Literary Valentines

This Week’s Bit of String: Who wants to be Juliet?

Happy Valentine’s Day. It’s perhaps fitting to a holiday of Love that the patron saint’s origins aren’t definitively known apart from a martyred end of some sort. Who can really say where love comes from, and the most classic literary examples of romance often end tragically. (Insert special heart-shaped, chocolate-covered spoiler warning here.)

I’m sure there are a few lists out there of great romances. But most of us probably wouldn’t choose to live in previous eras, and so we wouldn’t prefer a romance from times when honouring and obeying were more important than striking out on adventures together and actually having some idea what your partner thinks about the world. Would any of us like to be in Juliet’s place? It’s hard to believe she and Romeo would have thrived together had they lived. Killing them off allowed the romance to linger, just as in Anna Karenina, if she had actually died in childbirth rather than surviving it, the great love affair would have outlived her.

Local window art for Valentine’s Day

To me, a good romance is one that I would actually be content to participate in. They’re not so common as you’d think. There must be some give-and-take to the relationship, a sort of useful friction which drives rather than divides. Definitely a mutual admiration. I wonder if we called romances “relationship stories,” would that lend them more credibility? We’re just learning about the varying dynamics, the infinite degrees of desirability. Here are the top ten literary relationships that I enjoyed reading about—with quotes, of course! You know I like quotes.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

This was probably the first book I read that provided an enticing insight into a relationship. I was 9 or 10 years old, and Alcott’s novel introduced the idea that deep friendship and shared passions aren’t necessarily sufficient grounds to accept a marriage proposal, but that waiting and maintaining independence don’t have to leave you lonely.

“’Ah! Thou gifest me such hope and courage, and I haf nothing to gif back but a full heart and these empty hands,’ cried the Professor, quite overcome.

“Jo never, never would learn to be proper, for when he said that as they stood upon the steps, she just put both hands into his, whispering tenderly, ‘Not empty now,’ and, stooping down, kissed her Friedrich under the umbrella.”

Possession by A. S. Byatt

A very literary romance, as two scholars fall in love while unearthing evidence of an unknown affair between two poets a century before. This examines whether, when love stifles independence, it might yet cause art to flourish. How much determination does passion leave us?

“And is love then more
Than the kick galvanic
Or the thundering roar
Of Ash volcanic
Belched from some crater
Of earth-fire within?
Are we automata
Or Angel-kin?”

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

A rare example of a strong female protagonist who while remaining true to herself, longs to find a loving partner. And our heroine finally does so, making the most of life with TeaCake and with her memories of him after the relationship’s devastating end.

“‘Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.’”

Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood

Atwood has a great ability to forensically dissect relationships, while not amputating any of the attraction. In this final book of the Oryx and Crake trilogy, two weary apocalypse survivors finally get together after years of waiting, and it’s simultaneously marvellous and familiar.

Coming home

“She’d longed for this, and denied it was possible. But now how easy it is, like coming home must have been once, for those who’d had homes. Walking through the doorway into the familiar, the place that knows you, opens to you, allows you in and tells you the stories you’ve needed to hear. Stories of the hands as well, and of the mouth… Yes. At last. It’s you.

Prayers for Rain by Dennis Lehane

I love Lehane’s dialogue. Banter crackling with warmth that sometimes crosses over to passion. This is why his detectives Kenzie and Gennaro are a big hit with me, and why their relationship is crave-worthy.

“Don’t look at me,” she said.
“Why not?”
“I’m telling you–” She lost the battle and closed her eyes as the smile broke across her cheeks.
Mine followed about a half second later.
“I don’t know why I’m smiling,” Angie said.
“Me, either.”
“Prick.”
“Bitch.”
She laughed and turned on her chair, drink in hand. “Miss me?”
Like you can’t imagine.
“Not a bit,” I said.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

This is quite a beautiful story that uses magic and fantasy to show love’s power, also addressing questions of destiny versus autonomy.

“As he kisses her, the bonfire glows brighter. The acrobats catch the light perfectly as they spin. The entire circus sparkles, dazzling every patron.”

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

I read this to research school shootings but it captivated me as a tragic love story, an elegy to a relationship as much as a confessional. Eva, the narrator, and her now absent husband Franklin loved each other so much, despite being quite opposite, and perhaps it made other relationships pale in comparison.

Affectionate chair, Cheltenham Street Art Festival, 2019

“After I’d survived so long on the scraps from my own emotional table, you spoiled me with a daily banquet of complicitous what-an-asshole looks at parties, surprise bouquets for no occasion, and fridge-magnet notes that always signed off, ‘XXXX, Franklin.’ You made me greedy. Like any addict worth his salt, I wanted more.”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

This is an epic book about trying to create and express oneself during political struggles. It is not a romance. However, there’s a wonderful relationship between Wen the Dreamer, who woos the protagonist’s young widowed aunt Swirl through stories, leaving her a volume of adventure tales every few days. When she’s ready, they marry with this perfect storyteller’s vow:

“‘I promise you that for all our life together, I will seek worlds that we might never have encountered in our singularity and solitude.’”

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

I’m a huge fan of Waters. Her books are suspenseful with expertly-crafted twists, but they’re also deeply romantic, usually giving voice to relationships on the LGBTQIA spectrum. She has a knack for conveying the overpowering, multi-sensory nature of love.

“Frances took all this in, even while angled away from her, gazing at her—how, exactly? Perhaps with the pores of my skin, she thought.”

A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

The creator of Narnia published this journal of his widowhood under a different name, and it’s sad and lovely and relatable. In it there’s this line which I feel sums up the beating heart of any truly desirable romance:

“The thing I want is exactly the thing I can never get. The old life, the jokes, the drinks, the arguments, the lovemaking, the tiny, heartbreaking commonplace.”

