2023 Reading Round-Up

I read 32 books in 2024. I’d love it if I’d had more reading time, but often when I set a high reading goal for the year, it makes reading feel stressful. I’m rushing to finish a book when really, I should be enjoying it. So, no regrets!

Here are my top reads from the year, and of course, my very favourite quote from each. Because I have tried over the years to savour books better, I always pause after finishing one and write down my favourite quotes.

As to how I mark the pages of my favourite quotes while I’m reading… I exercise my right of protection against self-incrimination on that.

Quote in my daily calendar for 2023

Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris
A master intrigue-builder, Harris sneaks suspense in through everyday details and seemingly idyllic settings. The setting here is a boys’ grammar school, secretly crumbling. Since I work in a school, semi-snarky descriptions of teachers and students amuse me.

“Although listening to boys is bad enough, listening to their parents is fatal.”

Cuckoo in the Nest by Fran Hill
I love Fran’s writing, particularly her hearty humour which is specific without being sharp. Her debut novel gives voice to a wonderfully insightful adolescent character entering foster care. This book is a real gift with its empathy to all characters involved.

“I could have done with help defending myself against the way Bridget would experience the emotions she thought I should be having.”

Not Quite an Ocean by Elizabeth M Castillo
Castillo deftly balances beauty and decay, peace and turmoil. Her latest volume explores womanhood through the metaphor of the ocean, inspiring us to reflect on our journey with awe and compassion. Women, the sea, what’s not to love? 

From “Who Will Hold the Ocean?” 
“Who will teach her that the darkest parts of her body are where creatures are the most boneless, and bright?
Who will dismantle the great, iron skeletons of conquest that lie rotting, eating away at her throat, and back teeth?”

Braver by Deborah Jenkins
I adore a story with a diverse cast. In some respects, this novel is as simple as a little group of people banding together to help each other out. But of course the tug of each individual’s needs pulls events into a tangle. 

“There’s the smell of grass and that scented summer air that drifts into your very soul and makes you believe in the safe familiarity of things.”

The Binding by Bridget Collins
Set in a world where books can only be made when a person is “bound,” surrendering their memory to the page. This results in all sorts of secrets and shocking twists. It’s also an incredibly moving love story. 

Summer Solstice 2023

“It makes one wonder who would write them. People who enjoy imagining misery, I suppose… People who can spend days writing a long sad lie without going insane.”

Salt Lick by Lulu Allison
This haunting epic takes place in a climate-wrought [near?] future dystopia, observed by a Shakespearean-style chorus…comprised of rewilded cows. Between flooded coasts and strict urban areas, various communities help each other and revive hope.

“We see you, boy
We see your gentle heart
Keep it carefully
It has work to do”

Game Changer by Neal Shusterman
A high school football player finds himself in an altered version of his universe every time he gets concussed. Each shift highlights issues of race, class, gender and sexuality, and raises questions. What makes us who we are–and how easily could it change?

“If life exists four hundred times smaller than we can see, it must exist four hundred times larger than we can see.”

March by Geraldine Brooks
The imaginary father of Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters in Little Women is the protagonist here. We see his part in slavery, Civil War battles, and early attempts at Reconstruction. Through him, Brooks unforgettably lays bare the national shame.

“And yet I do not think it heroic to march into fields of fire, whipped on one’s way only by fear of being called craven. Sometimes, true courage requires inaction; that one sit at home while war rages, if by doing so one satisfies the quiet voice of honourable conscience.” 

Goodrich Castle, Wales, June 2023

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Written during World War II, this novel alchemically combines some of my favourite elements: a precocious narrator passionate about writing, an eccentric family among castle ruins, class struggle, explorations of love and art. 

“‘Anyway, your father had a very distinguished forerunner. God made the universe an enigma.’
“I said, ‘And very confusing it’s been for everybody. I don’t see why Father had to copy Him.’”

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
A brilliant homage to David Copperfield transplanting Dickens’s expansive cast to coal country, western Virginia in the late 1990s/ early 2000s. It exposes the disadvantages and downright exploitation in rural areas, while also inspiring us with the resilience and compassion of many who live there.

“… Wanting to see the rest of us hurt because she was hurting–You have to wonder how much of the whole world’s turning is fueled by that very fire.”

Are any of these your favourites too, or do you have recommendations to add?

Careful Content

This Week’s Bit of String: Birthday cake beheadings

My mother was really great at baking us birthday cakes catered to our interests. I think there was a Cabbage Patch cake once and Maiden Fairhair barbie type ones, I had a Scarlett O’Hara cake in seventh grade, and with four kids in the family I can’t even remember all the other characters and critters we must have gone through.

The problem with this, of course, is that those cakes then get eaten.

One year, my dad shouted ‘Off with its head!’ as the cake was cut into, and because I got so upset about it, he made sure to do it every time after. Even now, I don’t like eating chocolate bunnies at Easter because I feel bad biting their heads.

I make strictly inanimate cakes. Like this piano for my Bear’s 18th birthday.

I absolutely can’t bear thinking about executions. I remember preparing to emigrate to the UK, I was up late packing because I couldn’t do so during the day as a working single mum, and on one of the two channels my New Hampshire TV picked up, there was a documentary about Shakespeare. It said how in his time, when someone was accused of treason, their entire family was publicly tortured to death. This seems to have happened to Shakespeare’s mother’s cousin as well.

