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.

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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.

The Bookish Naughty List Tag

Not that I believe in bookish “sins”, really, but a good tag is hard to find. This one was originally created by A Page of Jenniely, and I’ve borrowed it from Cleo.

1. Received an ARC and not reviewed it?

All the time. This has become more of a thing since starting to work in a bookshop: previously, proofs sent to me for review on the blog were my only source of free advance copies. They now come from the shop as well. Consequently, the books that are actually sent to my house by publishers constitute only a fraction of the proofs that come my way, and many of them aren’t ones I would choose to read or review, so I often don’t.

2. Have less than 60% feedback rating on NetGalley?

Ahaha. Yes, probably. I keep forgetting that NetGalley demands reviews from you, and then having to hastily copy/paste whatever I put on Goodreads or the blog.

3. Rated a book on Goodreads and promised a full review was to come on your blog (and never did)?

I do this pretty regularly, or at least I did before instating the Reading Diary format on the blog; that keeps me a little more honest.

4. Folded down the page of a book?

Yeah, obviously. I use bookmarks as much as I can, but if there are multiple pages or passages I want to flag, folding down the page is a lot easier than hunting down some mini Post-its.

5. Skim read a book?

Very, very rarely. For the Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel, I skimmed Outlandish Knight, because it was six hundred pages long and there was a time crunch. I used a technique that my colleague Zoe, who studied history, told me about: read the first and last two pages of every chapter, going into more depth only if you’re really interested.

6. DNF a book this year?

This probably depends on how you qualify a DNF. I read the first two or three pages of The Optickal Illusion yesterday and decided not to commit to reading it; does that count?

7. Bought a book purely because it was pretty with no intention of reading it?

I’m skint. I can’t afford to buy books just because I think they’re pwetty.

8. Read whilst you were meant to be doing something else?

I think you mean “read whilst actually doing something else”. I have stirred a sauce, cleaned a shower, shopped for groceries, walked to work, watched TV, and sat in the back of my tenth-grade chemistry class whilst reading. I’ve not yet managed to combine reading with sex, but it’s probably only a matter of time.

9. Accidentally spilled on a book

No, but I spill things on myself all the time as a result of book-related multi-tasking. Dropping things is a close second: I often overestimate my ability to simultaneously hold a laptop, an open paperback, my phone, and a glass of water.

10. Completely missed your Goodreads goal?

No, but this is probably because I a) set my Goodreads goals realistically, and b) read like the wind until the point in the year when I know I’m going to make it.

11. Borrowed a book and not returned it?

Very few people lend me books, so the issue rarely arises. I did steal a not-insignificant number of books from various primary school classrooms, though.

12. Broke a book buying ban?

Can’t break a ban you never instated.

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13. Started a review, left it for ages then forgot what the book was about?

This used to happen all the time when my primary blogging strategy was to do full-length reviews. It’s one of the reasons I started doing monthly Superlative roundups, and has influenced the development of the Reading Diary format.

14. Wrote in a book you were reading?

Yeah. Good luck doing an English degree if you don’t annotate your texts.

15. Finished a book and not added it to your Goodreads?

The documentary impulse is strong in me: I get very antsy if I finish a book and can’t add it to Goodreads before midnight that night (so that my Reading Challenge stats stay accurate, obvs).

 

Feel free to join in, if you want absolution from your bookish sins…

In 2017

I never used to believe in New Year’s resolutions. I never used to believe in the New Year starting in January, either; for me it has usually started with a new academic year, in the autumn, and all of that post-Christmas guilt stuff was just an excuse for self-flagellation and meanness. This year I’ve kind of changed my mind. There are some things I want to do in 2018, including taking up yoga again, finishing a first draft of this goddamn novel, and eating more mindfully. But resolutions, like dreams, are rarely interesting to anyone else, and, like dreams, rarely appear fully-formed.

My most long-standing New Year’s tradition is to look back over what I’ve done during the past twelve months. Usually the good outweighs the bad. This year was a decidedly mixed bag. Miserable shit happened. There was also much rejoicing. A lot of 2017 was about surviving and persisting and taking control of my own thoughts. I did that, and I’m proud of that.

In 2017, in roughly chronological order, I:

landed my dream job

bought some spectacular gold shoes for £3

showed my mama around the London I know

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learned to love Bach

served on the Baileys Prize shadow panel

had my heart broken

moved house

survived a sexual assault, in the same week that I moved house

…and now disclosed it to more people than ever

used my dining rights at my old college with friends

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explored my new neighbourhood

found some great free museum cafes to write in

writing cafe

turned 25

visited home for the first time in almost two years

went vintage shop-hopping with my badass brother

witnessed a solar eclipse

was reunited (and got absolutely shirt-waisted) with my Govies: Matt, Jon, and Red

took a Greyhound bus

watched the sun rise over London from the roof of my new house

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welcomed dear friends to my new home

bought my first ever house plant

celebrated my goddaughter’s first birthday

consulted on hair, makeup, dresses and shoes for my cousin Sarah’s wedding next April

