Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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Tristan (Stuart Skelton) and Isolde (Heidi Melton) at ENO

  1. Gadgette is a site aimed at techy women–like The Pool for geeks. I barely qualify, but I’ve been really enjoying their stuff, especially this article on 6 lessons to forget before you start learning to code.
  2. My parents and brother are in the country. We saw them last weekend, at my gran’s 80th birthday tea, and will see them again soon;  my brother is coming to London for a graduation-present dinner on Friday, and my parents are visiting on Saturday.
  3. It was great to see them and I’m looking forward to seeing them again, but trying to make plans to do so around the rest of my life is so.damn.stressful. I work full-time, so my only weekday options are in the evening. Plus, unfortunately, June is the month when everyone else wanted to plan stuff. Between last Wednesday and next Sunday I’ve had a grand total of three days with nothing penciled in, and those days don’t really coincide with my parents’ availability.  So there’s guilt on my side, frustration on theirs, and dissatisfaction everywhere.
  4. Relatedly, I’m really, really tired. I’ve already canceled one book event last week out of pure exhaustion, and I’m probably going to need to bow out of a dinner party this week as well. Mental health has also been suffering: I’ve developed a new strategy for when I want to self-harm which involves imagining it in great detail without actually doing it, or writing on my arm instead of cutting or scratching. It’s okay, but it’s not exactly a permanent fix. Mother-out-law has been in hospital this week, too, precise nature of ailment unknown. So now that I think about it, there’s been a reasonable amount of stress circulating.
  5. Women With Tattoos is another one of my new favourite sites–beautiful portraits of tattooed ladies, plus interviews. Through it, I’ve also found the woman who I want to do my first tattoo, if and when I get brave enough to follow through.
  6. I went to my first live Wagner performance last weekend: English National Opera is doing Tristan and Isolde (yes, in English; oh well.) It was five hours long and it was excellent; the band made some ravishingly beautiful sounds and Heidi Melton, who sings Isolde, is a new vocal inspiration. The costumes were weird (design aesthetic ranged from “Belle Epoque crazy hair” to “Japanese samurai face masks” to “Beckettian void”), but the singing made none of that matter.
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03. Larry’s Party, by Carol Shields

LarryWhere I read it: eating rhubarb crumble in the kitchen. Not the whole book (and not the whole crumble), but some of both.

This weekend I went to the inaugural Emerald Street Literary Festival, which was fantastic. The first panel was on the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which, as regular readers will know, is something I’m very interested by, and which I’ve been trying to read all the winners of. (Awkwardly constructed sentence, sorry, but can’t think of a way to fix it without splitting it into two sentences, which is boring. Onwards!) This book, Larry’s Party, won that prize in 1998. One of the things that interested me most about the panel at the festival was the series of statistics on women writers and their books. Amid the usual depressing factoids about number of women published vs. shortlisted for prizes, there was this: of those women who are on lists for prizes, the majority of them—I can’t remember the figure, infuriatingly, but it is well above half—have written their books about male protagonists.

Obviously, I thought of Larry’s Party, which I’ve just finished and has the distinction of being one of the few books I’ve ever read that goes really deeply into a man’s head. Larry does things, sure: he’s married twice, he starts out as a florist and becomes a designer of mazes and then a noted landscape designer, he has a son. But it’s what he thinks and feels that Carol Shields writes about, and in that assertion—that men, too, have lives full of emotion, that they suffer from uncertainty and doubt—there’s something that I find oddly comforting. I’ve grown up in an era both of widespread feminism and of reactionary masculinity. That it could be so different forty years ago (Larry is born in 1950; the book starts in 1977) is quietly mindblowing. Shields isn’t just writing about Larry, I don’t think, but about the whole Western world. From 1977 to 1997, a hell of a lot changed for white First World-ers: politics, technology, gender, the amount of distance permitted between private and public lives. You wouldn’t call Larry radical, exactly (his first wife, Dorrie, does all the laundry and the cooking, though his second wife, Beth, is a professor of gender studies.) But he is, quietly, unexpected. His father doesn’t have conversations with him, doesn’t really know what to do with him. He’s a “weedy adolescent” and a tall, not especially sporty man. His degree, from a local community college, is in flower arranging. He spends much of his life experiencing complex, deep, and tender feelings, which he is sadly aware that he doesn’t possess the vocabulary to express. He never becomes a hardened or a defensive man. That reactionary masculinity I talked about earlier, the sort of thing that underpins cultural phenomena from burger-eating contests to rape apologism: that is not present in Larry’s psyche. He is not violent or lecherous or cruel.

