Three Things: November 2018

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With thanks to Paula of Book Jotter for hosting—new participants always welcome!

Reading: This month, I read a lot of proofs of things that aren’t out until January, which is frustrating because it means I can’t sell them to people right away. I also did an extremely silly and self-indulgent thing: on a Friday that I took off in lieu of overtime pay, I walked into Crouch End and bought *checks notes* eight new books. There’s a Waterstones there, but I went to a little place round the corner called House of Books which must have some kind of deal with distributors, because, like Minster Gate Bookshop in York, you can get quite a lot of titles from particular publishers (especially Gollancz, Wordsworth Classics, and Vintage Classics) for £3 each. Reading as a bookseller is so often a question of being entranced by proofs for the Next Big Thing; selecting books purely for pleasure felt like such a glorious luxury. From that pile, I’ve already read Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen; The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell; and Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre. Every one of them is wonderful. (Reviews forthcoming.)

Looking: I am OBSESSED with Dynasties, the new David Attenborough series about animal families. The first episode, which is set in a troop of chimpanzees, is positively Shakespearean: the shocking physical violence, mob psychology and cunning strategic moves wouldn’t be out of place in a production of Coriolanus. Several episodes since then, including the one on emperor penguins, have been less obviously political tragedy but still extremely moving. The most recent, on painted wolves, was another family saga of inter-generational rivalry (a matriarch’s daughter forms another pack and challenges her for territory) and bloody vengeance (one pack kills a pup from the other group in battle; it was Titus Andronicus with dogs). Riveting.

Thinking: There hasn’t been much time to think recently. I can feel whatever thoughts are generated pinging around the inside of my head like trapped moths. Mostly, at the moment, I’m trying to get up the gall to write the chapter that includes the key scene of my novel-in-progress. It’s not a sex scene, before you ask, but it’s going to be awfully difficult and I think I’m psyching myself out about it, a little. I know how to lead up to it, and I know how to approach the scene itself, but I need whoever reads this book to be really convinced of the protagonist’s state of mind in order for it to make sense, and I can’t quite let go and trust that I’ve done enough. Any advice?!

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Three Things: October 2018

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With thanks to Paula of Book Jotter for hosting—new participants always welcome!

Reading: I read so much less this month while I was in the States (five books over two weeks), and you know what? It felt great. It’s never been like that before. I’ve always felt vaguely guilty about slowing my pace, although it happens every time I go to stay with family. This time, it was perfect. Perhaps it’s time that I admitted it: professional reading is wonderful, but it’s exhausting. Just because I can read five books in a working week doesn’t mean I always should. And in the meantime? Apple picking, mountain hiking, cheese-eating, wine and cider-drinking, dress shopping, downtown strolling, coffee sipping, novel writing, movie-watching, TV-lounging, dog-petting. Most of all, spending time with my family (both extended and immediate), and with some stalwart old friends.

Looking: The West Wing is available in the US on Netflix, which is not the case in the UK. During a weekend in which my parents left me alone in the house while they drove to New York to see my brother in a play (I couldn’t go; I had a wedding to attend), I watched the entire first season in two days and started the second. The show was always basically fantasy, but it is now, astonishingly, a period piece. There’s a moment – not a big one, in the grand mythology of The West Wing, but it stuck out to me – where the press secretary, CJ Cregg (played with impeccable wit and weirdness by Allison Janney), informs the White House Press Corps that the President has done a certain thing despite not being legally obliged to do it. It turns out that this isn’t true: the law does, in fact, require him to do what he’s done. There is agonizing in the communications department about this. CJ is really worried about it; although no one is likely to find out or be hurt by it, it matters enormously to her and to her colleagues. I nearly had to turn the TV off for a minute just to absorb the fundamental integrity of that, and to consider the absurd, mendacious shitshow of the current White House press secretary, not to mention her predecessor. Imagine Sarah Huckabee Sanders being worried about having lied to the press. Imagine Sean Spicer even noticing that he’d lied to the press. Jesus wept.

