Best Reads 2013. IX: Julian Barnes, The Pedant in the Kitchen

Julian Barnes, The Pedant in the KitchenHaving recently read The Sense of an Ending and Levels of Life, I couldn’t resist Julian Barnes’s ruminations on cooking, cookbooks, recipes, entertaining guests etc. And I haven’t regretted it either, for this has turned out to be an entertaining read that has managed to take my mind off other, more troublesome things. Just what I needed therefore!

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

I once bought an eel from a Chinese fishmonger in Soho, carried it home on the Northern Line, and then realized my next job was to skin it. This is what you have to do: nail it to a door-frame or other substantial wooden part of your dwelling, make an incision on either side of the neck, take a pair of pliers in each hand, grip the two cut pieces of skin, put your foot against the door level with the eel’s head, and slowly haul back the skin, which is firm and elasticated, like a dense inner tube. Afterwards I was glad to have done it. Now I shall know how to proceed if forced to survive somewhere with only an eel, two pairs of pliers, and a door-frame for company; but I don’t otherwise need the activity to be central to my life.

As any domestic cook who’s ever made [a risotto] knows, it’s virtually impossible to do anything during the final twenty minutes or so except stir, add liquid, worry; stir, add liquid, worry, and so on. At best you might have time to leave the hob just long enough to shake an ice-cube into a de-stressing drink; normal sociability is quite out of the question.

… don’t get me wrong. I quite want to cook some of what Mr Blumenthal proposes: though when he tells me that the best way of cooking a steak is to flip it every fifteen seconds, making thirty-two flips in all for its eight-minute cooking period, I am inclined to wonder who will be minding the chips and mushy peas while I flip four steaks 128 times, so I say Pass.

And then there’s Barnes’s definition of cooking:

Cooking is the transformation of uncertainty (the recipe) into certainty (the dish) via fuss.

Quite!

Best Reads 2013. VIII: Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom

Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of LoveThis is one of the lesser known books by the late Dutch Roman Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, best remembered perhaps for books such as The Return of the Prodigal Son and The Wounded Healer. In the former, he briefly talks about giving up his distinguished academic career in order to work with people with mental disabilities at the L’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto. In The Inner Voice of Love, Nouwen reveals that, during his time at L’Arche, he suffered a severe breakdown lasting about six months, a period he describes as the most difficult time of his life. It was, he says, ‘a time of extreme anguish, during which I wondered whether I would be able to hold on to my life’.

I felt that God had abandoned me. … The anguish completely paralysed me. I could no longer sleep. I cried uncontrollably for hours. I could not be reached by consoling words or arguments. I no longer had any interest in other people’s problems. I lost all appetite for food and could not appreciate the beauty of music, art, or even nature. All had become darkness. Within me there was one long scream coming from a place I didn’t know existed, a place full of demons.

The breakdown was triggered by the loss of a close friendship, which Nouwen describes in moving terms:

Going to L’Arche and living with very vulnerable people, I had gradually let go of many of my inner guards and opened my heart more fully to others. Among my many friends, one had been able to touch me in a way I had never been touched before. Our friendship encouraged me to allow myself to be loved and cared for with greater trust and confidence. It was a totally new experience for me, and it brought immense joy and peace. It seemed as if a door of my interior life had been opened, a door that had remained locked during my youth and most of my adult life.

When that friendship came to an end, Nouwen ‘lived through an agony that never seemed to end’. But, he says, he never lost the ability to write. Indeed, writing became part of his ‘struggle for survival’, and so he kept a secret journal, which was to be published years later as The Inner Voice of Love.

In this book, Nouwen describes how the loss of that friendship ultimately deepened his love of God, and how his suffering taught him compassion for others. There are many profound insights in these reflections on issues such as wounds and pain, friendship, love and compassion, God and spirituality, loneliness and transformation, the body, emotions and incarnation, community and living up to one’s calling.

The following quotes, offered without further comment and presented simply in the order in which they appear, give an illustration of the richness of Nouwen’s thought:

… those who seem to reject you … never speak about you. They speak about their own limitations. … They simply ask for your compassion.

