Books to Build a Person

In the middle bedroom of my mum’s house is a treasure trove. A collection of the books that me and my two sisters read when we were growing up. Oh, the adventures to be found. In one place is What-A-Mess, the Afghan hound who always ended up in a state, despite the purity of his breeding. In another is Mildred Hubble, the Worst Witch, who was perpetually disorganised, had her hair undone, was late for lessons, had her socks round her ankles and never quite got her spells right.

Each time I stay in that middle room, I pull another book out. Perhaps a tale of Narnia, the putting on of rings in an attic that takes the wearers to a strange pool, or a girl who goes to a party and picks all the jelly sweets and cream off the top of a trifle.

Something familiar joins these stories. A girl, who isn’t quite sure of herself. Perhaps it’s her general organisation, or her desire to look outside the limitations of the world around her. A girl who is fascinated by anything and everything, even if she isn’t always organised enough to put the right sock on her feet in the morning.

Yes, that’s me. While I was reading these books, clearly I was finding characters in which I found a mirror of myself. In the mornings, my mum would despair at getting me out of the door on time. At school, my teachers would despair at my lack of pencil, pen, homework, the general paraphernalia that always ended up a bit outside my capabilities. Most of it was because I was too distracted by a book, or the TV, or an idea I had, forever in the muddle of my ideas. These books helped me to identify my place in the world, and to get a sense of worth. Arriety and Mildred always had wonderful adventures.

What it also led me to discover was the power of the books I read when I was young. The top three books were there: Paddington, The Borrowers and Narnia. Not just one book, but anthologies, three collections of books that I read over and over, absorbing myself in the worlds that took my behind the clock with Arriety, into the home of the Browns with Paddington, and into another world with Polly and Digory.

There’s something strange about reading those same words, the ones I turned to so often when I was a child. For starters, it makes me feel bloody old. All too often, I don’t really think as myself as particularly grown up, but there’s nothing like a childhood book to remind you it was over twenty-five years since you last read a book. At the same time, it’s comforting. Snuggling down under a duvet, I can pretend I’m still in that place, sheltered by a secret world, where, at least for that moment, it felt like it only existed for me.

The magic of my childhood resided in books. I was also lucky enough to grow up with books; Steven King making my teenage years even more scary than they were anyway, and the Discworld providing light relief from teenage angst. In fact, I went on to write my dissertation about Terry Pratchett, so his influence stretched beyond spots and hormones.

Now, as a (sort of) adult, I continue to drown myself in words. Sometimes it’s the classics that I really should have read by now, other times it’s new fiction that’s just been released, or just random stuff recommended to me by other people. I find that I look more and more for people different to myself, to allow me to explore through books, rather than find solace in recognising something familiar.

What I’ve also come to realise is that, while my days are often shaped around reading (on the bus, before sleep, a sneaky few chapters over lunch) I have also been shaped by the books I read. My sense of adventure, encouraged by Arriety’s desire to see what was outside the door. My desire to create, boosted by Paddington’s stubborn insistence on getting to the end of whatever he was doing, no matter the outcome. There’s politics and social codes in there too. I’ve seen the world through the eyes of wizards, witches, homosexuals, Islamic fundamentalists, young children, old people, and perhaps most importantly, people from cultures I have never visited. I will never know what it’s like to be a Korean living in the US, or a Nigerian, or a Chinese person in the UK, but all of these voices have been experienced by my little lump of grey matter. Now that’s a powerful thing.

Reading goes far beyond providing a simple way to kill a few hours. It cannot match up to a film or a game, simply because, only in reading, are you active in constructing the meaning, shaping the world in your imagination that the words suggest to you.

That’s why, sorry everyone, I will continue to buy every most people I know a book for Christmas (I do hope you’re enjoying reading them!), because I want them, too, to be able to touch the spine of a treasured item, and recall the times that paper, ink and glue took them to places they never imagined.

Taking Time Out

December is upon us. While apparently the idea that time goes quicker as you get older is a myth (it’s just because you’ve seen more actual time, apparently) it still seems that the years are stacking up at a rate that I can’t quite keep up with. Every hour, day, week, month, I get to the end and sometimes it feels like all I have is a list of things I didn’t manage to do. People I didn’t see, projects I didn’t finish, marking I didn’t do, films I didn’t see, phone calls I didn’t make. It can be more than a little overwhelming.

Last weekend, I made a bold decision. I left the city. Abandoned my beautiful newly-bought flat (6 months and a lot of DIY) and headed out to the wilds of Surrey, to hang out with my Mum and Dad. While it hasn’t exactly ticked off a huge number of things on the List of Doom, it’s certainly offered a nice bit of perspective.

For starters, writing. I’m lucky enough to have two whole days a week that are scheduled for private writing time. While the mornings tend to be pretty productive (2,000 word average, I can live with that) the afternoons end up as so much faffing about. Washing, tidying, then I have guilt that I’m at home but not exercising, so I usually end up in the gym or going for a run. But that ends up being another day that I get to the end of and think – what did I do today?

