Tag Archives: writing

August: Book County

14 Sep

Shockingly late, I know, but I did actually read some books in August and I’ve only just got round to writing down what I thought about them. In part this is because my internet is currently refusing to play ball, so I can’t fanny around on Buzzfeed and the Vagenda, but it is also because I have started a new job and I’m not sat in front of a computer for 8 hours a day. (Not that I ever used said time in front of a computer at work to do anything *but* work, naturally).

Well. You already had 1 book review that got its own blog post devoted to it (Laurie Penny’s Cybersexism) but I did read some other things. The first: Female Chauvinist Pigs, by Ariel Levy. This book, published in 2003, explores the rise of ‘raunch culture’ and the effect this has had on (particularly Western, mostly American) society. Essentially, Levy contests the idea that female liberation seems only to be sought in accordance with the male-endorsed ideal of femininity. In the light of Twerkgate (or whatever it is being called these days – y’know, that thing, with Miley Cyrus and the VMAs), this is particularly relevant. On the one hand, women should be free to express themselves as sexual beings. On the other – female sexuality is rarely portrayed as anything other than an accessory to or facilitator of male sexuality and male power. And this is the point Levy makes, wisely, wittily and with great passion. And notably – she does not by any means restrict her criticism to men. Oh no! Women too can be relied upon to endorse this model. Why? Because it’s sold to them as ‘empowerment’. Because it’s explained as ‘confidence’, and as ‘liberation’. “Get your tits out for the lads” is a rallying cry for the raunch-culture generation.

There were times when I thought whilst reading – hold on a moment, maybe this is going too far. The danger of carrying the argument forward so heatedly is that some smart arse will turn around and say ‘I suppose you want everyone back in corsets then, huh?’. Perhaps such an aggressive attack on raunch culture will instigate a backlash that is even more unpalatable. But, then again, perhaps not. And these are all problems with which, ten years later, we are still facing. So. Ariel Levy. I highly recommend her.

Next – The Cuckoo’s Calling, by [Robert Galbraith]. Actually by JK Rowling. To read a novel for no other reason than that I wanted to – a novel that had no bearing on any of my current interests or academic intentions – a novel that was wholly and utterly a self-indulgent literary experience, where I wasn’t analysing as I went along – was delightful. And it was a relief, too, to read it and find that it was really rather good. Of course I read it in the light of a previous post on gender and authorship. I came to this conclusion: if you know who it’s by, you can see the similarities – if you don’t, you’d struggle to pick them out.

Rowling loves to use floods of adjectives; to make her places (especially, in this case, London) absolutely vivid and often quite grimy; to come up with some weird names and to talk about the weight of expectation carried down from parents to children. I wouldn’t say any of those are especially gendered traits, but they are very Rowling-y. And combined with her subject and her storytelling, the result was a very neat tale with some compelling characters and fascinating snippets of celebrity life. Refreshingly, there is no romantic frisson between the detective and his sidekick. Or rather, they are both very clear to demonstrate that there is no such thing. It’s really very good. I look forward to future evenings in Galbraith’s company.

After being told many a time that I must read Orlando, by Virginia Woolf, I finally did. As I had been assured, it was funny (I laughed out loud on a bus more than once and earned myself some odd looks), combining some of Woolf’s excellent Victorian Gothic parodic skills with her typical light wit. You almost don’t notice it at first – and then you spot it, you breathe it in, you carry it about for a long time and eventually it kills you. Her wit is devastating. ‘Nobody minds a woman thinking, so long as she thinks of a man’ – what a line. What a genius. What a novel, to turn a life-and-love story into a meditation on art, on time, on gender, on value, on spirituality. What a treat. But don’t take my word for it. If you haven’t read it, you really must.

One of my favourite things in the world is ‘popping in to the library’. I read Matilda as a child and her enthusiasm for books matched my own. I love the library. Cambridge recently (-ish) had a library upgrade, too, so going to the library in town is now an even more pleasant experience than ever it was. Well, when I last ‘popped to the library’ (en-route somewhere, I think), I acquired three books. One of these books was Backlash by Susan Faludi. I started reading it, but I’ll be absolutely honest, it’s hard going. Not because it’s not well-written, or compelling or anything like that – it is – but because it’s so anger-inducing. You read a chapter and you have to put it down and fume for a little bit. Sometimes you have to go for a walk and be a bit rage-y. The worst of it is that it was published in the early 1990s – yet so much is still so relevant! It’s truly incredible.

Anyway, in despair (with fortune and men’s eyes), I turned back to Angela Carter for a break. I read American Ghosts and Old World Wonders, another short-story collection in the manner of The Bloody Chamber but less explicitly figured as ‘fairytale’. It was wonderful. Carter is so deft, allusive and manipulative with language – much like Woolf, but in a subtly different way. She also has a great touch of wit. When I read her description of a martini as ‘gin at which a lemon had briefly sneered’, I sniggered audibly and I had to immediately message the excellent E to suggest an Angela Carter themed cocktail-party. Well, all the stories are self-contained, so it doesn’t make much sense for me to give you a plotline (although I tend to avoid that anyway, because I know I for one can’t un-see spoilers), but they are very much individually worth reading. I particularly liked the story containing the gin-line (about a young film student going to visit the wife of a deceased great of the profession)  and the story about the puppets.

OK. That’s your lot, for this month. I’m still battling through Backlash, so I’ll hopefully be able to say something more coherent about it soon. I’ve also read The Uncommon Reader, which was fun. Hopefully I’ll get through The Common Reader too, although as I’ve only got a week before I start uni for the second time, I don’t know how much reading for my own pleasure I’m going to get done. You have been warned! 

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July’s Books

5 Aug

July has been a good month for reading. Beautiful weather makes me think ‘I must enjoy this! I must spend time outside!’. Computers and the like are for cold days. Books are for sunshine. Add to that the family holiday – ten days in Tenerife and hours of quiet, uninterrupted words – and the fact that the Aga has been off (so no diversions into the kitchen occupying hours of my weekends) and I’ve read really quite a lot. So here we go.

First – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft. Not Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein, but her mum. Written in the 1790s, Vindication is one of the seminal English texts in modern feminism, though it was largely ignored and/or viciously criticised at the time.

It’s not an easy read nowadays as most of us (with the exception of some ancient academics) have lost the habit of reading and writing like we live in a Victorian crime novel. Yet if you can soldier through the prose and hang the arguments together you get an impressive pearl string of points. Wollstonecraft’s most oft-cited maxim is the one that goes along the lines of ‘I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves’. Which is a great line, no?

Wollstonecraft’s argument is imbued with religion, which can make it rather difficult to read if you’re not really into the whole ‘God’ thing. However, she (unusually) uses religion to justify her argument for equality, which is obviously quite a different use when compared to many hardline religious groups even today. She also struggles slightly to escape the biological and, in chastising the often destructive nature of ‘romantic’ love, creates a picture of a marriage that few would wish for themselves in the 21st century.

