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reading

it’s a creative ‘and’ not an ‘either/or’

Valdivia, May 2022

The day begins to the sound of water running through the drainpipes. Behind the curtains, the windows are misted. When I finally get up, I pull on two pairs of leggings and under my t-shirt wear a thermal vest. Last week I was living through a wet English summer, this week a damp Chilean winter. There is a similarity in the rainfall, but the perception of it differs depending on whether you are planning a picnic or you’re carrying the shopping home and it’s soaking through your gloves.

JP, being Venezuelan, believes that since I grew up in a place with winters and occasional snow, I should be naturally adapted to such weather. He ignores my retorts that I grew up in a house with double glazing and central heating. Having grown up in the Caribbean, he finds the icy breeze down by the costanera exotic.

Recently, I finished listening to the audiobook of Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. If my memory serves me well, it’s a book that I originally began reading in a library, but for some reason never had the chance to finish. I have a strong preference for reading over listening, but, ironically considering how much I travel, I am cursed with motion sickness which prevents me from reading on buses or in cars.

Whilst the book is generally interesting, what stuck with me was the analysis of character traits of creative individuals.

We typically apply labels to people using an either/or approach. Someone is introverted or extroverted, generous or selfish, optimistic or pessimistic, masculine or feminine. Csikszentmihalyi is interested in people whose lives exhibit a globally impactful creativity, the sort that is recognised and celebrated. These people, Csikszentmihalyi suggests, tend to exhibit contrary traits. They are an ‘and’. They are introverted and extroverted. Not somewhere in between the two, but both poles. They are masculine and feminine, not androgynous, but swing from one way of being to the other.

It suggests that when it comes to analysing character, we should be open to accepting contradiction. I can be both family-orientated and independent. I can insist on using a butter knife in my own home and not be fussed when in someone else’s place we eat with our hands.

One of the things I love about living semi-nomadically is that I am forced into different ways of being. Or maybe I should say that it gives me permission to be differently. Perhaps I shouldn’t need permission, and yet, experimenting and acting out of character tends to alarm people. Indeed, the challenge perhaps with Csikszentmihalyi’s idea about opposite traits is that it suggests that creative people, by failing to fit neatly in boxes, exhibit an unpredictability that may come across as threatening. Ignoring that his examples are all great creatives, we can still see that creativity requires the freedom to explore such opposite characteristics. It’s not travelling inherently that gives such freedom, but what you can learn while travelling (if you’re willing) that provides both the alternative ideas and the spaces in which to act upon them.

And I’ve heard numerous times that people feel that they have a different personality when speaking in different languages. I wonder if perhaps this comes from having different expectations or because we speak different languages in different contexts. Speaking Spanish, I don’t expect myself to sound anywhere near as intelligent as I would in English. Nor do I expect to sound anywhere near as polite. The effort it takes to communicate in Spanish means that I make different decisions. I have no expectation that I will be fully understood. I’m conscious of the limits of my speech and much more forgiving of my conversation partner.

We bring our faulty understandings of the world into every conversation. While mainland Europe was suffering a heatwave (and England just more rain), Chilean friends asked how I was dealing with the heat. What heat? I asked. When I tell people in England that I’m heading to Chile, they sometimes remark on how lovely it will be in the sunshine. I adjust their assumption with a single word – Patagonia – which brings up images of glaciers and snow. Although it’s generally agreed to be the southern tip of the Americas, Patagonia means different things to different people. Some definitions include where we live as being part of the region, some don’t. It’s a bit like trying to define where The North of England begins. This ignorance isn’t an awful thing. Most of the time, we just don’t have a lot of knowledge about anywhere other than our own home. It’s both a reality and an opportunity.

And however we see the weather, the rain keeps falling

Waiting to be reborn

On Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy (Outline, Transit, Kudos)

Storms coming, Coñaripe, February 2023

Night. My head a little fuzzy, not from wine, but from having woken with a migraine this morning. I hope, but nothing fully shakes a migraine, nothing other than a good night’s sleep. Wishing in a cool breeze from the open darkness – 37 degrees outside today – the white ceiling dotted with tiny black flies, I’m waiting for the room to become more accommodating of sleep.

The children two floors up show no sign of going to bed. High-pitched play. They know I exist. They’ve popped their little brown faces around the hedge that borders the garden and seen me, sitting there, reading. Angelic faces with cherub noses; I wish they’d sleep.

