For the love of Lady Bird

I feel an enormous sense of gratitude when art surfaces that does not trivialise the experiences and sentiments of the adolescent girl or young woman. With Lady Bird, I showed up for rose-haired Saoirse Ronan, but stuck around for one of the most beautiful and brilliant films I’ve seen in recent years. And then came back, twice.

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The emotional core of Lady Bird is of course the warring relationship between a mother and daughter, but the film tackles so much more in its depiction of a lower-middle-class family in the suburbs of post-9/11 Sacramento. The genius of Lady Bird is that its truth doesn't come at the cost of humour, and its humour not at the cost of a deeply moving vertebrae. 

Aside from everything else - its sensitivity, freshness, subtlety - it’s a really funny film, playfully poking fun at its adolescent protagonist in a way that manages to feel self-deprecating rather than patronising. This, I think, is Greta Gerwig’s greatest success as a writer and director. Lady Bird isn’t a portrait of the teenager from the nostalgic adult, nor is it a defiant jab at a parent’s misunderstandings or failure to relate. It sees Saoirse Ronan’s character as Christine, but understands her best as ‘Lady Bird’, an identifier given to herself, by herself.

As I get a little bit older, it’s tempting to look back at everyone I ever was through the often cruel lens of retrospect. It’s as thought every fresh version of myself can only materialise through the deconstruction (see: destruction) of my former self.

But there are some things - like dancing to Lorde, reading Tavi Gevinson, and now watching Lady Bird - that allow you to gather up all these former selves and hold them close to your heart. A personhood made up of multitudes - battling, contradicting, but coexisting.

We do ourselves a disservice when we dismiss all the things we ever thought or felt simply because they don't marry with our current system of beliefs. When we remember falling in love for the first time, aged thirteen or sixteen or twenty, this love doesn't lose its value simply because time and experience have caused our definitions to evolve.

Lady Bird drew my attention to something that I didn’t realise I was seeing so little of, but desperately needed. I want more unapologetically feminine art. More books and films and music and paintings that explore the complexities of young womanhood without resorting to reductive and lazy stereotypes. More Lady Birds, more Melodramas.

And what you can’t find? Create.

February books

Sometimes reading is a beautiful and necessary distraction. Other times it is the opposite, twisting your head towards what you don’t want to think about but know you must. Occasionally it poses as the first, waiting until the perfect moment - usually just as you edge across the line of no return - before revealing itself to be the second.

We moved house on February 1st, and I spent the four weeks that followed catching up on everything I had neglected in the post-Christmas/pre-move frenzy that had been January. Writing. People. I booked and attended the eye test I was due. Travelled to and from London; saw Hamilton, the Cursed Child, Julian Barnes, Alvvays.  Full of distractions.

I’d have neglected to think, I’m sure, had it not been for the books I picked up and returned to throughout the month.

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The Only Story by Julian Barnes

I love Julian Barnes’ writing. The Sense of an Ending is one of my favourite novels, and his latest did not disappoint. I rushed out to grab it on publication day, and later in the month got to see him interviewed by Hermione Lee at an author event at the Royal Institution. The Only Story is a succinct and unconventional exploration of time and memory and love, so if that’s the sort of thing you’re into I’d heartily recommend.

From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan

The lovely people at Penguin very kindly sent me a proof of Donal Ryan’s new novel, and it was one of the best things I read that month. The book delicately and sensitively connects the narratives of three men - a Syrian refugee, a heartbroken care-worker, and a man grappling with the admission of something for which he feels he cannot be forgiven. It’s a lot to pack into such a tiny novel, but the heaviness is rewarded with an ultimately uplifting sentiment. Out on March 22nd.

Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose

This dreamy collection of personal essays muses on adolescence and identity and existence and so much more. Documenting the particular heart and mind of its author, Too Much and Not the Mood offers a precious window into the experiences of a young woman and first-generation immigrant in the 21st century. Durga Chew Bose seamlessly weaves poetic meditations with pop-culture references, with an overarching nostalgia and romanticism. And I can’t not mention that stunning cover.

Eat Up! by Ruby Tandoh

Eat Up! is a refreshing and infectious manifesto on food and eating. Tackling everything from diet culture and health fads to the relationship between food and class, it’s an invitation for readers to rediscover a joy in filling their bodies with deliciousness. With personal stories of Ruby and her girlfriend, thorough research, a few recipes, and a dozen or so ‘YES!’ moments, this book is a total revelation.

Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes

Masquerading as a literary biography of French writer Gustave Flaubert, Flaubert’s Parrot experiments with the form of the novel and twists it into something entirely new; the reader merely gathers what the fictitious author scatters of himself. I don’t know whether the text paints an accurate picture of Flaubert (having only read a translation of Madam Bovary at university), but it was wonderful, nonetheless.

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro

I sought out this book as some kind of further reading to The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, which I read (and loved) in January. In many ways, it served its purpose; Quatro writes of an unhappily married woman caught between faith and infidelity, and so I got the feminine dissatisfaction I was searching for, just little more. I really enjoyed her writing though, so may hunt down a copy of her short story collection, I Want to Show You More.