I think the best thing we can do when creating relationships on paper is to use the tiny commonplace that Lewis refers to, the familiar details that symbolise a routine privileged by virtue of simply being shared. What do you think of these relationships? Do you have any recommendations?

2020 Reading Round-Up

I read thirty books this last year. You’d think, given lockdown and whatnot, that I’d have managed to read more than before, but I’m probably not alone in experiencing a continued dearth of leisure time. I suspect the hours previously spent commuting got absorbed by actually working more hours while at home, plus just, you know, trying to make life go on through the upheaval. Here are my very top ten out of a lot of good, transporting reads.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

In this partly historical, partly speculative story about pursuing freedom, Mr. Whitehead laid nearly all the eras of American racist atrocities out concurrently. It’s a rough look in the mirror but essential. He also tried to illuminate the inner life of a person born and raised in enslavement, and how it might limit one’s focus. I found the protagonist Cora compelling for her determination and understandable cynicism, and it was deeply irritating to see some Goodreads reviews complaining that she wasn’t sunny enough.

“A small freedom was the worst punishment of all, presenting the bounty of true freedom in painful relief.”

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

A fun and thrilling novel about exploring natural history in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and women’s roles in such discoveries. Set in an old mansion by often violent seas, it turns into a murder mystery with small-town treachery, solved by a really clever 14-year-old girl protagonist. This was my Christmas holiday feast following my own fossil-digging expedition the week before.

“It must be very relaxing being Mr. Jacklers, deaf to the crunch of other people’s feelings beneath his well-intentioned boots.”

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

I happened to be reading this one during World Book Day, which also happens to be St. David’s Day. Nothing like warm Welsh cakes and a great book!

I read the whole Neapolitan series at the start of this year, starting while we were actually in Sorrento, about an hour’s train ride south of Naples. They’re all intriguing, with intimate portrayals yet surprising turns. Elena’s educational journey, though, and the defiance of Lila’s first marriage including the perspective of her confused and brutal husband, made this possibly my favourite in the series.

“She deserved Nino, in other words, because she thought that to have him meant to try to have him, not to hope that he would want her.”

Smash All the Windows by Jane Davis

An award-winning, self-published novel about families coping with the aftermath of a disaster and the inquiry into its causes. Jane Davis created such beautifully nuanced characters in this, it’s hard to believe it was fiction, and I loved the added angle of using art to cope with grief. She also showed impeccable timing in revealing the different pieces and perspectives of the original event. You can read more about the writer’s process and her other (also acclaimed) work in this interview with author Sarah Tinsley.

“‘Artists have to make choices. We can make a small noise about a lot of things or a lot of noise about one thing.’”

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Another superbly crafted book with an enormous cast. It delved into so many different lives, spanning race and sexuality, making each person believable and sympathetic. I loved the ending, when every character was quite perfectly brought together. For me, the narrative style of line-by line rather than in standard paragraph form really worked, as if reading thought fragments, pulse by pulse. I found myself conducting my own observations in the same rhythm for a couple of weeks, it was so transfixing.

“the house breathes differently when Yazz isn’t there
waiting for her to return and create some more noise and chaos
she hopes she comes home after university
most of them do these days, don’t they?
they can’t afford otherwise
Yazz can stay forever
really”

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

I hadn’t read any Anne Tyler yet, and I loved this first taste, the idea of the Homesick Restaurant, where diverse chefs cook a favourite home meal different each night, plus of course the distinct characterisations of the whole family in the story. It reminds me of John Irving’s work, which I usually love—but a little more concise and sort of snarky, too. I mean, check out this sample which says so much about the family:

“His mother told Jenny not to slouch, told Cody not to swear, asked Ezra why he wouldn’t stand up to the neighbourhood bully. ‘I’m trying to get through life as a liquid,’ Ezra had said, and Cody (trying to get through life as a rock) had laughed.”

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

A family story and a plague story, this was stunningly immersive. It spins the normal, patriarch-oriented history on its head by never referring to England’s most famous writer by name. He is merely The Tutor, or Agnes’s husband, or Susanna’s or Hamnet’s father. This twist comes off as perfectly natural amidst the insightful re-imaginings of Agnes Shakespeare (Anne Hathaway), and her three children. The smart, strong, grieving mother will stay in my thoughts at least as long as any of her husband’s characters.

A couple of these volumes were procured from Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, Bath

“Why would she ever want to behold anything else, when she could be taking in the sight of Susanna’s ears, like the pale folds of roses, the winglike sweep of her tiny eyebrows, the dark hair, which clings to her crown as if painted there by a brush? There is nothing more exquisite than her child.”

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

In a year with minimal travel, more than ever I love a book that can transport me. This one balances two storylines, doubling the mileage. There’s the story of 16-year-old Nao in Tokyo, her suicidal father, her Buddhist nun great-grandmother Old Jiko, and Jiko’s son who was killed fighting (or appearing to fight) in WWII. There’s also Ruth’s story, as she finds Nao’s diary washed up on a remote Canadian Pacific island. This was a great epic about life and death and purpose, while being warm and cheekily authentic.

“Does the half-life of information correlate with the decay of our attention? Is the Internet a kind of temporal gyre, sucking up stories, like geodrift, into its orbit?”

Circe by Madeline Miller

Having written my own book from the perspective of Eve, I was eager to read another female-perspective story about an oft-maligned mythological character. Circe the witch, as portrayed here, tells her story in a way I really connected to; she’s empathetic to all others and unassuming about her own power. I preferred hearing about her with the gods and heroes as mere cameos rather than reading their often similarly told stories, and I appreciated the world-building more from this less entitled narrator.