So I cashed it all in. It was the last weekend before the end of the year that I actually had nothing on (sorry, Batala) and I decided to have a self-enforced writing retreat. The results? It’s bloody lovely.

While I can’t claim to have done no house-related things at all (I’m pretty sure cooking dinner is in order considering I’m getting free room and board) there was that wonderful freedom of not actually being able to do anything. Sure, I should probably have put another coat of paint on the wardrobes, or put a wash on, but I physically couldn’t. Funnily enough, my afternoons ended up far more productive than my mornings.

There were little annoying things I’d been meaning to do for ages, like making a spreadsheet of literary magazines to send out to (yes, the creative and the nerd go surprisingly well together) as well as catching up on my social media stuff. The word count was pretty good. I managed 10,000 words in 3 days, which is certainly an improvement, and I also found myself having random ideas for new stories, which is something that rarely happens to me.

But you know what, there was something else. Over and above the loveliness of simply being able to wander upstairs and write whenever I liked, there was something I don’t give myself nearly enough of. Time. I am a terrible ‘should’ person. Constantly barraging myself with guilt about something that didn’t get done, or something that seemed like a ‘waste’ of time. It’s the times that you stop, do nothing, that you remember what makes you smile. On Sunday afternoon, me and Mum sang ‘Climb Every Mountain’ while doing a few bits in the kitchen. I grew up with that musical, with singing. It’s something I almost never do anymore.

But I digress. The thing that I really discovered last weekend? The power of time. That when you take yourself away from the treadmill of your life, you feel more relaxed, more calm, more productive, more creative, than you ever thought possible. I’m not a massive fan of resolutions, as they always seem to imply goals and charts and yet another way of disappointing my own expectations, but if there’s one thing I want to give myself next year, it’s the space to feel like this in my own home.

Thanks, Mum. xx

Lessons from YA Books

Having read several dystopian novels lately (see my thoughts here) I decided to try a YA version, to see how they compared. I was pleasantly surprised. While I’m incredibly wary of genre-specific snobbery, I confess I am subject to a bit of it when it comes to the YA genre. The books that I’ve read tend to be trite, or the emotions overstated, or clichéd, or they simply dealt with an area of human experience that had lost resonance for me. In the case of The Giver, I not only found a genuinely good book, I also thought that the ‘adult’ sphere of novels could learn a few lessons from it.

A great story doesn’t have to be complicated. 

We are in a perfect world. There is no pain, no hunger, no loss, no poverty. But, of course, this comes at a price. In order to live in a society this controlled, feelings must be suppressed. The question the book asks is quite simple – is a world without sorrow, hate or pain worth it, when there is no joy or love?

We follow Jonas, a young boy who meets The Giver, a man who holds the collective memories of humanity. As The Receiver, Jonas must start to take on the memories himself. As a result, he starts to discover a hidden past, along with profound feelings that leave him confused. He comes to realise the flaws in the perfect world around him, and starts to question the nature of the world around him.

But all of this is told in a very simplistic way. We don’t enter into huge philosophical debates, there is no fluffy description or hyperbolising. Often, the most simply stated things are the most moving.

Being simple doesn’t mean you can’t be complex.

Just because the plot and the language seem straightforward, doesn’t mean the questions and metaphors they’re throwing up are basic. The whole world could be a metaphor for censorship or control, and the effects it has on people. By taking things that people assume are ‘perfect’ to the extreme, you could question the very nature of happiness and perfection, and that part of the beauty of humanity is the struggle, the contrast between highs and lows. The ending could be hugely optimistic or depressingly cynical, depending on how you choose to read it. In fact, it is because things are not overtly spelled out, that the book can be open to a myriad of interpretations.

Never underestimate a decent plot. 

People that tell stories well are often undervalued. The great Stephen King, rarely given much credence in terms of ‘literature,’ is masterful at weaving together stories and keeping them pacy and engaging. This, as I’m discovering, is one of the most difficult elements of writing. Take me into another world, make me see it and feel it, use language to make it sound nice – these things are fairly accessible to all writers.

But immerse me in a story, convince me to follow a character through twists and turns, make me unable to tear my eyes away from a page – this has somehow been deemed a lesser skill. Not that I’m advocating reading Dan Brown, but it’s worth remembering that a good plot with tension dropped in at pertinent points is harder than it seems.

Children aren’t stupid.

I think one of the objections people have to reading from the perspectives of children is because they find them a little, well, childish. In fact, the best authors of this genre don’t underestimate the interpretive powers of their young protagonists. One of the criticisms against The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (although I love that book) is that Bruno comes across as just a little too clueless. In this book, Jonas can comprehend the magnitude of what he is seeing, the power he holds, the difference it makes in the world. The way he sees his parents change, and he is forced into an uncomfortable decision. Child narrators allow a writer to pare things down, but also allow for a much richer level of discovery and development.