We also went to the cinema en famille and saw First Man, but I don’t actually want to write about it; the more interesting thing that I watched recently was the third episode of the new Doctor Who, which is about Rosa Parks. For the most part I’ve been enjoying the new season of Who: Jodie Whittaker is amazing in a lot of ways, even if she still has to convince me of who her character is now (as opposed to who or what she isn’t). (That said, the writers have built in some acknowledgment of this; more than once this season, we’ve heard her say that she’s still figuring out her personality in this new incarnation.) There are things about the Rosa Parks episode that are weird, though. First of all: no Alabama accent sounds like the ones we heard on screen. Some of the actors came awfully close at times, but…no dice. Second of all: the idea that Rosa Parks’s protest is a fixed point in time without which the civil rights movement would never have happened is categorically false. Was it hugely and immediately symbolic? Yep. Was the curation of that symbolism also pretty carefully planned by people like Dr. King (who makes a cameo appearance in this episode) and other leaders in the black civil rights community? Also yep. I’m not denying Parks’s importance, but I don’t think it’s right to attribute everything that followed to her actions, nor is it right to portray those actions as the result of a purely emotional response to mistreatment. Parks wasn’t the first person to protest bus segregation in this way, but – as in the case of Loving v. Virginia – the NAACP considered her the most promising candidate for seeing through a court challenge after her arrest. I get that it’s hard to put all of civil rights history into a 40-minute episode, but possibly that’s a good reason for thinking really hard before you try to make a 40-minute episode that claims to pinpoint the moment that catalysed all of civil rights history.

Thinking: Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve been thinking about voting. A lot. Ordinarily I vote absentee, with a ballot that the State of Virginia sends me through the post (unclear why we can’t all just use email, unless it’s because of the Russians, but clearly they haven’t been daunted so far). This year that didn’t work, for a reason sufficiently obscure to me, even now, that I still kind of suspect the Russians were involved somehow. Anyway, thank God, I was home two weeks before the elections, so I went and voted early in person. Voting is the most incredible privilege, you guys. Anyone who is not white, a man, over thirty, and a property owner needs to know that. People died – were shot, were trampled, were lynched – for our right to do this. Do you rent your house or flat? You owe your suffrage to people who died for it. If you’re a woman, a person of colour, a woman of colour (double whammy), you owe your suffrage to people who died for it. If you’re between the ages of eighteen and thirty, of either sex and any gender, you owe your suffrage to people who died for it. My generation is supposedly apathetic about politics, but to be honest, most of the people who I see engaging most passionately with the issues of the day are my age. No matter your age, you have to vote when there’s an election. It is non-negotiable as part of life in a democracy. It doesn’t matter if your work day is busy. It doesn’t matter if your kids are vomiting and your babysitter’s just quit. It doesn’t matter if none of the candidates “excite” you. Not everything is always going to be perfect about your political options. You still have to vote when there’s an election. (I get to vote in the elections of two countries. I’ve only ever missed one election, in the UK, and that’s because I moved house the day before and had no idea an election was happening in that borough.) Everyone. Has. To. Vote.

Three Things: September 2018

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With thanks to Paula of Book Jotter for hosting—new participants always welcome!

Reading: I’ve written about my holiday reading here (the photo above is of a sunset from the terrace of my Airbnb, in the Schaerbeeke neighbourhood of Brussels). Apart from that, mostly what I read was actually my own work: I wrote over a thousand words a day while on holiday, and when I wasn’t writing, I was going back in the text to try and smooth out earlier bits of the manuscript that don’t make sense anymore. It is an activity simultaneously deathly boring and very exciting.

Looking: For once, I caught up with the television that everyone’s talking about, and watched Bodyguard. Two things to say about that: first of all, it is a work of absolute screenwriting genius. How the script and the shots and the actors manage to maintain tension for so long is absolutely beyond me (as the Guardian noted in its review of the first episode, it’s a credit to the writers that it seemed genuinely likely [SPOILERS AHEAD] Nadia might be shot in the head even after surrendering and stepping down from the train). Secondly: I’ve talked about this a little bit on Twitter, but the show gets casual inclusivity more right than most TV thrillers. In episode one, the unit commander, train guard, and explosives officer are all women. The Home Secretary, Head of Counterterrorism, and head of the Met special protection unit are all women. In episode 3, when we meet the two internal detectives, they’re a man and a woman, both of colour. The male explosives officer called to the scene in episode 6 is of colour. David Budd’s colleague on the protection squad, who dies in episode 3, is a woman (with a non-RP accent). No plot points revolve around this casting; it just is what it is, and I think that’s the way to do it.

Thinking: There hasn’t been a lot of time to do much thinking recently. It’s been two weeks since I wasn’t out four nights of five. You know what is nice, though, and what’s been taking up space in my head more than anything? How glorious this weather is. The air is cool and crisp, there’s sunshine more days than not, and the sky is blue. It won’t last for long – London will shortly plunge itself into its customary five months of gloom – but while it does, it is the most beautiful thing. I’m going back to the States in a fortnight to visit. The blue skies and mountain foliage near my parents’ house are ultra-reliable at this time of the year, and I’m already getting excited about jumpers and hiking and maybe picking some apples.

Three Things: July 2018

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With thanks to Paula of Book Jotter for hosting—new participants always welcome!