“The darkness around us shimmered with clouds of the Trygon’s gilded blood. Beneath my feet were the bones of a thousand years. I thought: I cannot bear this world a moment longer.
“‘Then, child, make another.’”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Another epic—a bit more serious, a bit more dense, yet truly rewarding and beautiful. We have Marie in Vancouver, seeking her beloved sort-of-cousin Ai-Ming in China. Much of the book is recounting Ai-Ming’s stories about her grandmother, Big Mother Knife, in WWII China, then her father Sparrow adjusting to the fluctuating restrictions and demands of Communism, up to Ai-Ming’s own survival of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. We’re treated to examples of how love and creativity manifest themselves through oppression and separation. There’s so much in this book, maybe it best speaks for itself with this quote:

“‘Don’t ever try to be only a single thing, an unbroken human being. If so many people love you, can you honestly be just one thing?’”

Looking at this list, 9 of my top 10 reads last year were written by women. Not surprising as I only read 7 books by men in 2020. This wasn’t planned or anything, these were just the books I really wanted to read, and through a pandemic, and painful separations, they made me feel I was in the best possible hands.

What were your favourite reads in 2020? Did you have different or similar reactions to the books I’ve read? Do you think current events coloured your choices and your interpretations?

Origin Stories

This Week’s Bit of String: Unexpected good fortune

I had an essay accepted by a magazine yesterday. It was my second acceptance in a couple of weeks, and came with a glowing email. Just what I needed to perk up a tedious office day.

When someone is highly complimentary of your work, is that enough for you? Or do you want more people to know and heap further praise upon it? In my personal life I’m used to stretching a positive moment, trailing it after me long into the future, wearing it thin. But we have to promote ourselves as writers, so I shared my excitement on social media.

Allowing glimmers

It’s a strange time to share good news. The pandemic, upcoming American election, Brexit, and ongoing racial injustice weigh heavily and I wonder whether it’s insensitive to briefly turn from those.

Then I looked back through the essay I wrote. I don’t usually send personal writing out into the world, and this time I have. My soon-to-be-published piece reflects on some very difficult times, and the impending separation from my son as he leaves for university. There’s been enough pain and it will never be smooth sailing. Using struggles to create art that moves others is something to be proud of, for one fleeting moment.

What We Deserve

Getting published in an online magazine doesn’t bring money or renown, but it’s lovely to hear kind words about my work, and to plenty of us who haven’t had time to submit much, it feels like a big deal. ‘You deserve this,’ says a writer friend, and I don’t know that deserving comes into it.

“Create power from pain,” part of Bristol’s Rising Arts Agency poster campaign

I work hard on my pieces, and recently took the extra steps of researching submission opportunities and trying for them. I’m able to do this only because my son is much older than my friend’s kids. I’m able to do this because my current day job, while full-time, isn’t emotionally exhausting. I live in a country with free healthcare and no major threat to my safety, so I’m free to create rather than struggle to survive. Many perfectly deserving people don’t have these things.

So I accept that privilege enables my small gains. Some people are so tired of hearing the word privilege, the Trump administration has just banned any federal diversity training which references it. But many of us artists are extremely fortunate. While experiencing hard times lends poignancy to our work later on, that work will usually be created in our safer, quieter moments rather than during crisis itself.

Good, Bad, and Ugly

What about when good and bad exist simultaneously, though? Like, monumentally good and really, horrifically bad. Last weekend I tore through Colson Whitehead’s prizewinning novel The Underground Railroad. I’m still losing sleep over it.

We already know that millions of enslaved persons were kidnapped, tortured, overworked, abused, and in fact legislated by the American government as less than human. Whitehead’s novel simply crystallised for me how white Americans embraced racism to maintain the status quo. Although parts of Whitehead’s book are speculative, he was weaving different atrocities from many periods of American history into one era. Incidents similar to the Tuskegee experiment, the Tulsa massacre, lynchings, segregation, and of course plantation life are included.

Damien Hirst’s “Verity” in Ilfracombe: reformed images of justice

Seeing all these packed into one fast-paced novel made me fully question the current American flag and national anthem. How can we uphold symbols of liberty and justice that were created during mass enslavement and cruelty?

Researching “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I learned it was always a controversial choice, because many saw it as promoting war when Hoover made it the anthem in 1931. America was fed up with war at that time.

Its lyricist Francis Scott Key himself was against the War of 1812 although relieved it didn’t wipe his young nation out. He wrote the anthem to celebration the latter. Similarly contradictory were his views on the enslavement of African Americans. He described it as “a bed of torture” but owned slaves himself and defended others’ right to such “property.”

By upholding the victories and imagery from America’s first 80 years, I fear we’re stifling the horrific pain ongoing at that time. America’s not young, scrappy and hungry anymore, it’s just hungry, and it’s time to grow up.

Coasting on the pioneering of democracy—a flawed, limited, early model—can only get America so far. It’s like I can’t really have winning first prize in a 2017 competition headline my bio anymore. Just as I had to do to take my writing to the next level, it’s time to expose the depths of our origins, acknowledging the pain there and perhaps allow something new to be created from them that will represent us all.

Have you been lucky enough to balance good news with bad times? What approach do you take?

More on America’s compromised origins here

More on confronting racism here

More on getting personal with writing here

Seven Wanders of 2019

I’m late with this roundup, on account of doing proper authorly things such as slicing 80,000 words out of a novel. As I transition to inventing new short stories, though, I’m looking back on various places I was privileged to visit, the street art found and historical moments memorialised. So much fuel for the imagination, gathered in just a year.

7: Vaxjo, Sweden

I know–what the where? Pronounced something like “veck-ya,” this is a small, eco-friendly lakeside city in southern Sweden. My son participated in a gaming event there, while my husband and I visited museums, a very old church, and sculpture trails. And rediscovered chokladbollar. There’s a special pride in discovering someplace unknown to most people.

6: Bristol

It makes the list every year, because I find more. This isn’t just due to the city’s size incorporating former towns around it, it’s also because of the constantly blooming arts scene, on street and off. This year I explored more in the Southville and Eastville areas (shoutout to the Writers HQ retreat located at the latter), and revisited Clifton.

