Reading, not drowning…..

Contrary to how it may look like, this is in fact, a happy picture. :p

I felt the overwhelming nature of the words on the page and the pages in all the volumes […] I could drown in so many words. This thought filled me not with the panic of my childhood, more a sense that one day I would sink below the surface of all that literature and disappear into it. The stuff that had nurtured me, the stuff that had kept me alive, would one day be a place in which I would submerge entirely.

Andrew Relph, ‘Not Drowning, Reading’.

Just a little sort-of post to show some signs of life over here.
I know this space has been deathly quiet for far too long….
But yeah, definitely not drowning (nor drowned!) but rather, reading. 😉
(& listening to loads of audiobooks!!)

p/s: Did I forget to mention that I’m in love with Scribd? 😀

Levels of Life

We live on the flat, on the level, and yet – and so – we aspire. Groundlings, we can sometimes reach as far as the gods. Some soar with art, others with religion; most with love. But when we soar, we can also crash. There are few soft landings. We may find ourselves bouncing across the ground with leg-fracturing force, dragged towards some foreign railway line. Every love story is a potential grief story. If not at first, then later. If not for one, then for the other. Sometimes, for both.

 Julian Barnes, ‘Levels of Life’.

For Barnes, this was his grief story. A raw and honest piece of writing that details the loss of his wife and soulmate of thirty years. An account of a grief, unflinchingly observed.

How you feel and how you look may or may not be the same. So how do you feel? As if you have dropped from a height of several hundred feet, conscious all the time, have landed feet first in a rose bed with an impact that has driven you in up to the knees, and whose shock has caused your internal organs to rupture and burst forth from your body. This is what it feels like, and why should it look any different?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I do not believe I shall ever see her again. Never see, hear, touch, embrace, listen to, laugh with; never again wait for her footstep, smile at the sound of an opening door, fit her body into mine, mine into hers. Nor do I believe we shall meet in some dematerialised form. I believe dead is dead.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

You put two people who have not been put together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a fire balloon: do you prefer crash and burn, or burn and crash? But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed. Then at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was thirty seven days from diagnosis to death. I tried never to look away, always to face it: and a kind of crazy lucidity resulted. Most evenings, as I left the hospital, I would find myself staring resentfully at people on buses merely going home at the end of their day. How could they sit there so idly and unknowingly, their indifferent profiles on display, when the world was about to be changed?

Interestingly, Barnes realized that he had already predicted his own probable feelings in such an event, thirty years ago, in one of his novels. He read this particular passage at her funeral.

When she dies, you are not at first surprised. Part of love is preparing for death. You feel confirmed in your love when she dies. You got it right. This is part of it all. Afterwards comes the madness. And then the loneliness: not the spectacular solitude you had anticipated, not the interesting martyrdom of widowhood, but just loneliness. It’s just misery as regular as a job…. [People say] you’ll come out of it…. And you do come out of it, that’s true.

But you don’t come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting through the Downs into sunshine and that swift, rattling descent to the Channel; you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil slick; you are tarred and feathered for life.

A friend wrote to him: ‘The things is – nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain, I think. If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter.’

And that, is precisely what Barnes has managed to present the reader in this slim volume.
We get to see exactly just how much it mattered.

Tuesday Teaser: Silences, or A Woman’s Life.

I love the cover! 💖

Ten years of partial paralysis had subjected her to a pitiless apprenticeship of immobility, but they had taught her as well the art of movement. None of her gestures was haphazard. She was aware of the slightest blink of her eyelids, of the smallest arc her good arm described. It was a feat to drink a cup of tea without spilling a drop. To follow an entire conversation and respond to every question demanded of her a concentration that only her infinite pride could disguise as easygoing urbanity. Her liveliest moments were thus for her the most exhausting. But she let nothing show—at most a flush would redden her brow or a sigh escape her lips.

Marie Chaix, ‘Silences, or A Woman’s Life.’

