“The two central activities in my life — alongside writing — have been reading and gardening.” – Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively was born in 1933. She’s written over fifty books — novels for adults & children, plus some non-fiction. Life in the Garden is a collection of essays very like the series of gardening articles by the American writer Katherine S. White. Originally written for The New Yorker, White’s pieces were collected and published by her husband after her death in Onward and Upward in the Garden.

Both women, or should I say both gardeners, are refreshingly modern in their tone and approach. White wrote an entire essay dedicated to the experience of pouring over seed catalogs, while Lively isn’t above a sly aside on the influence Monty Don and Gardeners World have over the British planting public. I can’t imagine May Sarton ever being so gauche as to discuss the role of commerce in her garden – she never reveals where she bought her plants or what the local nurseries were stocking in their greenhouses that season. Sarton’s garden, we are expected to believe, was grown entirely from the clippings of memory left on the altar of her doorstep by friends and neighbors.

I’m being a bit unfair, but certainly Sarton expressed no interest in “the garden as a social indicator” — an idea Lively explores in suitably lively fashion. ūüôā She was in her seventies when she wrote Life in the Garden and had long since downsized from the Oxfordshire garden she tended with her husband Jack (who died in 1998 and whose memory is everywhere) to the more modest London plot she keeps today. Where before she and her husband employed Richard Taylor, who she calls “friend, collaborator”. “He and Jack would work together, in unceasing conversation; I would come out and find them paused, each leaning on spad or fork”. From Taylor she moves on to consider the preponderance of Scottish gardeners in literature. Wodehouse’s dour Angus McAllister waging war on the Blanding Castle slugs and Beatrix Potter’s fearsome Mr. McGregor, who Jack believed “to be a much misunderstood man”. These days Lively relies on a service which employs immigrant laborers rather than an individual whose calling has been passed down through the generations.

The two central activities in my life — alongside writing — have been reading and gardening. And there has been a sense in which the two have meshed: I always pay attention when a writer conjures up a garden, when gardening becomes an element of fiction. I find myself wondering what is going on here. Is this garden deliberate or merely fortuitous? And it is nearly always deliberate, a garden contrived to serve a narrative purpose, to create atmosphere, to furnish a character.

Lively, more than Sarton and White, connects gardens and literature — something I’d been craving since the start of this project. She opens her essay The Written Garden, with a description of the dreamt garden introducing us to Manderlay in DuMaurier’s Rebecca. She also discusses the fictional gardens found in the works of Elizabeth Bowen, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Carol Shields and several more writers I’d never heard of. Then, in the second half of this same essay, she switches to “the garden writing that is free of fictional purpose, concerned only with discussion, advice, celebration — the writing of those who garden.”

Life in the Garden is a short book, made up of six essays (seven if you count the introduction). Each reflects and is permeated with a lifetime of reading. This is distracting at times. The pages are filled with the names of authors and the titles of books, as well as descriptions of plants and planting schemes. Lively makes a seemingly endless series of connections and it can be a bit like reading a compendium or directory — each sentence opening up a rabbit warren of internet research. So much information comes at you and very little manages to stick. Fortunately, she has written the kind of book which you’ll want to pick up and re-read.

Books on gardening, whether they be practical how-tos, memoirs, or essay collections like this one, age well. Even when some of the advice has gone out of style, the components of the garden change very little over time or across regions — hardscaping, soil maintenance, planting beds, structural trees and shrubs, water features — these are still as much a part of our contemporary landscapes as they ever were. The same can be said of the plants.

Clematis appears a dozen times in Life in the Garden: in T.S. Eliot’s poems, on an Anna Pavord calendar, climbing up one of Vita Sackville-West’s apple trees and planted in a Giverny garden famous for its waterlilies. My clematis, which does not look particularly happy where I planted it (by the way), has inexplicably produced two big and beautiful white flowers. And in a weird way, it forms a tenuous connection between all those other gardeners and me. And when I think about that, about this love for and desire to interact with the natural world, I can’t help but wonder… how did they deal with the aphids?