Green tea with jasmine. I’ve been reading Rachel Cusk’s Kudos, admiring it without loving it. The third of a trilogy, and probably the one I enjoyed the least (not itself a criticism). The first of the three, Outline, I read for university; not my usual choice because ‘intellectual white British woman’ sits too close to home. I’m trying so hard to push myself into other, less-comfortable spheres.

At first, I disliked Outline. It wasn’t real; the conversations were false, stylised, gossip. Was it all in the narrator’s head? The writing steps back, out of believable dialogue and into a smooth, unbelievable eloquence – Cusk’s voice. Once I accepted its design – accepted the request from Cusk that the reader abandons any expectation for dialogue that sounds like speech – I settled down.

Although, saying that, the passivity frustrated me, maybe because it recalled a timidity of voice I occasionally feel. Maybe, because I get frustrated by people who seem incapable of helping themselves. Creative writing instructors go on about giving ‘agency’ to the protagonist, but the protagonist, Faye, rejects ‘agency’. A sponge, absorbing, barely reacting. Her decision for passivity was her limit.

Surprisingly, suspense didn’t falter. I would have thought it might. Instead, it grew addictive. The narrator holds herself back, restrained, but under the surface, judgement, conflict, anger. A woman’s unsayable, un-permittable anger. The self, destroyed by divorce, ashes of anger.

Despite not being divorced, I have known fire that burns through one’s sense of being, when one’s one narrative, the story of self, the story of being, ruptures. To comprehend myself, my story, I disjoint my own narrative – creating a before and after: I divide into before my loss of self and after I began to reassemble. The space in between too uncomfortable. Faye is trying to identify herself in the ashes, and when she can’t, she refuses to be reborn.

Faye, or Rachel Cusk. An intentionally hazy line. She’s a writer teaching a writing course in Greece, as Cusk has. She’s a writer, divorced, just as Cusk is.

Metaphors hang heavy in the book, giving the impression that the first-person narrator, Faye, reads plenty of poetry. So much, it has sculpted her thinking. At first, I noticed the metaphors, then I relaxed into the rhythm of the writing and left them to my subconscious, now I am going back, looking for them afresh, curious as to their frequency. How beautiful a second reading. Maybe, I am overly self-conscious about using metaphor and simile in my own writing, fearing that such imagery would stand out, maybe I should have more confidence, play more. It would be a declaration of poetic interest in someone who doesn’t read poetry. Then again, Cusk in interviews says how she doesn’t read fiction.

She does, apparently, read philosophy. No surprise then that all three books bloom with the sort of lines that could be underlined, highlighted, used to prompt a journal page or two. Reread and reflect. Apparently, autofiction is often analytical. Cusk’s is a contemplation on passivity and writing; yet writing is not a passive activity. It’s a play with from, creating a character, a narrator, who is merely an outline, but the reader fills the image in, joins dots, creates them for themselves if they don’t exist. What do we know about Rachel Cusk?

Transit, the second book, and Kudos were in some ways easier to read; I no longer expected anything to happen. I read both smoothly and rapidly. Very little happens. Like in the first, strangers, friends and colleagues – none of whom Faye seems to particularly like – offer their monologues.

In a way, these books are like an interconnected short story collection, and each story is like a Russian-doll. I’m weirdly reminded of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with a story being told of a story. Faye is a frame. And, as in Conrad’s work, where the African characters exist as projected fears, voicelessly, there’s something uncomfortable in the voicelessness of the criticised, ex-spouses, children, alluded to but in a way that pats the particular storyteller’s ego. Everybody is lying. They are terrible liars. Lying to themselves and to Faye. Faye too, lies. Deceiving the reader by not taking responsibility for her own story.

Maybe we only tell such aggrandising tales of our foibles when we are struggling to convince ourselves of the truth of them. When I find myself talking in such a way, hiding key parts of the picture, I always end up feeling guilty. Or maybe we tell such stories when we have a dangerous sense of righteousness.