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sang at Liverpool Cathedral (during the aftermath of Storm Brian!)

bought the most majestic floor-length velvet dress the world has ever seen

served on the Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel

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rejoiced in the marriage of two wonderful humans, Helen and Charlie

made it to 120K words of my novel

led the music on Christmas Day at my grandparents’ parish church

earned the trust of my auntie’s traumatised rescue puppy

traveled to Scotland to celebrate the New Year with my godparents

read 181 (and a half) books

 

Of men and land

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Once I wrote a poem, and called it “to all the men I’ve slept with”. It wasn’t the sort of poem you might think. It was about leaving the city and going North, as far North as you can go in this country, to stand on a green cliff and look at the sea. I wanted, when I wrote it, to be able to walk with someone, quietly. “Shiver/in your sleep,” I wrote, “and we’ll wake each other warm./Up there the sky throws salt to tell a fortune/you can’t read.” It did not seem necessary to imagine conversation, or interpretation; we would see what was in front of us, we would see the land and know it, and that would be enough.

I have always wanted to show the men I loved a piece of land. I have taken them to the top of the South Downs and made them see the green turf and the white chalk and the trees in the valleys, demanded that they love it and understand it as fiercely and fully as they loved me. I have wanted to take them to the place I grew up, where the grass reaches to your waist in the summer and the sky bakes white, but the mountains loom blue. One of them, at least, wanted the same, and I obliged him by loving the naked hills and cold streams of Cumbria with all my heart. For some of us, it is land that makes and ties us—even those of us who belong not to one place but to many—and I wonder sometimes how a person might turn out differently if they were born to more or less dramatic landscapes: to mountains or plains, plains or deserts.

Owning the land is not important. A title deed makes no difference one way or the other. It is not a legal right that I claim, but a spiritual one. My heart owns a place in front of a spinney on top of a hill in Sussex; it owns a field spanned by curving mown paths and dotted with tangles of blackberry vines; it owns one particular fell, at one particular violent sunset. I have no more of a right to these places than anyone else, but I certainly have no less.

And why is it that places to which I truly have no right, places I have only ever entered as a guest, seem to have a claim on me? That, for instance, a freezing chateau west and south of Paris, where I sat on a green sofa and wrote part of my book by candlelight with numb fingers; where I went so hungry that it felt like sickness, until a late supper—steak and pasta, nothing fancy, but still perhaps the most welcome meal I have ever eaten; where I drank French whisky and talked about concert pianists with the friend who owned the place; that it should feel as terrible a loss, now that I can never go there again, as the loss of a person does? Why should the smell of cigarettes and the taste of weak tea and cold February morning sunlight make me think of this place with what I can only call homesickness? How can merely having been happy—even as happy as I was there—have such a long half-life?

It goes the other way, too, of course. Places have been poisoned for years. There are buildings, streets—there are whole towns—which have been so out of bounds to me that even seeing the names of the places written down, or hearing them in passing on the news, was sharply painful, so that I would have to stop, or sit, or turn away. To lose a place has always seemed a peculiarly terrible punishment. It is not only the past that is taken from you, then, but the future too; you must shape your steps in other ways, take different roads home or avoid a certain intersection at a certain time of day, and you feel you will never walk whole and carelessly again.

A few years ago, a man showed me a place. I didn’t know what to expect; we knew each other well enough, as these things go, but I could not guess what he might want me to see. We drove for an hour or so, quiet almost all the way, because I was afraid to say something that might sound stupid. And then we crested a hill, and this valley opened out—all steep sides and soft grass, with sheep grazing in it, and a little river running through it, and some half-hidden stone houses—and I have never felt so much as though someone were tossing me a gift. How can I explain it? I had probably said, in passing, that I liked this sort of thing: open hillsides, swift water, that feeling of being both outdoors and within a space as structured, in its own way, as a great cathedral. But to be taken to such a place, almost without explanation, by someone who also loved it… It was as though a friend, pawing through clothes to take to charity, had found a ballgown and handed it to me.

There is something of sex and something of death in this obsession, I’m well aware. The giving of precious things doesn’t have to happen in bed—or at least not always—and the bestowing of a beloved prospect is an act of trust, as much as taking off your clothes is. The love of a place is intensely bound up with a sense both of freedom and of safety. Love itself is the mixing of those things: a beloved person is one with whom I feel both free and safe. And where I feel free and safe, I feel I could die with perfect happiness. In every place I’ve loved, at some point I have had the same compulsion—whether I act on it or not—to lie down on the ground, to try to melt and mingle into the earth. To consummate, or be consumed. Sex and death. Would it be so bad? Like Wordsworth’s Lucy: “roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course,/With rocks, and stones, and trees.”

I am still a young woman, still seeking a future. Maybe, every time, it is simply a way of posing a question, an idle curiosity that is also—as all questions are—a test. Will you come away?