Gilead

Last Sunday was a very good day and a very beautiful one: I did the work I intended to do in the morning, finishing up a review for Litro and doing the research I’d planned, and then I went for a walk to the nearest Little Free Library to drop off some proofs and old books, which is a roundtrip of about forty minutes. The weather was beautiful; it was the first day of this year that the air didn’t bite, which is always a good day, and the sun was shining in between scraps of drifting cloud. I started off in my jacket but didn’t need it. There were crocuses and snowdrops and daffodils in gardens every other block. On the way home, I bought a fourpack of tinned cider. We no longer have access to a garden, so instead I sat on our front step, barefoot and wearing sunglasses, and drank my way through three tinnies (waving at the downstairs neighbours through their front room curtains when I returned with refills), and re-read a book both completely beautiful and completely irrelevant to any other project I’m working on right now, which is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. According to my book journal, the last time I read this was in February 2008, which would have been my sophomore year of high school. I’ve read Robinson more recently than that—her fourth novel, Lila, made a huge impression on me over Christmas in 2015—but although I did remember the outline of Gilead, much of the detail was lost on me as a fifteen-year-old reader, and probably rightly so. Returning to it at twenty-eight was a good choice.

Better criticism on Marilynne Robinson’s work has been written than I can muster in the morning hour before work, I’m afraid, so this is not going to be a critical essay, just a few comments and responses to what I saw in Gilead this time around. First of all, it is almost the only mainstream contemporary novel I can think of that takes seriously, and allows its characters to take seriously, the notion of divinity as Christian tradition frames it. (The only other one that springs to mind, apart from Robinson’s other work, is Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon. Possibly William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace, though there’s a distance between the characters and the narrator, who is looking back on events after several decades, that renders faith less potent somehow. Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River is not in the same category, to my mind, because the purpose of God in that novel is to dazzle the reader with miracle and sentiment, and in my experience that is not a representative modus operandi for God in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. I’m willing to change my mind, though.) John Ames, the minister who is writing the entire book as a letter to his young son, born to him in old age, has lived his entire life within this framework of religious belief, although he has not been without doubt. It allows him, and Robinson, to wrestle genuinely with the ideas of grace and redemption that other writers can only gesture at because the stakes in those novels are not as high. In Gilead, it is not only Jack Boughton, the prodigal son, who needs redeeming; it is also, and urgently, John Ames himself, whose jealousy, misunderstanding and distrust must be overcome if he is to die well and rest peacefully. Blessing Jack, as Jack’s father (also a minister) cannot do, is the crowning redemptive act of John Ames’s life, and when he does it at the end of the book, he has reached a peace with God and himself, the legacies of his own father and grandfather, and left a good legacy for his son. (Significantly, also, Jack’s full name is John Ames Boughton; he is named after Ames, who lost a wife and child of his own as a young man, and Ames acknowledges that Jack is as much his son, in the ways that matter, as Boughton’s. Jack’s fate, in other words, is tied to Ames’s own. He carries the name forward into the world, making his forgiveness and redemption that much more a matter of personal urgency.)

Noticeable, also, is the presence of the American Civil War, which is threaded through the book with Robinson’s characteristic narrative subtlety. This was something I almost entirely missed when reading it as a teenager. John Ames’s grandfather, we learn, was a radical abolitionist preacher who came to “Bleeding Kansas” in the days when the fate of that state—it was about to enter the Union; would it be slave-holding or free?—seemed to hold the key to the fate of the nation. Old Ames, as I’ll call him, was uncompromising: he fought with the rebel John Brown, was hunted by Confederate soldiers, founded hamlets that existed only for the safe passage of fugitive slaves headed for Canada, and converted indifferent settler towns to the anti-slavery cause through tireless preaching. He is, of course, an impossible figure to live up to. As an old man, we are told, he was a pathological giver-away of things, to an extent that distressed and embarrassed his children and other townspeople: his adult daughter takes to hiding coins in jars of food in the pantry; more than once Ames remembers him taking clothes off of washing lines to give to vagrants; there is a memory of him emptying the entire collecting plate at the Presbyterian church into his hat one Sunday. Near the end of his life, he flees Gilead altogether and returns to Kansas, without telling the rest of his family where he has gone. Old Ames is haunted, in other words, by abolition and by what he has seen in the war. He has given his life to a cause and now it consumes him. A preacher who has killed, a freedom fighter who sees the rise of Jim Crow laws and sharecropping, and knows that little has changed despite the blood that was spilt, cannot rest anywhere. John Ames writes that he knows his father was a disappointment to his grandfather, and that he disappointed his father in turn: they are, not to put too fine an allegorical point on it, representative of the generations of post-Civil War America. They cannot help but fail to live up to the demands of their ancestors, who also failed themselves by speaking of liberty and perhaps believing in it, all while founding a nation upon the sin of keeping others in bondage. When John Ames blesses Jack Boughton because Boughton’s father can’t, it’s not only because old Boughton is dying; it’s because Jack has returned to tell Ames that he is married to a “colored woman”, Della, and has a mixed-race son.