Through the exhausting process of sorting all mine and my toddler’s belongings, through the emotional goodbyes and the harrowing paperwork, I think this was the moment when I was most hesitant about changing countries. I’m going to a place that did THAT to people?

Personal Triggers

My sensitivity about this topic has become more ingrained with time. As a senior in high school I was traumatised for weeks because I saw a black and white predecessor to The King and I in which the Tuptim character and her partner get burned at the stake. I forced myself to learn all about burnings because that was my biggest fear.

It actually took me a couple of years till I was brave enough to even light candles without thinking about hideous deaths.

I have tried a brutal, immersive approach at times, reading accounts of drawings and quarterings and whatnot. That hasn’t helped me sleep better at night. When I’m up in the small, dark hours, there are doors in my mind I have to keep closed or I’ll be too terrified of nightmares to let myself fall asleep. I have lots of ready-made furniture to pile against that mental door: memories of my Grammy, planning the meals for the week; heck, how about naming all the titles from The Baby-Sitters Club?

I have concluded that executions are something I have to give myself a permanent holiday from thinking about. Is that so wrong? Maybe it’s just chemistry, certain things can’t mix. So I artfully plan a printing mission and slip out of the GCSE English classroom during the bit in Macbeth when they go after Macduff’s family. I would certainly never dream of watching something like Game of Thrones and prodigiously avoid anything about Roman times and how they treated captives.

It could be the cruel inevitability of a planned execution that upsets me so much. The anticipation and the degradation and the helplessness. Some part of my mind may connect it to the traumas I experienced, because I couldn’t figure out how to stop those happening and they, too, carried an element of shame.

Content Warnings

To be a productive individual, there are certain topics I have to avoid. It’s tremendously helpful if there’s a content warning which guides me in that. Of course, I then need the self-discipline and self-care to act on the warning. Sometimes a warning makes me think, Ooh, I’d better try and suck up my feelings and read it anyway, what right do I have to an easy existence? But then it kind of wrecks me.

Took this picture in London. The Tyburn Tree was a gallows that could hang 24 people at once. In the 1570s alone, over 700 people were killed here, right above Hyde Park. It’s awful but I did my due diligence and researched it and didn’t freak out too much.

Content warnings are sometimes portrayed as a snowflakey, excessively woke, mollycoddling sort of thing. But there’s a strength and, again, a discipline in knowing our limits. Just because I’m unable to cope with accounts of Tudor torture or Jim Crow lynchings (and honestly, I’ve TRIED), it doesn’t mean I’m ignoring important issues of the day. Hopefully that is clear from my writing.

On a slight side note, I’m glad terminology has shifted from “trigger warning” to “content warning.” The word trigger itself could be triggering, particularly in my home country considering the dangers of gun violence.

Does it really help the world if I get into a bit of a hole and read avidly about brutal colonial punishments in the Belgian Congo, then can’t sleep for several nights and am off my game as a teaching assistant and mum? I’m not sure it does. So, as Guy Fawkes night approaches, I’ll be giving that one some berth, particularly as he may have been set up and led into the gunpowder plot. Didn’t the bloke get tortured enough; why are people celebrating his burning for centuries after? I can’t think of any other holiday which so blatantly revels in pain… Good Friday and Remembrance Day are a great deal more respectful.

Have you found certain content that you need to avoid? Or, what are your strategies for dealing with things that slip through your defences without warning?

Reading for Fun

This Week’s Bit of String: Greeks and gods, geeks and goofs

Over the smell of rained-on teen boy and Haribo (the essential sweets of bribery), I host small group reading interventions. In lower set classes, everything is read to the students. But in this group, everyone gets a turn reading, even if it takes time (and essential sweets of bribery).

I never know how things will end up; one session had me googling Jamaican swears to confirm for one boy that hey, if you think it might be a curse, don’t go round using it. I now know an extra way to say “arsewipe.” The most challenging student once threatened me.

“Miss, I hope someday you wake up and one of your toes is gone.”

Now, that made me laugh. I retorted, “If that ever happens, me and my nine remaining toes are coming after YOU.” So he left laughing as well. 

Our school, like most, has geeks and bullies and exams, but also has these trees–and particularly awesome people.

We’ve been reading Anthony McGowan’s I Am the Minotaur, in dyslexia-friendly format. It’s about a teen boy who struggles at school with bullying and at home with his mum’s depression-induced neglect. He goes on a quest to win the heart of a popular girl at school, Ariadne. 

The students can tell me about a few Greek myths they learned in junior school. A couple remember the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. Something about the myths, or about the fun, hands-on way they’re taught in primary school, remains with the students several years later.

What they really love, though, is the protagonist’s’ descriptions of his school. Kids giggle reading terms like “goths” and “geeks” and “pissed off.” Here’s a sample line: “Some big lump the size of a fridge might come up to you and then steal your phone and stamp on your face while his mates laugh like hyenas.”

My students never knew you could find those words in books.

Teaching Methods

If kids really struggle to read, they don’t experience many books. When it’s super hard for them, they don’t even get to that Magic Key series in the primary school reading scheme. They start secondary school and there aren’t many basic books, at least within my school’s budget, telling stories in which these kids recognise their lives. And there certainly isn’t time for teachers to introduce books, just for fun.