Your willingness to let go of your desire to control your life reveals a certain trust. The more you relinquish your stubborn need to maintain power, the more you will get in touch with the One who has the power to heal and guide you. … As long as you run from where you are and distract yourself, you cannot fully let yourself be healed.

It is important that you dare to stay with your pain and allow it to be there.

When your deepest self is connected with the deepest self of another, that person’s absence may be painful, but it will lead you to a profound communion with the person, because loving each other is loving in God. When the place where God dwells in you is intimately connected with the place where God dwells in the other, the absence of the other person is not destructive. On the contrary, it will challenge you to enter more deeply into communion with God, the source of all unity and communion among people.

There is a real pain in your heart, a pain that truly belongs to you. You know now that you cannot avoid, ignore, or repress it. It is this pain that reveals to you how you are called to live in solidarity with the broken human race.

… real healing comes from realising that your own particular pain is a share in humanity’s pain. That realisation allows you to forgive your enemies and enter into a truly compassionate life.

The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking them through. It is better to cry than to worry, better to feel your wounds deeply than to understand them …

It is you who decides what you think, say, and do. You can think yourself into a depression, you can talk yourself into low self-esteem, you can act in a self-rejecting way. But you always have a choice to think, speak, and act in the name of God and so move towards the Light, the Truth, and the Life.

There is much in this book, which I discovered quite by chance and only recently, that I can relate to in deep and profound ways. Nouwen’s journey from anguish to freedom is also one from hurt and pain to love and compassion, and that goal of a loving and compassionate life, while not making the hurt and pain any easier to endure, can give deep meaning to our struggles.

Best Reads 2013. VII: Anne Carson, Red Doc>

Anne Carson, Red Doc>Anne Carson. Red Doc>. The sequel to Autobiography of Red. It doesn’t often happen that I preorder books that have not yet been published. This one I ordered as soon as I knew it was coming out. Autobiography of Red, which I must reread soon, had been a reading experience like no other, and so I had been looking forward to Red Doc>. I half expected to be disappointed though, for how could anything measure up to Autobiography?

So has Red Doc> left me disappointed? No, I’m glad to say that it hasn’t. Is it as good as Autobiography of Red? Perhaps not quite, although it doesn’t fall far short for me. It is a very good book and, like Autobiography, is one of Carson’s most accessible works.

As is so often the case with her books, the layout is once again distinctive.

Being a sequel, Red Doc> picks up the story of Geryon and Herakles years later, but the two protagonists have now acquired new names, Geryon being called G, while Herakles is known as Sad. As for the plot, well, you will have to read the book for yourselves, as I am not going to give anything away.

Readers of Carson’s work won’t be surprised to hear that there are some very poignant moments. For instance, when G meets his old lover, we read:

LOVE’S LONG LOST
shock the boy the man he
knows him. Knew. The
lion head the sloping run a
lavishness in him made you
want to throw your soul
through every door.

I adore Carson’s turn of phrase, which so often is utterly unique and unexpected. This allows her to offer some distinctly new perspectives on life’s most significant moments. In this example, meeting a long lost lover makes ‘you want to throw your soul through every door’. Isn’t that brilliant?

Carson also captures the shock and the breathless response to the surprise encounter so well: ‘the boy the man he knows him’.

Another great moment is G’s conversation with the shrink about his treatment of Sad:

what do you do / talk /
does that help him / one
test for this question /
what test / did he cap
himself yesterday /

no / did he cap himself
today / no / so talk helps /
see your point

Red Doc> features many well-taken observations, such as the following one about misnomers, which includes a wonderful description of anciently swaying pines:

Much is misnomer in our
present way of grasping the
world. But pines do
always seem queenly as
they sway so grand and
anciently from the sky to
the ground.

But to me Carson is at her very best when she talks about pain, loss and grief.

G lays his head on the
table it sinks into the table.

To feel anything
deranges you. To be seen
feeling anything strips you
naked.

You think what
will they do what new
power will they acquire if
they see me naked like
this. If they see you
feeling.

To be seen is the penalty.

Impairment and he lie
down on the floor.

Tears pour in Ida’s
heart but not her eyes …

And the
reason he cannot bear her
dying is not the loss of her
(which is the future) but
that dying puts the two of
them (now) into this
nakedness together that is
unforgivable.

