where he has been accused of two murders, and five years later comes face to face with the landowner (Ballantyre) and his daughter. Having said that, the plot meanders. It didn’t grip me and you can see the denouement coming early on. There are a few too many characters thrown into the mix, who aren’t fully developed, although that of Larsen, Ballantyre’s friend, was surprisingly intriguing. I would like to read more about him. The others were not particularly interesting and quickly forgotten.

The book has moments of fine writing, and the book isn’t a failure – it just isn’t one that will stick in my head, and I found myself in a hurry to finish it off. Tighter editing and pacing would help.

City of Masks by S D Spyres
The historical setting of the book is fascinating – Sykes has set Venice up beautifully, and as a lover of the city I really enjoyed the story from this perspective. The plot however is not as interesting, and a little flimsy – I am not doing spoilers, but I saw the denouement coming a mile off. The end was too nearly stitched together. However, the device of the hero’s melancholy is a clever one, and his references to previous crimes he has solved made me idly think about looking out for the two previous novels in the series.

All in all an OK read, but I will not break my neck to find more by this author.

The Crime and the Silence by Anna Bikont
An investigation into the Polish massacre of Jews in the town of Jedwadbne in 1941, denied by so many and buried for over 60 years. It was hard going to be honest. An important book, but not the most readable.

Mrs de Winter by Susan Hill
Oh dear. What a disappointment! Whimsical, drowsy, dull, obsessed with crows… the second Mrs de Winter loses any sympathy. What a letdown. This has put me off reading anything more by Susan Hill (which is silly) but I need to dive back into Rebecca again to rinse this dreadful sequel out of my brain.

The Night Visitor by Lucy Atkins
Historian Olivia Sweetman, whose father discovered a new breed of dungbeetle, collaborates with awkward, brusque Vivien Tester on a historical book which is going to send her into orbit. All is not well in Olivia’s world though and only Vivien knows. A family holiday in France brings matters to a head. This was not a particularly interesting book, if I’m honest. This just didn’t surprise me enough; I wanted to be on the edge of my seat and I was quite comfortably in the middle of it.

On the plus side, I learned some really interesting things about beetles.

Like riding a bike…

 

Schifanoia

Thanks to Ali Smith and her beautiful, intelligent, ground-breaking, startlingly simple complex How to be Both, I am in Ferrara. Somewhere I had never heard of before I read this book. When I saw Ali Smith at the Cheltenham Literary Festival she encouraged everyone to go to Ferrara and see the Palazzo Schifanoia frescos before they disappeared. That was the same night that she talked about how she had made herself ill by not writing, and that made me cry, and I went to get my copy of How to be Both signed by her, and I cried again in front of everyone explaining how she had spoken what was hidden deep in the reddest bits of my heart under yellow layers of visceral fat, and she came round from behind the desk and hugged me.

I wrote to her some months later thanking her for her kindness, and got a lovely note back. This evening  I wrote her a postcard tellng her she had brought me to Ferrara, to the frescoes, to the richest most beautiful art I have ever seen, and how I sat in a restaurant and started writing a book – and then stopped and started planning it. Something I haven’t really done before.

Travelling alone is exciting. Unnerving. Exhilarating. Freeing. Above all, it is a recipe for getting lost if you have my complete inability to read maps. It must be some sort of dyslexia with directions; I find them impossible to take in. I listen politely and my eyebrows raise in grateful comprehension but my eyes glaze over. Then the person goes on their way, pleased to have helped me, and I stay still, as lost as I ever was, but now raging at myself because of this failing. The “15 minute” walk to my hotel took an hour. Someone kindly asked me if I was lost and I blithely replied I was fine, smacking myself across the face with the hopeless map once he had gone on his way. I hauled my suitcase up and down cobbled streets, loathing everyone who was ambling or trotting or jogging or cycling because they all knew exactly where they were going.

