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?

Not This Crude Matter

This Week’s Bit of String: A Prickly Tribute

The Clifton Suspension Bridge stands 245 feet above the Avon Gorge. Its piers are an additional 86 feet high, spiking the boundary between the elegant shops and houses and the rugged cliffs. We visited in cold sunlight this week, and took lots of striking pictures. But I keep going back to a photo of a cactus in a plastic pot, placed in a viewing platform corner.

View across the suspension bridge to the cliffs.
Impressive, right?

It was left next to a bouquet of alstroemerias, fleshy pink and still unwilted, a memorial of sorts. Although the bridge is walled and postered with suicide helpline numbers, desperate people will find a way to make the jump.

I’m picturing a surviving family member or partner or friend, piloting through shock at a Lidl supermarket, and grabbing the cactus. Maybe they wanted something hardy. Maybe flowers just wouldn’t do their lost loved one justice.

Cactus left by pier base.
Intriguing, right?

Often it’s a small, unexpected detail that triggers a short story, and not a big, well-known structure. But my focus has been on quite big things, so this was my first short story idea in a few months.

Last week I talked about rekindling a broader vision and protecting our creativity from the ravages of stress by reading more, and writing three thoughts each day. I’ve managed to do that, and my cactus find was just one thing sprouting in my notebook.

A Thicket of Thoughts

Inspiration is a hardier perennial than we realise, and it self-pollinates. I was so excited to remember I’m capable of having ideas, I went and found some more.

It’s not that I wasn’t having thoughts before. There were vicious novel edits, and my day job takes a fair bit of mental agility. Parenting and relationships require constant consideration. (Shout-out to stay-at-home artist parents because that strains creativity too.) Thoughts are tracks leading from A to B, though, whereas ideas lead to destinations unknown. When we’re always thinking, consumed by purpose, we lose imagination’s spontaneous joy.

As writers, we have an extra career. Every time we lift a pen or open a laptop, we envision our target audience and, you know, target them. I’ve always eschewed journalling as unmarketable and therefore unuseful. This argument becomes more persuasive the less time you have.

So taking time at the end of a full working/ parenting/ editing day to jot in a notebook is a big deal. And I’m enjoying it. It heightens my awareness during the day, because I’m looking for things to write down. On Friday I had to work through lunch, but during a loo break I found myself inventing collective nouns for our trickiest multi-site clients, and returned to my desk with a grin.

The Luminous Beings Project

Forcing myself to reflect allowed me to better process what I read and learned.

I went to a presentation on occupied Palestinian territories, held at a local church. It raised money for the Olive Tree Project, which sponsors plantings for agricultural workers who can’t get to their old farmland due to Israeli checkpoints and settlements. This gave me much to consider, as I’m from a culture extremely supportive of the Israeli government.

I read through the latest volume of the online publication Cabinet of Heed. Pop open a drawer here. I especially recommend Mary Grimm’s “When We Lived in the Mall.” Her description of bedding down in a bookstore earned a place in my Book Quotes notebook.

Christmas tree ornaments: Santa bell, Yoda, Chewbacca, snowflake, fuzzy reindeer
Of course we have Star Wars figures among the cherished family ornaments on our tree.

It was a busy week of festive activities. I observed a younger family through their little bow-tied 8-year-old’s first piano solo in a community concert, and listened to support workers chat as they wheeled elderly people past a poppy-festooned tree at a Christmas Tree Festival. I fit in novel edits too (I’m now over 20% through the novel, and have already excised 35K, which is almost half my word-cutting target, so that’s…promising).

With all this going on, I didn’t do much overtime this week. Sure, I’m way behind, but building up an artistic life to rival the office one helps me let that go. Listening to Christmas music when hiking to and from the office resets my brain a little. Here’s a favourite, beautiful Israeli lullaby “Elohai N’Tsoar” from Pink Martini’s Christmas CD.

Of course, there’s no complete cure for work stress. I just woke from an awful nightmare about the office. I found myself on two phone calls at once, an angry developer who did not know her maritime alphabet and was shouting random words to spell out the business name (“Suck! Cup!”) on one line, with a mega-meter-mixup on the other. And I needed to search our system for notes on either client, but the office was a huge kitchen, with the phones on the worktop and no computers in sight, only massive tubs of ingredients.

Where’s the system?” I asked my colleagues. “You know, like the Internet, where we…find things?

They brought me a vat of corn syrup. “Here, you find this in everything. Especially where you’re from, in America.

