Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

lemon-cake
Lemon drizzle is a fine thing
  1. The number of unused Waitrose recipe cards I have is approaching the ridiculous, so I am cooking my way through them at the rate of one new recipe a week. Last week was pan-fried white fish with cannellini bean purée, which was nice but not overwhelming; this week was aloo gosht, which was bloody delicious.
  2. The principle holds true for my Peyton & Byrne British Baking book, which I bought from the Hampton Court Palace gift shop in 2013 for some silly amount of money (£20? Sounds about right) and which I had barely baked from at all until this year. So far, chocolate hazelnut cookies and lemon drizzle cake have met with extreme satisfaction all round. Next, jam roly-poly, which I have had to promise won’t be “like the ones we had to eat at school”.
  3. I have never learned to cycle. So I am learning now. In London. Without a helmet. Such fun! (It’s okay, I haven’t yet graduated from riding round and round a low-traffic residential square. We’re currently working on how to signal left. My ability to do this is limited by the tendency of the bike to jink wildly whenever I remove one hand from the handlebars. I am told that I need to “learn to steer with one hand”. Sounds like witchcraft.)
  4. This book I am writing… I can’t guarantee that the above-mentioned baking and cooking isn’t just displacement activity. Likewise my newfound intense desire to catalogue all the books in our sitting room. Writing 1,000 words a day is taking a lot longer each day than it did a few weeks ago. At least it’s interesting to see where I’ve hit the wall (at roughly 34,000 words); I wonder if it’s standard. Like the mid-term depression we used to call “fifth week blues” at university.
  5. Regarding careers: at what point do you stop trying to get the thing that you want, because it’s taken you three years to even be in a position to try and you can’t afford to try for much longer and really very little is happening and everyone is telling you it’s a hard industry to get into and you’re becoming more disillusioned about the industry itself by the day but maybe that’s just the bitterness talking? I mean, hypothetically. For a friend. Suggestions welcomed with open arms.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts is run by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous; link up, link back, say hi.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

launch_of_falcon_9_carrying_abs-eutelsat_16510243060
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.

V Daze

anigif_enhanced-buzz-26783-1366016224-11

*

2011: My first year of university, four months in. I have developed a fierce obsession with a boy who seems to sincerely like me half of the time, and to be incapable of talking to me, or anyone else, the other half of the time. We’ve already tried going out and it was disastrous, so now we’ve been split up for the better part of a month. I’m eighteen and still haven’t grasped that you don’t have to live your life like it’s a movie—that, in fact, it’s easier and more interesting and less suffocating if you actively avoid living like that—so of course I am miserable about Valentine’s Day. My misery is dramatic and self-pitying, but no less real for that. AdventureSinCake (formerly known as the lawyer) has just come out (surprising no one, least of all his mother, who merely said, “Oh, I know!”) and he suggests a Valentine’s Day straight out of Bridget Jones. The wallowing aspect of this appeals to me, so we go to Tesco and buy mugs with hearts on them, pink cava (because we’re students), and two boxes of Thornton’s milk chocolate selections. Then we retire to his double set and watch Burlesque, about which all you need to know is that it’s a major motion picture starring Cher and Christina Aguilera. We wake up the next morning on his bed under a pile of duvets and cushions, still in our clothes from the night before. The cava and chocolates are, of course, all gone.

*

Here’s the thing about Valentine’s Day: you’re meant to be miserable about it, either way. You’re meant to be miserable if you’re single, because singlehood is commercial, capitalistic code for “ultimately unloveable and freakish—and nothing will ever make you better, but here, these expensive food and drink and jewelry items might staunch the wound for a few minutes, you pathetic loser.” You’re meant to be miserable if you’re coupled up, because Valentine’s Day for a couple means “make declarations about moving the moon and stars for your lover, then actually do it. Oh, you can’t? Or you don’t want to, or they don’t want you to? Too bad, you inadequate, miserable schlub. This is what Real Grownup Love is about. Go big or go home.” You are meant to be miserable no matter what, because miserable people buy shit.

