On Trying To Keep Still by Jenny Diski

This book captivated me. I have read some good books this year, but this one outshines the rest. When I wasn’t reading it I was thinking and talking about it. It’s about experiencing an experience, becoming aware of experiencing the experience and so losing the experience.

I have had the experience of experiencing Jenny Diski’s travels during a year when she visited New Zealand, spent three months in a cottage in Somerset and went to sample the life of the Sami people of Swedish Lapland. No need to go those places myself now. Really, I could be tempted by a trip to New Zealand, but that is only a pipe dream. Now, a cottage in Somerset – that is a real possibility.

I can see myself living in that cottage, but I would not want to be there alone. Her description of her drive to Lilstock, in Somerset identifies the pleasure and gratitude of the present-moment experience of being in a beautiful place, even though this then conjures up the consciousness of

that terribly difficult business of experiencing experience. I am so conscious of me being here, of being me here, not somewhere else, having this experience, that I lose my awareness of what is pleasing me in order to think about the pleasure.

To me being in the right company as well as in the right place enhances rather than diminishes my pleasure.

I don’t need to visit the glow-worm caves or Doubtful Sound in New Zealand, now that Diski has described them to me; indeed she had to miss out on an actual visit to the caves but enjoyed a virtual trip courtesy of an imaginative reading of the brochure ‘what more could we want, particularly as the actual visit to Doubtful Sound was disappointing?‘ And I certainly don’t want to go to cold, dark Lapland even though the enchanting, mythical, magical forest ‘glittering fairyland labyrinth‘ lit up with frost ‘making an intricate latticework which sparkled, twinkled, actually dazzled the eyes, as if the forest had been sprinkled with a layer of diamond dust‘ is beguiling. This is counterbalanced by the difficulty in living in such a hostile environment. Intriguingly this visit was aimed at advertising tourism.

Of course this book is not only about travelling. It is also a personal memoir, and is about being still, being alone, wanting to be alone, phobias and the problems of coping with life and especially with ageing. There is so much in this book that I can empathise with that it is almost alarming. Jenny Diski wants to be alone to a greater extent than I do, but I still identify with feelings such as not wanting to make a noise in case people notice that I’m there, not wanting others to worry about me, and worrying that others are worrying about me; feeling the need to do something such as going out for a walk – not the desire to do it for itself but the feeling that I should want to. On a practical level I also have difficulty with ‘left’ and ‘right’. In my mind I see left and say right etc and like Diski I can only visualise a route for a short distance before it disappears in a grey fuzz in my mind.

There is so much more in this book; it describes adventures in places at the opposite ends of the earth intermingled with personal insights and meditations on solitude and stillness, consciousness and belief systems. I found it a moving, amusing, thought-provoking and original book.

Borrowed Books


These are some books that I have recently borrowed from the library, including Relics, which is Book Crossing book. I finished reading Death’s Jest-Book a few days ago and have today finished Jenny Diski’s On Trying to Keep Still, which I could hardly put down – I found it a compulsive read.

More in my next post on these two books.

I have yet to start the other books. I find it impossible not to borrow books even though I have plenty of my own that are unread.

I may read John Brewer’s Sentimental Murder next. I fancied reading something different and thought this sounded interesting when I read about on Of Books and Bicycles’ blog. The preface states that it is the investigation of an 18th century killing and attempted suicide. It explores “the relations between history and fiction, storytelling and fact, past and present.” So, Brewer examines the facts relating to the murder of Martha Ray, the mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, by James Hackman, a young clergyman. He also looks at how this killing has been retold by journalists, novelists, poets, doctors, biographers and historians over the last two centuries.

I’ve not got on too well with some of Anne Tyler’s books in the past,but maybe I’ll like The Amateur Marriage. The blurb says that it is an “achingly poignant and unforgettable novel”. I hope so.

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West looks like a complete contrast to the Tyler book, being set in fashionable Edwardian England.

Jane Austen’s Persuasion is a re-read, always satisfying. However, Joseph Roth is an unknown author to me. I think Susan Hill was recommending his books a while ago so I hope this one The Emperor’s Tomb about the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire will live up to its promise.

May – Books of the Month Part 2

Time to continue my thoughts on the books I finished reading in May. But first I thought I’d write about today’s Alphapuzzle. This is rated 5 (which is out of 10, so an easy one) and the target time for completing it is 18 minutes. The clue is ‘Sane wanderer’, which I didn’t get – so no extra letters to help with the puzzle, but I was really pleased (I’m easily pleased!) that I finished it in 20 minutes, still with no idea about the answer to the clue. It was only when I read all the words that I realised – it was so easy really. Can you guess?

