Three Things: March 2019

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

Reading: At work, I’ve acquired responsibility for some of our Children’s Year In Books services–it’s the same idea as the adult subscription, a monthly book hand-picked to fit the customer’s individual reading tastes and delivered to their door. As a twenty-six-year-old, I haven’t read what you might call “children’s literature” for at least a decade, if not more; I spent my adolescent years wishing that I was already an undergraduate, and reading accordingly. But this is giving me a really good reason to revisit that world. I recently read my first proof copy of a children’s book (Abi Elphinstone’s forthcoming Rumblestar; thoughts will be in Monday’s Reading Diary). I’ve also started brainstorming all the things that I loved to read as a kid, and have enlisted the help of my brother, cousin, and various friends to add to the list: it’s now pinned to my desk corkboard and includes titles such as Eva Ibbotson’s Journey To the River Sea, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider novels, and an excellent picture book entitled The Queen’s Knickers which made me absolutely hysterical with amusement when I was about four. There is something considerably more joyful about children’s publishing than about its adult equivalent: of course vast sums of money and outrageous publicity machines are still involved (hello, David Walliams), but there’s such a high premium on good humour, inventiveness, and kindness that I’m actually quite excited by the prospect of reading more children’s books.

Looking: The ENO has revived their 2013 production of The Magic Flute, which I went to see last week. I’d never seen a live show of it, although I’d heard recordings. Turns out that The Magic Flute is significantly more palatable to listen to than it is to watch; the tunes are delightful and globally famous for a good reason, but the plot makes absolutely no sense, not even internally. And coherence is the least of its problems. It is possible to understand the opera as an allegory regarding intellectual enlightenment and the Masons, and still to find it pretty distasteful: most obviously in the misogyny shown towards the Queen of the Night (who, it turns out, is mad at Sarastro because her late husband gifted him all of his power, on the grounds that she–as a woman–would be unable to use it wisely), but also in the constant rape threat presented by Monostatos (who was originally written as a Moor, elevating his character to a whole other level of offensive randy-black-man stereotype), the depressing ageism of Papageno (who spends the whole opera pining for a wife, only to nearly bottle it at the last minute because he thinks the woman offered to him might be his own age, shockhorror, instead of a nubile teenager), and the arbitrary emotional cruelty inflicted upon Pamina in the service of Tamino’s heroic development (he’s instructed not to speak to or look at her; she believes that he no longer loves her and prepares to commit suicide).

But. With all of that said.

The music is lovely; there is no getting around that. This production features British soprano Lucy Crowe as Pamina, who delivers the best vocal performance of the entire cast. Thomas Oliemans’s Papageno is (mostly) charming instead of obnoxious, and he got most of the big laughs; his performance reminded me that The Magic Flute was commissioned originally as a pantomime. Julia Bauer as the Queen of the Night lacked power, but she hit that top F, by God. And there are some really nice production touches, including hand-drawn chalk images that are projected onto a screen at the back of the stage, creating instant (and erasable) scenery. It’s very well executed.

Thinking: Honestly? About death, I’m afraid. Not my own, mind you – but other people’s. It’s sort of following me around at the moment. My English grandpa is dying (he’s 88, he’s not in acute discomfort, it’s fairly okay). Both my American grandparents died in September, which I wasn’t there for, but I am here for this – the long-drawn-out process of it – and I can’t tell if it’s happening quickly or slowly, in the grand scheme of these things. He was frail but quite lucid at Christmas; he was frailer still, and quieter, but still sitting in his armchair and capable of a chat, three weeks ago. Now, he’s functionally bed bound, frequently confused, and – to be totally honest – a tiny bit scary. Not because he’s violent or aggressive; he has never been those things in his life and he is not about to start now. It’s mostly scary because even when he’s not confused, he’s hard to understand, and easily tired, and physically helpless, and quite vague. I find myself dreading being left alone with him. I would rather help my grandmother by running her household than by doing any of the hands-on stuff. My fear embarrasses me, but I think, were it me, I would rather have died three weeks ago than live as he is living.

Cheerful, eh?!

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.

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

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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: August 2018

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

Reading: I’ve become slightly hooked on the TLS’s Twenty Questions segment, many of which are to be found online. The first half of each questionnaire focuses on serious questions about reading and writing; the second half is a slightly sillier rapid-fire round of either/or: George or T.S.? Beyonce or Bob Dylan? King Lear or A Midsummer Night’s Dream? There’s something simultaneously obnoxious (such performative culturedness!) and addictive about those questions; they’d be perfect for a pub night or a lazy dinner with friends as pretentious as oneself.

Looking: There’s a gallery on the Southbank, very near the Globe, which no one ever seems to go into, perhaps because it’s located directly behind a large pub. It’s called the Bankside Gallery and is the home of the Royal Watercolour Society. They have an off-the-wall summer exhibition, along with the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers, where you can literally purchase the art off the wall and take it away with you. I went there to kill some time while my brother and his girlfriend did the Globe tour a few weeks ago. I didn’t buy anything, obviously – it’s affordable, for professionally made art, but it’s still more than I can swing – but particularly enjoyed prints of a sulky child on a sheep, and several by the artist John Bryce (especially this one).

Thinking: I had a strong disagreement/argument with my housemate’s friend in the pub the other day, which was nominally about a variety of things but which at its core, I think, was about what we owe to strangers. I come down on the side of “nothing, unless they fall down in front of you in the street”. She accused me of being afraid to leave my comfort zone and talk to people unlike myself; I countered that being addressed publicly by people I don’t know is, at worst, threatening, and at best, totally unsolicited and therefore annoying. (Unless it’s literally a two-sentence commiseration with the other person standing at the bus stop in the rain with you.) I still think I’m right (and also that this is perhaps partly a personality thing as well as a generational thing; I’m extremely happy on my own and have been known to avoid talking to my own mother/best friend), but the possibility that I’m a snowflake millennial bitch has been haunting me for a week. (And then I think but being socialized to believe that asserting your right to exist in public unbothered constitutes snowflake millennial bitchiness is yet another way in which the kyriarchy seeks to control you…)

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.