What I found particularly fascinating was Wollstonecraft’s attribution of much of the unequal treatment of women to economic and industrial factors. The changing perception of what a woman is good for and how much she ought, accordingly, to be educated go hand in hand and in turn create a vicious cycle. That’s why education for girls is so important – because it demonstrates the faith we have that they are worth it.

Anyway. Read Wollstonecraft if you can. Remember the context and try not to judge her by her verbosity, religious fervour and occasional inconsistencies. It really is fascinating.

Next on my list: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. Written during the phase of Woolf’s career in which she seems to have found her voice and her style, TtL is a novel about children, about parents, about gender and about expectation (from my reading, anyway. Doubtless others have come away with different impressions). It’s also about art and construction. I enjoyed it for the characterisation of Mr and Mrs Ramsay and their relationship, and also for the flow of the prose and the natural descriptions. I enjoy reading the characters Woolf writes. They always sound familiar while still being mysterious and interesting. She catches human nuances really well.

Next I read The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter – a compendium of short ‘fairytales’ designed, I assumed, to sit together. Written along similar lines and with very similar themes, each story was about femininity, property, innocence and violence. I raced through these – not because they were insubstantial; more because they were delicious. I couldn’t wait to read each one. I’m going to go back and read them all again because they really were great.

Continuing the Angela Carter theme, I next read Nights at the Circus. This was a slightly different kettle of fish as it was a full novel rather than a collection, although the themes were very similar and the characters and premise no less fantastical. It was funny, endearing, wild – and though-provoking, questioning, too. I later loaned it to my mum who had run out of things to read and I think she was a bit baffled by it, but a fantastical version of late Victorian London and its unusual inhabitants is right up my street. I loved it. If it’s up your street, I definitely recommend.

Written on the Body, by Jeanette Winterson, was the penultimate book I finished on holiday. I wrote about this at the time (and subsequently) when I wrote about gender and authorship. That aside – I thought it was a beautiful book. Winterson is so deft with her language – rarely, if ever, overblown. Whatever she is writing about, the tone is always right on the money between tripping and sincere; light enough to be humorous, dark enough to be deadly. I don’t know if I could pick a favourite JW of all the ones I’ve now read, but if you prefer reality to fantasy, this one’s a good bet.

I also read The Waves, another Virginia Woolf. I had heard that this is a difficult text to comprehend, let alone to get through. I’ll admit that I’m reasonably sure a lot of the significance of things was lost on me (although reading the critical introduction after I had finished the book was a little illuminating on that score). However – I actually really enjoyed it. The style is an almost relentless narrative relay, the baton passing between the six main characters across the course of their lives. I say ‘almost relentless’ because there are clear pauses between the otherwise-unbreaking patter of voices. These pauses take the form of an ongoing description of a sea landscape, described throughout the course of a single day, mirroring the characters’ much slower incandescence and subsequent decline. These bits have a lot in common with To the Lighthouse, especially in the ‘Time Passes’ segment. There’s nothing like a contrast with nature to emphasise the brevity of human life (I always think of Sophocles’ Ajax in these instances. But that’s just me).

Unwilling to take my kindle to the beach for the rest of the holiday (the sand was getting *everywhere*) and caught in the straitjacket of my good intentions pre-holiday, all I had left to read in paperback was More’s Utopia or Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies. Foolishly, perhaps, I went for Popper. I read a significant amount of it before coming home, but I find it difficult to read except in hefty chunks, as I struggle to pin down the philosophy straight away and need to allow it to build up until I have a mental breakthrough of understanding.

I didn’t finish Popper because once I got home, I had a conversation with the wonderful E in which we agreed to send each other books (yes, we’re starting our own Feminist Library Lending Service, one day to be a full blown library/bookshop/café affair). Anyway, I sent her The Feminine Mystique and Tiffany Atkinson’s Catulla et al, and she sent me Toni Morrison’s Jazz and a short poem by Adrienne Rich. So I read those instead.

Jazz is set in the early years of the 20th century, mostly in New York but ranging around America in the telling of the main characters’ backstories. It’s soulful, thoughtful, with a narrator who places herself on the edge of the action to watch but who admits later on her fallibility and its basis in the human trait of making stories up about people to make them more interesting. Jazz is imbued throughout with the music that makes uptight characters suspicious and everyone else relaxed. It’s a book about colour and what it means, love and what that means and happiness, and what that means. In every case, the meaning is practical as well as emotional.

Jazz had some great lines and there was a particularly powerful segment about the way the black women of New York defend themselves or die. Though it wasn’t a book I would have thought to pick up off a library shelf or in a bookshop, I really, really enjoyed it. It was deep. It was funny. It was illuminating and it was dark. The characterisations were brilliant; the scenes were evocative. No character stayed the same and the end was pleasingly rounded off without being obvious from the beginning. Jazz left an impression.

Well. That’s it for July. August has started well so far after a large order of new books and the arrival of some university reading lists. Ariel Levy and Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling, in case you still hadn’t heard) are already on there. Til then, toodles!

Gender and authorship

21 Jul

ALL: this is a revised, edited version of the blog post I wrote on holiday about gender and authorship. It’s a bit more coherent now. And it’s got some Virginia Woolf references in it. Don’t say I never give you anything. X

Hey kids. How’s it going? I’m writing this on my iPad while on the family holiday so you’ll have to forgive me if the typing goes a bit crazy at points; one cannae trust these machines to accurately convey all the words one would like them to.

Anyhoo. I am writing due to a conglomeration of events. The first is the fairly well-known (by now) revelation that the crime writer Robert Galbraith is actually celebrated Harry Potter author JK Rowling. The second is that I have not long finished Jeanette Winterson’s book Written on the Body. How are these related, I hear you cry? Well, allow me to explain.

A lot of the news articles written in the wake of the JK story were about the ‘tell-tale’ signs that Galbraith wasn’t actually a man. That the women were meticulously described; that the main (male) character noticed the pungent smell of some urinals; that a famous Galbraith also uses the initials JK. How did we not see it? How could we be blind? One can’t help but feel there is some clutching at straws going on here. Robert Galbraith’s book did receive excellent reviews and various people expressed incredulity that it was indeed his first novel.

No-one, however, questioned the gender verity of either protagonist or author when it was originally published. Why search for them now? Some people actively avoid reading literature by female authors (you may scoff, but this was a genuine comment on a Guardian article). If the cheeky buggers will use pseudonyms, we obviously have to identify the ‘female’ features that prove when something’s been written by a woman. Right? *shakes head sadly*. Imagine how great it would be (such people must think) if one could identify ‘female language features’ that always occurred in books written by women, no matter what gender their assumed identity had. There have been plenty of studies of speech which look for the same thing. Last I heard, they decided it was not so much a feature of gender as a feature of power, which has traditionally been divided along gender lines. This doesn’t seem to have got round to some of the literary critics and wannabes yet, though, who still cling on to this belief like the last half-barrel of rum from a shipwreck.