5: Matara Centre, Cotswolds

We attended an Open Gardens day before many plantings came up, but this was still a fascinating walk. Different patches foster tranquility while saluting traditions from different parts of the world. It was like visiting lots of places at once.

4: Cascade Trail, White Mountains, New Hampshire

Bonus points for thunderstorming on us while we hiked. We ascended the waterfall trail and had a good splash, loving the views without realising we hadn’t even hit the biggest cascades yet. I say, DO go chasing waterfalls—especially in your first drafts! (Then dry off a bit during edits.)

3: Sorrento, Italy

Sorrento is a small but busy city an hour south of Naples, along the gorgeous, rugged coast. It’s got mountain views (including Vesuvius), olive groves up the slopes and citrus trees along the streets, lovely old stradones and domos, and of course, fantastic food. Just don’t overwork yourself beforehand then visit with slightly watered down flu.

2: Jurassic Coast, Dorset, UK

Fossils and waves. There had been recent landslides from the massive coastal cliffs, so I could scurry to the rockfall and grab a promising sample without chiseling. Even a fist-sized chunk of this coast is packed with fossilised sea creatures, and you can imagine the waves carrying in more surprises.

1: Glasgow, Scotland

With bagpipes ringing in our ears, we took in landmark buildings such as the cathedral and the Lighthouse (actually an architecture museum). There’s also a tenement house museum I’d love to see, to reflect on how so many people lived, and I could spend a whole day at the Necropolis and come up with probably half a dozen different stories.

What inspiring adventures have you had in the last year?

Writers with Day Jobs, Part 4: What’d I Miss?

This Week’s Bit of String: Vicarious holidays to India

“You have an unusual name,” the customer on the phone says. I was typing notes on his call when he rang back and asked for me again. He explains, “We met someone with your name when we were travelling in India a while ago. Spent long, happy days watching the Ganges flow past and drinking hot chai. Was that you?”

“I’m afraid I’ve never been to India—yet.”

My colleagues nearby look up from their keyboards, distracted by my conversation.

An eye-opening experience. Street art in Derby

“Well, I highly recommend it. And you understand—I had to call back and check. I thought, wouldn’t it be a shame if I missed the chance to find out?”

I absolutely understood, and thanked him for briefly transporting me from the office. Then I got sucked back into doing three full-time jobs at once, then went home to a flurry of housework, and it wasn’t until my family and I had chatted through a whole supper that I remembered this respite.

How many times have I not bothered making a connection, seizing an idea, or picking at a bit of string, because my thoughts are corralled and cornered by job worries?

On My Way to Get to the Bottom of This

There’s not much I can do about my workload while at the office, but I’m learning to take back my life after walking out the heavy, ID-operated doors.

It’s like pausing a speedy hike to study the oxidation layers on an abandoned doorknob.

To this end, I plan to fit reading back into my schedule, and to jot down three random observations daily. Whether it’s a funny name I heard, an interesting fact I read, a street musician I passed, or one of my son’s jokes. (Example: “I hate when people ask me where I see myself in a year’s time. I mean, I don’t have 2020 vision.”)

Don’t think me a complete slacker for not doing these things before. I finished writing a novel recently, and I’m still funnelling every spare moment into editing. I stopped reading while consumed by my own plot. That’s totally allowed.

For the last month or two, I was obsessed with my characters. In that advanced project stage, you’re trapped in a whirlpool, suffocating under the current, and the only way to relieve the pressure is through a tiny trickle—word by word. But you can only switch the outlet on when you’re not in the office, when your family doesn’t need you, when the meals are cooked and served and cleaned up, and the laundry’s done.

I did what I set out to do, sharpening my focus and finishing The Gospel of Eve’s first draft. I wrote over 80,000 words in just 2 months. But it’s probably safe to broaden my mental reach again.

Engaged in a Battle for Our Very Soul

The unexpected call-back at work came just a couple days after I spent time an early Sunday morning reading cultural articles instead of catching up on political news or launching right into edits or filling out office forms.

I read the original Esquire article on Mr. Rogers from 1998, and an NPR article about 100-year-old Arabian Nights illustrations by Danish artist Kay Nielson. Both were a treat.

Letting the sun set on the office week: My Friday Five Miler along Stroudwater Canal

It’s hard to write when you’re fretting about customers and deadlines. However, it’s also hard to distract me from my characters. And work did that, every day in the midst of penning the climax. I’d walk to work plotting battle scenes or plagues or births—and once I got to my desk, the bombardment of emails, phone calls, initiatives from supervisors and questions from junior colleagues helped me forget Eve and her descendants.

After a while I forgot it works the other way around too. If I pick up a chapter and start editing, I can disappear into Eden and its aftermath. For tougher chapters needing more work, I can ease myself in by reading someone else’s—a short story in an online magazine, or an article from BrainPickings, LitHub or Artpublika.

How do you stay creative while buried under spreadsheets? Shall we hold each other to the standard of taking in one piece of art/ literature per day, and noting down three new observations? I’ll be back at the end of the week to report. Comment here, send me a Tweet, or comment on Facebook with any suggestions and if you need any encouragement!

The Great Circle of Literature

This Week’s Bit of String: Crime and Punishment

Spring 2003, early evening Eastern Standard Time/ late night Greenwich Mean Time. I pick up the wall-mounted cordless phone and ring my ex-boyfriend as arranged. Our son is occupied with Legos on the floor of my subsidised New Hampshire apartment.

His father answers his mobile in the London flat where he’s completing his masters. I refuse to let his voice thrill me this time; I’m giving up on waiting for him to re-articulate his interest.

We exchange the requisite weather updates and talk about our son. Then my ex-boyfriend says, “I’m reading Crime and Punishment. It’s quite good…”

Oh, are you? Instantly I’m hooked again.