The following day I set off to view the frescoes and I dressed carefully, as if I were going to an assignation with a lover (I imagine, having never had one. OK so I’ve had a couple of dates so I felt like I was going on a date: putting lipstick on, choosing a fitted shirt rather than the casual top I had originally flung on). It took me half an hour to walk there, and that delicious pre-date anticipation was with me as I climbed the stairs – stairs which led to a surprisingly small room, a room designed to ‘alleviate boredom’ (a translation of Schifanoia). Two walls of frescoes have been destroyed, and the beauty of those which remain emphasises this loss. They are simply extraordinary. The rich velvet blue of the background; the minute detail of a crowd of ducks; the vivid imagination which went into the designs; the utterly human faces. I greeted the full-lipped, androgynous beauty of Ali Smith’s Francesco/Francesca del Cossa like an old friend; a haughty looking youth whose snooty expression made me laugh out loud; I regarded the genial Bose with one eyebrow raised remembering Francesca’s view of him. I felt the heat of the furious Gemini twins as they wrestled with each other; I envied a benevolent woman her clear-eyed beauty. I could drink from these pictures all day, like Joni Mitchell’s “a case of you”.

But Ferrara has more to offer me. Reluctantly I drag myself away to explore further. The mellow-stoned city is so full of art, history, architecture, all to be enjoyed, that I feel as if I will burst from the desire to see it all.  I proceed from one place to another, not noticing how much my feet hurt, how much my poor knee has seized up, until I finally sit down in a cafe. Then I find it hard to stand up again. It’s cold; I am dressed for the sun which teased me for the first half hour of my walk and then hid itself for the rest of the day. I dive into a lingerie shop, ignoring the delicate lace bras and thongs made for women half my size, and pounce on a functional, utterly unsexy vest. Putting it on is delicious. I buy a cardigan too. Wearing both is of some comfort to my icy frame but my feet, in open-toe sandals, showing off my ‘hot chilli’ pedicure, cannot be comforted this way. As I get more and more lost, the whale-grey sky swells with rain, and bursts just when I am trying to decide whether to go left or right down a medieval cobbled street. I swear profusely and go straight on out of sheer pique. Ironically that turns out to be the right way.  I see the sign for my hotel and, trembling and soaked, burst through the door, gasping for a cup of tea in the life-or-death manner only the English can. The kettle provided is the slowest kettle IN THE WORLD and I am so cold I find it hard to hold the mug. I have a long, hot shower, feeling the strength return to my fingers and joints, but not my feet. I fill the bidet with warm water, balance precariously on the edge of the loo and soak my feet until they have thawed out. It’s the first time I have used a bidet. It’s probably the first time the bidet has been used as a foot spa, so a new experience for us both.

I take a bicycle into town to find somewhere to eat. I’ve found I am thinking too much – mainly about all the bad things I have ever done – and I have made a concerted effort to think about anything *but* myself. Characters have sprung into my head. A story has knocked on my door and is shyly peering around the frame, waiting for me to invite it in. I sit at a restaurant and write the opening pages – then stop, turn to the back of my nnotebook and start planning the story. I have never done this before and to give my story structure builds a little faith in it. I’ve tended to leave the story to my characters to tell, but that rarely works – the two books I wrote during my GCSEs were luck and also due to the fact that I wrote so much it was second nature to me. I didn’t have to work at it, then.   I’m out of practice now.

Riding a bike through Ferrara at first was frightening. I was scared of falling off (and of course I did, though fortunately not where anyone could see me). I was scared of being told off for going somewhere I shouldn’t. I was scared of colliding with someone who would insult me in rippling, florid words I couldn’t comprehend (probably just as well). But none of these things happened. Today I cycled nonstop and enjoyed it. I had forgotten how good it fels to have fresh air whorling into your ears. How quickly you can get somewhere. How if you go the wrong way you simply turn around and pedal quickly to find the right direction. I feel comfortable cycling now, although I haven’t done it in over 20 years. Writing is the same. I haven’t properly done it in so long. I’m rusty at it. In an article on writing I read, “You don’t do other things because you ae good at them. Swimming, running, drawing – you do these things because you enjoy them, not thinking whether you are good at them or not. Writing should be the same.” With that in mind, I have stopped writing thinking – does this work? Would people read this? Would someone publish it? – and have stopped thinking writing. I am merely doing. Like cycling, it takes practice. It’s nervewracking starting again, acknowledging the spiteful monkey whispering in your ear: you know that thing you did with no trouble at all when you were little? Well, you can’t do it anymore. You’ve lost the knack. You’re too old. It’s too late. But only by acknowledging that fear and attempting what you’re scared/longing to do will you find out if you are actually much, much better than you ever dreamed you could be.

Feel the fear and do it anyway. Hmm; not a bad title for a book.