‘Female language features’, if these chimaeras exist, will surely depend on the author’s voice. Virginia Woolf writes about finding one’s own voice in literature, and about how many female novelists have struggled to achieve critical acclaim in A Room of One’s Own. She notes this is partly due to the male-dominated literary sphere – both in writing and in criticism. Perhaps this is something you’d think we would have addressed by now, but no – while there are many more female critics than there used to be, the ‘serious’ novels are still almost unanimously reviewed by men. Heard of the recent furore over the TLS’ inability to find female authors? Yep, 21st century, home of progress. Not. Obviously, fewer writers and fewer critics who are women mean that there are fewer books and fewer reviews produced that are of high merit. That’s just statistics, amirite? Anyway, she also suggests there’s another reason for the scarcity of works of female genius, and that is the difficulty for women of freely and confidently writing in their own voice.

At first, perhaps, you will scoff. ‘Own voice? Surely everyone’s got their own voice. How hard can it be?’, etc. Well, yes and no. Woolf points out that even Charlotte Bronte – someone she explicitly points out as a great female writer – didn’t quite nail her own voice in Jane Eyre. There are times when her dissatisfaction with her straitened existence and the limitations imposed on her by the era’s social mores comes through over and above the narrator’s voice. Austen gets it – her sinuous irony and light touch are so delicately placed they are often misunderstood or overlooked altogether (witness basically any complaint ever that she only writes about money or about romantic love or – well, any one thing, really). One’s voice is a unified sentiment which can ride the waves of the story as well as direct them. It’s the manager and captain of the football team, responsible for tactics on and off the pitch and covering the game as well as the season. It’s a tough one to pull off. And it’s especially tough if – as very many women were, and nearly as many women still are – one is sufficiently under the oppression of society to be denied a voice in one’s day to day life, let alone in one’s written existence.

So many writers take a long time to find their voice, their style, their modus operandi. Hilary Mantel’s voice is very different to Caitlin Moran’s. Jack Kerouac’s voice is very different to Allen Ginsberg’s – contemporaries and friends and members of the same literary movement though they were. Betty Friedan’s voice is not the same as Germaine Greer’s. Etc. It’s a personal journey of development and growth. In a world where there are so many ‘voices’ shouting to be heard (online especially), the development of one’s own literary voice is what makes one person publishable instead of another. JK Rowling’s voice is not the voice of the narrator of Harry Potter, or the voice of the narrator of The Casual Vacancy or of The Cuckoo’s Calling. It’s the voice which allows her to write all three. It’s an undercurrent. It’s probably discernible only to her, or only if one knows exactly what one is looking for. It’s not a ‘woman’s voice’.

On to my next point. Written on the Body is a book about a love affair, written in the first person by a narrator who is never named and is also never explicitly gendered. The narrator describes their previous girlfriends and boyfriends. If there is ever a reference to their clothes, they are gender neutral. The narrrator’s profession is fairly ambiguous, although it becomes clearer as the book progresses that it involves translations, mostly in and out of Russian. So words and physical nature are (as you can guess from the title) fairly central to the book. The constructed neutrality of the narrator adds an interesting edge.

However. The author – Jeanette Winterson – makes no attempt to hide her authorship. I read the main character as a woman, but that’s all part of the beauty of reception. You bring your own understanding to the table and you take away something new. Fine. I looked up a review of the book when it came out – the Independent have clearly digitised their back catalogue of book reviews for just such a purpose – and I couldn’t really believe what I was reading.

The reviewer didn’t approve of the gender-ambiguous narrator. Not at all. He said it was contrived and required serious ducking and diving around words to keep up the illusion. I thought this was unfair – I hadn’t noticed it. I was aware of the ambivalence towards the explicit, but it hadn’t seemed as pronounced as that.

No, what was ridiculous to me was that the principal beef the reviewer had with this was that translators of the book who were working with gendered languages wouldn’t know what to do about it. Erm, sorry, what? For a start, if you’re writing a novel so that translators can translate it, you’re writing it for the wrong reasons. Secondly, as a translator herself, I reckon JW knew what she was doing. Thirdly, translation theory! Reception! The translator will make what they will of it. In a way, the more ambiguous you are, the more opportunity you give to the translator to find their own voice in your work. That’s not really the done thing in Anglo-American literature (see Laurence Venuti on this) but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Ezra Pound didn’t speak a word of Chinese but his Cathay poems are revered. Yeats was no Gaelic scholar but his translations are not criticised as such. And it is ludicrous, utterly ludicrous, to judge an original on the basis of its future translation. I mean, really. Come on.

For what it’s worth, I reckon this review betrays a sense of unease in the difficulty of the reviewer to identify gendered language. I think the reviewer feels off-kilter because the ambiguity means he has to dance on the edge of a precipice of understanding, constantly questioning the gender and therefore also the sexuality of the narrator. The explicit(ly) romantic plot means this question is fairly difficult to avoid. It’s meant to be. That’s the point. When we ask ‘is this book about a woman who falls in love with another woman?’ we are supposed to catch ourselves doing so and wonder why it matters.

It seems as though the gender of the author and the gender of the narrator are intrinsically bound up in how we approach books. Yet it also seems to be the case (I was going to write ‘increasingly’ but then I remembered all the novelists who have published as men) that we’re not very good at definitively saying what a book written by a man looks like compared to a book written by a woman. And for some reason, although I can name at least five women who have published as men off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single example of the other way around. We think we know what women write about and how they write it, and yet, barring atrocious chick-lit suitable only for the beach and for giving away free with trashy magazines, women resolutely refuse to be pigeonholed. Men have always been grudgingly allowed to be daring, movement-founding, ground-breaking. Women don’t seem to have that unquestionable right to freedom of expression. That’s why women assume pseudonyms, or write out gender altogether. Because a woman’s voice is still hampered by the fact it’s come out of a human being with a vagina. No other reason.

Maybe instead of telling people not to judge a book by its cover, we should say not to judge a book by its author. We make much more interesting analyses when this point of non-contention is allowed to lie undisturbed.

June’s (belated) books

8 Jul

This month has been another fairly quiet one on the book front but I feel beholden to point out that I have read 2 non-fiction titles and they definitely take longer. So. Here we go.

First up – Screenplay, by Syd Field. This is basically a manual for writing a screenplay that has bankability, structure, character and plot. It also tells you how to get it to Hollywood, find agents, secure copyright etc. I think it’s fairly safe to say it’s aimed at an American audience. My parents bought it for me when they were in New York, possibly because they believe I’m the next *insert famous scriptwriter here* but mostly because they are pandering to my great desire to Write Stuff.