Surprised by Lewis

I had always been more violent in my negative than in my positive demands. Thus, in personal relations, I could forgive much neglect more easily than the least degree of what I regarded as interference. […] In the course of life, I could put up with any amount of monotony far more patiently than even the smallest disturbance, bother or bustle. Never at any age did I clamour to be amused; always and at all ages (where I dared) I hotly demanded not to be interrupted. The pessimism, or cowardice, which would prefer non-existence itself to even the mildest unhappiness was thus merely the generalization of all these pusillanimous preferences.

C. S. Lewis, “Surprised by Joy”.

While I have long been an admirer of C.S Lewis’s writing, and the way his brilliant mind is able to articulate thoughts and sentiments that have resonated deeply with me in the past, I was nevertheless taken by surprise upon learning that he and I, both happen to share a very similar temperament in our core personality.

It is the part of me that I have never been able to put into words as clearly, but yet have been keenly aware of its influence and the crucial role that it plays in most of my decision making, resulting in paths taken (or not taken) thus far, in my life. Like Lewis, I have lived life as one who ‘…. was far more eager to escape pain than to achieve happiness’, and have always found it much easier to navigate my way around the things I could bear to live with, rather than in pursuing after things that I could not bear to live without.

This probably also helps to explain why it is that I seem to be clearer about the things that I don’t want, as opposed to the things I do want, in life.

Reading Lewis’s personal account of his early life and the journey that his spiritual quest had taken him,  from that of being an atheist to one who was eventually convinced of the truth and reality of the Christian faith, was both a pleasure and privilege. His honest and transparent articulation with regards to matters of the mind, heart and will, leaves one with much to chew upon and digest. I will probably be returning to its pages, in time to come.

Because he really gets me.

No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred than the word Interference. But Christianity placed at the centre what then seemed to me a transcendental Interferer. If its picture were true then no sort of ‘treaty with reality’ could ever be possible. There was no region even in the innermost depth of one’s soul (nay, there least of all) which one could surround with a barbed wire fence and guard with a notice ‘No Admittance’. And that was what I wanted; some area, however small, of which I could say to all other beings, ‘This is my business and mine only.’

I am aware that I still have not taken down that barbed wire fence and notice, even though I have long started on the journey.

Not yet, anyway.

 

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

The earth is home to millions of potential pathogens, of which a thousand or so depend on human hosts. The pathogen I contracted was, in its own way, an author; it rewrote the instructions followed within every cell in my body, and in doing so, it rewrote my life, making off with nearly all my plans for the future.

At age thirty-four, on a brief trip to Europe, I was felled by a mysterious viral or bacterial pathogen, resulting in severe neurological symptoms. I had thought I was indestructible. But I wasn’t. If anything did go wrong, I figured modern medicine would fix me. But it didn’t.

Thus begins the writer’s long and arduous journey back on the road to recovery. It would turn out to be one that spanned nearly two decades of her life.

The observations reflected in this book are from a single year of that journey, the time when she was mostly bedridden, and had only the snail for company.

I was surprised at how therapeutic and restorative I found this reading experience to be.

WHEN THE BODY is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well-worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions: the confused family of whys, whats, and whens and their impossibly distant kin how. The search is exhaustive; the answers, elusive. Sometimes my mind went blank and listless; at other times it was flooded with storms of thought, unspeakable sadness, and intolerable loss.

Watching the calm, gentle pace in which the snail goes about its daily routine, brought much comfort and relief to the writer who felt that time and everyone else were passing her by, while her own world was at a standstill.

 

Given the ease with which health infuses life with meaning and purpose, it is shocking how swiftly illness steals away those certainties. It was all I could do to get through each moment, and each moment felt like an endless hour, yet days slipped silently past. Time unused and only endured still vanishes, as if time itself is starving, and each day is swallowed whole, leaving no crumbs, no memory, no trace at all.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

THERE IS A CERTAIN depth of illness that is piercing in its isolation; the only rule of existence is uncertainty, and the only movement is the passage of time. One cannot bear to live through another loss of function, and sometimes friends and family cannot bear to watch. An unspoken, unbridgeable divide may widen. Even if you are still who you were, you cannot actually fully be who you are. Sometimes the people you know well withdraw, and then even the person you know as yourself begins to change.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Each relapse shrinks my world down to the core. And each time I’ve started to make my slow way back, over many years, toward the life I once knew, I find that nothing is quite as I remember; in my absence, the world has moved forward.

