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.

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Reading Diary: oh dear, part three (holiday reading)

I went to Brussels in the middle of this month. There was no real reason to do this, apart from the fact that I had the time to take a week-long holiday, and I fancied going somewhere Abroad, and Brussels happened to be the city to which I could most cheaply transport myself. (£50 each way on the Eurostar. Even Easyjet flights to places like Malta were more expensive.) It was also the first proper, avowed holiday which I have taken alone. As such, I didn’t really know how it was going to go, but I brought five books, the notebook containing the section of my novel that I’m working on right now, and my laptop, and prepared to spend some time figuring out how much tourism vs. relaxation I actually wanted to do.

In the event, I tourist-ed for three and a half days (Grand Place, the Mont des Arts, the cathedral, various chocolatiers, Parc Josaphat, and the Horta Museum) and spent the rest of the week reading in the sunshine on my Airbnb’s terrace, writing in a coffee shop near the Horta Museum and in my Airbnb, taking very long baths, being intimidated by the local butcher, and bingeing on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Most importantly, I wrote over a thousand words a day, and finished all the books I brought with me (the last one on the Eurostar home, so my back-up book, Villette, was unnecessary).

61s2b5egxvtl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Frost in May, by Antonia White: The first book ever to be published as a Virago Classic, and (according to Elizabeth Bowen) “not the only school story to be a classic, but…the only one that is a work of art.” Its protagonist is Nanda Gray, whose father has recently converted to Catholicism and who is sent to a Catholic convent school, where she is permanently treated as a second-class citizen, albeit one who might (eventually) be redeemable. The story follows fairly closely the events of White’s own early life, and she captures with the extreme clarity of adolescence (and of trauma) the emotional terrorism visited upon the girls of the school by the nuns. Anyone who has been manipulated by an authority figure will find Frost in May both disturbing and familiar. Nanda’s eventual disgrace is also the mechanism of her freedom, although she may not realise it. This might, now that I think about it, have been very interesting to read alongside Villette, also a school story intensely concerned with surveillance, privacy, and autonomy.

91pgumjkzvlKintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: One of the most challenging, and therefore most instructive, aspects of reading fiction that was not originally designed with a Western market in mind is that there are things Western readers expect with regards to narrative structure and characterisation. When those expectations are swerved, as in Kintu they frequently are, it presents an opportunity to examine the lukewarm reaction this provokes in a reader and to consider how growing up in different cultures affects how we tell stories and what we demand from them. Kintu is the story of a curse placed upon a historic Ganda chief for failing to properly bury his adopted son, who is biologically from another tribe. This curse – or is it simply hereditary mental illness, exacerbated by guilt, poverty, and other factors? – is passed down through generations of Kintu’s descendants to the present day. What I found confusing and alienating about the novel – the interchangeability of characters’ names, the repetition of similar events with minor variations, the assumption of understanding surrounding Ganda social taboos – are clearly the very elements that comprise its strength in the context for which it was written (it was first published by Kenya’s Kwami Trust, sponsored by a leading Kenyan literary journal). This is the sort of thing that #WITMonth, for example, is for: asking you to perform a meta-analysis of the way you evaluate literary success.

9780571347018Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver: Kingsolver’s latest novel felt particularly apt reading in the week I was in Brussels. Half of it deals with a very contemporary woman whose family and house both appear to be crumbling around her, and who is required to care not only for her new grandson (whose mother has just killed herself) but also for her dying father-in-law. The politics of care – both in the sense of emotional faultlines and in the very real sense of legislation and regulation and the heartbreaking struggles of American people to access healthcare at this point in time – are at the fore here. In the other half of the book, politics and caring are also foregrounded in the story of Thatcher Greenwood, a young schoolteacher who wishes to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution and who is thwarted by Landis, the man who essentially runs the company town where he lives and works. There are, of course, parallels with the Trump administration: fear of science and experts, dissemination of lies presented as truths, the ability of the rich and powerful to (literally) get away with murder. There is so much going on in both strands of the novel that perhaps elements are short-changed, like Willa’s relationship with her daughter Tig and some parts of Thatcher’s relationship with Mary Treat, the brilliant woman scientist next door who corresponds with Darwin and Asa Gray. But Kingsolver’s central metaphor illustrates perfectly that famous quote about American conflict: that a house divided against itself cannot stand. And that, perhaps, the best thing we can do is bring it all down.