I had a close encounter with a Cusk-esque character recently. My partner and I picked up a hitch-hiker, a woman, maybe in her early fifties, on her way into town. This is nothing unusual to us. What was unusual was how she spoke: she started telling us about her childhood in a rural Santiago – Las Condes where all the skyscrapers now stand – imagine chickens and corn; her date the night before with a younger man who had reminded her of the importance of having a good time; how more soldiers were needed on the streets to eradicate the criminals; how valuable the military dictatorship had been in building these roads we were now driving upon; and it would have gone on. Her father called. She had to apologise, she’d missed his birthday, she’d been so busy, what with work and everything (the younger man?).

The conversation was in Spanish and, from my seat, I could not see her. She, in turn, had the illusion that I didn’t understand what was being said, an illusion I did not want to break. I found myself reminded of Faye. For once, passivity seemed an active choice.

The breeze on my face. Upstairs, the feet of children. Mama, mama, mama, mama, mama! Squeals and cries and more squeals and more cries. Too much stimulation. These children never sleep.

The wind has got up; the window slams shut. A storm comes. A command for bed.

Soon the schools will open again.

Mesmerised.

Villarrica, January 2023

My partner and I rent our flat and most of the furniture. On the wall in the living room is a television, which came along with the wooden parrots on the terrace and the broken, dying Jesus in one of the bedrooms. It’s not a particularly large television: I could probably lift it by myself, although not onto the unusual position it occupies high on the wall. If this were my house, which unfortunately it isn’t, I would remove it.

My relationship with television has been one of decreasing tolerance. When I was a child, I would go to a childminder after school, and by the age of eleven I had already consumed more television than is necessary in a lifetime. My grandmother assures me that there is much to be learned on the magical box, but often, when I’ve watched television, I’ve either come away feeling like my intelligence was being insulted or uncomfortably manipulated.

My younger students assure me they don’t watch television, but this is a linguistic misunderstanding. I talk about television, meaning all the series they do watch, along with sport and film. Maybe I’m in the wrong here. I’m no longer sure how to categorise such activities. I don’t particularly care about the categorisation, but I do worry.

Sometimes, my partner really wants to watch a film. He puts on his sweetest, most persuasive face and I feel kind of sorry for him, but he chose to be in a relationship with me and knows that he’ll inevitably fail to convince. Very rarely, I’ll acquiesce, but inevitably this finds us at another wall. I want to watch something gentle, slow, beautiful and in Spanish. He’s looking for action and English. I do not need to watch people being killed. We cannot agree and give up.

Instead, I read. I mostly read books. I believe I would be categorised as an ‘avid’ reader, and perhaps this sounds threatening to some. I see it sometimes, when I express my preference, people apologise or lament their own lack of reading – if I had the time. I doubt it though. In fact, I’m going to say that people don’t read because, for them, reading is harder. It can be uncomfortable. It’s challenging. They find it’s easier to lose themselves in other activities, practised activities, and the less time they spend reading, the more true this becomes.

Reading is better. An entitled opinion?

I discovered flow in reading before my memories begin. As a child, when I was left alone, I would read or write. When I had my bedroom decorated at the age of eleven, my parents installed a wall lamp right next to my bed because they accepted my reading late into the night and preferred that I didn’t strain my eyes. If I had started a book, I would finish it. At my grandparents house, I would read a book each night. What I’d discovered was flow, that sense of losing time and awareness of the wider environment, being drawn entirely into the activity at hand. Flow, or you could call it happiness.

The childhood pleasure though wasn’t simply access to the large bookshelf that stood in our living room, or my aunty’s childhood collection of Chalet School and Enid Blyton, which just happened to be just above my head in my bedroom at my grandparents’ house. It was also solitude. Learning to slip into that happy flow of reading requires a quiet and distraction free environment.

By the time I found myself in the busy university staff room in La Serena in Chile, free to read between work, distraction had become less of a problem. Simply, I took out my book and read. The words on the page were a solace in the madness. No matter that I’d turned into something akin to a zoo animal, a human being who can focus.

What I’m curious about, and what I don’t know the answer to, is whether or not love of reading is something that one can learn as an adult. I presume it is, but I can’t say I know how it would be learnt. My partner reads daily and dedicatedly every morning after breakfast and before he starts work. He is often found reading a few pages from one book before switching to another, often another book in a completely different language. His skill is discipline, whereas mine is attention. For him, reading is equated with being successful, developing the intellectual circuitry and awareness that success demands.

For me, reading is joy.