We garden for tomorrow, and thereafter. We garden in expectation, and that is why it is so invigorating. Gardening, you are no longer stuck in the here and now; you think backward, and forward, you think of how this or that performed last year, you work out your hopes and plans for the next.

Title:  Life in the Garden
Author: Penelope Lively
Publisher: Viking (New York, 2017)
ISBN: 978-0525558392

Tech is playing havoc with my reading.

Lately, I’ve been having trouble focusing. I’m restless and nervous all the time. I’m constantly playing with my phone Рjumping from app to app; checking my Gmail; posting on Twitter; should I be posting on Litsy? check Litsy; did my table sell on Letgo? check Letgo; new episodes of my favorite podcast? download; listen to podcast; put phone down. Jump on internet or turn on the television. Anything I want to stream on Amazon Prime/Netflix/Hulu? Watch trailers. No. Turn off the television. Pick up a book. Read. Think of something to Google. Maybe I should be writing? Put down book, pick up phone. Open game. Play game until out of lives. Begin cycling through apps again.

Tech is playing havoc with my reading.

I’ve become obsessed with de-cluttering my house. The truth is that my head is crammed full of information/to-do’s/desires/ideas/regrets. Like a Japanese Zen garden (resist Googling Japanese Zen Garden Рsuccess) that’s littered with trash, I need to devise a slow and purposeful way to rake the sand clean again.

My phone is trying to addict me. Not really the phone – just like not opioids, not meth, not nicotine, not caffeine. Drugs are not viruses. They do not consciously recognize that they benefit from my addiction. Companies recognize the benefits. It is in Google‚Äôs/Facebook‚Äôs/Twitter‚Äôs/Amazon‚Äôs/Instagram‚Äôs/YouTube‚Äôs best interest if I don‚Äôt disconnect from my screen. There have been articles and studies (resist Googling synonyms for ‚Äúbuilt-in‚ÄĚ – success) explaining that tech companies build-in features to make their applications addictive, complete with psychological triggers and rewards in the form of likes, emojis, hearts, hearts that sparkle and pop (resist Googling articles and studies – fail) which make us feel seen. Everyone wants to be seen.

I like Star Trek‚Äôs version of the future. I bought a Google Home Hub because it came with two free minis. I already own a mini. Our house is small. A friend who works for a big tech company I‚Äôve already mentioned doesn‚Äôt own any home devices. His social media footprint is small. He‚Äôs surprisingly analog outside of work. Should I be paying attention to this? Does he know something I don’t? The Matrix wasn‚Äôt intended as metaphor and yet, metaphorically, I can‚Äôt help thinking we‚Äôve all voluntarily connected ourselves to the matrix. The film (resist Googling for ‚Äúthe matrix film‚ÄĚ – fail), released in 1999, is no longer a convincing depiction of the future. The tech has aged badly.

Fortunately, my addiction isn‚Äôt wreaking havoc on or disrupting my relationships, other than my perception of them (FOMO). But if it‚Äôs interfering with my reading life, an activity that brings me happiness, can I still say tech has improved my life? (Google ‚Äúbreaking tech addiction‚ÄĚ. Resist tinfoil hat paranoia – fail. Google ‚Äúquit smoking‚ÄĚ. Click on smokefree.gov. Substitute “screens” for “cigarettes”).

