Three Things: August 2018

August

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…)

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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

sable

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

1944

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

glyndebourne

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

bea

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!

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

  1. Ceilidhs are the best. (For non-UK folk, see this definition of a ceilidh. English people quite often have them for weddings, birthdays, anniversary celebrations, etc., even if they’re not of Scottish/Irish ancestry.) They’re wonderful because you can spend your night dancing, but you don’t have to worry about being “a good dancer” or having a big shakeable Beyoncé booty or anything; you literally follow instructions. And the music is absolutely infectious. My friend and former college organ scholar, Tim, had one last weekend for his 21st and it reminded me that I need to find a Burns Night celebration, either here or in Oxford, to attend in January.
  2. In other friend news, the lovely Esther is having a baby this month (omgomgomg); she and her husband Bojan have just found out it’s a girl (OMGOMGOMG), and I’ve been granted godmotherly rights and privileges with regards to it/her (OMGOMGOMG). Baby showers aren’t really a thing here, but my fellow godmother Aileen organised one anyway, and we spent quite some time trying to whittle their current baby-girl-name list down from 24 to a manageable one or two (or four). It is a delight and a joy to be a godmother-in-waiting, but I am just really hoping that I don’t fail. I think as long as I don’t actually turn the baby into a Satanist, it’s okay?
  3. Here is a list of things that have made me cry recently: the idea of having to phone up my bank. Being unable to execute a key maneouvre in a computer game. Forgetting the PIN to my infrequently used debit card. Writing a constructor for a vector in JavaScript. Having a dream about the complex legal maneouvres required to satisfactorily disburse the contents of a will. (I have no clue.)
  4. Autumn means STATIONERY! Specifically, it means GETTING A NEW PAPER DIARY, because even though Google Calendar is great, I can’t use it for my to-do lists. This year I’m saving money by using one of the (pile of) old hardbacked exercise books in the Chaos’s desk drawers. It’s light blue and college-ruled and I can make my own week-to-view layout, just as I like it. I am thrilled.
  5. If you are not reading Bad Machinery, why not?! It is a webcomic by John Allison about mystery-solving teens at a Yorkshire grammar school. If you’re a fan of Kate Beaton, you’ll love it: Allison draws hilarious faces and does a fine line in witty dialogue in exactly the same way. The mild supernatural flavour to the mysteries plus the spot-on observations about teenaged social behaviour makes it like an addictive Netflix series, only you’re supporting an independent artist by reading. Go on go on go onnnnn. Here, I’ve linked to the very beginning for you.
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The main cast of Bad Machinery

Trio, by Sue Gee

something beautiful and strong

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~~warning: here be one or two spoilers~~

Sue Gee seems to be one of those authors who’s both prolific and successful, and yet is still relatively unknown. She was long listed for the Orange Prize in 2005, which is exactly the sort of thing that happens to good writers who, for some reason or another, don’t please the mainstream as well as they might. That she isn’t better known is, on the basis of her new book Trio, a travesty, though perhaps not a surprise. It’s the sort of book that tends to suffer in an industry that has taken Twitter to its bosom. (I am not knocking Twitter. I mostly love Twitter and am increasingly coming to depend on it, which is a whole ‘nother story, as Americans say.) The point is that Trio is tender, nuanced, and although it contains plot points which could easily be played for melodrama, Gee’s writing is so fine that when you read those moments in her book, they pass in front of you in a thoroughly natural way. That’s terribly difficult to explain in 144 characters.

And then there’s the plot: a school teacher in Northumberland in 1937 grieves the loss of his wife, whom we get to know in the first chapter. (She dies at the end of it, but I felt real sorrow and pain when I read it—sixteen and a half pages in, and Gee had made me care about someone. That, boys and girls, is rare.) Anyway, Steven Coulter, the school teacher in question, meets a group of new friends through a work colleague. They’re all tight-knit and slightly secretive, their relationships reminiscent of The Secret History albeit rather more realistic. There’s beautiful Diana Embleton, who plays the cello; her charismatic brother Frank (with whom Steven teaches); talented violinist George Liddell; and enigmatic Margot, a pianist. These four grew up together, and Diana, George, and Margot have formed a musical trio, which plays regular concerts around the county. It doesn’t sound pacy or intriguing—but it is, it bloody well is.

Writing a book set in 1937, and partly in a large country house, you have to choose, I think, whether to give in to the inevitable echoes of early Downton Abbey, or whether to subvert them. Gee chooses to subvert, and she does that by investing a lot of authorial energy in characterisation. When I say that the death of Steven’s first wife, Margaret, made me feel sorrow after sixteen pages, I mean it; and she achieves that immediacy of feeling by using those sixteen pages to dive deeply not only into Margaret’s immediate bodily experience of tuberculosis, delirium and death, but also into her memory. Memory is what binds together most of the characters in Trio; it’s a sense of shared history between the Embletons, Margot, and George that makes their playing so intimate. It’s also what connects the book’s first section to its second, which is told not by any of the characters we’ve previously met, but by Steven’s son, sixty years in the future.

