Reading: “The Diary of a Nobody” by George and Weedon Grossmith

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May 9: The Blackfriars Bi-weekly News contains a long list of the guests at the Mansion House Ball. Disappointed to find our names omitted, though Farmerson’s is in plainly enough with M.L.L. after it, whatever that may mean. More than vexed, because we had ordered a dozen copies to send to our friends. Wrote to the Blackfriars Bi-weekly News, pointing out their omission.

May 12: Got a single copy of the Blackfriars Bi-weekly News. There was a short list of seceral names they had omitted; but the stupid people had mentioned our names as “Mr and Mrs C. Porter.” Most annoying! Wrote again and I took particular care to write our name in capital letters, POOTER, so that there should be no possible mistake this time.

May 16: Absolutely disgusted on opening the Blackfriars Bi-weekly News of today, to find the following paragraph: “We have received two letters from Mr and Mrs Charles Pewter, requesting us to announce the important fact that they were at the Mansion House Ball.”

Mr. Charles Pooter leads the ordinary life of the lower middle class in late 19th century England. He is a devout husband, a humble employee, and a respected father and friend – at least he likes to think of himself this way. For some 15 months he keeps his diary, cherishing good experiences, pondering about the bad stuff, and in general wondering how and why the world changes and with it a lot of things he took for granted.

I came across this book when I was actually looking for a birthday present for someone else; since I love literature from the late 19th and early 20th century Britain, I decided that every new day is a sort of birthday and I should not let this opportunity to gift myself with a wonderful piece of literature pass by. Of course there are certain issues like dress codes, vehicles, professions, and vernacular that are hard to grasp nowadays, especially for non-native speakers; however, being “calibrated” by writers like the Bronte sisters, Austen, and Doyle, I found my way around the lesser known expressions and enjoyed an entertaining and funny read.

A cause for concern is the conduct of Pooter’s only son Lupin – actually called William, but opting to only use his second name Lupin –, who does not show the same steadiness regarding his career and way of life as his father, who has been working for the same company for the last 20-something years at the time he is writing his diary. Mr. Charles Pooter does his best to get Lupin back on track, even going so far as getting him a position in the same company he’s working for (this – surprise surprise – does not end well), but we will learn that Lupin follows his own path, skillfully avoiding the average and humdrum life his parents are leading.

It seems evident that Mr. Pooter does not think of himself as a person of great importance, he states so in his diary regarding a possible publication of his writings after his death; however, what he states and what he’s writing about differ to some degrees (as can be seen in the quote above). He may not be important in regard to a certain social rank but this does not mean that there is no order which one has to follow; servants are servants, artists are artists, and respectable men (and women) should know how to act appropriately in every possible situation.

The authors use some references to people and circumstances of their time which can cause initial confusion if one is not that savvy regarding the everyday life of the lower middle classes in Victorian England. But this does not thwart the immense fun of reading this book. If you ever wanted to read a diary that is neither puberty-cliche-ridden, dramatic, and/or your own, than this is a good one to start. First published as a book in 1892, this book has lost nothing of its charm and the likelihood to find traces of oneself in Mr. Charles Pooter’s musings. Enjoy!

 

 

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Reading: “The Blackwater Lightship” by Colm Tóibín

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“I have to keep convincing myself”, Helen said when they got outside, “that this is really happening. You’re all so matter-of-fact about it, but the truth is that he is dying in there and I have to go and tell my mother.”

Helen’s beloved little brother is dying. This brings the family together again – grandmother Dora, mother Lily, and Helen. While Declan has a seemingly casual relationship with his mother and grandmother, Helen hasn’t seen both for years and didn’t even invite them to her wedding. Her mother has never seen her two grandchildren, her grandmother met Helen’s family – her husband and her two sons – only once.