*

2012-2013: I don’t remember these. In 2012, I was probably out somewhere, studiously pretending that it wasn’t Valentine’s Day so as not to weird out the guy I had been sleeping with. I know that a few days afterwards, that other guy, the one from first year, told me he still fancied me really, so we got back together again. We were still together in February of 2013, but not happily, although if you’d tried to dissuade me at the time, I’d have ignored you. In fact, people did try, and I ignored them. The February of 2013 was the February before I sat Finals. Disastrous things happened: my boyfriend and I decided to “take a break”, which didn’t work because we still lived in the same house and were basically codependent. I slept with someone else, a guy he was actually trying to make friends with. He found out, and shook me, and called me a whore. He apologised later. Things were awful for a long time, partly because I thought we could all still be friends. (I was twenty. I should have known better, but I didn’t.) I’m not sure where we were in this timeline by the time Valentine’s Day arrived. I gave him cufflinks. They were made of antique coins from the end of the Roman Empire. I’d bought them in a tobacco shop in Georgetown when I went home for Christmas, and my debit card company had called me to make sure the transaction wasn’t fraudulent, since I didn’t usually spend hundreds of dollars in tobacco shops. He got me a pair of earrings. They were sparkly and shell-shaped and elegant. I still wear them sometimes, but the metal of the posts has tarnished over time.

*

Saint Valentine was an early Christian martyr. No one really knows anything about him. We don’t even know for sure whether he was one person, or more than one. (It would be nicely appropriate were he to have been two people, I think.) He was buried at a cemetery on the Via Flaminia in north Rome on the day he was killed. That’s all we know for sure.

In the Middle Ages, he came to represent courtly love. Courtly love was a type of behaviour which tended to manifest itself thus:

  1. the bestowal of favours (like a handkerchief) by a (noble) lady to a (noble) man, one to whom she wasn’t married.
  2. the chaste but emotional worship of a (noble) lady by said (noble) man, from afar, and without hope of consummation
  3. the writing of poetry all about frustrated desire.

Elements of courtly love are ridiculous, of course, and hedged about with sexism and classism. It’s where we get the idea that “chivalry” means holding a door open for someone. But it’s also the reason we have Petrarch, who is the reason we have Shakespeare’s sonnets; it’s the reason we have Dante, who is the reason we have Milton. Some things are worth saving.

*

2014: I graduated last summer and I’m still living in Oxford. At least I have a job now: I work for my old college’s Development Office, helping to plan the events that will comprise, in April, a weekend of celebrations for the 700th anniversary of our founding. I never thought of myself as a natural flesh-presser or sweet-talker, but here I am five days a week, on the phone to bankers and winemakers and authors and academics, getting donations, arranging tastings, printing out name badges. My coworkers are a small team of highly intelligent, incredibly pleasant people. In retrospect, I’ll probably never work in such an ideal office environment again.

At this point in time, most of us are single, so Emily arranges a Valentine’s Day dinner for us at her house in Jericho. She’s an amazing cook—she makes salmon en croute and chocolate melting hearts in little ramekins, and we eat until our stomachs are distended. She’s bought us things, too: tea mugs, chocolates, tiny tealight candles. We’re all sitting around digesting (Aileen and Will are actually lying on the floor wrapped in a blanket) when my phone rings. It’s my ex. We broke up in May, before graduation, but we’ve maintained a high-stress, high-contact “friendship” which tends to include having sex every time we see each other. I know this is not smart. I can’t seem to help myself.

I hold up the phone. “What do I do?” Every head swivels in my direction. A moment of silence. Then Aileen bawls, “DON’T FUCKING ANSWER IT!” and everyone else chimes in, a chorus of support and defiance and anger. “How fucking dare he?” “Put it down.” “Turn it off!” “Give it to me!” I don’t turn it off, and I don’t let anyone else pick up, but I do put it down, and on silent. For the rest of the night, we put on music and dance in the living room. When I check my phone later, I have fifteen missed calls.