It was very illuminating, if extremely repetitious – people talk about three act structures and plot points but until you have had the diagram shoved under your nose a few times, you don’t necessarily think in that structure. It’s actually very easy to develop a story when you have such clear building blocks (writing it is, of course, another matter; I’m not that presumptuous!). And it’s quite fun to invent a character and then spend a few days mentally writing his or her life story, just for your own pleasure. If absolutely nothing else, I now have a list of films I really, really have to get on and see because they were referenced so many times as being great examples of X. So I feel culturally, future-ly empowered for reading it. Thanks, Syd.

Feeling a bit lacking on the ol’ novel front, I next picked up The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson. I’ve developed a bit of a love affair with her (inspired by the excellent E) so this isn’t the last mention you’ll see. After the last two books I read, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect; her style is quite mutable according to her subject and she likes to hop between narratives, genders, timeframes; the lot, really. Trying to describe when The Passion is set is a tricky one; it’s written from the perspective of one reflecting in a (recently) post-Napoleonic world, but the timeframes jump according to the character and the Venice sequence about halfway through seems quite timeless. This is possibly something especially interesting given that in Sexing the Cherry there really is a time leap between 17th century London and the present (whenever that is); in Venice, it’s just the behaviour which is atemporal; it soon becomes enmeshed within the time of the story’s plot and, indeed, history.

I really enjoyed The Passion. I think it was possibly less reflection-inducing, less questioning, than Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit or Sexing the Cherry; I can’t decide if that’s because it did those things but on a subtler level, or if it’s because it didn’t really do those things. Nevertheless, it was a supremely satisfying story, without being one of those ‘boy meets girl’ tropes. It was emotionally complete, though not necessarily with the expected emotion. Basically, JW FTW.

Right. The last book I completed in June was a biggie. I nearly wrote a blog post dedicated to it because it was so interesting. It was one of those books which you read and think ‘Oh em gee, I can’t believe how relevant this is. When was it written? THEN? *amazed face*. Maybe this doesn’t happen to you that often. Anyway. I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. This was written in the late 1950s and very early 1960s which is, when you think about it, kind of a while ago now. My parents weren’t even born when BF started writing. I mean, wowzers.

So. The premise of The Feminine Mystique is that there existed in this era in the households of white, middle-class America, a ‘problem which has no name’. Countless housewives up and down the country were being referred to therapists and/or self-medicating with alcohol, comfort food and consumerism. The cause? Intelligent women were being actively encouraged not to use their brains. Popular anthropological and psychological ideas were being (mis)applied to a world in which the observations of Freud no longer had any purchase within the cultural setup. Women were talked into believing that their naturally-ordained role was that of wife and mother. Does this sound familiar? Yeah, I know.

Despite a heavy reliance on certain studies (like the Kinsey study), some slightly questionable survey selection techniques and some highly outdated attitudes to homosexuality (as well as an outright avowal that she is dealing only with the problems of white, middle-class America), Friedan’s case is well made. She writes passionately and with great force. She presents coherent arguments, models and examples and argues her points more clearly than someone like Greer, who tends to get swept up in moralising and political ideology. Friedan not only identifies the problem, she points historically to the way it has been allowed (and encouraged) to evolve and the sociological factors that have permitted this.

The Feminine Mystique is a phenomenon that can still be observed today. It’s tied to the religious hangover of the female ‘role’ and perpetrated at an almost-subliminal level by consumerism. What Friedan advocates is emphatically not bra-burning, non-shaving, ‘scary’ feminism. She says women need to be allowed the freedom to tax themselves as far as they want, and to grow and exist as people, not as mother-robots. Some women will be perfectly content to stay at home and rely on their husbands. But many who think this about themselves have been tricked into doing so. They may find fulfilment for a little while through their children (although their children will suffer for this later), but they will come to be part of a trend of miserable, middle-aged women suffering serious empty-nest syndrome. Having been encouraged into education, these girls should continue to want to stay there – not be subject to opinions that suggest over-educated women are unattractive or unfeminine or less likely to be good mothers. They should be pushed to be as good as they can be – not told to stop before they scare men off.

This book sparked a revolution. Read it and you’ll see why.

On the list for July – I’m reading A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft. I’ve also got a LOT of Angela Carter to read. Happily, I’m going on holiday soon, so I’ll have lots of time to get through it all!

The Darling Books of May

4 Jun

I know, I know. Where have all the blogs gone? Where’s the monthly book review? Why is there nothing to read?!

I hear you and I answer. Here is the blog. It has not gone anywhere, I’ve just been… distracted. I’ve been writing other things, for other people and other events. None of those have been finished or replied to or progressed yet, so you can’t see them, I’m afraid. And as for the monthly book list – here it is! Woop woop! So now you can chill out and read about what I’ve been reading. Yeah.

All right. First up – Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez). I was looking forward to this, as I mentioned to the wonderful E a little while ago that I had bought it and she raved enthusiastically about how wonderful it was. I generally trust E’s opinions on life in any case, but I’m particularly susceptible to her book-loving, so I permitted myself a small rubbing-of-hands-plus-gleeful-chuckle when I got down to opening the book itself.

It’s a great story. I wish I hadn’t read the blurb on the back of my copy, because the first chapter is so integral and yet so disconnected that a blurb which tells you about the story is a bit of a problem. Anyway, I devoured the book. I read it in my lunch breaks and on the bus home and in the evenings after work. I loved it. It was funny and poignant and moving. I had read a Marquez before – One Hundred Years of Solitude – and I was aware that, although I had really enjoyed that, I’d also got quite lost with the seemingly never-ending repeating names and lengthy time span. Happily, the story has a much more compact character base in LitToC, so there’s plenty of opportunity for the pale outlines you meet at the beginning to be fully coloured in as the story progresses. I heartily recommend it to anyone. Especially anyone who thinks that old people shouldn’t fall in love.

I was totally in the zone with my reading one lunchtime when I ran out of book. I had finished the Marquez but I had nothing else with me except my iPad. Happily, I have a kindle app and on that particular day, I even had the wireless connection required to access my books. So there I was, browsing through Aphra Behn, George Eliot, William Thackeray, etc, wondering what to read next. I decided to read Game of Thrones. Sometimes you just need to kick back and read something crazy, y’know?

I couldn’t remember where I’d left off, only that I’d read an awful lot of it back in January (remember that post? Read it here: https://natashasfragments.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/januarys-books-a-rundown/ ). I decided just to crack on. I figured that I’d work out pretty quickly whether I had messed up.