To get back to my other obsession – books – still to write about are The Woodlanders and Body Surfing. In what follows I do indicate what happens at the end of The Woodlanders, so if you don’t want to know, be wary.

I started reading The Woodlanders (a library book) a few weeks ago and at first I only read it in small chunks and it was only when I was well into it that I read it at more length. It certainly grew on me; so much so that I’ve now bought my own copy. The library book is a Penguin Classic publication (1981) with an introduction by Ian Gregor, a professor in English Literature. I’ve found before that it’s not a good idea to read an introduction before reading a book, as it often gives the plot away, which spoils it for me. So I don’t read it until I’ve finished the book itself. I think this intro is really good, I suppose because I agree with his analysis. My copy is an Oxford World’s Classic (2005 edition) with an introduction by Penny Boumelha, from the University of Adelaide, who has written widely on nineteenth century fiction. I look forward to reading her introduction to see how it compares.

What I particularly like about The Woodlanders is the way Hardy describes the landscape (the whole book is full of trees!) of Little Hintock in his fictional county of Wessex and integrates them with the characters. An example is his description of Giles Winterbourne as:

He looked and smelt like Autumn’s very brother, his face being sunburnt to wheat-colour, his eyes blue as corn-flowers, his sleeves and leggings dyed with fruit stains, his hands clammy with the sweet juice of apples, his hat sprinkled with pips, and everywhere about him that atmospheres of cider which at its first return each season has such an indescribable fascination for those who have been born and bred among the orchards.

There are so many beautiful descriptions of the woods I could quote them all day. Here are some extracts:

… trees, in jackets of lichen and stockings of moss … At their roots were stemless yellow fungi like lemons and apricots … Next were more trees close together struggling for existence, their branches disfigured with wounds resulting from their mutual rubbings and blows … Beneath them were the rotting stumps of those of the group that had been vanquished long ago, rising from their mossy setting like black teeth from green gums.

And:

It was an exceptionally soft, balmy evening for the time of year, which was just that transient period in the May month when beech trees have suddenly unfolded large limp young leaves of the softness of butterflies’ wings. Boughs bearing such leaves hung low around and completely inclosed them, so that it was if they were in a great green vase, which had moss for its bottom and leaf sides. Here they sat down.

At the heart of the book is the story of Grace, who has been educated out of her social class, returning to the woodlands and the interaction between her, her family and the two male characters, Giles, the woodman and Fitzpiers, the doctor, from an aristocratic background. Also interesting, are the details of the matrimonial law of the time and the portrayal of Victorian conventions of emotional and sexual relationships, so different from today. As Ian Gregor writes, ‘Grace’s concern for her reputation as a married woman, Giles’s self-effacing loyalty, literally to the point of death, strains credulity to the point of irritation.’ I didn’t find it irritating but I did find myself thinking during the section where Grace and Giles keep apart that this was not realistic – but maybe it was.

In complete contrast I was also reading Anita Shreve’s Body Surfing. I like Shreve’s books, but I didn’t think this was one of her best books. Interspersed with my reading of The Woodlanders, it provided a good illustration of how society has changed, both in attitudes to women and to social conventions. Sydney is a 29-year-old woman, who has been once widowed and once divorced. She spends a summer tutoring Julie, a teenage girl, in an ocean front cottage in New Hampshire. This location is the same setting as other Shreve novels – I feel now as though I know this house and its previous owners.

This is a book full of emotion as Julie’s brothers compete for Sydney’s affections and the tangle that follows, eventually unravels. Part of the reason I found this less satisfying than other books by Shreve is that it is written in the present tense, which I assume is supposed to make it more immediate and stream-of-consciousness stuff, as though you’re inside Julie’s thoughts maybe, but it just doesn’t work for me. Still, I do like the descriptions of the landscape in this book, so different from the Hardy landscape, for example:

On the porch, red geraniums are artfully arranged against the lime-green of the dune grass, the blue of the water. Not quite primary colours, hues only seen in nature.

Knife blades of grass pierce the wooden slats of the boardwalk. Sweet pea overtakes the thatch. Unwanted fists of thistle push upward from the sand. On the small deck at the end of the boardwalk are two white Adirondack chairs, difficult to get out of, and a faded umbrella lying behind them.