Parents and children—specifically, though I think not exclusively, fathers and sons; sin and redemption; freedom and slavery; black and white; God and human. These are huge concerns and cannot necessarily be reconciled by intellect or ingenuity, no matter how hard or how cleverly we try. Ames acknowledges the nature of the problem in one of his theological asides:

Existence is the essential thing and the holy thing. If the Lord chooses to make nothing of our transgressions, then they are nothing. Or whatever reality they have is trivial and conditional[…] After all, why should the Lord bother much over these smirches that are no part of His Creation?

Well, there are a good many reasons why He should. We human beings do real harm. History could make a stone weep. I am aware that significant confusion enters my thinking at this point. […] Though I recall even in my prime foundering whenever I set the true gravity of sin over against the free grace of forgiveness.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson, p. 190

The only peace and reconciliation that comes to Ames is through blessing a young man who has, in the past, hurt others terribly. Where is the justice in that? Is Jack Boughton held accountable for the damage he did in his youth? Ames may blame him, but he cannot judge him. That, we are given to understand, is God’s job, as is forgiveness. Ames can only forgive him, too, in his own heart, and bless.

(It is also, to my surprise, a very funny book. Ames is alive to the ridiculous and the joyful as well as to the sacramental and solemn. Robinson’s descriptions of Ames and some friends as children baptizing a litter of cats, some of whom escape, rendering their status of salvation uncertain; or of a story told by his grandfather in which a stranger’s horse sinks through a weak road and a shed has to be moved on top of it; or of his young son camping out with his best friend Tobias but being kept awake all night (“You heard growling in the bushes. T. has brothers”), are all beautifully judged, with the lightest of touches. Nothing is ever grotesque, but there is a lot of joy in Ames’s recollections of what it has been like to live, and that includes, of course, the many things to be laughed at in the world.)

Worth returning to repeatedly. There was a very good long piece on Robinson’s fiction, relatively recently, in the New Yorker, which I think came out when her most recent book, Jack, did (retelling Jack Boughton’s life from his own perspective). I’ll try to find that again, too.


Gilead was first published in the US in 2004 by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. My edition is the 2006 Picador paperback.

Women’s Prize Shortlist, 2019: WTF?

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Well, it’s been released. And I am…disappointed. No, worse: I’m spitting.

First, and most importantly: Ghost Wall is not there. Ghost Wall is not there. It is a completely inexplicable omission. If this is an award for the best book written by a woman in any given year, to say that Ghost Wall is not in the top half-dozen is sheer insanity. Which book that did make the cut is more skillfully written, more ambitious in its scope, achieves more thematic coherence, possesses more emotional heft, and conjures an atmosphere of greater dread in fewer pages? Not a single one. Every word in Ghost Wall is earning its keep; each page is a knife. The very fact of Ghost Wall‘s absence means we can safely dismiss the authority of this year’s judges. Which makes the rest of this analysis somewhat redundant, but as an exercise in cultural what-the-fuckery, let’s take a look at this shortlist as a whole.

It contains two retellings of Greek myths, two dissections of the breakdown of a marriage, a zeitgeisty confection, and the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize.

Groundbreaking.

