Review of The Snow Leopard Peter Matthiessen

by Peter Matthiessen 

Lynn Matheson‘s review 

May 24, 14  ·  edit

5 of 5 stars

bookshelves: travel-writingspirituality 

Read from April 07 to 14, 2014

I think this book may just have changed my life! I found the paperback by chance in a second hand bookshop on the Suffolk coast. I wasn’t really looking for a book to read as I already have so many unread at home. It seemed to be fate. As soon as I started reading it I was hooked. The writing is exquisitely beautiful with descriptions of nature intertwined with the author’s attempts at deepening his Buddhist practice as he travels in the mountainous arras of Nepal and Tibet accompanying an academic studying snow leopards and blue sheep. I found the details of the journey fascinating and the author is very open and honest about his personal life and his feelings about it. The book touched me and inspired me. I have now began to meditate more and to find out about Buddhism. I recommend this to anyone interested in spirituality and travel writing.

Review of my novel Pearlcasting

A curvaceous 35-year old blond teacher (born in Edinburgh) and a hunky 15-year-old Air Force brat (raised in the Southern states of America) find each other in a third-rate boarding school in rural England. The love between Orla (teacher) and Elijah (boy) is genuine and the sex is hot. The premise may seem unlikely (not to mention unsavory, ill-advised and illegal) but nevertheless, “Pearlcasting” promises a compelling story, and delivers. The pink and glossy candy treats on its cover presage that within lies a story of sweet intoxication. But this novel is not just a hot read. It is also a carefully observed comedy of manners.
What is it about English boarding schools? Why are they such fertile ground for mordant wit? Listen to the dreary life at Northwold school: “The day began with Morning Service in the Hall. It was a non-descript room lined with dark wood which formed part of the 1930s boarding house, with long windows which wouldn’t open, leading to a stuffy, overheated atmosphere. Occasionally one of the boys would faint from a combination of high temperature and boredom.”
The humdrum existence of Orla, a mid-career female teacher in an all-male school, downtrodden and patronized, is affectingly brought to life. Orla had aspirations of joining management to make a difference, but has been passed over. 
Matheson sketches a member of the old boy’s network: “He was supposedly named Humphrey Heathcote-Jones but Orla had a suspicion it was an assumed name. The pretension went with everything else about him. Today he was sporting a full tweed suit which he had to get specially made on account of his enormous girth. He was short, balding and wore tiny brown rimmed glasses. He was often to be found wandering around the grounds blowing a hunting horn or mowing down children in his ancient Jaguar.” 
Matheson’s economical sentences are also compassionate: “The boarders were mostly a forlorn little bunch. They stuck closely to each other, huddling together as if a bitter wind was blowing them over.” 
Yet one of these boarders is Elijah, who may have been forlorn his first day at this strange new school, but soon adapted. He lets his close-cropped hair grow out and becomes a star on the rugby field. He brings much into Orla’s life: a troubled past, a sweet nature, and an enormous amount of trouble. Suffice it to say that Orla, previously headed straight for spinsterhood, takes a sharp left turn and goes on a wild ride. I enjoyed the ride.
Robert Kelly

Sneak preview Work In Progress. Syria The Prologue

Chapter 1
Prologue

Syria 2013

Father Bernardo Argenti was about to die.

He was sitting on his heels on open ground with his knees spread wide. His legs were starting to ache from the unaccustomed posture as he was no longer young. His head was bowed, almost touching the ground beneath him. He could feel the blades of grass touching his face, stroking him as if to give comfort. His hands were tied behind his back. There were two men sitting in the same way on his right. He was the first in the line of men. Bernardo was a tall, thin man: gaunt. His skin stretched over his old bones like parchment in an old book. His looks reflected his ascetic life, his simple foods, his lack of excess. It was late June. The weather was hot but not sunny in spite of the hour, just after ten. The sky was white, overcast, almost as if glowering at what was taking place. He was not cold in his simple priest’s robe. A huge crowd had gathered around the three prone figures. There was talking, muttering, rumbling on, occasional shouts. Father Bernardo knew what was about to happen. He was not afraid. He felt calm.

After all, his entire life in the priesthood had been preparing him for this moment: the moment of death. He had always had faith. He could not remember a time when he doubted. He had known instinctively that there was God, that the Christian way was right for him. It was what he was sent to earth for. He had felt this as a child in Italy. His mind drifted to those early idyllic days in Puglia where he had been born. In his memory the sun always shone. They were poor, rural dirt poor but he had felt no lack. They had a garden, almost a smallholding, where his mother grew vegetables and grapes. He remembered squatting under the vines, searching for creatures in the soil, wondering at them. He remembered his mother’s voice, calling him in for dinner. There had been wonderful food: home-made crusty bread, hearty stews and soups, fruits. His mind summoned his mother’s face, lined and kindly, not quite beautiful, but warm. Here was love, not showy, not gleaming but real. Soon he would see her. This thought warmed him. He missed her with a long, dull ache. She had died long ago shortly after he had entered the seminary. He felt peaceful. He prayed simply inside his head.

