REVIEW: constant reader – my year (so far) in books

Autumn, Ali Smith (2016)
The Lesser Bohemians, Eimear McBride (2016)
Hotel World, Ali Smith (2001)
The Long View, Elizabeth Jane Howard (1956)
Fen, Daisy Johnston (2016)
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
Sympathy, Olivia Sudjic (2017)
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt (2013)
For My Sins, Alex Nye (2017)
The Power, Naomi Alderman (2016)
Swing Time, Zadie Smith (2016)
The Wonder, Emma Donaghue (2016)
The First Bad Man, Miranda July (2015)
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders (2017)

Oh dear, it seems to have been broken. Oh, and it was going so well. My run of female authors over the past year had really been picking up the pace, and now George Saunders has gone and ruined it all. I suppose I can find it in my magnanimity to forgive him. After all, he is only a man. He didn’t know what he was doing. And the book is quite good.

I didn’t actually notice I was doing this until I tried to write a round up of my reading so far. It doesn’t surprise me that my habits favour women writers- if you were to ask me my favourite author, though it varies from time to time, I think it would always be a woman who came to mind. However on a quick sweep of our living room bookcase, of the seventy-two fictional pieces/memoirs present, thirty-five are written by women and thirty-seven by men. That’s not including the books by men I haven’t read, but own because they are classics or they belong to Richard, or started but couldn’t finish. There are no works by women there which I haven’t read. Oh, and all the Harry Potters don’t fit on the shelves so they are piled on the floor. There, that tips the balance!

I’m not going to dwell on the gendered side of things much longer, but I thought in the wake of Victoria Sadler’s look into the state of female playwrights on London stages, it might be worth examining. Perhaps the main take-away here should be: women can write. They can write, and sell, books. Seems to follow that they would be able to write, and sell tickets for, plays.

Anyway to the books! I have written about a couple of them previously (The Long View and Fen) but here’s a quick overview of the rest.

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Autumn, Ali Smith
Not my favourite. As a study in time, this series will be interesting. And the novel is interesting, but its timeliness comes at an expense. It adds up to the sum of its parts, but I want more than that. It is a little too tight, the space isn’t there for the stories to reverberate and find their own frequency.

The Lesser Bohemians, Eimear McBride
I think this novel might have been written for me. McBride’s writing doesn’t give you time to consider repercussions, where the plot might go, or how you got to where you are. Which works perfectly for this account of teenage Eily’s first year in drama school and relationship with an actor twice her age.

Hotel World, Ali Smith
This story takes one moment and lets it bloom. The Hotel of the title provides senses of both transience for the traveler and permanence for the hotel’s wakeful staff; mirrored in the experience of the novel. The act of reading the book may be fleeting, but once read it stays with you. (This is why I love Ali Smith!)

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
This is a revolutionary study of a woman, a woman of colour at that, defined not by the men in her life, but by her own choices. And how the men she chooses shape her life. Framed as a story told to an old friend, the novel uses vernacular to put the story firmly in Janie’s hands. Biblical and everyday in proportion, this is an important book.

Sympathy, Olivia Sudjic
I have waining sympathy for any technology-is-ruining-what-it-means-to-be-human take. But Sympathy is on point. Exploring contemporary obsession with lifestyle and curation, it made me feel claustrophobic, exposed and exhilarated all at once. And Sudjic writes about instagraming feeling ‘like bursting a bubble in bubble wrap’ which is spot on imo.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
Basically three novels in one: the Sad Thing happens in the first one, but they keep making me sadder. And thrilled to be reading. The evolution makes you nostalgic for the characters you first knew by the time you’re half way through, while the plot twists with stomach-dropping convulsions, tempered by consistent precision of language in writing about art and relationships.

I am going to to leave it there for now as going over 800 words in one post seems like overkill, but I will finish off in a couple of weeks, by which point I’m sure the list will have extended!