I could read at a very young age and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t become an avid reader until I was 8. It was a tough year, we’d moved to a new area and school; maybe that drove me to take solace in books. But the big change was discovering The Baby-Sitters Club. Reading about girls a few years older than me, in lives I might aspire to, was such fun. 

So good. Anne M Martin was a genius.

Any other BSC fans here? The range of protagonists (and their different handwriting!) and plots in Anne M. Martin’s books, and the cool links between the baby-sitter’s mini life crisis in each volume and her latest baby-sat client were brilliant. Sometimes when I can’t sleep I still try listing the titles in order. 

I wonder if I would have loved books so much without contemporary, relatable fiction. I was already writing before then too, quite derivative adventure stories, but without books like the Baby-Sitters Club, would I have accessed ideas that really grabbed my heart?

Relatability Versus Empathy

Of course it’s important to stretch ourselves and our students, to key them into stories about people and cultures far beyond themselves. I’m not arguing that students shouldn’t read Shakespeare or I guess (she said begrudgingly…) Golding. But when that’s all they have time to read because we’re teaching exclusively to exams, we’re downright robbing students.

The most challenging student rated the book 9 out of 10. Could it be the beginning of a beautiful friendship? Or was it the essential sweets of bribery…

Just as it’s crucial that students of colour and LGBTQIA+ students see themselves represented in our curriculum, there should be KIDS reflected in the reading material. I’m sure there are plenty of well-written books about recent youth. Patrick Ness maybe? And I won’t tolerate arguments that they’re not literary enough. We’ve got Blood Brothers on the GCSE Literature syllabus, for crying out loud, and A Christmas Carol and Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Not exactly subtle, nuanced works. 

To engage students we have to first meet them where they are, then stretch. Reading a book about recognisable characters and setting has enabled us to have lively discussions. The kids ask me what clique I’d assume they were in, and they ask if when I was growing up I had a “Stinky Mog” (Anthony McGowan’s bullied main character) at my American elementary school. We talk about the seriousness of Stinky Mog’s mum’s depression (“Depression can kill,” two different boys point out in their respective groups) and we dissect how the bullied can end up passing that cruelty down to those they perceive as weaker.

I’ve really valued those talks and I’ve liked normalising reading with kids who rarely do it. But even our Special Needs intervention groups fall prey to exam mentality; department heads have complained about students missing lessons (to practise reading!) and we’re being given less time and fewer students we’re allowed to work with. Next term, to respond to these challenges, we’ll be resorting to comprehension workbooks with brightly-coloured, cartoony covers. It saddens me thinking how slighted and demotivated our students will feel when they set eyes on them. I doubt the workbooks will encourage a love of reading but hey, maybe they’ll help the students pass their exams.

What books made you fall in love with reading and writing? What kind of reading do you feel is most important?

Pest Control

This Week’s Bit of String: A pestilence of Shoulds

Do you ever imagine your abstract stresses as actual creatures? I find it makes them more grapple-able.

Lately, the word should is plaguing me. If it came to life, I think it would be a multi-legged trudger, low to the ground with clinging claws. It would blast out barks: Should! Should! and be a right pest.

My mind gets infested by Shoulds, particularly in the summer. During term-time, there’s little question about what I have to do. There’s work, there’s squeezing in chores and writing deadlines and exercise and family commitments around that. But if I get time to myself, I’m overrun with quarrelling Shoulds. The guilt of leaving things undone becomes weightier, because what excuse do I have?

I’m no artist but… I’m thinking stout caterpillar body, claws of a sloth, and stubborn pug face.

You should be writing, a voice in my head says quite frequently. Editing my novel, inventing a whole new book, polishing and submitting short stories, putting effort into a Twitter presence—I should be working on all those things.

But there’s also the cluttered house, and my garden in a riotous bid for attention, and the thought that there’s no time like the present to get extra exercise and stretches in, should I be attempting some sort of social life, and actually, what if I caught up on sleep and reading; shouldn’t that benefit me in the school year?

If I created a word cloud based on my thoughts, the biggest word in it might be should—apart from family member’s names maybe, and definitely the cat and probably, embarrassingly, peanut butter (the latter accompanied by the phrase “should absolutely not eat anymore of it today…”)

‘Tis the Season

For most of my summer, I go to my family overseas. There are wonderful little vacations encased in this, but home time has a serious intensity to it so that I bristle if it’s called a holiday.

Up at sunrise during the summer to seize every moment

As an immigrant, my herd of Shoulds has extra directions to pull me in. And the limits of time give their claws an extra sharpness. It’s super important to me that I help out my parents and siblings and child while I can see them, but that we also make fun memories, and keep my husband entertained since it is, in fact, his vacation, and that I get moments to feast my senses on the mountains and lakes and rivers of home—all while keeping up with writing and exercise. So the Shoulds run rampant.

Without my teaching assistant job playing the alpha role among the Should herd, it’s hard to figure out which Should is in charge. Each seems quite as demanding as the others. Yes, I should dig into writing, but think how bad the weeds will be if I leave the garden any longer. And have I really recovered my strength enough for a new term—maybe I should spend an afternoon lying around reading.

The Long Game

The word should is rooted in debt and guilt. Any argument I come up with against one therefore sounds like an excuse to shirk. Which Shoulds can we allow ourselves to ignore?

Taking my pick.