Reading the blurb (which says something like “forced to listen to each other” and “come to terms with each other”) I immediately thought of something blunt like an alcoholic grandmother, a crack-head mother, and two highly traumatized siblings coping with their past in different ways. The last part rings true in some way, but the first part is highly unimaginative, crude, and – thankfully – bullshit. Blurbs usually do their best to convey stereotypes to sell a book (we recognize the familiar), sometimes the opposite (at least for some readers). But I read one of Colm Tóibín’s short stories in The Book of other People, which I really liked, so I wanted to read one of his books. A bargain box at the local bookseller’s gave me the perfect opportunity to do so.

[Spoiler alert]

Helen’s little brother Declan is dying of AIDS. Assisted by his two close friends Larry and Paul, he spends a few days with his mother and sister at their grandmother’s place, an old house close to the sea, and the arrival of three gay men is reason enough to shake up Dora’s world. Nevertheless, this does not mean we meet the average old lady harboring prejudices against homosexuals; Dora is full of prejudices and resentment, so Declan’s friends are just the icing on the cake, at least in the beginning. Dora adapts to the new situation – Declan being seriously ill and dying – fast and seems to cope relatively well with the coming developments; mind you, the emphasis lies on ‘seems.’ For Lily and Helen, the situation is more difficult, since their relationship is strained at best; coming together again after years of not seeing each other and hardly any contact in the light of something as grave as the son/brother dying is a challenge on multiple levels.

“And why is it that he sent you to tell me?”
Helen stared at the road ahead. When she saw a double-decker bus, she thought about asking her mother to make her own way to the hospital, but it was a thought that she did not entertain for long. She softened and tried to imagine what it must be like for her.
“I think he felt that at a time like this we would all forget our differences,” Helen said.
“Well, I don’t notice any difference in you”, her mother said.
“Bear with me, I’m making an effort,” Helen said. She could not keep the dry tone out of her voice.

None of the two knew about Declan’s infection and illness, and especially Lily feels left out after realizing that Declan’s friends, especially Paul, know much more about his health and how to deal with his illness than any of his family, having accompanied him through the various stages of his HIV infection over the years.

Our main protagonist is Helen; though it’s a third-person-narration, the focus lies on her, her history, her issues, and her incapability to deal with her past. We also learn more about Paul, Declan’s friend, who never leaves his side and is the main force regarding his care (much to Lily’s chagrin). But apart from those two everyone else rather seems to set the stage for Helen and the family’s difficult past – at least this is how I felt. And it’s not that I didn’t like it; I loved it. First, when looking back on her past, Helen does not face a ‘huge trauma’ in the stereotypical way of trauma, meaning abuse and violence or the like. Her turning point was the death of her beloved father when she was 12; much of what follows are conflicts that could happen in a lot of families (maybe I feel that way because of my own background in regard to my mother and grandmother, so I’m sorry if this does not sound as serious and insightful as someone else may see the story). So while Helen’s inner (and outer) conflicts are understandable, one does not have to be awestruck how one person can go on with her life in the light of a past as gruesome as hers.
Second, Paul is wonderful. There’s no other way for me to describe it, he is a compassionate, caring, and thoughtful character, the best friend one can have in general and in Declan’s situation in particular. Larry, Dora, Lily, and Declan add their stories and all this together tells a difficult and sad story that will have no happy ending, but also one that shares a certain hope, though I cannot describe this feeling more detailed. I love being so vague…

Hope can feel good, even if it’s false hope. I read this book in two days, and it only took THAT LONG because I needed some sleep. Tóibín is a wonderful narrator, his stories carry a certain atmosphere I cannot specify, but I feel it whenever I read something by him. Nora Webster is already waiting, but I will take a little break before my next Tóibín. It’s an intensive and wonderful reading experience, one I cannot and won’t take lightly, for the best possible reasons.

So many ideas, so little focus…

It’s a new year and we are encouraged to make a new start. Magazines, newspapers, friends, family, and pretty much the whole internet demonstrates some serious motivation regarding new year’s resolutions. That’s nice, and inspiring. But I know myself better than that — a lot of us do.

