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Rebecca Solnit is my new literary crush. I’ve just (and I mean just, as in right now) finished Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Although she does talk about her own walks, it’s not a book about the author’s walking – like Robert MacFarlane’s – and though it is at times personal, Solnit draws on an exciting and mind-blowingly diverse range of sources and subjects. The tour takes in evolutionary theories, ancient Greek philosophers, English Romantic poets, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, the industrial cities and affluent suburbs of 19th century England, mountaineering and hiking clubs in America and Germany, ramblers in Britain, right-of-way protests, America’s car-centric, anti-pedestrian cities and suburbs, how a woman walking is a sexual provocation, strolling The Strip in Las Vegas – and more.
Her activist politics shine. Walking’s not just a means of transport – it’s a pleasure, a solace, an inspiration. You see the world (or at least, your neighbourhood), you meet people, you breathe and move and think at a human pace. All the ways of walking! Stride, hike, stroll, meander, dawdle, saunter. I walk most days, most often with my little dog Gus, and usually a 40-minute loop of our local Botanical Gardens. Gus adds multiple diversions for weeing and sniffing to my routine, but that’s OK; I’m a slow walker. I used to go bush-walking with my oldest brother and at times we’d be a couple of kilometres apart, because he’s a strider and I’m a meanderer. I like to look at things. I don’t like to hurry. I have thought about getting another bike (my ancient and very heavy mountain bike recently went to the Op Shop) but do I really need to get anywhere quicker?
The multiplication of technologies in the name of efficiency is actually eradicating free time by making it possible to maximize the time and place for production and minimize the unstructured travel time in between. New time-saving technologies make most workers more productive, not more free, in a world that seems to be accelerating around them. Too, the rhetoric of efficiency around these technologies suggests that what cannot be quantified cannot be valued – the vast array of pleasures that fall into the category of doing nothing in particular, of woolgathering, cloud-gazing, wandering, window- shopping, are nothing but voids to be filled by something more definite, more productive, or faster paced… The indeterminacy of a ramble, on which much may be discovered, is being replaced by the determinate shortest distance to be traversed with all possible speed, as well as by electronic transmissions that make real travel less necessary.
Wanderlust: A History of Walking Rebecca Solnit, Granta, London, 2014 (first published in 2001)
We went away to Port Fairy for five days after Easter. Both of us tired, neither of us intending to do much. Nothing much actually involved a great deal of eating (having breakfast late, out, going to the pub for tea, buying those packs of posh ice-creams from the supermarket) and walking (there’s a whole other post on walking to be written, especially as I’m currently reading Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, which is about just that) and reading.
I never know quite what reading mood I’ll be in when I’m on holidays. It can be crime thrillers or bestsellers-of-yesteryear or that classic I always meant to read or the latest in heavy-reading literature… I have taken a mixed half-dozen good, interesting, well-reviewed novels and non-fiction books away with me for a four-day bush retreat… and in the end, resorted to the tatty and ancient mass-market paperbacks other guests had left on the shelves. It’s hard to tell. But this time I picked four winners.
Here’s one of them:
I only know Paula Fox as a children’s author – The Slave Dancer is the book that comes to mind – and I didn’t know she also wrote for adults. This is very adult.
The Brentwoods, a wealthy, cultured New York couple – Otto is a lawyer and Sophie is a translator – seem to be living the perfect life in their elegant apartment. And then the stray cat she’s been feeding bites her – and everything goes downhill from there. Small but unsettling events pile up. Rubbish, vomit and excrement threaten to engulf their street. Friendships waver, fray, fracture. Violence seems to simmer under the surface. Their Long Island holiday house is vandalised and Sophie is obsessed with the fear that she may have contracted rabies. Sounds weird? It is. Odd, funny, frightening, and elegant.
It was published in 1970. The social disorder and disruption of the 1960s forms the ominous background to the novel. Here’s what one character – he’s Otto’s only just ex-partner in the law firm; unlike Otto, he’s wanted to represent the blacks, the underprivileged, minorities, the poor – says to Sophie:
“You don’t know what’s going on,” he said at last. “You are out of the world, tangled in personal life. You won’t survive this…what’s happening now. People like you…stubborn and stupid and drearily enslaved by introspection while the foundations of their privilege is being blasted out from under them…”
My other great picks were:
Empathy, the way that we can place ourselves, imaginatively, in the position of the other person, is at the heart of what we do as readers, as people striving for a generous understanding of one another.
