What I Talk About When I Talk About Reading

I’ve been thinking a lot about reading recently, after a reading fest on holiday over Christmas in which I chewed my way through four novels and finished off a fifth. You could say I’m a voracious reader, but I’m not. I used to be.

A phenomenon of recent years for me has been the loss of my reading ‘mojo’ – in times of stress I’ve found I lose my ability to concentrate on anything longer than a magazine article, or even a tweet. Novels are completely out of the question. The first time it happened to me I was really scared. All my life I’ve chain-read books – probably from the moment I discovered Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers I’ve had a book on the go, and my heaving bookshelves are testament to it. My heaving bookshelves are also a testament to how much reading I did through the nineties and noughties – there is a definite tail-off in the tenties and I blame the recurring loss of my Reading Mojo.

When, after that first episode, my RM returned I whooped for joy. Oh thank goodness. It was on holiday and I’d taken a few novels with me, just in case. Discovering Japanese author Haruki Murakami was the greatest joy – you could never experience the surreal world he creates with words in a movie or a TV show, which is what I’d turned to in a book-less world. I’d also taken Fifty Shades of Grey, which I have to say, with its terrible, laughable writing and implausible plotting, made me race through a novel in record time. So much so I wished I’d taken books two and three on holiday with me to feed the reawakening beast of my RM. At that time, E L James’s trilogy wasn’t a global phenomenon so I sat reading it in the hotel and on the beach in Turkey, the only one unashamedly brandishing the grey cover in public.

Straight after that holiday, the RM disappeared again but I realised what was causing it. The twin troubles of work/life stress and the distraction of social media. I knew that as soon as I prepared to read a novel in bed, I’d be checking my phone instead. I switched to reading an online newspaper which gave me the short bursts of reading material I could handle. I started to enjoy the writing of great journalists, especially female ones, and got into intelligent TV series like Breaking BadHouse of Cards or The Bridge. I could consume no end of ‘content’ but the desire for it stopped short of novels or narrative non fiction because they took too long to consume. I wanted my content fast and immediate.

Having once been an advocate of e-reading – I set up a digital list in my former job and believed that the whole world would go ‘e’ in a matter of years – reading e-books just didn’t do it for my mojo. Something was lost from the experience of reading Richard Burton’s diaries that I knew would come from having the book in my hands, continually turning to the cover image, the plate-section images or the back-cover copy, to supplement the world I was entering. I read about half before leaving it alone. It’s still unfinished.

I know lots of people who only read on Kindles and they tend to be the really voracious ones, who always have to be reading something. For me, it’s not just the act of taking in words from a page or a screen, it’s an immersive thing where exactly the right book has to be chosen, the physical setting around me has to be perfect and I have to be extremely comfortable. I can’t just sit on the sofa at home reading anything – I get bored and it’s not the most comfortable thing for me (my neck hurts). Rarely does a book capture me so much that I would sit on the sofa reading. Even now, writing this, I’ve left my current book, The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig, on my bedside table, preferring to sit with my laptop on the sofa while I contemplate what I’ve just done – lain in my warm bed with coffee for a couple of hours reading. Quietly. No distractions.

It’s such a rare thing that the RM keeps going after a holiday that I almost want to run around shouting for joy. I have to be careful about what I read next so I don’t scare it away again. Zweig is a master of storytelling and it is this that propels me on, as well as the joy of discovering his post-World War One Austrian world. I’ve always found foreign locations a really big reading-mojo turn-on.

I rarely read a novel that is based in the UK –  I mainly gravitate towards exotic locations and ‘other’ experiences and UK-based ones are too familiar. I credit Gabriel Garcia Marquez with this gravitation, as he was the start of my lifelong love of Latin American writing and magical realism. His death is the only author’s I’ve ever actually cried over. I credit him with changing the way my brain works in my late teens, with Love in the Time of Cholera. Since then, I’ve chewed through them all: Allende, Esquivel, Llosa, the more recent Junot Diaz, and Irish author Niall Williams who writes in the same tradition. My current passion for the surreal realism of Murakami fits with this trend of loving stories of ordinary life in exotic locations that are tinged with magic and the unexpected. I want my life to reflect all of those things.

And then there’s my passion for travel writing. I love joining an author – my favourite is Paul Theroux (Louis’ dad) – as he sets out on a journey into the unknown. I travel in my mind with them, every step of the way, and I’m overcome with post-holiday blues when the books end. Because men are more easily able to travel alone, most of the writers I read are single and male and I long for their unfettered freedom. I think that’s why I find them really enticing, and why I loved Cheryl Strayed’s Wild so much. She entered that realm and as a woman, she is a rare thing.

