Three Things: March 2019

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With thanks to Paula of Book Jotter for hosting—new participants always welcome!

Reading: At work, I’ve acquired responsibility for some of our Children’s Year In Books services–it’s the same idea as the adult subscription, a monthly book hand-picked to fit the customer’s individual reading tastes and delivered to their door. As a twenty-six-year-old, I haven’t read what you might call “children’s literature” for at least a decade, if not more; I spent my adolescent years wishing that I was already an undergraduate, and reading accordingly. But this is giving me a really good reason to revisit that world. I recently read my first proof copy of a children’s book (Abi Elphinstone’s forthcoming Rumblestar; thoughts will be in Monday’s Reading Diary). I’ve also started brainstorming all the things that I loved to read as a kid, and have enlisted the help of my brother, cousin, and various friends to add to the list: it’s now pinned to my desk corkboard and includes titles such as Eva Ibbotson’s Journey To the River Sea, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider novels, and an excellent picture book entitled The Queen’s Knickers which made me absolutely hysterical with amusement when I was about four. There is something considerably more joyful about children’s publishing than about its adult equivalent: of course vast sums of money and outrageous publicity machines are still involved (hello, David Walliams), but there’s such a high premium on good humour, inventiveness, and kindness that I’m actually quite excited by the prospect of reading more children’s books.

Looking: The ENO has revived their 2013 production of The Magic Flute, which I went to see last week. I’d never seen a live show of it, although I’d heard recordings. Turns out that The Magic Flute is significantly more palatable to listen to than it is to watch; the tunes are delightful and globally famous for a good reason, but the plot makes absolutely no sense, not even internally. And coherence is the least of its problems. It is possible to understand the opera as an allegory regarding intellectual enlightenment and the Masons, and still to find it pretty distasteful: most obviously in the misogyny shown towards the Queen of the Night (who, it turns out, is mad at Sarastro because her late husband gifted him all of his power, on the grounds that she–as a woman–would be unable to use it wisely), but also in the constant rape threat presented by Monostatos (who was originally written as a Moor, elevating his character to a whole other level of offensive randy-black-man stereotype), the depressing ageism of Papageno (who spends the whole opera pining for a wife, only to nearly bottle it at the last minute because he thinks the woman offered to him might be his own age, shockhorror, instead of a nubile teenager), and the arbitrary emotional cruelty inflicted upon Pamina in the service of Tamino’s heroic development (he’s instructed not to speak to or look at her; she believes that he no longer loves her and prepares to commit suicide).

But. With all of that said.

The music is lovely; there is no getting around that. This production features British soprano Lucy Crowe as Pamina, who delivers the best vocal performance of the entire cast. Thomas Oliemans’s Papageno is (mostly) charming instead of obnoxious, and he got most of the big laughs; his performance reminded me that The Magic Flute was commissioned originally as a pantomime. Julia Bauer as the Queen of the Night lacked power, but she hit that top F, by God. And there are some really nice production touches, including hand-drawn chalk images that are projected onto a screen at the back of the stage, creating instant (and erasable) scenery. It’s very well executed.

Thinking: Honestly? About death, I’m afraid. Not my own, mind you – but other people’s. It’s sort of following me around at the moment. My English grandpa is dying (he’s 88, he’s not in acute discomfort, it’s fairly okay). Both my American grandparents died in September, which I wasn’t there for, but I am here for this – the long-drawn-out process of it – and I can’t tell if it’s happening quickly or slowly, in the grand scheme of these things. He was frail but quite lucid at Christmas; he was frailer still, and quieter, but still sitting in his armchair and capable of a chat, three weeks ago. Now, he’s functionally bed bound, frequently confused, and – to be totally honest – a tiny bit scary. Not because he’s violent or aggressive; he has never been those things in his life and he is not about to start now. It’s mostly scary because even when he’s not confused, he’s hard to understand, and easily tired, and physically helpless, and quite vague. I find myself dreading being left alone with him. I would rather help my grandmother by running her household than by doing any of the hands-on stuff. My fear embarrasses me, but I think, were it me, I would rather have died three weeks ago than live as he is living.

Cheerful, eh?!

Three Things: February 2019

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With thanks to Paula of Book Jotter for hosting—new participants always welcome!

Reading: I’ve read SO MUCH NONFICTION this month, it’s unreal. (Okay: four books out of a probable fourteen. But it feels like a lot.) Three of them I read back to back: Hallie Rubenhold’s historical group biography The Five, which I wrote a longer post on here; Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, which combined investigative journalism with cultural history in a most engaging way; and Siri Hustvedt’s essay collection A Woman Looking At Men Looking At Women, which deals with neuroscience, philosophies of perception, art history, and gender relations, amongst other extremely erudite things. The fourth, Nick Coleman’s Voices, provided an overview of 20th-century pop and rock music that’s proving extremely useful for the novel I’m currently reading: Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six, about a (fictional) ’70s band.

