Do you have time to read?

A frequent preoccupation, I think about how my Summer of reading might pan out

I have mulled over how Mum’s get time to read before because it is a constant battle. Ultimately, though I love to write and journal, my deepest, longest love has been reading. Often it is escapism. I have been having a real Edwardian fad recently, listening to The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton and The Little Ottley’s books by Ada Levenson on Librivox. Along with my current vogue for the PG Wodehouse collections Stephen Fry is narrating on Audible, I have been experiencing a world of manners and often comic sensibilities. Even with House of Mirth which is frankly tragic I have found a soothing place to escape to. Though these books are not unproblematic, depicting views reflective of their time that are uncomfortable, most of the times we can be swept away by this historic and yet somehow modern era of feisty women, feckless men and ridiculous social mores that people break with mostly little consequence.

This has been a new part of my resolve to read more. To acknowledge that audiobooks count as reading. How strange that I have held myself to such a strict standard for so long. But then if you had told me at University when I stacked my beloved library desk with piles of books and photocopied chunks of essays, that I would have an electronic reader now, I would have been shocked and saddened. Declaring then that there was nothing like “real” books. I still find grand libraries heavenly, particularly where the stacks are filled with beautifully bound books, and you can browse for hours. It will never stop my heart from soaring, but this is not my everyday life. I graduated fifteen years ago and though I love a research trip, they are not often.

An ereader has been essential to reading more. I can flick between the Kindle app on my phone and my device. I always have a book with me and can pick up whenever I do get a chance. Generally this does involve my son playing on the iPad and I suppose I may never win the war of screen time if I am always on my phone – reading or not. In addition to having access to all my library, I can chop and change as I like. I have always been someone to read different books at one time. Now I acknowledge this about myself without guilt. It’s often about mood. Just as I have been seeking something soothing in recent tired times, there has been other times where I have wanted something deeper or heavier to read (looking at you Hilary Mantel). Switching is so easy now I carry my library around, I wish I hadn’t taken so long to read this way.

And speaking of switching between books, the biggest freedom I given myself over the last few years is simple: I don’t always finish books. As a practice, it feels like giving up or failing. But what precious time I have I need to give to what grabs me. As I wrote in my post about books I didn’t finish, it is frequently about timing. Wintery books are for Winter, some time you’re too bone-tired to concentrate, other times you getting obsessed with a certain era. By not forcing myself to read something that hasn’t wrested my attention away from the world, I do read more. Maybe not of whole books but of a greater breadth, exploring more and letting my whims take me.

I still think that having a goal helps, as I reflected before, the Goodreads reward system helps keep me motivated. Odd to think I need to be motivated to do something I enjoy the most but such is my fickle, distractable brain. By thinking ahead to Summer reading and tracking my progress, I am giving myself the chance of prioritising some energy for escaping into a good book this Summer. Shortly, I will be picking my son up from school as the term ends so here are my Summer picks I aim to make time for this year.

How do you make time to read what you want?

Inspiration is like magic

Is inspiration so ethereal that it can run away from you?

I am worried that inspiration whisks away in the time I take to grab hold of an idea. I have been reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. She believes firmly that you have to open yourself to creativity and grab inspiration when it strikes.

I have written before how I think inspiration is everywhere. In fact it is very easy for me to get caught in a new idea. I have tried and tested ways of getting them down into snippets, sometimes if it is a character, I may write them a short story. And if I feel stuck, I just look around and start writing about what I see. That may not be a very inspired practice but I tend to find that as I start to write what I see, my imagination will follow. She will tell me what a character might do in a circumstance or ask me to see how I feel in that moment, so that I flit into a different perspective.

But Elizabeth Gilbert doesn’t just tell us to be open to pure inspiration, she tells us to be ready. She tells us to work at them. She concedes you need many things to be ready. A sense of artistic entitlement that you absolutely have permission to be creative. A practice of working with what life throws at you, rather than resist it. As the quote below explains, ideas are out there, they are…

energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us—albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual.

Elizabeth Gilbert

Big Magic is a very inspiring thesis to read. It tells you to get on with it. And if we follow the logic of her idea: the Universe wants me to know this right now. Our lessons, inspiration, come along at the right moment and are they are there to help us. And so this book coming along and telling me to grab the ideas because they will spring away is exactly what I need to hear.