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BLOG: look at all the things we didn’t kill

Anyone who has sat on my sofa recently, perhaps with the curtains drawn and the lights off, may have had their sights drawn briefly away from the glow of the television to touch on the ominous silhouette of our most recently deceased houseplant. The houseplant arrived at some point after Christmas. Or maybe it was before. Some time about half a year ago anyway. Neither of us have watered it since. I remarked on its closeness to death some time in March, and it has possibly had the dregs of a beer can tipped in from time to time. It is now irrevocably dead. It has been for a few weeks. I have mentioned we should maybe move it. I have pointed out it’s in a nice pot. Neither of us have made any moves to find it a more organic resting place.

I think the cacti know. The cacti came to us under duress. I do not like the cacti. They are obscene. I don’t like the way they leer at me, they know they weren’t invited into my home. They will not die. Since the houseplant has passed there have been repeated instances of wrist scratching when I reach behind them to pull down the blinds. I find their spikes lurking in my socks after laundry day, or lodged into my knuckle when I take off the washing up gloves.

I have never much thought about plants. I don’t dislike them, I just rarely notice them. I like them in a general surrounding way. I like the occasion of being given flowers. I like sitting outside in gardens. When I was little we had a yucca plant in our living room, and one day my mum said it was dying because it hadn’t enough sun. I collected everything yellow I could find in the house: the yellow pages, a sunhat and my tricycle and built them into a shrine, trying to coax it back to life, but alas, that’s not how plants work. I do know that now.

Since then I have been little affected by the life and times of plant life, assuming it to be something beyond my reach. That is until we came to be in charge of an allotment by our house shortly after we moved. I liked the idea of an allotment, somewhere to have bonfires and keep chickens, and while the parish council waiting list for one sounds like the kind of document a Midsommer murderer would kill for, we were asked if we would help an elderly neighbour look after hers. She rarely makes it outside, and her one request was that we grow some beetroot. Fair deal, we thought.

At first, work in the garden was face-saving. We needed to be seen to be doing something. We sheared down the grass and weeds that had grown to waist height. We uncovered paving slabs and cut away low hanging branches. That was enough for winter. Then spring began to creep. We discovered a bench. We laid out our plans for a fire pit and a lawn and a flowerbed and a compost heap and a vegetable patch. My aspirations were purely aesthetic. To lie in the sun and read on the grass. To have a bonfire at solstice. Floral pattern gardening gloves and a tin watering can. But we had promised beetroot, so beetroot must be delivered. We dug out a bed and trailed to B&Q and bought fancy soil that is apparently better than the dirt we already have. We bought seeds and we sowed them. Except, actually, you’ll find that beetroot seeds are little pods filled with seeds, rather than themselves being seeds. Anyway, we did our planting and that was that. As we came down from the garden, flushed with our success on a warm April day our neighbour asked us if we were prepared for next week’s snow. We laughed. Three days later I sat glumly on the bus, watching the sleet that had followed the hail and snow. Poor little baby seeds.

I didn’t go up to the garden much after that. A couple of times a week I would cart up the watering can and slosh its contents across the bed, with no sign of life. I started to forget about it. Then one night, as the evenings got longer and I prepared to settle in for night, I paused as I drew the curtains to stop the light glare on the telly and thought I might just go for a walk instead. And as I got to the top of the drive, I thought I might just poke my head into the allotment as I passed. And behold! just look! Life itself! Things were growing. Little baby carrots and onions and beetroot… a miracle.

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They are not so little as they were, though I have no idea if the right things are happening under the soil, if a single edible thing will be pulled up this year. If not, I hope our neighbour will forgive us. And nonetheless the plants are leafy, growing and vivacious and most importantly they are there. Looking at them makes me happy. Just looking at all the things we haven’t killed.

I was planning to write about this as a larger metaphor for life, and changing my outlook as spring turns to summer, but I think I can leave that to you, dear reader. As for myself, all I really want to say now is that things I planted – literally, in my garden – are growing, and it’s making me happy.

CREATIVE: the big shop

Walking into the shop Haley felt a surge of affection. Bickering moments like these substantiated the relationship. Anyone who was alone collecting their trolley would notice the fact that they were together. Other couples in the supermarket would recognise them as one of their own. This is how it worked. She would write the list. Steve would approve the list. Steve would go off-piste with regards to the list. She would disapprove of the additions but allow them  – Steve paid for most of the list – she would warn him next time not to let it happen again. They would have the same conversation every time. It was comforting.