How Pinocchio Learned to Read by Alberto Manguel

Pinocchio is Italian, and so was my breakfast… Martina Franca, Italy, 2021.

Today I read an essay by the Argentinian writer Alberto Manguel called How Pinocchio Learned to Read. The Pinocchio who Manguel describes is the original, the Italian Carlos Collodi version, the fairy-tale before it was adapted for modern sensibilities. Pinocchio is brash, rebellious and the cause of anxiety for his creator, yet endeavours to make up for his failings by attending school and learning to read.

I like Manguel’s essays in the collection A Reader on Reading which I am currently going through. Each begins with a quote from Lewis Carrol’s Alice, and Manguel frequently refers to moments from Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass to reveal his trail of thought. This essay, as the title suggests, uses Pinocchio as a device, as an example, for talking about that tricky process of learning to read, and in doing so, this provides Manguel with the space to critic the teaching of this valuable skill.

Learning to read is hard. I have students who on first glance, look over a text, recognise the majority of the individual words and project onto them a meaning which portends to have sense. They read by intelligent guesswork. They devour something of the meaning, but the meaning is often one created by themselves, and on closer inspection, is a major deviation from the text. Phrasal verbs trip them up, as do nouns that look like verbs, and words which hold multiple meanings. False friends, those which are similar or identical to Spanish words, but which have a different meaning are particularly deceptive – words like ‘actual’ which so many Spanish speakers mistake for ‘current’. It’s not enough to recognise the words, sometimes it’s not even enough to understand their dictionary definition. Yesterday I argued with a student who was happy that a boot was a boot, and a shoe was a shoe, but my walking boots, he adamantly declared, were shoes.

The Latin expression ‘per ardua ad astra,’ ‘through difficulties we reach the stars,’ is almost incomprehensible for Pinocchio (as for us) since everything is expected to be obtainable with the least possible expenditure.

How Pinocchio Learned to Read, Alberto Manguel

When students start learning English, they are full of energy, focused on an illusion of fluency, which they believe they will inevitably arrive at through the process of turning up for classes. Students who have multiple lessons a week start to complain about being tired after a fortnight. They slot classes into their lives, without considering how draining learning a language will be, and exhaustion bleeds out from the scheduled hour into the rest of their day. Their minds start cataloguing words in English, even when they are not in class, and while their life continues in front of them, their brain is playing with English phonemes in the background. Learning a language is difficult, more difficult than most things in life. We don’t remember how hard, or frustrating learning to communicate was the first time around. We tend not to recall the challenge of learning to read. Most likely we burst into tears with tiredness and frustration of a multitude of occasions. We erroneously assume children have it easy.

Bullshit. It’s easier to teach an adult: adults realise that they are responsible for their learning, they understand why they are learning, they are more likely to invest in techniques which suit them personally, they know what they are sacrificing (an hour in bed, an hour with their children), they have a much stronger understanding of the world and so absorb cultural differences more easily, they recognise their strengths and weaknesses and know that they have to work on both. Some teenagers are like this too, but more frequently teenagers have bigger anxiety challenges and aren’t so clear on their goals. With adults, the bigger challenge is keeping their ambition in check. They want to be fluent yesterday.

The rewards, the stars we reach, become obvious over time. Students who study attentively, for long enough, soften in attitude, they become gentler on themselves, as if more aware of the true challenge they’ve undertaken, and they start to strategize. During the first few weeks, a student may declare a vague preference for conversation, but in time this gets replaced with the series of childlike – Why? Why? Why? – questions which centre on the patterns and grammar of the language they’re using (but never pages of grammar exercises). When they are tired – sick children, late nights, stress at work – they revert back to fluid, easy going conversation and ask fewer questions. When they are alert, they seek to develop their skills by pushing themselves towards a slower, more accurate speech and spend more time thinking about the words they say.

Pinocchio will only learn if he is not in a hurry to learn, and will only become a full individual through the effort required to learn slowly.

How Pinocchio Learned to Read, Alberto Manguel

But Manguel has little faith in Pinocchio’s teachers, they might teach him the alphabet, and to read political slogans and advertisements, to be ‘superficially literate’… but what about real-world literacy, what about developing his own understanding, his own opinions and perspective on the world? Manguel points out that although Pinocchio turns into a boy, inevitably his schooling still leaves him thinking like a puppet.

