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).

Graduates In Wonderland, by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale

I think if you can make plans that far in advance, you are officially in the adult club. My current life has the same expiration date as my student visa.

Sometimes a book is the literary equivalent of a superfood salad, a glass of white wine, and a warm bath: it just does exactly what you need it to do, and you don’t even feel bad about it. Sometimes that book comes to you by way of a good and trustworthy friend, which is even better. Red and I have been friends since the summer after our junior year of high school, when we met at a state-sponsored summer camp for nerds in Newport News. We’ve written letters and emails and Facebook messages, sent each other playlists and book recommendations, done shots and drunk tea, stayed up late and slept in late, looked at the moon, visited art galleries, disgraced ourselves, and redeemed ourselves. She hears all about my misadventures in Oxford and London, and I hear about her life with her fiance in Ohio. She’s a hard worker and a fierce heart.

Which means that when she sent me a surprise late birthmas (this is a thing) package with two books, I knew perfectly well that they’d be good. I started Graduates In Wonderland the very next morning.

One of the weird things about this stage in your life is that everyone does it differently, but there are enough common denominators for most other peoples’ experiences to be recognizable. That said, you do have to understand that Graduates In Wonderland is the sort of thing–the sort of story–that only exists because of privilege. The night before they graduate, Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale promise to send each other emails every week with honest accounts of their lives in the various foreign cities in which they end up living. Both women went to Brown, an Ivy League, and both have family situations that can provide them with at least some financial support whilst they pursue multiple masters’ degrees and general international adventuring. I know that I write this as the possessor of an Oxford degree, and therefore have limited scope to blather about privilege. I do spend a lot of time worrying about money, however, and what surprised me most about the emails that comprise the book is that very few of them mention any kind of panicking about money. At one point, Rachel gets hit by a car and the insurance pay-out is $10,000, which carries her through the first year of her masters’ in Paris. She doesn’t dwell very much on the fortuitousness of this, which struck me as a bit odd. Then again, because these were emails between friends, maybe that’s why; do friends really write to each other about their money fears? I’m not sure I tell my long-distance buddies about mine. But on the other other hand, these are supposed to be “no-holds-barred” emails, which makes it a little hard to believe that the girls can quit jobs without once mentioning to each other that they’re worried about how they’ll make rent. I’ve been unemployed and soon will be again, and let me tell you, I thought about almost nothing except how I was going to make rent. Maybe I’m the weird one.

If you kind of abandon the idea that this is non-fiction, however, Graduates In Wonderland is pretty charming. (Come on–no matter how “raw and honest” their emails to each other were, there’s been editing.) BUT BUT BUT. Come on now. It’s tremendous fun to read the travails of women your own age, who are also, like you, battling through misery and self-doubt one day, and taking shots with commitment-phobic boys in questionable bars the next. It reminds you that you’re not alone. It makes you hopeful that you’ll make it through. And it brings to the forefront of your mind the brilliance of your friends. After Rachel is unexpectedly and horribly dumped by a Frenchman named Olivier, Jess writes, with the absolute solidarity of a friend:

You want someone who is going to stick around and give you half a chance. Olivier is not this. At least you didn’t waste years on him…But honestly. I want to punch him in the face. I want to take a fish and slap it across his face, while yelling, “NON! NO MAS TOUCHE PAS!”

You are going to be okay. I promise.

If you visit me here, I’ll take you to the farthest place from Paris: St Kilda. It’s the closest thing to a beach in Melbourne–a strip of sand on a bay. The streets are lined with fish-and-chip shops, cyclists, and bakeries. We’ll lie in the sun, and I’ll make sure your pale skin is completely covered in SPF 50 sunblock. I’ll find a strapping Australian guy named Jono to rub it in for you.

That’s love, you guys.

Actually, in some places, this book almost hurts to read, because in among the ridiculous romance escapades and the exploring of new cities and the discoveries of your own competence, there are some really sad moments. Like when one of the girls asks how many times you can move from city to city without losing most of the people you knew in each one. That’s the rootlessness of your twenties. That’s one of the worst things about this life stage, too: the intensity of your friendships, the difficulty of starting them in the first place now that you’re no longer living within a couple hundred yards of everyone you know, and the bereftness, the sense of melancholy, when you realize that you’ll still end up losing most of them. It’s a tough place to be.

It’s also a great place to be. Rachel’s mother tells her, when she gets accepted to a masters’ program in Paris, “In ten years, you won’t be able to do this. So go.” I can’t think about this too hard because it frightens me and excites me and hurts my head and makes me useless, but there are so many things I do these days that I won’t be able to do in ten years. There are so many choices I could make that won’t be reasonable options when I’m thirty-two. It seems ungrateful not to bite off as much of life as is possible. Accept the invitation; apply for the job; reply to the text; flirt with the bartender (when applicable); be good to yourself. I don’t often need persuading of the fact, but I’m glad Graduates In Wonderland is here to remind me, when I need it.