  • Make a Plan – Set limits in order to wean yourself off screens. This is something Cal Newport talks about in Deep Work (download audiobook from Audibles.com). Rather than schedule time off – the oft-cited tech hiatus – designate your time on. Beginner goal: keep screen surfing time to ninety minutes per day. Track in journal.
  • Stay Busy – Find meaningful projects to replace screen time. Plan things to do: books you want to read, write more, visit friends, go to the gym, work in the garden, take the dog for a walk. Gretchen Rubin recommends scheduling phone dates with long distance friends on her Happier podcast. I‚Äôve tried and find it a satisfying alternative to Facebook for keeping in touch.
  • Avoid Triggers – Limit impetuous searches. Write down the things you want to search and go back during designated screen time. Delete games. Gradually delete social media sites, starting with the ones you rarely use. Set Forest phone app (resist Googling ‚Äúphone apps to keep you off screen‚ÄĚ – success) for maximum minutes to discourage picking up phone. Use internet blocks when writing. Avoid SNL videos on YouTube. 
  • Stay Positive – Limit Instagram & Twitter use. Identify the kinds of online activity that makes you sad or nervous. If you feel disconnected, find offline ways to connect (yoga class, browse a book store, go to the park).
  • Ask for Help – Ask your partner to hold your phone for blocks of time. Ask close friends and family members to call if they need to reach you instead of texting. Go somewhere. Be around other people. And, (resist cliche – fail) recognize that other people will probably be staring at screens of their own.

A Quick Post On A Day Spent Reading, Fake Fireplaces & Sergio Pitol

I’ve set aside today to read. ¬†My usual routine for days like this is to make prodigious amounts of tea, put the “fireplace” video on the television and pretend I’m stranded in a Scottish Inn. The video operates under the same concept as the Yule Log. ¬†Which, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, is played during the holidays on public television – transforming¬†television screens across America into burning fireplaces. Classical music¬†plays as the logs burn down, though why they (by they I am of course referring to the visionaries who recognized the market demand a video of burning logs fills) can’t just use the crackling sounds of an actual fire is beyond me. The particular video I have access to also¬†includes artistic close-ups of portions of the fire, further destroying the illusion of your-tv-as-fireplace. ¬†We¬†can only assume this (along with the music) is¬†a balm to the filmmaker’s¬†artistic integrity, or perhaps a way to pacify the Gas Fireplace Manufacturers of America who might view televised fireplaces as¬†a competing market.

As usual there’s a stack of books I want to get to. ¬†At the moment my focus is on finishing Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight. He has a remarkable authorial¬†voice – and his personality shines through this and the first book of his Trilogy of Memory: The Journey. What I wanted to talk about, though, is the wonderful supplemental material Deep Vellum included with each book. ¬†Two Introductions ¬†– written by Enrique Vila-Matas (for The Art of Flight)¬†& √Ālvaro Enrigue (for The Journey).¬†¬†√Ālvaro Enrigue’s is your standard overview: explaining the¬†author’s work and its importance in an essay called¬†Sergio Pitol, Russian Boy. ¬†Vila-Matas’ introduction is a bit more personal. He draws¬†a wonderful portrait of Sergio Pitol in his own, very brief, essay entitled Pitol in the Rain. ¬†The two men (Vila-Matas & Pitol) are friends; and Vila-Matas mentions the little details, the small quirks of personality, which true friends treasure. Thanks to Vila-Matas we discover that Sergio Pitol is a bit of a hypochondriac and is continuously losing (and recovering) his eyeglasses.

‘I remember the day because there was a pounding rain and Sergio was constantly losing his glasses; the latter was not at all unusual, his penchant for losing and then finding his glasses being legendary. That day he lost them several times, in various bookstores and cafes, as if that were the perfect antidote for not losing his umbrella. I recalled the day that Juan Villoro had found in Pitol’s tendency to lose his glasses a clue to illuminating new aspects of his poetics: ¬†“Sergio writes in that hazy region of someone who loses his eyeglasses on purpose; he pretends that his originality is an attribute of his bad eyesight…”

Pitol in the Rain is only a few pages long, but every word is full of affection and friendship.  Readers are left in no doubt that Pitol is a man much loved by those fortunate enough to know him personally.

How often can biographies, let alone introductions and afterwards, make that claim? I often find that the more I learn about an author the more disillusioned I become. ¬†But, from what I’ve read so far – The Journey in its entirety and a good portion of The Art of Flight – Pitol is far from a bad boy or glamorous member of the Literati. ¬†Though he seems to have come in contact, and frequently developed lasting relationships, with some of the most important writers of the times his writing is amazingly scandal and gossip free. ¬†His anecdotes are amusing because¬†he finds them amusing, and always good-naturedly so. I get the feeling the members of the Algonquin Round Table would find him a bore and he¬†would feel the same of them. ¬†He lacks their sting, yet is as charming as any one of them could wish¬†to be.