Pain
catches the whole insides
of him and wrings it.

Tears pouring into your heart but not your eyes – what a wonderfully eloquent way of describing pain.

And then there are so many delightful phrases, as when Carson talks about ‘tearstained laughter’, ‘surprised front steps’, a room that ‘looks lonely’, ‘a smile that dazzles the car’ and a voice that is ‘thin enough to see through’, to mention only a few.

Even rather banal moments are evoked in language that delights by its brilliance:

He sits
up suddenly drenched in
ringing. Phone.

This is a book to savour and come back to time and again. I know I will.

Best Reads 2013. VI: Rumi, The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing

Rumi, The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and LongingThis book, indeed Rumi generally, has been a revelation to me. As I have said elsewhere, I had come across him several times in the writings of Richard Rohr and others, but it was only when a woman I met at a conference recommended him with the greatest enthusiasm that I ordered my first book of Rumi poems. It happened to be this one.

This collection has been put together and translated by Coleman Barks, who has given us highly readable texts rendered in beautiful English (on Barks as a translator of Rumi’s poetry, see my earlier post And so I’m hooked. Rumi (as mediated by Coleman Barks)’). The book is divided into twenty-two chapters, each of which features an introduction by Barks. There is also an opening introduction and a brief account of the life of Jelaluddin Rumi (1207–73).

Rumi’s poems are an expression of medieval Sufist spirituality, albeit as mediated and adapted by Barks, and so it should come as no surprise that some of it feels foreign to novices like myself. It is foreign, after all! That said though, some passages have touched me in ways I have perhaps never been touched before.

How can I possibly describe its impact on me? I would have to talk about its sheer, breathtaking beauty; its role in expanding my thought, stirring my passion, offering consolation; above all perhaps, its deep and utterly compelling wisdom. But let me give you some further examples, in addition to the ones I have already provided in earlier posts.

Having gone through a prolonged period of intensely-felt grief, I have found Rumi’s thoughts on grief and pain, longing and healing illuminating, consoling and quite simply to be full of wisdom:

The cure for pain is in the pain.

Hold on to your particular pain.
That too can take you to God.

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

I’ve broken through to longing now,
filled with a grief a have felt before,
but never like this.

There’s a shredding that’s really a healing,
that makes you more alive!

Holding on to my pain, not running away from it, not denying it, resisting the urge to move on has been a source of profound blessing. The cure for pain is indeed in the pain in that it generates that longing that draws us toward union, as Rumi says, that longing that can take us to God. A shredding is not what I had been expecting, but strangely enough it has made me more alive.

Rumi on thinking:

… Leave thinking to the one
who gave intelligence. Stop weaving,

and watch how the pattern improves.

How I wish I had come across that advice some time ago, but even if I had, would I have been able to leave well alone? It is so true though. Our weaving does not do any favours to the pattern.

And on jealousy:

If you could untie your wings
and free your soul of jealousy,

you and everyone around you
would fly up like doves.

How true!

This is a beautiful collection of poems, full of deep wisdom and insight. It is a book that I will be returning to time and again. Who knows, perhaps some of the more mysterious sections will over time divulge their deep secrets to me as well.

Best Reads 2013. V: Anne Carson, Antigonick

Anne Carson, AntigonickThis is Anne Carson’s translation (and adaptation) of Sophocles’ play Antigone. Following on from Nox, an epitaph written on the occasion of her brother’s death, Carson here revisits the theme of mourning a lost brother, for the heroine of Sophocles’ play is condemned to nothing less than a living death in a sealed cave, all because she wished to bury her dead brother.

Anne Carson, AntigonickAntigonick is a powerfully compelling work, beautifully executed while at the same time, in typical Anne Carson fashion, bordering on the incomprehensible. The text is presented in handwriting (apparently Carson’s own), in capital letters and with hardly any punctuation. It is interlaced with rather surreal illustrations by Bianca Stone, printed on transparent vellum that overlays the text. It is not always clear how the illustrations relate to the text, but they contribute significantly to the beauty and appeal of the book as well as to its overall impact by heightening the absurdity of the world that Carson’s rereading presents.