Another of the rather excellent things about Larry’s Party is that not much really happens in it. The party at the end is meant to sum up, if you will, everything that’s gone before: all of Larry’s adult life so far, from twenty-seven to forty-seven. The novel chronicles relationships above all: relationships with colleagues, with lovers, with a child, with work and the intellect, with the past. It’s a domestic novel about a man, and when you phrase it like that, this deceptively sedate-seeming book starts to look pretty damn brave.

(I’m not mad keen on the ending, though. Dorrie again? Really? It doesn’t seem in keeping with the realistic gaze of the rest of the book, at all. As far as I’m concerned, it’s Lucy Warkenten whom Larry needs to be with. Maybe Shields thought so too, and wanted us to know that things never do work out the way they ought to.)

Larry’s Party, Carol Shields (New York: Harper Perennial, 1997)

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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    1. We booked a holiday! Oh my giddy aunt. We’re going to St. Ives for five days in August. It is stupidly expensive and long to get there by train, but who cares? We’re staying in a little flat in the center of town, and we won’t have to do anything all week but there’ll be plenty to do if we get bored. I plan to read and cook and sit in the sun. The Tate, the Barbara Hepworth Museum, and the seaside are all I want. Oh, and maybe some hikes.
    2. I’m still plugging away at JavaScript. I’m trying to do half an hour a day, but it’s hard and it makes me cry a lot (or, if not cry, at the very least wring my hands til my wrists feel loose). I wish it came more easily. This sounds, I know, ridiculously arrogant, but I am just not used to having to work hard at learning something. It fucks with my self-esteem no end.
    3. Saw my friend and former housemate Ollie on the weekend; we went to the National Portrait Gallery. I was especially interested in an exhibition showing photographic portraits of black migrants in England before the Windrush’s voyage in the 1940s. There were some from 1891, when an “African choir” came on tour to London and also visited Queen Victoria at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight; they looked so modern, staring straight out of the frame, the photographic techniques good enough by then to capture fine details of their clothing texture, skin and hair. There was another display case of smaller portraits, including some of a band of Pygmies who came to London in 1905, and one of an Ethiopian prince whose father committed suicide upon defeat by the British and who was brought back to England by a military commander called Tristram Speedy. He went to Rugby and to Sandhurst, but died of pleurisy at 18. Such curious, little-known lives.
    4. I bought a little chunky journal on Saturday, after bidding Ollie farewell but before getting the Tube back home. It’s grey with a flower pattern on the front, and only cost £3.99. It feels inviting, but unthreatening, and I like it very much. I’m hoping to re-establish the habit of journaling by hand. So far, it’s working.
    5. My novel carries on apace. I can’t say I write a thousand words a day, but I try to write a little bit most days. I’m slowly discovering what one of my characters is all about; he’s a surprisingly complicated chap, not entirely nice or passive. I’m also approaching a point at which I’m going to have to switch to writing about one of the other POV characters for a while. It stops me from getting bored or stuck in a rut.
    6. Now that the weather is sunny again, I am getting broody about dogs. There was a beautiful wrinkly brown shar pei in the park over the weekend which I literally couldn’t stop raving about. The Chaos asked me why I always have to like “the fugly ones”. It’s because they’re fugly. Fugly dogs are the most beautiful.
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This will never NOT be perfect.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

 