Reading: Apart from continuing with 20 Books of Summer, and trying to deal with my newly expanded pile of proofs for the autumn, I’ve found time to trawl the archives of Adam Roberts’s blog (or one of them, anyway), Morphosis. Roberts is a writer of SF whose work is weird and erudite and very far up my street: his most recent book is a virtual-reality murder mystery called The Real-Town Murders, but he’s probably best known for Jack Glass, which is apparently a mindfuck, and Yellow Blue Tibia, about a bunch of Soviet science fiction authors whose Stalin-approved group writing project appears to be coming true. Morphosis contains Roberts’s intellectual musings on things as diverse as John Bunyan, Cicero’s De officiis, and Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ready Player One. This is to say, it takes seriously enough to examine critically a combination of high and low culture that I find massively enjoyable, and Roberts always articulates himself with enviable precision and perceptiveness. The whole blog goes as far back as 2013: plenty to explore.

Looking: The view from my sitting room never ceases to delight me. We have two enormous, tall windows—they’re one of the main reasons we took this flat in the first place—and you can see half the street from them, or it feels like it. People with their shopping; a man pushing a buggy; a woman struggling to keep her headscarf tidy against the wind. And the houses: the one opposite us has window baskets and a blue door, and their next-door neighbour has geraniums and begonias spilling out of every window. Especially in the sunshine, to sit here and drink coffee or write or eat breakfast is one of my life’s simplest joys.

Thinking: The other night I was listening to Sheryl Crow’s early album, The Globe Sessions, and her voice was so much more raw and full and stripped-back, all at the same time, than it ever has been in her more “produced” albums, and she was playing the guitar in this strum-and-punch style that feels like the epitome of modern country. And the air in my flat was hot and close, so that I could only bear to be wearing a t-shirt, and all the lights were off but I had a candle burning, and the ice in my drink was melting, and there had been a thunderstorm, and I felt like I’d time traveled back to, oh, 2003, maybe, to one of the muggy Virginia summers of my childhood or adolescence, when everything was lonely and passionate and painful and glorious. Isn’t it strange how music can do that? Music, and the weather. Memory is odd.

Man Booker Prize 2018: What I Want

The Man Booker Prize longlist is announced tomorrow, and if it were up to me (and, frankly, why isn’t it?), here’s what would be on it. These are all books that I’ve read, so it’s unlikely to correspond in every particular to the list that the panel comes up with; but it does represent the best new books I’ve experienced over the past twelve months. In order of author’s surname:

methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2fdc39ec8e-9c61-11e7-a7be-33f2196a0804Mrs Osmond, by John Banville. A follow-up to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, revealing what Isabel Osmond actually does to escape her marriage to the odious Gilbert. As a technical achievement it’s stunning; attempts to mimic late-C19 prose often end badly, reading as parody or pastiche, but Banville’s control and intelligence means that he manages precisely to ventriloquise a Jamesian style, albeit a slightly less gnarly one. 

cover121907-mediumThe House of Impossible Beauties, by Joseph Cassara. Cassara’s prose is so evocative; he effortlessly summons the smells and sounds and sights of a world most of his readers will know nothing of—the piers where kings, queens and johns cruise and mingle; Times Square strip joints; bars on Christopher Street—and his dialogue is perfect, witty and human and liberally sprinkled with Spanglish.

gnomon-tpbGnomon, by Nick Harkaway.  Set in a near-future Britain where surveillance is total and civil order is maintained by a System that occasionally hauls in potential dissidents for a full mind-read, Gnomon follows a detective assigned to a case when a woman dies in custody. In the files of the dead woman’s consciousness, she finds four other minds that aren’t meant to be there… Mind-bending, inventive, wondrous, and very, very funny.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707The Western Wind, by Samantha Harvey. Harvey sets her novel in fourteenth-century Oakham, a small and isolated village in Somerset (travellers who get lost in the area tend to end up in Wales). As the book opens, a local man has drowned in the river, and the village priest is under pressure to find his killer. It’s a very slow-rolling book, like a river after a flood but before the waters have gone back down, with a lot of unobvious things churning about in its depths.

isbn9781444784671Now We Shall Be  Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller. I know I’ve just read it, but I don’t think my love for it is a side effect of its recentness. Set in 1809, just after the Spanish campaign of the Peninsular War, it follows John Lacroix as he travels north into the Hebrides, trying to escape his memories of complicity in the conflict he has just fled. Beautiful, spare but evocative writing, and a sense of real historical groundedness.

