11.10.18

The Virago Book of Twins and Doubles

I've never been a huge fan of anthologies, I could never really see the point. Now I finally get it -- they are perfect for reading in bed! One or two extracts, super-short, lights out, done, and no compulsion to see What Happens Next...

I have been reading The Virago Book of Twins and Doubles for AGES in this nibbley-nibbley way, and very satisfying it's been, too. I didn't buy this because I'm particularly interested in twins (though I have a twin niece and nephew, and twin brothers who died at birth), but because the editor is Penelope Farmer, who wrote the haunting Charlotte Sometimes. It turns out that Farmer was herself a twin, and the memory of her deceased sister hangs over this volume. Of course Charlotte Sometimes is also a story of doubles, separated by time.

Twins as freaks, twins in myth, the writer as twin, twins as curse and as blessing... this anthology is an ordered jumble of fact and fiction, poetry and newspaper snippets. There were several extracts from a compelling book I remember reading in high school, about The Silent Twins, June and Jennifer Gibson, who communicated only with each other, became arsonists, and were locked in Broadmoor for many years. Jennifer died, for no apparent reason, at the age of 29, perhaps to 'set June free.' Many of these twin tales carried a similar eerie shiver.

5.10.18

The Happiness Quest: EDIT

As some of you may know, or have guessed, someone close to me is suffering from severe depression at the moment. Hence my flare of interest in books about therapy, mental health, depression and anxiety, and crucially, how to recover from the all-enveloping darkness.

Lana Penrose's memoir, The Happiness Quest is promisingly subtitled A depression survivor's journey from misery to joy. But it turned out to be not quite what I was looking for. Penrose seems determined to keep things on the light side -- not surprisingly, as it is a real drag reading about other people's mental agony. But sometimes the cute metaphors and breezy tone grated against the grim reality she was describing. I liked the way she organised the book in alphabetical chapters: B is for Breakdown, C is for CBT etc, and I loved her gutsy determination to beat her demons with any tools she could find, from the scientifically proven to the frankly whacky.

In the end, the recipe that saved Penrose (a combination of meditation, talk therapy and EMDR -- didn't I say a couple of posts back that EMDR was a pile of nonsense? Whoops!) might not suit everybody, but it brought her back from the brink. I'm sure I've read somewhere that it doesn't actually matter what form of therapy you use; what helps is the relationship you establish with the therapist. And the same hints keep cropping up: exercise, meditation, mindfulness, gratitude.

I guess the most important message is one of hope -- that this dark journey can have a happy ending.

Edited to say that one thing that really annoyed me about this book (not Penrose's fault) was the amount of sloppy typos and errors that kept leaping out at me. There is no excuse for any editor to let "Virginia Wolfe" slide by uncorrected.

3.10.18

Where Shall We Run To?

This was my birthday present to myself and it finally arrived after a wait of several weeks. I think Alan Garner may well be my most-admired writer of all time. Now I own all his novels, and this lovely memoir, I might sit down and read the whole lot from beginning to end, including his essays The Voice That Thunders (which I didn't find too difficult to understand, though it did challenge and excite me).

Anyway! Garner was born in a Cheshire village where his family have lived for hundreds of years. The landscape is etched with traces of his ancestors -- his grandfather and great-great grandfather built this wall; family lived in this house or that one, climbed these hills, carved in this cave. His sense of being deeply embedded in the land, growing out of its history, is central to all Garner's work, and parallels the Australian Aboriginal experience of belonging to country (a parallel he explored in Strandloper).

Though on the surface, Where Shall We Run To? is the story of a simple childhood (he's about the same age as my parents) -- playground disputes, frightening teachers, the finding of a 'bomb', encounters with evacuee children -- there are echoes and resonances here that have found their way into his fiction. The book is structured like memory, sometimes shown in vivid flashes, sometimes shaped into the anecdotes we all tell ourselves, the stories that make up our selves.

2.10.18

When I Was A Child I Read Books

How could I not jump on this book? Look at the title, for heaven's sake. When I Was a Child I Read Books -- hooray! Me, too! And it's by Marilynne Robinson, whose novels Housekeeping, Gilead, Home and Lila have left me awestruck and seriously teetering on the edge of actually becoming a Christian. Her novels are both delicate and rigorous, spare and beautifully wrought. I love her fiction; it has uplifted, comforted and inspired me.

So I was disappointed in myself that I almost completely failed to keep pace with this collection of essays. They were simply beyond my comprehension. They are all more or less theological in their concerns, which is fine, and insofar as I understood what Robinson was saying, I mostly agreed with her. She is mostly arguing (I think) for a more nuanced, complex understanding of what it means to be human -- an understanding that takes into account spiritual yearnings, kindness and compassion, and refuses to settle for the brutal neo-liberal conception of humans as merely selfish, economic beings who dance to the tune of the market. I'm all for that.

Maybe I'm just thick, but I felt as I waded laboriously through this slender volume that I was reading a carefully thought-out response to a debate whose start I'd missed -- there were references I just didn't get, figures I'd never heard of, quotes I didn't understand. Who was Oberlin? I'm still not sure. The Boston Globe said, "A glimmering, provocative collection of essays, each a rhetorically brilliant, deeply felt exploration of education, culture, and politics...beautifully intelligent,"and I'm sure they're right. I just wish I was beautifully intelligent enough to understand it.

1.10.18

Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking

There are some books that you can't (pardon the pun) consume in one bite. Ooh, that sounds interesting, I thought, when I came across Kate Colquhuon's Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking on Brotherhood Books -- and don't get me wrong, it was interesting!

But I couldn't have sat down and devoured it in one sitting (for one thing, it's pretty thick). Chapter after chapter detailing extravagant feasts, the evolution of cooking techniques and shifting meal times, the rise and fall of ingredients as the world of trade expanded availability -- if I'd tried to swallow it in one go, it would have proved indigestible. Instead, I rationed myself to one chapter a day, and slowly consumed a dose of British history through the prism of its food and cooking.

From the evidence left in prehistoric middens (butchered bones, cheese sieves), through medieval feasts and the Elizabethan addiction to sugar (some things don't change much), to the pineapple fad of the eighteenth century, the demise of the household cook, wartime rationing and the rise of the 'foodie', Taste leads us through the centuries and shows how social history and food go hand in hand.

As a fan of the BBC's clumsily titled The Supersizers Go... which featured Sue Perkins and Giles Coren sampling the food of different eras with a comic twist, and the recent Australian show Back in Time for Dinner, which also mixed food and history, I was always going to find Taste hard to resist. It was highly educational: the Victorian underclass were literally starving on a diet of adulterated bread and not much more; at the end of the nineteenth century, there was apparently 'a small chain of Australian restaurants in London' (who knew??); and many many more intriguing titbits.