Snark aside, seriously, from the top:

Circe is a tremendously enjoyable novel, and I am not furious about its presence on a shortlist, although I’d fling it under the nearest bus for Ghost Wall; Miller’s style has sharpened and matured since she won for The Song of Achilles, and although Circe is a touch episodic, the ending–with its revisionist fate for Penelope and Telemachus–encapsulates the book’s entire project (not only are gods much worse than humans, but to be a female god is sometimes worse than being a female human, in a nutshell) in a way that doesn’t insult a reader’s intelligence. Of the two Greek myth retellings (which is, in itself, a baffling judicial decision), it is stronger than the Barker. The Silence of the Girls has its moments–in particular, the scenes set amongst the captured women, where they trade home remedies and look after each others’ kids–but mostly it is surprisingly full of manpain for a novel that was supposed to be a “feminist retelling” of The Iliad; the space and priority given to male voices and experience is not counterbalanced by Barker’s portrayal of Patroclus’s gentle, almost feminine energy. Nor, to be honest, did I find its prose especially “evocative”: it’s not enough to simply write sandals, fish, sea, sand and expect us to be swept away, and Barker never really engaged my sense of the strangeness of the past.

Another natural pairing in this shortlist–which is another way of saying “two books that do the same thing”–is An American Marriage with Ordinary People. Both are what I’m going to start calling Good Stories. They are engaging while you’re reading them, they tell a story well, and they don’t achieve much more. They’re not even reaching for much more; sure, An American Marriage glances at the iniquities of the prison-industrial complex and Ordinary People weaves in musings on parenthood’s relationship to feminism (mind you, Ordinary People was the book that finally made me think, “Well, if marriage and children habitually fucks up people’s love for each other this badly, why does anyone bother doing it?”), but that’s not really the beating heart of either of those books. They’re both, quite simply, stories about a specific marriage (or pair of marriages) and what makes them fail. Of the two, Ordinary People is bolder: Evans suggests that a happy ending might look like the opposite, which is an idea that mainstream fiction hasn’t much explored. But it is still neither stylistically impressive enough, nor ambitious enough, content-wise, to justify its inclusion here given some of the other longlisters. (The Pisces, for instance, is also a book that challenges the conception of “happy endings”, “women’s fiction”, and the romance narrative, in a manner precisely aligned with the Women’s Prize stated aims, and in more slyly intellectual terms, and it pushes that challenge much further than Ordinary People deigns to.)

The last two on the shortlist, Milkman and My Sister the Serial Killer, don’t make a natural pair, which is actually something of a relief given the irritating symmetry of the rest of the bunch. Milkman, plainly, deserves to be here: it’s a bold, innovative, dryly funny, relentlessly stylistic piece of writing, absolutely one of the best six novels by women written over the past year. Its inclusion is hardly controversial, however, given that it has already won the Anglophone world’s most prestigious literary prize; I am not inclined to give the judging panel any credit for recognizing its brilliance. My Sister the Serial Killer is the novel on this shortlist about which I have the least to say, for the simple reason that I read the first few chapters and found myself so profoundly unmoved by it (which is another way of saying “bored”) that I put it down unfinished. In one sense, I feel like I can’t talk about it because I haven’t finished it, but in another sense,  the fact that its supposedly shocking premise left me cold says everything.

Which brings me to the expression of a niggling doubt that has been growing in my mind for the past few years, primarily with regards to the Women’s Prize, but extendable to panel-judged literary prizes in general: who are the people choosing these books? Why are they making decisions like this? If they are not making their judgments based on quality of writing and/or ambition, what criteria are they prioritizing and why? And (whisper it) is it possible that there is a problem with the panel selection process? Because, no, you don’t need any particular qualifications to read (apart from the ability to do so), and you don’t need any qualifications even to form an opinion–everyone who reads is entitled to have thoughts and feelings about books. But an opinion is one thing: it can be formed in a moment, with little space for context. A judgment is something else: you have to come to it, usually by a process of comparison and analysis, and to have any facility at that, you need to practice. Judging a literary prize is immense hard work; for big ones, hundreds of titles are submitted. To assess and compare and keep in your head the details, merits, and weaknesses of, let’s say, two hundred titles requires the people who engage in it to have had a certain level of practice. And I’m not confident that present-day judging panels contain people who have had a lot of practice. The Women’s Prize panel usually contains some mix of broadcasters, professional novelists, and Public Women (high-profile and nebulous, presumably because they have name recognition and bring their own followers; I’m not saying these aren’t media-savvy decisions). I don’t doubt for a minute that all of them are intelligent and well-read. What they’re noticeably not–generally–is prolific critics. Maybe that’s a good thing; opening up the academy usually is. But then you get a shortlist like this and you have to ask, again: if the most elegantly written and thematically bold books aren’t to be rewarded, what possible criteria can the panel be using? And what exactly is the value of this, or any, prize?