Novels like The Giver remind us that stories can be simple, written for children, and still beautiful and resonant for readers of all ages.

When Revenge Goes Bad…

Frank Herbert offers us an insight into the darker side of human nature in The White Plague, an apocalyptic tale of revenge.

The cover of the book is very apt – murky fog, a solitary figure, a town shrouded in obscurity. Even if the weather is fine, or we are indoors, this novel revels in the unknown. The words not said, agendas not revealed, or the problems or changes that might be lurking just around the corner. The message is clear: no-one is to be trusted.

In Ireland, a man is visiting with his family. In one push of a button, his life is destroyed. The provisional IRA detonate a bomb, killing his wife and two children. From this, a desperate revenge unfolds. He creates a virus that attacks only women, the worst possible curse he can imagine to harm the nations that have wronged him.

We are offered a fairly universal viewpoint as the book develops, rather than being ‘on the ground’ in one country, as most dystopias tend to be. We shift between Irish, English and US perspectives, with some French and Russian characters thrown in to counterbalance it all. This gives a true sense of the scale of this hypothetical virus, and allows the author to imagine the global conflict and power struggles that would erupt under such conditions.

There are a few questionable plot points, which didn’t gape wide enough to unhinge the story. How, for example, is it possible that one scientist, in a makeshift lab, can disprove theories of molecular DNA? His science also feels overstated, and for that purpose, doesn’t ring quite true, almost as though he’s trying to labour the fact that he’s done his research. Having said that, his prediction of the use of genetics in warfare was pretty spot on, with the book being written in 1982.

These questions make the book feel more like a ‘what if?’ than a genuine scientific possibility. This perhaps impacts on how much we care about outcomes, but it still explores these ideas in an incredibly interesting way.

The later parts of the book are mostly set in Ireland. We follow a tortuous journey through the Irish countryside – devastated as it was one of the first areas hit, with the characters arguing over the long-term problems of Ireland and the possibility of hope and faith in such a world. We follow the man who created the virus (slightly dodgy use of schizophrenia as a plot tool), the man who blew up his family, a priest, and a young boy silenced by the horrors he has seen.

It’s certainly compelling. I found myself unable to put the book down. Each character had enough depth that I cared what happened to them. The setting was very atmospheric and moody, painting a bleak picture of how humanity might behave if it were faced with such problems.

I did find, however, that the rambling conversations of the troupe in Ireland were unnecessarily long. It almost felt like the author had an interest in philosophy, especially in relation to religion, and wanted to debate a series of arguments. In an extreme setting, questions of God and morality are important, but at times it felt laboured.

Of course, what Herbert is really questioning is the extent to which scientific understanding, in the wrong hands, is perhaps the most dangerous knowledge on earth. Which makes for a pretty good book.

Hag-Seed

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A new book by Margaret Atwood! Very exciting. I went along to her talk at the Southbank Centre (proper fan moment) and heard her discuss the book, her life, and her work. She is one interesting lady. She also has good shoes (silver!). There’s something incredibly refreshing about listening to someone like her talk. Intelligent, yes, talented, yes, but there is something fundamentally captivating about a person who is just so interested and passionate about the world. With so much whining about things on social media, here we have a woman of immense literary talent who devotes her time to helping out local libraries, who supports campaigns to help combat global warming, and who writes graphic novels about a part-cat, part-bird superhero called Angel Cat Bird. Now there’s someone I would like to invite to dinner.

And, of course, she talked about her new novel, Hag-Seed. A reinventing of The Tempest, it is the fourth novel in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, following Jeanette Winterson’s retelling of The Winter’s Tale, Howard Jacobson’s of The Merchant of Venice and Anne Tyler’s of The Taming of the Shrew. It’s a tricky thing, as she acknowledged herself, to re-invent such a well-heeled play from such a respected writer as Shakespeare.

Rather than trip around the subject, Atwood tackles this head on, and allows her main character in on the secret – he is perfectly aware that his life is following the structure of the play, and in fact is in the process of trying to put on a performance of it. He even has a daughter called Miranda. This deft layering of story onto story is a little nudge to the reader; we’re all in on it. It allows for both subtle and overt analysis of the play, its characters themes and ideas, as well as making us feel very clever for getting the references.

Our Prospero is played by Felix, a director who has been spurned from the local Festival, usurped by (of course) his evil brother, and shunned by society. He goes to an obscure little hovel to lick his wounds, and is kept company by his visions of a daughter who died at age 3. So far, so familiar. In fact, I found the opening a little ploddy, but it all took off after Felix takes a job working in the Fletcher Correctional Institute. Here, we meet a new cast of characters, in the inmates who provide the acting skills for various Shakespeare plays. His dream is to finally stage his perfect Tempest. Of course, underpinning all of this is Felix’s desire for revenge. One day he will confront his brother and take back what is rightfully his. Best way to do that? Putting on some plays with criminals, apparently. I have to say I was curious as to how this particular plot would play out, but I needn’t have feared. With Atwood, you’re always in safe hands, and she steers the course of the novel deftly towards its climax.