I’ve tentatively decided one thing. I’m not ready for another deep edit of my Eve novel yet. I’m too frustrated now. I’d have her jumping up and down by the third paragraph shouting “Read me, fools!” like she’s Maleficent or something. I need time to think before the next edit and submission rounds. Maybe I’ll have mulled it enough by next weekend, maybe I’ll leave it for half-term or even next summer.

You know what I ended up spending lots of time on for the end of my break? Foraging. I turned myself into a scrappy little squirrel to combat my scruffy little Should flock. I walked the lanes for hours picking blackberries and elderberries, and cooked them together into jam. With its murky elder depths, I’m hoping it will ward off winter colds. Nothing leaves you helpless at the stubby, plodding feet of a Should herd the way illness does! So maybe I’ve played my priorities right. We’ll see.

What do you do when pestered by Shoulds?

Celebrating Books

This Week’s Bit of String: An air of incredulity

“Miss, how are there people who like to read?” 

I’d been scribing answers to questions about Lord of the Flies while the severely dyslexic GCSE student dictated. He was then curious about why there are “neeks” (the word “geek” has evolved) like me who actually enjoy books.

“Well,” I told him, “I got to like reading because I was taught so many different books at school, I knew there were loads of great options.”

The openness of the question surprised me and I should perhaps have been more emotive, told him how reading takes me out of my own life and into different worlds. Or that it’s easily as entertaining as TV. I wish I’d had more time to tell him that with books, there really is something for everyone. As long as they can access it–which unfortunately, he physically cannot. 

I wonder if this young man gets the sense of luxuriousness from playing videogames which we find with books. Books free us from having to compete. They offer immersive surrender, and that’s what I crave sometimes. It’s liberation from being in life’s driver’s seat.

Hay Castle: “Love detonates this distance between us to ash holds your flooded heart in the fire of night”

Again, this only works if you can access it. We all go through stages when there simply isn’t time to read much. Sometimes I find myself reading with a grim desperation to tick books off my reading list. 

I remind myself that this is love. As with any relationship, we sometimes get caught up in our duties of care; keeping everyone fed and happy. But the love is there. When it comes to reading, I ensure I take the time to write down my favourite quotes, to reflect in my daily scribbles, before starting something else. It’s not a chore.

Burrowing and Borrowing

I spent last weekend at Hay-on-Wye Literature Festival. If you ever need to rekindle your love for reading, it’s a great place to do so. Sunny but chilled, colourful yet somewhat calming. I guess that’s because even though I’m among crowds, they feel like my people.

Not that Hay’s festival-goers are in any way homogenous. As with writers, there are all sorts of readers. Young and old, Welsh or English or from further abroad, people in motorised wheelchairs or with support dogs. At an evening talk I also noticed another woman on her own, like me, pencilling tiny notes.

Hay Festival 2023

In both the first talks I went to, though they were on very different topics, the writers talked about being magpie-like in storing and selecting detail. Marina Hyde, the Guardian columnist on current events, peppers her pieces with pop culture references. Peter Frankopan, a passionate historian who’s recently written about natural disasters throughout history, drew on so many different sources he ended up with 4000 footnotes in his latest book.

Later I enjoyed wonderful readings from the poet laureate Simon Armitage. He opened with “Thank You for Waiting” (have a listen here!) and he talked about how hard it was during lockdown to be inspired without everyday interactions and excursions. He calls those the “cement” which sticks our writing together. Trying to create in his upstairs office, he found himself writing poems about Velux windows.

The reason there are enough books in the world to interest any reader is because writers are so diverse. And maybe when we love our art enough, we can find ways to write about anything.

Safety in the Pages

Beyond offering inclusion, books throughout history have bestowed security. We listened to Irene Vallejo talk about her volume Papyrus, which uncovers the history of the written word. She shared stories of the library of Alexandria, and told us how things changed with the development of the Latin codex.

Bookish street art in Hay. Is it secret? Is it safe?

The codex, with similar etymological roots to the word book, means block of wood, or tree trunk. Instead of being a long, flattened scroll you’d have to roll back up for storage, the codex used sheets bound together like modern books.

This change wasn’t just culturally significant. It also made reading a safer hobby. In times of religious persecution, for example, Christians could read in codex form. Should someone come along, they could close the codex and stow it away as a humble block, thus keeping secret the substance of their reading.

I loved learning this bit of history. Even now, in our privileged times, there’s something reassuring about wandering around an event where lots of people have books under their arms or noses. Just a bunch of bookworms sharing a common love if not common tastes, and although there are plenty of magpies about, they’re the curious rather than vicious kind.

What makes you fall in love with reading?

Over the Rainbow

This Week’s Bit of String: A few hundred definite articles

When I was young and had energy–aged three, to be exact–I started eschewing naps. My mother would put me down for a “Quiet Time” instead, with a stack of books to look through. I knew their stories well, but I wanted to properly read them. Logically I started at the beginning, and as my mother settled me down, I asked what the first word of the top book’s title was.

It was “The,” as in The Wizard of Oz. Now able to read my first word, I went through every book I had and counted how many times “the” appeared in my books. I kept counting wherever I went, well up into the hundreds, until I noticed the word “there,” and counted those. I was in the midst of counting “thens” when all the other words started making sense and I lost count, too busy reading. Sucked into new realms.