Reading by Moonlight Brenda Walker, Penguin, 2010
Sometimes it’s the right book at the right time. And sometimes it’s not. I picked up Brenda Walker’s Reading by Moonlight when it first came out, in 2010, and for some reason I didn’t get on with it. In fact, I took a set against it – that I remember – but I can’t remember why. In some circumstances, forgetting is an enjoyable quirk of getting older, so I was able to approach the book – my third for reading group this year – without prejudice. And laugh at myself for being so wrong.
I loved it. It is at the same time the story of Brenda’s cancer – from diagnosis to treatment to recovery and beyond – and the story of how, for her, stories reassured, guided, solaced and healed. All the praise on the covers is merited. It’s rich, generous, graceful and uplifting. As Jennifer Byrne says, “A graceful and moving hymn of praise to the power of reading”.
Moonlight is a measured, beautiful, elegant book. First We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson is raw and messy and more powerful because of it. I haven’t got it here with me; I sent my copy to a friend who is in the middle of an ‘anxiety spiral’ (Wilson’s phrase) hoping that it might act as first aid. I wish I’d had something like this to read a couple of years ago, when stress and insomnia combined to make a Frankenstein’s monster of overwhelming anxiety that ran my life. I might not have felt so alone; and I might have understood that the ‘beast’ was only trying to keep me safe.
I’ve only ever known Sarah Wilson from those vibrant photos in her “I Quit Sugar” books and…well…actually, ‘vibrant’ is a bit of an irritant for me. So, again, I can laugh at myself for being so very, very wrong. Smiley, glowing, vibrant Wilson actually struggles with major mental health challenges – not just anxiety, but bipolar disorder as well. I’m full of admiration for her courage in exposing herself like this.
It’s not a self-help book, but I am convinced that it will be enormously helpful to the anxious and the overwhelmed. In fact, when a man came into the bookshop last week to place an order (we’d sold out!) he told me that his psychologist had recommended it. Bibliotherapy.
I have just come back from walking in the hills above Chewton, a township to the east of Castlemaine. Our walk took us from the ruins of the Garfield Wheel (once a massive water wheel that was used to power a quartz crushing mill) along a small portion of the Goldfields Track.
It is so lonely now that it’s hard to believe that once it was a hive of activity. A sea of tents, thousands of miners; there must have been incessant noise where now it’s just wind and bird-calls and silence. Mine shafts and diggings were everywhere, and you can still see their remains, where soil and rock are heaped in the valleys and gullies and on hillsides. A water race, which fed the wheel, runs through the landscape.
I was thinking to myself as we neared the end of our walk, what have I seen today? I seem to look at the ground quite a lot so of course I saw the path, which was at times made of red clayey soil and quite badly eroded, and then in other places seamed with rock and even areas of exposed reef. Some bush tracks are soft to the foot, with a kind and even springy surface and covered over with leaf litter. Not this track, though there was plenty of debris from the trees all around us; we’ve had some high winds lately, so there were snapped stems with the leaves still fresh and green on them, as well as twigs and branches and the brown sickle shapes of dry eucalyptus leaves. But it was the stone I was more aware of; pieces of slate, flat and grey, and quartz, and sandstone, and rocks that look as if they’re made of iron.
No wildlife to speak of – we heard birds but didn’t see them. My husband spotted a golden orb weaver, a spider with long stripey legs and a body the size of one of the Greek Colossal olives that we can buy in our local deli. She had a fine larder in the web.
I also noticed a few wattle bushes flowering – it is acacia paradoxa, and that is one of the very few wattles I can recognise – what’s the paradox, I often wonder. Perhaps it’s the contrast between the pale, soft, fluffy lemon balls and the harshly prickled foliage.
I came home, happy, thinking of all the things that I’d seen. There was nothing spectacular, or special, just the things we ordinarily see on any short walk through the bush around here. I was thinking of writing a short piece, describing these things. But the most I’ve been able to do, really, is name names – those that I know – coming up with the words slate, quartz, sandstone; the words twig, leaf, branch. Perhaps those words are enough.
I looked in my bookshelves for something to read, something to quote perhaps. I picked out Selected Poems by Seamus Heaney, but Ireland’s too wet. And then the amazing and wonderful book-length poem Wimmera by Homer Rieth** (read it!). Even Rieth’s Wimmera has more water than we do in the Chewton hills, but I will quote all the same.
