Thursday, January 13, 2011


It's too cold to go the gym or the neighborhood store.  Not as cold as yesterday, actually, when I did go to the gym, but still 13 degrees. I bundled up in t-shirt, turtlenecks, sweater, long underwear, a parka that's good for five below, a ridiculous-looking tie-on hood (North Face, 1980s), parka hood, and extra-thick scarf I knitted a few years ago.  I had to take off my mittens repeatedly to wipe the steam off my glasses.  I was a walking disaster, seeing only out of one lens, and I fell down a step when I entered the gym. Fortunately I just joggled myself.  Everybody kept walking the treadmills without concern.
Paul Newman and companion obviously freezing in "Quintet"
My husband and I are always trading that handmade scarf back and forth.  I wear it outdoors, he wears it indoors.  It's cold in here, but I turn up the thermostat for a few hours a day so we'll have some comfort. It's a bit like Robert Altman's 1979 science fiction movie, Quintet, set in a new ice age.  This is the problem with ultra-environmentalism.  We have to conserve SO much energy ALL the time.  And if you believe it's cheaper to keep your furnace at 68 degrees all winter long, no, the gas company is trying to make money.  Turn it down at night!
We had a really bad winter last year, but this winter it's been milder. It used to be colder, we both agree. Fifteen below for days.  Walls of snow.  We'd run to class, work, or the coffeehouse nearby in our small university town.  We stayed indoors most of the time and devoured  Robertson Davies's Fifth Business, Larry Woiwode's novels, and anything else we found in the literature section at Iowa Book and Crook, the town's biggest bookstore.  We'd have our coats open when it got up to 15 above.  

I'm less resilient in winter these days and hate the cold even more than I used to.  Hence the "Big Book Plan" to keep me busy.   I chose several doorstop-size books to read this month so I'd never have to go out the door if I didn't want to.   So I'm reading Middlemarch, Theirs Was the Kingdom, and Sacred Hunger and hope I'll finish one of them. 

If you haven't read Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger, you must go out and get a copy.  It won the Booker Prize in 1992 and is one of the best historical novels I've EVER read.  Yes, that sounds like hyperbole, but this stunning novel, set in 1752, is gracefully written and unflinchingly relates the story of Matthew Paris, a recently widowed surgeon who has served a term in prison for defending free speech and has taken a job on his uncle's slave ship because he feels he deserves nothing better. Paris is horrified by the cruelty of the captain, the ignorance on board ship, and the treatment of the African slaves.  He has already seen so much in prison, but he cannot remain numb in the face of so much suffering.  Occasionally he can make a difference, though not often, and he records events in a journal dedicated to his dead wife. 

I really admire Paris and his stoicism and decency.

So, though Unsworth would never be this sentimental, it makes me think of Kipling's poem, "If," though Paris is not idealized in this way and of course he cannot keep his head.

"If" by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream -- and not make dreams your master;
If you can think -- and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings -- nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run --
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And -- which is more -- you'll be a Man, my son!


Willa said...

I like the sound of the Unsworth novel. I'd never heard of it before but it sounds really wonderful so maybe I will give it a try.

Lisa@ButteryBooks said...

I have not read Sacred Hunger. Thanks for the recommendation!

Frisbee said...

It's very good!