Present Day, British Summer Time. I come home from work and husband-formerly-known-as-ex-boyfriend launches right in with his feelings regarding the latest twist in the John Irving novel I recommended. “I did not see that coming!”

Look at them all, conspiring shamelessly to keep my interest piqued.

Among all he and I share, reading is perhaps the most nourishing and positive. It fulfils us better than, say, watching TV together, because we’re using our brains a little more. Plus the flexing of empathy and imagination required to enjoy a book helps with the heavy lifting in a relationship.

There’s magic, too, from a book. We create a world in our heads, and what is more marvellous than subsequently talking to a loved one and finding that the same bits of magic worked on them, too? When you watch a film with someone, you see and hear the same things at once. Reading is more open to interpretation, so shared impressions are extra special and further observations are bonus insights.

Literary Connections

The unifying power of the written word seems to reach between books themselves sometimes, rather than just outward to us. Have you ever noticed that? I’ll read one book that makes the same historical reference my last, completely different read did. A couple weeks ago I read Benjamin Zephaniah’s autobiography. It immersed me in the activist, anti-National Front environment where he first started performing his poetry, with groups such as Rock Against Racism.

Then I read Kamila Shamsie’s (justly) award-winning Home Fires, about the tragic effects of radicalisation. It included a single line about a character’s parents meeting at a Rock Against Racism rally. Something I never knew about before, and suddenly my reading material conspired to bring it to my attention.

Home Fires is also a modern retelling of Sophocles’s Antigone, when before The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah I’d read Natalie Haynes’s rollicking The Ancient Guide to Modern Life. Its many cultural references included Antigone.

A couple of years ago I read a novel about George Eliot and then a novel about an affluent, up-and-coming German family in the lead-up to World War II. Quite different novels, set decades apart—yet characters from each travelled to Naples and stayed in the exact same hotel, and I happened to read the books one week after each other.

It’s as if books have their own invisible network of roots and fungi, communicating and passing nutrients to each other like some trees do. One book may seem isolated from another, but the survival of one can benefit the rest. Perhaps books know the more we read, the more our appetite grows. Ah, that tantalising moment when we get to decide what to read next!

The Roots System

Of course, there is a root system books connect to: our brains. Relatively recent studies show that brains’ ‘white matter’ is as essential to reading and learning as the grey matter. White matter are the neural pathways connecting parts of the brain (the grey matter). They’re named for the lipid myelin coating that protects some neuron parts. The wider these pathways are, the more easily signals can fire off from one long neural axon arm to the little dendrite roots on another neuron.

While having smooth white matter pathways helps us to read, reading in turn helps make the pathways smoother. It’s like a path in the woods; the more we walk down it, the smoother it gets. So improved connections in our brain is one of reading’s effects. It also improves our attention span, and anyone else who’s been married a few years (it’s fifteen for my husband and I now) knows a good attention span is useful.

Side note: My husband has been known to read things I wouldn’t. I read a lot I know he wouldn’t enjoy. That’s okay. Please never condemn a loved one for their reading choices. Or musical taste. Or even whether they like Brussels sprouts. Just please, let’s not.

The rewards of reading are somewhat analogous to a longterm relationship. There might be bits that aren’t as fast-paced. You’ve got to allow the narrative some descriptive time to set the scene. You’ve got to muddle through those dialogue bits my husband dislikes (and I love) during which, yes, unfortunately, a character’s thoughts and feelings may be exposed. And in the end, that effort is worth it because you’ve learned, you’ve laboured, and shared.

Have you found that books enhance relationships? Do you ever notice the pages conspiring with each other to broaden your horizons and change your fate?

2018 Reading Round-Up

I didn’t read nearly as many books as last year. It just slipped out of my routine. Don’t worry—I’m working on it. But I did read a broader variety of reading materials. A lot more nonfiction than previously, several classic short story volumes, and even some wondrous poetry. So, buckle up for a more diverse list as I reveal my top reads of 2018.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
I love a time- and continent-spanning epic. This covered over 500 years, and even better, traced it via a book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, as an artefact. Apparently there’s a science of studying the physical properties of old books; learning about a time period by analysing the binding and ink and paper. This fascinates me, and of course the histories of the people—Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike—outlined in the story did as well.

“‘You sat in your nice little flat all through our war and watched us, bleeding all over the TV news. And you thought, “How awful!” and then you got up and made yourself another cup of gourmet coffee.’ I flinched when he said that. It was a pretty accurate description.”

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit
A really useful little volume which gives a history of activism and includes the victories almost imperceptible at the time, which then influence greater movements. It’s a call to action in a time of environmental crisis and stifling capitalism, but it’s also an encouragement, a reminder that things take time and small steps are worth celebrating.

“Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible.”

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki
The perfect treadmill book: fast-paced, with witty insight into the workings of the media, other cultures, and how they perceive Americans. A Japanese-American is hired to make a series for Japanese TV about American family recipes, and each chapter explores a different family while secretly the documentarian investigates what these meats are actually doing to consumers.

“‘Stocking up’ is what our robust Americans called it, laughing nervously, because profligate abundance automatically evokes its opposite, the unspoken specter of dearth.”

Heart Songs and Other Stories by Annie Proulx
Annie Proulx is one of the most talented wordsmiths of the late 20th-early 21st century. Her characters are often spare in their divulgences, but she ensures we know them well. And she delivers us right to the setting of each tale. Lucky for me, a few of these were set in New England, so reading them was like going home.

“Santee longed for the cold weather and unclouded days that lay somewhere ahead, for the sharp chill of spruce shadow, icy rime thickening over twigs and a hard autumnal sky cut by the parabolic flights of birds the same way pond ice was cut by skaters.” From “The Unclouded Day”

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Another multi-generational epic. This one is about slavery and colonialism, and its effects both on those left behind in Africa, and those taken to America. It’s an important reminder that the atrocities lasted a terribly long time, and therefore their effects do too. I hope this story, even if imagined, helps restore the history severed by our old practices.

