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 the 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?

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.

Kindling Magic

This Week’s Bit of String: Phoenixes and falcons

Last weekend we took my son and his girlfriend, wearing Hogwarts t-shirts, on the Harry Potter tour at Warner Bros’ Leavesden studio. Several younger kids in the queue sported head-to-toe Gryffindor robes, one boy of maybe seven years old wearing Harry-style glasses as well, and humming John Williams’ Hedwig’s Theme on repeat.

Among fans, then. I was tickled too by a couple in their fifties, scampering around the outdoor sets and giggling while they waited their turn for photo ops. ‘Look at that,’ marvelled the man, peering through the back door of the Knight Bus. ‘You can see the beds, and all!’

Inside the creature workshop, the woman squealed and pointed at the display case where Fawkes stands regally. ‘It’s that falcon! From the headteacher’s office.’Fawkes the phoenix in his display case

So I got the impression these two fans hadn’t read the books. But they were no less enchanted by the story, perhaps enticed by the added celebrity sparkle of the film studio.

What’s the precise magic of a franchise that enlivens so many people, whether encountered on page, on screen, or in a bright-plumed animatronic bird? Different factors might appeal more to one fan than the next, but I believe even we non-fantasy writers can replicate some of this alchemy.

Harry Potter and the Approval of Twitter

I checked in with Twitter about the boy wizard’s appeal. Susan Macdonald cites the series’ ‘good characters.’ Definitely; they’re vivid, varied, and complete with fully-drawn, engaging background.

I posed with the trolley going through the wall at Platform 9 and 3/4.
‘Best take it at a bit of a run if you’re nervous.’

Lia, who tweets as @LiaTheBookBat, loves the parallel universe JK Rowling illustrates, and the possibility of ‘impossible things fuelled by magic.’ I agree the juxtaposition is intriguing: relatable characters and specific, just slightly altered details make the wizarding world seem ever so close.

Thriller writer LV Matthews (@LV_Matthews) notes that the ‘good overcoming evil story’ is especially relevant ‘in this crazy world.’ Certainly, Rowling pulls off this epic theme very well, examining different reasons people are attracted to good or evil, confronting friction between different members of the ‘good’ side, and even forcing the protagonist to question whether he himself might have evil tendencies.

Harry Potter and the Recipe for Enchantment

Personally, I was struck by how walking around the full model of Hogwarts felt like coming home. The first view of those turrets and spires, and I might have been Harry or Hagrid or even Tom Riddle, recognising a beloved place.

Hogwarts model
My son reckons this model is about 1/8 the size of the ‘real’ Hogwarts. It was truly stunning.

Strong emotion passed on from characters to readers: that’s the real magic here. Such deep empathy, whether for fictional or nonfictional people—that’s magic, and a mighty, unifying force.

Anyone following this blog since its launch in the wake of the USA’s 2016 presidential election will know creating that kind of magic is my favourite part of writing and reading. But there’s a lot involved in achieving this. All the factors above were instrumental in JK Rowling’s success with it, plus one more overarching element.

Even more than Hogwarts, the part of the tour that moved me most was Platform 9 and 3/4. Toward the back of the train, a car was open to show two different scenes. One end depicted Harry’s first ride on the Hogwarts Express, while the other showed the series’ final scene, ‘Nineteen Years Later.’

At its roots the Harry Potter series is a Cinderella story, Hagrid showing up on Harry’s eleventh birthday like a Hairy Godmother. (Or something.) Watching Harry’s journey, painful though it is at times, gives us hope, as referenced by my Twitter acquaintances.Dummies of Harry and Ron in the Hogwarts Express with various goodies from the trolley.Dummies of Ginny, Harry, Hermione, and Ron, 19 years later.His story lets us believe that however ordinary-looking, however put down we may be even by the very people meant to care for us, it’s not out of the question that in some alternate realm we are renowned, and we may prove ourselves worthy. Hope liberates our empathy—right or wrong, it’s easier to feel for someone who has an inkling of a chance.

(Side note: JK Rowling didn’t achieve the same heights with The Casual Vacancy, maybe because this essential ingredient was omitted. The characters were wide-ranging and believably flawed, but offered very little hope.)

So we are drawn in, enticed by clever touches like owls and wands, encouraged by The Boy Who Lived until we’ve fallen as hard as if we’ve eaten a box of Romilda Vane’s chocolates. In our own writing, it’s worth remembering the mixture of minor detail, promise of redemption, and characters that inspire deep, true feeling. What would you add to the potion?Quote from the Marauders Map on the walls of the studio entryway.

 

Stories on Buses

This Week’s Bit of String: Stagecoach Route 65

If you’re going to commute to work on rural buses, you need a bus buddy, or at the very least a placeholder.

I have a placeholder for my morning commute. She’s in Year 11, and we’re going to call her Ella. When I approach the bus stop in an inevitable rush, she’s already there. Through the hedges I see her bleach blond hair and baby blue hoodie over her tight-winched school uniform and I know I’m safe. The bus hasn’t been five or six minutes early instead of the three or four I make sure to give myself.

