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?

Love and Other Questions

This Week’s Bit of String: Saying good night at Grandma’s house

During a visit when I was eight, my Grandma came to tuck my sister and me in. She was a pre-school teacher, and as a matter of strict policy, she made a great deal of time for us and never got cross.

Granddad was different. He blustered rather than spoke, worked long past retirement rather than played. We were a bit scared of him. I’d watched Grandma sweetly placate him for my whole life, and it stumped me.

‘Grandma,’ I whispered as she kissed me goodnight, ‘Do you really love Granddad?’

How much choice do we have over who we open our hearts to?

She just laughed and left the room. Minutes later, Granddad himself appeared, giving his version of a chuckle, which still sounded blustery. ‘So you think your grandmother doesn’t love me?’

Like any of us, over the years I learned much more about the inexplicable, often unwelcome persistence of love. I watched Granddad lose Grandma to lung cancer a month before their golden wedding anniversary, and there was no mistaking she was loved in return. I’ve seen that reciprocation is often enough; that we can make ourselves settle when we choose to.

But I still wonder about it. Why do we love who we love? How is love sustained and and to what extent can it be manipulated or cajoled or banished entirely? Again, I suspect I’m not alone in wondering these things.

Opening Questions

When we start planning a novel, we’re told to start with a question, a predicament. That’s handy, as I’m writing about Eve and there’s a lot to question in the Biblical story of creation, of Eden and the fall and the alleged first generations of humanity.

Example: Adam and Eve have two boys, Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel and gets exiled. At this point the Bible has named only 3 still-living humans on the entire planet.

Then it says Cain’s wife got pregnant (presumably a sister too lowly to be named) and has a son called Enoch. So now we have five people on the planet. Maybe a few other girls who the Author couldn’t be bothered to bring up.

THEN it says, when speaking of Enoch’s birth, ‘Cain was building a city at this time, and named the city for Enoch.’

Wait, what? Building a city for whom? Angels? Demons? Animals? Aliens?

Plenty of scope for the imagination, then. More questions in last week’s post about believing what we read. More questions, many questions.

The Overarching Question

But the one that interests me most of all in this story is love. Did Adam and Eve love each other? Can you truly love someone when there’s no other person in existence, so you haven’t chosen them as such? How can you keep loving each other after together, you brought curses down on all future generations?

I guess to me, these are the questions that matter most—more, as I discussed last week, than whether any of it is true or not. I suppose it’s because these are the questions that pop into my head in real life, and they’re the ones that led me to my first line of this story, and it spiralled from there:

‘You must understand, I was made to love your father. For that reason, I sometimes hate him.’

At the moment, I’m writing in first/second person point of view, as Eve addresses her lost favourite daughter—exiled with Cain. If we work with the scenario that Adam and Eve were the first and only humans, they’d have had to have quite a few kids, and to play matchmaker, convincing them to breed.

(Or maybe there would have been little persuasion required. Humans aren’t always fussy about that sort of thing, but let’s not go there for now.)

Given Eve’s own background—unnamed for the first 3 chapters of Genesis, so often referred to as simply ‘the woman’ or ‘Adam’s wife,’ how might she have felt about these pairings, and her role in orchestrating them?
So my novel’s overarching question is incorporated with the first line and the point of view.

Cosmic Questions

Beyond being reflected in the relationships of her children and other descendants, Eve’s feelings for Adam also, I think, are tangled up with spiritual questions.

Pondering the purposes of humans and angels

After everything, could Eve and God love each other? I’ve just written my first scene in which God appears—quite a challenge, playing God, which I’ll elaborate on in a later post. There’s the guilt over letting Him down in Eden—but also the struggle to understand why He allowed her to in the first place.

And she must have wondered, before any of us came along to wonder the same exact thing for centuries: What the hell are we for? For Eve, who knew God as her creator and as an actual physical presence, she must have wondered why He made her and Adam. Just to serve Him, like the angels did? Were they given free will so they could choose to love Him and therefore make their elective devotion more meaningful? I think she’d have mixed feelings on that theory, given everything she went through and all she lost.