“Hell was a place of remembering, each beautiful moment passed through the mind’s eye until it fell to the ground like a rotten mango, perfectly useless, uselessly perfect.”

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
This tells Tara’s journey from a fundamentalist “prepper” family so anti-establishment she never entered a classroom until she managed to get to university. She now holds a PhD from Cambridge. Important takeaways some might overlook: She faithfully shows her estranged family’s positive attributes as hard workers loving as best they knew how, and also she provides an essential outsider perspective on higher education. While it benefited her, she also describes universities as cult-like because of the heavy expectation all students will react the same way to what they are told.

“No amount of anger or rage directed at others can subdue guilt, because it is never about them. Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness. It has nothing to do with other people.”

Cathedral by Raymond Carver
After reading this volume of short stories, I agree he’s one of the greats. More unadorned than Annie Proulx, he chooses his moments well and narrates a character’s actions in detail if not their thoughts or settings. This to me makes it very immediate, while giving a sense that the characters are barely hanging on, just going through the motions. Perhaps this is clearest in the story “A Small, Good Thing:”

“They both stared out at the parking lot. They didn’t say anything. But they seemed to feel each other’s insides now, as though the worry had made them transparent.”

Paper Aeroplane: Poems 1989-2014 by Simon Armitage
So much in this collection: reflections on the meaning of art, poems about everyday life, about relationships, current events, nature—even translations of historic poems. I loved the later nature ones such as “Rain” and “Beck,” I loved the piece poignantly reimagining the Columbine massacre with the shooters randomly passing out flowers instead of bullets, I loved the recent “Poundland” which evokes the shop with brilliantly observed detail but couches it all in terms of epic-style narration that makes me laugh out loud. Hard to choose a single quote here, but I’m going with this one from Armitage’s earlier poem “The Civilians” because it shows his ability to set the scene with unexpected but vivid imagery:

“The golden evenings spread like ointment through the open valleys,
Buttered one side of our spotless washing.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
It’s different. It’s possibly not for everybody. But I’ve enjoyed multi-POV narratives told somewhat experimentally before (Cloud Atlas, for example), and just thinking about this one makes me want to dive back in. I loved Saunders’ detailed imagining of the afterlife, his intense portrayal of grief and its requisite predecessor love, the interlacing of genuine historical testimony, and every voice clamouring to be heard.

“Perhaps this is faith, I thought: to believe our God ever receptive to the smallest good intention.”

If you’ve already explored any of these reads, what did you think of them? Do you have any related recommendations?

If You Like It Be Prepared to Find a Price on It

This Week’s Bit of String: Campus costs

Confession time: I finished my university degree illegally. In my state, people receiving benefits weren’t allowed to pursue the extra financial burden of higher education (sometimes ‘Live free or die’ translates to ‘Live free and let others fall by the wayside.’) I was a single mother employed in per diem work, so I depended on state medical insurance and also some childcare reimbursement.

But while doing as much work as I could find, I completed my studies in the evenings. I relished the variety of lessons at the local community college and appreciated the more mature student population, often keener on their studies than my cohorts at the university I’d attended before I was pregnant.

Even that community college cost thousands of dollars per semester. I read and wrote so much, I’m sure it improved my work. But the expenditure, the hectic schedule in my son’s first months, not to mention the risk of incurring New Hampshire’s wrath… Could I have learned those things through independent study, through the myriad of recently sprouted online support networks and through regimented practice? Did my degree increase my job prospects or pay grade?

Shopping Around

Japanese Garden in the courtyard of the Humanities building at University of Warwick
Japanese Garden in the courtyard of the Humanities building at University of Warwick

My son is starting A-Levels, the course of study in the UK for 16-18-year-olds. We’ve been doing research to ensure his subjects will be acceptable to whatever university he attends after. Maths and Philosophy degrees, Education and Psychology, a year abroad in Scandinavia…it reminds me how exciting it is to get sucked into the heart of a subject.

My reminiscences were enabled by a trip to the University of Warwick campus for the National Association of Writers Groups’ annual festival. En-suite bathrooms! Fountains and grassy rooftops! A Krispy Kreme counter in the campus grocery store! Exercise bikes and treadmills equipped with screens so you can Mahjongg while you run!

It’s a big deal here how much universities cost, but at £9000 per year it’s far less than American ones charge. And I’m hesitant to condemn the charge. I want my kid’s professors to earn a good wage, and I don’t expect the rather strapped government to fully subsidise this.

Tuition & Fees

Likewise, I want the speakers at NAWG Fest to be paid well. Writers’ pay at festivals is an issue of longstanding complexity. Quite a few attendees expressed concerns about the cost, and I sympathise, as there were a lot of pensioners among our gathering. But we must also consider that in addition to workshops and networking opportunities, our fees covered ample meals and reasonably comfortable accommodation, plus use of campus facilities.

Gardens and fountains at University of Warwick
University of Warwick campus

What price can we put on jumpstarting our creativity? I spent £180 for a night’s stay, four meals and two workshops. I managed to squeeze in a gym session before the gala dinner, and I skipped the Annual General Meeting to take advantage of the swimming pool. A double bed and a bathroom of my own—invaluable to any wife and mum.

The workshop instructors had lengthy experience yet were genuinely interested in our work and ideas. The whole conference, I think, is designed especially for people newly exploring the craft of writing. I recommend it to those starting out because there’s no snobbery, and plenty of accessibility and warmth.

As someone who’s not starting out or dabbling, the concepts introduced in workshops on characterisation and plotting were somewhat familiar. However, I can always do with certain reminders, of how to raise the stakes in my plot and how to probe a story’s What Ifs to find who’s really at its heart.