She found much encouragement in seeing how the snail, who could only experience the world through its three senses (smell, taste & touch) “…… a life so devoid of sight and sound” went about living as best as it could, despite its limitations.

In its native woods, my snail could not see the moss over which it glided or even the plants it climbed. It could not see the trees, nor the stars overhead. It could not hear birdsong at daybreak, nor the midnight howls of coyotes. It could not even see or hear its own kin, let alone a predator. It simply smelled and tasted and touched its world.

It renewed her hope, and reminded her that life was still worth the living, challenging as it were.

Survival often depends on a specific focus: a relationship, a belief, or a hope balanced on the edge of possibility. Or something more ephemeral: the way the sun passes through the hard, seemingly impenetrable glass of a window and warms the blanket, or how the wind, invisible but for its wake, is so loud one can hear it through the insulated walls of a house.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

IT CAME DOWN to this: I envied my snail’s many abilities. I wished I could create an epiphragm at a moment’s notice and seal myself off from the challenges of the world. If I couldn’t, like a snail, have strength equal to many times my weight, I’d settle for just getting my normal strength back. If I couldn’t glide straight up a wall or sleep stuck to the ceiling, I wished I could at least walk upright with the rest of my species. I wanted to escape from the chink of illness in which I was stuck.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

As I tried to make my life livable within a few rooms of my house, I wondered how the snail was coping in its native woods. Though I was home, I was still not free from the boundaries of illness. I thought of the terrarium’s limited space, and how the snail had seemed content as it ate, explored, and fulfilled a life cycle. This gave me hope that perhaps I, too, could still fulfill dreams, even if they were changed dreams.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

And here’s an interesting observation that really makes for some good food for thought:

How wonderful it would be if we humans with illnesses could simply go dormant while the scientific world went about its snail-paced research, and wake only when new, safe medical treatments were available. But why limit such an amazing ability to the ill? When a country faced famine, what if the entire population could go dormant to get through a hard time in a safe and peaceful way until the next growing season came around.

Yes, how wonderful it would be, indeed.

 

In summary, here’s an excerpt from a letter to one of her doctors :

I could never have guessed what would get me through this past year—a woodland snail and its offspring; I honestly don’t think I would have made it otherwise. Watching another creature go about its life . . . somehow gave me, the watcher, purpose too. If life mattered to the snail and the snail mattered to me, it meant something in my life mattered, so I kept on . . . Snails may seem like tiny, even insignificant things compared to the wars going on around the world or a million other human problems, but they may well outlive our own species.

And in an entry to her own journal :

 A last look at the stars and then to sleep. Lots to do at whatever pace I can go. I must remember the snail.
Always remember the snail.

 

My year end howl haul!

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Year end haul from the Big Bad Wolf Books Sale 2019.

As with the tradition around here goes, the year wouldn’t be quite complete without a record of the bounty from the annual year end Big Bad Wolf Books Sale. And this happened to be the 10th year since they first started on a much humbler scale. Together, we (that is, my personal library and the BBW books sale) have grown and expanded by leaps and bounds in the last ten years. 😀