In 2014

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 2014, I have:

recorded a CD with Exeter College Choir

written my first review for Quadrapheme Magazine

danced at Burns Night

Burns Night

planned an alumni event at Freshfields on my own

met J.K. Rowling, and talked to her about her shoes

staffed Founder’s Day (hungover and on four hours of sleep)

endured sixteen consecutive days of fatigue, alcohol, singing, and jet lag

sung at the National Cathedral

made friends at a gay bar called Freddie’s in Crystal City, in the company of my darlings Theresa McCario, Jonathan Giles, Chelsea Meynig, and Ella Kirsh, and new darling Michael Divino


attended a keg party

found emergency medical care in lower Manhattan

skipped May morning for the first time

met A.S. Byatt

shaken the hand of the Queen of Spain

gone drinking with a platoon of Marines

become poetry editor at Quadrapheme Magazine

Quadrapheme logo

performed the second most ludicrous gig of my singing life so far

purchased an ostrich feather wrap and a tiara

sung my final evensong at Exeter College naked (except for the cassock)

attended a white tie ball

ball me and N

danced around a bonfire with Will Michaelmas Watt

written my first lesson plan

marked someone else’s coursework for the first time

adopted winged eyeliner

started a novel

milked a cow

become managing editor at Quadrapheme Magazine

composed precisely forty job applications and cover letters (I’ve just counted)

moved house

This is not actually my house, but it is my street.
This is not actually my house, but it is my street.

gotten my first adult full-time job

learned how to use Twitter properly

vetted, purchased, installed and learned to use a new database

had a poem accepted at Boston Poetry

strategized, recruited for, and implemented a new after-school programme

stuffed 2,705 individual pieces of paper into ~540 envelopes

seen the Late Turner exhibit at Tate Britain

The Blue Riga, JMW Turner
The Blue Riga, JMW Turner

sung harmony with my little brother on guitar

read 102 books

I don’t believe in predicting the future, either: not five years into the future, not one year, not even six months. Experience has taught me that such predictions take a particular delight in confounding you. But I can say that I fully expect 2015 to fill the shoes of its predecessor.

In 2013, I have

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 2013, I have:

climbed a fell

taken a Virgin train first class, for free (!)

given a speech at Burns Night

done four live radio broadcasts from Manchester, over a week during which, apart from the broadcasts, I did nothing except revise medieval dream poetry and watch baking shows with the Duchess

learned to lay a fire

gotten naked–for the children (and it’s not often you hear someone say that) (aka participated in the naked calendar produced by ExVac, Exeter College’s own charity which takes disadvantaged children for a week’s holiday in the spring vac)

woken up at 5:30 a.m. for May morning

drunk red wine in a mortarboard

This happened.
This happened.

contemplated suicide

revised for Finals

worn a corset in public

commissioned a dress

sat Finals

been trashed

graduated from university

applied to do postgraduate work, and been rejected, and been devastated about that, and then been kind of okay with it

swum naked in the Adriatic

danced in an Italian bar until two in the morning


sung Bruckner motets for bewildered but enthusiastic Italians, also at two in the morning

read seventy-nine books (beginning to end)

bought twenty-three secondhand books

met Philip Pullman, and chatted about The Faerie Queene with him

watched all three series of Game of Thrones

moved house

become identifiable by sight at Gloucester Green book stall

walked on the North York Moors


become unwittingly hooked on The Great British Bake Off (shoot shag marry: shoot Mel and Sue, shag Paul, marry Mary. Obviously.)

written eighteen different cover letters for job applications

interned in London, twice

joined Pottermore, and done absolutely nothing on it

discovered that the five-year plan I thought I had isn’t actually the five-year plan I want, and changed it accordingly

laughed so hard I spat water all over the kitchen

cried so hard I couldn’t see the next day

landed a job

gone out every night in a week

...and they all had red eye, The End
…and they all had red eye, The End

created a graph in Microsoft Excel

started to write poetry again, and submit it

won a mention in the Southwest Review’s poetry competition

cooked a Christmas dinner

flown home for the first time in a year

bought alcohol without being carded (in the States, no less)

started to realize that you can be happy and uncertain at the same time.

skeptical amiability
skeptical amiability

Happy New Year’s, you guys. I hope that Santa brought you everything you asked for, that your New Year’s Eve is safe if not sober, and that the coming twelvemonth (a word that needs bringing back) is good to you!

Happy New Year from (most of) L'Auberge Anglaise! (missing Darcy and Half Pint, who's taking the picture)
Happy New Year from (most of) L’Auberge Anglaise! (missing Darcy and Half Pint, who’s taking the picture)