51xgptmawcl-_sx321_bo1204203200_The Wanderers, by Tim Pears. Set in Devon and Cornwall in 1913, as Leo Sercombe is cast out of his home on the Prideaux estate in Devon for some crime which remains unspecified. Pears’s writing, both about nature and about the complexities of the human heart, is delicate and precise and always slightly oblique; he is the master of presenting a situation or a piece of dialogue without comment, and letting the reader conclude what she will.

isbn9781473667792A Shout in the Ruins, by Kevin Powers. Alternating between chapters set during the American Civil War, and chapters set in the 1960s and 1980s, during which the Vietnam War and its aftermath crops up regularly, Powers presents the evils of slavery fully, but in a way that doesn’t read with the almost pornographic flavour of explicit violence. It feels as though the book respects its characters, even as their lives are made increasingly difficult.

a1lfnmiqzalThe Overstory, by Richard Powers. Maybe his most ambitious book yet: it seeks, essentially, to instill in its reader a sense of sympathy and identification with trees. The reason it works so well, I think, is partly because Powers takes his time to establish the stories of each character, and partly because his writing about geological time, and about the biological miracle of plant life, is so stunningly beautiful. Quite possibly the best book I’ve read, or will read, this year.

31937362The Italian Teacher, by Tom Rachman. What does it mean to be an artist? What constitutes art? Does genius excuse monstrosity? Twentieth century art and art criticism, the terrible void inherent in the knowledge that artistic value is a mere function of consensus, and the anxiety of influence not only from artist to artist, but from father to son: Rachman deals with them all, in this deeply engrossing and deeply moving novel.

51ehaprfykl-_sx327_bo1204203200_Painter To the King, by Amy Sackville. In her third novel, Sackville zooms all the way in on Diego Velazquez’s life and work at the court of Felipe IV. While it might be described as a fictional biography, what Painter to the King does most consistently and remarkably is convey what it feels like to be someone who sees the world as a painter – as this particular painter – does.

9780571336333The Madonna of the Mountains, by Elise Valmorbida. Quiet, but brilliant: it feels effortlessly emotionally engaging, without resorting to either melodrama or apparent anachronism. Reading it really feels as if you are peering into the head of, let’s say, your great-grandmother; someone whose world is not your world, whose socially conditioned responses are alien to your own. One of the most restrained, yet profoundly convincing, historical novels that I’ve read in years, perhaps ever.

sing-unburied-sing-300x0Sing Unburied Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. It’s a road trip novel; it’s an examination of American racism and history; it’s modern-day Faulkner, lyrical and elegiac. Jojo, our young narrator, will stay with you for a long time, as will his strong love for his baby sister Kayla and his mother Leonie’s desperation to bring her boyfriend Michael home from prison. An utterly stunning book.

36441056The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch.  I described it on Goodreads as “Angela Carter in space”, which I stand by. There is so much going on in this book about bodies, the female body especially, and the reproductive capacities of the female body; how bodies can literally tell stories, carry history; never have I been made so aware of the body as the ultimate site of political resistance. It is resonant with where we are now, as a world, in ways that are both subtle and in-your-face.

Other books that I think might well end up on the longlist: Happiness by Aminatta Forna; Warlight by Michael Ondaatje; The Only Story by Julian Barnes (please God no); I suppose it’s possible that the ubiquitous Eleanor Oliphant will end up with a spot, in which case I will actually cry; The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock; Crudo by Olivia Laing; Transcription by Kate Atkinson.

We. Shall. See. Do any of you have predictions/desires for the Man Booker long list?

Three Things, June 2018

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With thanks to Paula of Book Jotter for hosting—new participants always welcome!

Reading: I’m halfway through 20 Books of Summer, which is satisfying, and nearly caught up on reviews too. I’ve also started a singing gig at a church in west London, though, so I’ve actually been reading a lot of music. It’s a quartet or a solo every other week—they don’t have the budget for more, and I’m pretty happy having at least half my Sundays free while earning gin money the other half. Learning repertoire has always been one of my favourite things to do; last week the director of music introduced me to two Haydn duets from The Creation, which is a generally ridiculous piece (it was first written in English, then translated into German, then retranslated into English from the German, so the text is even more affected than your usual Georgian oratorio), but the duets are lovely. Here‘s one (ends at 3:45), and here‘s the other (ends at 3:09).

Looking: We finally bought a TV license. I resent having to buy a TV license when we don’t actually own a television, and I particularly resent having to pay the full year’s amount when we’re only making the purchase in June. On the upside, I suppose, this means we can watch the World Cup (which we’re not), and, um, reruns of Planet Earth or whatever. What’s good on the BBC these days? Netflix is more of my go-to at the moment; I’ve finally caught all the way up with Drag Race, have been amusing myself with the shonky-ness of Nailed It, and am under strict instructions to start watching Queer Eye, like, yesterday.