Some reviewers have found the inmates to be lacking depth as characters. Personally, I quite liked that. It allowed for a layering of interpretations and modernisation to be done through them, without needing to know who they are. They almost figuratively played the part of Prospero’s goblins (they do literally too), in that they are a means to an end, rather than characters in themselves. As Felix brings together his plans for The Tempest, we also have a rather important aside – namely the power of literature to educate and engage the incarcerated. It’s an oft-repeated accusation that prisoners have a ‘cushy’ life, and funding for programmes like literature or drama is often cut. Atwood reminds us of the power of performance, and how a sense of pride and a desire for knowledge can be a powerful tool in rehabilitation. Also, it’s great to hear hardened criminals only swearing in Shakespearean. I might use that one in my classes.

Because the characters aren’t fully realised, there are some great things that can be done with them. We have modernised Shakespearean rap, continuations of the story into fanciful places, modern twists and interpretations of characters and actions, and of course (it being Atwood) a high-kicking Miranda who refuses to be anyone’s plaything. At times it is playful and fun, at others a deep commentary on the nature of loss, identity, and how people can learn to trust each other and heal themselves. I particularly liked how much spotlight was given to Caliban, the Hag-Seed himself, whose origins and destiny are scrutinised, especially by the characters that identify with him.

In re-imagining something, the idea is to take the coherent themes and see how they can be manipulated. Having such an overt agenda in this book means that we can join in, something that I found truly engaging. It’s like an English teacher’s dream. The resonance of Shakespeare’s words are always far-reaching, but it seems that Atwood brings that very notion directly to the surface, rather than hiding it beneath a completely different story. I loved the overt references and discussion and hey, who doesn’t like a few goddesses thrown in for good measure?

Atwood, through Shakespeare, reminds us that The Tempest is all about confinement. In many ways, we are all imprisoned. Sometimes by society, or the way others treat us, or perhaps in prisons of our own making. We are reminded that it is self awareness and hope, not desire for revenge, that will ultimately allow us to be free.

The Fragrance of Blood

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She lets the sun touch her through the window. Dips her head, past the dark line drawn on the table, sits her face into the sharp heat. Magnified warmth. It could be Ghana outside – thick orange dust, women piling yellow fruits. Amplify the squawk of a hedge-bird, it could be a gull – clawing its way into the sky, scissored feathers in glossy blue. She squints at the shaking strands of light shredded through the Volvic water bottle – a reflection of a swaggering pool, a shard of light cut from the shifting sea.

The minute hand of the clock stabs. They’ll be back soon. She pulls her face back into the shade, reconciles her eyes to the brown lines of houses across the road, next door’s terracotta fence too orange, like a beach with a fake tan. Crushing the waxy wrappings, she cups her hand and drags it over the wooden surface, scraping her skin white to make sure all traces are gone.  She picks up a bit of gristle and grinds it between her teeth.

The evidence goes in a sealed freezer bag, the air hushed out, then the rigmarole with the chair so she can reach all the way to the back of the airing cupboard, nestled with the others between the folds of the ruched curtains they took down last summer. Two slices of ham and a sealed pack of pastrami for next week.

It might start to smell. A quick squirt of Berry and Shimmering Mist, thorough hand wash, everything is hidden. She slips back the lid of the piano and smears some fingerprints on it, puts some pans on the hob and a willing carrot on the chopping board. The last moment before the clatter arrives at the door, she lifts one hand into the beam of evening light, dancing the warmth in her fingers.

Once they’re here, she changes. Three other bodies, shifting around hers, demanding, placating, the, ‘yes-but-I-didn’t-mean-it,’ and, ‘what-are-you-telling-me-for,’ dips up and down like a chorus, a tape-loop of grievances and defences, repetition smoothing them to melody. Her movements are easier, guided by expectations, pinned by these male eyes. Once separated from her body, they lifted and turned against her.

When they are almost at the table He will arrive, then is the ritual of the eating and the asking. The Requests, now the wallet is near, before they disperse into corners, leaving her to cleanse the portions of the house they have touched, to make it ready for their onslaught again.

Something sticks. Before the clatter of his key, a jump in the rhythm, a caught needle. It’s like a lump, a hard thing, too early in the month for that, and too high up, but a similar clenching around a hard mass, something she swallowed perhaps. The boys gape at her, this unexpected stillness. One finger under a rib – poke, rub, it will go soon.

It resumes, their dance exhaling back into what it was. Lentil bake today, followed by yoghurt and raspberry compote.  He arrives; ‘oh-what-did-you-get-for-homework,’ and, ‘you-won’t-get-better-unless-you-practise,’ until they scatter.