Mythos by Stephen Fry

This was the audiobook that got me too and from work for most of this month. The deciding factor in this Audible purchase was of course the narration by the author, whose voice - since the Potter audiobooks - is an endlessly comforting companion. Mythos sees Stephen Fry breathe new life into classic Greek mythology, but it’s his awareness of the contemporary reader that make this an incredibly engaging, funny, and informative listen.

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Tackling Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest: the monstrous novel tucked under the arm of every other hipster millennial with a literature degree. The thousand-page brick of a text you claim to have read despite never having made it past the first hundred pages. 

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The allure of being the sort of person who might be caught furrow-browed and part-way through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest isn’t incomprehensible. There’s the sheer size of the text, for one thing; you can flip to the end when somebody comments on its length and watch their eyes widen as three figures become four.

Along, perhaps, with Joyce’s Ulysses, this is the novel that must be tackled by every Serious Reader at one point or another. It’s the go-to ‘longest book you ever read’, unless you’ve already braved Clarissa, or War and Peace, or Les Miserables. This is a novel with a reputation: famously difficult, terrifically dense, and, to put it bluntly, a structural nightmare.

I’m not unwilling to disclose that I found getting through this book to be a particularly challenging feat - perhaps more so than any other book I have read. I came to the novel with a vague awareness of David Foster Wallace, a visual image of what the UK edition in my local Waterstones looked like (size, colour, location), and the understanding that this was a novel to be conquered. A search for its contemporary reception led me down a rabbit hole of blog posts detailing approaches to the text. I learnt that for optimum navigation I would need three separate bookmarks. Wedging my little finger between footnotes, I opted for two, and began to read.

Truth be told, I feel wholly unqualified to offer any kind of considered review of Infinite Jest upon only a single reading. But I will say this: it’s funny and despairing; remarkably clever; horribly confusing; ultimately unsatisfying. It resists so much of what you think a novel should be, and thus makes a case for a whole new categorisation of works of fiction. 

David Foster Wallace’s linguistic gymnastics form a text that is as messy and complicated as it is decadent. Reading through the lens of a literary detective does not necessarily do the work justice; this is perhaps the sort of novel you must blindly fall into, contrary to what the ‘guides to reading Infinite Jest’ might suggest. This isn’t to say that there is little of use in these guides - in fact, I found much of what I read incredibly helpful - but if you spend all of your time trying desperately to piece the plot together, to keep a firm handle on what is going on, you might fail to drift into the reams of stylish prose that DFW is offering.

Equally, I wonder if it does the text a great disservice to read with its author at the front of your mind, passing over each impressively constructed sentence for anything that helps to explain his life. This novel, as with the work of many prolific writers and artists, is difficult to divorce from the life - and, moreover, death - of its maker. There’s so much to be said here about separating the art from the artist. If I can accept and appreciate Infinite Jest as independent from its author, can I also walk with a clear conscience into a cinema screening of a Woody Allen film? I’m not so sure.

The only conclusions I have been able to draw from my first reading of Infinite Jest are that a) it demands to be reread at least one full time more, and b) the approach to reading the novel weighs quite heavily on what you are able to take away from it. Infinite Jest is not a novel to be conquered; it’s a novel to surrender to. 

Troubles in travel writing (feat. the Netherlands)

We (my partner, myself, and four of our friends) flew to the Netherlands for a short winter break at the start of December, and spent four days traipsing across one of the most incredible cities in Europe. As always, I wish I’d taken more photographs, but even so I’m not sure I could have accurately captured Amsterdam in its true gloom and beauty.

I’d like to be better at travel writing, and learn to translate a city into words in a way that doesn’t just reel off a list of hotspots and recommendations. That part is always the easiest. I could write about the ease of eating as a vegetarian, with our multiple stops at Bagel and Beans and the Foodhallen in Oud-Wes. Burning our lips on the stupid delicious Belgian fries at Mannekin Frites, the six of us huddled together in a doorway to take shelter from the rain. Devouring vegan dutch pancakes at The Happy Pig in the Red Light District.

Walking solemnly past the Anne Frank house, pausing for a quick look but continuing on our way because we weren’t organised enough to book tickets weeks in advance. Touring the Van Gogh Museum, consumed by a brilliant and sad life.

Cyclists, everywhere.

The double-decker train to The Hague; the walk from the station to Mauritshuis in pursuit of Fabritius’ (and Tartt’s) goldfinch. The stormy blues and gold flecks of Dutch Golden Age paintings. The rooms themselves - windows framed in deep mahogany, with shades of blue and olive green papered across the walls.

My literary companion of choice wasThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, so the flight and in-between parts of the trip were spent weaving through the canal-side passages of seventeenth century Amsterdam. The terrains of fiction became layers on top of my own experiences of the city. What I discovered was that good literature could capture a more pigmented, textured feeling of a place than any TripAdvisor listicle or city guide. It’s a different kind of accuracy - of sensation, of emotion, riddled with truths that align the text with verifiable geography.