…place of silences
of water soughing over rocks
of reeds returning the purl and lap of water
down to the last trickle
rock water reed
each remaining calmly within the confines of its own nature
leaving the scrawl of their signature
on creek beds on windrows on sandy stretches
holding out for the slake and quench
of trunk bole branch leaf
Names of things – trunk, bole, branch, leaf – perfect words.
And then I reached out something I hadn’t looked at for years. Back in the early 90’s, when I regularly wrote poetry, I contributed to a couple of collections and public readings by Castlemaine Writers during the State Festival (which, by the way, finished with a bang of joyous activity in the park last Sunday). And here’s an appropriate little quote, by me, from me.
My country is of scruffy trees
Bark litter, stones and melancholy…
Not all that melancholy, actually; not today. We chatted happily when we weren’t walking in companionable silence, and on the way home we stopped at the Bold Cafe, a little place in Wesley Hill (between Chewton and Castlemaine) for Massaman chicken curry, spicy eggplant with tofu and a glass each of excellent cab sav. Something the miners didn’t even know to dream about.
**Wimmera by Homer Rieth: Black Pepper, Melbourne 2009
We’ve just had two delightful Canadian visitors. A retired couple, on a three month holiday. They’d been to Singapore, Hanoi and Seoul before arriving in Perth. Then Adelaide and Melbourne.
And Castlemaine, of course. Why not? In the gold-rush days, it was known as “The Great Centre”. As usual, when we drive overseas guests around, we realise again the beauty and history of our lovely little part of the world. But shhh! Don’t tell! We don’t want too many people here.
This is Castlemaine when there weren’t so many people here. It’s 1966. This is one of the main streets of the town; judging by this snap, you could have lain down in the middle of the road and had a little kip on a Saturday afternoon.
I’ve lived here as an adult since 1986 – over 30 years! – and more if you count the 3 years, from 1966 to 1969, that we lived here when I was a child. When we moved away in 1969, I was angry and sad – I loved it here – and I always wanted to come back. It seemed to me then – and now – to be the place where I feel happiest.
Most of my growing-up years were spent by the Chelsea beach. Though I feel the pull of sea and shore and waves and that big sky, I manage quite well with little trips. A few days or a week seems to top me up nicely. Since my visit to Chelsea a couple of years ago, when I found it so changed – learning, really, that you can’t go home again – I no longer have my old recurrent dream about our house, the beach gate, the dunes and the sea. Friends and neighbours down the road – recently retired, too – have just moved to Point Lonsdale, away from the relentless dry heat and fire threats of summer, the frosts and bitter cold in winter. I really understand. Sometimes, especially towards the end of summer, it is so cracklingly dry, so dusty and parched, it seems claustrophobic here.
But could I do what they did? It would be an uprooting.
I’m not sure. Time, as they say, will tell. But for now, I feel like this is my place, the place where I belong, and driving our friends around the district I felt again and again those little tugs of connection – memories of more than thirty year’s walks, drives, picnics, swims – that link me to this landscape, this country, that is my home.
Lately I’ve been finding that I really enjoy reading essays. Dipping in and out of this year’s Best Australian Essays had me searching for the earlier collections; a find of Quarterly Essays from the Op Shop (50 cents each) was a treasure trove of the longer form; Siri Hustvedt’s A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women:Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind has me severely challenged – mainly due to my ignorance of philosophy – but inspired by her fierce, independent intelligence. I’m still working away on that book.
However my most exciting find was an impulse purchase from the Book Depository. You know how they come up with suggestions for you. They’re along the lines of ‘If you bought that, you’d like this’. So I did. And I did. My new crush is American writer Rebecca Solnit. I finished my bargain buy A Field Guide to Getting Lost in a few gulps, and then ordered whatever of her work was in the system from the library.
I had a day of public transport adventures on Thursday. I enjoy being in transit – good for reading and day-dreaming and making up stories – and The Faraway Nearby was a fine companion.
I’m not sure how to classify. Essays, certainly. Thirteen of them, starting and finishing with a mound of apricots from her mother’s tree. Memoir? Or a series of meditations on age, illness, medicine, travel, exploration, fairytales, family, Mary Shelley, the Marquis de Sade, Che Guevara – finishing not quite where we started, with that pile of fruit.