The obstruction persists, an accusation under her skin as she smooths on the thick blubber of face cream and reads five pages before sleep.

Mince sits in sops of it, gleaming on the edge of chops, the steak carved out from the redness itself. Blood smells more fragrant than Purple Lavender Meadow. Last time it was just a pork pie, a pink hunk hidden inside a clump of pastry. It could have been cheese, vegetable. Easy to hide. Before that a sausage roll, a turkey stick. All so hard and cold. She wants something with juice today, for it to leak between her lips as she eats it. Cooking is too risky, they might smell it.

Impaled chickens rotate in an oven, brown fat glistening on their hides. The largest one is sealed in a foil bag, pressed into her hands. So warm. She double bags it, shoves it in her large handbag, escapes into the street, planning her route.

“Lina!” Joanne, who runs the knitting and mindfulness class on Tuesdays, lumped across the whole pavement. A whisper of escape to her left, but now she’s hesitated too long.

“Didn’t think you’d be going in there.” Joanne nods through the glass, lumps of squashed red things delicate in their displays. “Although knowing you, more guests for dinner, yes?” Joanne leans in, her nose edging towards the bag. A silver chain drops out from under her chin, a drop of blue at the end, darkening to purple under the bloody awning of the butcher’s. So pretty. Just like the thing she lost.

Another dance will begin – the swaying of compliments, a dangled invitation to be snatched at or dodged. The heat is leaching from the bag, each minute solidifying the glorious fat.

“Sorry, got to get back, the boys.” It’s an easy excuse.

There’s a poke, lower down this time, shifted over to the left. Like it’s working down through her, dragging something with it. She walks past Joanne, a wince in her step as it nags at her all the way to the car, round the ring road and out to the industrial estate. She sits on a wall and buries her face in the grease of the chicken, sucking the meat from the white rounds of gristle and spitting them on the floor among the dandelions.

The thing she lost, was tricked into giving away. It had been a gift, from Aunty Fran, the cold chain dropped into her palm without a box, so Mum wouldn’t see. An upside-down V curved in gold, for wishes. She secreted it under her school shirt, sweated in a vest so it stuck to her skin. Mum worried the mark it left with a sponge in the bath. Before sleep, she slid her middle finger along the curve of it, soothed by the up and down, her hands aching from all the piano scales. A smile was given, if she completed the hours, ticked off the things on her list.

On Sundays they trooped to church. The new man came for a one-off guest appearance, highlighted on the leaflet like a headline act. He walked among them, gesticulated, had the first button of his shirt undone and a scruff of beard. You should give something precious, he said, to show your love. There was a bin bag, he rattled it, already full with his things. Stuff, he said, it isn’t important. A sniff of something as he walked past. Perhaps he had a bacon sandwich for breakfast, while they ground down cereals like cattle, spooned quivering egg folds onto toast.

She reached behind her neck, hid the strand in her hand, put the scratchy gloves on top, as if that were her gift. Her hands splayed flat, so he could see the flash of it as it fell into the bag. It had seemed obvious then, her way to an unspoken salvation. If not, she’d find a way to retrieve it, later. After the droning of the last hymn he led them out, breath claggy in the cold, out over the graveyard, to the river. She teetered at the back, craning her feet in the stiff shoes, enough to catch the carelessness of his hand as he flung the bag over the edge. Her wishes, submerged in scudding water.

There’s a spot of grease on her chest, bits of skin in her hair. She’s gasping, as full of breath as when the babies squeezed out. Different though, to be filled. A lemon wet wipe takes care of the worst of it. In the rearview mirror she finds a speck of rubbery pink on her chest. Where the wishbone used to sit.

No sun today. It could be Estonia – sharp spires, the rain a shivering waterfall, frothing mist in a green valley. Leek and mushroom pasta.

It digs in her stomach, this hard thing. Worse tonight. It must be the size of the large dollops of creme fraiche she spoons in. A little lower again, in the middle, where she got the first jabbing sensation. You’re a woman now, Mum said, cleaning her up and pressing flower-crusted pads into her hand. It felt like being emptied out.

Plates on the table, it resumes around her, the ‘but-it-isn’t-fair’ and ‘I-expect-better-from-you.’ After the first gift in the bag, it continued. Things to be bestowed on others. Your appreciation, your virginity, your grades, your debts from University, your hope of being an architect, travelling, your hand in marriage.

The clatter has stopped. She scans the faces, reflections of herself, cut into more angular shapes. They look confused. She feels something wet in her hand. A loop of spaghetti, draped around her neck, her middle finger sliding over it. Quite cold now, it must have been there a while. She slops it onto the plate, moves too early into the after-eating tempo, ignoring the resistant hands as she takes plates still strewn with food. Wincing over the bubbles, it feels like it’s growing.