Anne Carson, Antigonick

Illustration by Bianca Stone

Not an easy read this, but a fascinating one. Like Nox, it left me intrigued and deeply touched by Carson’s creative and harrowing ways of mourning her brother’s death.

Best Reads 2013. IV: Anne Tyler, The Beginner’s Goodbye

Anne Tyler, The Beginner's GoodbyeYou probably wouldn’t read Anne Tyler for the plots of her novels. It’s not that nothing happens at all, though it would be fair to say that nothing much tends to happen. In any case, the plot is not what makes her books special. So why would you read Anne Tyler? Characterisation, I’d say, it’s all about characterisation.

The Beginner’s Goodbye is a novel about love and loss, grief and also, eventually, hope. When Aaron, an intriguing character, who stammers and suffers from the effects of polio, loses his wife (and house) in a freak accident, he finds his life drained of purpose and meaning.

The story is told from his perspective, the perspective of quite an ordinary kind of guy. And this, for me, is what makes the book special. Tyler deftly avoids the trap that all too many writers have fallen into, of using their characters as mouthpieces for their philosophical reflections, reflections that can easily become too sophisticated for the characters that are made to think and share all those amazing insights. Aaron is not cast in that way. Yes, he does offer us his reflections on life, love, grief and lots of other things (how could he not after all that’s happened to him?), but there is an ordinariness about him that makes him utterly real and believable.

Tyler has once again excelled at characterisation and come up with yet another very gentle book, to mention another one of her trademarks. Here are some of the little gems that Aaron dispenses:

… I had first tried to do without her – to ‘get over’ my loss, ‘find closure,’ ‘move on,’ all those ridiculous phrases people use when they’re urging you to endure the unendurable.

‘Reading is the first to go,’ my mother used to say, meaning that it was a luxury the brain dispensed with under duress.

That was one of the worst things about losing your wife, I found: your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with.

As it turns out, Aaron grieves the loss of a marriage that had been far from perfect. It doesn’t get much more real than that, does it?

Best Reads 2013. III: Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality

Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain SpiritualityThe Solace of Fierce Landscapes, says Frances Young in Brokenness and Blessing, is the kind of book she would have liked to have written herself. Published by Oxford University Press, this is a well-informed exploration of desert spirituality. But it offers more than that. Talking about ‘the permeable boundaries between critical scholarship and lived experience’, Belden Lane also reflects on his own experience of spending time in wilderness places; and he gives a very personal account of his journey alongside his dying mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and cancer as well as his attempt to come to terms with his father’s somewhat mysterious death earlier on in his life.

The book is in three parts, which reflect the traditional three stages of the spiritual life: Purgation: Emptiness in a Geography of Abandonment; Illumination: Waiting in a Silence Beyond Language; and Union: Love as the Fruit of Indifference. These three stages, notes Lane, are symbolised by the desert, the mountain and the cloud.

There are chapters on:

  • spirituality and the environment,
  • wild terrain and the spiritual life,
  • prayer without language in the mystical tradition,
  • the symbolism of Mounts Sinai and Tabor in the Christian tradition,
  • the landscape and theology of early Christian monasticism,
  • the desert Christians’ counter-cultural spirituality of attentiveness, indifference and love.

And, to give you another list, which is the only way I can even begin to do justice to the book’s richness without giving an extensively long account, Lane offers insightful thoughts on:

  • abandonment of control (and the desert as teacher of renunciation and abandonment),
  • letting go and the emptying of self,
  • loving that which cannot be understood,
  • the power of compassion as the fruit of indifference (the notion of indifference might require some explanation, but you have to read Lane for that),
  • a new harmony with the land,
  • learning to pay attention,
  • the transformation of desire into love,
  • meeting love in the most unlikely places,
  • the power of silence to connect and heal,
  • liturgy and the reaffirmation of ordinariness.

Woven into the fabric of the book are interludes, called ‘mythic landscapes’, in which Lane takes his personal account of the journey with his dying mother as well as his repeated experiences of wilderness places as the starting point for further reflections on issues such as a spirituality of brokenness, the gift of nothingness in a desert landscape, the unexpected gifts of grief, and a spirituality of desire.

Having had some recent desert experiences myself, I have found this a rich and rewarding read.