George Henson’s translation captures the author’s lightness and guileless enthusiasm for life and literature. He’s also done an admirable¬†job of keeping the strand of Pitol’s prose from becoming tangled in the author’s convoluted labyrinth of memory. Henson, too, seems to have succumbed to Sergio’s charm despite their having never met. ¬†In the translator’s note Henson describes¬†the pressure of translating without an author’s collaboration. ¬†Particularly when the author¬†is a much celebrated translator, himself. ¬† He explains the reason for the absence of authorial input¬†(which I won’t go into) and ends the paragraph with an email he received from Pitol (which I will) – “Your interest in my work fills me with happiness and gratitude. I would love nothing more than to see my Trilogy of Memory translated into English, a language I adore and in which none of my books exist.”

I found those two sentences incredibly touching, – particularly the words happiness, gratitude and adore. The more I read the more it becomes apparent that Pitol possessed a rare and self-effacing intelligence. Those three words are¬†representative of the author, or at least how I’ve come to think of him¬†through the his books.¬†Many things seem to have filled Sergio Pitol with adoration, happiness and gratitude. ¬†We can all be grateful that he took the time to write some of those things down.

The Politics of Reading

Sometimes Twitter seems designed to irritate. Courtesy of social media I find myself clicking on links to articles I’d never see, on sites I’d rarely visit, in the normal course of events. It seldom ends well. Usually I keep my opinions to myself but I found this one post particularly frustrating. Because reading a book is not a political act.  At its best it can be an act of political engagement that leads to political action.  The distinction may seem to be an argument in semantics, but is not.

Just to demonstrate how flawed the logic behind this post actually is, here’s a quick example:  Just because The Hunger Games trilogy deals with the concepts of war reparations,  income inequality, propaganda, spectacle used to control the masses and social revolution doesn’t make you a political activist just because you read the books. If you were to write a paper or an article, link the film to a cause and use it as a bridge to inspire & inform Рthen maybe.  But for any of those things to happen you must read with an intent other than pleasure & escapism. You must make a decision to take action.

And not all books are political. Historical romance novels make great escapist reading but the vast majority have no viable or actionable political content whatsoever. Authors like Neil Gaiman, Stephen King & Arthur Conan Doyle are great writers, every one.  Finding a political message in their books and short stories is going to be a stretch.

Please don’t misunderstand¬†– pleasure & escapism are as valid reasons as any to read a book. But the belief that you can passively engage in politics is, in my opinion, a dangerous one. It fosters complacency. ¬†At worst it encourages it.

As in everything else in life a choice exists. A certain amount of active engagement is necessary. Do you as a reader seek out books with a political message – whether subtle or overt? Do the books you read lead you to further explore an idea, a piece of history or a culture? Do you seek out diversity – books written by women, people of color, small presses, self-published, translations? Do the books you read spark discussions on different issues and ideas? Have they led you to support a cause? Or to question your lifestyle? Do they sometimes challenge your beliefs?

I find this post frustrating partly because I don’t believe the idea it professes to support Рthat reading is political Рis actually the argument the author of the post wanted to make.  What I believe she is arguing against is the idea that politics somehow taints the experience of reading. That a reader who chooses to avoid a book because they believe it is political Рor refuse to engage in the political component of a book because they dislike the idea of politics Рis making a mistake. Politics plays a part in the plots of many of the books we read (though not all) and these books, inevitably, influence our decisions. They shape our opinions.  Readers should embrace rather than avoid this reality.

Because “politics” in and of itself is not a dirty word.

n. 1520s, “science of government,” from politic (adj.), modeled on Aristotle’sta politika “affairs of state,” the name of his book on governing and¬†governments, which was in English mid-15c. as “Polettiques.” Also see -ics.