41li6jgb7il-_sy445_ql70_Jeeves and the King of Clubs, by Ben Schott: An homage to P.G. Wodehouse (as the subtitle says) has got a lot to live up to, and Ben Schott pretty admirably fills the shoes of the master here; without trying too slavishly to pastiche PGW, he manages those signature goofy similes with aplomb. (My only objection might be that his Wooster is actually not enough of an idiot.) In this outing, Wooster discovers that the Junior Ganymede Club, the organisation of gentlemen’s gentlemen to which Jeeves belongs, has in fact been functioning as an arm of British intelligence for decades, if not centuries: who, after all, is better positioned to acquire information about the great and the good (or not so good) than their butlers? (Though it is not just butlers; the Junior Ganymede, apparently, recruits from all ranks of domestic service. “Pigmen,” as Jeeves notes in one of those delightfully poker-faced asides that Wodehouse himself would be proud to have written, “have been particularly cooperative.”) The plot, such as it is, involves Jeeves and Wooster having to intercept some sort of code on its way to the carbuncular British fascist Roderick Spode, which requires a lot of careening all over the West End. There’s a particularly enjoyable chase scene through the interconnecting doors of Pall Mall’s private clubs: the Athenaeum, the Travellers, the Oxford and Cambridge, the RAC, all are name-checked. For my money, Wodehouse plotted better – he’s madcap but he’s as precise as clockwork, where Schott is a little scattergun – but it feels so churlish to complain when you’re having this much fun.

EDIT: I forgot The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K Dick! Perhaps this is because I’ve been reading it on and off for months, on my phone, in spare moments. As most of you will probably know, it is set in a United States that lost WWII, and is now divided into several zones, mostly governed by the Japanese, who were thrown North America after the war by their victorious Nazi allies. To be perfectly honest, this on-and-off reading technique was obviously bad for this particular book, because when I picked it up properly again, none of it really hung together and I couldn’t work out what the main thrust of the story was, and when the big reveal appeared, the fact that it was so unclear whether we were in a parallel universe or what the mechanism was, exactly, was just intensely irritating. Is there a better Dick? (…shut up.)

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

 

Holiday Reading, or the Lack Thereof

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Part of my US book haul

Usually, holidays are a delightful excuse to do All The Reading. When I went home for two weeks in the middle of this month, though, I… didn’t. There are a couple of reasons for this, I think. One is that I read a lot for my actual job, and I would read at least as much if I weren’t a bookseller, anyway. Another is that I was having a really hard time focusing: my parents live about ten miles outside of Charlottesville, Virginia; I went to school there. The intersection where Heather Heyer was murdered by a Nazi is the same intersection where my dad used to pick me up from my weekend job. My best friend was punched in the face by a Nazi that Saturday. It’s one thing to see this in the media; it’s another to see, in the background of the news photos and footage, landmarks as familiar and dear to you as your own hand. A third reason is that, perhaps in order to distract us all from that heinous shit, my parents had me on a heavy schedule of visiting old and new friends, drinking wine in central Virginia’s many vineyards, going to restaurants and art exhibits, and generally Keeping Busy. Reading fell by the wayside a little.

I did read some books while I was there—more on those in August Superlatives at the end of the month. Perhaps more importantly, my dad and I had a Grand Day Out near the end of my visit, which consisted of a ridiculously delicious meal, complete with dessert wine, followed by a tour of downtown Charlottesville’s many bookshops. (I even managed to introduce him to some he’d never been into!) Herewith, a rundown of purchases:

Coding Freedom by E. Gabriella Coleman—from Blue Whale Books (secondhand fiction and general nonfiction; modern first editions; antiquarian Virginiana and maps[!]) I’ve wanted to read this ever since I read The Idealist, Justin Peters’s biography of Aaron Swartz. Coleman writes about the ethics of hacking, free culture, and free/open source software. It’s not particularly technical, so my low code-reading ability is no handicap; it’s heavier on legal and philosophical arguments. It’s also actually on my Goodreads TBR.

Roughing It by Mark Twain—from Read It Again Sam (secondhand general fiction, children’s, huge thriller and sci-fi sections) My dad adores Mark Twain. He has previously told me to read both Roughing It and The Innocents Abroad, Twain’s American and European travelogues. Read It Again Sam’s copy of Roughing It was slightly smaller and in paperback, so the choice was obvious. I’m reading this now and it is simply delightful: detailed, observant, and dryly funny as hell.

Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor—from Daedalus Books (If you ever go to Charlottesville, you must go here. It is owned by Sandy McAdams, who has had MS and been in a wheelchair for at least as long as I can remember, and who yet continues to run this three-storey townhouse on the corner of 4th and Market, crammed to the literal rafters with secondhand paperbacks. The place is a labyrinth of treasure.) I’ve loved Flannery O’Connor since I wrote a paper on her short stories at the end of my junior year in high school. That paper got me into Oxford. Since then, I’ve moved from uncritical adulation to a kind of baffled fascination—you can never quite tell what O’Connor thinks, and I’ve started believing that she’s far less healthy and/or generally correct than I previously thought—but her voice is undeniable and addictive. This is a collection of her essays and lectures; irresistible.