Our copy of The Wizard of Oz was a big, almost A3-sized book with illustrations based on the film version. Since it became my first reading experience, I have a soft spot for the story–but clearly I was already drawn to it, since it inspired me to try and read in the first place.

Real Life or Dreams

One thing that bothered me about the movie was how it framed Dorothy’s whole adventure as a dream. I preferred the Chronicles of Narnia, in which all that happened was incontrovertibly real, just occurring in a different dimension (which I tried to reach through many a wardrobe). I felt it diminished Dorothy’s experiences to portray them as just a dream.

Even now, I get a bit ruffled when creators use the “But was it all a dream?” cliche. Hopefully this doesn’t make me too simplistic or uncultured, but I like reality clearly delineated. If an unreliable narrator misleads us for their own ends, or for their own survival, or if they’ve been misled, I’m all in and I have colossal respect for the storytelling (Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Fingersmith, Life of Pi). But if, for example, a TV show or film implies the entire premise has only happened in a character’s mind, as one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer tried to do, I’m offended. How dare the whole plot be minimised in this way?

The secondary school where I work just finished an energetic, 6-performance run of The Wizard of Oz. My husband played in the band and I helped a bit with front of house and quick changes. When a production ends, it’s like waking up from a dream. There’s that sudden cessation of energy and the unwinding of a massive, intricate knot as everyone goes their separate ways.

It struck me, watching it again after a long while, that actually the way the story unfolds is just the way a child might imagine it. As a conquering hero, but innocent, with devoted friends and all sorts of magic. It’s not a diminishment of childhood experience, it’s an ode to their imagination, and I was quite moved by it.

Haunted Forests

It also serves as a reminder that even in our heads, even as children, we’re not completely safe. I don’t know any child capable of constructing a fantasy where nothing bad happens. Otherwise, how would we prove our heroism, and our comparative innocence? Dorothy tries to invent a place where there isn’t any trouble, but trouble gets in anyway.

Dreaming in colour

It’s all those anxieties about the future and those fearful spectres from our past creeping up. “Just try to stay out of my way,” they cackle. “Just TRY.”

One of the reasons I’m quite sensitive about stories being dismissed as “all in your head” derives from my experience in a psychiatric ward when I was 12. I was withdrawn and always thinking about stories. The staff wrote in my records that I seemed to be “responding to internal stimuli” and I was put on anti-hallucination medication.

“Are you hearing voices?” the psychiatrist, a toneless woman with an unfortunate resemblance to Jabba the Hutt, asked.

“No.”

“Are the voices telling you to say that?”

“No.”

But the doctors had become too entrenched in their own reality to decipher mine.

Fortunately, the pills didn’t affect my imaginings in the slightest; I could still escape. It shocks me that it never occurred to those medical professionals that a young patient would wish to imagine things outside the immediate reality of strip searches, iron-meshed windows and straitjacketed children screaming for help.

In my opinion, it should have been as obvious as Dorothy dreaming her way from black and white into colour. I suppose it proves how powerful our inner lives are; they can transport us so fully that people watching us have no idea where we’ve gone. I probably looked as if I was responding to internal stimuli when I was three years old counting “thes” and “thens,” and I go round mouthing dialogue to myself sometimes even now. I know what I’ve made up though, and what I haven’t. You can see why I’d find it irksome if someone tried to tell me otherwise.

What takes you over the rainbow? Has it ever gotten you into trouble?

Learning Something New

This Week’s Bit of String: What poems, jellyfish, and King Tut have in common

I am starting 2023 building a new habit. I feel like that sounds more promising than a resolution, what do you think? Anyway, this habit is to learn something new every day.

I think we all learn stuff most days. Part of the reason I relish daily scribbles is because it teases out new information I glean without necessarily noticing. It’s also why I stop after each book I’ve read and write down my favourite quotes, instead of charging on to the next one. Just a little bit of reflection time. Because my mind’s always leaping to the next thing I absolutely MUST get done; the next book to tick off the To-Be-Read list; the next job to cross off from my planner. I’m very susceptible to the look-at-all-the-things-I’ve-done narrative on social media and I have to force myself to stop and reflect. I had to make it a part of my routine, a habit.

My dad used to ask us at the dinner table, “What did you learn at school today?”

We hated it. On principle, we often insisted we’d not learned a thing. And that may have been true some days. We expected that anything learned would be unmistakably gifted to us, not always understanding that we might need to flip through the resources and find what needed to be learned.

Time to turn over a new leaf…

So with this learning habit I’m working to develop, the rule is that the Something I learn for the day can’t be part of my normal reading. It has to be something extra, something I take time to look up and find out about. It IS allowed to be a poem or short story outside of my pre-planned reading list, for example delving into an online literary magazine, as long as it’s not just because I’m prepping my own submission for it.

The idea is to take in information or art for its own sake, free of agenda. To shake myself from the constant bridle of Getting Things Done, and just stretch my brain.

It’s also to repurpose scrolling time. As I mentioned earlier this year, I want to waste less time on social media. I haven’t been terrible about scrolling and spending time online, but I could do better. Instead of scanning Facebook and Twitter, brain on autopilot, just waiting for something salient to jump out at me, I will go and seek salience myself.

So far, my new habit has entailed:

Finding out about early British underground buildings like fogous and souterrains, because for her novel my student has created a Secret Hunting Society which lives in a village hidden underground.

