Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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We were in Cornwall all last week, Airbnb’ing in a studio flat above a gallery on Barnoon Hill in St. Ives. So this week’s Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts is Cornwall-themed!

  1. First things first, Cornwall is utterly beautiful. We went for a long walk one day and by the time we came back into town, the Chaos was saying things like “I could get a gig at Truro Cathedral” and peering in the windows of estate agents.
  2. St. Ives is famous for two things, primarily: being an outstandingly good-looking coastal town, and artists. Barbara Hepworth was one of them, a sculptor who moved down to Cornwall in the 1940s with her children and husband to escape the Blitz. She was a total boss—had triplets unexpectedly in rural nowheresville, divorced husband #1 after a few years, lived scandalously with husband #2 before actually getting hitched, competed with Henry Moore for commissions, and became such a part of the St. Ives community that she threatened to take the town council to court when they wanted to make the beautiful hill area into a massive car park. She was made a Dame in 1965. She died after a fire in her studio that started because she insisted on smoking in bed. The pictures of her make her look like a boss biddy, and I would like to write a novel about her. Her sculptures are also beautiful, powerful forms that were way ahead of their time.
  3. Speaking of novels, I didn’t write every day on holiday, but the days I did write were great: over 1,000 words every time. I’m also well past the 20,000-word mark. In fact, I missed it when it happened. The next benchmark will be 25,000, for which I need some suitable way to celebrate. Ideas welcome.
  4. Reading on holiday was great, but also awkward. I started Neal Stephenson’s magisterial (= 912-page) The System of the World in the train on the way down, which was utterly brilliant and absorbing but which took me three days. By then, I only had two days left, and, because I’m a twit, five more books in my suitcase. I ploughed on, read The Tailor of Panama, which was a fun little relaxing number, and most of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s second Cazalet book, Marking Time (which I’ve now finished). I am just going to read all of my planned holiday reading in the week after the actual holiday, I guess. (The others: Starship Troopers; Lolly Willowes; Hot Milk.)
  5. Cornwall has an unusually high proportion of Regionally Significant Foodstuffs: meat-and-potato pasties, Cornish clotted cream, “the cream tea” (scones + clotted cream + strawberry jam), ice cream, fudge. If you are in St. Ives, your range of options for pasties and fudge is immense—nearly every shop in the middle of town seems to sell one or the other, if not both. We can also personally attest to the deliciousness of bread from the St. Ives Bakery.
  6. The Chaos having the whole month of August off is great, in that he has a whole month off, and not great, in that he shares that month off with every wailing snot-nosed child in the United Kingdom. Most of these children had converged, with their drained and pinch-faced parents, on St. Ives. Having no children, we were able, mostly, to avoid them, except for going up and down Fore Street, where you just have to stare blankly into the middle distance until it’s all over.
  7. The St. Ives Bookseller is a gorgeous little independent bookshop at the very top of Fore Street. They’ve won best bookshop awards from The Bookseller in the last few years. We didn’t buy anything there, which was, as you can imagine, painful, but it’s a really nice place to browse, with well-selected content and interesting displays.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