The Devil In Silver by Victor LaValle—from New Dominion Bookshop (I worked at New Dominion all through high school. The proprietor, Carol Troxell, was a beloved mentor and role model; when I went to university, she took me to lunch, gave me a pair of pearl earrings and told me never to open a joint bank account with a man. She died very unexpectedly earlier this year, and for a while the shop’s future was in doubt. As of my visit, her husband Robert had hired a manager, Julia, who has done amazing things with the shop stock and generally modernised some of its more antiquated aspects. It’s in good hands.) The best thing to do in a bookshop if you have no particular agenda, but want to buy something, is to go straight to a bookseller, ask them to recommend you one paperback book, and then buy it—no questions asked, no arguments. This is what happened at New Dominion; Robert (not Carol’s husband, a different Robert) recommended The Devil In Silver, an allegorical horror novel set in an insane asylum. I’ve heard of LaValle and I love how Robert described him: as someone working in a Lovecraftian tradition, but whose motivating horror is the fear of institutionalised racism, as opposed to Lovecraft’s fear of the racial Other. Sign me up.

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, by Sarah Ladipo Manyika—from New Dominion Bookshop Because Naomi loved it, and described it as being about “a woman in her 70s who’s lived a varied life, unafraid to dress as she pleases, contemplate tattoos, read voraciously and discuss sexuality and how she’s found life as a woman and as a person of colour.” Uh, YES.

I also had a Grand Day Out with my younger brother Nick, which resulted in some book purchases. Three of them came from Telegraph Comics, a new art and comic shop downtown which has a great, highly curated graphic novels section: I bought volume 3 of Saga, Brian K. Vaughan’s intergalactic love-story-against-great-odds that features my beloved Lying Cat (and some more naked people), volume 1 of Y: the Last Man by the same writer, which posits a world where all men but one—Yorick—have been killed by a gendered virus, and The Case of the Team Spirit by John Allison, the first collected Bad Machinery story (which you can read here, as well as Allison’s other [brilliant] work). Oh, and I also found a pristine copy of the Arden Shakespeare edition of King Lear for $4 in a junk shop in Ruckersville. Score!

I’ve already read Saga vol. 3 and The Case of the Team Spirit, and am working my way through Roughing It right now—which shall I choose next?

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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Liam Neeson as Father Ferreira in “Silence”

  1. It’s been a while since I did one of these.
  2. We went to see the new Scorsese movie, “Silence”, based on the novel by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, at the BFI last week. It’s about seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries in Japan, where Christianity was persecuted after the Shimabara Rebellion in 1637-8. It is…rough. I hesitate to use the word “graphic”, because no one gets disembowelled or anything, but there are some pretty distressing scenes. I thought it was a very powerful movie asking very interesting questions about the point at which virtuous loyalty to a faith becomes destructive pride (in this case, the point at which the life at stake isn’t yours, but someone else’s). The Chaos thought it was a very powerful movie with a very superfluous premise, since to him, all religious belief is absurd anyway. I’d really like to read the book now.
  3. Though there are a couple of Endo’s books in the flat, Silence isn’t one of them.
  4. “Reading resolutions” are not really my cup of tea—I like reading somewhat at whim; “challenges” and “lists” strike me as being generally an instance of eyes larger than stomach. However: in the sitting room and the landing bookshelves, we have hundreds of books that the Chaos took from his grandparents’ house after they died. There are many nineteenth and twentieth-century classics (Bellow, Kafka, Lawrence Durrell, Graham Greene); there is a fair amount of Japanese literature and non-fiction; there is quite a lot of science and poetry. I’d like to start reading them. In between new books solicited from publishers and essential contemporary reading (The Underground Railroad, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, etc.), I’ll prioritise those.
  5. This is all I have for you at the moment, I’m afraid: reading, writing my own book (which comes along), turning up to work, and getting quite a lot of cuddles are pretty much all I can manage. January is not my favourite month.
  6. (Although a couple of years ago I wrote a post about how to survive January; it’s on my old blog. It included the advice “eat a lot of oranges”.)

In 2016

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. I don’t believe in the New Year starting in January, either; for me it has always started with a new academic year, in the autumn, and all of that post-Christmas guilt stuff is just an excuse for self-flagellation and meanness. What I do for New Year’s, instead, is to list what I’ve done over the past year. That seems more likely to produce, on the whole, happiness. And even bad memories are worth more than half-assed, panic-induced vows to improve my life.