I also feel as though my reading has had a lot of internal coherence and resonance this month; What I LovedIn the Full Light of the Sun, and A Woman Looking At Men… all dealt with the creation and value of art, while Voices and Daisy Jones and the Six have the connection mentioned above; The Warlow Experiment and The Five both made me think about class oppression, albeit in different centuries; The Warlow Experiment even had some resonance with Chris Beckett’s Clarke Award-winning novel Dark Eden, which I also read this month, in that both involve deliberate scientific experimentation, and both have characters who are trying to wrap their minds around a form of experience that has hitherto been totally alien to them.

Looking: Two things here, one high-brow and one low. To start with the latter: I rapidly became obsessed with Netflix’s new superhero series The Umbrella Academy and binged it in a week. It has many weaknesses–the dialogue is often pedestrian, and the pacing is glacial–but its aesthetic, which might be best described as Wes Anderson meets Quentin Tarantino, works remarkably well for me. I’m particularly fond of the lugubrious hitman-with-a-conscience Hazel (played by Cameron Britton, who really rocks facial hair), and his romance with diner waitress Agnes (played, with absolutely no fuss, by Sheila McCarthy, who’s 30 years older than Britton; I’d love to know if this age difference is in the original comics, and if so, fuckin’ awesome). I also love the way that teenage actor Aidan Gallagher nails the mannerisms of a world-weary 58-year-old time-traveling assassin trapped inside his own 13-year-old body. (It’s…look, it’s complicated.) Ellen Page is fantastic as the permanently snubbed youngest sibling Vanya, the only member of her superhero family without any discernible powers–she exudes sadness and passivity in a manner that makes her both sympathetic and annoying–and John Magaro, who plays her way-too-fast-moving love interest, has the extraordinary ability to be ineffably creepy while doing and saying things that appear to be nothing but charming. I can’t bloody wait for season 2.

(The high-brow is that I went to a Pinter double-header with my brother for his birthday: we saw A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter, the latter of which starred Martin Freeman and Danny Dyer, who work together brilliantly. They were my first Pinter plays and I do get what all the fuss is about; his repetitive dialogue-writing style works a scene or a mood the way bakers work dough, over and over again, so that you get new layers of meaning with each repetition.)

Thinking: I should have written something by now about my predictions for the Women’s Prize longlist, and I haven’t, and probably won’t, and I’m SORRY, okay. (On the other hand, I finished the first draft of my novel two weeks ago, so it’s not like I’ve been slacking.) Anyway, I’m still planning to shadow the Women’s Prize, along with (hopefully) Eric Anderson of Lonesome Reader and author Antonia Honeywell. Stay tuned; the official longlist is announced on the 4th.

Three Things: November 2018

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With thanks to Paula of Book Jotter for hosting—new participants always welcome!

Reading: This month, I read a lot of proofs of things that aren’t out until January, which is frustrating because it means I can’t sell them to people right away. I also did an extremely silly and self-indulgent thing: on a Friday that I took off in lieu of overtime pay, I walked into Crouch End and bought *checks notes* eight new books. There’s a Waterstones there, but I went to a little place round the corner called House of Books which must have some kind of deal with distributors, because, like Minster Gate Bookshop in York, you can get quite a lot of titles from particular publishers (especially Gollancz, Wordsworth Classics, and Vintage Classics) for £3 each. Reading as a bookseller is so often a question of being entranced by proofs for the Next Big Thing; selecting books purely for pleasure felt like such a glorious luxury. From that pile, I’ve already read Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen; The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell; and Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre. Every one of them is wonderful. (Reviews forthcoming.)

Looking: I am OBSESSED with Dynasties, the new David Attenborough series about animal families. The first episode, which is set in a troop of chimpanzees, is positively Shakespearean: the shocking physical violence, mob psychology and cunning strategic moves wouldn’t be out of place in a production of Coriolanus. Several episodes since then, including the one on emperor penguins, have been less obviously political tragedy but still extremely moving. The most recent, on painted wolves, was another family saga of inter-generational rivalry (a matriarch’s daughter forms another pack and challenges her for territory) and bloody vengeance (one pack kills a pup from the other group in battle; it was Titus Andronicus with dogs). Riveting.