Thinking: Everyone else in Britain is freaking out about Brexit, and you know, I get it, but right now I’m way more worried about Justice Kennedy’s announcement that he’s retiring from the Supreme Court. Any Trump nominee will be anti-choice, and that shifts the balance of voting power on the Court; although, as my mother points out, Chief Justice Roberts surprised everyone with his vote on the Affordable Care Act, I still think it’s wise to prepare for a near future (let’s say eighteen months) in which safe, legal abortion is inaccessible in probably half of the American states. I know that at least one woman in my family received an illegal abortion, before Roe v. Wade passed, and it is beyond gutting to realise that, in two generations, we’ll have come full circle. I actually don’t have the words for this one.

Pre-Women’s Prize Shortlist Meeting Thoughts

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The Women’s Prize shadow panel is meeting on Saturday to choose our shortlist. I am not, strictly speaking, ready. There are three books on the longlist that I have yet to read, or even manage to source: The Idiot by Elif Batuman; Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan; and A Boy in Winter, by Rachel Seiffert. The amount of guilt I feel about this is both profound and defensive: I feel awful for not completing, but I would also like to point out that I have not had a single free weekend since the 17th of March, and of those four weekends, three of them have required me to be out of London overnight. (The other one was the weekend in which I moved house.) So, sure, I could have done better with Women’s Prize reading, but part of not being completely mentally ill, for me, involves acknowledging when things are out of my control, and this past month has been completely and utterly out of my control.

Luckily, I already have an ideal shortlist in my own head, and I doubt that any of the three titles above would change that much.

If it were up to me, the shortlist would run like this:

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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar. Not only is it spectacularly well-researched historical fiction; it also captures the spirit of eighteenth-century London, the dirt and the laughter and the skull beneath the skin.

 

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Sight, by Jessie Greengrass. Although it didn’t speak to me personally as strongly as I had hoped, it’s a very skillful piece of writing on very topical issues: motherhood, autonomy, bodies. I think it’s probably a strong contender for ultimate winner, actually.

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Elmet, by Fiona Mozley. The writing is powerful and muscular and sure of itself, and Mozley integrates the anger of Generation Rent with the anger of those pushed off the land from time immemorial. It’s not a long book, but make no mistake, it’s a heavyweight.

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Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie. A spectacular, furious book about what it feels like to be pigeonholed, marginalised, and permanently suspected by your own country. It’s dramatic and relevant and although Shamsie’s writing doesn’t always do it for me, her vision and execution are consistent enough for this to deserve a place.

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The Trick to Time, by Kit de Waal. It’s on the second tier of this hoped-for shortlist – I don’t think it has the emotional punch or sophistication of Elmet or Sing, Unburied – but de Waal has a way of writing about people’s weaknesses that is unbearably moving, never sappy or saccharine.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. This is a very interesting paperback cover choice. It’s much more commercial; one of my colleagues initially thought it was YA. That might be smart on Bloomsbury’s part, because my money and my heart are both with Ward to win, and if she does, the general reader might want a cover that doesn’t hint too heavily at the elements of this book that are dark and knotty and Faulkner-esque (not so much in the style as in the themes).


As for who will ultimately win, there are really only two choices that will be completely satisfying: Elmet or Sing, Unburied, Sing. At a push, I would accept Sight‘s victory with equanimity. The others on the longlist are – most of them – good, but Mozley and Ward are in a league of their own: in terms of their skill with words and structure, in terms of their ability to develop characters into real-feeling people, and in terms of their level of intellectual engagement with the questions and problems their own books ask.

There are fewer books that I would actually kick and scream about seeing on the shortlist or winning, but Three Things About ElsieMiss Burma and Eleanor Oliphant would all, I’m afraid, be travesties. Elsie is heavy-handed with its moral; Miss Burma should not have been written as fiction in the first place, or else should have been written with greater dedication to fictionalising; and Eleanor Oliphant, while undeniably fun, relies heavily on some lazy generalisations about the behaviour of traumatised and autistic people (which it unfortunately tends to conflate). None of them ought to make the shortlist. I’d also be annoyed if The Ministry of Utmost Happiness made it, but that’s less because it’s substantially bad and more because it’s just a perfectly average book that happens to have been written by Arundhati Roy, and that’s not a good enough reason to shortlist anything.

Am I missing out on Batuman, Egan or Seiffert? Am I completely wrong about Mozley, or de Waal, or Greengrass, or Honeyman? (Obviously not, but feel free to try and convince me otherwise.)

A full report from the shadow panel will be forthcoming after the weekend.