Been keeping an eye out for this one for some time now. Happy to get my hands on it at last!
The title and the cover of this one caught my attention. Also I’ve read many reviews about how funny Sedaris’ writing can be, so I thought this would be a good place to start. Any fans out here?
Again, I’ve read many a glowing review on this one so am curious to find out for myself how good it really is. This edition also comes with some lovely landscape photos and diagrams in it, so that’s a real plus.
This one looks really good too, don’t you think? 🙂
I’ve been on the lookout for these Faber & Faber editions of P.D. James, with Angela Harding’s cover designs, and was naturally thrilled to find this at the sale (at a fraction of the retail price). 😀
The cream of the crop! The ones that I’m very excited about.
Love the shade of blue on this cover! Although I’ve read a bit of her earlier collection of short stories and wasn’t blown away by it, I still have high hopes for this one.
This one has some lovely shades of blue as well, and the use of blue ink in some of its contents has a surprisingly enchanting feel added to it. A beauty to hold and behold.
Scored another Angela Harding cover design with this one. I am definitely one happy reader! 🙂
I actually have a paperback copy of this in another edition (one that I like very much too) but couldn’t resist getting this beautiful hardback copy as well. Gluttony, I know.
This is possibly my best discovery from the sale, as I have never heard of Adina Hoffman before even though her work is praised by the likes of Vivian Gornick, Witold Rybczynski and Phillip Lopate (all of whose works I’ve been exposed to and enjoyed exploring in recent years). This is one truly promising read that I’m expecting to love.
My most satisfying find from the sale. I’ve been coveting a copy of this ever since having first laid eyes on it in one of the bookshops during my trip to Taipei, early last year. To finally find it here, and again, at a fraction of the retail price, is bliss. 🙂
I’ve come across this McCall Smith many times at the sales, but never in this edition and with this cover. Couldn’t pass it by this time, not with a cover like that. 🙂
Finally, a book that didn’t come home with me from the sale! Yeah, I thought I’d opt for ‘ignorance is a bliss’. For now, at least. :p
Oh, managed to pick this up from the sale too! Thought if I ever attempt to take up knitting, I’d probably knit me a dog. 😉

I know I am once again spoiled with all these bookish goodness.
It is truly an embarrassment of riches, for which I am genuinely thankful for.
C.S. Lewis was right when he wrote about the act of thanksgiving, as being the necessary completion of a pleasure.

Happy New Year, dear friends!

🙂

Stuff I’ve Been Reading (… & buying!)

 

I have just been recently dipping into Nick Hornby’s compilation of his columns in the Believer magazine, where he gives a monthly wrap up on the books that he has been reading / buying for the month, and thought that it would be a neat way to kinda summarize a little of what I have been reading/ buying in the past months.

First up, the reading.

These were the ones that I managed to actually finish reading. There were also others that I’ve started, continued or dipped into, but not quite finished with just yet.

The Fiona Shaw was much better in book form than its recent film adaptation, I felt. Enjoyed time spent with both Manguel and Banville, as well as Miłosz (although I did find it a bit tough going at times). And I will definitely continue with the rest of the Old Filth trilogy, having enjoyed the first one much more than I had expected.

In other reading news, I’ve also started on the door stopper that is Middlemarch, and although I’m only at Book Two (with just another 700 pages to go!)  it has way exceeded my expectations of how good it is. The writing is simply sublime! ❤

Another really good one that I’m in the middle of right now is this William Trevor. Really impressive.  And a rather intriguing story line too. Trevor really is a master at storytelling.

Books I’ve been listening to:

I’ve always loved audiobooks but it is something that has sadly been dropped out of my routine in the past couple of years, ever since the gym that I had been subscribed to, closed down. While I have yet to sign up with another gym todate, I did manage to get back into the habit of listening to audiobooks. And what a joy it has been! 🙂 Started back with some old favorites (ie: Sarah Waters’ Night Watch and The Paying Guests) and then moved on to some new-to-me authors, such as the le Carré. I think I started off with the right one, A Murder of Quality. Boarding school settings have never lost their appeal to me, thanks to a healthy diet of Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers and St. Claire’s during my teenage years. I think I’m now a fan of le Carré and will definitely be on the lookout for more of his books.

Am also currently listening to Jackie Kay’s collection of short stories and it’s such a pleasure. Kudos to the narrators for bringing the characters to life, complete with all the Scottish and Russian accents. Brilliantly done!

Moving on….. books bought :

The overview.

A closer look at a few highlights.

I’ve been collecting a fair few of Morris’ travel writing books and have always found her life (both the transformation from being a man to a woman, and her relationship with the same life partner through it all) very interesting.

 

Very much looking forward to this one, Simenon’s autobiographical notebooks. Love the cover, by the way.
Have been wanting to read this collection of essays from Knapp ever since reading the Gail Caldwell memoir on their friendship earlier this year.

The rest consists of essays on architecture (Witold Rybczynski’s Looking Around: A Journey through Architecture), on the home (Lisa Knopp’s The Nature of Home) and on the garden (Allen Lacy’s The Gardener’s Eye and other Essays).