They took the trolley round the aisles. Haley took control of it, sitting her handbag in the baby seat. They ticked toothpaste and deli meat and vegetables off the list. Unauthorised pastries and chocolate pots were added.

‘It’s like shopping with a child!’ exclaimed Haley. It was a weekly refrain.

‘The puddings were 50p off- we’re practically making money!’ he rejoined. He knew the game too.

They collected tinned tomatoes and a bag of rice and curry paste. Instant coffee and breakfast bars. They arrived at the cereal.

‘I don’t know why this is on the list,’ said Steve. ‘We have about five boxes already.’

‘We have three, and I don’t like granola or those cinnamon things and the cheerios are nearly done. It’s up to you to eat the other two, but I need a cheerios replacement.’

‘Fine. £2 budget. I’m going for beers. Anything you fancy?’

‘You pick. £5 budget.’

‘Okie-dokie, cheerio,’ he said, and disappeared with the trolley.

Haley stood for a moment and considered. She picked up some multi-grain loops. They weren’t called cheerios when they were own-brand. She lingered in the crisp aisle but didn’t pick anything up. She went to the beer aisle but Steve wasn’t there. She wandered through the wines and spirits and soft drinks but there was no sign of him. He wasn’t in the aisle with the laundry liquid either – that was the last thing on the list. She checked back at the crisps, then the biscuits, then the sweets, but he wasn’t by any of them. Clutching her multi-grain loops to her chest she went up to the central aisle. Starting right at the end by the bottled water she made her way back across the supermarket, turning her head left and right at each aisle end to find him. A dependable trick from childhood when she and her brother would start from opposite ends of the shop till one of them found whichever parent had slipped away from them. Except she got to the cut flower display at the supermarket entrance and there was no sign of Steve. She tried again along the back aisle. He wasn’t there either. She went to text him but remembered her phone was in her bag which was in the trolley, along with her purse. He was probably paying now and wondering where she had got to. She went along the tills but he wasn’t at any of them.

She put the cereal box in a basket by the door and went out to the car park. The car wasn’t there. Or more, it wasn’t where they must have parked last week. They must have parked somewhere else today and she’d forgotten. She walked the length of the car park, then came back to the shop. She lingered outside the customer toilets for five minutes but he didn’t come out of them. She wandered along the back aisle and the tills again, but no sign. It was now nearly twenty-five minutes since she’d seen him. She went back to the car park and wound her way round each section, keeping one eye on the supermarket door. Finally she began walking out towards the main road.

She walked to the bus stop and checked the times before remembering her bus pass was in her purse and she didn’t have any change. She swithered for a moment then started back up the hill to the house. She could get there in under an hour if she was brisk. A police car drove past as she took off. She turned round on the spot and hurried back to the shop.

‘Hello,’ she said to the lady at the customer services desk, ‘have there been any accidents here today?’

‘Pardon me?’ said the lady.

‘Um, I was just wondering if there had been any accidents, or like, incidents? Just cause my partner was here and now I can’t find him and it just struck me maybe something had happened and no-one could contact me.’

‘No, no incidents have occurred, I am pleased to report.’

‘Right, no worries, well, thanks, yeah, bye.’

It was nearly an hour now. She started walking home without looking at the car park. Out on the main road she found herself checking every car that looked like theirs. Then every car the same colour as theirs. Then every car. She forced her eyes to the ground and then only looked up every ten cars. Every twenty. As she got closer to the house cars thinned so she was only looking up every five minutes. One car beeped behind her and she looked up so fast she hurt her neck. But it kept driving past. It wasn’t him.

She got to their street and looked up slowly. The car wasn’t there. The lights were out. The dogs at number 2 were quiet. As she went round to the back door which they usually left open, another dog barked from next door. They must have visitors, they only keep a cat. The back door was locked. The blinds were down in the windows. The key wasn’t under the plant pot. Just a couple of coins. She pocketed them and turned away, leaving the gate open behind her. She walked down the hill much quicker than she had walked up it. She went past the corner shop and the village concession and walked back along the main road to the big shop. It was evening now, and quiet. She didn’t look up as she worked her way along the aisles till she got to the cereal. She looked at the multigrain loops. They were £1.20. She picked up the cheerios and took them to the till. They were £2.49. She put the 1p change in her pocket and left the shop.