The Pleasant Land of Counterpane

So my operation left me with a blissful amount of reading time. OK, so blissful isn’t exactly the word. Blissful is reading lying on white sand with the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean tickling your toes. I was mainly lying in bed or on the sofa wearing bed socks and a very bulky bandage. It does make you wonder what people do if they don’t read – not that I’ve ever stopped wondering this, really, nor had an answer to it. Especially those who spend hours on public transport, or are delayed in the doctor’s waiting room, or are laid up after what is described by medical types as major surgery.

Fortunately I don’t have to feel my brain liquefying and slipping out of my ears in viscous strands. My convalescent companions were the following:

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The Stories of Jane Gardham
I really enjoyed this collection. Some stories have supernatural overtones and others are deceptively simple snapshots of life. I’ve not heard of Jane Gardham before I read this anthology and it’s encouraged me to look out more of her work.

Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney
I read this book in one sitting. It’s intense, and often beautifully written – the author does get a bit carried away with her similes and metaphors occasionally but this doesn’t mean her prose loses power. The book opens with Amber lying in a coma, convinced her husband put her there – and then her story unravels and nothing is as it first appears. I found Feeney was most believable when writing from the perspective of Amber in a coma – this was particularly well done.

The plot is not perfect, and there are several holes which I won’t spoil for would-be readers, but I enjoyed this book nonetheless. Alice Feeney is a fresh new talent and I look forward to reading her next work.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron
Certainly dated, but nonetheless visceral and enjoyable, this prickly little story about a marriage floundering after an affair makes you laugh even when your eyes blur with tears for Nora. What is poor is that someone has gone through the entire book and marked the pages containing recipes with “R”. Sacrilege! If you want to do this, buy your own copy; do not deface ones bought by a public library! A disgrace.

Holding by Graham Norton
Oh dear. I wanted to enjoy this. I really did.  I started it, disliked it, put it down and then returned to it. The plot was quite interesting – the unexpected discovery of a body uncovers the dark secrets of a village – but the characterisation poor and the behaviour of several protagonists bizarre to say the least. Graham is so wonderful on radio and TV, and his autobiographies are so full of life, perhaps it’s expecting too much of him to be a talented fiction writer as well. I’m not going to tag him in this. I love him too much.

The Kept Woman by Karin Slaughter
For anyone who’s followed the Will Trent series, this is the latest instalment – and in this Angie, Will’s cruel, manipulative ex-wife comes into her own. I started to like her more, and to like the rather simpering, sickly Sara less. I also did not see the denouement coming at all – Slaughter excels in making her readers gawp.

A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century by Jerry White
A sprawling book which takes the subjects of politics, literature, sex, economy and racism amongst others to paint so vivid a picture of London you can smell the streets. A fabulous work, this never loses its pace.

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson
One or two of these did not sit right with me at all, but the others were indeed dark. I very much enjoyed this spooky little collection.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to read this, especially as I saw My Cousin Rachel performed in the theatre with Stephanie Beecham when I was 14, but in a way that’s not a bad thing because I think you have to read du Maurier with the slightly jaundiced eye of a grown up. I read it very differently to how I would have done 10 years ago, for example. A classic.

Close Encounters of the Furred Kind by Tom Cox
Not terribly interesting, nor terribly funny. Cat escapades are either entrancing or boring and this fell into the latter.

All of a Winter’s Night by Phil Rickman
Hoorah for the latest in the Merrily Watkins series. Again another fat pudding of a book to relish curling up with, this focuses on ‘black’ or ‘dark’ Morris which is something I find particularly fascinating in a spine-chilling way.

We Are for the Dark by Elizabeth Jane Howard
I was thrilled to discover a friend is EJH’s grandson, and he very kindly lent me this as it’s impossible to get anywhere else. Not the best ghost stories I’ve read, but to be honest I was so excited to be reading it that the substance mattered less to me than it normally does.

Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory
Not Gregory’s strongest, this focuses on Margaret, sister of Henry VIII. I’m not sure how much of it is based in historical truth; Margaret’s character tosses and turns like a sleepless bedfellow and I didn’t find it convincing.

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
I wouldn’t normally pick up a book like this but I’m so glad a friend recommended it. Triss gradually recovers from a fever with strange after-effects. She’s hungry, but not for food; and her little sister is convinced that she’s “not the real Triss”. This is a fiercely original story meant for young adults (which I am sadly no longer!) but I very much enjoyed it.

The Beautiful Visit by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Hmm. This wasn’t a brilliant book and to be honest I think she was lucky to get it published as it’s not terribly interesting. 😦 The good news is that she got better from hereon in!