*

You can’t even really win by ignoring the day. It’s a mere Bah Humbug gesture. Getting angry about Valentine’s Day only reinforces the narrative that angry people are losers, or (worse) just jealous. Pretending it doesn’t happen is like pretending Christmas doesn’t happen: it’s not impossible, but you’re swimming against a very strong tide.

*

2015: I’m staying with my grandparents: the school where I work now is on half term. The man I’m currently seeing is unsuitable and the fact that I’m seeing him at all is morally suspect, but it feels safe to me, like a halfway house between unmoored singlehood and actually being in a relationship. You could describe it as a rebound, a way to get over my ex without having to make myself too vulnerable. I don’t tell the man difficult things, like how ill my mother is. I think of this affair as a sort of job, and telling him things is not in my job description. “This will only work”, my friend Roy told me, “if you don’t catch the feels.” I have not caught the feels. I don’t think he has either.

My grandparents go out in the evening to a village dinner they signed up for months in advance. The unsuitable man I am seeing is with his family. I’m alone for the evening. I order pizza, ransack the cupboards for a bottle of wine, reorganise my books, watch Wolf Hall on iPlayer. I’m not happy, I think, but I’m not unhappy about it. The unsuitable man texts me. I wonder what he thinks he wants.

*

Medieval literature figures love as a garden. Your lover at the centre, something pure and secret and confined. You have to penetrate those hedged boundaries, prove yourself worthy of the maze of flowers and trees, meet her at the fountain. It’s about sex (obviously), and it’s about outdated religious notions of purity, too, but you can choose to read it more generously. You can choose to see it as an allegory about trust, about acknowledgment, about letting someone in to the innermost part of you. You can choose to view it as a challenge: to sit, in all of your weirdness and glory, at the centre of your life’s whirling network of people and places, and see who sees you.

*

2016: I met a man. I love him. I moved in with him. A year—three hundred and sixty-five uniform days, a mere eight thousand seven hundred and sixty hours—changed everything: my job, my home, happiness.

He says he doesn’t want anything for Valentine’s Day, except for an almond croissant. I buy him four, each one from a different place, and he tests them all. We discover that the one from Mimi’s, the deli on the corner, is the best. Almond paste, almost liquid, oozes out of its layers of flaky butter pastry. We finish the croissants, one by one, the night of the 13th.

When I asked him what he wanted to do on the day itself, he said, “An indoor picnic. And indoor croquet,” and I thought he was taking the piss. I got so annoyed at him for that, until the look of bafflement on his face made it clear that he was quite serious. “Do you have an indoor croquet set?” I asked him. He just grinned. I assumed that meant yes.

He’s ill today. I was going to make roast chicken for us to eat on a blanket on the floor, in between croquet shots, with prosecco and Guylian. It wasn’t going to be huge, but it was going to be something. Then last night I discovered that you have to defrost chicken for 24 hours, and this morning he woke up with a headache and a sore throat and aching joints. He had to go out to work briefly this morning—he’s a singer, and Sundays are singing days—but overall, I don’t think we’ll be drinking any prosecco this afternoon. Or eating Guylian, or doing anything really. I want to be upset about it: it would have been nice, finally, to do something on the day itself. Just to mark it somehow. Just to say, You are precious to me and today is about telling you so.

But it’s not his fault he’s ill, and in any case, this seems right somehow. It’s a frequent criticism of Valentine’s Day that it fetishizes romantic love and ghettoizes it at the same time: why save up your love and demonstrativeness for one day only? Why not just love fiercely every day? Why wait, since life is so short?

He comes back from work bearing white tulips, and smiling. We have cheese on toast and listen to the radio in bed.