Thinking: There hasn’t been much time to think recently. I can feel whatever thoughts are generated pinging around the inside of my head like trapped moths. Mostly, at the moment, I’m trying to get up the gall to write the chapter that includes the key scene of my novel-in-progress. It’s not a sex scene, before you ask, but it’s going to be awfully difficult and I think I’m psyching myself out about it, a little. I know how to lead up to it, and I know how to approach the scene itself, but I need whoever reads this book to be really convinced of the protagonist’s state of mind in order for it to make sense, and I can’t quite let go and trust that I’ve done enough. Any advice?!

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.

Three Things: July 2018

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With thanks to Paula of Book Jotter for hosting—new participants always welcome!

Reading: Apart from continuing with 20 Books of Summer, and trying to deal with my newly expanded pile of proofs for the autumn, I’ve found time to trawl the archives of Adam Roberts’s blog (or one of them, anyway), Morphosis. Roberts is a writer of SF whose work is weird and erudite and very far up my street: his most recent book is a virtual-reality murder mystery called The Real-Town Murders, but he’s probably best known for Jack Glass, which is apparently a mindfuck, and Yellow Blue Tibia, about a bunch of Soviet science fiction authors whose Stalin-approved group writing project appears to be coming true. Morphosis contains Roberts’s intellectual musings on things as diverse as John Bunyan, Cicero’s De officiis, and Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ready Player One. This is to say, it takes seriously enough to examine critically a combination of high and low culture that I find massively enjoyable, and Roberts always articulates himself with enviable precision and perceptiveness. The whole blog goes as far back as 2013: plenty to explore.

Looking: The view from my sitting room never ceases to delight me. We have two enormous, tall windows—they’re one of the main reasons we took this flat in the first place—and you can see half the street from them, or it feels like it. People with their shopping; a man pushing a buggy; a woman struggling to keep her headscarf tidy against the wind. And the houses: the one opposite us has window baskets and a blue door, and their next-door neighbour has geraniums and begonias spilling out of every window. Especially in the sunshine, to sit here and drink coffee or write or eat breakfast is one of my life’s simplest joys.

Thinking: The other night I was listening to Sheryl Crow’s early album, The Globe Sessions, and her voice was so much more raw and full and stripped-back, all at the same time, than it ever has been in her more “produced” albums, and she was playing the guitar in this strum-and-punch style that feels like the epitome of modern country. And the air in my flat was hot and close, so that I could only bear to be wearing a t-shirt, and all the lights were off but I had a candle burning, and the ice in my drink was melting, and there had been a thunderstorm, and I felt like I’d time traveled back to, oh, 2003, maybe, to one of the muggy Virginia summers of my childhood or adolescence, when everything was lonely and passionate and painful and glorious. Isn’t it strange how music can do that? Music, and the weather. Memory is odd.

Three Things, June 2018

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With thanks to Paula of Book Jotter for hosting—new participants always welcome!

Reading: I’m halfway through 20 Books of Summer, which is satisfying, and nearly caught up on reviews too. I’ve also started a singing gig at a church in west London, though, so I’ve actually been reading a lot of music. It’s a quartet or a solo every other week—they don’t have the budget for more, and I’m pretty happy having at least half my Sundays free while earning gin money the other half. Learning repertoire has always been one of my favourite things to do; last week the director of music introduced me to two Haydn duets from The Creation, which is a generally ridiculous piece (it was first written in English, then translated into German, then retranslated into English from the German, so the text is even more affected than your usual Georgian oratorio), but the duets are lovely. Here‘s one (ends at 3:45), and here‘s the other (ends at 3:09).

Looking: We finally bought a TV license. I resent having to buy a TV license when we don’t actually own a television, and I particularly resent having to pay the full year’s amount when we’re only making the purchase in June. On the upside, I suppose, this means we can watch the World Cup (which we’re not), and, um, reruns of Planet Earth or whatever. What’s good on the BBC these days? Netflix is more of my go-to at the moment; I’ve finally caught all the way up with Drag Race, have been amusing myself with the shonky-ness of Nailed It, and am under strict instructions to start watching Queer Eye, like, yesterday.

Thinking: Everyone else in Britain is freaking out about Brexit, and you know, I get it, but right now I’m way more worried about Justice Kennedy’s announcement that he’s retiring from the Supreme Court. Any Trump nominee will be anti-choice, and that shifts the balance of voting power on the Court; although, as my mother points out, Chief Justice Roberts surprised everyone with his vote on the Affordable Care Act, I still think it’s wise to prepare for a near future (let’s say eighteen months) in which safe, legal abortion is inaccessible in probably half of the American states. I know that at least one woman in my family received an illegal abortion, before Roe v. Wade passed, and it is beyond gutting to realise that, in two generations, we’ll have come full circle. I actually don’t have the words for this one.