Cooking dinners ahead for the week while listening to these fantastic Intelligence Squared videos featuring William Sieghart’s The Poetry Pharmacy

And this Intelligence Squared Dickens vs. Tolstoy debate, Simon Schama arguing on the latter’s behalf and sharing this Tolstoy quote: “The aim of the artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its manifestations.” (Makes it sound a bit simpler and more feasible, do you reckon?)

Research on jellyfish because I made a little ShrinkyDink jellyfish while crafting with my sisters over Christmas and I added it to my keychain

Reading some lovely poems from Plume Magazine— I particularly loved “The Classics” by Christina Lee and “Cathedral” by Kwame Dawes

Finding out about aphantasia, since another student believes she has it. People with aphantasia don’t see imagery in their minds, which makes it harder for her to connect with material she reads.

Jellyfish!

Researching Tutankhamun because the latest Royal Mail stamps for sending letters abroad have his possessions on them, and I was wondering… Do those really belong to this country?

Looking more deeply into a January 6, 1853 train accident that claimed the life of President Franklin Pierce’s only child just two months before Pierce’s inauguration, because it was alluded to in A Worse Place Than Hell, the book I’m reading. Pierce was the only president to ever hail from my home state, and it surprised me I’d never heard of this tragedy, when it must have heavily influenced his actions during a pivotal period.

Also, trying to find out about women runners in the 19th century because this nonfiction work mentions Louisa May Alcott going running in the early mornings before her long shifts at a Civil War hospital. I’m very curious about what women would have worn for morning runs in the 1860s, and I’ve found some interesting facts about the history of women runners but nothing that illuminates this passage, so if you know anything about it, do let me know.

The different types of attention that may be compromised by social media use, as outlined by Johann Hari on Jon Favreau’s Offline podcast. It rather motivated me to keep going with this little habit of mine!

Do have any suggestions of things I should learn about? What sorts of things have you sought to learn?

Summer Bucket List

This Week’s Bit of String: Can we fit it? … Yes we can

Packing time! 48 hours now till I’m on my flight to New Hampshire, to my son, my parents and siblings and childhood home, friends and haunts. To lakes and mountains and trees, to root beer and Dunkin’ Donuts.

I’m already getting distracted. My point is, time to decide what goes in my suitcase. They’ve changed the allowance from 23 down to 20 kilos maximum. This should be ok; I know by now what not to bring. I don’t need much in terms of dressing up or fancy footwear. I don’t need many books for myself because I often don’t get time to read; it’s all I can do to find moments for daily scribbles so I don’t forget all I’ve seen, what was said.

Busy bee.

Concurrently with my packing, and with cleaning the house and weeding and trimming the garden before I go, I’m going deep with novel edits. This is only my second pass through my story of Eve. It’s familiar territory but not quite as much as an Aer Lingus flight from Bristol to Boston. I’m still learning what I really need and what I might not. It will take me a few more journeys to figure that out, I suspect.

The Days are Just Packed

Even more than keeping my suitcase light and my writing clear and engaging, planning the time while I’m away is a huge challenge. Thanks to working in school and getting a longer summer holiday, I have three weeks in my native country, but that isn’t much when it’s also one of my only chances to Mum for the whole year.

One thing I’ve learned as a writer—and parent—is that the worst thing we can do is tell ourselves there’s plenty of time. It sounds a bit sad, but most people I’ve discussed this with seem to feel the same.

If we are busy, we know we have to dedicate time to something. If we have more free time, we develop a more cavalier attitude and assume we’ll get to everything we want to do.

ALL of it… Photo from 2007.

There’s so much fun I want to have with my kid, and with the rest of my family. We’re hoping to try tubing down a river with rapids and a covered bridge. I’d love campfire chats, board games, kayak sessions, listening to music together, maybe get him to build/ squash a sandcastle or two for old times’ sake. But he’ll also be working, so I’m looking forward to joining him at summer camp for writing workshops, and cooking some of his favourite dinners for when he gets home. We have things we need to troubleshoot together; job applications to fill out and things like that.

Being apart means I feel ready to appreciate even the work of it. Baking in a hot kitchen, coming up with cover letters for prospective employers. It’s not what everyone looks forward to doing when on vacation, but I will feel privileged to do it when I’m finally around more people I love.

Summer Goals

Do you have any aims for the summer? The Internet is rife with reading lists and exercise recommendations. I find them daunting. I just want to read and exercise daily and I’m going to have to be flexible about that.

Exercise: I’ll keep up my daily early morning hikes. No choice; I’m addicted. But I’ll also be incorporating 10 minutes of stretches, at least every other day because the last term at school viciously made me feel my age and then some.

Self-care: Also, I want to have a bath and soak the stiffness out. We don’t have a bathtub here in the UK but my parents do in the US, and on this matter my sister holds me very accountable. She’s already on my case. I’ve got the Lush bomb for the occasion. That’s it, that’s the goal.

Reading: If I can read almost every day, I’ll be happy. So far so good, since school ended last week. What utter bliss, once a morning hike has been completed, and then a bunch of chores and visits sorted, to stretch out with a book for an hour in the afternoon. I’m hoping to keep that routine going while away, and clear five books from my own, personal TBR list this summer.

White Mountains, New Hampshire. Just go with the flow, man.