My writing life consists mainly of dragging myself through alone, in snatched moments often on a bus full of miserable, drunk, and/ or manic people. I get lost in what I’m writing (thank goodness) but as others can probably attest, we cling to our ideas especially when they’re few and far between in our crowded lives. It’s hard to put a price on having someone march in and say, “Oh but remember to consider this…”

Being in the company of other writers is perhaps the most precious thing. I love listening to people who come every year talk about their work, and people who’ve just taken up writing talk about what it means to them.

Selfie after the NAWG Fest gala dinner
Satisfied NAWG Fest attendee.

And it never, never gets old when someone takes an interest in my work. At the gala dinner and awards ceremony, I was assigned to a table with one of my tutors from earlier, and various writers, novice and veteran, from different parts of the country. They were all cheering my shortlisted story and me on, ensuring that even without the first prize trophy, I left feeling satisfied and invigorated (the chocolate cake may well have helped).

Maybe this could have been achieved by other, cheaper means. But as with attending university, the extra money could be worth it because we need the corralling, cajoling, and challenging that comes with a comprehensive experience rather than the usual bits and pieces we use to sustain our artistic existences. And we should expect those benefits not to be free when they come with the help of others or the use of their institutions.

What kinds of writing experiences have you paid for? What constitutes value for money, and what kinds of free activities help give you a boost?

Making Hay

This Week’s Bit of String: Do the books make the town or does the town make the books?

Murder and Mayhem bookshop, with a hound painted on the front.
Check out this crime story bookshop!

The bus wound past hills dripping buttercups into golden meadow pools at their feet, and past chomping sheep, unabashedly sheeplike and not the least bit sheepish. I disembarked beneath the castle ruins in Hay-on-Wye. As I made my way through busy, merry little streets, I saw at least one bookshop on each.

I camped on the other side of the Wye, about a mile from the festival site, so for each event I crossed through town. Guitar players lounged outside cafes and pubs, the queue for the sheep’s milk ice cream parlour outlined the market square,

Stand offering notebooks with covers salvaged from old hardbacks and record albums.
Rebound Books. I’d take them all!

and a man with his inebriated accomplice tried to sell anti-religion t-shirts to a polite elderly couple. The local Big Issue seller wore a scuba diving suit in the rain, and sheep-shagging costume in the hot sun.

Houses on the Brecon Road to the festival got in on the game, hiring vending trucks or just selling packages of biscuits and copies of the Guardian. One stand offered wonderful notebooks made from vintage hardcovers. A church set up a facepainting marquee and chatted to visitors about their stories, sending them off with free books about faith. Another stand offered poems and prints thereof for sale.

Flowers in one of the festival courtyards
At the festival

The festival itself was a network of baize walkways and shining white marquees around courtyards of sun loungers and fairy lights.

With all this scenery to take in, I barely wrote a word during my weekend away. It’s tricky to balance time spent absorbing writing material while actually striving to write it down…or is that just me?

Books for Activists, Activists for Books

The first talk I attended was about finance. Partly to challenge myself, but mostly because Marcus Brigstocke co-hosted it. His frank, laid-back humour was evident as he interviewed a professor on the financial industry. David Pitt-Watson reminded us the financial sector uses our money, and we should make our wishes known to it. He suggests write to pension funds and other companies we may be invested in, to insist our money is in ethical causes, such as green energy.

The Poetry Bookshop
I bought The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah here from his former agent who knows him well.

Late that evening I came to Benjamin Zephaniah’s talk about his new autobiography. He exuded utter delight, dreadlocks swishing as he gifted us his rhymes. He says he created many of his poems out of anger, at racism and poverty. But he didn’t seem angry in the slightest. Maybe just for that night, because he was there at Hay with an enormous, rightly appreciative audience. Or maybe creating those poems helped dispel the anger somewhat while still adding fuel to his activism.

Hearing Voices

After a stormy night, I hiked various paths between England and Wales, coming to shelter from the downpour under a town centre marquee where a group of men sang sea shanties. Back at the festival in the afternoon, I got the most delicious smoothie of my life and attended an Ian McEwan interview. On getting story ideas, Mr. McEwan says, ‘I’ll hear an inner voice, and like the cadence of it, and want to find out who’s speaking.’

Dresses and flowers made of book pages and sheet music
A charity shop reflects the bookish theme with its page art.

I wonder if he ever finds the voices are giving a brief diatribe or vignette rather than a full story. That happens to me sometimes. Do I need to be more intrepid in tracking them?

Still, the incredibly successful novelist’s passion for finding out about characters was reflected, somewhat askew, in Jim Broadbent’s interview later. Intriguingly, the actor devised a plot for a graphic novel called Dull Margaret, based on a painting by Bruegel the Elder. This was recently brought to life by Dix, an illustrator for the Guardian. I was struck by Mr. Broadbent’s relaxed approach to story-writing, paraphrased here:

Big screen surrounded by cutouts of leaves and plants in an event marquee.
One of the busy festival venues

Audience member: So is the need for love, is that the message of the book?
Jim Broadbent: Message? Yes, I suppose it might be. It’s just the story, you know.
Another Audience member: Graphic novels are popular with young adults. Are they your target audience, or who is the ideal reader you had in mind?
Jim Broadbent: (Smiling) Well, me. I was ready to read it.

He was obviously very taken with his character, a mistreated woman who tries to get her own back. If only that passion for character were enough to get the rest of us published. Or are we just not quite sufficiently mad about ours?

Defining Poets

I went to Simon Armitage’s lecture on Bob Dylan’s Nobel for ‘creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’ He assessed Dylan’s lyrics as less-than-spectacular poetry. But perhaps, he suggested,

Brick house on the Wye River
Would I get more writing done in this house, or would the river lure me constantly away?

Dylan’s ability to reinvent himself, his individual language and spontaneity, were a liberating influence. ‘The problem with sticking it to the man,’ Armitage remarked, ‘is that the more successful you become at it, the more you are the man.’