Have you come to any conclusions on these matters? How do you set up characters to love each other, without making it look like a setup?

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?

Writers with Day Jobs, Part 3: Goodbye, Post Office

This Week’s Bit of String: Letters to Putin

If you were a cultivator of stories, working in a post office, would you find yourself quite curious about what you were helping people send? I’ve always been quite numb to the letters and parcels—professional or perhaps just zombified—but sometimes my curiosity is truly piqued.

‘I need to send this letter to Russia.’ The soft-spoken piano teacher puts the envelope on my weighing scales. His thick, square glasses glint in the fluorescent lights.

I stamp the letter. It’s meticulously addressed to the Minister of Justice in Moscow. ‘I keep seeing these today,’ I tell the piano teacher. ‘What’s going on?’

Letterbox near Park Gardens in Stroud
Letterbox near Park Gardens in Stroud

He informs me Russia has begun proceedings to label Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists. So the steady stream of polite, earnest customers posting letters to Russia’s Foreign Minister, Prime Minister, Justice Minister, and even President Putin himself—are attempts to reason with the enormous state.

I had no idea. And that’s just one thing I’ve learned working at the post office. I shall take my leave with a little mess of weird but possible story threads.

Grief, Observed

A pale old man collects his pension from the post office every Monday, his fingers trembling as he tries to remember his PIN. One week he told me his wife had cardiopulmonary disease, and a bad car accident a couple months before while returning from a hospital appointment certainly didn’t help. But he smiled as he said, ‘I know all about being a woman now, since my wife’s laid up. Running about doing all the work! Tell you what, if I have to come back as something when I die, I hope it’s not a woman.’

Monday comes around again. ‘It’s beautiful out today.’ The man says as his fingers jitter, uncertain, an inch above the card reader’s keypad. ‘The sun was so warm in our garden.’

I ask how his wife is doing.

‘She passed away yesterday morning. Sixty-three years we were together. I used to call her my little ray of sunshine…’ His voice is hoarse.

I’m nearly moved to tears myself. I’ve worked in a nursing home; I’ve seen bereavement and death before. But it’s different seeing it ‘in the real world,’ watching someone stricken so recently go through the necessary motions. At the post office, I’ve had to tell relatives we can’t ship human ashes to distant loved ones (apparently it’s a fire hazard). I’ve certified copies of death certificates, and helped bereaved parents close their late daughter’s bank account—the mother quietly explaining what she needed, the father sitting in the waiting area staring straight ahead.

Stories aren’t just big moments; they’re little ones. They’re how we drag huge burdens through each tiny step.

Beyond School Doors

Likewise, I’ve seen disability before. I’ve supported secondary school students with all kinds of difficulties, who worked tremendously hard to get through the schoolday. Once again, the post office showed me a different perspective.

Village Post Office and shop
This is not the Post Office I worked in. But I wonder if their mini-dramas would be so different from ours.

A girl in her late teens or early twenties comes to my counter, taps her ear, and utters ‘Deaf.’ She slips a note under the heavy glass partition of my ‘Fortress’ (that’s literally the Post Office terminology for the secure cubicle). She needs a box for posting a jacket to the USA, the note explains. I take her to the stationery and show her what the shop offers for packaging. We communicate with hand motions and the odd inarticulate noise. She seems pleased with the selection.

I think about how it must feel, forced to introduce oneself in such a way; to be immediately distinguished by what some might perceive as a deficiency. What bravery and resourcefulness surround us, and we barely even realise.

My previous jobs have inspired a great deal in my stories, as I’ve gotten to know students, colleagues, and nursing home residents very well. In the post office, interactions are fleeting, but still colourful and informative. It’s a lesson in efficiency. If my imagination can be so fuelled by a two-minute encounter, maybe I could shoehorn my observations into a flash fiction piece. My notebooks bristle with label-backs and till roll fragments scrawled with funny place names: Bald Knob Ridge, North Carolina. Thistley Hey Road, Liverpool. Runaway Heights, Jamaica. Thanks to these, I could still feel, despite being locked alone in a ‘Fortress’ at the back of a perishing shop in a town classed as a ‘Rural Area of Deprivation,’ that the world was at my fingertips. Not just geography, but the realm of words, with its truly infinite possibilities.