It is also terrifying! My time is limited, my energy levels are pretty low, as I have explained. What do I do if these ideas float through the window and I am distracted or napping?

I think sometimes it might be about letting something go. An idea that has gone stale will get lost in a quagmire. As she says, “Done is better than good.” She reminds us we have to practice and sometimes we have to let it go. Kill your darlings, know what is still fresh and get on with it.

I have found her book a really good boost to my writing though I haven’t been able to do much. I like how she too is fascinated by creativity and where it springs from.

Have you developed your creativity based on Big Magic?

  • Looking for Bright Spots
    How taking more mindful walks can help Enjoying a mindful walk in my neighbourhood, I often take a random picture of something I like: a flower or a tree in bloom, a kite caught in wires. Reflecting on my gallery from the Summer, I can see the optimism I have tried to find in my … Continue reading Looking for Bright Spots
  • Autumnal Ambitions
    Planning to be a bit more productive in my favourite season As soon as I get a sense of the sharper cold of autumn in the air, I get excited. I have written before there is really no better season to get inspired. A time of finding inspiration in nature and curling up in warm … Continue reading Autumnal Ambitions
  • Time to Unplug
    Usually my ideas come easily, just my time is short. At the moment I am a little short on both so I am unplugging for a while. See you after the break.

Earliest Reading Memories

Do vivid images of the first novels you read haunt you?

Relistening to classic novels recently, I am struck by the fondness I have for certain books that I have returned to over the years. Through a myriad life experiences, I have come again to Jane Eyre – the first classic I ever read- and other favourites such as Great Expectations and Wuthering Heights. And listening in the last few weeks it strikes me that the same images come straight to mind that I think I first had as a child.

I vividly remember the first time I envisioned Miss Havisham’s wedding cake. The greyed and dank room as oppressive to me as a child as it is now. Dickens writes that the…

…centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite indistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies run home to it, and running out from it…

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

No wonder I have had life long arachnophobia. The rotten core at the heart of respectability that Pip longs for fascinates us throughout the novel . Though the jilted bride hits differently now, I can’t help marvel that it still has the power to creep me out.

Jane Eyre as I have written about before remains one of my favourites so I struggle to say which scene remains most vivid. Her slap of John, the demise of poor Helen all have a life long resonance. I think probably the terror of the red room, – in my mind’s eye still not the rich red of velvet but more bloodred scarlet, – remains with me from my first reading.

Found here, a depiction of the red room that chimes with the red in my mind’s eye

Now I read this book very differently. Hardly surprising. Wild Sargasso Sea, a retelling from the perspective of Bertha, the essay The Mad Woman in the Attic, was written in the 1960 so this novel has long had a questionable commentary about race. As with Wuthering Heights I have discomfort now with some of the descriptions. Jane Eyre has a Bertha Mason described as “a clothed hyena” and she is wholly othered by the novel. In the novel the portrayal of her race and mental state seem to be connected. Heathcliff an “untamed creature” is described using epithets that describe his race ambiguously and problematically. And if course it’s depiction of domestic violence grows more uncomfortable with age, even as we celebrate our strong heroine.

But somehow, though I may analyse and wrestle with my thoughts about these novels (I am an English graduate, afterall,) I still return to them. It strikes me how important a powerful image is to hook the reader. And given my back catalogue of haunted houses, dark moors and madness, it’s hardly surprising I love gothic fiction best of all.

Certain scenes are truly like replaying a movie which I find at once both remarkable that these books impacted my life so much, and a comfort. Though it is right to interrogate this fiction, a re-read will always be a home-coming of sorts.

I would love to know what images remain from your childhood reading list? Do you think they influence you to this day?

REVIEW: The Eagle Tree

The Eagle Tree by Ned Hayes

The Eagle Tree is a heartening novel by Ned Hayes about opening your eyes more fully to the world around you. Peter March Wong is a teenager on the autistic spectrum with a deep passion for trees. He learns about a local ‘old growth’ tree, nicknamed “The Eagle Tree” and plans to climb the behemoth. As he gets closer to the tree and his goal, he learns this magnificent tree and its surrounds will be felled for housing. This is March’s story of trying to climb to the highest tree and reach new heights in many areas of his life.