‘An exhilarating form of literary cartography,’ says one of the blurbs on the back cover, quoted from a review in the Financial Times. ‘Meandering through diverse subjects…’
Diverse! Flipping through a few pages, I found leprosy, breast cancer, the reception of two polar bears who landed in Iceland (shot dead), Narnia, Chinese artists of the Tang dynasty, Wile E. Coyote and the Easter Island heads… There are so many beautiful and surprising things in this collection, but I thought I’d include these two paragraphs on subjects dear to my heart – reading, writing.
The object we call the book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another…
Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the one one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no one to to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure, that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest.
‘To essay’ means to try. Some day soon, I might even essay an essay of my own.
Book Group. First meeting is in a week’s time but I only picked up the book – The Golden Age by Joan London – a few days ago. I was relieved when I saw that it wasn’t a tome – a neat 240 pages – because those long books are hard work if you don’t get into them. But I did. I read it yesterday, almost without stopping. Off to a good start.
The reviews focus on the relationship between to two young polio ‘victims’, Frank and Elsa, as if that’s what the book is about. But it’s not, really. There are other characters and other relationships, and they are all connected, delicately, intricately. Even when the connections are not central to the narrative – spun off to the side, so to speak, like that of Nurse Olive Penney and her daughter or Susan’s social climbing parents – they’ve got weight and meaning. They stick with the reader. A beautiful, grave, moving story about so many things – loss and grief, illness and death, war and peace, youth and maturity…
Here is Margaret, Elsa’s mother, in her garden:
She lay down in the grass and the moon went higher. The stars tumbled across the black bowl of the sky and the grasses rustled about her. She heard the shiftings of tiny creatures in the earth and the drone of midges. Everything was in motion. Minute by minute the garden was reverting to wildness. She felt she was lying on the heart of a great animal. it was asking for her trust. All she could do was trust.
Somewhere, a long time ago, she’d found this out, and then forgotten. Making soup, washing nappies, she had turned her back on the springs of life. Never again would she do this, never, ever! If Elsa lived…
I am reading The Peppered Moth (Viking, 2000) by Margaret Drabble.
I like Margaret Drabble’s writing very much. Ever since I found the three books in the Radiant Way sequence in the op shop (one signed by the author) I’ve been on the look-out. I’ve found the early novels The Garrick Year and The Millstone; though she was wonderful as a younger writer, with age has come this absolute owning of the page. She plays with language, making words and sentences jump hoops and skip and spin and then sometimes returning to an almost 19th century style. In this book, there’s a sly, wry omniscient narrator who talks directly to the reader, giving us the god’s eye view of the characters. I find this has a distancing effect, so that you don’t feel close to the characters; you don’t participate but observe rather dispassionately as their fates unwind, but that’s not a criticism.
The Peppered Moth is really an imagined biography of Margaret Drabble’s (and A.S. Byatt’s!) mother in the character of Bessie, a clever working class girl from a Yorkshire mining town who won a scholarship to Cambridge but didn’t go on to have the brilliant career that she and everyone else would have expected. She married, had children and made everyone in her life unhappy. A disappointed woman, she was highly intelligent but harsh, angry and manipulative.In her after word, Drabble writes:
My father died in December 1982, and my mother shortly afterwards, in April 1984. After her death several friends – mostly novelist friends – suggested that I should try to write about her. Use your mother’s blood for ink, one of them urged me. So I tried, but it wasn’t easy. I think about my mother a great deal, uncomfortably. Night and day on me she cries. Maybe I should have tried to write a factual memoir of her life, but I have written this instead.
Drabble explores the effect of the ambition and the disappointment on Bessie’s husband, children and grandchild, taking in genetics and evolution and inheritance, old age and memory and decay, class and gender, history and geography. There’s not much she doesn’t take in, actually; she asks many questions about mothers and daughters that reverberate through the generations.
Lewis. Morse. Midsummer Murders. Vera. Poirot. Miss Marple…
Yes, British crime is my guilty little not-so-secret. I love it. And I can be quite productive, too – two or three nights in front of a movie length episode and I can knit a couple of beanies or a cowl (with cables).
But there’s a worse confession to come.