I know you find this in things, but we don’t find things in it. Guys, come on…

Wicked stressful. But I woke up so terrified by how wrong things were going in that office, it ensured I was distracting myself with my second job by 6:15 on a Sunday morning. Winning.

This project is about, as I mentioned earlier, rivalling the day job and other stresses since we can’t eliminate it. Enriching ourselves beyond the practical. Because I’m completely un-snobby about what stories I take in, I’ve been watching all the Star Wars films with my family before the new Episode 9 hits cinemas. Watching The Empire Strikes Back the other night, I was struck by Yoda’s line: “Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.”

Folks, we have a project name. I hope you’ve found ideas to derail your thought tracks this week, and I hope you glow with pride at each inspiration snatched from the chaos.

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?

The Persistence of Birds

This Week’s Bit of String: Trying to catch fish

I encountered a heron at the canal yesterday. First he was opposite me, silver-grey shoulders down and white neck straight, alert to passing humans rather than fish. He took off as I neared, his wings so great only a few ponderous beats made him disappear.

Then I saw him further on, bringing his sharp yellow beak close enough to the water to kiss his reflection. But something put him off—the cat stalking blackbirds on the bank behind him, perhaps, or the mandarin duck couple landing on the water.

The heron swooped across the canal and stationed himself on the riverbank instead. I watched him creep closer on his stick-thin legs, and lean down to check for fish. Then I pushed myself on for a couple of miles before work, wondering if the cyclists who soon passed me scared the heron off again with no breakfast.

Hurrying back I found myself right next to the heron. He’d decided, for some reason, to take a canal spot by the path but couldn’t tear his gaze from his surroundings long enough to lower his beak into the water.

He was too distracted by fear of predators to catch his own prey, and I wondered if we’re the same sometimes. Do we take risks for gains but end up so crippled by fear that we can’t act on our plans?

The Paralysis

Pulling together a successful writing career requires gripping several threads at once:

We have to actually write decent stuff (and it’s wicked hard).

We have to learn how to write decent stuff by reading decent stuff (which can be dangerously addictive).

We have to remind people on social media that we’re writing decent stuff, and we want to be decent human beings too, so we’ll spend time supporting other people who are writing decent stuff (and there’s some very decent writerly stuff out there, so this can be addictive too).

Finally, we have to get our decent stuff published or broadcast or featured somewhere, preferably on a semi-regular basis. This means scouring publications and, again, social media for competitions and literary magazines. It means querying agents and familiarising ourselves with rejection.

A lot of us handle all this while raising a family and working a full-time job. It gets seriously overwhelming. There are moments when I find myself motionless, apart from my eyes flicking down the Facebook or Twitter feed, watching other writers claim success while feeling as if I don’t dare lower my beak and take a brash snap at a fleeting competition deadline.

The Perch

This week I made a longlist but got no further, while seemingly everyone I know swooped to greater heights. I scanned the short list but caught nothing. I said ‘fuck’ several times under my breath. I got on with my day at the office but felt frozen inside.

Then ideas started swimming past. I reminded myself to move, to seek new vantage points and new submission opportunities. To catch something, we have to dip our beaks. We have to stop reading everyone else’s elated Twitter reactions (but Like them anyway, because we’re decent human beings after all).

Brave, brave Sir Robin

I went for a walk in the local park, searching for ducklings to cheer me up. I didn’t find any cute flufflets that day, but I did spot a one-legged pigeon hobbling around to the grudging admiration of some black-clad teenagers. And I saw a robin in a monkey puzzle tree.

I suppose if you’re quite small, big spikes don’t matter. I couldn’t see the robin’s feet, but I could see his proudly puffed rusty chest and sharply aware black eyes. I imagined his skinny toes curled around individual monkey puzzle thorns.

So it’s time to remember that having to start over brings the privilege of choosing a new path. There are plenty of spots to try, plenty of fish for us all to catch—all we have to do is dive.

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?

Changing It Up

This Week’s Bit of String: New brake pads

The only car I ever bought was a used Ford Contour, back in New Hampshire (in Britain the model is called the Mondeo). I named her Shellby, inspired by her pearlescent sandy colour. But despite her shimmering finish, she was, to quote Stephen Moffat’s show Coupling, “a buffet of improvability.”

I had to get Shellby new brake pads in the middle of a spectacularly cold winter. Secretly I hoped that while ensuring I could actually stop my car, the garage might happen to fix other things: the door that didn’t open, the window that didn’t close, the inability to play music out of both speakers or get more than fifty miles on a tank if I put the heating on in 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

Post-blizzard car, with snow almost to the top of the hood/ bonnet.
Poor old Shellby. I guess I can’t blame her for getting broken by winters like this.