Alas for my presumption! 60% of the way into book 5 I realised to my horror that I had omitted to read book 4. I had been pleasantly enjoying quite a heavy bias of the story towards Tyrion, Daenerys and Jon Snow, all of whose stories followed on from where I had left off at the end of book 3, part 2. I hadn’t really twigged that there was a large chunk of story about Sansa, Arya, Theon, Margaery, Cersei, Jaime, Brienne, etc, etc, etc that I was missing. Don’t believe me? Then you’ve never read a book by George R. R Martin.

That said, I did enormously enjoy the book, as ever. Yes, I was missing a fair bit of backstory but I didn’t really notice this until a fair way along. Wikipedia provided me with enough snippets to fill in the major plot holes I was missing and I continued onwards, since I hate not finishing books and I couldn’t face leaving one book halfway through to tackle another that was set partly concurrently, partly earlier (no, seriously). I am going to have to go back and read book 4, if only for the Arya storyline (she’s so goddam kickass), but a whole book without Tyrion is a pretty hefty ask. He is, after all, the best character.

Book 5 is the latest one to come out, so the ending is actually quite a cliffhanger. There are the usual graphic descriptions of bodily functions (less sex in this one, I think, though a lot more wee) and brutal fighting, with some good turns from Asha Greyjoy and Daenerys especially, waving the flag for the girls. There was also an exceedingly clear framing of the unfair societal restrictions on women – a whole paragraph of internal monologue by one of the female characters mentally decrying her status and power. I don’t know if this is something Martin had in mind all along but he’s certainly bringing it to the fore in the later stuff and also, very much so, in the television series. It’s great. Anyway. Some absolutely classic lines from Tyrion, as ever, and some fascinating plot developments re Young Griff (I’ll say no more, except, in an annoying River Song voice, ‘spoilers!’). But there you have it. Game of Thrones.

Hoping to atone a little for my foray into the world of the ridiculous, I decided the time was ripe for some Jeanette Winterson. I bought some of the books a little while ago on the recommendation, once again, of the fabulous E, and I had been sitting on a little stash of them, Smaug-esque, ready to consume at any moment. Then my sister wandered in to pinch a different book off me one afternoon and said ‘Oh, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit! I’ve read that – it’s really good’. So I had to read it, even if only to catch up with the sis. And it was good. It was very good. Funny and interesting and a tiny bit heartbreakingly sad. And when I’d finished it, I read Sexing the Cherry, which was also funny and interesting and not so sad but very structurally engaging. Now that I think about it, it had a lot in common with Cloud Atlas – but if Cloud Atlas is a series of vanilla sponge layers with interesting fillings, Sexing the Cherry is a chiffon cake, with fewer segments but an infinitely more complex and interesting texture. Edible analogies aside, though, both Jeanette Winterson books were delicious reads, perfect for reminding me why I enjoy books and words and stuff. Yeah.

And on that note, I leave you with news that I’m currently reading a book about how to write a screenplay, and then I have two books in French lined up. And another Jeanette Winterson, in case I somehow manage all of that.

Picture the scene

6 Apr

It is a wet Tuesday afternoon in March. You are on a long weekend trip to Paris, which you thought would be beautiful and empty at this time of year but is actually quite grey and busy with Easter visitors. Your feet ache slightly from the shoes that you thought would be ‘sensible’ but are in fact rather uncomfortable, due to being quite a lot heavier than what you’d normally wear. You cunningly brought an umbrella with you. It is far more ornamental than useful, but since it has owls on you are unwilling to part with it in favour of a utilitarian yet undoubtedly boring model. However, now that you are indoors and it is damp from the light precipitation outside, you are less than keen to put it back in your bag, so it bangs limply at your knee as you meander along. Your jeans have soaked up most of the rain that almost caressingly came into contact with you, as has your scarf, but a few of the pearlescent drops still rest lightly on the hood of your coat and catch your eye with their reflections whenever you look behind you. You have a camera in your bag but you can’t quite bring yourself to get it out for fear of looking too much like a tourist. You pass some full-on tourists, with their long shorts and pulled-up socks, hiking boots and bumbags, SLRs and baseball caps and you think – maybe, maybe in comparison to them I don’t seem so bad, but you still can’t quite do it. I’ll get it out when I get there, you think.

You have arrived at what you came to see. Everyone else seems to have come to see it, too, and you are jostled from all directions by a multitude of languages, faces and cultural attitudes to strangers. You are not in a hurry, though. You know what it looks like. The image is, as with everyone else present, burned indelibly on your brain. It is seminal; one of a kind; endlessly mysterious. It is one of the most-discussed and most iconic enigmas in the world. It endlessly reveals meaning, shedding it in layers like fine snake skin – but like fine snake skin this meaning turns to dust with every new revelation, nor does it seem to leave the original any smaller for its loss.

You wait. You marvel at the hall of the Louvre. It is a beautiful building. How many must pass it by, desperate to witness this one painting – to take a picture of it on their camera phones, not even experiencing it directly via their screen-glazed retinas, their eyes perpetually basted with the wash of technology? You are patient. You loosen your scarf and undo the toggles on your duffel coat and watch.

There – there! The crowd parts, just for a moment, and you have a direct eyeline. There, behind the bullet-proof glass, swarming with devotees – people who look but don’t see; who see but don’t experience; who observe but make no effort to engage – the Mona Lisa. It is there. You have affirmed to yourself it exists; you have witnessed it and you feel a little part of your being flower under the gleaming ray of what this image stands for. By confirming its reality to yourself, a part of the world that only existed previously in a theoretical space has come to light. If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? If there is a painting in a room and no one ever sees it, does it exist? Well, now it does. You have been a part of that reification.

Outside the Louvre, you sit on the rim of one of the fountains and bask in the pale sun.

My friend Laura, having a Parisian chic moment.

My friend Laura, having a Parisian chic moment.

Hope is a bit like the Mona Lisa. You can’t touch it. You don’t know what it’s made of. You know what it looks like – or at least, you know you would recognise it anywhere. It is mysterious in its appearance and in its essence. It is beautiful, although you can’t say exactly why; possibly it’s because everyone says it is, says it must be, and you believe them. You can go a long, long way without getting a glimpse of it, but all it takes is for you to start out on that journey and to wait until that moment when the line of sight is clear. And the image, the heart-stopping, stomach-twitching sight that makes you feel like there’s a jellyfish in your tummy whose alarm has just gone off on the morning of its wedding – will stay with you long after you drift away.

I’ve actually never seen the Mona Lisa. But I have caught a glimpse of hope. This is what it looked like, from where I was standing.

February’s books

1 Mar

Ladies and gents, I give you – February’s books!

I feel bound to confess that I haven’t read quite as much this month, but in my defence, I haven’t had any time off work and there are also fewer days in February. I have read quite a broad selection, though, so hopefully that’ll make it feel like more. It certainly feels like I’ve read a lot of quite different books.

