Simply messing about in books

I had to happen. A ‘snap’ lockdown. Bang go the plans for the weekend. But life  was ever thus. Just when we have won the lottery we are diagnosed with a terminal disease. Searching for inspiring reading I came upon a book by A E Ellis, Father of Rational Emotive Therapy.

If you don’t know his style, here is an excerpt from his book, How to Make Yourself Happy and Remarkably Less Disturbable

If you think about it, you can see that all these irrational Beliefs are arrogant forms of whining: ‘If I don’t do as well as I absolutely must, I’m a worthless, pitiful person!- Whine, whine!’ If you don’t treat me as well as you absolutely should, you’re a contemptible person for being so rotten to poor woeful me!- Whine, whine!’ ‘ if the conditions of my life are not totally good, as they completely must be, the world’s a really horrible place for poor pathetic me! -Whine, whine, whine!’

The punctuation. phrasing and sentiments are typical of his writing. His approach seems to be, ‘You think this is bad… It could be a million times worse’  then proceeding to outline in how many ways things could be worse. He does use humour;  I like his concepts of ‘Awfulizing’ and ‘I can’t-ism’, but generally his tone is, ‘Stop whining and pull yourself together you big baby.’ Not the most sympathetic approach.

Then friends sent me two books which were just perfect.

The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson a beautiful little book about a six-year-old girl and her artist grandmother whiling away a long summer on an island in the gulf of Finland. Their life is spent roaming the island, discussing many things. They fall asleep under bushes, they build a mini-Venice, they discuss religion and Sophia and her father move on from grief. Here is grandmother singing a song

Cowpats are free,


But don’t throw them at me


For you could get hit


With cow shit!

And here they are gathering…

Gathering is peculiar, because you see nothing but what you’re looking for. If you’re picking raspberries, you see only what’s red, and if you’re looking for bones, you see only the white. No matter where you go, the only thing you see is bones. Sometimes they are as thin as needles, extremely fine and delicate, and have to be handled with great care. Sometimes they are large, heavy thighbones, or a cage of ribs buried in the sand like the timbers of a shipwreck. Bones come in a thousand shapes and every one of them has its own structure.

A touching and funny account of lives far away from the present written with Jansson’s usual simplicity and wit.

The third book must be the only P D James novel I haven’t read, The Private Patient, her fourteenth Adam Dalgliesh novel. This was her last book. written when she was, by my reckoning, eighty-eight years old.  Of course, it is predictable; the set-up, the crime, Dalgliesh with his murder bag and his team, but as always, James draws us into the intricacies of the plot and of human failings. Dalgleish questions himself as in other books, but in this novel, I don’t think I’m giving too much of a spoiler to say, he finally gets married. In an early book he lost his wife and twin babies in childbirth, but in this book, he marries Emma, said to be too young for him. As he must be in his sixties if one goes by the chronology of the books this is true, but perhaps he is like Superman, and ageless.

There is plenty of wine and good food here, descriptions of furniture and art, and mostly things work out well, although being P D James there is always a disquieting element

They walked without speaking, their shoes sounding hobnailed on the tarmac lime resolute and threatening invaders, alien creatures disturbing the peace of the night. Except, Kate thought, that it wasn’t peace. Even in the stillness she could hear the faint shuffles in the grasses and from time to time a distant, almost human cry. The inexorable succession of kill and be killed was being played out under cover of darkness. Rhoda Gradwyn wasn’t the only living creature that had died 5on that Friday night.

Pretty good? It hit the spot for me. I needed a bit of light relief after my weeks with Ulysses.

Moving on soon to Book 8, The City and The City by China Mieville.

20 thoughts on “Simply messing about in books

    1. I can’t imagine how I did all the things I did before: going to see friends and family, working, music lessons. dining out, seeing movies etc etc . Now none of the above.
      Glad you don’t seem to be affected by the tsunami in Alaska

      1. Entirely agreed! The tsunami was a non-event, our favorite kind. We live at the far end of Cook Inlet, and the way the inlet is shaped, a tsunami would peter out before it got to Anchorage. But friends in Seward, Kodiak, and Homer, on more open water, did have to go to higher ground.

  1. Oh Gert, what a hatchet job on poor old Albert. Yes, he’s strident, especially when he’s parodying the childish and self-pitying ways we react to disappointment or failure. But his message is a sane one we really need: instead of this we can use our constructive and creative tendencies to function more effectively and happily even when life is throwing lots of shit at us. Readers, don’t be put off by Gert (even if you do have a really nice granny to hang out with). You may find Albert himself a bit much (he’s like a louder version of Groucho Marx) but look up Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy and you’ll find lots of practical advice. It’s self-help for grownups.

    Other Gert

    1. Groucho Marx makes him a bit ore appealing. I do think that a chance to whine now and then is good for the soul; as are the alternative approaches, and a solid dose of humor. Thanks for alternative perspective —

    2. And never the twain shall meet, even though we are both stoics and from the same family. I prefer the concepts of existential psychotherapy. Ellis is a good alternative to years of expensive lying on the couch for those dissatisfied with their lives. But for tragedy and deep trauma I wouldn’t recommend him.

        1. Irvin Yalom, Rollo May, Viktor Frankel et al . Very much about accepting aspects of life like the inevitability of change and the isolation of the human person. Finds its sources in Kierkegaard and Nietsche. Yalom: ‘The better we know ourselves, the better our lives become.’l

  2. Gosh! Just now writing about “The Summer Book have just re-read it! (It being summer here and the time when one naturally thinks of rowing out to an island, setting up camp, lighting a fire and finding gold ingots.)

    Great stuff. And much better than being assaulted by pop psychology and abuse.

    “Don’t look so cross,” Grandmother whispered. “This is socialising, and you have to learn how to do it.”

    1. As you know, it’s not summer here, but The Summer Book is wonderful to read in wintry conditions too. I love Finland. We have been there twice. Will we ever get back? Probably not.

    1. A couple of weeks yet. I have forwarded your blog piece about books up for the Wainwright Prize to my sister-in-law. We all got on to the Salt Path through your blog, and she particularly likes nature writing. She is keen to read the second book by Raynor Winn.

  3. Ah, The Summer Book is lovely, just the ticket for a lockdown, even if its winter in your part of the world. I remember reading it with my old book group and how evocative it felt – a return to simpler times, I guess.

    1. Yes, so many lovely vignettes. Grandmother losing her false teeth in the bushes, having a cigarette and gazing at the tide…. Full of unexpected delights.

  4. By happy co-incidence, I am reading The Private Patient too, but not for the first time. I’ve always thought it something of a conundrum that reading about violent crime can be comforting in times of stress, especially if you’ve already read the novel and know what’s going to happen. (Perfect lockdown escapism.) But PD James didn’t lose her sharpness, and as you point out was still writing well into her eighties. Other authors got rather sloppy in their old age. (Hope it doesn’t happen to me.)

  5. Thanks Gert. My new novel will be published in October, and I’m going ahead with plans for a launch, even though I feel like a fool rushing in where angels fear to tread. If my launch is cancelled because of covid I will have to learn to be philosophical….

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