Reading with political action in mind (or at the very least being open to political theory in what we read) sounds¬†boring – even to me. Or, as is too often the case, divisive. Particularly if you equate politics to Republicans & Democrats, the Right & the Left, Conservative & Liberals, and all those labels that start those god-awful arguments with Uncle Bill during the holidays. ¬†But political parties ¬†– “political allegiances or opinions” as the quote above says – ¬†and politics were not always synonymous. Politics was originally meant to help us navigate our relationships with one another on a macro scale. ¬†To help us find the best way to function as a society. To¬†help us decide whether it is better¬†to help each other or just¬†ourselves.

And even overtly political books don‚Äôt always have to be depressing. Or divisive. ¬†Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn is full of hope. ¬†It is inspirational. The authors work to empower women ¬†and believe that the act of empowering women will make the world a better place. ¬†Best-sellers like¬†Reading Lolita In Tehran and Nine Parts of Desire look at the role of women in society – Muslim society in these instances – with the goal of understanding rather than condemning.¬†¬†Is it so inconceivable to see yourself doing something as small as googling “microloans”¬†or even buying a scarf from a program like¬†Global Goods Partners, inspired by one of these books? A small step, true, but a step nonetheless.

What about novels? ¬†Can fiction inspire political action? Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Grapes of Wrath are two historical examples of books that impacted society. ¬†Need more contemporary examples? ¬†His Own Man by Edgard Telles Ribeiro might have you re-thinking the U.S.’s policy in Central & South America. ¬†The Man With the Compound Eye (about a boy from a mysterious island who lives for a time on a floating island of trash)¬†and The Healer¬†(set in a apocalyptic future) both deal with environmental issues and still remain entertaining/enjoyable reads. Honor by Elif Shafak deals sensitively with the often difficult and complicated subject of the familial relationships of¬†Muslim immigrants. And anything at all by Margaret Atwood falls withing the category of “stories-with-a-message” that I’ve been¬†describing.

Reading is about entertainment, yes, but it is also about empathy; about exploring experiences & perspectives that are different from our own. To me the one (politics) seems entirely congruous with the other (reading). But whether they influence and effect each other Рin turn influencing and effecting our lives as readers and citizens Рis a separate matter entirely.  It is a conscious decision we need to make as individuals. Perhaps, even, a call to action.

What Do Margaret Wise Brown & Georges Perec Have In Common?

At what age do we as readers start requiring linear narratives? And demand that all books tell us stories?

Title:  An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris

Author:  Georges Perec

Translator:  Marc Lowenthal

Publisher:  Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2010)

ISBN:  978 0 9841155 2 5

 

WakefieldExhausting4At what age do we as readers start requiring linear narratives? And demand that all books tell us stories?

Margaret Wise Brown‚Äôs iconic Goodnight Moon has been a bedtime staple for decades. ¬†If you didn‚Äôt have it read to you as a child then you have almost certainly read it as an adult to a child in your life. ¬†I‚Äôve yet to attend a baby shower where there wasn’t at¬†least one copy – if not multiples – unwrapped. ¬†Adults discovering or rediscovering Goodnight Moon¬†often express surprise at the¬†sophistication of this little book. ¬†The rhythm of the prose, the way the room in the illustrations grows darker as the pages are turned, and the insertion of ‚ÄúGoodnight nobody, goodnight mush‚ÄĚ (a surreal moment if there ever was one) – these things speak of¬†an author who was interested in non-linear narrative and experimental literature.

For this all to make sense it‚Äôs important to understand that there‚Äôs more to Margaret Wise Brown and her books than meets the eye. ¬†She was a product of the modernist period in art and literature.* ¬†In the early 1930‚Äôs she worked as a teacher at the Bank Street Experimental School in New York City. ¬†At that time this cutting edge school‚Äôs focus was on early childhood education & development. She studied how children used rhymes to develop language. Sometimes, as in the case of her ‚ÄúNoisy Book‚ÄĚ series, she would use the children as a kind of focus group and adjust some of the words based on their reactions & suggestions. ¬†Toddlers¬†would be shown picture book illustrations and teachers would time how long the pictures¬†held their¬†attention. ¬†The Bank Street School was the epicenter of what became known as the golden age of children’s literature. And most of the ideas in Margaret Wise Brown’s¬†books can be traced back to¬†what she learned there.