Told from March’s perspective throughout, Ned Hayes does an amazing job of capturing the cadence of March’s distinct voice, obsessively observing the trees around him. What struck me was this author has really understood the depths to which these special interests, though often learnt by rote, preoccuopy the thoughts of the person. Though it may seem like a bundle of facts, as we see throughout this novel, a person’s passion can lead to deep connections. I loved this about this novel. We talk about repetitive behaviour and special interests often as if they are a problem to be solved, whereas they can be really be celebrated.

In this novel March’s obsessions allow him to make new relationships, and as he meets others who are interested too in saving the environment, we start to see how the world opens up for him. But also that he widens the world for others, both his vicar and therapist have moments where they show how much they have learnt from him. This positive note is so heartening, as a mother of a child on the autistic spectrum I do appreciate the hopeful message of the novel. It’s impossible not to think too of Greta Thurnberg when I read this novel and her amazing work. A young woman also on the spectrum, she has used her passion to ignite the world on these pressing environmental issues. Both this fictional character and real life person achieve so much because of their neurodiversity, rather than inspite of it which is more often the story told.

Although I really felt that this novel reaches to represent living on the autism spectrum well, there are moments of incredible sadness in the novel. Perhaps because we learn of them in drips of information via March, it is upsetting to see in some areas of his life, he is not helped to understand why his actions are dangerous or could harm him. In the final chapter, in particular, I was at once incredulous and frustrated by the jeopardy in the novel.

Overall I really feel this is a positive novel which will uplift and inform people. I am passionate about trees too and learnt so much from March that I can forgive some of the sensationalism near the end. I think this was the perfect book to end the year on. It is hopeful about human endeavour and speaks to the climate emergency which should preoccupy us all.

If you like this, I also recommend another book about a neurodiverse character Elvira Carr The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr by Frances Maynard

REVIEW: Wakenhyrst

I have written of my love of gothic fiction before and Michelle Paver’s recent bestseller is a new favourite

Wakenhyrst is a gothic mansion hidden in the fenlands of Suffolk near where I recently spent a week away so I was very happy to make this one of my first autumn reads. Suffolk is an area full of myth, it’s the perfect spot for this tale of horror, both imagined and real. As the blurb describes, the house is surrounded by” a glinting wilderness of water whose whispering reeds guard ancient secrets. Maud is a lonely child growing up without a mother, ruled by her repressive father. When he finds a painted medieval devil in a graveyard, unhallowed forces are awakened.” The old manor house, this one being encroached on by the smell and damp of the fen, is full of great cast of characters whose lives are unravelled by the discovery of the painting.

I was a bit confused at first whether this novel was going to lurch back and forth between the 1960s journalist writing about Wakenhyrst and the fin-de-siecle setting but we find this is in fact just the framing for Maud’s story. She becomes our protagonist and we grow with her as she matures and manages to understand more about her father, Edmund Stearne, the villain of the piece.

Stearne is haunted by his discovery of a painting and also by his scholarship into Alice Pyett, a fictionalised version of Margery Kemp. In his pursuit to understand Alice’s visions, as well as her apparent madness, his own mental health seems to deteriorate. The gap between what both he and Maud believe is happening and their differing beliefs about both religion and folklore all make for a compelling mystery. You find yourself racing through to find out the truth. I can imagine I will need to read it again to capture all the detail.

I enjoyed the level of detail that went into many aspects of their lives: the artwork, local customs, the landscape and the food they eat. All of these make it feel like you are in knowledgeable hands and that the writer is enveloping you in this world she has found.

The characters in the novel, particularly through Maud’s eyes are often comical and I enjoyed meeting the repugnant doctor and lascivious Ivy. The psychological nature of this novel really appealled to me and though many of the characters are often villianous, it also feels they are grounded in truth.

I wasn’t completely sure why we needed to follow the story of Maud into later life. Many parts of the mystery unfolding were exciting enough and I expected the novel to end before it did. I did really enjoy the novel but it was the historical part of the fiction that was the best for me.

I would definitely recommend this novel for fans of gothic fiction and folklore.

If you like this, you will also like:

The strong and sassy female lead in The Mermaid and the Bear. Set amongst the witchcraft hysteria in 17th century Scotland, this is also full of fascinating details of the time and great historical fiction. My review is here

In The Night Wood by Dale Bailey the main character is an academic studying an old manuscript of fairy stories that comes to haunt him. This time the manor house is set in great woods, but just like the fen in Wakenhyrst, they it starts to encroach on the tumbledown manor.