A 100% Objectively Correct Alternate-Universe Shortlist:

  • Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss
  • Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli
  • The Pisces, by Melissa Broder
  • Circe, by Madeline Miller
  • Milkman, by Anna Burns
  • Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi

If you got this far, come argue with me (or commiserate vociferously) in the comments.

If you like what I write, why not buy me a coffee?

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, 2019

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It’s happened! It’s out! The Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist was released at midnight (which, as ever, is a truly baffling time to announce anything; the only good reason to do it is so that it’s top of the books news first thing Monday morning, but as Naomi Frisby has pointed out, it doesn’t make things easy for anyone with a regular day job who wants to promote the prize.)

There are sixteen books on the longlist; I’ve already read seven of them. Some of the contenders are unsurprising: The Silence of the GirlsMilkman and Normal People were all pretty safe bets. Some are surprisingly delightful: I loved Diana Evans’s Ordinary People and Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant but never expected them to make the longlist, so hopefully this will get them some more attention. Obviously I’m delighted that Ghost Wall is there. Of the ones I haven’t read, the only two I hadn’t heard of at all are Yvonne Battle-Felton’s Remembered and Bernice L. McFadden’s Praise Song for the Butterflies, so I’m thrilled to have those authors to discover.

One very nice thing about this list is the number of authors of colour on it. Battle-Felton, Tayari Jones, and McFadden are African-American; Oyinkan Braithwaite is Anglo-Nigerian while Diana Evans is black British and Akwaeke Emezi is Nigerian. Lillian Li is Chinese-American, and Valeria Luiselli is from Mexico. It’s a proper 50:50 split, for possibly the first time (I haven’t the time to double-check the numbers on this at the moment). Also, Emezi is trans non-binary, which is definitely historical, and frankly overdue.

At the moment, my priorities are Melissa Broder’s The Pisces (which I’m reliably informed is very sexy and weird), Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater (which has been on my radar for some time anyway), Sophie van Llewyn’s Bottled Goods (which is from a very small publisher), and Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive (which I think we have a proof copy of, somewhere in the shop). My heart is still with Ghost Wall, though, which was far and away the best novel I read last year.

How about you? What excites you most about this list? What could be better? What do you wish had made the cut? (I’m sad not to see Siri Hustvedt’s Memories of the Future, for one thing…)

Three Things: February 2019

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

Reading: I’ve read SO MUCH NONFICTION this month, it’s unreal. (Okay: four books out of a probable fourteen. But it feels like a lot.) Three of them I read back to back: Hallie Rubenhold’s historical group biography The Five, which I wrote a longer post on here; Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, which combined investigative journalism with cultural history in a most engaging way; and Siri Hustvedt’s essay collection A Woman Looking At Men Looking At Women, which deals with neuroscience, philosophies of perception, art history, and gender relations, amongst other extremely erudite things. The fourth, Nick Coleman’s Voices, provided an overview of 20th-century pop and rock music that’s proving extremely useful for the novel I’m currently reading: Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six, about a (fictional) ’70s band.

I also feel as though my reading has had a lot of internal coherence and resonance this month; What I LovedIn the Full Light of the Sun, and A Woman Looking At Men… all dealt with the creation and value of art, while Voices and Daisy Jones and the Six have the connection mentioned above; The Warlow Experiment and The Five both made me think about class oppression, albeit in different centuries; The Warlow Experiment even had some resonance with Chris Beckett’s Clarke Award-winning novel Dark Eden, which I also read this month, in that both involve deliberate scientific experimentation, and both have characters who are trying to wrap their minds around a form of experience that has hitherto been totally alien to them.