First up: The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. The Good Soldier is touted as being FMF’s best novel and tends to be the one that appears on lists of things a person ought to read. I had never heard of it until I started reading about Modernism in the summer; then I picked up Parade’s End (which is four times the size, composed as it is in four parts) because I have this strange problem where I have to read a book before I can see a film or tv adaptation of it. Anyway, there was no such time pressure for The Good Soldier so it’s taken me until now to get round to it.

It was worth it. What I like best about going back to absolutely classic novels is that frequently, the story is still brand new. Nobody has spoilt the plot for you. And that’s really quite crucial in TGS because the point is that the narrator knows the end of his story, but it takes you a very long time to find it out (I get that maybe this is the case in quite a lot of stories, but in my defence, I have read a lot of Greek tragedy where the idea is that *everyone* knows the story).

The narrator is pretty unreliable. He skips between time frames, events, people like a blood-hungry mosquito. He stops long enough to get a taste and then springs away before he is swatted. He’s rather more bumbling and amiable than a mosquito, of course; he is a pretty helpless character. He’s a good narrator in that sense because he is so passive; he really has just watched this unfold around him, completely clueless of infidelity, passion, anger, religious affiliation. His complete bewilderment about how events turn out makes him easy to relate to from a position of ignorance; he’s not presumptious about what the reader should understand, because he’s so keen to stress he doesn’t understand it himself.

One thing I can’t get over with FMF is his interest in the difference between Catholics and, well, everyone else, and how this translates into seriously messed up human relationships. This was a big thing in Parade’s End (Sylvia, wife of the main character Christopher Tietjens, causes absolute havoc by refusing a divorce on the grounds that she is Catholic). The Good Soldier offers a rather more subtle treatment of this phenomenon – or perhaps it’s more that the character is more sympathetic; less the one at fault. At any rate, it’s interesting that Ford chose to look at the same subject in apparently the same way twice and came to different conclusions about it both times.

The narrative style is not so densely, relentlessly stream-of-consciousness as Last Post (the fourth part of Parade’s End) but it is still a novel very much conducted through the medium of a character’s brain. That’s ok. It reminds you how ridiculous your own memory is; connections are always made too late and events that seem completely unrelated turn out to be more than simple coincidence. The end of the novel holds more emotional material than it would without the personal narration. Overall – I enjoyed The Good Soldier. It was restfully deflating; wistful, a little sad, but a smooth journey down.

As soon as I’d finished with FMF, I turned my attention to Orwell. I read Animal Farm years ago at school but for some reason or another I had never got round to reading 1984; again, it’s one of those books that everyone assumes everyone else has read (although I suspect that half the people who claim to have done so and frequently and superciliously refer to a ‘Big Brother Society’ etc are telling porkies). Anyway. I bought an excellent Penguin edition – a classic, with the orange cover – which has the name and author censored out. Pleasing. Again, my aim is not to spoil the story for all those prepared to confess to ignorance so I’ll just say what I thought.

It’s difficult to remember, when you read it, that it was written a significant amount of time before 1984 and Orwell was only half-jokingly predicting a horrifying dystopian future. Forget the number on the front and it still reads like a slightly alarming potential consequence of our messed up society. It’s possibly a bit more politically driven than your average teen reader today would understand (is it just me or is our interest in all political parties outside a small circle around the centre steadily diminishing?). It is, nevertheless, fascinating. And chilling. Mostly chilling, to be honest.

When I finished 1984, I also felt deflated – but not in the calm, serene way of a sad story come to a natural, if tragic close. I felt like a frog in the midst of its croaking, suddenly stepped on, one eye still blinking in discomfort. Gross, perhaps, but there you go.

On to the next one. January/February time is when all the news-y people start chattering away about films and award seasons and people start looking ahead to what’s coming out in the following year. I’ll be honest, this is partly why I read Gatsby – I want to watch the new Leo DiCaprio + Carey Mulligan version in May, because I ❤ Carey Mulligan. Lots of people were talking about Kill Your Darlings, the sort-of-biopic of Allen Ginsberg and his mates, with Ginsberg played by Daniel Radcliffe, sporting some glasses of which HP would be proud. I think it’s out some time this spring. All this natter about the Beat generation and so on led me to realise I didn’t have a clue what it’s about and that I should probably find out. So off I toddled.

I read Howl and Kaddish by Allen Ginsberg before tackling Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I thought I had the measure of Beat after Ginsberg but there is a significant difference between beat poetry and beat prose. Beat poetry really thuds – you can hear it if you read it – it reverberates and clangs and echoes in your head while already pealing out the next chimes. Kaddish is strikingly similar to its namesake in that respect; the prayer entitled ‘kaddish’ is read several times in a Shabbat service and a lot of Orthodox Jews accompany it with a rocking motion that really does sound like poor delusional Ginsberg mourning his mother.

Beat prose is a different kind of beat – beat up, rather than beating. (Just for a moment, let’s all look at the word ‘beat’. Isn’t it ridiculous? Yeah. Anyway.). Beat prose is like a kettle that’s been hammered out of a dustbin. I found it really difficult to get a handle on what the story was, where the hero Sal Paradise was going, why he was going there, why he was so easily drawn into ladding about across the country with his crazy mate Dean Moriarty. Maybe it’s because I’m not American, not a lad, not of that generation, not of a generation that remembers or understands that generation. Beat doesn’t speak to me. Perhaps I’m a bit too prim and proper for stories about hitchhiking across the breadth of America looking for girls and drugs. That’s all right. You don’t have to like every book you read. I get why it was seminal, though. 1950s America can’t have seen many books like it.

In the end, it was a relief to finish On the Road. I dithered for a short while about what to read next before settling on Wolf Hall (I did read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in the meanwhile, but do scripts count? I haven’t decided). Hilary Mantel was in the news for her talk, published as an article in the London Review of Books, about the Duchess of Cambridge, but I had already started reading (I’m a trendsetter, me), so I felt very topical for a change. I finished Wolf Hall yesterday evening after a considerable effort to crack the last 100 pages or so before month end.

I really, really enjoyed it. Mantel’s prose style is unusual – I struggled a little at first; a present tense 3rd person narrative from Cromwell’s point of view is initially not terribly intuitive, but it became much easier very quickly and soon it was simply pleasant. Keeping it up consistently for over 600 pages is no mean feat, either; I know from small attempts at writing that maintaining such a complicated authorial/narrative persona for any length of time is pretty tough.

I always secretly thought that Cromwell wasn’t that bad a guy and it’s delicious to read a story that allows for ambiguity in judging the key players. Wolsey’s not a bastard, Cromwell’s not a bastard; even Henry VIII, Anne and Katherine all come off with depth and a multiplicity of motivation. Having studied this era in a significant amount of detail at A level, it’s a great joy to come across a name I remember, or a character I know will be important, or an event the outcome of which I already know. Richard Riche; the dissolution of the monasteries; Chapuys the Imperial ambassador (I think I even studied some of his letters). Mark Smeaton, the pesky lute player, Paulet, the administrator, Zwingli, the German religious sectary – all these folks are going to be important.