Dear God, Forgive me my sins.

He prayed this over and over. He had no doubt. Jesus came into Bernardo’s mind just as he always did in times of trouble. He appeared to the priest just as he did in the Italian Renaissance paintings, dressed in a white robe with his arms outstretched. His hair was long and brown and his face was smiling at Bernardo. A feeling of greater peace descended upon the priest and a voice in his head seemed to tell him that everything would be all right. It seemed to come from deep within Bernardo.

Everything would be all right.

He was to be a martyr for the Christian faith. He would have riches in Heaven. He would see God. Bernardo thought of all those who had gone before him, all who had died for their faith over the long centuries. The modern world seemed far away. Here was still the ancient conflict between the Christians and the people of other faiths. Nothing had really changed for centuries. Somewhere in the distance he sensed he could hear birdsong. He was glad about that. He tried to focus on the birdsong and not on the shouts of the men.

One of the rebels stepped forward. He was a Jihadi, originally a Chechen. If you asked him he would say he was fighting for Allah, to see the Caliphate brought into being; an Islamic state stretching across the world. Nobody did ask him. But really he was fighting for himself. He loved the thrill of war, the glory in violence, the power, the primal urge in him to destroy others, to make himself more while making others less. This was what he understood. This was his element. He was born to rage. The Chechen was named Abbas Khasanov, from the northern plains of Chechnya, a rolling land, almost desert: the Nogay Steppe. Dressed in a woollen dark robe he almost looked like a monk himself, yet a wild, debauched monk, grown fat on too much meat and bread. His beard, long, dark, straggling stretched almost to his knees. His narrow eyes glinted with delight at what he was about to do. Indeed, at a glance one would say Abbas had a madness in him, nurtured by too much killing, too much blood. In his hand he held a simple knife with a long blade. It had seen death before, no longer at its sharpest.

Unlike the priest he was about to kill, Abbas did not think about the past. He had always known toughness. As a child he had been a shepherd boy, living in a hut with no running water, no comfort, nothing soft. He didn’t ever think of the rugged terrain of his homeland, of the sheep roaming to look for the rough grass. He didn’t think of his cold mother and his distant father. Abbas had never felt love. As a young man had joined the Georgian army and things had gone well for him for a time. He learned the art of war, how to kill. He learned stealth and he took pleasure in it. Abbas did not know the love of a woman though he had slept with whores. Women had little interest for him. He had been discharged from the army due to tuberculosis which he had miraculously survived. Things fell apart. There was no job for him, no purpose. So he found a way to Syria, to glorious Jihad. He grew his beard long. His reasons for fighting had little to do with Islam, all to do with the thrill of the fight. Before Syria he had rarely thought of Syria or of his Muslim faith. He was good at what he did.

Abbas Khasanov leaned forward quickly and grasped the back of Father Bernardo’s head with one hand while with the other he started to hack at the back of the priest’s neck. At first the blade went in easily, cutting through the soft skin. Then the work became harder as the knife hit bone and cartilage. It was tough going even for a powerful man like Abbas to work through this. He sawed this way and that for several minutes. Bernardo made no sound. The low hum of the crowd began to be louder as they shouted in unison:

“Allah Akhbar! Allah Akhbar!”

Over and over again, the same shout. No sound from Father Bernardo. The sawing continued. The blood pooled around the priest. The head finally came loose from the body and was held up by Abbas for the appreciation of the crowd.
The noise of the crowd swelled:

“Allah Akhbar! Allah Akhbar!”

The men of the crowd, and indeed they were all men, raised their mobile phones and clicked photos of the event. There was whirring, beeping and flashing.
The head was laid on the grass.
The face of the priest stared up unseeingly.
The birds were still singing.

Book Review The State We’re In Adele Parks

First off I must say I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I downloaded it because I saw Adele Parks at The London Author Fair and her segment was witty, informative and interesting.

I was expecting an easy read chick lit type book and it was that but so much more. It starts predictably enough with a dippy Bridget Jones type character who is unlucky in love but incurably romantic and optimistic. She is bumped up to first class while travelling on a plane to Chicago to ruin her ex’s wedding where she is seated next to an unfeasibly good looking advertising executive. So the relationship begins.