Looking: Two things here, one high-brow and one low. To start with the latter: I rapidly became obsessed with Netflix’s new superhero series The Umbrella Academy and binged it in a week. It has many weaknesses–the dialogue is often pedestrian, and the pacing is glacial–but its aesthetic, which might be best described as Wes Anderson meets Quentin Tarantino, works remarkably well for me. I’m particularly fond of the lugubrious hitman-with-a-conscience Hazel (played by Cameron Britton, who really rocks facial hair), and his romance with diner waitress Agnes (played, with absolutely no fuss, by Sheila McCarthy, who’s 30 years older than Britton; I’d love to know if this age difference is in the original comics, and if so, fuckin’ awesome). I also love the way that teenage actor Aidan Gallagher nails the mannerisms of a world-weary 58-year-old time-traveling assassin trapped inside his own 13-year-old body. (It’s…look, it’s complicated.) Ellen Page is fantastic as the permanently snubbed youngest sibling Vanya, the only member of her superhero family without any discernible powers–she exudes sadness and passivity in a manner that makes her both sympathetic and annoying–and John Magaro, who plays her way-too-fast-moving love interest, has the extraordinary ability to be ineffably creepy while doing and saying things that appear to be nothing but charming. I can’t bloody wait for season 2.

(The high-brow is that I went to a Pinter double-header with my brother for his birthday: we saw A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter, the latter of which starred Martin Freeman and Danny Dyer, who work together brilliantly. They were my first Pinter plays and I do get what all the fuss is about; his repetitive dialogue-writing style works a scene or a mood the way bakers work dough, over and over again, so that you get new layers of meaning with each repetition.)

Thinking: I should have written something by now about my predictions for the Women’s Prize longlist, and I haven’t, and probably won’t, and I’m SORRY, okay. (On the other hand, I finished the first draft of my novel two weeks ago, so it’s not like I’ve been slacking.) Anyway, I’m still planning to shadow the Women’s Prize, along with (hopefully) Eric Anderson of Lonesome Reader and author Antonia Honeywell. Stay tuned; the official longlist is announced on the 4th.

2019: the plan.

After some really excellent feedback from you guys, I’ve had a think about how best to do this blog – and indeed how to approach my reading this year – and here’s what’s going to happen:

  1. My reading challenge goal has been revised downwards from 205 to 120. I can’t read 205 books, work full-time, finish my novel, and have a social life this year; I just can’t. 120 is the lowest reading goal I’ve ever set, so it seems reasonable to imagine I’ll be able to surpass it, which will be a nice mood boost, and it’ll keep the pressure off. (Plus, if you think about it, that’s still a lot of books.)
  2. Instead of trying to read as many books as I can, I’m going to try to genuinely enjoy as many of the books I read this year as possible. This will mean a lot of DNFing, I imagine. So many things I’ve read since Christmas have been so good that it’s really put me off trying to get through something mediocre just because we’re guaranteed to sell a lot of it at the shop.
  3. I’m also going to try to fill in some of my classics and 20th-century gaps.
  4. Re blogging, I’m going to try the following: a weekly reading diary which (as vacuouswastrel suggested) will be, quite literally, one or two lines on everything I’ve read that week. Fortnightly (approximately) I’ll choose one or two of the best books read in that period to feature. Less regularly – I don’t know at this point how often – I’ll do a proper deep-dive review into something that really demands that amount of attention. I’ll also carry on doing Three Things at the end of each month.

And hopefully, that will work. Sort of. Well enough.

A conundrum

Lovely readers, here is my plight: the Reading Diary format last year enabled me to write about every book that I’d read, but I often fell behind. Catching up often entailed a huge effort: I haven’t written a Reading Diary since just before Christmas, for instance, and now have a backlog of twelve books to talk about. It was impractical to say “I’ll publish a post weekly without fail”, and what I did manage to produce often felt rushed or under-considered. I like reading detailed literary analysis, and I’d like to produce it; Instagram-style book reviewing, involving a plot summary plus some adjectives (“brilliant”, “searing”, “heartbreaking”), isn’t something I’m interested in writing, though of course it has its place.

What should I do in 2019?

In an ideal world, every day would be three times as long, and I could read 205 books, give each one the critical write-up it deserves, and finish my own novel this year. But this world isn’t ideal, so something will have to give. At the same time, I want to keep writing about what I’ve read, because I like this blogging, reading community, and because it acts as a useful supplement to my day job, which is to sell books to people.