So, in 2016, I:

started writing and reviewing for Litro Magazine

navigated the French train system alone

stayed in a chateau owned by a friend of the Chaos, who runs a restaurant there

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hosted my first author Q&A on the blog

decided to reclaim the word “fat”

wrote a series of posts on digital literature (finale coming soon!)

started singing again

attended an underground play

partied like it’s 1944

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started my first novel (I’m now at 74K words)

mourned the results of the EU referendum

welcomed my parents to our London flat for the first time!

walked fifteen miles through London at night in support of breast cancer research

went to Glyndebourne

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left my job

threw a summer drinks party

turned 24

visited St. Ives (and decided to write my second novel about Barbara Hepworth)

bitched mightily about having to walk uphill in Cornwall

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overcame massive social anxiety to go to my very first music festival

participated in a mass read-through of Henry VI, Part 1

sent my brother a postcard at college every week of his first semester

welcomed a goddaughter, Beatrice Illyria

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sang at the Royal Albert Hall

met Carlos Acosta (and decided to write my third novel about ballet dancers)

waited tables during the pre-Christmas period (this is hard)

mourned the results of the US election

got wazzocked with the lay clerks of Westminster Cathedral on Christmas morning

read 141 books

It hasn’t been a good year, though. On a personal level, it has mostly been really pretty good, but posting about how good my year was is solipsistically gross if I fail to include the fact that it has been a bad year in many other ways: for the LGBTQ+ folks in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub and their friends and family; for pretty much everyone in Syria; for the women of Ohio, where the state legislature has just pushed through a six-week abortion ban; for a substantial portion of Trump voters who didn’t realise that Trump’s promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act would make their lives literally unlivable; for the people of Valence and Berlin and Nice and Baghdad and Brussels and Istanbul and Quetta. For Jo Cox’s husband and children. For the families of the 258 black people murdered by police in America this year: Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Korryn Gaines, Laronda Sweatt, Deresha Armstrong.

If you think for one minute that this is in some way not your problem, you’re wrong.

2017: if you want it to be a better year, there’s only one way to go about it—you can’t stop celebrities from dying or TV networks from moving your favourite show. You can give your time, and you can give your money. Here are some ideas:

Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project – I donate to this institution because it’s in my home state. I guarantee there’s something similar near you, or you can give to Planned Parenthood.

Safety Pin Box takes the nice-but-not-exactly-super-effective idea of safety pin allyship and makes it a real thing: your subscription gets you two or three “ally tasks” a month, all of which are directly effective in the fight against white supremacy.

Liberty is England’s premier human rights organisation and it is RIDICULOUSLY cheap to become a member. You can give as much as you want/can afford, but some subscriptions are as little as £1 a month; the highest individual subscription fee is only £15.

Do what works for you. Do something that you’re just a little bit uncomfortable with: a couple of hours a week volunteering, or donating £5 more per month than your budget can absorb without having to change. Or call people out at your school/workplace/kitchen table: it can be just as uncomfortable, and just as important.

Anyway, whatever you do, have a very happy New Year. Onwards!

Meanwhile, At Litro: Victorians Decoded at Guildhall Art Gallery

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Despite the radio silence over the summer, I do still write for Litro. Last week I went to a review a TOTALLY FREE exhibition at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery, focusing on Victorian art and how it was affected by the advent of the telegraph. Here’s how it starts:

The curator in the pink dress is fielding my halting questions with aplomb. We have stopped in front of a medium-sized oil painting of a scene on board ship. It is a tangle of unnameable emotions and undefined relationships: a woman in a bath chair, perhaps an invalid, gazes into the middle distance as a sailor wearing a wedding ring addresses her from slightly behind and to the side, his arm curled around her chair in a manner that feels distinctly Mephistophelean. On a deckside bench nearby, another sailor—older and bearded—holds a newspaper, which he’s not reading, between his knees and looks disgruntled. His seat companion, an elderly gentleman with a top hat and watch chain, glances behind him with irritation at something out of view. Meanwhile, a little girl with a black velvet hair ribbon leans over the back of the bench: perhaps trying to read the newspaper that’s held out of her reach, perhaps importuning the elderly man (a grandfather? A guardian?). Behind them all, the riggings of this ship and a dozen others criss-cross the sky in whip-like lines of black paint. It is unspeakably claustrophobic. The curator is telling me that these lines are a direct allusion to the telegraph cables that had been placed under the Atlantic less than a decade before this painting was made, in 1873, by James Tissot. It is all about communication that cannot be decoded, glances that can’t be explained, eyelines that don’t line up. Everyone in this painting is trying to say something without saying it directly, and mostly, they are failing.

You can read the rest of the review here. I would be so chuffed if you did. (Plus, the exhibition is incredibly interesting – if you’re in London or the South of England, go!)