On Wednesday the school calls. She was stooping her back in the sun, Guyana outside the window. Now there will be traffic and snivelling, vomit and soothing hands required. She takes the big handbag again, decides to pop in on the way, maybe something to have in the cupboard, to waft her nose over when it gets a bit much.

The lamb chops cling to the severed bone. On special offer. Thick steaks, seeping redness onto their little plastic tray. She asks for two, three, four. A squashy parcel of waxed paper, placed at the bottom of the bag.

The school is two roads down on the left. Outside, a necklace of yellow V shapes mark the boundary of it on the tarmac. She traces the inverse shape on her collarbone. Drowned, in such a beautiful stream. Her foot reaches for the pedal.

The ring road is quiet at this time of day. On the motorway, it’s surprising how quickly the miles are eaten up. At twenty, she throws the mobile phone out the window. At thirty, the keys to the house. Forty brings the remembrance of the thick packet of waxed paper. She pulls it out, opens it in her lap. With one hand steering, the other frees the hunks of meat. It wafts up to her – a metal tint of rotten fruit. Impossible to wait. She rips at the corner of one with her teeth, juice spilling down her chin. The hard knot dissipates, wetness between her legs. At fifty she’s onto the second fillet, cheeks red in the bleeding sky.

The Perils of Being a Reader-Commuter

We’re all busy people. But, if you’re like me, then any space of time can be used as an excuse to read a few pages. From reading on the loo to spilling my lunchtime soup on a few pages (travesty), there’s always a way to get you ticking through your latest book.

As a Londoner, I spend an inordinate amount of time on public transport. It’s bizarre. If someone had asked me, outside London, if I fancied meeting them somewhere that took me over an hour and involved three different types of transport, I’d tell them I probably wouldn’t bother. Here, we cheerfully hop onto tubes in the full knowledge that we won’t even be close to our destination for at least forty minutes.

However, the beauty of that commute? Reading time. No more passive-aggressive shouting at the Audi driver in front of me on the road, I can dedicate all of those tedious minutes spent swaying along on various modes of transport, reading. What a delight. While others play games (yes, I deleted Candy Crush because it was using up too much of my life) or read the substandard freebies that count as ‘news,’ I get to absorb myself in whatever wonderful universe I’m currently wallowing in.

Despite the bonus reading time, there are a few pitfalls.

Other People

Well, Jean-Paul Sartre had a point. Not just when you’re in the queue for a coffee, or when you’re already running a bit late (sorry, everyone I know). Nothing dismays the reader-commuter more than the sight of a packed bus or train. Not that it will stop you reading. No, it will just mean that you spend the rest of your journey wedged up against someone’s armpit with your book jammed between your face and the handbag of the woman that keeps turning round and glaring at you. What? I’m trying to read here!

Getting There

The last time this happened to me I was heading for a bar near Holborn, reading The Portable Veblen. All I had to do was change at Oxford Circus. No problem. Unfortunately, I got so carried away with the squirrel-related antics I completely missed my stop. The next time I looked up, I was almost at Victoria. I swore, leapt off the train, had to go back two stops in the other direction, before then getting my connection. Needless to say, I was more than late. This is also a problem on the commute to work, but more because I’d much rather sit quietly reading a book than go to work.

Appearing Normal

This is a tricky one. Obviously, London is a city full of rich and varied people and experiences, and pretty much anything goes, up to a point. I was reading A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing on the bus, just around the time she heads to a new city, and well, it was all a bit graphic. I became very aware that a nice lady (about my mum’s age) was sat next to me, quite possibly reading every word. I’m pretty sure that even if she couldn’t see the print, the horrified rictus of my face probably communicated that the content wasn’t exactly pleasant. Perhaps try something less provocative if you like meeting new people on the way to work.

Backache

I wouldn’t usually buy the hardback, but it was a Christmas present. And yes, I could have waited until I got home to read the next bit, but I didn’t want to. Lugging Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life around for the best part of the day was not exactly what my shoulders needed. By the time I got back home, Jude had been through some pretty tough times, but so had my muscles.

So, if you haven’t tried the wonders of being a reader-commuter, trust me, it’s worth it. Soon you’ll find your book pile going down much quicker than when you could only squeeze in a few minutes before bedtime. Sure, you might have sore muscles and people will be less likely to sit next to you, but it’s definitely worth it.

We Are All Disordered

41gkmvzpzwl-_sy344_bo1204203200_This month I started teaching AS Media Studies. What a treat. I’d forgotten the delights of delving into the signs and representations that we are bombarded with in daily life, and unpicking the institutions behind them, the messages they send us, and why. Of course, it can lead to a few rude awakenings. Poring over Lynx’s ‘ironic’ adverts depicting a scantily clad woman pulling a turkey out of the oven, it was clear that some of my students were already hyper-aware of the skewed views we are exposed to every day. Others, perhaps more worryingly, were not. For their coursework, they need to come up with a range of media products. One of the areas they need to research and analyse is representation. Keen to link into modern debates, I talked to them about black representation in the music industry, and the distorted view of mental health and its institutions in the film industry. From psychotic killers to psychiatrists who are just waiting to meet the right patient so they can marry them, Hollywood does very little to broach the myriad issues surrounding mental health and stigma.