I hate Christmas, but I love the new year — not necessarily because of this inherent feeling of starting anew, all fresh and sober(ed up) and willing to make the best of the coming 12 months. I love the new year because it means last year’s merry shitmas is over and the this year’s merry shitmas is still really far away. Combined with the “start anew”-theme this feels wonderful.

A few weeks ago I attended a conference at Columbia University. It was interesting, frightening, awful, and inspiring all at once. It was also (hopefully) the climax of a really shitty episode of depression, anxiety, medication and all the other neat little shit that comes with something like that. Which means that finally, after nearly two years of good intentions that paved the way to my personal hell of frustration, I am ready to get back to work on my dissertation, like, actual WORK.

One main reason for this important step in the supposedly right direction is my fear of not finishing it at all. There will always be a job “I could fit in, after all it’s good money”, meaning since my dissertation is a sort personal project of mine — not working for any university or cooperating with institutions or the like — money work comes before work work, even if it’s not that important at the given moment. Right now, my monetary situation is okay (let’s hope it stays like that at least for some more months…!) so I can afford some work work. It’s my fourth year in this project, my sixth since I started this PhD — meaning it took me two years to finish all courses AND find the right material to work with –, and it’s about time to continue working on it more seriously, otherwise it may die the slow death of a passion project being sacrificed on the altar of modern capitalist delusion.

Furthermore, I got and get a lot of support, especially in recent months. Wonderguy is constantly looking for the right tools for me to find a smooth and distraction-free work space and flow (yes, ADD is greeting from down there, somewhere, always lurking around) and even bought me a new program — which I use right now — that will sync easily with my writing and working on my new iPad that I got from my uncle. And while I’m not necessarily a huge geek regarding apps and stuff and iPhones and stuff, this iPad pro works on a whole different level. Here too, Wonderguy uses his vast knowledge about apps — being the wonderful Apple Ipad/Iphone enthusiast that he is — to help me get the best out of my new gadget and boy do I love it! It’s huge, it’s got a pen, I can actually really use the keyboard because it’s THAT huge and therefor combined with my beloved Linux Lenovo it’s ideal to finally get shit done. I never thought I would be THAT enthusiastic about something like that, but this iPad already made some stuff a lot easier, and I just hope this enthusiasm in regard to the gadget itself as well as all the ways in which I can and already do use it will carry over to the actual task of writing the thesis. This paperless office thing (which sounds like and probably indeed is a slogan to promote iPads and apps) feels really good, which is a strange thing to say for someone like me, a post-it fairyqueen, taking notes constantly, scribbling on every piece of paper I can find, only to lose and overlook two-thirds of it once I could’ve actually used it. My my, I’m still totally overwhelmed by such a huge gift that my uncle gave me to show his support for my academic work on a practical as well as ideational level. I’m planning (and hoping) to live up to it.

So here’s to a new year’s resolution: get this shit done!

These heavy boots are not made for walking – meeting Oskar Schell …

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I mentioned it before, Wonderguy gave me Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer as another part of our ongoing series “Goin’ to New York”. At first I was skeptical because I fear the child protagonist: many authors I read (Brothers Grimm, anyone?) use child characters to teach their readers a lesson, and the last thing I need right now is some elaborate lesson brought to me by 300+ pages full of moralizing undertone. But Oskar is a very special child and we got along well. Much better than I had ever expected. Apart from certain quirks that make him all the more tangible (though also at least ten years older at times) and the fact that I too (like most of us) lost someone dear to me, Oskar and I share another distinctive and at times very important feature: heavy boots. 

I read the first chapter of A Brief History of Time when Dad was still alive and I got incredibly heavy boots about how relatively insignificant life is, and how, compared to the universe and compared to time, it didn’t even matter if I existed at all.