If anyone rich is reading this, please please would you consider buying me this chair. Or one of these? http://womandot.com/2014-11-18/creative-book-chairs

I can’t think of anything lovelier than sitting in the lap of a whole heap of books.

Bedpan Humour

I’ve been in hospital for 5 days and sitting on my backside for 4 weeks. This has not been easy for me. I twitch unless I am doing at least two things at any one time as I fear Something Bad will happen due to my sloth. But once I recovered20170112_134705 from the anaesthetic, which felt like a really dirty Bank Holiday weekend with Morpheus, and learned to handle the fact my knee joints feel like horrendously short elastic bands on fire, I did a lot of reading. And a lot of thinking. The first was good (mainly). The second was bad (mainly). ‘Twas ever thus.

So for the record, here is what I have been reading:

The Victorians by A N Wilson saw me through the first few days when I was entangled in a cats’ cradle of sleep and pain. I doubt I did the book justice.

Himself (Jess Kidd) was an odd little thing, about a man returning to a village where his mother disappeared.

Die of Shame is Mark Billingham’s latest, about people undergoing therapy – though if you’re reading the post in 40 years then you will consider it one of his earlier works. What an odd thought. Will this blog still exist in 40 years? Will the internet still be around? Think of how may amazing letters, journals and notebooks we uncover from many centuries ago. What will we, our generation, have to offer historians of the future? Emails in draft form? Fake News and Facebook posts? Has history finished?

Blimey. Went on a bit then. Where was I. Yes. Die of Shame. Mark on sparkling form again, with an ending as satisfying as scraping up the crispy bits that stick to the bottom of the Yorkshire Pudding pan.

Saturday Requiem, the latest Frieda Klein book by Nicci French, and the first time I actually like Frieda. Which is a shame seeing as if the series follows chronology the next book will be the last about her.

The Haunted Library, a collection of ghost stories by Tanya Kirk. Wonderful gothic stuff – obviously ghost stories set in libraries, but apart from The Tractate Middoth (the MR James classic) I’d not read any of them. This was a real gem.

My Story by Jo Malone. An interesting autobiography and particularly pleasurable for anyone who feels fragrance is a vital part of life. I do – my quest to find a replacement for Dune by Dior (the new formulation is a bland shadow of the rich, salty 1990s version) has been going on for about 7 years and I still haven’t found the new Me.

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer. An easy to read, sinister thriller. I liked this, so much so that I ordered Dark Side from the library immediately afterwards.

A Life in Questions, Jeremy Paxman’s autobiography. Oh, how I loved this! It was like going out to dinner with Jeremy and ordering a twice-baked cheese souffle, fillet steak in peppercorn sauce with fries and chocolate mousse, all washed down with very fine red wine. It made me howl with laughter, but also made me think. I stored up some of the more pertinent sentences to use in conversation and make myself sound intelligent. Unfortunately I can’t remember any of them now but it is the perfect excuse to read it again.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Quite good, but not something which I would rave about. I will still read the others in the trilogy then. And yes before someone gets smart I know she’s not really called Elena Ferrante but that’s what she wants to be called, so she can bloody well stay Elena Ferrante.

Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years is a different reading of Elizabeth I by John Guy. The strong, sharp-tongued Gloriana we have come to adore throughout history is not completely disassembled in this telling of her life, but the myths built around her as tall as one of her collars melt away to reveal someone utterly human. In fairness, you couldn’t be a child of Henry VIII and expect to come through life completely unscathed. Fascinating stuff.

The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters by Nadya Hussein – only it’s not by Nadya Hussein, she of Bake Off fame. It was ghost-written apparently. An average story; interesting to learn about Bangladeshi customs and ways of living, but not something which will stay with me unlike the taste of one of her cakes.

The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths. This is apparently the latest in a popular detective series. Popular why I’m not sure as the book wasn’t particularly well written, and as a crime story it was pretty dull. There were holes in the plot (cannibals? is all I will say about that) and the end of the book was supposed to make you want to read the next one. It has just made me more determined not to – but I’m funny about things like that. No spoilers in this post! Move along, nothing to see here! But anyone who has read it will know what I mean.

A Smell of Burning: The Story of Epilepsy by Colin Grant. Incredible that I knew so little about epilepsy, and yet the first time I was introduced to it was aged 11 when we read Julius Caesar and the poor sod “fell foaming at the mouth”.