Mantel has done so well to take a story that everybody knows the bones of and hang an impressively meaty tale around it. I can’t wait to read Bring Up the Bodies, even though I know exactly what’s going to happen. Because, you see, I don’t. Or rather, I don’t know why it’s going to happen. And so it turns out that it’s not ‘stuff’ that makes up a really great story, it’s ‘reason’. So and so kills so and so. Fine. Why? Ah, well. That’s the interesting part. OF COURSE IT IS.

I can apply this little epiphany back over the month and explain why I liked the books I did. The Good Soldier only gradually reveals what happened, and puzzles out why it occurred that way en route; I enjoyed that, in an emotional armchair-detective sort of way. 1984 runs two storylines, effectively; a cultural one and a personal one. The cultural one explains the culmination of the storyline of the main character, Winston, but his story also demonstrates the internal need for the cultural atmosphere to exist. They make up a sort of Mobius strip of fiction, which is, obvs, delicious. So I liked that. I couldn’t connect with Kerouac’s reasons – which is appropriate, contextually; he hails from a generation without a need for reason; the only reason for doing anything was to feel alive. I’m not from a background which demands I have to remember how alive I am all the time; I was lost. And then Mantel. She provides the reasons behind the story I already know. Much, in fact, like Greek Tragedy.

As a tiny aside, I read Virginia Woolf’s Killing the Angel in the House on the evening of the 28th. What can I say? It resonates. I think I’m going to be reading a lot more Woolf.

So there you go. It is now March, and I have 31 whole days to absorb some more literature. I was asked in my lunch break the other day (I always sit outside the office and read in my lunch breaks) if I eat books. I suppose I do. They’re rather nourishing. I’ve just started Cloud Atlas, which I reckon I’m going to enjoy, and then my list of potential reads becomes rather long, encompassing The Handmaid’s Tale, Wide Sargasso Sea and a bunch of others. If you have any suggestions for me, let me know – I’d like to hear them! Also, tell me what books you’ve been eating – I like to hear those, too.

Til next time!

The Most Wonderful Day of the Year.

14 Feb

I was all set to write a scathing indictment of the horrors of Valentine’s day and how it’s become a terrible commercial game in which you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t, but frankly, that subject has been pretty well covered this year. I read an excellent Guardian article (for which I can’t find the link, sorry!) about the insistence of society on living in pairs and how it’s all sort of a bit weird, actually (it was put more eloquently than that but y’know) and also a bunch of other pleasing things, mostly by the Vagenda Magazine (like King Lear, but for girls) on the strange assumptions that get peddled about what women want out of Valentine’s day compared to what men want out of it. And so on.

As you may note, I appear not to have deviated from my plan thus far. Well, the Valentine-hating stops there, folks. Yeah, alright, it’s a bit rubbish being a lonely singlething on Valentine’s AGAIN, but, y’know, it’s not all doom and gloom.

F’rinstance. I arrived home to a letter – a LETTER! – addressed to ME – containing an actual factual Valentinian love note. It was from my ‘bosom’ companion, Rachel. What makes this particular note extremely joyous is that I sneakily posted her a tiny card yesterday, too. Neither of us knew the other would send anything. We just did. That’s what love is, guys. Doing something for the sheer joy of knowing the other person will be delighted to receive it. The other direct message I had today was from my additional ‘bosom’ companion (given that I’ve got two components to my bosom, I reckon having more than 1 bosom companion is reasonable), Laura. So I may be living up the Platonic quasi-lesbian lifestyle, but LOVE IS IN THE AIR, folks.

Also, I went to ‘Twilight at the Museums’ last night. No, it’s not a Ben Stiller vampire movie. It’s a thing that happens in Cambridge every once in a while where the museums (and there are quite a lot of them, given how small the city is) open after hours. They keep most of the lights switched off, apart from a few crazy-coloured uplights and so on, so the dinosaur skulls and kayaks cast crazyawesome shadows on the walls. Michael and I were the only people there above four foot who hadn’t brought children; we had, however, brought childlike enthusiasm. We both came away with stickers. It was awesome. The funniest thing was the guy in the box pretending to be an exhibit at the Sedgwick. Seriously, he was in a wooden box that was made to look like a 19th century geologist’s study, wearing an enormous white wig and writing with a quill. Occasionally he would pause and move a bit jerkily, as if he was pretending to be an automaton. It was – surreal. No other word for it. We also went to the museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where we looked at cannibal forks and an enormous wooden bear, among other things. An excellent way to spend an evening on a whim.

Also. Now. I don’t want to blow my own trumpet, but stand by for a small solo.

I totes won something I didn’t expect to ever hear about again and even though it was only a tiny piece of writing and for a competition which I’m sure wasn’t entered by that many people it still put a smile on my face from the moment I got the email at around 4.30pm until – well, now, basically. Even discovering I’ve been massively cocking up the work filing system (oops) did not push the gleeful lunacy off my face. Natch the parentals have wheeled out the whole orchestral brass section to sing about it from the rooftops (not elicited by me, I might add) which is a leetle awkward, but hey ho, I can still feel pleasantly smug about the whole thing.

If nothing else, it means that someone, somewhere, thinks I can write. Maybe they think I can only write film reviews. At this stage of the game, I don’t really mind. A tiny trickle of confidence may just go some way to beginning the erosion of years of self doubt. Which must be a good thing, on the whole. Right? Of course right.

On an almost related note, I can tell people who enjoyed my January-books post that so far this month I have read The Good Soldier and 1984, and I’ve nearly finished On the Road. I also went a bit crazy on Amazon, so there’s plenty more exciting things on the way (Cloud Atlas + Wolf Hall are fairly high on my list, for starters..). So if you wanna be my lover join in the conversation, you know what I’m reading. Go wild!

Sleep dreamily, childlings.

Apologies for absence

16 Dec

HI GUYS.

I’m sorry. It’s been a while. There are various reasons for this. Rest assured I still love you all and I haven’t forgotten you. Promise.

The truth is, I’ve been beavering away (not like that, you filthy-minded people) on my latest project. I can tell it’s going well because I have been at it now (stoppit!) for a couple of weeks. I am writing something. At the moment, I am writing it to see if I can finish it. Maybe if I think it is any good, I’ll do something with it, but for now it is more of an exercise in perseverance. Anyway, it’s coming along nicely, thanks. I’ve just crept over the 10000 word mark, which I think is pretty reasonable going for under 14 days work.