I feel ya, Oskar. I do. I will not talk much about the book itself, because this time the connection with one character feels to strong and personal, an aspect that gets more important because of my current mental constitution. I gravitate around how reading about heavy boots makes someone with very heavy boots feel at the moment…
Oskar won over my heart and mind in one passage that describes a situation I know perfectly well, even though not necessarily in this context, due to geographical differences:

It had taken us four hours to get to her home. Two of those were because Mr. Black had to convince me to get on the Staten Island Ferry. In addition to the fact that it was an obvious potential target, there had also been a ferry accident pretty recently, and in Stuff That Happened to Me I had pictures of people who had lost their arms and legs. Also, I don’t like bodies of water. Or boats, particularly. Mr. Black asked me how I would feel in bed that night if I didn’t get on the ferry. I told him, “Heavy boots, probably.” “And how will you feel if you did it?” “Like one hundred dollars.” “So?” “So what about while I’m on the ferry?? What if it sinks? What if someone pushes me off? What if it’s hit with a shoulder-fired missile? There won’t be a tonight tonight.” He said, “In which case you won’t feel anything anyway.” I though about that. 

It’s well in the second half of the book, p. 240, that Oskar describes this inner turmoil, but this was the moment I knew I will forever love this book, and this character. Because I know heavy boots, I know exactly how heavy boots feel, and I know how hard it can be to make something feel even ten dollars, let alone a hundred dollars. Sometimes it feels impossible, way out of my league. And every now and then, this ‘sometimes” becomes ‘often,’ and ‘impossible’ becomes ‘unbearable.’ Because these boots are so heavy I can hardly move. And because I’m a grown-up, I know that I’m on my own, that in the end of the day, I’m all alone in my head, alone with my thoughts, fears, and feelings. Alone with my heavy boots, custom-made for me.
And these days my boots are very heavy. Though I’m looking forward to seeing NYC again, even look forward to presenting a paper and meeting fellow academics and people interested in my field of study, I dread the emotional and physical tour de force it will take until I get there. And I dread all these thoughts, freely floating through my head and messing with my synapses, much more than the fact that I will be awake and on the way for 20 hours. Fear, so much unfounded fear and panic: terror attacks, plane crashes, murder, death, mayhem. All that is possible – hardly anything is likely to happen exactly where I am at the time I am there. After all, this is the rather safe hemisphere of this tormented planet. I’m a rational person, I know that. But I also know panic attacks, anxiety, depression. Or, as Oskar describes it so poetic and also appropriate: heavy boots.

Oskar is actively working to counter his heavy boots, mostly by keeping busy, inventing stuff, designing jewellery and the like. This seems a good strategy though Oskar’s heavy boots and mine are two totally different things and what works for a fictional nine-year-old boy might not work as well for me. I’m not good at inventing and I’m not interested in jewellery; best case scenario is reading, worst case scenario is cleaning, decluttering, or rearranging stuff like there’s no tomorrow. Because a clean and tidy environment helps me to survive my mental chaos, so if nothing else works for me, this always does.
It doesn’t work anymore. Not now. And even though I feel like a whiny kid, I feel so stupid for not being able to get through this like all those times before, I know I reached a limit. I already had a lot going on in the last few months; this additional project, though it is a great opportunity and something I really look forward to, seems to be too much. Too much for my already hyperactive mind, my perfectionism, my aim of juggling different jobs and ventures simultaneously.

So I called my therapist today. I haven’t seen him in 6 years. It’s time for a reunion. 

 

I sense a certain sentiment …

2017-09-09-12-32-52.jpgIn the last few days I booked a flight and my Dad found me a nice hotel in an ideal location between the university and the rest of the city I want to see and discover. Regarding the practical aspects of this little adventure everything’s already taken care of, everything’s fine. Which is wonderful and I’m so grateful that my dad, mom, and my sister, my whole family, is so supportive and helpful, even though I brought that on myself, thinking I could accomplish a conference/city trip to NYC ON MY OWN. Wonderguy too is just great, and he’s also already in the “goin’ to New York” mood (even though he is not coming with me), putting together a Spotify-playlist with songs about NY (from Sinatra’s classic to my favorite, Alicia Keys, he found some really great songs which I will listen to while out and about in NY). Furthermore, he gave me some of the novels he got that are set in New York, one being Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. I will take a closer look at this book in another blog post, soon. For now let me just say that certain fears not only Oskar but other protagonists as well talk about resonate deep with(in) my own dark places… 

