Three Things: November 2018

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

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

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

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

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Three Things: October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Three Things: September 2018

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

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

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

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

Three Things: 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.

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.