The Collected Stories of E F Benson  – fabulous ghost stories, like M R James but just a bit nastier. There were a lot of them though.

The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola. A historical crime story based on TruFac – the murder of  a young woman whose body turns up in various odd places around London. I enjoyed this because the author built up very genuine characters and didn’t embellish the facts too much, but still created a bloody readable book. I will look out for more from this name.

The Matrix by Jonathan Aycliffe. I do enjoy this chap and his spooky little stories. This one is about finding a way to bring the dead back to life.

Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier (and other stories). Why has it taken me so long to read the story upon which one of my favourite films is based? Oh I loved these short stories. Each with a sting in the tale as delicious and sharp as sherbert.

The Binding Song by Elodie Harper. A story about a psychologist investigating several suicides in a prison. Not perfect, but intriguing. The story lost its way towards the end, but it was spooky and brutal enough for me to read more by the author.

Her by Harriet Lane. This built up beautifully, although blimey doesn’t the writer like describing EVERYTHING…. and then the denouement (that is before the actual denouement – when you find out why Nina is so full of loathing for Emma) is really disappointing. The ending of the book though has stayed with me. I keep thinking about, wondering if what I imagine happened next really did, and what was in the author’s head. That is the sign of a good book; like you can forget the disappointing egg mayonnaise in the middle of a sandwich if the last crust is really chewy and tasty.

That was the reading. Now for the thinking.

Two weeks ago I used a bedpan for the first time EVER. Even when I had my appendix removed I didn’t get to use one – the nurse brought me a commode and I had a meltdown when a boy in the next cubicle peeked through the curtains at me. I was naked (why, I don’t know.) I was 9 – they don’t care about segregating you by gender when you’re little. This time I was in my own suite at the private hospital. I got to choose food from a menu and my sheets were changed on a daily basis, whether they needed it or not. 

The evening of the operation, I  wake up at about 1830. I’m cold, so cold. The nurses are talking to me and they lift my sheet up and blast me with a massive hairdryer which is the best feeling I have ever had IN THE WORLD because it makes me warm instantly. I go back to sleep. I wake up again this time in bed. The hairdryer has been turned off and two white pads pummel my calves. They are attached to the bottom of the bed. I’m pinned to the top by oxygen to my right and fluid to my left. It’s like a pleasant version of Misery. 

Come midnight I need a wee. Really, really need a wee. I can’t move – even lifting my hand to have my blood pressure checked is such hard work the nurse has to do it for me – so she says she will fetch a bedpan. The thought makes me go cold, remembering episodes of Casualty where the patient has an icy stainless steel pot slipped under their hips. But this one is cardboard and environmentally friendly. She pulls back the sheets and expresses surprise that I am still in my “knick knacks”. Not for long! With one deft tug she sees more of me than anyone has in seven years. The bedpan is slipped efficiently in place and I am left alone relaxing with my thoughts. 

I

literally 

can’t 

go.

I am stranded on my bed in a half-bridge position like a desperate whale. When I was very little I had bed-wetting problems. And when I was not quite so little, if I’m honest. (I mean aged 10-11, not last year.) The horror of that I’m-on-the-loo dream and waking up to find out you’re really, really not has never left me. Now I’m entitled to pee in the bed, nay, encouraged, and I simply cannot. My manners and upbringing refuse to give me the release I need. 

The nurse, Rosa, comes in. She is foreign – that is all I remember in my sedated state – with very tight shiny brown curls and a glossy pink mouth like an exotic flower. She mumbles something kind at me. I drool something back. She goes away. Twenty minutes later she comes back. She mumbles something again and I bleat my distress at her. “It will come, it will come,” she says phlegmatically, as if predicting the arrival of the second Messiah. 

An hour later – I even fell asleep in that position, like a cat – she comes back in, slips into the bathroom and subtly runs the tap. That does the trick. Boy, the trick is done. “Heavens, you can pee,” she says, visibly impressed, as she staggers out of the door under the weight of my bladder. Please God, I pray, don’t let her bump into the fit anaesthetist on her way out (he really was very handsome, the kind of man they don’t make any more, like Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart) – and please God don’t let her TRIP.

Hmmm.

I don’t think I want you to know the things I have been thinking about … and I don’t think you would like to know them, either. So I will leave it there.

Next time I write a blog post I promise I won’t have a glass of wine beforehand. Yes, that really is all it takes…