Of course, new brake pads meant new brake pads and nothing more. But I still like to imagine fixing one thing will magically repair everything else. I go to the doctor hoping that getting rid of my third crippling cough in half a year will also disappear the side pain I wake up with every morning and the way the bones in my big toe don’t seem to fit together correctly anymore.

Changing the Story

When we churn out a story, I think we usually sense whether it works or not. Often it doesn’t, and while we can tell what’s wrong with it, we aren’t sure how to fix it. If we knew we would have written it better in the first place, right?

It would be nice if we could fix it by deleting or inserting a single element. But a story is (or should be) a tight conglomeration. Characters, plot, setting, theme, voice, everything wind intricately together, interdependent. It’s not like a car or a body where yes, it’s ideal if it all works together, but different bits do carry out different functions.

A story should be streamlined, speeding straight for the heart.

So when something’s wrong, it’s hard to fix without having to unpick everything else too, and that’s overwhelming. It’s cruel enough making us cut bits out; having to invent completely new bits is nearly beyond the pale. Recently one of my stories was rejected from a magazine, with the feedback that it was very well-written and engrossing—until the end. Put a twist in it, the editor said.

But the whole story is a twist, I thought. The point of view is a twist. I wondered if I could sneak a few sentences in here and there, a couple of details to emphasise the protagonist’s transformation.

I can’t shake the worry that something more fundamental is missing, so although I was proud of the story and the successes it had already, I haven’t found the courage—or time—to revisit it.

Change in Routine

My husband’s taken over the ironing recently, leaving me a bit of time on my hands—and, even better, more headspace. When I was ironing, I’d watch videos to entertain myself. Then I’d sit and finish watching whatever I’d started, sometimes for an hour. Now, instead of turning on YouTube, I write. I’m averaging 2-3 novel pages per day.

Wading in a New Hampshire river.
A clear river or lake, as everyone knows, Is the correct place for the bones in your toes.

Once you realise you can write between two and three pages each day while keeping your family relatively occupied and working full-time and even with your toe bones in the wrong place, then you might believe you can write three pages every day. Or maybe three-and-a-half. Or four, each day!

I’ve glimpsed these horizons before, when I wrote earlier in the year about developing writing habits, thanks to Writers HQ. But back then I still had to do all the ironing. The possibilities now are endless. Knowing my brain works well enough to churn out novel pages makes me think I might have it in me even to tackle that allegedly flat-endinged story of mine.

No Change Too Small

Graffiti on a back door in Bristol: "I hope, therefore I am."
Bristol back-door wisdom

I just finished Rebecca Solnit’s glorious little volume, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. She reminds us that a movement unsuccessful in one part of the world can inspire one elsewhere that manages greater impact. Or a failed historical effort can germinate later and take root. By fighting for one thing, we never know what others will be affected.

Bearing in mind how all things could relate to absolutely anything else and remembering that uncertainty means potential rather than chaos, I can revisit my rejected story. “People have always been good at imagining the end of the world, which is much easier to picture than the strange sidelong paths of change in a world without end,” observes Solnit. Maybe I’ve been too hasty concluding some stories, and I should explore additional What Ifs.

There’s a necessary balance between preparedness to take on big changes, and contentment with recognising small ones. Whether we’re trying to improve a story, juggle work and family more smoothly, or take on the whole world as activists, we must continue our efforts whether we see obvious results or not. Solnit warns us against striving for perfection. “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible.” So even without a definite improved ending in mind, I could tinker with a few lines as I’ve already reconsidered, and ideas for more effective changes may follow.

Have you discovered any magic fixes for stories (or life)? What’s your method for coping with the times when no miracle appears? Sometimes changing one thing leads to other things falling in place. Celebrate the small victories, people; we never know where they’ll lead.

 

 

Believing What We Read

This Week’s Bit of String: Dinner with the minister

Quite a few years ago we had dinner at a Southern Baptist pastor’s house. I’d met his family at a New England playground when our son was little, and as they’d recently arrived from South Carolina attempting to reform us heathen Yankees, they were very friendly and keen to get our kids together.

‘He’s a pastor,’ I informed my British husband before introducing him. ‘Just bear that in mind.’

During the meal, the two men chatted merrily. The minister asked my husband about his physics studies, and eventually followed up with, ‘So do you believe in evolution?’

My husband laughed, leaning back in his chair. ‘Well, I don’t know anyone who believes in creation!’

‘Ah do,’ drawled the pastor calmly.

‘Do you?’ my husband asked me, visibly shaken to his core.