Good travel writing can and should do just this, serving memory and communication in equal measure. It should give your reader the opportunity to recall and reflect on something they haven’t experienced, but feel as though they have.

In a recent interview with The Paris Review, Jan Morris was asked why she is hesitant towards being called a travel writer. Her response? "I resist the idea that travel writing has got to be factual."

I remember the colours of Dutch paintings and the sweet, crisp December air far more clearly than the number of tram stops between the Rijksmuseum and our hotel. These are the things you can’t quite research, and won’t fully understand until you arrive. 

But good writing (fiction and non-fiction, equally) can offer a window into experience. And the view through a window is plenty - certainly enough for your imagination to run amok on undiscovered ground.

'Accuracy' and 'truth' are not necessarily synonymous with one other. Perhaps it is possible to communicate stronger and brighter truths if you are less bothered with trivial accuracies.

January books

January has a history of being a good reading month for me. Last year, the amount of pages I read in those first few weeks spurred me on to nudge my goal of seventy books to a full one hundred, and as I lose my taste for the festive season it’s becoming more and more of an important time of year.

This has been the first year in a while that I haven’t set myself an aspirational numerical goal for what I’d like to read in 2018 (more on that later, I'm sure) and I worried at first that I’d use this as an opportunity to slack on my reading. Thankfully it doesn’t seem to have had that sort of negative impact; I’m tearing through the most wonderful books, and motivated as ever.

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On Writing by Stephen King

I don’t think I could have chosen a better book to kick-start my year if I’d tried. After finishing everything I’d brought with me to read while visiting family over Christmas, I picked this up on New Year’s Eve to keep me company on the train journey from Leeds to London King’s Cross. On Writing is part memoir and part actual useful advice for writers and aspiring writers. Honestly, a must-read for anyone who wants to write, or write more, or write better.

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas

Undoubtedly my favourite of the fiction I read this month. This novel follows the life of its eponymous heroine over a number of decades, through a devotion to writing, commercial success, marriage and motherhood. It’s a fascinating case study of one woman’s life, sparking thoughts on the way we look at and judge self-professed ‘career women’, and what we expect of women as mothers. Loved.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams

Since graduating from university, I don’t tend to read plays very often. This was my first encounter with Tennessee Williams, and a text that proved extremely helpful for the first draft of a short story I was working on towards the start of the year.

Peach by Emma Glass

Barely a hundred pages, Peach was a strange little read. Glass’ prose-poetry narrative style reminded me of Eimer McBride’s A Girl is  Half-Formed Thing - a delicate, child-like voice delivering a haunting and oftentimes disturbing sentiment.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

Art, loneliness, New York City. Add that to Olivia Laing’s gorgeous prose, and you have an incredibly rich and researched exploration of the relationship between isolation and creativity. As if I could pine for New York more than I already do.

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

I’ve enjoyed a lot of literature set in Ireland or by Irish writers recently - Colm Tóibín has been a particular favourite, and Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends was one of the best books I read last year. All We Shall Know is the first novel I’ve read by Donal Ryan. Morally, this book is challenging (our antihero is a thirty-three year old married woman, pregnant with the child of her seventeen year old student), but nonetheless extremely readable. 

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

I decided up front that this would the year in which I finally took on the great tome that is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Expect a post in the near future where you can read some of my thoughts on this notoriously difficult thousand-page novel.

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Preface

Throughout 2017, I let writing take a very much necessary back seat.

Six months out of university, weary from my foray into the world of office work and disheartened by my lack of direction (give graduates a break, that first year is hard) I chose to make reading the sole focus of my year. I read exactly one hundred books, ranging from tiny collections of poetry to chunky tomes of Donna Tartt, and it was wonderful. My tank was filled right to the brim, and as the year drew to a close I found myself, at long last, itching to get back to the keyboard.

To clarify: what I mean by ‘writing’ is a) structured, regular writing, and b) writing for the internet. In actuality, I wrote and thought about writing a great deal. I scribbled ideas for short stories, kept notebooks of half-poems and observations, and even began tentative work on a novel. There was no pressure; I wrote only when I felt I had something to get down on the page, and it just happened that this was far more frequently than I had anticipated.

Whether it was the lack of obligation or the increased time spent reading (I suspect the latter), by the recent turn of year I found myself creatively refuelled. And now, with 2018 well and truly under way, there's a need to revisit all of those thoughts and anxieties about creativity and work, and figure out what comes next. 

Which leads us nicely onto this shiny new website. 

I spent weeks putting together something more complicated, and then decided at the last minute to strip it all back. This is what I was left with.

In many ways, it's little more than a storage solution for the odds and ends that I tap into my keyboard - particular feelings I had towards a novel; a personal revelation on why I find it difficult to cull my collection of books; messy musings on a trip taken with friends. Not a journal, nor a creative writing portfolio, both of which are kept from prying (or, let’s face it, uninterested) eyes. 

These are the scribbles that run away from the notes app on my phone, but aren’t prepared to submit themselves to fiction.