Walden – ponderings and ponds

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“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

I started reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden simultaneously with an old friend, the idea being that we’d discuss it once we’d both finished. That discussion is still pending as it took me an unconscionably long time to finish this book. I was suffering from a sort of reader’s block which was definitely not helped by the fact this was the hardest book I’ve read in a while.

Published in 1854, in the days when books were the preserve of the educated (see rich) and reading wasn’t something to be stuffed in on your train journey to work, Walden is probably the exact sort of book that turns some people off English literature when they encounter it at school. It’s easy to mock (the man devotes whole chapters to the quality of his local pond) and it percolates slowly through your brain. Expect to re-read whole pages, and forget about trying to read the odd bit here and there in the bath. This is a book that requires mental commitment.

Walden is Henry David Thoreau’s treatise on life in the woods in Massachusetts, where he retreated to live a simple life beyond money, beyond the rat race, raising his own crops and building his own home. The book is wonderful both for its look into a different age (it’s a lot more difficult to do what Thoreau did in New England these days, I’ll bet!) and for its timeless truths, beautifully expressed.

Thoreau weighs in on everything from fashion to eating meat and is fascinatingly relevant even in 2013. He discusses the slavery of money and work, the concept of progress, education, ant battles (seriously), friendship, death and just about every other human preoccupation in a fresh and thought-provoking way. In the middle of a Robinson Crusoe-esque ode to pond geography he will come out with something totally profound, something that catches you off your guard.

So if you’re looking for a refreshing read that strips away modern superficiality and examines the truth of the human condition and you have the patience to get through (or have a fondness for) lots of praise for ponds you could do a lot worse than reading Walden.

On that note, I’ll leave you with some of my favourite quotes from the book – Thoreau says it better than I could.

“Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.”

“If a man does not keep pace with his companion, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”

“The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.”

“And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter – we need never read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications?”

“The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poor-house. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the alms-house as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.”

“I mean that they (students) should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living? Methinks this would exercise their minds as much as mathematics.”

“As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail.”

“But man’s capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little have been tried.”

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

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Backstory – not even mild peril

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I’m a huge fan of Mark Corrigan. Peep Show is probably my favourite series of all time, and therefore I have always considered myself a huge fan of David Mitchell, especially as, during his many appearances on various panel shows he has always come across quite like Mark Corrigan, if Mark Corrigan relaxed and learned how to make fun of himself.

However, and I’m going to get this out of the way before I say anything nice about Backstory, there were points during my reading of this book when I liked Mitchell less than I had before I started it. Sometimes he uses the book as a platform to complain about things he doesn’t like – such as the way television is run, which reminded me (and I admit this is a harsh comparison) of Ben Elton’s This Other Eden, where he moans about the way writers are treated in the movie industry. The problem is that this sort of thing isn’t relatable and it makes you look a bit like you can’t appreciate your charmed bloody life. I’m not saying David Mitchell is like this, just that I don’t want to hear him moan about his job unless it’s funny. I can get my bog-standard complaining anywhere. I go to him for funny.

My other issue with the book was that Mitchell’s life seems to have been overwhelmingly, relentlessly pleasant which, whilst nice for him, doesn’t always make for brilliant reading. Certainly Backstory was no Frankie Boyle’s My Shit Life So Far. David Mitchell is not a heavy drinker and failed teacher – in fact, if he had been a teacher he’d probably have been a rather good one. A valued history teacher in a prep school in Sussex or the Home Counties. In his actual life, Mitchell started making a living out of comedy writing by the age of twenty-four, prior to which he had lived in Oxford with a set of very nice parents and been to Cambridge where he enjoyed drama and became president of Footlights. And therein lies the problem. There’s not enough peril in the book to make it really work as an autobiography. It would, however, be a very good, albeit long, personal statement, the sort required by UCAS. There’s no adversity (unless you count the brief moment where Mitchell doesn’t get in to Oxford and gets a bit upset, only to find out very soon after that he has been accepted to Cambridge). I’m not saying I want him shooting up heroin but he doesn’t even have the decency to be bullied or get his heart broken (unless you count the time when his relationship with Victoria Coren peters out, only for them to get back together and get married).