Why I read

What’s beyond? Moon Valley, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, 2020. 

This lockdown is proving tedious.

I’m not used to winter and what with having the kitchen light on to see my boiled egg in the morning and then the sun setting halfway through the afternoon, I’m despairing from the lack of sunshine. I’m like a bird in a cage having an angry rant at its reflection in its plastic mirror. If I’m not careful, I’ll fracture my beak.

Luckily though, dear Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and I’m one of the fortunate people in this world with an ample supply of books.

Reading is my coping strategy for most problems

Everyone has coping strategies, otherwise we wouldn’t survive, and reading is quite an acceptable one as far as things go. It doesn’t poison your lungs, damage your liver or play havoc with your cholesterol. If anything being well-read is applauded. As a reader, you learn, you build awareness of the world and tend not to upset people in the process.

Still, being that it is a coping strategy, it’s worth thinking about. People have been known to comment upon my nomadic lifestyle as ‘running away’, but escaping into a book, even if you haven’t moved, is just another form of escape. Escape is sometimes necessary. Sometimes you have to pull yourself away from a situation and hide as a form of self-protection. If I’m angry and upset, I sometimes don’t trust myself to be the kind and loving person I would like myself to be. I crawl into my chrysalis and, a novel later, re-emerge as a much nicer human being. Yet you can’t live in a chrysalis and the emergence after an initial escape is essential if the ‘coping’ isn’t going to leave a trail of additional damage.

Reading might, by itself be a good, wholesome activity, so I believe is eating chocolate. No need to point out that there is a limit of how much chocolate I should consume. Sooner or later, if I eat too much, I’ll be sick. Or over a prolonged period I might notice an increase in my waistline. Hence, I don’t gorge on chocolate, I choose a chocolate or two, take care of my choices, limit my intake and focus on quality over quantity. Reading doesn’t make you fat, you might argue. However, an hour reading is a choice to separate yourself from society. You live the lives of other people, fictional or real, or perhaps get advice from world experts who you otherwise wouldn’t be able to learn from, but still, it’s a solitary activity and going to a book for your answers means you aren’t going to the friends and family around you, the real people in your life who might be able to help you in a very real way. They at least have ears to listen with.

Emotional struggles aren’t the only reason I read

My struggle to consolidate the complex emotions that the gods have given me isn’t my only motivation to turn to a book. When I was twenty years old I learnt that there had been this thing called the British Empire. It happened within a few days during an eventful summer: a Ugandan chap, an Egyptian fellow and a guy from Hong Kong provided me with new information which illuminated the depths of my ignorance.

Sometimes you realize that you aren’t equipped to deal with what life throws at you. Some people move in a straight line, fulfilling their plans and hitting their goals, driven by ‘what next’. You follow the map, textbooks, management books, leadership, knowledge, wisdom. If, however, you lurch around in a nomadic fashion, crashing into different cultures as you go, you might find that the question ‘what next’ is never answered because you never get beyond the initial ‘why’.

Or to put it another way, one minute I think I’ve got my life organized, the next, soldiers line the streets and to understand why I dive into books. My lack of understanding of my environment hangs awkwardly in my line of sight. I dent my forehead anew on its shiny surface each time I step off a plane.

My learning style suits books. Typically, I’m not an auditory learner, I am terrible at remembering song lyrics for example, but I’m a quick reader and can assimilate the words on the page of a book into concepts to bury into my brain with ease. I might not recall dates or names, but conflict, tension and story I do.

There is a lot I would like to learn.

I cannot explain why I write, but I do know reading is necessary for it

Orwell in his essay ‘Why I Write’ fails at the same question. He’s eloquent in describing what he writes, and he describes the motivations that drive writers to their choices: the ego, aesthetics, historical documentation or political statement. Yet he fails to clarify why the medium has to be the written word. Why journalism and novels rather than paint and brushes? He acknowledges that storytelling exists as something innate inside him… the words revolving around the lonely child’s head twisted and turned until they sprawled out on the page. But why?

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

George Orwell, Why I Write

I can say that writing, regardless of publication or money, matters to me more than almost anything else; I can’t say why. Furthermore, I have that awkward desire that I not only write, but that I write well. I don’t expect perfection from myself, but I do expect something crafted with care and thought through.

And it should be obvious to anyone who has ever contemplated improving their writing that to write well it’s necessary to read well.