For the final evening in Hay I listened to a reading of WWI poet Wilfred Owen’s letters and work, stunningly presented by festival founder Peter Florence. I had no idea how raw and ahead-of-his time these were. And Owen underwent such a transformation. Initially he wrote to his mother that he didn’t wish to go to war, that he could serve the country better alive than dead, thanks to the spring of verse welling within. In the end he insisted he return to the front even after a head injury because the war made him a true poet.

Grand facade of the Richard Booth bookshop
Books from around the world! I bought a maths one to bring home to my son, about ancient counting systems and the concept of infinity.

It’s sad in a way, that he was right, that he is known as a ‘War Poet.’ But it was an incredibly important role. It makes me wonder what makes us artists. Is it our art’s substance (which largely is foisted upon us; the residue of past experience or that ‘inner voice’ appearing from nowhere) or the form we work to give it?

Look at Hay, though. A beautiful, hill-guarded town with lots of old streets intact and the Wye alongside it—yet it’s reinvented itself as a book and festival town, and that’s what brings most of us there. I seriously recommend it.

Joys of a ‘Little’ Festival

This Week’s Bit of String: Voices from the back of the bus

When I’m late for the more pleasant 65 bus home from work, I have to take the 61. Along with having a less scenic route, the 61 tends to attract drunk men. It’s a popular mode of transport with students as well, which doesn’t bother me—but seems to offend the aforementioned drunk men.

One evening on the 61, I read my book while the young adults from the special needs college laughed loudly and exchanged jibes in the back. Suddenly the man in front of me, so drenched in spirits he smelled medicinal, started shouting at them.

‘Shut your mouths! Didn’t your mums teach you to keep quiet on buses?’

I can’t imagine what he expected quiet for; it was five in the afternoon, not exactly bedtime, and he didn’t appear to be revising for a PhD or anything. The kids were subdued and rather frightened by his tirade, and I guess I was too, because I couldn’t bring myself to say anything in their defence. No one else did either.

Fast forward a month, add the resurgence of an old middle-of-the-night idea, and my turbulent brain managed to toss ashore a short story about a similar bus incident, this time witnessed by a retired woman who then recruits her friends to counteract such unmannerly behaviour using surprising and rather humorous methods.

The nice thing about being a writer is that even though we have shy and retiring moments, our voices surface later. And sometimes, eventually, they even get heard. I had fortunately been invited by John Holland, curator of Stroud Short Stories, to participate in a short story panel at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on the 21st of April. It would be the perfect opportunity to remedy (if in a delayed and fictional sense) my shameful silence on the 61.

Giving Voice

Chalk directions into the schoolhouse for the Festival.
I loved the chalk signs welcoming us to the Festival.

Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival—known as HULitFest—is remarkable for recognising voices which other Festivals brush over. For example, last year its founder, Debbie Young, hosted a super-relevant talk on writing about disability and illness, by people with firsthand experience. I blogged about it here.

This year, I attended more panels, populated by independent and self-published authors who might be ignored at larger events. One was ‘Writing Your Passion,’ made up of six writers on subject matter unyielding to broader market demands. Yet their devotion to their work and the originality of their concepts had me pretty convinced.

Peter Lay cowrote a book on life lessons and philosophy, with a Chinese friend. The beautiful book they created is printed with English and Chinese on each page. Bill Fairney has written several volumes on his varied but very specific interests. One example is his fabulously titled Fifty Shades of Yarg, the story of the Cornish cheese (written as Will Fenn). Lynne Pardoe’s books are based on her unique experiences as a social worker. She was determined to show the happy endings she got to see as well as the hard realities. Jann Tracy wrote a painstakingly researched biography of Marie Corelli, a bestselling 19th century novelist who was pivotal in preserving Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon—but is largely forgotten now.

Books purchased from Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival.
Haul from HULitFest–so far! More to be purchased in time. Love the bags they give out, too.

The final member of this panel, Jacci Gooding, writes primarily horror stories, which isn’t usually my genre, but she spoke with such fantastic wit that I became an instant fan. She observed, ‘People are weird. We like weird. Takes us out of our day jobs.’

For me, these quirky stories make HULitFest special. There’s no charge for the talks or readings; they want you to buy the authors’ books instead. Not many festivals or bookshops offer stories about cheese, about forgotten female figures, or from authors like Gooding who describes inspiration for one of her scary book covers thus: ‘I was looking at my hen, and I thought, “If I lay down in front of her, she’d eat me.”’

Really, other booksellers should give all these a go. What’s not to like?

Showcasing the Whole Writer

Another unique strength of HULitFest is its art exhibit. Most of the pieces displayed in the town’s Methodist Church as part of the Festival were drawn, stitched, photographed or otherwise created by the very authors featured in the talks and selling their books in the school gymnasium.

Stained glass window in a wedge of ceiling
Window in the Methodist Church, where the Art Exhibit is held.

In addition to showcasing formidable talents, the art exhibit gives festival goers additional insight to the writing mind. What inspires, calms, or haunts the authors, conveyed here in different form. Ellie Stevenson, another writer on the short story panel, displayed gorgeous photographs. Not surprising, perhaps, that the author of such original tales as ‘Watching Charlotte Bronte Die’ has a great eye for snapshots. But it is an aspect we don’t always get to see about writers.

Finally, the smaller (but popular and growing!) size of HULitFest allows festivalgoers to mingle with the authors; while we buy their books, picnic together, wander the town. If you have timid moments as I sometimes do, it’s quite motivating to experience this accessibility. And I did enjoy airing my tale that originated on the 61 bus, and seeing the audience enjoy the imaginary outcome. Maybe next time I’ll have more confidence to make that fiction real.

Do you use stories to make up for lost chances or stifled moments? What events have you encountered that help bring out unheard voices?