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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Are the voices telling you to say that?”
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
“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.
“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.”
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.
This Week’s Bit of String: How much can fit in one duffel bag
Recently I had a nightmare about being deported to a concentration camp. My family was packing as much as they could into their bags. In my dream no one else realised what this journey entailed, and I was debating whether to tell them what lay ahead; we wouldn’t be able to take our belongings with us.
I’ve travelled the world in nightmares. I’ve climbed trees to escape Rwandan genocide, tried to reason with a mob to save my son from Cambodian killing fields, I’ve found my sister dying in the desert following an ISIS-type invasion. I live a privileged life and such things may never affect me, but when I read about crises such as Rwanda’s, I’m struck by how quickly and brutally people can be turned against each other. Those who participated were, after all, no less human than you or I. My dreams solidify this for me and I’m kind of proud of that.
Do you ever find reading about something isn’t enough; there’s some satisfaction in knowing it’s imprinted on your subconscious?
A couple weeks ago, nightmares became a hot election issue in the American state of Virginia—nightmares and racism and censorship. The Republican candidate for governor ran ads with a woman complaining about how the Democrat candidate would allow schools to assign books of the type that give children nightmares. Her son, while in his late teens, had suffered bad dreams from reading a Toni Morrison book recounting some horrors of slavery. Parents should get a say in what their kids read at school, and Democrats would deny parents that power, went the rationale.
While I was in school there were a few books that met with my disapproval. Cormier’s The Chocolate War wasn’t up to my literary standards, for example, and the writer seemed to slip in references to masturbation just to impress his own teen son. Reading about Greek mythology annoyed me; the gods and goddesses were petty and selfish. Because of my own PTSD, I dreaded my sophomore year when I had to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou’s memoir. But it never occurred to me to object to reading them. School’s all about putting up with things you don’t like. So is life, come to that.
As a parent, I want school to broaden my child’s knowledge. There are plenty of books I recommend that he reads, but school professionals will introduce him to other things. If those things give him nightmares occasionally—good. He’s taking the world seriously.
How do you read about the torture and enslavement of human beings and not get nightmares? Is the discomfort of nightmares a legitimate excuse to not be educated about the crimes perpetrated on millions of our fellow Americans?
Stories highlighting racial injustice and persecution aren’t the only ones parents are agitating to get removed from school curricula and from library shelves. There are a lot of campaigns against books that represent LGBTQIA characters. I’m not sure where the nightmare fuel in those are, although I did dream once that a gay colleague and I ran into King George III, who was going to execute my friend for his homosexuality, and the only way I could stop this was by stabbing His Majesty with a pencil.
It was pretty traumatic, inflicting that wound. But that’s just my brain putting weird spins on things again. The truth is, it looks as if a lot of people are trying to abolish diversity in literature.
Years ago I had a brief job looking after 3-year-olds during Bible studies at a church. For Christmas, I was given a video to show them about Saint Nicholas’s life story. It was a cartoon, but it did feature his arrest and imprisonment, and the children were horrified. “Santa’s in jail!” I had seen this trend growing up religious; our church library had videos about Roman persecution of Christians featuring people being thrown to the lions. My friend watched these when she was nine years old.
I suspect the same young man who complained about slavery nightmares (which apparently he’d never have had if he hadn’t been forced to read a Toni Morrison novel his senior year in high school) probably knew the gruesomest details of Jesus’s crucifixion by the time he started Kindergarten. One of my earliest nightmares, at the age of 5, was seeing my mom carrying a cross down our street and knowing what would happen next.
The boy in Virginia went on to the dizzying heights of interning in the Trump White House. He’s fine. But I think schools play an essential role in helping us equalise our nightmares. We shouldn’t be allowed to only read about threats against people we think are like us. At heart, everyone is like us. Because I’m a law nerd as well as a literature and education one, I found this interesting case from 1977 where a federal appeals circuit ruled a school board could not remove books from school libraries, because students have “a right to know.” We might be seeing this case cited a lot in the coming months.
A disturbed sleep is a small price to pay to keep us in touch with the world, to perceive the harsh realities other people face. I’ve been told some of my grittier stories are “harrowing,” but also that “it’s good to be harrowed.” Sometimes that’s our job as writers. Would you be a bit proud if you wrote something that fuelled a nightmare or two?
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 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
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.
“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?
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.
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.
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.
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.