  • My birthday was on Monday. I took the day off work, made pancakes, went hat shopping, went book shopping, went to an art exhibit, came home, called my mum, made my own cake (from this recipe by She Cooks She Eats), and then we had pizza. It was all very nice.
  • It’s been hot in London this week. Like, really motherf*ckin’ hot. Before anyone starts mocking the Brits for their weather weakness, please bear in mind that a) I grew up in Virginia, where it’s often 90 degrees (Fahrenheit; that’s 32 Celsius, kids) in the shade by mid-May, and humid, so it’s not like I don’t know what heat is, and b) in Virginia, every building is designed to deal with the heat. Even the ones that were built pre-air conditioning; my parents’ house is from about 1890, and they’re not legally allowed to install a/c, but it was built to allow cool breezes (when there are any) to drift through the whole building. My office in London, by contrast, has no air conditioning and is designed to keep us warm in the Victorian winters (although, as I can attest, it does a pretty crap job at that, too). There are no breezes and we’re all miserable.
  • Angela Eagle has stepped down from her bid to be leader of the Labour Party. This is sad, partly because Piers Morgan has decided to play on it by suggesting that perhaps women just aren’t good enough (his words, y’all. His actual words). Mostly, though, I’m sad that the team on Dead Ringers won’t be able to satirize her anymore. (“I may sound like a nervous badger, but when I want something, I take it! And then I put it back. And cry when the police come.”)
  • Yoga isn’t something I’m particularly good at; my flexibility and upper arm strength are nil (though my balance isn’t bad) – but I’ve been doing it for nearly two months through work and I am, I think, getting a bit stronger. I’ve only got another week of it left, though, so if I want to continue, I’ll have to find a class near home. I’d like to carry on, but like everything else, it costs money, which I soon won’t have much of. I know it’s the sort of thing worth spending money on, though. Ugh. Someone help me to convince myself?
  • I’m 13 books into #20booksofsummer, and have finally read the first on my list which I really wasn’t into: Raw Spirit, by Iain Banks. He may have been a brilliant fiction writer, but in person he strikes me as a self-indulgent blowhard with too much money, a less funny Bill Bryson. Shame.
  • Kodasema is an Estonian architecture group that’s designed a beautiful, tiny pre-fab house (the KODA) that can move with you. It only takes seven hours to put up, in total (I spend more time than that at work every day), it’s green as hell, and it’s unbelievably good-looking. The downsides are that the ceiling is only 7’1″ (the Chaos is 6’7″), and no website seems to have information on prices. Still…

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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.

20 Books of Summer

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The wonderful Cathy at 746 Books is running this event: you have from 1 June til 5 September to read a pile of twenty books that you’ve chosen for yourself. I happen to have twenty books (not including pre-pubs) on deck right now, so thought I might as well try to join in the fun! I’m expecting to be able to put these away without difficulty, but I’m also taking the whole endeavour with a pinch of salt: I generally find formalized reading challenges to be Not My Thing. As these constitute the titles I’m trying to read at the moment anyway, though, perhaps I’ll have more success.

Collected Poems (update: I can’t. Sorry, I can’t. I did try to read these all in one go, and it was impossible. I’ll only get through these by going very slowly indeed.) – Dylan Thomas: I love Dylan Thomas. I think he was utterly mad and would have been a hopeless person to know, love or be friends with, but his poetry is magical and I’d like to read it all.

Darwin Among the Machines (finished 20/06/16; thoughts here)- George Dyson: A classic text exploring the possibility of artificial intelligence. The book’s title originates from an essay by Samuel Butler, considering roughly the same question, but from a late Victorian historical perspective.

Celia’s House – DE Stevenson: A stocking pressie from last Christmas; a gentle Edwardian novel about a woman who leaves her house to her nephew and his young family. What my mum used to call “a safe book.”

The Queen of the Night (finished 03/07/16; thoughts here)- Alexander Chee: A Parisian opera star in Belle Epoque France tries to maintain her upward trajectory and keep hidden a dark and secretive past. Yes, of course I was always going to want to read it.

Jean-Étienne Liotard (update: have decided not to worry about completing this one by the end of the challenge date. It’s huge and very difficult to take out of the house, as it won’t fit in any of my normal bags) – the RA: This is the enormous hardback monograph for the Liotard exhibition that we saw at the beginning of spring. He was an Enlightenment-era French portraitist and I absolutely adored everything that we saw. My new favourite painting is his wedding portrait of 23-year-old Julie de Thellusson-Ployard. It’s the contained but genuine joy in her smile, I think.

A Manual for Cleaning Women (finished 29/06/16; thoughts here)- Lucia Berlin: Another party to which I am appallingly late, but the underappreciated-woman-writer-from-the-’60s vibe is one I can get behind. Perhaps a good preparation for Elena Ferrante, whom I’ll probably get to eventually.