In all seriousness though, I wasn’t expecting or hankering after some diabolical Jeremy Kyle style mess. I don’t expect Mitchell to pretend to be Frankie Boyle and it’s not like the poor man has ever pretended to be anything he’s not , but if you’re going to have such a pleasant, smooth ride through life you need to throw a few more jokes into your autobiography to keep it moving along.

Having said all that, the book does have some interesting sections and it is funny, just not hilarious. Of course, I doubt David Mitchell went hammering on HarperCollins’ door demanding that his spellbinding story be told and if the book wasn’t a rollercoaster read (a phrase that would have Mitchell shuddering in disgust) neither I nor any other reader should be surprised.

One thing the book is, which I like a lot, despite what I’ve said above, is honest. Not bare-all reality TV honest, but true to yourself, take it or leave it honest. It’s the story of a man who’s a bit posh, very lucky, often guilt-ridden and, actually, rather happy with the way his pleasant life has turned out. Do I want to see David Mitchell falling out of Mahiki arm in arm with Lauren Goodger or making horrible, tasteless jokes about Jordan’s children? No, I like him just the way he is – and I suppose we should all hope to have lives that make boring autobiographies to some degree.

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The Sopranos – just a day but also everything

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Alan Warner’s The Sopranos was given to me by a friend who thought I’d enjoyed it, given our shared taste for the boarding-school novel. The title refers to a group of teenage choristers from the Scottish Catholic girls school of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. Bussed into the big city from their sleepy port town for a singing competition, the girls are let loose under strict instructions from the nuns not to do anything that will disgrace the school. No nail varnish is to be worn and the girls are to stay away from the park lest they be raped or murdered.

At first, I was taken aback by the book’s language, which is not only opaque in terms of dialect but also is a tumble of floating thoughts and shifting perspectives. It took a me a little while to find my way with it but before long I was hooked and suddenly the style stopped being jarring and started to feel entirely fitting.

Now I have to hand it to Alan Warner, for a middle aged man he writes a very authentic schoolgirl. The in-some-ways narrow existence of those who are penned in by watchful guardians, the small but vital rebellions of nail varnish and make-up, the getting changed into tarty clothes in toilets, the thirst for disgustingly strong concoctions of alcohol carefully concealed in the appropriate soft drinks bottles, the hunger for gossip – for something, anything to happen.

Warner is mindful of the beauty of teenage girls – their resilience, their reckless bravery, their moral flexibility. He really conjures up that peerless thing – the teenage friendship, its cackles, its warmth, its fierceness and, at the same time, its brittleness. He paints just one day in these girls’ lives and yet he gives you all of them, all those teenage years they are on the brink of breaking out of. Even if you were nothing like one of these wild sopranos, I defy any girl who grew up in the company of other girls to find nothing of herself in this book.

As the girls tear through the city, trouble abounds – the consequences sometimes hilarious and sometimes tragic. Each girl is distinct and yet against the outside world they are an impenetrable pack. I hesitate to talk more about the details of their big day out for fear of spoiling the ride for you – better just to lurch from one escapade to the next as they do; better to just soak up the boozy, excitable atmosphere and remember what it was like to be sixteen and untethered from your chain for one brief day – back in those days when one day could feel as long as a lifetime.

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Alan Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking – this book could save your life

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My little brother loaned me Alan Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking the other week, saying it had helped him stop quite easily. I was less hopeful for myself since he’d always been a smoker of the more casual variety and I had been a staunch adherent for the last twelve years.

I’d always said I loved smoking, but I knew I’d have to quit one day or face some scary disease. I suppose I hoped that I’d be one of those people who wake up one day, maybe after a bout of flu, and just don’t fancy smoking any more, but it wasn’t happening and at 27 I was getting a bit scared that it never would.