I shrugged. I was raised to, certainly, but in the midst of all the other issues and debates raging through life, I’d never found that one to be a battle worth fighting.

Old Premise, New Ideas

Is it so very important where we come from? I mean, to an extent it is. There’s a lot to learn about more recent history (post-Big Bang or Creation or what have you) that better informs our view of the world and of humanity. But I bumble along in my explorations happily resigned to uncertainty regarding the world’s origin story.

On a mental level, I see the logic of the Big Bang Theory. But the creation story still fascinates me.

Sculpture of a woman embracing a globe
Mother of all…

I’m working on a new novel, starring and told by Eve—‘mother of all the living.’ What would it be like, acting as the prototype for 50% of an entire species? How would she learn to be a woman when no other women were around (and not many men either)?

I’m scribbling the early chapters, as well as researching at the moment. I haven’t read a lot around this issue. I’m planning to read Paradise Lost, and look at the Apocrypha as well. So far, I just keep reading the first chapters of Genesis. And honestly, it’s intriguing.

I’m sure to many, the Biblical idea of Intelligent Design sounds overbearing and rigid. But each verse poses huge questions and leaves much to the imagination.

For example, after Eve and Adam took the forbidden fruit, God clothed them in animal skins. How? Was this the first animal slaughter? Could it, further, have been an animal they’d loved in that place of peace?

Eve is never named in that account until after being cursed by God and exiled from Eden. She’s called ‘the woman,’ or ‘Adam’s wife’ up till then. That’s cold. Why?

Then again, considering Adam’s name simply means man, and according to the story there were no other men or women around, I guess they wouldn’t have needed to call each other anything else.

Factual Truth Versus Character Truth

So I’m researching, and questioning, and daydreaming. Not because I intend to find out exactly what happened in the first days of earth, but because it’s fun to imagine.

Isn’t it, in a way, more exciting not to know or worry about whether a book’s premise is true? Hogwarts probably doesn’t exist, and when you think about it, a ring holding dominion over all Middle Earth is somewhat bizarre. But we love finding out how characters—people rather like us—might react in such inventive scenarios.

Bristol Cathedral interior
And we can marvel at the beauty of something without sharing in the faith it represents.

It’s not exactly difficult to imagine a woman breaking a rule—she’s sure she’s only bending it a little—in order to gain some equal footing. So what if it takes place in a garden paradise that’s just appeared out of nowhere, with angels strolling and demons lurking? I feel I can still inject plausibility into her plight.

I think there’s a vital difference between believing a book and believing in a book. It’s the difference between veracity and value; the hierarchical inferiority of situation to character. Aren’t we capable of savouring a protagonist’s authenticity without completely swallowing their circumstances?

I keep going back to this quote from Yann Martel’s eponymous character in Life of Pi: ‘If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn’t love hard to believe?’

I’m not putting my trust in the words of Genesis. But it draws me in and I accept its story, the same way I accept a John Irving story or a Joanne Harris one. Fiction writers tell the truth of their characters, and I’m prepared to believe them. Tell me a character, Biblical or otherwise, did such-and-such: fine, I’ll play along. I’ll ponder why, and to what effect.

Do you find it necessary to establish the complete veracity of a book in order to get involved? What makes a story more or less believable—how happy are you to fill in the gaps?

2017 Reading Round-Up

I read fifty books this year. I had to, because it was the target I set on Goodreads, and we mustn’t fail targets. I’m setting a lower target for next year, though, for reasons I shall elaborate on in a later post.

Among those fifty, there were quite a few to which I awarded five stars. More than ten, certainly. So to distinguish between a great (5-star) book and one that’s nudged onto this list, I’ve used here the ones that absolutely thrilled me.

I don’t mean in terms of suspense (well, not just that). I mean the emotion and linguistic skill and plotting electrified me with every page. Read on, enjoy my very favourite quotes, and take note for future reading lists!

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood: Shiver-worthy dystopian read of my year

I chose the final book from the Oryx and Crake trilogy for its exploration of the storyteller’s role in a culture. Each sentence reveals volumes about Atwood’s imagined dystopia, a world controlled by corpocracies. For example, this was published in 2013 but references a border wall keeping refugees from climate-ravaged Texas out of the other states. Oh, the irony.

‘Is that what writing amounts to? The voice your ghost would have, if it had a voice?’

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers: Wince-for-the-protagonist book of my year

Our hero, Alan flounders in his foreign setting, but he knows some good jokes, and loves his daughter so much, I rooted desperately for him. Presented in short, snappy segments, it’s almost as if the whole book is an attempted letter from Alan to his daughter, with bits of story interrupting. Perhaps that’s how Alan sees life, and it’s causing him to come undone.