And it can be dark down there … Sleepless nights filled with horrifying visions triggered by too many true crime podcasts and too much war crime material keep me awake. Have you ever seen “Mayday”? I have. Oh my, yes I have …
At the opposite end of this extreme emotional spectrum lies my longing for peace, being someplace where no one knows me and no one notices me and I will be invisible. And once again being invisible would make me invincible, at least deep down in my heart. “These streets will make you feel random” – I long for that feeling. The same feeling I loved so much when walking through the streets of New York the first time I was there, four years ago. No one cares about you, but not in a bad way. Rather like we are all parts of the surrounding, belonging to this street, this street corner, this certain place, nothin’ to fuzz about, just everyone going their ways. 

I felt safe there, always. True, I wasn’t out and about at 3am in the morning all alone as a woman, and I won’t do so in December. But still, I felt safer in New York than I felt/feel in London, though I love London just as much and I’m more familiar with the city, having been there several times. And I guess that’s the crux of the matter: because I’m less familiar with NYC I feel safer there than in London – knowing a place, being familiar with it means knowing its ‘good’ and its ‘bad’ sides; just reading about the dark sides does not change a thing. I read tons of stuff about war and war crimes and the like but I would never in a million years assume I “know” war – that’s not how it works.  Never. Of course I read about places where one should not go, what one should and should not do, especially as a woman, and that might be one reason why I can’t sleep at times, but this does not change my good memories about the place. Besides, “feeling safe” in my understanding also means being able to stay in my own little thought bubble all the time because I don’t know a single person so no one will disturb my thinking, musing, and wandering. I’m not sure if this corresponds with a general understanding of “feeling safe” but I don’t strive for unifying different views. Live and let live, wander and let wander …

For now, the “goin’ to New York”-theme is huge, listening to the playlist, reading books from/about/set in New York, most of this thanks to and inspired by Wonderguy. That’s because it’s my first trip alone to one of my most favorite cities. It’s a long flight and at average an expensive stay, so it’s not like I can see NYC whenever I want to – this is something special. And even though I feel total overwhelmed and panicky at times (thanks, weird wired brain) I really look forward to “goin’ to New York”.

Besides, let us not forget: I’m there for work as well … one more reason for sleepless nights! 🙂

Reading: “The Book of Other People”

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Something different for a change: it was a charity project, in a way (the proceeds were given to a non-profit organization helping young writers); it’s a collection of characters, most of them presented in short stories, some in other forms of narration; it’s edited by Zadie Smith, who – back then – was a rising star and therefore a popular author to choose as an editor (also, I really like Zadie Smith’s work as far as I know it, so this description should in no way seem like a personal of professional attack on Smith as an artist); and it varies heavily in tone and structure (for obvious reasons, being the collection it is), which may be one reason why it received generally positive but also mixed reviews [attentive readers may find most of this trivia on Wikipedia – just like I did, because I cannot remember everything…so thanks aunt Wiki]. Also, as far as I can remember, it was hugely popular back then (nearly 10 years ago?) so I am once again pretty late to the party.

Different stories bring different voices, perspectives, images, languages, and views. Different stories from different authors create even more multifaceted, colorful, vibrant and creative universes (logically). This is the main reason why I usually don’t read a collection like this all at once, because the different voices and styles can at times be irritating; it ‘feels’ different. And this regular change of tones and spirits is exhausting at times, at least in my little corner of the world. Just when you got accustomed to characters and their specific voices and idiosyncrasies, everything changes. All at once. These constant changes of settings and the likes don’t concern that much me when reading a short stories collection by one author; this sort of literary exhaustion only occurs to me when reading collections containing a variety of authors. Because starting a new story by a new author of course brings new experiences. And one can only take so many new experiences on one evening/morning/day/night/train ride/flight/somuchmoreIcan’tthinkofrightnow. Which in itself is a rather trivial – albeit true – observation, but hey, someone has to be a bit trivial around here, so let’s go for it! 