And finally, this is a book that kept my interest to the end and like The Woodlanders is a book that I’ll re-read one day.

May – Books of the Month

I’ve slowed down in my reading this month, partly because I’ve been blogging more, but also because some of the books have been long and detailed. So, I’ve read 6 books. The first one to be finished was The Giant’s House, which I’ve already written about. I read two non-fiction books – a biography Daphne by Margaret Forster and Alistair McGrath’s The Dawkin’s Delusion? which is a critique of Richard Dawkin’s God Delusion.

Daphne is an extremely well researched and informative account of Daphne Du Maurier’s life, taken from her letters and private papers, with personal memories of her from her children, grandchildren and friends. I didn’t realise until I started this that this year is the 100th anniversary of Daphne Du Maurier’s birth and my reading was enhanced by several broadcasts on the radio and television of dramatisations of her books, plus the excellent programme made by Rick Stein “In Du Maurier Country”, filming the locations of her books and interviews with her family. I’m also enthusiastic about Rick Stein’s books and programmes, (cookery for those who don’t know) – but I digress.

There is too much I could say about Daphne, not least that it is a candid account of her relationships, eg her troubled married life; wartime love affair; and friendships with Gertrude Lawrence and Ellen Doubleday, as well as an excellent source of information on Du Maurier’s method of writing and views on life. She doesn’t sound an easy person to live with or be related to, but that doesn’t detract from her passion for writing and Cornwall. Of course there is Menabilly and the biography gives so much detail of her love for the house and how she renovated and restored it that made me realise all the more how poignant it was when she had to give it up. What makes this book unforgettable for me is Forster’s eloquent way of writing, including so much detail, but never being boring or stilted, leaving me wanting to read on and on. And the book is illustrated with lots of photos.

In complete contrast to this is the Dawkin’s Delusion, which I borrowed from the library. I read Dawkin’s book earlier this year and didn’t have it to hand when I read this one (I’ve lent it to my son), so I had to rely on my memory of The God Delusion. I was interested to read what an Evangelical Christian had made of Dawkin’s book and wasn’t surprised – he didn’t agree with Dawkins! For an excellent review of Dawkin’s book have a look at Bill Hanage’s article “Them’s fightin’ words” on LabLit’s blog . I think I got more out of this article than from McGrath’s book.

Turning to the fiction, I read Blessings, by Anna Quindlen, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, Body Surfing by Anita Shreve and finally Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders.

Anna Quindlen is a new author to me. I came across her whilst reading Danielle’s blog. Blessings is a satisfying read about a baby abandoned outside “Blessings”, a large house owned by Lydia Blessing. The baby is taken in by Skip, the caretaker cum handyman-gardener, who looks after her at first in secret. The past of all the characters is slowly revealed and the effect that the baby has on them all. It’s a sad book over all, with regrets for what has happened in the past. I shall look out for more books by her.

As for The Thirteenth Tale, I have resisted buying this book, after reading either how fantastic people have found it, or how disappointing it is. The copy I read is a BookCrossing book I found in our local coffee shop. It took me some time to get into this book and I found myself being both reluctant to read it and yet unable to stop. It was only with the appearance of the governess that I found myself actually enjoying the book – and that is the second section. I usually give up on a book before then. Part of the problem I have with this book is that I couldn’t really like the characters, even Margaret, the narrator irritated me somewhat, even though she loves books. Another problem is the ending, which I found to be contrived. All in all, it is not a book I’ll read again and I’m going to release it back to its travels.

Which brings me to The Woodlanders. I borrowed this book from the library to read before continuing with Tomalin’s The Time-Torn Man. I enjoyed it so much that I went out and bought a copy for myself. I’ll post my thoughts in another post. This one has gone on long enough and the sun is shining!

Winchester, Jane Austen and Books

This is God Begot House in Winchester where D and I had coffee. The front is a modern restoration but the rest of the house, now a restaurant and coffee shop, is 16th century – a wonderful ceiling in the restaurant upstairs. There is so much to see in Winchester, spanning several centuries. Opposite God Begot House is the Old Guildhall(now a bank) largely rebuilt in 1713 and further down the High Street is the 15th century Buttercross.
We went in the City Museum on Minster Street, which is free entry and tells the history of Winchester from the Roman times onwards. As we wanted to spend much of our day in the Cathedral we didn’t do the Museum justice and would like to go back to look at it properly some time.
From the Musuem it’s just a short walk to the Cathedral and we were ages in there looking round. One of the guides was just starting a tour which we joined and I’m sure we got so much more information from him than if we had just gone round on our own using the Cathedral brochure. It’s so difficult trying to read and look at the same time.