So I started reading this book on a Saturday, smoking merrily away as I did so. Alan Carr encourages smoking as you read. I think this is one of the book’s best and most effective features. I read right through to the chapter called The Final Cigarette, by which point I was feeling fairly convinced that quitting was the way forward. (Carr warns against my usual half-assed solution of ‘cutting down’ in an extremely persuasive, logical way). Anyway, I wasn’t ready to stop yet so I went back to the beginning and read till I reached the Final Cigarette chapter again, at which point I read on until the finish. I then gathered all my smoking materials together (an almost full pouch of tobacco, a fresh pack of Rizla and every lighter I had in the house), put them in a plastic bag and went out onto the balcony to smoke my final cigarette. Once I’d finished it, I emptied the ashtray into the bag, went out to the rubbish chute and, with a feeling of misgiving, tipped it down into the abyss.

Alan Carr promises his readers a pain-free quitting experience that can, and I quote, ‘even be enjoyable’. His aim is both to teach his readers about the true nature of nicotine addition, free from scare tactics or judgement, and to deal with the psychological aspect: the ‘brainwashing’, as he calls it, that traps smokers into thinking that life without smoking can never be as enjoyable, and that for an indeterminate period after cessation life must be arduous and miserable.

Alan Carr (not the Chatty Man, in case you were wondering!) is not a great literary talent and the book starts off badly with an overlong section boasting about the book’s commercial success and a monotonous list of testimonials from satisfied readers. His style is extremely repetitive – every point is hammered home again and again and the use of capitals for emphasis is a little irritating. That’s the bad stuff about this book.

But none of it really matters, at least not to me as I have not smoked since I threw all my tobacco down the rubbish chute a week ago. Now, I’m aware that this is not that long to go without a cigarette and plenty of my smoking readers will have lasted that long on various failed attempts. But for me, who has never (apart from one day in which I climbed the walls and went to bed at nine in the evening so that I could wake up sooner and smoke again) attempted to do more than cut down it has been a revelation. More than that, it hasn’t been a hideous, arduous week. I’ve had the odd pang but no more than I frequently had during the cutting down process. From the first night, I’ve slept fine, I’ve been cheerful, I’ve been out in the company of my smoking friends and I’ve had a day of real stress – the sort of thing that would normally have had me smoking in a matter of minutes.

Before I read this book, I was told by the people I knew who’d used it that Carr basically tells you everything you already knew but in a way that helps you. That sounds odd but it is basically true. He deals with health, money and the tyranny of addiction and its social implications in a way that is gentle and relentless all at once. By avoiding shock tactics he helps the smoker absorb a message that he/she normally refuses to hear due to fear and/or resentment. He articulates all the crazy, silent, skewed thoughts a smoker has and harpoons every bit of flawed logic you could think of. He breaks down the barriers each smoker puts between him/herself and quitting and delivers just what he promises – a painless route to being a non-smoker.

Can I be assured that I’ll never smoke again? No. As far as I’m concerned, you can’t stack a week against twelve years. Having said that, I can’t see myself starting again. It’s been so shockingly easy to leave it behind since reading this book and I didn’t even feel ready to quit when I started it. Because Carr’s method stops you from feeling that you are making a sacrifice, there’s no misery in the quitting process. Indeed, I’ve been much happier this past week than I was the week before.

Of course, it won’t work for everyone. There is no method on earth that has a 100% success rate, but you only have to look at the Amazon rating to see that it has a whiff of the miraculous about it. Out of 913 reviews, 810 readers gave it five stars. Another 58 gave it four stars. The combined total of one, two and three star reviews is 49. It’s quite hard to argue with that, seeing as Amazon reviewers aren’t always the most generous souls (and you would think that was especially true of those who are in drug withdrawal!).

Anyway, if you are a smoker with an interest in giving up, this book is definitely worth a read. At less than £6 from Amazon it’s around the price of a pack of cigarettes. I’d recommend you also buy a pack of cigarettes that you can chain-smoke as freely as you like while you read the book. Who knows? It could be the last pack you ever want to buy without you even needing to get the flu. So far, it has certainly worked for me.