Other significant things that have occurred:

1) I have discovered The Vagenda (tagline: ‘Like King Lear, but for girls’). It is brilliant and hilarious and reassuring and joyful. It’s like having a daily dose of How to be a Woman just a browser-window away. I’ve worked my way through pretty much every post on there, and now I’m telling everyone I know about it. It is a little bit of reality in a world that is still obsessed with what girls look like and how they should behave. And as a girl who is not very good at looking like one is supposed to according to Closer or Heat or Grazia or whatever, it’s rather pleasant to come across a bunch of people who think the same – hell, who go much, much further. So that has been a ray of sunshine.

2) Hanukah/enforced Christmas. Hanukah has been and gone, now, actually, but I got some pretty awesome stuff from the lovely ‘rents (most of it baking related, but that’s ok because I LOVE BAKING). I haven’t used my new blender or blowtorch or sugar thermometer yet but when I do, baby, it’ll be amazing. Meanwhile, at work, I am encountering increasing incredulity (too much assonance?) every time I have to explain that I’ve never had a Christmas tree or an advent calendar or a string of tinsel (I’m joking about the last one). My boss keeps trying to ‘educate’ me and get me into the Christmas spirit. Which is annoying. I’m not Scrooge – it’s just NOT MY RELIGION. He keeps on saying ‘yeah but Christmas is basically secular anyway’. That doesn’t mean my parents buy a Christmas tree and decorate the house with an extravagant LED display. Sure, there’s no religious reason to do those things. But there’s no secular reason to do them either. Just because everyone else is doing it, there is no obligation on me to participate. And it’s cruel to laugh at me when you make me put up the office Christmas tree because I patently have no idea what I’m doing (apparently you have to chop the end off before you put it in water. I suppose if I thought about it this would seem obvious. But seriously, if it involves a hacksaw, it’s not going to spring immediately to my mind). The whole thing is enough to make me shout BAH HUMBUG TO YOU ALL. Ok. Rant over.

3) I went to London to visit the Queen! Jokes. I went to London to see Emily and Maya (and Michael came too, complete with his comedy reindeer antlers, which he is wearing all over the place these days). We went to Holland Park, which contains the fattest peacocks you ever saw. They must feed on the flesh of unwary tourists or something cos srsly, they are HUGE. And quite menacing. And the squirrels – holy bejeezus, they are scary. They lure you in with their big innocent eyes and their fluffy tails and then you realise there are three of them, and they are following you. Herding you, almost. Anyway, we escaped from the park alive and went for a reviving drink in a nearby pub (winter Pimms! Yes!). A whole day out of the house for me. Excitement abound.

That’s pretty much it for big events, I’m afraid. The next couple of weeks provide much to which to look forward (in the shape of weekends and DAYS OFF and so forth) so I’m sure you’ll hear from me again soon.

 

Toodles! x

practice

14 Nov

I’ve decided that if ever want to get anywhere with anything that involves writing stuff, I am going to have to work on my metaphors and similes. They are all as hackneyed as a London-based transportation system.

Some people have a serious knack for spinning a metaphor or simile that really does catch what they mean without them having to explain it. I always get caught up in the analogy and want to show people *why* such and such is like such and such another. The trick is obviously to say something that is sufficiently evocative that no further chat is needed.
So, as an example. I’ve been listening, recently, to the new(ish) Regina Spektor Album called ‘What we saw from the cheap seats’, which is a pleasing title to me because it sounds – well, I don’t know. It sounds like she’s on our side and she’s with us, and we’re all sitting in the cheap seats together eating popcorn and being a little bit rowdy but essentially having a good time. Or something. Anyway. Usually when I listen to a new album of something it’s because I’ve heard one or maybe two songs from it and I think I’ll give the rest of it a go. So in this case, I had heard the song ‘How’ and really liked it, thus off I went trawling Grooveshark, youtube etc for the rest of the songs. And there’s this one called ‘Firewood’, which is excellent, and then there’s another one called ‘ The Party’.
Now ‘The Party’ opens with the lines:
You’re like a party
Somebody threw me
You taste like Thursday
You look like New Year
You’re like a big parade through town
you leave such a mess
but you’re so fun
So. Perhaps on first sight this doesn’t look like Grammy-award-winning stuff. BUT. I contest that analogically (?) this is genius. Someone is ‘like a party’. Ok, so we’re expecting this to mean – fun, loud, noisy etc. But – the tiny explanatory tag is not related to the nature of the noun, but to the way it is dependent on the verb (in later verses the person who is like a party changes to reflect more emphatically on what ‘throwing’ it does). Clever, huh? The reason they are like a party is kind of because they require someone else to be in charge and make it all happen. They get all the credit for being fun when actually it’s the chappy behind the scenes putting all the hard work in to get the show on the road. And this is all picked up nicely in the ‘parade through town’ bit. Good while it’s happening, but damn inconvenient once all the happy has worn off.
The bit I really like is the two-line middle section. You taste like Thursday. What does that even mean? How can a day have a taste? Well, as anyone who has a normal working week can tell you, Thursday is a delicious day. It really is. You have all the anticipation of it nearly being the weekend (so close!) without the frustration that Friday brings on that it’s not *quite* here yet. After Thursday, you have crested the peak of the week and you can career down the other side of the wave, and it doesn’t matter if you fall off the board at this point because you’ll wash up on the smooth beaches of the glory that is Saturday. Thursday is full of excited anticipation and contains very little realistic gloom or bitterness. That’s Friday. Friday tastes of frustration. Monday tastes of wasted time (‘all that weekend and I didn’t DO anything!’). Tuesday tastes of despair. Wednesday tastes of soap. Thursday – well, Thursday is great. I love Thursdays.
You look like New Year? Depends what your New Years look like, I suppose. And also whether you mean ‘the exact point at which the year becomes new’, or ‘a NYE party’ OR indeed, New Year’s day. All of which are very different looks, I posit. I think in this case it’s the second one that is meant. A New Year’s eve party (which encompasses, unless you’ve passed out and had to be put to bed, the first meaning also) is glitzy and OTT and contains more alcohol than is strictly necessary and more celebrating than seems really worthwhile considering what we are marking. How significant is a number rolling over, year after year? Why is it that a year is important? Wouldn’t it be more exciting if we reduced how often we celebrated, and had a party every five years or something like that? Anyway, the point is that it’s an arbitrary party. So that’s what the analogy is getting at. You look like an arbitrary party. Tacky and sticky from booze and glittery and having a really great time but almost certainly going to be suffering for it tomorrow.
Scroll up to the point where I start talking about this. That’s a whole lot of meaning to fit into a not very large amount of words. People talk about ‘not mincing words’ but I think that the opposite approach is needed if you’re going to squish this amount of stuff in. Mincing is economical. Mincing and grinding and seasoning to taste, then shaping, frying lightly and serving with a little sauce.
So I’m going to have to practice. Let me know if you think of any good ones for me to use, in my life, or in my writing.