 Goodnight Moon tells no story, per se.  There are no character arcs.  No morals explained. No dialogue. At the most basic level Goodnight Moon is a catalog of the items in a single room. And, yet, lovers of the book are as  familiar with the contents of that room as they are of any room in their own home.

What no one ever really discusses (and why should they? This is a children’s book we‚Äôre talking about) is the quiet, haunting quality¬†of Brown‚Äôs writing. ¬†There is none of the joyful silliness or made up rhymes you find in Dr. Seuss. ¬†Or the reassuring sentimentalism found in many stories written for the very young. Goodnight Moon is poetry – childish, simplistic, naive – but poetry nonetheless.

…goodnight to the old lady

whispering ‚Äúhush‚ÄĚ

Goodnight stars

Goodnight air

Goodnight noises everywhere

 

In words a small child can understand Brown describes the line between consciousness and sleep.  The gradual loss of consciousness.  Eyes open in the dark, even after the moon disappears behind the clouds, you can still see the stars. Close your eyes and listen to the sound of your breathing. Then sleep and then silence. This sixty-one page children’s book has been many a child’s first experience with a concrete representation of the forward passage of time, even if the passage spans only 15 minutes.

The charms of Georges Perec‚Äôs An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris are not so far removed from Goodnight Moon as one would think. It is a catalog of the things that the author sees and hears while sitting in place Saint-Sulpice. People and dogs passing, flocks of¬†pigeons, the sound of church bells, changing of streetlights and the endless waves¬†of city buses. It should be boring. There’s no story to speak of. No sense of narrative progression. No dialogue or ideas. ¬†None of the things we are told make literature. And yet, somehow, Perec‚Äôs writing moves beyond a catalog of people, animals and things to capture the rhythms of life and time. ¬†When he recognizes¬†the writer Jean-Paul Aron (translated to John-Paul, which seems a bit over-zealous) walking¬†by and then, later, walking by again, you perk up. ¬†Because a name has been assigned to one of the many¬†pedestrians passing by your¬†window. ¬†The buses begin to lose their anonymity – they become the 96, the 87 and the 63 – their appearance jumping out from¬†the text. ¬†And as the day draws to an end the sun sets and the lights in the buildings grow brighter.

The light is beginning to fade, even if this is still barely noticeable; the red of the stoplights is increasingly visible.

Lights come on in the cafe.

Two buses, Cityrama and Paris-VIsion, are unable to get by each other. The Cityrama eventually takes rue Bonaparte, the Paris-Vision would like to take rue du Vieux-Colombier. Policeman no. 5976 (‚ÄúMichel Lonsdale‚ÄĚ), at first confused, eventually grabs his whistle and intervenes – effectively, in fact.

A man walks by with his nose in the air, followed by another man who is looking at the ground.

A man with a can of Ribolin goes by.

people people cars

An old lady with a very beautiful Sherlock Holmes-style waterproof fitted coat

The crowd is dense, almost no more lulls

A woman with two baguettes under her arm

It is four thirty

 

As I said: there is no story in An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris. In place of narrative Perec offers experience. Evokes a sense of place. We inhabit his senses Рa brief possession. A windy, rainy day. Fading light. The world waking up on Sunday morning. As I write these things down I can’t help wondering how accurately he described what he saw. How much editing and revising happened afterwards.  Or whether accuracy even matters. Perec accomplished a far more difficult task than simply cataloging a place in Paris. On these pages he captured the relentless, forward progression of time and transformed it into poetry.

 

*In 1936 M√©ret Oppenheim’s Fur Covered Tea Cup was a part of the¬†“Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. ¬†Brown’s book, Little Fur Family was published ten years later. ¬†The first edition was covered in real rabbit fur.