I’m hooked on Seinfeld. I never watched it regularly back in the day (it ran from 1989 to 1998) but the discovery of a boxed set in an Op Shop for a paltry eight bucks has led to quite an addiction. I could argue – I will, dammit! – that a well-made sitcom can be a beautiful thing. It’s both astonishing and inevitable when all the disparate plot elements converge; watching the end of the ‘Fusilli Jerry’ episode of Seinfeld the other night, I felt like cheering “Bravo!” as sex moves, a motor mechanic, the wrong license plate, an eye job and a fusilli pasta sculpture all came together with a bang at the proctologist’s office.
Actually, there’s more, and I’m blushing somewhat. It’s Sex and the City. I don’t know quite what to say about my current thing for this show. Though I must have seen the odd glimpse, I never watched an entire episode in its day (1998 to 2004) and in fact would have snottily labelled it as ‘trash’ if I’d been asked for an opinion. One of my worst movie experiences ever (on a par with Twilight, where I was quite audibly muttering “Let it be over, let it be over” for the last hour) was Sex and the City on the big screen. It was a fundraiser for breast cancer at our local theatre, a women-only event full of squeals, giggles, air-kisses, pink, pamper-packs, frocks, heels and flutes and flutes of bubbly. I may have been going through a particularly dour and kill-joy phase, but I hated everything about that night. But now I am appreciating the female-centered stories, the gorgeous friendship between these four very different women as they drink their Cosmoplitans, and – yes – the clever writing.
So, that’s the set-up for this episode. Things will converge. You’ll see. Here goes.
I recently re-read Anthony Storr’s Solitude. Storr was a British psychiatrist and author; this book, originally published in 1988, is a challenge to the idea that it’s only through interpersonal relationships that a person can find fulfilment, happiness or indeed, become a psychologically healthy human being. He looks at creative people – writers, composers, artists and so on – to show that work can truly be, if not ‘the’ then certainly ‘a’ love of your life. And it’s not just the extraordinary people he talks about. Though it’s common to mock ‘anoraks’ and nerds, solitary hobbies and interests – ranging from stamp collecting to pigeon fancying to gardening and fishing – sustain many productive, happy, fulfilled individuals who do not have spouses, families or intimate others. They may or may not even have close friends, but they are not to be pitied or pathologised. These people have found a way to living their own lives. But there’s an enduring bias and suspicion against people who prefer solitude – against introverts, you could say. Storr passionately defends such people – talented, genius, and not so. They have a right to simply be themselves. And they often bring great gifts into the world.
It’s a fascinating book, and my only disappointment with it is that so few of his examples are women. Beatrix Potter and a few saints get a guernsey, that’s all. For women and solitude is a huge topic. I think I can safely say that – in general – you need solitude to create. I’ve even seen writing described as ‘the art of the room’; if you can’t bear to be alone, it’s not for you. And yet women, because of socialisation, cultural norms, their roles as care-givers and mothers and perhaps also their physiology (those tend-and-befriend hormones) and their genes, seem to be set up for very little alone time.
Solitude made me want to re-read more recent companion or complementary book – Susan Cain’s 2012 Quiet; the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. And there’s where worlds began to collide. And the disparate plot points converge…
Cain’s description of the American extrovert ideal gone wrong matches….Donald Trump! And in my last night’s episode of Sex and the City one of the girls going into a swanky restaurant spied – guess? Yes! The Donald. (I agree, it’s not quite as neatly amazing as Fusilli Jerry, but I thought it brought a few very disparate elements together).
But on to more serious matters. That the President of the United States can be a movie actor or a reality TV star or a celebrity says something important about the United States. Cain explains that, beginning in the 1900’s, industrialisation began to change the culture. ‘America had shifted from what the influential cultural historian Warren Susman called a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality… In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined and honourable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private…But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans stared to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining… Susman famously wrote, “Every American was to become a performing self.”
The American extrovert ideal, according to Cain, has come to mean that quiet has become unacceptable. The gifts that the introvert may bring to the table –thoughtfulness, consideration, focus, insight – are not wanted. Put simply, the vocal, gregarious, fast, assertive, decisive person (dare I say, that’s it’s usually a man?) is perceived to be a better leader and decision-maker, more intelligent and more able. There is plenty of evidence that this is not the case. They may even make worse leaders – rash, impulsive, big on style, short on substance. Hello, Donald.
So here you have it – British crime, beanies, sit-coms, solitude, American cultural history, …and Trump! Reminds me of a little game I used with creative writing students years ago. I’d put a bunch of random nouns on slips of paper into a hat and get them to draw three, then write a story.
If only the Performing President was fiction.