Larry’s Party (finished 10/06/16; thoughts here)- Carol Shields: A novel about late-20th-century masculinity, under the guise of a character study: one man, Larry, followed from age 27 to age 47. I don’t know why, but that title makes me feel really sad.

The Idea of Perfection (finished 11/08/16) – Kate Grenville: An unlikely love story set in New South Wales, and winner of the Orange Prize. I have high hopes.

When I Lived in Modern Times (finished 05/07/16) – Linda Grant: In 1946, Evelyn Sert sails from Soho to Palestine, where the new state of Israel is coalescing, to reinvent herself, find love, and (from what the blurb coyly suggests) be a spy?! Excellent.

The Lacuna (finished 08/06/16; thoughts here) – Barbara Kingsolver: Not Kingsolver’s familiar territory here – Harrison Shepherd, a young drifter, becomes entangled with the households and intimate lives of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Mexico. I heard an excerpt from it at a Baileys Prize event last fall and was very favourably impressed.

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Unintentionally colour-coordinated book pile #1 (peach and green)

Housekeeping (finished 09/07/16) – Marilynne Robinson: Beautiful, phenomenal Marilynne Robinson. Her first book. All about sisters and aunts, family and loyalty. Hurrah.

Raw Spirit (finished 17/07/16) – Iain Banks: Somewhat randomly acquired in September when I visited my godmother and her husband in Glasgow, and we went on a distillery tour; they were selling this in the gift shop. Banks’s account of his attempt to find the perfect whiskey. I’d quite like to read his “real” books (sf and lit fic both), but this’ll do to start.

The Siege of Krishnapur (finished 13/06/16; thoughts here) –  J.G. Farrell: Basically a novel about the Sepoy Mutiny, but from the point of view of English soldiers barricaded into the Residency in a remote north Indian town. An early Booker Prize winner; my copy is secondhand and very tattered.

The Book of Memory (finished 04/06/16; thoughts here) – Petina Gappah: An albino Zimbabwean woman on death row recounts the strange story of her childhood, and the man her parents sold her to as a child. Rumour suggests it’s all right but not the same level as An Elegy for Easterly. Sadface.

The Father (finished 12/07/16) – Sharon Olds: Moar poetry, moar! I am trying to read more, anyway. Apparently this is good. I’ve been wary of Sharon Olds since reading a very dismissive review of her work by William Logan when I was fifteen, and only recently did I think of that review again and realize that it was crazily misogynistic. I hadn’t twigged.

Decreation – Anne Carson: Love Anne Carson. Find her a bit terrifying. Have read three of her collections already, so moving through back catalogue now.

Chronicles (finished 09/07/16) – Thomas Piketty: A more manageably-sized tome from the author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century; a collection of his financial op-ed columns. I’m being brave with this one. Economics tends to lose my attention after a time.

Brief Lives – John Aubrey: A seventeenth-century collection of biographical sketches of public figures. Aubrey is pretty well known for this work, at least among people who care about the seventeenth century; it’s gossipy, lively, and rather entertaining, on folk as diverse as Shakespeare, Edmund Halley, and John Dee.

The Unredeemed Captive (finished 26/06/16; thoughts here) – John Demos: A scholarly study of the early American nonfiction genre known as the captivity narrative, usually written by or about European settlers who had been abducted by Native Americans. Some assimilated, married into the tribe, and raised children; others escaped or were ransomed. I can’t wait for this.

The Violent Bear It Away (finished 25/07/16) – Flannery O’Connor: The last of O’Connor’s fiction that I haven’t yet read, concerning a young boy in the Deep South whose uncle is raising him to be a prophet. I expect it to contain all the murderous misunderstandings and religious wranglings that O’Connor’s work is known for.

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Unintentionally colour-coordinated book pile #2 (blue and red)

I do feel rather excited now. It remains to be seen whether I can read all of these AND the nine pre-pubs that I have, at least in theory, agreed to review, but at least I know I won’t run out…

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.)