Reading Diary: Feb. 4-Feb. 9

powerIf there were an all-literature version of Pointless (and now that I’ve mentioned it, why isn’t there? It seems like there should be, possibly in the format of a board game that gets sold mostly to nerds and played mostly at our dinner parties and New Year’s Eve get-togethers), and if you were playing the Books Jeanette Winterson Has Written round, The Powerbook would be the answer you’d most want to give. I had no idea she’d written it; Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Sexing the Cherry have overshadowed it, in my mental survey of her oeuvre. I won’t write too much about it here because I’m meant to be discussing it on Twitter at the end of the month with Amy and Naomi. There are three strands to it, though: a series of narratives about separated lovers (literary, mythological, and historical, such as Lancelot/Guinevere and Francesca/Paolo); a counternarrative about a writer and the married woman with whom she falls in love and with whom she cannot be; and a series of far more gnomic but also more seductive utterances about storytelling, story strategies, personae, and power. I’m not convinced that the abstract and concrete sections of The Powerbook fit together as well as they think they do—especially the early sections involving Ali in Istanbul, which read much more like Angela Carter on an uncharacteristically whimsical day than the rest of the book does—but for those short, almost aphoristic passages alone, I’m glad I read this. Follow our discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #ThePowerbook at the end of February (exact date to be announced).

71xeuuzsuolNon-fiction is always harder for me to get excited about, but this came highly recommended, and also has a spot in the top five entries on this list of the top 100 non-fiction books of the 21st century, which I’m using in a casual sort of way to help fill the gaps. It is so very good. Susan Cain’s day job is as a consultant to high-flying businesspeople, mostly helping them to overcome fears like public speaking or giving them skills to negotiate more confidently in the boardroom. Her thesis in Quiet is that one of the most significant factors about a person is whether they are introverted or extroverted, and, moreover, that most people in the Western world are labouring under something known as the Extrovert Ideal, although at least 30% of us, being introverted, are woefully ill-adapted by nature to conform to this ideal. If you are an introvert—especially, I think, if you are an introvert who has learned to project fairly solid social skills—this book will be a revelation to you; I turned the pages with increasing delight and gratitude, thinking This is why I’m so tired after work! This is why I hated working in an open-plan office! This is exactly what I used to feel like in the playground/in the cafeteria/at summer camp! It’s not all my fault!! If you’re not an introvert, statistically you are likely either to marry/date one, parent one, or manage one (or all three) at some point over the course of your lifetime, and Cain’s lucid, insightful book contains some excellent pointers for understanding the introverts in your life. The best thing about Quiet is Cain’s insistence that introverts trying to conform to the Extrovert Ideal can stop running in place; that maybe the way we see the world and handle tasks and respond to stimuli is actually inherently valuable, too, and that extroverts could learn from it. I can see why it’s been lauded to the skies: implementing her suggestions could change corporate culture and increase productivity, but it could also change marriages and families and improve whole lives. (One thing I’d have liked to see more of is an assessment of how the Extrovert Ideal affects men and women differently; how gender and sexual double standards come into play, and so on.)

julian-barnesJulian Barnes. I have decided that he, like his character Susan in this novel, is a member of “a played-out generation”, except he appears to have retained his ability to write a good sentence untainted by the corrosive tang of bitterness. Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie: all have fallen, at one point or another, to their own reputations. Barnes, and possibly Graham Swift (I haven’t read a recent enough book of his to know), remain on point: perhaps a touch more melancholic than they were fifteen years ago, or twenty, but on the whole observing the vagaries of later life with more bemusement than rage. The Only Story seems to support this theory: it is about a nineteen-year-old university student named Paul, who, home for the holidays and made to join the local tennis club, meets and falls in love with a married woman of forty-eight named Susan Macleod. It’s not a summer fling, although the total effect of the book, at least on me, is to make the reader wonder whether it should have been. It’s a real, serious, all-in love affair: Susan moves out of her husband’s house, though she never divorces him, and the two live together in London while Paul trains to become a solicitor. The devastation happens by degrees, as Susan sinks into alcoholism so severe that she damages her own memory. Paul leaves her, or, as he puts it, “hands her back” to her daughter’s care, and she dies probably in her early sixties, consumed by dementia and paranoia. It’s not a happy story, so what are we to make of it?

Barnes writes with a kind of aphoristic certainty that asserts itself even when he is pretending to uncertainty, which is appealing, and lends The Only Story the weight of tragedy that it needs. What I keep asking myself, though – and this is true of almost all the books I read now – is, why this story, and why this way? I don’t know what Julian Barnes wants me to make of a hopelessly romantic but strangely cynical and affectless young man who, to save his own sanity, leaves an older woman who has burned all her boats for him. I don’t know what he wants me to make of that older woman, who always seems disturbingly childish, even in her charming qualities (irreverence, constant laughter). Judging from the many times the text touches on the subject, I think his point is largely to do with differences between generations, but what is that to a reader who is of a generation after Paul? Am I to conclude that my parents’ peers fought their parents and thought themselves progressive, just like my own? Is that such a revelation that I really need Barnes to make me think about it? I feel, as a reader, somehow resistant to The Only Story, and I can’t work out whether that’s inherent to the book, or to me. Maybe I’m too young for it.