REVIEW: Constant reader (& watcher & cultural consumer)

It has come to my attention that I haven’t been posting as many reviews as I used to here, so here’s the first of a monthly round up I’ll be doing on things I’ve read, watched or attended over the past few weeks. It’s likely to be a jumble of recently aired programmes, things I’ve lifted from family bookshelves and whatever was showing at the pictures on my day off, as I’ll be focusing on the things I’ve come across in my own time, but feel free to let me know any recommendations or things I should be looking out for in the future!

This month I’ve been reading Elizabeth Jane Howard’s 1950s novel The Long View, and Daisy Johnson’s recent short story collection, Fen; had a solo cinema trip to see Beauty and the Beast and curled up on the sofa to watch Short Term 12; and have also been keeping up with BBC Three drama Clique (which, incidentally, I also auditioned for).

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The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard, 1956
There is something enticing and utterly hopeless about a really good novel: they lure you in with insight, take you by the hand and then don’t respond when you shake them to tell each character they’re doing it all wrong! I’ve been an EJH fan since my teens with the Cazalet family saga being a household favourite, but they always seemed like a guilty pleasure: rich people in big houses over endless summers (and written by a woman so can hardly have the modern symbolic gravitas of, say, a man writing about rich people in big houses over endless summers). But this heartbreaking descent back from a broken marriage to a lonely girlhood is exemplary in its glassy clarity, fragility and preservation of an era.

Fen by Daisy Johnson, 2016
I’m never quite sure how to approach short stories, but this collection marries carving out individual tales with a thematic coherence which pulls you deeper into a world that is weird and mundane and timeless and modern. Each story focuses on an aspect of womanhood or view of femininity as animalistic, dangerous, mysterious and human. Johnson displays a real mastery over language, heightened by her obvious appreciation of words’ power to harm us or to fail us, often both. People say authors spend their careers writing the same story again and again, and I think this is the most evidence I have seen of that in a single volume, but when each page offers its reader both recognition and a warning, it doesn’t matter a jot.

Beauty and the Beast, 2017
Like many quiet, bookish girls, Belle was always my favourite Disney princess. And like any remake or heavily hyped film, the bits which annoyed me in the live-action adaptation stuck with me more than the general pleasure of seeing this cast playing out the songs and story I loved so much. So let’s get them out of the way i) Belle literally doesn’t eat a thing in the Be Our Guest sequence (I can’t remember if this happens in the animated version too, but it really annoyed me! maybe I was just hungry); ii) the bizarre interlude where the beast and Belle travel by magic atlas to Paris; iii) the much lauded ‘openly gay’ character is only once seen ‘openly’ dancing with another man, previously the butt of a ‘men wearing dresses lol’ gag. That said, the whole experience was a sumptuous and gratifying with a pleasing who’s who of national treasures, and Emma Watson carries it well.

Short Term 12, 2013
Cannot recommend enough. This film is so beautifully drawn, and so incisive in its depictions I half wish it were a TV series so I could join its characters for more of their journeys, and am half glad it’s only an hour and a half as I think I am only strong enough to watch the snapshot it offers. And this is only because the film offers its audience the same decency, frankness and support its characters display towards each other. Telling the story of a young woman working in a short term care facility for young people, her relationship with another support worker and with the kids in ST12, the film trusts its viewers with heartbreaking, heart-swelling stories of loss, anger and hope.

Clique, 2017
I started this because female-led Scottish uni-drama was ticking all my boxes. I pretty much inhaled the first four episodes – the clothes, the people, the houses, the accents – but felt a bit cheated by the end. I liked it when it looked like girls fighting fraud and exploitation within a patriarchal business model. I liked that not all the girls were saints. But while I’m a sucker for traumatic childhood flashbacks, the fact that it all boiled down to one evil girl, seductively messing with everyone’s head cheapened it for me. But still, the series was compelling and constrained in its refusal to tie up all the ends while indulging its audience in other respects, and while I doubt there’s a future in this particular series I look forward to seeing more of Jess Brittain and the rest of the cast and creatives’ work down the line.