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  1. Turnips came in our veg box last week. In, I guess, an effort to get them out of the way, we ate them first, roasted with cumin and chilli seeds flicked onto them halfway through the cooking process. They were, impossibly, horrid. How can something still taste bitter and thick after you’ve roasted it for forty minutes with cumin and chilli seeds? They were just not nice. We had them with lovely pork and apple sausages, which eased the sting a little, but only a little.
  2. Follow Nigel Slater on Instagram. Mostly for the recipes, but also for the crockery.
  3. I would like a holiday. I have almost certainly left it too late to book a holiday. I really thought this year would be the year. The cycle continues.
  4. The Chaos’s ma introduced me to 90% dark chocolate over the bank holiday weekend. It feels like the confectionery version of absinthe: too good to be true. Alternate bites of the chocolate with bites of crystallised stem ginger; feel like a Byzantine empress.
  5. Much of this post seems to be food-related. Make of it what you will.
  6. Is television worth watching anymore? We don’t have an actual TV; nor do we possess a Netflix, Amazon Prime, LoveFilm, or Hulu subscription. I don’t really miss it, but now I find out that iPlayer is about to cost money, too, and I do like watching Have I Got News For You on Wednesday nights when the Chaos is out. Should I be arsed to pay a £10/monthly Netflix charge, or whatever it is?
  7. Last week my singing teacher stopped me in the middle of a lesson and told me to go home. He was incredibly nice about it–it wasn’t like “You’re shit, go away”–it was more like “Hey, you seem to have had a pretty rough time recently and I can hear it in your voice, so why don’t you go recuperate?” He actually told me to get a hug from the Chaos and have a few beers, which was sweet. But it was alarming to realize that being upset can manifest itself so physically. Like, I think that’s something we all think we know, but this really brought it home. He had no idea what had happened this month re: family and work until I told him, but he could hear it.
  8. 20 Books of Summer, I’m comin’ for you.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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Sadiq Khan: the new Mayor of London, a self-identified feminist and lover of chocolate HobNobs (aka my kind of guy)

  1. Didn’t do one of these last week because I just hadn’t written enough about books to justify yet another . So this is a two-week catch-up.
  2. The Paris Review interviews with famous authors are all online and free to read. I had no idea. I thought you had to buy the four big fat volumes of them. I might do that anyway, but for now, holy shit, it’s the Grail.
  3. The BBC and Netflix are collaborating to re-produce Watership Down as a four-part series starring John Boyega and James McAvoy. I don’t know how to feel about this. I’m feeling all the feelings.
  4. Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Which…just…I mean, there’s nothing left to say about this, really. Although the ever-illuminating Samantha Field’s analysis of Trump from a progressive Christian point of view gave a name to many of the horrors of his candidacy.
  5. Sadiq Khan was elected Mayor of London: the first Muslim mayor the city’s ever had, and nice to see Labour back in City Hall after eight years of Conservative buffoonery in the form of Boris Johnson. I voted for him (Khan, I mean.) I wasn’t used to voting on paper—I’ve only ever voted postally in this country, and my memories of accompanying my dad to the American polling station as a kid involved those shonky-looking electronic voting booths. It was kind of amazing to literally put a pencil mark on a piece of paper and stick that paper in a box. It made me feel closer to the democractic process, somehow.
  6. Brown eyeliner. Is a thing. That I actually rather like. It’s a softer look than my usual aggressive line of black, and has the added advantage of not rubbing off on the Chaos’s face/shirt/forehead (although that may just be because it’s a better brand.)
  7. Last week was basically pretty shit. A family member died, I felt like a disappointment at work, and I barely got any writing done. The only thing that was okay was that the weather was so beautiful, I went to Parliament Hill Fields for lunch every day.
  8. We went out to dinner in Great Portland Street with some old college friends on Friday. The restaurant was lovely, the tasting menu was delicious, everything was going well, until loud angry shouting noises began emanating from the kitchens. They were repetitive, and seemed to be relating to the fact that a delivery driver was demanding cash payment immediately, without the approval of a manager. After about two minutes of this (and the restaurant was so small that literally everyone could hear it), Lydia, who is a police officer, stood up and—in her glittery night-out top, holding her warrant card—wordlessly walked into the kitchens. It was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. She came back five minutes later and, when questioned, said only, “I told him to shut up and go away unless he wanted to be charged with a public order offense.” Our friend Adam asked, with disappointment, why she hadn’t arrested him, to which she replied, “On a night out? Think of the paperwork!”
  9. Last weekend, the Chaos was going to be in Cambridge on Saturday. Given the bad week, I was really worried I’d spend the whole day in bed, eating cookies. So I made a plan—and then it was gloriously upended by my cousin Sarah, who is a tour guide at the National Theatre. She put out a Facebook plea for people to turn up on Saturday so that she could do an Architecture Tour, which is partly outside (it was gorgeous weather). In the event, I was the only person there, so I got a private tour, which was great: I learned loads about the building (including the rationale behind its ugly design), and we went into the tech workshops, where she showed me a half-finished set and loads of props, most of them horrible and gory (severed heads, bloody leg bones). I also saw one of the horse puppets from War Horse, which is hanging from the ceiling in the backstage area behind the Lyttelton Theatre. It’s just as complex and beautiful a piece of machinery as you’d expect.
  10. Do you guys know Tinyletter? It’s sort of an email subscription service, I think. I subscribe to one called Friday Poem: does what it says on the tin, is often beautiful and always timely. Here’s a different one by Helena Fitzgerald that really rang true with me, on public grief for celebrities as a rehearsal for the real thing.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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SpaceX’s launch of Falcon 9