(Update – I wrote this over nine months ago and never got round to posting it, but I’m still tobacco-free!)

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The Psychopath Test – how would you fare?

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A good friend gave me a copy of The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson for my birthday. I hope he wasn’t trying to tell me anything! The book is the story of journalist Ronson’s foray into the world of psychopaths, as categorised by psychologist Bob Hare’s psychopath checklist.

 

Psychopaths will have a high number of the following personality traits:

Glibness/superficial charm

Grandiose sense of self-worth

Pathological lying

Cunning/manipulative

Lack of remorse or guilt

Shallow affect (genuine emotion is short-lived and egocentric)

Callousness; lack of empathy

Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom

Parasitic lifestyle

Poor behavioural control

Lack of realistic long-term goals

Impulsivity

Irresponsibility

Juvenile delinquency

Early behaviour problems

Promiscuous sexual behaviour

Many short-term (marital) relationships

Criminal versatility

 

Ronson sets out to interview people classed as psychopaths (both criminals and high achieving businessmen – seemingly most psychopaths fall into one or other category – make of that what you will). He explores some fascinating and tragic cases and asks some very, very awkward questions.

 

On the one hand, I found Ronson slightly annoying – on the other hand I was impressed by his unflinching truthfulness. He is not afraid of looking like an idiot either in front of his interviewees or in front of his readers. He admits to getting a bit carried away with his own amateur psychopath spotting and he happily rubs eminent psychologists and unnerving psychopaths up the wrong way. He certainly earns a lot of glares throughout the course of this book.

 

Then again, I suppose this is how we should want our journalists to be. Ronson is fearless (telling a clearly unhinged cross-dressing former spy to ‘fuck off’), relentless, shameless (or unabashed about being wrong – as opposed to just being an unconscionable creep) and ultimately fascinated by people.

 

The best thing about The Psychopath Test is that it takes a fairly clinical checklist and considers the human implications of it. Ronson delves into the desperately sad and unjust tale of the wrongly accused Colin Stagg (who was thought to have killed Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common), follows is-he-isn’t-he-a-psychopath corporate hardass Al Dunlap around and meets the charming death squad leader Emmanuel Constant. Over the course of the book, he gives as much consideration to the problem of over-diagnosing as he does to the havoc psychopaths wreak in the world, which, really, seems only fair.

 

If you’re interested in psychopathy, the prison system, psychology or just human nature and its extremes this is a fascinating, thought-provoking and gripping read.

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Heft – a homage to loneliness

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I got a copy of Heft by chance in a Twitter competition run by Windmill Books. And it’s lucky I did, because the book is fantastic, a great example of why good literature doesn’t need fancy words and complex themes to grip a reader. Heft is the story of the grossly obese Arthur Opp, a former professor who hasn’t left his house for many years, and Kel Keller, a popular, promising baseball star whose mother, Charlene Turner, once knew Arthur. Though Arthur and Charlene were penpals for many years, Arthur hasn’t received a letter for a long time when Charlene rings out of the blue and asks if Arthur would consider tutoring her son.

Suddenly, a crack of light enters Arthur’s gloomy and solitary existence. He hopes to rekindle his relationship with Charlene and fantasises that her son too might eventually become part of his life. So begins a new chapter in Arthur’s life, and in Kel’s, but not in a way that either of them could ever have imagined. Heft is about relationships – our relationship with ourselves, our relationship with the wider world and our relationships with those who we love and who love us, however imperfectly.

When I began this book, I was suffering from reader’s fatigue. I’d read a lot of demanding books recently and was feeling generally a bit out of sorts. I wanted something soothing, comforting, but still gripping. I picked up a couple of books on my ‘to be read’ shelf and read a page or so before putting them back, feeling ungripped and disheartened. Where is the book I am seeking? Ah, here it is. Thanks Liz Moore.