51sx7hk0uplRuby Tandoh is the literal exact opposite of Julian Barnes: a young queer woman of colour who seems to epitomise millennial values like self-care and not judging other people. I adore her. Eat Up is not a recipe book or a how-to-eat guide or even the radical manifesto that the publisher, Serpent’s Tail, says it is; it’s a series of intelligent, engaged meditations on food and the role it plays in our lives, and the ways in which our relationship to food intersects with cultural narratives about power, privilege, morality, money, class, race, sex, gender, and worth. Of all the things that take up space in my head on a daily basis, food might well be the biggest: in order to feed myself appropriately, I must contend with the intersections of affordability, Type I diabetes, chronic lack of time, my own tendency to use food as a mechanism for unhealthy self-control and self-punishment, and a spectacular sweet tooth. It’s really fucking hard. Reading Tandoh’s words makes me feel understood and reassured. Yes, she says, food is complicated; no, you don’t have to eat perfectly all the time; there isn’t even any one right way to eat. Her asides on social and cultural history are succinct but thorough: the section on the history of the UK chocolate industry, and sections on queer bodies, poor bodies, and the use of food in film, are particularly good. And she does include perhaps two dozen recipes, scattered throughout the book, every one of which looks delicious and quick and affordable. It’s been years since I’ve been so uncomplicatedly excited about cooking, for myself and others.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: For a week which I mostly spent sick and asleep in bed, not bad at all. Better get going with the proofs again next week, though.

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12 thoughts on “Reading Diary: Feb. 4-Feb. 9

  1. Sorry to hear you’ve not been well; hope you feel better soon!

    I LOVED Quiet and have re-read it several times. I know there have been some important criticisms about pathologising introversion by using it as a label, but I’ve found it so helpful in setting my own boundaries. I’m classically introverted and have become more and more confident in explicitly putting aside time for myself as I’ve got older.

    As an historian of childhood and education, I found her comments on group work in classrooms especially interesting. I’d definitely agree that extroversion has become an explicit childhood norm in Britain since 1945, certainly in early years and primary school, to the detriment of introverted, quiet and/or shy children – especially as it’s often used as a measure of ‘healthy’ development. (Interestingly, teenagers seem to escape this a bit, although only because they have to deal with another set of negative stereotypes about being moody, withdrawn, self-centred and angry!)

    • Yes, the sections on how school and the school day is laid out were some of the most effective for me. It explained a lot about how constantly overwhelmed I felt in my large, noisy high school, to the point of spending every five-minute walk between classes in what amounted to a defensive crouch.

      • Yes! I went to a big comprehensive and only realised after leaving school that I might actually want to socialise and see people – it drained my energy so much that all I wanted at the end of the day was to go home.

  2. As an introvert, I also found Quiet very comforting, and vindicating. I’m glad it was valuable for you.

    I haven’t been excited about Barnes’s new stuff for a long time. I’m sure I’ll read this one eventually, but I can definitely wait until it starts going cheap secondhand or I see it on a library shelf.

    Hope you’re on the mend!

    • Thanks! Feeling a lot better now. Am relieved to hear that someone else is basically unmoved by Barnes; I read The Sense of an Ending and The Noise of Time, and have a memory of vaguely enjoying them, but both have slipped from memory in a way that tends not to happen to books I engage with more.

  3. Annabel (gaskella) says:

    I’ve yet to read Quiet but I must. I’m an introvvert too. I want to read everything you’ve read this week! I might get the Ruby Tandoh for my daughter…

    • I would heartily recommend everything I’ve read this week! (Be careful with The Only Story if you have any experience of alcoholism in someone you love – there are some excellent but potentially traumatic descriptions.) Ruby Tandoh is absolutely amazing and I’d encourage every young woman to read her work, your daughter included!

  4. I loved Quiet. It felt like coming home. I’m interested by the idea of looking at the introvert/extrovert profiles by gender. Fortunately for me, I live with an introvert although I think that makes us a little antisocial at times!

    I’m much closer to their generation than yours but I’ve long been tired of the veneration of Amis, McEwan, Rushdie and Barnes. Helen Dunmore was never talked of when she was alive in the same tones as they have been despite her prodigous talent.

    • It makes me curious because there must, to an extent, be different expectations about extroverted behaviour in men and women; it means a different thing to be the life of the party or the most popular kid at school, depending on whether you’re a boy or a girl.

      More good news about feeling lukewarm towards those Big Four! Of Helen Dunmore’s work, I’ve only read A Spell of Winter, which I thought was an absolutely astonishing book; it’s interesting to consider her as a female equivalent to those guys. (So many of my customers list Barnes and McEwan as favourite authors; perhaps Dunmore is an author they’d also enjoy.)

      • Interestingly, both my partner and I are fairly good at donning outgoing personalities when needed but he’s much better at it than I am. Perhaps gender plays into that.

        I’ve been beating that Dunmore drum for many years…

      • Yes, and one of the best things about Quiet is how Susan Cain acknowledges the difference between shyness and introversion. Plenty of introverts are great at parties, work in customer-facing roles, etc., which is probably where the confusion comes in; people think “But I like people! I work with them all the time! I can’t possibly be an introvert!”

        Inspired by your Dunmore love, I have literally just started reading a copy of Exposure from my grandparents’ bookshelf, and it’s excellent.

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