  1. You all should read this four-part series by Tim Urban at WaitButWhy (the link goes through to all of the content in one place, don’t worry) on space exploration (/colonisation) and Elon Musk. Not least for the two incredible videos of the Spirit and Curiosity rovers landing on Mars. I suggest that, once you get to the part about the Hubble Space Telescope, you soundtrack your reading for as long as it takes to listen to this.
  2. I saw my lovely friend Ella (long-time readers will recall her former incarnation on this blog as the Duchess) for a quick hour-long lunch last week, and it was great. She teaches in Vermont, so I haven’t seen much of her, except on FaceTime, for months. She was back for her mother’s birthday, and we went to a little Italian cafe on Kentish Town Road where the inefficiency of the service is compensated for by the outstanding quality of their pasta. We had lasagna and chorizo-mushroom penne and talked about office politics and our families and laughed a lot. I’d been having a particularly shit morning that day, so it was especially nice to just let go with an old friend, even briefly.
  3. My old college had its annual black-tie ball this weekend. This is the first year I haven’t gone. I went last year with some friends in the year below me, even though I was no longer a student or even participating in the life of the college much (despite still living in Oxford), and it was, overall, a mistake. I think one of the hardest things about graduating is knowing when to stop going back (at least for a few years); this is the time. I’ll probably return with some other friends to use High Table dining rights this summer, and it was great to see pictures of people I did know enjoying themselves and looking fly, but it’s not my place anymore. Or at least not in the same way. And that’s okay.
  4. Prince died, and even though I don’t think I’ve ever consciously listened to any of his music, let alone been a devotee, it seemed really, really sad. He was obviously a taboo-breaker and an outrageously talented instrumentalist: one of my coworkers reminisced about seeing him, in concert, hurl himself across the stage, lean backwards over a piano, and play, while upside-down, exactly the right chords at exactly the right moment. That kind of gold dust shouldn’t die at 57.
  5. I’m writing fiction again. That’s all for now. Hooray.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

  1. It turns out that I am the kind of person who, when left alone for the weekend, mentally regresses into single student mode. When I did a load of washing on Friday night, I felt as though I’d be morally justified in taking a picture, uploading it to Instagram, and tagging it “#adulting”. (nb: I did not actually do this.) Also, the ONLY reason I did not eat cookies for three days was because I had been made to solemnly and specifically promise that I wouldn’t.
  2. Although going to see movies is not something I do regularly, I’m thinking I might have to go see Batman vs. Superman. Not because it’s good or anything, but because the Chaos is actually on the soundtrack. (He does session work for film scores, on and off.) That’s a good reason to blow £20 on tickets and popcorn, right?
  3. c2Most of the stuff on this site probably would not fit me, or would look like a stretched-out handkerchief on my body, but this Mulan skirt… I would turn up for this.
  4. A feminist Facebook group I’m part of, Cuntry Living (YUP), has been running a thread of “great female literary characters” recently and it’s so great. Meg Murray! Alanna of Trebond! Betsey Trotwood! Becky Sharp! Moll Flanders! Hester Prynne! Penelope! Lyra! Scarlett O’Hara! Sally Lockhart! Jean Brodie! Maggie Tulliver! Amy Dunne! Shug Avery! Scout Finch! Violet Baudelaire! I’m going to have to go back and do a lot of rereading. Or maybe a Kick-Ass Women Week?
  5. I’ve recently decided to start helping myself out when it comes to my TBR by breaking it up into little chunks: four books at a time go onto a pile on my dresser, to be read through in order. Then, once I’ve read those, I can pick my next chunk. It helps me to mix up books to be reviewed with books I may have borrowed, books from the Baileys Prize archive (an ongoing project), and long-owned books that deserve to be read before I forget I even have them. At present, I’m reading Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies; the rest of the small pile comprises A Wizard of Earthsea (borrowed from the Chaos), The Exclusives by Rebecca Thornton (to be reviewed), and Selected Poems of Sylvia Plath (bought in January, needs reading).