Things that are pleasant

I am very fond of lists, particularly when they’re as poetic as Sei Shonagon’s, from The Pillow Book. I am less tired, and therefore happier, and have compiled a list of things that have pleased me lately.

1. I received my first fan letter today, from a 91 year old widower living in Albany, WA. His late wife was looked after by a lady who lived with another woman, and now they both look after him. The letter was written in January but because Penguin still don’t seem to have updated my address, it’s taken 5 months to reach me and I had to write back immediately, in case his years had overtaken him.

2. On my way to get a coffee yesterday, I walked through the Science section at Waterstone’s and there was a sign above a pile of books which read: ‘Sick of the beach? 3 for 2 on summer reads.’

3. On the bus on the way home the other day, I saw a Muslim man at King’s Cross with two huge armfuls of peacock feathers, obviously selling them. Then a bit further on I saw, on the front step of an office building, a collection of nine red fire extinguishers.

4. While running in the mornings, I pass various water fowl that make me smile. On the weekend it was the goose that hissed at me as I passed her half-grown goslings, and every other day it’s the collection of ducklings that sleep in the grass or on the cement by the edge of the water, all bundled together in a lump of snugly feathers. Although today a dog that looked like a kelpie came bounding along the path in a great exciting hurry and the ducks splashed into the water in fright. And then there are the aggressive black duck-like birds that are usually attacking another bird from their territory and pushing it underwater, or dragging bits of twig into their nests. One of them today was carrying a stick that was twice its body length, swimming very correctly.

5. And while running on Monday I saw a man untangling a net by the canal. Then on the way back the man was in the water, apparently naked, at least from the waist up. I dared not look; it was obviously some strange Bank Holiday ritual that involved nets and nudity.

Rarely, there haven’t been that many unpleasant things, except the fiction I’ve been reading, but that’s more because it’s been stressful. After Notes on a Scandal I picked up Lionel Shriver’s Double Fault which was dark and broody with tension. I don’t think I’ve ever been so depressed by the trajectory of a novel since reading Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and I raced through it in the hope that things would get better, but they didn’t. Lionel is an excellent writer, and I like her for debunking the myth of the American Dream, which she does with slightly more finesse than F. Scott Fitzgerald, but her characters disappoint me somewhat. It’s as though she’s grown them in a hothouse and, once she’s decided what character she’ll portray, she does all the research she possibly can on them, to the point where they become artificial. Thus Kevin from We Need to Talk About Kevin was too evil to be believable, and Eric too seemingly perfect to be real, and Willy too tortured over being a woman. At times it feels like someone has pulled her up on this, so she puts in paragraphs that make them seem human; in Kevin it was when he was sick, and Willy there was a paragraph about wanting to be like a boy, but these are isolated sections and she ought to have woven them through more seamlessly. I realise that one of the points she’s getting across is that the characters do seem inhuman to the other characters through their evilness or perfection, but it still rings slightly false, as though she’s trying too hard. The other thing she seems to do is put her characters together in the space of her fiction and see what they’ll do to each other; again it seems contrived, and I always maintain that if the nuts and bolts of a book show too plainly, you’ll lose your reader. Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam is a prime example of this; the ending was clever, but you could see McEwan being clever, and that spoiled the magic.

Anyway I’m sick of all these stressful books. It’s time for some Austen or a Bronte now; I want to read something pleasant.

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