As the book develops there is more than the romance. The back stories of the characters are fascinating and their family stories turn out to be interlinked. The ending is not quite what you expect. There are some very poignant scenes which reveal some sad truths about life.

Well worth a look.

Update on my work in progress

My second novel is a kind of literary romance. The action starts in Manchester where Molly falls in love with an Asian boy at university. In spite of obstacles they fall in love and marry. Molly converts to Islam and finds comfort in it. Everything is perfect until Taj, the husband, loses his job. He becomes increasingly distant, spending a lot of time at the mosque and at the houses of friends. One day he joins an aid convoy to Syria and is never heard from again. Molly sets out to find him herself. She does find him but he is not the person she fell in love with. He has become a Jihadi freedom fighter. Molly, desperate to make things work out, joins him and even learns how to fight. Nabeel, a comrade of Taj, declares his love to Molly and asks her to run away with him, leaving the horrors of Syria behind? What will Molly choose to do?

Day 5 Live Below The Line for UNICEF £1 a day

The last day arrived.

Woke early. There is something about this way of living that makes me need less sleep than normal.

Breakfast was porridge with salt and water. It was pretty bland without a sweetener of some kind but filling and warming.

Then I performed my usual yoga, meditation and morning prayers. My legs were STILL aching from the caffeine withdrawal. I began to despair they would ever stop hurting.

I read, researched on the internet, checked my social media and attempted to go for a walk which I abandoned due to heavy rain.

Lunch was rice with a bean burger made with the leftover mix from yesterday. I had now run out of all fresh produce with just oatmeal, rice and pasta left.

I felt a complete lack of energy so decadently watched a film all afternoon: Mulholland Drive. I very much enjoyed it, trying to tease out the meanings.

Dinner was pasta with some parsley from the garden and a little oil. It tasted much better than I expected. I have really come to enjoy the tastes of these simple foods.

So that was my five days complete. I spent the evening watching another film: Byzantium. This was a Gothic vampire tale and good fun. My legs were still aching.

Reflections

I started this campaign really with the idea of raising money for the third world. I had images of starving African children in my head.
As the week progressed I also started thinking about poverty in Britain and how people are affected by it.

I was never really hungry during the week as my five pounds spent at Aldi could buy me a lot of carbohydrate. I had a huge bag of oatmeal, white rice and pasta. These simple carbohydrates were my staples. Normally, I would buy wholegrain versions but these were too expensive. The only fresh produce I could afford was three bananas and a big bag of carrots. When I punched my meals into the app My Fitness Pal I found I was short on vitamins most days.
I was usually too high on carbohydrate but very low in fat and way too low on protein. Poor people cannot afford a balanced diet. Filling up on simple carbs is surely going to lead to obesity and health problems which will put a strain on the NHS further down the line. It is impossible to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day on this kind of income.

The second thought about poverty that struck me was social isolation. It is impossible to join in with the rest of the community to do anything when you have no money. I felt increasingly alienated throughout the week. In the long term I feel this would lead to depression.

My biggest problem was the caffeine withdrawal. It gave me headaches and leg pains. If anyone is thinking of doing this challenge I would strongly suggest factoring in some money for cheap coffee or tea bags.

I felt humbled and I felt more gratitude for what I have. I would never judge the food choices of the poor. I felt incensed at the obscene inequality of income in the world and I now wish to do more to try to alleviate this in whatever small way I can.

I raised £130 for UNICEF and I am grateful to the people who donated. I was a little saddened by those who didn’t.

It was a worth while experience in that I hoped I raised some awareness and I learned things about myself and others.

Day 4 Live below the Line for UNICEF

I had a pretty sleepless night feeling restless and suffering with muscle aches. I had to get up several times for glasses of water as I felt very dehydrated.

I got up early and forced myself to do yoga. It did help my aches.
Then meditation and morning prayers were performed. I felt better.

Thursday is my husband’s day off so it is the day I have human company.

I made oat pancakes for breakfast. Then I read the papers and watched Russia Today.

Lunch was a banana sandwich.

We drove to Woodbridge which is a lovely Suffolk town and rambled about. I had to resist popping into the many coffee shops and pubs. Normally we would have stopped for lunch.

For dinner I made a burger out of mashed kidney beans and grated carrots.  I had this with a baked potato. I had enough mix left over for a burger tomorrow.

In the evening I watched the news and then read. I still had aches in my legs but my headache was virtually gone.

I was thinking again how poverty makes you look at other people differently. You feel a alienated from most people as they are all out and about spending money. There was a Big Issue seller in Wood bridge and I so wanted to give her some money but of course if I was truly poor I wouldn’t be able to.

My mood was reasonably good throughout the day.
One more day to go!