We don’t generally speak. We listen to our headphones and make polite, wordless gestures insisting the other board the bus first.

This is normal, of course, not speaking to strangers. Maintaining boundaries, erring on the side of giving extra distance because this seems more polite. Last week I posted about eliminating distance in our writing, about creating immediacy and manoeuvring the characters as close as we can to the readers. How often do we try, these days, to eliminate distance in real life? And is this a good thing, that we allow them to exist?

Case History

Here’s the thing with Ella. I’ve known her since she was in Year 2; I know her family. Not well, mind, but a few pages’ worth of stories out of her autobiography.

She was the first girl to have a crush on my son. She drew a little love note. I remember her standing near us at pick-up and drop-off times, watching, hopeful and expectant with an open-mouthed half-smile.

Hilly sunrise view from the bus stop
View over the hills from the morning bus stop

A couple years later I got a job at a nursing home where Ella’s mother was a Senior Carer. She did night shifts, and we hated starting a day after she’d been on duty. Oh, she could give sound updates at handover, but she did very little overnight to physically assist any residents.

Later, when I worked in the local comprehensive, I helped in Ella’s registration group, from when she was in Year 7, to her Media Studies GCSE class in Year 10. Her attendance was spotty. She didn’t speak much in registration, but detentions added up. Her uniform was never acceptable. She changed schools before the end of Year 10.

Hence her 40-minute, £4 bus ride every morning.

We acknowledge none of this. I don’t know if she remembers the love note she sent my son, or if she knows I worked with her mother. Maybe she’s reinvented herself at her new school and doesn’t wish to remember the old. Would we find it less necessary to maintain a respectful distance if we didn’t have that tiny bit of history?

In the last couple weeks she’s taken to fitting a cigarette in before the bus comes. The other day I saw her setting off from our last stop with a grown man who had kids of his own in tow, and I recognised Ella’s hopeful half-smile.

Going the Distance

We’ve heard about different cultural interpretations of personal space. People from certain countries might be more comfortable with closer approaches, even from strangers, that a lot of us Westerners are.

This discomfort seems to be linked to the amygdala, part of the brain relating to emotional responses, survival instinct, and memory. Tests show amygdala activity spiking when someone approaches too close, probably reflecting a deep-rooted warning system for potential danger.

On buses, though, we can’t avoid proximity. Just having a stranger in the seat behind and in front of us is closer than our amygdala would normally tolerate.

Maybe that’s why we use books and phones so prodigiously on buses and in other crowded scenarios, as this article suggests. We’re subconsciously putting up emotional barriers since we can’t put up physical ones.

The 17:25 Bus Alliance

My commute home in the evening is different. An elderly gentleman on the 17:25 Stroud to Dursley Stagecoach service has rocked the barriers we unwittingly put up.

It started with the odd comment from him: ‘Still reading that book, then?’ ‘Oh, you’ve got a different one today!’

Then he suggested charity shops where I might find more books. He

Pink umbrella floating in a drainage canal near the bus station
Umbrella caught near the bus station. I wonder who finally gave it freedom.

shouted the bus driver to a stop when he saw me running for it after lingering too long after work. I’m not the only one he looks after; if the young man with the red sweatshirt and impressive moustache doesn’t turn up for the 17:25, he gets a ribbing the next day, as do I if I’ve found alternative transport.

‘Where was you yesterday? You skived!’

‘My family met me for dinner and gave me a ride back,’ I tell him.

‘What’s this? But we were starving, you should have brought us along, too!’ The old man indicates himself and young Mr. Red Sweatshirt.

One day the weather attempted a semblance of warmth. Our elderly friend stepped onto the bus and scanned the group. ‘Where’s the other fellow? Can’t leave without him.’

Mr. Red Sweatshirt had removed his jumper. ‘He’s in disguise,’ I explained.

‘You almost had me there!’ More jolly banter ensued.

I don’t know their names, I don’t even know what they go to Stroud for. I’ve learned that the elderly gentleman likes to write little rhymes that publicise services on behalf of local doctor’s surgeries, and sometimes it even gets him in the paper. A part of me wants to know his story, but mostly I like him as he is, on the 17:25 Stagecoach 65 bus, and I’m reluctant to follow the string or turn the page in his tale.

Or am I just being lazy? I do get tired, especially by the end of the week. Friday afternoon I kept nodding off, finally giving up on the pages I was editing. At the penultimate stop, while the driver had a stretch, a smoke, and a fiddle with his phone, the old gentleman laboured from his seat and, gripping each available handlebar, walked back to see me.

‘Not reading today?’ His eyes are deep, almost fluid brown.

‘I’m just so tired.’

‘Never mind, you’ll soon be home. But you won’t put your feet up there, will you?’

‘Not exactly.’ I had a treadmill run to do, the dusting, washing up, two loads of laundry…

‘You rest for now, and I’ll make sure you’re awake before your stop.’

I’m glad he had the courage to disregard our distances, since I wouldn’t have done. Do you think we miss out sometimes by abiding by common etiquette? Should we try taking a few steps closer to each other and see what we can get away with?