Books with pink covers – Sushi for Beginners by Marian Keyes

Ever the admirer of Desert Island Discs, I found myself listening to Marian Keyes one day. I’d never read any of her books, but writers talking about life and books and music has to be one of my favourite things, so I gave the episode my full attention. I was captured by how warmly and openly she spoke about mental health and addiction and how this finds its way into her writing. Early on, she talks about being pigeon-holed as a “popular” writer, and Kirsty Young asks her why she thinks she’s put in such categories:

“Because I’m a woman. And because, for good or for ill, lots of women enjoy my books, and they relate to them. And in my own little way I feel that they are quite empowering. And I think that anything that empowers women […] has to be slapped down. And so if we like something, by telling us it’s rubbish, it makes us feel a bit silly for having liked it in the first place. And I know so many men will be listening to this and thinking, ‘that’s not true’. But it absolutely is true. […] I am very proud of the books I write and the reach that they have. I’m prepared to put up with a pink cover if it makes me more accessible. I don’t see anything wrong with being accessible. It would sadden me to write a book that was only read by seven people. It’s that choice. But it means then that I am patronised, and categorised as […] not terribly clever.” (5:40-7:40)

Guiltily, I remembered how doggedly I avoid any book with a pink cover. “My God,” I thought, “I’m part of the problem.” My solution: to immediately go out and acquire a book by Marian Keyes. Lacking the funds necessary for a trip to the bookshop, I set off to my local library. I found three books by Keyes. This Charming Man was just too pink. I baulked. The Woman who Stole my Life seemed an improvement, but didn’t immediately grab me. The final book I found was Sushi for Beginners. Not too pink, and about editing, a topic I love reading about. Perfect! The editing of a women’s magazine, to be sure, but better than nothing. It’s also a decidedly thick book at 564 pages. I took this as a good sign.

Sushi for Beginners Marian Keyes

During the first few pages I was nervous. The women in the book talked a lot about shoes and make-up. Horoscopes were mentioned. I was out of my depth and dangerously close to becoming judgmental. I can spot the precise moment Keyes converted me. It didn’t even take long. 18 pages, in fact. “Trix…had the glittery, luscious-sticky look of a devotee of the more-is-more school of slapplication.” I laughed aloud, disrupting my fellow quiet café-goers with my unrestrained mirth. Soon I found myself abandoning the other book I was reading (The Long War) in favour of Sushi for Beginners. Me! Abandoning science fiction for women’s fiction? What was happening to me?

The short answer is that I had discovered that not all women’s fiction has to have bland, stock characters, or predictable storylines. Keyes’s writing is witty and knowing, accessible but not patronising. And the characters are just so likeable. At numerous stages I found myself wishing I were their friend, or thinking, “other people feel like this? I didn’t know!” Yes, the characters talk about men and handbags and lipstick. But they also talk about depression and homelessness. Even the obsession with horoscopes has a genuine, character-driven reason for being there. It’s about the character’s need for control and order, growing out of her disordered, disrupted childhood. It’s not just, “because she’s a woman. And women who read books with pink covers like horoscopes”. Here’s one of my favourite moments of Keyes putting into words those feelings that don’t get talked about:

“She was surprised to find she was happy to be with a crowd and happy to be on its edges. Such contentment was rare: all Ashling knew was that she almost never felt whole. Even at her most fulfilled, something remained forever absent, right at her very core. Like the tiny, pinprick dot that remained in the wash of black when the telly used to shut down for the night. But tonight she was calm and peaceful, alone but not lonely.” (p.45).

There are so many insightful moments like this. Moments that hold a mirror up to your life, for better and worse, and then tell you it’s all ok.

Not all the characters are likeable. They are real people, bitchy, selfish, and they make mistakes. One of the characters ends the novel learning that not all of those mistakes can be forgiven. It shocked me that one of the main characters didn’t end up with the rose-tinted (pink) ending that I was expecting. It stayed with me for quite some time.

My name’s Anouska. I’m a feminist, and I like books with pink covers.

Favourite quotation: “He didn’t know much about girls’ hair, but he had a feeling that it was usually more elaborate than this one’s. Wasn’t it normal to have a kind of interfered look to it? Surely it shouldn’t just hang there on her shoulders, being brown?” p.20.

Sarah Taylor (producer) and Kirsty Young (presenter), ‘Marian Keyes, Desert Island Discs’, BBC Radio 4, 17 Mar 2017 [accessed 25 April 2017]
Marian Keyes, Sushi for Beginners (Michael Joseph, 2000)

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The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians follows the standard fantasy arc of: boy discovers magic is real, boy goes to magical school, boy and friends visit magical worlds and have magical adventures. But the difference here is that Quentin Coldwater is as angst-ridden a teenager as you’ll ever come across. This is not just a book about magical adventures, but the sex- and alcohol-fuelled adventures of growing up. The concept of a mopey, depressed hero who is constantly dissatisfied with life is one I find rather appealing. Add magic into the mix, and I figured Lev Grossman was onto a winning combination. However, on reading The Magicians I found myself disappointed at every page turn.