Liz Moore, author of The Words of Every Song, is a very natural writer – her characters are effortlessly loveable and their lives have an inescapable authenticity. Arthur Opp is noble, vulnerable and eloquent. Kel is mature before his time and yet poignantly childlike. Charlene, the woman who threads their two lives together, is exasperating, yet it is hard not to care for her, to want her to do better, to want to shake her and put her on the right track.

So much of the book is about wasted opportunities, wasted time and the potentially corrosive effect of painful memories. It seems to lament the way that previous mistakes make people hesitant, cowardly and unsure. It celebrates togetherness and the joy of having love in your life, but it never mocks or turns its nose up at those who are alone and unhappy. In fact, it celebrates them.

Liz Moore digs beneath the surface of the obese recluse and the dynamic young baseball star and reveals their hidden depths. As it turns out, Kel Keller and Arthur Opp have more in common than would first appear and I was gripped by Moore’s analysis. I began to look forward to my tube journeys every day when I was reading this, which is always a sign that a book is good.

Moore says, “I am obsessed with the rhythm of my sentences—especially the rhythm of their endings” and this is an obsession that pays off for me. The prose in Heft has a loveliness that lifts its sad subject matter until it sounds like poetry – not the hard, dry, wordy stuff that makes schoolkids turn their noses up but the kind that speaks to you, the kind that illuminates the banal. Moore calls Heft ‘a homage to loneliness’, which sounds apt to me, but the book is not depressing – more haunting, a testament to the fact that there is more than one kind of unhappiness in the world and that there tends to be more to everyone than what they outwardly project to the world.

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Frank Skinner – drinking piss and near-misses with bricks

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Mr Literary Kitty bought me Frank Skinner’s autobiography for my birthday. He said it was the only book he’d ever bought off the back of reading the first line in a bookshop and laughing at it. I had high hopes as I’d always loved Skinner’s comedy and I fancied him quite inexplicably for a year or so at school, even though my friends shrieked with laughter. “He looks like a diseased lightbulb head!”

Anyway. It must be hard for a comedian to write an autobiography due to the pressure to make it relentlessly funny. Comedians are also famed for being people who make jokes to avoid talking seriously about themselves and their lives, and I wonder whether it made Frank Skinner uncomfortable to write about his life as a whole, rather than just the funny bits.

The Scotsman’s assertation on the book’s jacket is that: ‘Skinner has a pathological need to tell the truth’. He does share the rather humiliating experience of losing his virginity to a ropey old prostitute called Corky, but then embarrassments like that are Skinner’s bread and butter. It’s a hilarious, if stomach-churning story, but I can’t help thinking that he’d have left it out if it hadn’t been funny, however much it might have interested his readers.

For most of the book, Skinner skims as quickly as possible over the bits of his life where real emotion is involved. However, I’m not knocking him for not wanting to do a Cheryl Cole style soul-baring weepy, and admittedly there is more than one kind of honesty. Maybe Frank would argue that he had been more honest than Cheryl. He’s certainly funnier. If Cheryl has a Corky-style story she’s keeping it well and truly under wraps. Anyway, this flippancy seems to change as the book goes along and there are actually a few quite touching moments, especially when Skinner talks about his dad’s death.

The ideal reader of this book would probably be male, fond of football and partial to knob-jokes. However, I’m none of those things and I still enjoyed it. The book has a chaotic timeline which wasn’t really my cup of tea but I understand Skinner’s desire to avoid that ‘long boring stretch of time before the person gets famous’. There are some fantastic anecdotes, including one about him accidentally making a stranger drink his piss in a crowded bar, and one about the time he (as a child) nearly killed his neighbour’s daughter with a brick. There are many more but I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of the book, especially with poor delivery.

Overall, Frank Skinner feels a lot like sitting in a pub with Frank Skinner and having him give you a rambling oral account of his life, complete with a lot of jokes, the odd tear and quite a lot of filth. Fans will love it, the very squeamish will hate it and most readers will appreciate the honesty and unflinching openness with which he tells his story to date.

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