Writing: There are my daily scribbles, of course. I’ve got a luscious thick notebook for observations, memories, exchanges, ideas. It should last me the weeks I’m away, and keeping up with everything I want to remember is a big commitment. However, I’ve also been pushing myself this summer to sit down and put focused effort into a writing project, for a couple hours maybe four times per week. I had lost the habit of that, since I could only write in small windows of time. It feels so good to stretch my concentration muscles again, to sit editing and not letting myself get distracted. I’d forgotten I was capable of it!

Parenting: My number one priority for the next three weeks. Anything that makes me feel like a mum again will do. Hearing complaints face to face instead of reading a Facebook message. Teaming up to show his dad Field of Dreams so he knows what we’re quoting when we say things like, “Peace, love, doooope!” All of it.

My goals are probably a bit more open-ended than targets are meant to be, but I prefer the term feasible. I advise a slightly gentle approach, because you never know what crises might come up. Do whatever it takes to enjoy each moment, whether it’s relishing a challenge or making yourself relax for once.

The Exams Rant

This Week’s Bit of String… More a tangle of tension

I despise the British system of exams. I’m not a fan of A-Levels (the exams kids take in formal education at 18), but GCSEs (the ones at age 16) are the worst, because they’re so inflexible and unavoidable.

Exams at my American high school were more like tests. Designed by your teacher for your specific class, they’re marked by your teacher, and in most cases they’re only part of your final grade. You’ll get credit for essays and projects and presentations, homework, unit tests, and even participation in classroom discussion.

None of that is true in the UK. I hate the system as a parent and I hate it even more now that I’m working in secondary education again. This week has been very stressful, as the main national exams began. Our Year 11 students, along with all the 15 and 16-year-olds across this Small Island, sat down at the same exact moment to work through papers which determine their grades for the last two years of learning.

“Learning” being a loose term when it comes to spending two years practising for a passing grade on a paper distributed and marked by a government-sanctioned external body. Because if you don’t pass, the venue you chose for your next level of vocational training or academic education might not accept you.

Coping with stress. One of the Year 11 students and I have been creating our own oil pastel versions of Van Gogh’s Starry Night and it’s been a lovely distraction.

The country has been brainwashed into believing that these exams are the only possible standard of achievement for teenagers. Even those of us who see the system’s flaws panic over what grades our students will get.

Binding the fates of every person in the whole nation to the same tests isn’t actually fair. I hate that every young human, regardless of need, interest, talent, or background, is forced to bow their head as one over a paper. Children are told they must come in even if ill. The student I’ve been working with most this year sat her first English paper on Wednesday doubled over with stomach cramps the whole time. Some go in streaming with hay fever, or fasting for Ramadan. Some go in having just been dumped by their boyfriend of over a year.

I hate seeing kids cry outside the exam hall every morning, or shake, or look miserable. I hate that the exams are so onerous, students joke about how great it would be to get a terminal illness so the exam board in their infinite mercy will tack an extra 5% on their scores. Other students are Googling, “If the Queen dies, will the next day’s exam be cancelled?”

Meanwhile, the 80% of the school’s students who aren’t exam age must spend a month being quiet at break times, moving to different classrooms, and even having their whole timetables changed in order to accommodate the national exams schedule. The teachers are all tense and terrified. They’re not trusted to assess their own students, of course.

There are special staff who monitor the students while taking exams. The invigilators. There are also “access arrangements” for students with special needs. Again, this is a loose term. A person with meticulously evidenced need may be granted access to someone who will read the questions for them, possibly scribe answers as dictated, or they may be granted rest breaks or extra time. Not super helpful for those with issues processing the questions or sitting still, and certainly nothing that helps the many students who struggle with anxiety.

More than half of our Year 11s have access arrangements. When a system must be modified for the majority of a population, maybe it’s time to assess them a different way?

I’m also making sure, no matter how drained I am, to get out at 5:45 for a good stomp in the fresh air to help me cope.

Because of the massive need for invigilating and access arrangements, I have to sit exams too. I sit quietly beside a student with only my bottle of water and my pencil case, just like her. I read her the questions and scribe her answers when asked. I can’t explain anything to her, and I can’t doodle or pick up a book and read. We’re both stuck there until the nationally mandated duration of the exam is up. I despise the sitting still, the stifling air. Students have been told that before entering the exam hall at 9 in the morning, they must decide whether or not to bring their jumpers with them. Because if they get hot in there with over 100 other people, they’re not allowed to take off their jumper and put it on the back of the chair. There could somehow be illicit information scrawled on these black uniform sweatshirts.

I hate that students spend 2 years studying just 2 books for English class, and a few poems. Blood Brothers, for example. I know it has a valid message, but using it to teach literature is like using a sledgehammer for brain surgery. Every student is taught to memorise the same quotes about being poor or rich. Every student memorises “sneer of cold command” from “Ozymandias” and “Be like the serpent under’t” from Macbeth. What a dull time grading those literature exams must be. If only students were encouraged to read widely, find what they love, and defend it.

I hate that for Science, kids are drilled on parts of the cell and the periodic table until their deduction and curiosity cease to exist. One of the questions on this week’s Biology paper was: “Why do you think there were no new cases of skin cancer among boys under age 15?” and our whole class was panicked about it after. “We never talked about boys with skin cancer in class. We didn’t go over that!”

I hate that when exams are finally done, students must wait 3 months to get their results, the anxiety hanging over them all summer as they wait to see if they’ll be able to move on in the direction they want to. I’ll be there that day late in August, telling them that whatever their marksheet says, they have tremendous value and the world still holds great things for them.