We meet 23 people in 23 settings, lives, worlds. The authors contributing to this collection were asked to introduce a character, tell the story of one person, no matter how. And like in real life, this can be colorful, complex, vibrant, mundane, flat, interesting and shitty. I had some favorites and some I didn’t like. Some were foreseeable but still good, some graced my quiet evenings with a fine sarcastic tone I loved, some were plain and boring. Of course you meet characters that seem familiar; reading one story I realized that I actually had the phone number of the person I was reading about; even more so, I also encountered characters I simply did not understand. As I’m an introvert mess, I always assume this is my fault, since I obviously know too little about (for example) male adolescence to decipher some codes that may otherwise bring me closer to the story; or don’t know enough about the joy of parenting to understand the even greater joy of taking a weekend off from parenting thanks to a shady houseguest taking the kid on a roadtrip. And don’t get me wrong, I really think this is ‘my fault’ since one cannot always work with every voice and every style; some things I simply don’t get because I don’t see it in there (the story, of course). So apart from my intellectual slips and personal tastes, me being the fairness fanatic that I am, I read every story to give it the fair chance to become my favorite. As stated I will not name any favs or not-so-favs, because if someone reading this little piece is even later to the party than I am, s/he should have a fair chance to form their own opinion; besides, as I always like to emphasize: everyone has a different taste, so go find your own favorite story (/stories).

Reading this book was a sort of personal triumph; I bought it eight years ago, I moved it three times without ever so much as reading a single story and I every time I looked at it I thought: “Hey, this sounds soooo interesting, I have to read it on a day off!”
It actually took me three days, because … life. Nevertheless, finally, I met the Other People.

Once more with … less feeling, please?

 

IMG_20170809_232328_236.jpgA few days ago I received an invitation to a conference in December. I never in a million years expected anyone to accept my paper because a) it’s not even a conference with a focus on literary studies and b) I’m no fancy academic pursuing her studies not looking left or right, but rather a freestyle academic, pursuing her studies when finding the time next to work, life, and stuff. So not exactly distinguished ivy league university material. Not even ‘attending a conference at a distinguished university I always wanted to see’ material… 

Obviously, no one ‘there’ knows that, which is why they are delighted to include my paper in their conference. And I’m delighted, happy, overwhelmed, and panicky all at once. For days now. And nights, which is worse. I sent a submission to give it a shot, “aim high”, as they say (I don’t know who “they” are, but hey, “they” for sure never suffered from anxiety disorders and shit like that) and try for universities (and cities) I always wanted to see or love to visit. I have been to New York before and missed my chance to see Columbia, at least from the outside. I may get a second chance now. 

Still, I have to finance this wonderful craziness – New York is pricey, especially in December (I guess). Also, I have to keep my shit together to go there. It’s not that I am too nervous to actually attend a conference and present a paper (I have nothing to lose and everything to gain, so that’s not the issue here); rather, the real challenge will be organizing the trip, finding a hotel and staying on top of things. I hate organizing because I’m really bad at it. Also, since receiving the invitation, tons of unfounded fears came creeping up from the shitty dark holes I forced them into; they caress my arms, creep up and down my spine, float into my semiconscious mind in the early morning hours, lay their heavy burden on my weary shoulders (yes I know, THAT sounds cheesy…). Depending on the mood I’m in, I can take them one at a time, pushing them back into the holes they came from, or I let them flow, because there’s no use in fighting it, not right now. 

I know, I sound like a whiny kid, and I don’t want to. I simply did not expect this to happen – some provincial freestyle academic presenting a paper at rather well-known university. London has already been great, and this too is a wonderful opportunity and it feels huge. Overwhelming. Unreal. And frightening.  

Greetings to my demons.