Although some of the characters fulfill certain stereotypical functions (Diana the beautiful; Margot the quietly enigmatic; George the closeted, tormented and brilliant), they each do so in a way that feels particular, not generalized. Diana, for instance, has many flaws, one of which is a self-centeredness that prevents her from understanding wider social or political currents. In a more Downton-esque novel, this flaw would be emphasised, but never explored; she would simply be dim, arrogant, gorgeous, and distant. In Trio, by contrast, that trait has a huge effect on the plot: Diana doesn’t realize that Margot’s father, whom she too has known as a father figure for twenty years, has fallen in love with her. When he finally declares himself, she is horrified, distraught, and rebuffs him in no uncertain terms, which shatters him and leads to tragedy. It’s the subtlety with which Gee builds up the situation, though, that shatters us, too, as readers: we know, long before Diana does, what Mr. Heslop’s feelings are for her. But we also know how easy it’s been for Diana to misunderstand his attentions as simple courtesy–his offers to carry her cello case, his solicitousness in keeping her wine glass topped up, seem perfectly natural, but Steven, through whose eyes we see everything, has observed that he can’t stop looking at her. We see because Steven sees, but Diana doesn’t have that kind of perspective.

For a book that revolves so explicitly around music, though, there aren’t many descriptions of it. When Gee writes about the trio working together, her focus is on their personal connection, the look that runs between them before they begin to play. She gets that spot-on; anyone who has performed music in a group small or large knows what that feels like, and anyone who has seen music performed live will recognise that electrified atmosphere, that awareness that you are witnessing intimate, non-verbal communication of the highest order. I have to confess that I wished for precise descriptions of the music, though; you can appreciate more fully the connection that enables a Beethoven trio to be performed when you understand what that piece sounds like. Writing prose descriptions of music is hard, but it can be done: Helen Stevenson, in Love Like Salt, released in February of this year, writes at length, and evocatively, about Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater.

The second half of the book is a curious decision; it’s narrated by the eldest child of Steven and Margot’s eventual union (not the biggest spoiler in the world, I venture, since their relationship and marriage is signposted fairly early on.) It follows him as he drives from London back to Northumberland to celebrate Christmas with his sister, after the death of his parents and the sale of Hepplewick Hall, the house where the trio grew up together and which Margot eventually inherits. The point of this sudden shift of era and perspective, I think, is to demonstrate how things change, how time erodes even the most intense of relationships. While I was reading, it didn’t strike me as out of place, but looking back on the book as a whole, I’m hard-pressed to determine exactly why this second half was as long as it was. It would have worked perfectly well as an epilogue. And yet perhaps Gee wants us to feel a little bit off-balance; the story of the subsequent generations is given as much air time as the story of the Greatest Generation, even though, at least for me, it carried less immediate emotional weight.

Fundamentally, though, Trio is a book that rewards your careful attention; you will probably, if you are like me, want to gobble it up, but its observation of human behaviour, of the fault lines of friendships and the limitations of love, is of the subtlest sort. Its generous anatomization of grief and fallibility, and the immense trust it places in the power of music, has earned it a spot on my shelf of Books To Save From Fire. This summer, you really should be reading it too.

Many thanks to the kind folks at Salt for the review copy. Trio was published in the UK on 16 June.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

st-ives-wide

    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

  1. Two weekends ago I did the MoonWalk, a walking half-marathon (+ 2 miles, so it was actually 15 miles) through central London at night, to raise money for breast cancer research. Standing on Chelsea Bridge watching the sun rise over the river ranks high on my list of Best London Moments To Date.
  2. My friend Ella is back in town! I had two lovely lunches with her last week (one also included our friend Lydia). Reconnecting with old friends is so comforting, and comfortable.
  3. Han Kang and Deborah Smith won the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian, which is just great news. The Vegetarian is a terrific book—disturbing, memorable, elegant—and Han Kang is a thoughtful, compassionate author. Deborah Smith, her translator, is only twenty-eight, and is super cool: she runs a small press called Tilted Axis. I saw both of them speak at Foyles last winter, about the second of Han’s novels to be published in English, Human Acts. They are a brilliant team.
  4. After languishing unused for nearly a year, my Cupcake face mask from Lush finally got used for the first time last week. It’s chocolate-scented, with peppermint oils, so I smell a bit like an After Eight, but my GOD does it ever make my skin soft and clear. I’ve always been a little skeptical about Lush: no longer.
  5. The dress I ordered for this August wedding arrived, and it was MADE OF VELVET AND POLYESTER. I was expecting the polyester bit (all clothing has a little bit of it these days) but the velvet, not so much. The very idea of wearing it in August made me feel sticky. (Plus, in that fabric, the pattern made me look like a cheaply upholstered sofa.) So back it goes, and in a fit of hopefulness I’ve ordered this from House of Fraser instead (I reckon I can dress it up with jewelery and wedges): dress
  6. UPDATE: The above dress arrived last night. Turns out I ordered it a size too big (…yay?), and it’s so thin you can see my pants through it. So fuck that. I’m now thinking I’ll just wear a dress I already own (purple, from French Connection, smart but not excessive) and get some wedges from New Look or something.
  7. I bought a ticket to Emerald Street Literary Festival, which is on 11 June. I am not a lit fest person (I don’t really care about authors, honestly; I’d rather read what they’ve written than listen to them talk), but I’m genuinely excited about this one. The three sessions I’ve signed up for are a panel on the pros and cons of EU membership for UK women; a chat with Sarah Perry (actually thrilled for this) and a chat with Maggie O’Farrell (which should spur me to read one of her books.)