‘It becomes a process of choosing the one or two people you try hardest not to disappoint. The person in my life I am determined not to disappoint is you.’

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson: Laugh-aloud book of my year

I first encountered Lawson’s fantastic sense of humour and (mis)adventure a few years ago through her blog post about the Bear’s Head. I especially admire her for the joy she derives from her quirky family, talking dead squirrels and all.

‘This must be what love is. When you want to make it less difficult for someone to murder you.’

A Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin: Edifying nonfiction read of my year

Riverbank by a waterfall
A new job in 2017 meant finding new places–and time slots–to read and write. My favourite, here, on the River Frome (also known as Stroudwater).

Goodwin’s research makes the already-known sad ending all the more poignant by including the grief of those closest to Lincoln (even the ones there reluctantly) and also by offering evidence that Reconstruction and civil rights issues could have been less painful under his continued guidance.

‘A government had better to go to the very extreme of toleration, than to do aught that could be construed into an interference with, or to jeopardise in any degree, the common rights of its citizens.’ —Abraham Lincoln, quoted in Goodwin’s book. (The founder of the Republican party, ladies and gentlemen.)

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Most redemptive characters read this year

Some found this hard to finish because they found the characters unappealing. But they resonated with me because no matter what mad, reckless things they did, they were just seeking approval. The central family moves from feeling that obligation is a symptom of attachment, to understanding that freedom is a required preexisting condition for genuine love.

‘Compliments were like a beverage she was unconsciously smart enough to deny herself even one drop of, because her thirst for them was infinite.’

Human Acts by Han King: Shock and awe book of my year

Did you know there was a terrible massacre in the Gwangju Province of South Korea in 1980, perpetrated by the government? Neither did I, until I read this. A book so engrossing I didn’t want to put it down, so sad I had to pause my reading while on holiday, yet so haunting I couldn’t cheat on it with any other story.

‘Conscience, the most terrifying thing in the world…I remember feeling that it was all right to die; I felt the blood of one hundred thousand hearts surging together into one enormous artery, fresh and clean…I dared to feel a part of it.’

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters: Dread-the-ending book of my year

Reading this, I was almost physically sick with fear that things wouldn’t work out for Waters’ heroines falling in love with each other in the early ‘20s. But as with Fingersmith, she didn’t let me down. She recreates the ravages of a love affair as vividly as she does the tragedies and minutiae of history.

‘Would it be all right, wondered Frances, if they were to allow themselves to be happy? Wouldn’t it be a sort of insult to all those others who had been harmed? Or oughtn’t they to do all they could—didn’t they almost have a duty—to make one small brave thing happen at last?’

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer: Sweeping epic read of my year

Epic? Should I really be comparing tales of a relatively privileged American family in NYC to something like Lord of the Rings? Well, I find the daily struggles for meaning and validation to be quite stirring, especially against an imagined (for how long?) backdrop of all-out war in Israel and the Middle East. Foer plays these parallels off each other expertly.

Mural of the countryside, inspired by Cider With Rosie
Mural in the Stroud Library in honour of local author Laurie Lee. Another recently discovered reading spot.

‘And the inexplicable, unreasonable, illogical emotions and behaviour of parents can be explained, by having had to believe for the better part of a year [leading up to the birth]. Parents don’t have the luxury of being reasonable, not any more than a religious person does. What can make religious people and parents so utterly insufferable is also what makes religion and parenthood so utterly beautiful: the all-or-nothing wager. The faith.’

The Help by Kathryn Stockett: Top inspirational read of my year

We all need the occasional reminder that courage and unity are powerful, that women from all skin colours and walks of life can initiate change when we come together, and that telling your story, or writing someone else’s down on their behalf if needed, can make a difference. This was a perfect reminder of that for my 2018.

‘And then she say it, just like I need her to. “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”’

The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving: Evangelistic read of my year

The one I HAVE to tell everyone about.
From the title of the first chapter (‘A Bear Called State o’ Maine’) I was hopelessly in love. Irving’s imagination is wild, shoving the quirkiest characters in the most unexpected directions. But somehow, it all comes together as every little detail, no matter how goofy it once seemed, becomes wholly relevant by the end.

‘”Being a star is easier,” Fanny would say. “You just be relaxed and hope that the you in you comes across.” For a writer, I guess, the you in you needs more nourishment to emerge.’

What were your favourite reads from the past year?

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?