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts is probably my favourite cross-breed of writing – a true story ‘enhanced’ by the author with unexpected and extraordinary events. I don’t care that he’s embellished the story of his time in India – it’s still one of the best books I’ve ever read, and at one thousand pages long, I was surprised when I still didn’t want it to end.

With the recent return of my reading mojo, I was reminded how lucky I am to be able to access the world of writing when I learned that former model Alicia Douvall has only just learned the alphabet. In her mid-thirties. She appeared on Celebrity Big Brother (I watch crap TV when I’m not reading) and admitted that letters and shapes were new to her world. I can’t imagine a scenario where I wasn’t able to become immersed in the world that an author has created and I realised that it is a privilege. Whether it’s a journey, a magically enhanced world or a brilliant bit of social history, all of these things change the way my brain works and make me see the world in subtly different ways. Reading someone like Zweig, you realise you’re accessing the brain of someone who lives 100 years ago in post-Archduke Ferdinand Austria. How else could you do that? No amount of movies or TV is going to give you that unique insight into another human.

So for now, the Reading Mojo is back and I am grateful. Long live the Reading Mojo.

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The Enlightenment

Yesterday was a day that featured both the demise of Page Three in The Sun (unconfirmed) and a celebrity reality TV show featuring at least two former glamour models. Four of the female houseguests have had cosmetic surgery (five if you count the one that left earlier in the week) and one of them has had eighteen boob jobs and umpteen attempts to make herself look like Barbie with cosmetic surgery.

Call me a genius, but it doesn’t take much to see that there’s a connecting story here. I watched with horror as Alicia Douvall – she of the eighteen boob jobs – recounted that she’d only just learned ‘letters and shapes’ with her three-year-old daughter and that all that mattered to her was having great ‘tits’ and to be ‘fuckable’ to men. Oh dear god.

A male Twitter follower seemed surprised when he observed that Alicia’s self-esteem was clearly tied to being desirable to men. Well, yeah. Don’t men know that most straight women tie their self-esteem to being desirable to men from an early age and that we are encouraged to do so for the rest of our lives? It seems they don’t, and I am surrounded by well-meaning men of all ages who tell me that this sort of thing doesn’t exist. They genuinely don’t see it. They’re not in a world where it matters how fuckable they are but they constantly rate women on how desirable they are. It’s the Way Things Are.

I grew up in a household where The Sun and Titbits were the main sources of reading material. A typical ’70s upbringing involved watching Miss World with your dad, and all voting on the ones you thought were the prettiest ladies, commenting on their hips, their boobs, their hair. I loved it. I thought about which one of dance troupe Legs & Co I’d like to be when I grew up (Cherry Gillespie) and I looked at the Page 3 girls and hoped I’d look like Linda Lusardi when I was older. I blushed when various family members and friends would comment on my body – no part of it was left unscrutinised by the people that surrounded me, male and female. I’d say that started around the age of eight.

Even before her death in her 70s, my mum would still comment on my clothes, body, hair or face whenever I saw her. It was like a default setting and it is still a really common first point of conversation between women. You often get ‘nice hair’ or ‘did you lose weight?’ before you’re asked about your Actual Life. I now make a point of only saying stuff like that once all the important things are out of the way, but I still say it, mainly because I know it will boost the confidence of the woman hearing it.

In my twenties and thirties, once my crippling body-image problems had left me (go figure) I just got used to the running commentary on my appearance and I enjoyed the ‘game’ of being attractive to men. Like many young women, I looked for constant affirmation and got it from friends and passing strangers. I got a kick out of looking good and being sexually attractive. It was fun. It is fun. Losing a significant amount of weight in my late thirties gave me another confidence boost and the attention I got rocketed. I thrived on it for years.

It’s only recently, having done all the man-pleasing sexy dresses, heels and lingerie things, that I’ve realised what I was doing. And why I so don’t need to do it now. I don’t need male attention, approval or commentary to exist. Much of the commentary is designed to objectify you and confirm a sense of entitlement to your body, and it’s no longer something I would seek out.

I wonder if this sort of enlightenment only happens when you hit a certain age, and this is the reason why there is often a tension between younger and older women on the subject. Hearing Katie Hopkins and Michelle Visage suggest to Alicia Douvall in the Big Brother house that she could try just being herself, without the tits, seemed to demonstrate that nicely.

Often, young women (and men) hit back and accuse older women of being ugly, undesirable and just plain jealous of them. What if we can see what you’re doing and just want you to make you aware of what’s happening to you? In their desire to become sexually desirable both Alicia and Katie Price wrecked perfectly beautiful young faces and bodies. That, in my view, is a damn shame.