*

If ever any beauty I did see/Which I desired, and got,/’Twas but a dream of thee.

Meanwhile, At Litro: book reviewing pet peeves

My most recent column for Litro went up yesterday. It’s about the things that drive me berserk in a book review–please note this is not a personal attack on ANY book bloggers! I’ve just noticed that there are some things that nearly everyone who writes a lot of reviews ends up doing once in a while, and collated them for convenience. The column is charmingly entitled Your Disclaimer Is Bullshit; head over to Litro and have a look!

shutterstock_74085415

Meanwhile, Over At Litro

Since just before Christmas, I’ve been writing a twice-monthly column for Litro Magazine, a London-based outfit (both paper and digital) that publishes a lot of flash fiction as well as essays and writing about arts and culture. It allows me to write less about specific books, and more about general trends within the book world–something I’ve found interesting since I had my first job at age fifteen, in an independent bookshop, and kept note of the curious ebbs and flows of other people’s buying habits.

If you fancy a look, pop over: my most recent column, Why Publishers Love Lists, went up this afternoon.

litlists

trying to do better

I keep wanting to write reviews of all the books I read, not just the Classics Challenge ones, but finding the idea too daunting. It’s not the quantity of books I read that worries me, but the quality of the reviews. Having produced about 5,000 words a week for three years for my degree, and then the post-degree review-writing that I do at Quadrapheme, I’m not at all used to the idea of just writing a couple of paragraphs of reflection and then letting it go. I have this odd notion that unless a review is deeply considered and profoundly analytical and aspiring to be worthy of the London Review of Books, it is just not worth writing.

This notion is clearly absolute bollocks, of course, but it’s persistent.

Anyway, my point is that I’m going to try and start writing reviews of as many of the books I read as possible. They’ll be brief, they’ll be personal and probably quite opinionated, and I doubt I’ll quote much, but at least they’ll get me started. The Classics Challenge reviews will still, probably, read like earnest undergraduate essays, but that’s kind of the point of that challenge, for me.

The next book that I’m reading, unfortunately, is for me to review over at Shiny New Books, so I can’t really write about it here until that review is published in March. But there will be something here soon. (The book, if you’re interested, which of course you are, is The Well by Catherine Chanter. It is about a family that moves from London to the country and discovers some rather horrifying truths about the land that they’ve purchased. I love anti-pastoral, and this looks to be a strong contender in that field. Drop by SNB at the end of March and read what I think of it!)

I wrote this when I was sixteen and it’s held up okay

In my junior year of high school, we had to write a different sort of essay every month. The categories of essay–process, descriptive, narrative, and so on–were determined by our textbook, which was so profoundly uninteresting that I have forgotten its name. The theory was that eventually we would have a set of personal essays, one or two of which might be used for our college applications the next year. (US college applications require at least one personal essay, which generally prompts a lot of adolescent soul-searching/panic.) This was one I wrote in November; it is optimistically saved, in my computer, as “college essay 2” (I didn’t capitalize the titles of computer files back then. I think I thought it made me somehow, obscurely, cooler.)

In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since (The Great Gatsby)

I’m no F. Scott Fitzgerald (thank God). I’m no Nick Caraway either, but we do have something in common, Nick and I. He, of course, is well out of his “more vulnerable years” by the time he sets forth his father’s advice, and I have a feeling I’ve only just started in on mine. But both of us have listened to our fathers dispensing what paternal wisdom they would. Whether it is the best advice I have ever received remains in doubt; whether my father’s pronouncement even qualifies as advice, for that matter, is a question I will not attempt to answer. I do know that, like Nick Caraway, I have been “turning it over” ever since, and I may never stop.