For more information go to http://www.winchester-cathedral.org.uk/friends/

Jane Austen is buried in the Cathedral and we walked round to see the house where she lived for the last six weeks of her life and where she died on 18 July 1817. I have read most of her books and Pride and Prejudice has been my favourite since I was about 12 after seeing a BBC production then and reading my mother’s copy of the book.

There is an excellent bookshop just down the road from Jane Austen’s house and I just had to go in and browse.
I was really pleased to find copies of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, Margaret Forster’s Daphne Du Maurier, both of which I’ve been wanting to read for a while now. As I said I’ve read most of Jane Austen and this was one I didn’t know about until I read of it on A Work in Progress and both Margaret Forster and Du Maurier are also favourite authors. D found Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin which we’ll both read. I first read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings years ago when I was at Library School in Manchester when it was the book to read. The films just haven’t lived up to my expectations, apart from Gandalf that is, but I think films are always a let down if I’ve read the book first.

Decisions

What to read next? Three new books arrived this morning from Amazon – Body Surfing and On Chesil Beach to add to this pile of some of the books waiting to be read. Other books waiting to be read include numerous library books, which I have to keep renewing and may have to return unread. The third book is Rick Stein’s Guide to the food heroes of Britain, which I ordered thinking it was his Food Heroes recipes. Anyway it’s interesting, having info on local suppliers that were unknown to me.

I started Body Parts a while back and stopped when other books demanded to be read. The jacket blurb says it’s about exploring writers’ lives in connection with their works and includes essays on Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bowen and one entitled “Reading in Bed, which I’m known to do. Shall I pick this up again, or read The Thirteenth Tale? I’ve read both good and bad reviews of this and resisted buying it for some while now, but when I saw it in the local coffee shop as a BookCrossing book I just had to take it home to see what all the fuss was about.

Shall I opt for The Poe Shadow, seeking to solve the mystery of Poe’s death. A while ago I read The American Boy by Andrew Taylor, which was about Poe as a boy at school in England and The Poe Shadow could be a good follow up and then of course I could continue by reading Poe’s own Tales of Mystery and Imagination?

Or maybe I’ll go for some non-fiction with A N Wilson’s After the Victorians: the world our parents knew, another tempting read – the blurb on the back says it “is utterly compelling – erudite, intelligent and wise. Essential reading.” It certainly won’t be a quick read with over 500 pages, plus notes and a massive bibliography.

Or it could be the new Anita Shreve, or Ian McEwan – both favourite authors of mine, or Tracy Chevalier or Sarah Dunn – both unknown to me.

Now I have more time to stand and stare and read

I’ve been meaning to write more, both in this blog and in other writing, but somehow there’s always something else to do. Well, now I have time during the day and I will write. But, before that, yesterday was another sunny day, though cool out of the sun – there was no wind and it was perfect for a short walk. So D and I went off down the lane to a footpath crossing the fields for a gentle stroll. The views were clear and we could see for miles. We only went a short walk as we’re both somewhat unfit and took it easy, which was good as we saw and heard so much more than if we were striding out.

One thing in particular was impressive – along by the lake at the back of the local hotel in a small group of trees two pairs of herons are building nests at the top of two tall trees, over looking the lake. We stood and watched as one heron flew back and forth with twigs for the other in the nest to put in place, with much conversation between the two.

This made me remember that I have a CD to identify birdsong, which I must listen to. Before that, a short visit to the BBC website on our return to listen to birds such as blackbird, robin, great tit and wren made me realise how ignorant I am about birdsong. At least I can now recognise the robin who visits our garden regularly without having to see him.

Back to books – I’m in a ‘what shall I read next’ phase, as each book I start seems to be wrong. I recently finished Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Duncker, which I read through almost in one go. It’s about madness/sanity and the reader/writer relationship amongst other things and is really good, one of the better books I’ve read this year. I’d just finished Emotional Geology by Linda Gillard, which also concerns madness and last night I picked up Keeping Faith by Jodie Picault, which at the start seems also to be about madness – perhaps a bit too much of one theme at the moment – I’ll look for something else more cheerful. At present I’m reading Charles Kingsley’s Water-Babies; I think the version I read as a child was not this one – a ‘watered-down’ version maybe. Also ongoing are Persuasion by Jane Austen (a re-read, first read at school of A Level) and Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris, which has now taken preference over the others.