What windows does your job allow on the wider world?

Writers with Day Jobs: Survival Tips

This Week’s Bit of String: Astringent in a contacts case

What’s the craziest thing tiredness made you do? Mine was filling my contact lens case with facial astringent when I worked twelve-hour shifts at a nursing home, and my son was younger. The job I’m starting next week shouldn’t be quite as taxing, but even while employed at the nursing home, I managed to write several stories, including my second Bristol Short Story Prize shortlister.

Last week I wrote about the advantages and disadvantages of writers having day jobs. I alluded to this Huffington Post piece about famous authors and their occupations, noting that these are mostly men.

Steps and stile
Another inspirational photo from the walking commute…

Boldly generalising, I’d say at least in the eras during which these male authors operated, men have been lucky. They would be free as soon as they clocked out of their day jobs for the evening, to shut themselves in their mysteriously cleaned home offices while meals appeared magically before them and their offspring were entertained elsewhere. Not necessarily the case for women.

It’s different in many households now, but in mine I am still principally responsible for housework and offspring management, for a variety of reasons (the time it would take to change that, for example). But this means I’m used to planning far ahead, and juggling various commitments. In a way, women have unique experience at making do.

From across the ocean, my mum worries over the phone as I prepare to reenter full-time work, ‘I’m afraid you won’t have time to write.’

I dismiss her kind concern. ‘No, no, it’s fine. I’ll figure it out.’

But how?

‘Why do you write like you’re running out of time?’

I brought up the subject on Twitter, and my main respondents about writers with day jobs were women. Freya Morris recommends lots of caffeine and offered tough but necessary talk. ‘Friends and family take the hit. But I chose my priorities. Writing first. Mostly.’ She also notes that full-time work makes it difficult to carry out the required ‘immersion’ for bigger projects like novels.

Ríona Judge McCormack just quit her job for a temporary writing break, since she felt split in two by her paid work and her need to create. She details her decision, a rather appealing strategy, on her blog.

It was lovely, too, to hear from Poppy O’Neill, who works part time in a job that is apparently stress-free! Having a flexible schedule and minimal work baggage helps her get writing done, not surprisingly.

Finally, some thoughts from Emily Royal, who also works full-time but utilises ‘snatched, focused writing bursts—’ I love that phrase—and of course, self-discipline.

‘You get nothing if you wait for it, wait for it, wait…’

My tips as I prepare myself for the transition from 20 weekly working hours to 37.5:

Writing nook
My writing corner, in the laundry room since I’m there so often anyway.

Notebooks: Always keep one handy. I have one on each floor of my house, plus one that travels. My TA planners from when I worked in a secondary school are crisscrossed with scribbled threads. This keeps those interesting observations, those bits of string, from blowing away in a busy whirlwind.

Tiredness: Use it. If I come home from work and my brain feels too fried to write, I do housework instead. It takes a lot less mental energy to clean, cook, and iron, than to create, and this way I’ve got those pesky chores done so I can sit and write early the next morning. If I’m too tired even to clean, I read. That counts as work for writers!

Music and Images: Use visual and musical aides representing your work-in-progress to switch on that elusive immersion. While walking home from work, I listen to songs echoing my characters’ feelings so I can dive into them once I’ve got the chance. I also have a writing corner stocked with images to keep me in the right mindset. Lately, the Hamilton soundtrack keeps me fired up, as evidenced in the sub-headings.

Routine: Obviously. We need to keep good habits. Just as our working hours are fairly inflexible, we need to brutally delineate writing times and stick to them. I’m not saying it’s easy. But often, neither are our jobs and we do them anyway. I’m hoping if I sit down in my self-assigned writing time having perhaps already jotted down thoughts and plans in my notebook while out of the house, completed household tasks the previous night, and maybe got my brain going with some carefully selected songs and pictures, I might be able to keep up.

Next week, I will conclude this series on Working Writers (for now) with a farewell to the post office, featuring various bits of string I’ve gathered there and at previous jobs.