If any of you have any ideas – about the type of posts I could be writing, or about a possible posting schedule – I would be very grateful to hear them.

In 2018

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 so, so much better than last year; it wasn’t just about surviving, but about thriving: finding out, as Dolly Parton so wisely said, who I am, then doing it on purpose.

In 2018, I:

celebrated my lovely colleague Faye’s wedding, with other bookshop chums

attended a celebratory black tie dinner at the Oxford and Cambridge Club for the engagement of two more friends

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found a new flat, with a new housemate

helped plan my cousin Sarah’s wedding, as her maid of honour, and in company with her brilliant bridesmaids

sang Irish songs, drunkenly, on a rooftop in the snow

received incredibly helpful mentoring and advice on my novel from the infinitely generous Antonia Honeywell

experienced a hen do in Brighton

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sang at York Minster (and had some verse solos in the canticles, in the presence of Iestyn Davies. Swoon.)

participated in the Womens Prize Shadow Panel again

sang for, danced at, and generally revelled in Sarah’s wedding to the wonderful Gareth

hosted my mum in my new flat

travelled to Paris for an utterly unforgettable long weekend with my beloved friend Kendall

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relatedly: eaten a meal in Paris that I will remember for the rest of my life—seven courses, four hours, wine

started a regular paid Sunday singing gig

visited Chatsworth, home of my employers, for the first time

caught up with my goddaughter Beatrice, and her lovely parents, Esther and Bojan, in Oxford

went to IKEA for the first time in my adult life

celebrated my twenty-sixth birthday with beloved friends and so much sushi I could barely stand afterwards

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threw a housewarming party in the new flat, with my excellent housemate Joe

sang at St Paul’s with old college chums, then immediately afterwards attended the reception for Kerry and Alvina’s wedding

hosted my little brother Nick and his brilliant girlfriend Emma on their London holiday

ticked another cathedral (Southwark) off my list of Places I’ve Sung In

heard Susan Graham, live

drank in the private pub for Yeomen Warders of the Tower of London

took myself on my first solo holiday, to Brussels, where I survived on goat’s cheese, baguette, chocolate caramel spread, and ratatouille

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…and where I also wrote thousands of words’ worth of my book

chatted to an agent about said book, and promised to send a draft when finished

accidentally insulted Sebastian Faulks

flew home to visit my family, during which time we picked apples, drank coffee (and a lot of wine), strolled in downtown Charlottesville, basked in late autumn sunlight, drove up into the mountains. I also brunched joyfully at Helen and Charlie’s wedding reception, and wrote more thousands of words

attended the Young Writer of the Year Award announcement, along with lots of blogging friends (and where I met the incomparable Sarah Moss)

cooked a Thanksgiving meal for some American (and non-American!) friends

got a sparkly gel pedicure because why not

sang in four Christmas concerts

re-permed my hair, also because why not

celebrated Christmas at Canterbury Cathedral, thanks to the kind hospitality of Sarah and Gareth

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finished off the New Year with gigs at Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s

read exactly 200 books

Conversation with myself on the bus

Do you know almost the worst part, of all of it? I know that if it had happened to someone else, I would feel jealousy. Pain, even. Because despite how utterly horrible it was, it felt like being chosen. Because violence and desperation are the tithe paid to beauty and to sex, to the irresistible. Awful as it is, it means I’m worth something. It means a man thought me worth the effort: the effort of preparing me, of subduing me.

I know that’s not true. I know that violence and desperation are not, in fact, a helpless response to beauty, that nothing is irresistible. That those things are a homing in on weakness. I hate that I was picked out of the herd: the limping elder, the stumbling calf. I hate that it was so obvious.

And yet I would hate it to be any other way. If there’s to be blood, let it be mine. If there’s to be a choice, let it be me. If there’s to be a sacrifice, let it be me. Let me never be unseen.


There is a voice in my head. No, dear heart, it says, coolly amused, flicking the ash of its cigarette onto the pavement. No one wants you. Why, you didn’t—its composure nearly breaking now, the sharp fin of a laugh just under the surface—you didn’t seriously think he was looking at you? Oh, sweetpea. It’s because you’re disgusting. Not because you’re desirable.

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?!

Three Things: October 2018

apples

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.