At some point in everyone’s life, death makes a real and tangible appearance. It doesn’t necessarily happen the first time someone you know dies—dozens of great-aunts and second cousins were six feet under before I recognized death as a part of my world, the real, actual world—but make no mistake, it happens eventually. It happened to me the summer I turned sixteen, under circumstances that are irrelevant to the trajectory of this essay. Suffice to say that, at the time, I walked through the world as if everything had been turned one hundred and eighty degrees to the right. Such profound disorientation is as painful as it is sudden, and it does not go away, and there is no one—there is literally no one—to whom you can communicate all of this. Bits and pieces of it slip out, of course, but they constitute a mere twenty percent of the iceberg of grief and sorrow and rage and incomprehension that lies in your path, that you cannot get over, that you have to live on alone.

By this I am not asking for your sympathy; I am not asking for your pity. I am only trying to set up the story.

At the end of the summer my parents and I were talking about the death, which had defined the past three months of our lives. My father the atheist, who had had a couple of beers, was expounding upon his view of the afterlife. It sounded to me like something Emerson might say after partaking of magic mushrooms, and I told him so. He chuckled indulgently, which is what he does when I’m rude, then became very serious and leaned forward suddenly. “Eleanor Mary,” he said, “we live for other people. We do not live for ourselves.”

It has been nearly five months since he said this, and still I am trying to figure out what he meant by it.

To live for someone else.

There are many ways to take this. To live for someone else could mean to always put them first. To listen to them cry. To be, as a character from the excellent movie Waitress puts it, “whatever you need me to be.” But then what are you, except a repository for someone else’s needs and neuroses? What can you be when you leave yourself out of the equation? No. I am not convinced.

Other people; other people. Who do you live for? I wonder this sometimes. At my age it’s harder to tell. When you’re forty you can say, “I live for my wife, my husband, my daughter, my son. I live for my mother”; you can even say “I live for my dog,” if that’s what you’ve got. There’s nothing wrong with living for your dog. When you’re sixteen, what do you have? What belongs to you? Whom do you love? Who loves you?

Your parents, sure. The love of your parents is like a given in a geometry problem. It’s your base, your jumping-off point, but after the first few sentences, it doesn’t enter into your proof. You only use it as a place to start from.

You live for your friends, of course, if you have them. But your friends are young and selfish people, just like you, and they are fallible, just like you, and you will let each other down. It won’t be the end of the world when it happens, but it will happen.

Who are you living for? Who needs you here?

Somehow you know who needs you. I know who needs me. Family is a mathematical constant, friends are deeply flawed, but you prop each other up. You love each other. You live for each other.

If I die tomorrow, someone will suffer terribly. My death tomorrow would cause other people to go through days of such crushing grayness, such bleak internal landscapes, as no human being should be required to go through. The people who love me aren’t perfect, but I am good enough for them, and they are good enough for me, and in this way life goes on.

A few months after the death, a good friend and I were talking about it. We were in her car, it was late at night, and we couldn’t see each other’s faces. Finally she said, “You know one good thing now.”

“No,” I said. “What?”

“You know,” she said, “that you will never do this. You will never hurt anyone this way, because you know what it’s like. And I know that I will never do this to you, I will never hurt you this way, because this can’t happen twice.”

I am sixteen years old and selfish and I live to gratify my own wishes. This is all true. But if that were all, I wouldn’t make it, not for very long. I live for my mother, a part of whom would die if I did. I live for my father, despite—partly because of—his Emersonian declarations. I live for my brother, who is still young and utterly sincere in a way that hurts to witness. I live for my friends and their laughter and the darkening sky; I live for rural midnights on long dirt roads; I live for rooftops and rosemary and learning how to cook.

I live for the dead boy, because he cannot, anymore; and I live for myself, because, thank God, I can.

The year after I wrote this, I met these people. Then I went to uni and I met L'Auberge Anglaise. I am more grateful to all of you than I can say; you know who you are.
The year after I wrote this, I met these people. Then I went to uni and I met L’Auberge Anglaise. I am more grateful to all of you than I can say; you know who you are.

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

Freddie's

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.