To be honest, it seems that the system is frightening enough, without needing to be fictionalised. I’ve just finished reading The Last Time I Wore A Dress. It’s a memoir of the teenage years of Daphne (now Dylan) Scholinski. You’d be forgiven for thinking it told a series of events that happened in the fifties, back when electric shock therapy and lobotomies were still considered normal practice. Alas, no. We are in the relatively recent time of the early eighties. A time when Channel 4 arrived, mobile technology was in its infancy, and a young girl was hospitalised for three years for not fitting into socially accepted standards of what it meant to be a ‘girl.’

On reading this, perhaps its easy to forget how recent a more globally accepting culture has become. Gay characters on TV, transvestites hosting chat shows, it wasn’t that long ago that these people were used as freak value, rather than the very normal members of society they actually are. I also have to remember that, as a Londoner, I perhaps have a slightly unusual view of the world. But still, the book is heartbreaking. From an abusive and neglected childhood, a young Daphne enters into highly risky behaviour. She is deemed unmanageable by her parents and school, and turfed off to a mental hospital. What is most distressing is that, rather than take the time to develop trust, dig into her issues and help her, the doctors quickly slap an odd diagnosis on her, and spend the rest of her time incarcerated trying to get her to behave in a more ‘appropriately’ girly way.

The technical term, taken from the American Psychiatric Association, as recently as 1994, is ‘Gender Identity Disorder.’ Included in the diagnosis are references to clothing and play behaviour, that do not fit with the ‘gender identity’ of the individual. Excuse me? If that’s the case, then frankly, I was a disordered child. I wore jeans or dungarees for most of my childhood, was forever climbing trees, making bow and arrows, riding my bike, generally going against what is apparently my ‘gender identity.’ And don’t we all? My sister loved her chemistry set, while I had male friends who liked plaiting hair.

For most of us, this behaviour will lead to little more than social disengagement. Perhaps teasing, bullying, until we learn our lessons and revert to a more ‘acceptable’ way of behaving. For Daphne, she had to pretend to like makeup, show interest in boys and plaiting hair, in order to earn ‘points’ that allowed her to leave the confines of her ward, if only for a few minutes. It made me feel sick.

Why are we so obsessed with males and females acting in certain ways? And persistently suspicious of those who fail to meet our expectations? A recent study by Lancet has, not at all shockingly, found that the mental distress that many transgender people face is largely due to social reactions to them, not because being transgender is a ‘mental disorder.’ With so many deaths associated with this issue, it’s surprising that it has taken so long to challenge the WHO’s classification.

The signals young people get from all around them are not helpful. The media tells them to conform, the establishment tells them that variance is a mental illness. As someone who has received enough gender-biased issues solely based on being a woman, I cannot imagine the level of persecution that might get levelled at me if I didn’t fit with the gender binary. But you know what, I can, and should, have a go. Empathy is a powerful tool, and literature a brilliant way to create it. Through reading this book, and sharing in the writer’s experience, I can try to understand the world through a different lens.

Perhaps in years to come, Media students will look back on the programming, advertising and news media of our generation and be terribly amused at how limited it was. Until then, marginalised voices need to be amplified and celebrated, so another young girl is not subjected to the same tortuous treatment.

Be Bold

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Summarising a DeLillo novel is always a tricky task. Well, it’s about football, but also about nuclear war, but then it’s about power and masculinity, about language and the way we use it and are used by it. That’s summary of End Zone. Technically, it’s a novel about a kid called Gary Harkness who goes to play football on a college scholarship in Texas. Along the way, he meets a girl he likes, spends some time with football players (not sure they could be called friends) and gets a bit obsessed with the possible outcomes of a nuclear attack.

Considering the fact that it was written in the seventies, Gary’s creepy insistence on finding out the exact effects, death toll and long-term impact has clear links to the paranoid population during the Cold War. In the novel, it’s the stark way these things are reported that makes it seem unusual. Detached, inhuman; “First to sixth hour after detonation the ground-zero circle is drenched with fallout. By the end of the first day the dose-rate begins to slow down…It all depends on the megatons.” DeLillo is reducing humanitarian crises into a series of bare facts. The result is surprisingly amusing, perhaps because it is so absurd.