BLOG: on journaling

I started keeping a diary when I was fourteen. I wrote it every night, and religiously caught up with missed days, taking one word notes in a margin if it got too late or I spent the night away from home, so I could expand the following night. It trails off for a bit when I started uni, but picks up again for my second semester and keeps up on a semi regular basis until I was nineteen. After that student life – shared accommodation and nights out and that mild inconvenience known as essays – took over, and the pen was only brought out in order to record and dissect particularly puzzling or juicy situations. And then even those went unmemorialised.

Without the habit of getting into bed and immediately opening my notebook and writing until there was nothing left to say, it was difficult to find anything to say in the first place. I’ve grown up, I thought, I’m too busy living life to just have to write about it any more. But that’s not the case. I may have thought myself grown out of any “teen angst bullshit” but the fact that Heathers quotes still make up about 50% of my internal monologue tends to disprove that. Life will always prompt new ways to feel lost or loved or sad or impassioned or lonely. I just stopped finding the time to put this into words.

While working towards my theatre masters I found myself frustrated with the lack of structure when working on solo rehearsals and workshops. I would arrive in the studio, put on music and jump around and warm up my body, stretch, feel myself connect to the room and my own physicality. I would turn off the music and hum and contort my face and sing, quietly then louder and feel my voice open up and fill the space, growing in confidence.

And then I didn’t know what to do with myself. I would shrink again. I envied singers and musicians that particular luxury of scales and arpeggios, to use routine to consolidate and grow a skill. I longed to be a dancer, to stand at a bar and plié and point and feel myself get stronger and faster and more precise each time I pushed myself a bit further. In my work it felt like repetition sucked the life from each thing I did; that stretching myself was only taking me further away from what I’d set out to achieve. Of course I’m wildly underestimating the work that goes into nurturing the skill it takes to be a musician or dancer, but that what I felt like I was missing. A skill. A talent. Something I could work on. I just had me, and a few half-baked ideas of what I wanted to say.

So that’s what brings me back to the journals. Each night I hold my pen as I finish writing the date, and tremble at the thought of the nothing I have to say. Just ten minutes. And then it’s half an hour later and I’ve a couple of pages in front of me, parsing a conversation I had or overheard from a colleague, deconstructing the rituals and habits that life here has formed, and I feel better. Now, don’t get me wrong, most of the time it’s really pretty boring.  But I’ve come to find that this is my particular luxury: to write things down not because they’re interesting, or witty or profound but because they happened. And that doesn’t have to be artful, it just has to be truthful in the blandest sense of the word, and it has to happen. And once that’s done, the foundations are there to find, subvert and create new truths out of that in the most exciting sense of the word.

BLOG: on self-love and self-discipline

How professional artists go about making their work has always interested me. Not just the process of inspiration through to creation but things like: what time in the morning do you get up and when in the evening do you call it a night? Do you write to a word count or a time or do you just keep going till it’s all done? Is remembering to put on socks and doing the washing up all part of the routine? Just how necessary are money and a room of one’s own?

From my (unprofessional) experience, money certainly helps. It is difficult to focus on work that takes you outside yourself when you’re fretting over budgets. But the implication that money need come from independent means or from the artistic work itself is misleading. The time that is freed by not having a day job may seem like a luxury, but for me was often a hindrance. It is weirdly easier to squeeze an hour or so of writing in the time before or after an 8 hour shift than it was to find focus for just an hour each day in the gaping hours before I found employment.

Perhaps that’s down to the fact that while my work can be draining and frustrating it is largely unchallenging. It pulls on different resources than writing does. It may well be different if engaging with arts was part of my day job. And I know I’m privileged in other ways: I don’t have caring responsibilities, and I am physically fit for work. But the reintroduction of discipline into my life has been profound. After six years of university or zero-hour contracts, I got used to having time. It never seemed like enough, but still I was largely responsible for assigning each hour to each task. But as the hours increased and tasks decreased, I lost my way. Suddenly the heavy hand of a computer generated rota imposes rules and restrictions. I have to work out how to bend time to my will. How to find it and eke it out and really use it.