I think young women aspire to be Page Three models because it empowers them in a world where their primary currency is sexual desirability. I really am all for women owning their sexuality – god knows I do – and having the right to take an active part in the free expression of it, but I’d just like them to know the context in which they are doing it. Their bodies are the primary expression of womanhood in a national newspaper that is being viewed by eight-year-old Lisas who aspire to be them, and learn that their only currency is youth, beauty (in a narrowly defined sense) and sex. They should know that in the same newspaper, women are vilified for being as sexually active as men. The only acceptable face of womanhood is a meek, static, exposed one on Page Three.

By all means, be part of a world where female sexuality is celebrated in all its diversity – be part of the tribe of women who make money from their bodies in webcam accounts, table dancing, erotic imagery and female-friendly porn. Just know that this is a world where we are objectified and forced to fit a stereotype from an early age. Ask yourself if what you are doing is a free expression of your sexuality and the body you were born with.

Just ask the question.

 

 

Wild Women

This week, I wanted to write something in response to seeing Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild on the big screen, brought to life by Reese Witherspoon. More than any other book I’ve read, this story has resonated so much with me that I can’t believe someone has lived it and told it. I first heard the author reading it out loud on the radio and I was transfixed by it. Who was this woman singing my life with her words?

In her twenties, Cheryl set off on a journey of self-destruction, sleeping around and taking heroin, until she didn’t recognise herself. She cheated on her loving husband. When her mother died suddenly at 45 of cancer, she divorced her husband and decided to become the woman she told her mother she would be. She began with a baptismal trek through the wilderness – a 1,1000-mile hike along the US’s Pacific Crest Trail.

Now I’ve never done heroin (or any other hard drug for that matter) but I know what it is to walk out on a husband who is a nice guy, a safe pair of hands, and step out into the unknown. Something compels you to go and much of that has to do with living a life that your mother hoped you would live, or the one you think she wanted for you. For women in particular, it is a baton that gets passed on from generation to generation, even if they never vocalise it during a lifetime. There is an understanding that somehow you will improve on the life of the woman that created you, and that it is your duty to do so.

There is a point in the movie when Cheryl snarkily tells her mother,“I’m just so much more sophisticated than you were at my age.” Her mother retorts that that was always the plan. We constantly see ourselves reflected back and forth between generations of women, and although I’ve never had the privilege of having a daughter of my own, I feel the same way about my friends’ daughters, or young women among my group of friends.

It is always the plan. I know my mother wanted more for me than she had had herself, professionally, romantically, economically and everything-ally. And I have spent my life trying to make that happen, especially since she died sixteen years ago.

For me, the grieving for her mother in the movie was the note that struck home. In a series of flashbacks, we see Cheryl’s vibrant, playful mother, played by Laura Dern, making a life for herself and her children away from an abusive husband. She is a woman who decides to go to college at the same time as her daughter (the college runs a special mother-daughter scheme), and who sees herself as a mother first and foremost, an independent woman second. She passes the baton to Cheryl, who puts herself through an independence right-of-passage, on the infamous PCT.

My mother was an exceptionally bright woman who couldn’t go to college because the Second World War got in the way. She entered into a very happy marriage with a man she loved, but I could always tell she wanted to see me get more out of life than just being a housewife with kids. When I finally tore myself away from the family home at twenty-two to go to college, she vicariously shared in my academic and subsequent professional success every step of the way. I always felt as though every A* grade or job offer was a gift for her and in many ways, I’m still offering her my personal achievements. I think she’d have liked this blog.

The grief for her passing hit me like a steam train. I’ll never forget how physical it was – I felt as though a boulder had been strapped to my chest. I suddenly realised the real meaning behind getting things ‘off your chest.’ It sat there, pressing down on me, unwilling to move. For days I found I didn’t cry – I just moved around in a fug, unable to really grasp what had happened. My sister and I threw ourselves into the paperwork and logistics of sorting out a funeral – I still think all that stuff is put there deliberately just to keep you busy.

I remember going into her local supermarket in Wales a few days later, just to pick up a few things. I suddenly had a flashback of her standing there, holding a basket with a few strange things in it. A tin of salmon, a carton of yoghurt. That’s when the grief got me.

Cheryl Strayed had her moment on top of a mountain, as she watched her walking boots bouncing away down the side of it during a rest stop. She was left to construct some shoes to walk to the next town in, out of duct tape and a pair of sandals. But she carried on.

And this will sound like a cliché, but someone once told me clichés are there because they’re true. We are all wearing our mother’s shoes but at some point we have to construct a new pair of our own to walk in.