Of course, my obsession has a downside

It would be fair to say that there are more socially beneficial ways for me to spend my life, there are definitely more economically productive endeavours. Especially when one considers that the majority of my writing revolves around me. Indeed, if we head back to Orwell’s suggestions of what motivates writers to write what they write, I’m steered by my ego’s emotional frustrations with our world.

You could claim that I could be doing something less solitary and more involved with other people if I wasn’t so insistent on writing, but all I can think is that if I didn’t write I wouldn’t know how to process anything and all that evil which builds up inside would erupt. Some people talk about the heart as the place of feeling; I’m convinced that for me it’s the fingertips. My hand curls around the pen or my fingers slam down on the plastic keys. Here are my emotions.

For me, life becomes real when I write it. What I don’t write is erased by the winds of oblivion. I forget a lot, my mind betrays me. I can’t recall places, names, dates, or faces, but I never forget a good story or a significant dream. Writing is a silent introspection, a journey to the dark caverns of memory and the soul. Fiction, like memory, moves from revelation to revelation.

Isabel Allende, Why I Write

But during this challenging winter, I’m grateful to have so many books to hand

Sometimes I need to escape, sometimes my family needs me to escape so that I’m bearable company, and sometimes I need a sense that I’m learning something, that things are progressing, and that I will come out of this experience with something to show for it.

Hopefully, reading will also help me learn to write better, that ethereal dream.

Books I finished reading in March

books
They say never judge a book by its cover, but I have to disagree.

Ok, this is a lie. I finished The Consolations of Philosophy on the 1st of April, on the drive home. The first time I’ve listened to an audiobook in the car. Otherwise my March reading has been conducted as if on a constant caffeine high. A stack of books sit on my shelves, half finished. And going to Portugal meant I switched back to the books on my e-reader, none of which I finished as I leapt from book to book. To have multiple books on the go is normal for me, but not quite so many.

Do you read one book at once or dip into many?

The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

Audiobook borrowed from the library.

I’m almost annoyed that I listened to this book, because I haven’t taken any notes and have no quotes to refer to. It was a book full of beautiful quotable passages.

My knowledge of philosophy is limited. There’s a vast amount of terminology which as combinations of letters I feel a familiarity to. But as concepts, these are alien. I have recently given up on a weighty introductory volume to a variety of different philosophers deciding it was inaccessible (I’d rather blame the writers than myself). Philosophy I figure is one of those topics, like politics, which will open to me when I am ancient. By which point it will be too late.

However, Alain de Botton gives me hope. I understand his sentences, and the images and examples he uses are relatable. Having read the consolations, and heard a little about the variety of tragic lives the philosophers themselves lead, I’ve developed an itch to read more. Particularly, Epicurus (I’m curious about his ideas of the necessity of community in achieving happiness) and Nietzsche (who is of the opinion that you can’t feel pleasure without being willing to feel pain).

“…no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfilment.”

Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn

I keep returning to mindfulness and meditation. And then, because I’m human, things get out of shape. My mind straps itself in on the nearest rollercoaster ride and I forget who’s driving the machinery. Me.

Reading over the concepts, again and again helps. When reading about mindfulness, I calm down and become focused. It makes me think, yes, maybe I should sit down, cross-legged and do the whole following your breath thing. Even though my breath is following my thoughts and my thoughts are galloping off like a child who’s eaten a whole packet of jelly babies without sharing. I know being mindful is good for me (and for the people who put up with me). It’s just hard to do.

“At the same time, the work of cultivating mindfulness is also play. It is far too serious to be taken seriously – and I say this in all seriousness – if for no other reason that it’s really about our entire life.”

The Mulberry Empire by Philip Hensher

For the charity shop box.

It had a slow start, got a little better when some characters did something more than sit around waiting to have a conversation and, for a moment, it looked like it was going to go somewhere… which turned out to be a long and irrelevant tangent which appeared to have absolutely no relevance to the rest of the story. Disappointing.

It ended on the massacre of an army of 16,000. By this point my investiture in the characters was empty (especially the women). The ones who remained alive seemed ridiculous. It was like it was written by someone who had learnt about loss in the dictionary.

That said, some of the writing was pretty. If it had been given a plot, not just a series of historical events, it might have been a good book.

What’ve you been reading?