A room of one’s own is a tricky one. I am more likely to write if I take myself out of my living my space and rid myself of distractions. I am more likely to write something I am proud of if I am curled up in an armchair or my bed scribbling in a jotter. It’s difficult to find a balance. I have never lived alone, yet from my experience of flatmates or my partner going away for a few days, I don’t think it’s a situation in which I would thrive. But I can’t deny that I write more when I am left alone. When you spend time with yourself, thoughts acquire an edge without the neutralising or cathartic effects of conversation, and have to find a space into which to spill. The page is a handy place for such thoughts to be decanted. Living with others – be it communally or with a significant other – requires compromise, but it is a small price to pay to feel happy and at home. And if you choose right, no-one’s going to argue when you ask to be left alone for a bit.

And as far as getting properly dressed and looking after yourself is concerned? YES, that is part of it too. Life must go on. But there’s no point hiding behind these routines. So often I fall down this rabbit hole I mistake for self-love, where I convince myself that binge watching Girls, or reorganising my room, or lying in the bath staring at the ceiling is the best way to treat myself. These are all valid ways to spend time, but they are only peaceful when part of a larger, fulfilling agenda. Otherwise they’re just hiding places and there is nothing less fun than souring enjoyable activities with guilt. Often the way to love yourself is to hold yourself accountable. Yes, take breaks and snuggle up in cosy socks; yes, consume things you love (in cultural and edible forms); yes, make the space around you comfortable and orderly. But do this to rest and nourish yourself and prepare to do the work you want to do.

It will never cease to surprise me how much satisfaction can be found in doing something I like doing. It helps to remember that.

CREATIVE: tenterhooks excerpt no. three

‘Tenterhooks’ is a short story I’m working on, with a lot not quite pinned down yet. I’m posting short excerpts from it every couple of weeks- Please feel free to let me know any feedback!
All you really need to know is the central character is fifteen, living in modern day Scotland, she lives with her dad who’s currently out on a date night.

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Once her dad had set off with Neil she had the house to herself and ran a bath. She liked these evenings now Sally didn’t have to come round. When he’d started having these evenings out, this is what she’d been looking forward to. She was mortified when her dad had said Sally would be coming round to “keep an eye on things”.

‘Ben says she finds it difficult to get her homework done at home, and she’s saving up for uni next year, so it’s a favour to her really. She’s not babysitting, she’s here just in case anything does happen.’

Sally seemed equally bemused to be called upon to babysit a fourteen-year old, and sat watching telly in the living room and made no attempt to engage with her teenage charge. They were both relieved when Hayley’s birthday dissolved the obligation.

The bath was half-full now, which was probably enough. The tap was liable to turn cold at any point from now, and a shallow bath of hot water was better than steeping in tepid water, even if it didn’t look quite so photo-ready. She didn’t have any candles, or Lush bath bombs, or a glass of wine anyway, so the bath was never going to be an insta-success of self-love. Just a bath and some soapy bubbles. She stepped in and knelt, waiting for her body to adjust to the heat: first knees, then hands, then lower her bottom to her heels and breathe. No adjustments required, she swivelled into what she could only assume was a standard bath-reclining position.

She lifted her leg out of the water. It would be easily distinguished from a hot-dog, if she were ever to put it to debate, webbed with red from the warmth. Corned beef, maybe. But it was fine. It wasn’t up for debate. They were her legs, mottled a different colour depending on the weather. Currently sporting fluffy tufts of bubbles. Mr Tumnus. She could think that now without her stomach dropping and her heart jumping to her throat.

After her mum had moved out she was left in a bit of  tight spot. She’d never had to buy razors before, just nicked hers. While her dad had acted fairly admirably in the face of being in sole charge charge of a teenage daughter, asking weekly if she needed any “monthly supplies”, and coming home with every size of pad and tampon when she first said yes, other toiletries had never been mentioned. Anyway, she didn’t mind that much. It was winter. Except in gym. One class was all it had taken.