Did you do exams here in Britain and have you got any coping strategies or inspiring stories?

2021 Reading Round-Up

This wasn’t my most prodigious reading year, but I’m incredibly grateful for the books I did get to read. There were some long-anticipated hits, and some delightful surprises. In my top ten alone, there’s quite a range from comics to inspiration to memoir with of course plenty of forays into fiction.

As always, I’m including a favourite quote from each book. That’s the best bit! Previous years’ top ten lists are here, here, here, and here.

Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy

This is a quick read, meandering through episodes of Levy’s writing life. From the riveting opening sentence through travels in Majorca and flashbacks to Levy’s childhood in apartheid South Africa, I was engrossed in her reflections. As she crosses geographical borders, she also investigates the borders between secrecy and sharing. How deeply can women writers afford to feel?

I read The Midnight Library while visiting London after Christmas

“Smiling was a way of keeping people out of your head even though you’d opened your head when you parted your lips.”

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

An exploration of the multiverse that can result from a single life, Haig’s popular novel is like having someone read you a choose-your-own adventure book. The protagonist gets to pick different volumes off the shelves and read herself into alternate lives. It culminates with satisfying vibes of “Merry Christmas, you beautiful old broken down Building and Loan!”

“She had shrunk for him, but he still hadn’t found the space he needed.”

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

Another volume of her irreverent, candid, hand-illustrated memoir. My whole family loves Brosh’s work. I laughed hysterically reading about how she raided her neighbour’s house as a child, and then later in the book I cried at her struggles. She champions her uniqueness while also being incredibly relatable.

“Because that’s intimacy, Buckaroos. Somebody who understands exactly how weird you are, and you understand how weird they are, and you’re sort of in a mutually beneficial hostage situation.”

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

One sister stays in Bangladesh and tries to earn her living in a garment factory and then as a household servant, while the other comes to London as a Muslim bride, speaking no English. Multifaceted characters, perfect descriptions, a plot spanning two continents and volatile periods in recent history.

Finished Brick Lane while headed north to the Lakes District in the summer.

“Outside, mist bearded the lampposts and a gang of pigeons turned weary circles on the grass like prisoners in an exercise yard.”

The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander

This is a pivotal read for shaking up your routine, challenging yourself, and making the most of life. It helps you believe in the positives—not just in yourself, but in others. I loved the “Giving an A” chapter, promising students an A in a college course provided they write a detailed letter at the start on what they’ll do to earn it, and then follow through.

“It is only when we make mistakes in performance that we can really begin to notice what needs attention. In fact, I actively train my [music] students that when they make a mistake, they are to lift their arms in the air, smile, and say, ‘How fascinating!’ I recommend that everyone do this.”

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

An award-winning debut novel tackling race and class, and having to grow up. I loved the depictions of friendships, and child-rearing. The main characters are a baby-sitter who loves her charge so much it brought tears to my eyes, and a mum who is still not comfortable enough in her own skin to genuinely care for a pre-schooler who may have the same insecurities.

“‘You get real fired up about what happened that night in Market Depot. But I don’t need you to be mad that it happened. I need you to be mad that it just, like… happens.’”

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

This is also a dual narrative about race and class, but it’s set in the American South before the Civil War and Emancipation. The enslaved characters try to keep their culture alive and their family bonds unbroken. I read it fearing for their safety, but also admiring the spirit of the main character, Handful.

“You come from your mauma, you sleep in the bed with her till you’re near twenty years grown, and you still don’t know what haunches in the dark corners of her.”

Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

A mystery, almost a thriller, as well as a fictional journey of self-discovery. The narrative voice is so compelling, you feel for her and want to protect her even as she self-sabotages her quest for companionship by being harsh with those around her. It’s uplifting to read about Elinor coming to terms with not being completely fine.

“These days, loneliness is the new cancer—a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing so horrifying you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.”

Springtime back garden fun with these floofs, reading Brown Baby.

Brown Baby by Nikesh Shukla

Reading this memoir is like spending a day with your best friend. I really wanted to turn up on Shukla’s doorstep and ask to go walking together or something. This is a memoir about the sacrifices and joys of parenting, about raising a small person of colour in an unwelcoming world, about grief and making connections with the family you grew up with. He puts everything in it really, and writes with such warmth and humour.

“If you sleep when the baby sleeps, you have effectively given up. You live by their routine. You are pandering to their tyranny. You’re never sleeping longer than an hour anymore. And you’re wearing dirty pants.”

The Dig Street Festival by Chris Walsh

This hilarious and lovely novel comes from independent publisher Louise Walters Books, and I will be grateful to Twitter forever because without it I wouldn’t have heard about Walsh’s book. Very British and quirky, it takes an endearing, well-meaning protagonist with a Dostoevsky-ish inner monologue through Kafkaesque plot twists with a Dickensian cast of characters. Honestly, it’s just mad fun; please give it some love.

The trouble was, our minds were hard-wired to find patterns in any thing, and to lock into them like meaning-seeking missiles. Not only would we hungrily identify patterns, we would immediately adopt them, fatten them up, farm them, breed and multiply them.”

If you’ve already discovered any of these stories, let’s talk! If you haven’t read them before but decide to give one or two a try, I hope you just love them.