In the same way, he deconstructs football into a series of inane sayings, pep talks and sheer blunt-headed violence. “Gary, on the thirty-two I want you to catapult out of there. I want you to really come. I want to see you zoom into the secondary.” Even if you knew what they were talking about (and I don’t), as the novel progresses it all blurs into nonsense. The training on the field bleeds through into their social time, the classes they take and their friendships, until the entire scope of human interaction feels like it’s been pared down into a series of fixed responses. Take it at face value and it’s a way of looking at how ridiculous masculine culture around sport is. Dig a little deeper, and perhaps he’s pulling apart the very basis for most of our interactions and urges – driven by consumerism, charged with greed and the struggle for power.

The characters speak in jargon. They speak in phrases that sound like they have been cobbled directly from textbooks, stories or news bulletins. They also largely speak around each other, rarely interacting. Again, this is funnier that it sounds. With the characters talking at odds, or obsessively circling around a fixed topic, the reader is given a rare treat – hovering over the characters, peering into their weird little world and marvelling at it.

Initially, DeLillo had a small but loyal following. Once novels like White Noise came along, he went from cult writer to critically acclaimed author. In this, his second novel, there’s something really beautiful about the way it feels choppy, intense, perhaps less considered than his later novels. It’s also impressive to see how early on his distinctive voice and sarcasm sears through his writing.

From a writer’s perspective, I think DeLillo is a lesson in staying true to yourself. No matter how ridiculous his prose might seem to some, it’s a distinctive style that captures an essence of communication, rather than attempting to create true speech. Who could do that anyway? What we experience as dialogue in fiction is always a pared down version, a crafted method of storytelling. DeLillo invites us to be a little more bold with our words, and not accept those that have come before as our models.

On Finishing a First Draft

It is done. I have typed the last word, finished the last scene, put my (relatively) new characters to bed. In celebration of this, I wanted to share some piece that I figured someone would have written about how great it was to have accomplished this. Alas, I was wrong. All of the posts I found revolved around what comes next. Where to go next, how to edit, all of that stuff that I was really hoping not to think about for a few weeks. I can understand the need to focus on improvement, but there should be something about the simple achievement of getting this far. So I thought I’d write one myself.

It’s the second novel I’ve written. A bit weird, compared to the first. While writing the first one, I had scheduled meetings with my tutor, a deadline for a certain number of words, I had to hand in the plot structure and have it assessed, all of that stuff. I wrote it on a Masters course at City University. Which was amazing. It gave me the structure and guidance I needed to make it through writing my first novel. It also allowed me to get over a lot of the pitfalls that I feel I would have had if I’d just gone ahead and written one. Especially seeing as, for the first one, I wrote a dual narrative. Who thought that was a good idea for a first novel?! Juggling two plots and voices, as well as tinkering between the two to create an interwoven narrative was not an easy task. This one, by comparison, is a more straightforward first-person story, which has been a little easier. It’s also been quite freeing. Away from the need to have anyone peruse my work, I’ve allowed myself to go wherever I wanted to with it. Like my imagination’s been let out for once.

And, you know what, other writers, it is easier. Every time we had a visiting author, we asked that hopeful question – does it get easier? Of course we did, we were all at the point where we thought every sentence we wrote was utter garbage and clearly we were never going to finish anything decent anyway. Every time, without fail, they all said that, no, of course not, writing a book was always hard. Needless to say, this did little to boost our morale.

I beg to differ. Of course I’ve only written a first draft, and it’s going to be a hell of a lot of work, but it is still easier. If nothing else, having got to the end of an enormous piece of writing once, at least I know I can actually do it. That in itself makes the process less arduous. Not only that, you’ve already tripped yourself up over your own mistakes and failures for nigh on two (creeping towards three) years. So of course it’s not as hard. Perhaps as you write more it’s easy to forget that first one, the one that got you out of the blocks. Or maybe when you get so absorbed in your new project and it’s hard going it fools you into thinking that you are going through the same process again. Of course you are, to a certain extent, but experience changes you, and pretending otherwise just makes you sound pretentious.

What also doesn’t help, is all of the, ‘oh so-and-so wrote a book in three months/two weeks/a minute,’ talk. Of course, it makes for a more exciting, press release, but it’s also bollocks. What they mean is, they finished the first draft in a ridiculously short amount of time. After that, it would have gone through a huge number of edits, rewriting, proof reading, making the magical process not quite as magical, but a little more achievable for us mere mortals. Also, most people have to do other jobs, which makes it take a little longer! So yes, it took me 9 months. I still think that’s not bad.

But here I am, veering off the point. what I wanted to say is – it feels great. Under my own steam, with very little feedback, I have finished a story that I first had the idea for about a year ago. I researched it, I talked through my ideas with people, created a story, characters who I now feel are real people, and I got to the end. It’s not nearly often enough that we are told to just sit back and give ourselves a little pat on the back for a job well done. So the same goes for you too. Nice one, whatever it is you’re feeling proud of today.

In a world where we constantly seek for the next ‘target’ or ‘goal,’ let’s sit back and just enjoy the pleasure of having achieved something. Doesn’t that feel good?