Then there’s a biography of Dickens (by Claire Tomalin), and another of Vermeer (by Anthony Bailey), a classic (Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks)  and two new to me writers (Ida Jessen and Jack Finney).

 

Last but not least, a Deirdre Madden and a Penelope Fitzgerald. Love Madden, but have yet to really warm up to Fitzgerald.

That’s about it for now. Happy reading, everyone! 🙂

Friday Frames : Wordless Beauty

Uig, Isle of Skye.

There are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation, and of which words offer only a remote echo – or to which silence is by far the best response. Nature does not name itself. Granite does not self-identify as igneous. Light has no grammar. Language is always late for its subject. Sometimes on the top of a mountain I just say, ‘Wow’.

Robert Macfarlane, ‘Landmarks’.

Kilt Rock, Isle of Skye.
Glencoe, Scotland.
Glenfinnan, Scotland.
Ullswater, Lake District.
Durdle Door, Dorset.

A few of those instances when words fall short.

Portrait of a Sociopath

These sociopaths,” he said. “What do they feel like? Inside?”
Isabel smiled. “Unmoved. They feel unmoved. Look at a cat when it does something wrong. It looks quite unmoved. Cats are sociopaths, you see. It’s their natural state.

Alexander McCall Smith, ‘The Sunday Philosophy Club’.

McCall Smith’s writing never fails to delight and warm my heart.
Perfect comfort reads. ❤

We are not embarrassed by those we love; we may experience passing discomfort, but it is never embarrassment in the true sense. We forgive them their shortcomings, or we may just never notice them.

Time Pieces

When does the past become the past? How much time must elapse before what merely happened begins to give off the mysterious, numinous glow that is the mark of true pastness?
After all, the resplendent vision we carry with us in memory was once merely the present, dull & workaday & wholly unremarkable except in those moments when one has just fallen in love, say, or won the lottery, or has been delivered bad news by the doctor. What is the magic that is worked upon experience, when it is consigned to the laboratory of the past, there to be shaped & burnished to a finished radiance?

John Banville, ‘Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir’.

 

Have greatly enjoyed savouring this work of beauty. It was a pleasure to be treated to both Banville’s wizardry with words, and also Paul Joyce’s gorgeously atmospheric shots of Dublin.

Here’s a sampler of a few ‘pieces’, if you are interested. 🙂

 

Certain moments in certain places, apparently insignificant, imprint themselves on the memory with improbable vividness and clarity – improbable because, so clear & vivid are they, the suspicion arises that one’s fancy must have made them up: that one must, in a word, have imagined them.

 

Let us say, the present is where we live, while the past is where we dream. Yet if it is a dream, it is substantial and sustaining. The past buoys us up, a tethered & ever-expanding hot-air balloon. And yet, I ask again, what is it? What transmutation must the present go through in order to become the past? Time’s alchemy works in a bright abyss.

Borges somewhere remarks how the surface of reality now and then, and here and there reveals a tiny crack through which for an instant we catch a glimpse of the possibility of an entirely other order of things.

 

The process of growing up is, sadly, a process of turning the mysterious into the mundane. We cease to be amazed by things – the sky, the turning of the seasons, love, other people – only because we have grown accustomed to them.

 

What agonies we go through on such unlooked-for occasions! She seemed tired, and her eyes had an uncharacteristically dull, evasive look, with dark smudges beneath them. […] Silence rose up between us, like the chill water in a well. “I’d better….” Stephanie said, and her voice trailed off.
That’s how things end in real life: a shrug, a child’s impatience and the unutterable enormity of love pressing hotly behind one’s breastbone like a lump of lead.

Rilke’s Duino Elegies – which sets out by asking why we should bother to be human & live at all, then ventures this magnificent reply:

…. because being here is much, and because all this that’s here, so fleeting, seems to require us & strangely concerns us.
Us, the most fleeting of all.
Just once, everything only for once. Once and no more.
And we, too, once. And never again.
But this having been once, though only once, having been once on earth – can it ever be cancelled?

When does the past become the past?
Perhaps it is when we no longer live in it as a part of our present reality.