TheMagicians by Lev Grossman

Grossman is deeply indebted to various other fantasy franchises, and is hyper-aware of this. His central character, Quentin, constantly compares his own magical experiences with a series of children’s books he never quite grew out of – the “Fillory” books by Christopher Plover (which are modelled on C. S. Lewis’s Narnia). The Magicians felt to me like it lacked really detailed world creation. I feel like I could ask J. K. Rowling any question about how magic functions in her world, and she’d be able to give me a detailed answer, probably with citations of magical academics of her own invention. I’m not sure Grossman would be able to do the same. What lore there is seems to have been borrowed from other sources. Grossman writes in depth about the various allusions in The Magicians:
“I had a rule for myself with The Magicians, which was that everything that exists in our world has to exist in the Magiciansverse. So for example, even though the characters go to a college for magic, I also thought that they all should have read Harry Potter. Inevitably little references to him creep into their conversation. I didn’t go overboard with it, because that would have gotten too cute and meta. I just thought it was realistic. Like Hermione hasn’t read the Narnia books a million times! But she never talks about it.”
I get it, I do, it’s a good rule. But the fact that Grossman has to break his own rule about Narnia, because he’s borrowed so much, just undermines it. To be fair, he admits this himself: “(Though if I’m being honest, I broke my own rule with Narnia. In the Magiciansverse, C.S. Lewis was never born. If he had he and Christopher Plover would have collapsed into each other and formed a space-time singularity. Which would be cool in a different way. But that would have been a whole other novel.)”

Despite his borrowing, Grossman seems to buck the trend by creating a hero/anti-hero who is not ‘chosen’ to contribute to a cause greater than himself. Grossman, then, is attempting to do something really interesting – creating an almost anti-fantasy novel. But his indebtedness to the books he’s attempting to rewrite just undermines his attempts. He invites comparisons with Rowling, C. S. Lewis and others, and does not come out on top. Unfortunately his writing often comes off as heavy-handed fan-fiction.

There was a lot to like about Grossman’s prose style. But I felt it was spoiled by his obsession with being ‘gritty’ (gratuitous arctic fox sex, anyone?). The other problem I had with The Magicians is the narrative itself. It is told in a series of anecdotes, or vignettes – with the first four or so years of Quentin’s magical education crammed into the first half of the novel. Any time you think the story is going somewhere, following a traditional story arc, the incident is abruptly closed off, unresolved. (This is perhaps also because of its ‘anti-fantasy’ leanings – because Quentin hasn’t been ‘chosen’, there is no driving force.) An example of this is in the magical “discipline” each student has a particular aptitude for, determined during the first few years of the student’s magical education. After the standard tests, Quentin’s discipline remains undetermined. It’s intriguing, and one of the occasions I finally thought the novel would have a sense of purpose. But after Quentin is temporarily assigned a discipline for the purposes of teaching, it’s never mentioned again. It creates no further tension or interest. After not being mentioned at all, it’s brought up in the last few pages of the book, as a bizarrely underwhelming cliffhanger.

The lack of direction certainly reflects Quentin’s meandering attitude to his own life, but it makes for uncomfortable reading. Most of these incidences are wrapped up in the final quarter of the novel, but by the time they are, I’d stopped caring, when I could even remember that far back. The loose ends, or most of them, are tied up. The pay-off, when it comes, is nearly worthwhile. But for me it was undermined by Grossman fairly immediately afterwards brutally killing off one of the main characters. Any sense of satisfaction at the resolution is immediately replaced by a sense of futile emptiness. It’s almost like Grossman is aware of the escapism we readers crave, which Quentin craves, and has decided to punish us for it. It’s clever, and I won’t deny it had an emotional impact on me (beyond frustration). But it results in a deeply unsatisfying read.

 

 

 

Changing the world one word at a time – Caitlin Moran on writing

Is it possible to love a writer without having read anything they’ve written? It must be, because I love Caitlin Moran. Her intelligence, her humour, her honesty. She was tremendous on Desert Island Discs earlier in the year, frustrating Kirsty Young with her inability to answer any question seriously. She does talk seriously, though, about her writing. She talks about the joy of feeling like she’s “the first” to write about very real issues like being working class, or periods. Reporting that she’s often asked why she writes for The Times and not The Guardian, she says, “I’m writing to people whose minds I want to change. I should be showing them what this life is like.”

Listening to her talk about the power and joy she finds in writing was truly inspiring, so my favourite extract (below, 32:33-33:50) is my quotation of the week. The BBC have conveniently list-ified the episode for easy consumption: 10 things we learnt from Caitlin Moran’s Desert Island Discs.

Kirsty Young: How much does feeling in touch with where you came from seem important to you now? Because as you say you live the life of a metropolitan elite star journalist and writer.

Caitlin Moran: Yes. Err. What’s the best way to put this. Leading the life that I do, and living where I do, means that it’s impossible not to write constantly about being working class and council estates and weird kids and the people who don’t get written about.

Kirsty Young: Let me just stop you, you say it’s impossible because, what, because you feel…you wouldn’t be doing your duty…?

Caitlin Moran: Because living in media middle class Oxbridge white male London you are constantly living in a world where everyone presumes that’s normal, that that’s not a thing, that that’s neutral, that that’s the baseline of human experience. And that anything outside that is “other” that needs to be specially commissioned or kind of like “now we’ll go and take a look at these lives for twenty minutes underneath this rock” in a kind of Attenborough way. And not understanding that those lives, the working class lives, the lives on benefits, weird kids, autodidacts, the humour, the intelligence, the brilliance, the funny, the joy, the life, is the normal experience. That’s how most people are. And yet those lives are treated like a special case.

I’m putting her books to the top of my reading list immediately.

Cathy Drysdale (producer) and Kirsty Young (presenter), ‘Caitlin Moran, Desert Island Discs’, BBC Radio 4, 27 Jan 2017 [accessed 4 April 2017]

 

My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal

My Name is Leon tells the story of Leon, a nine-year-old with a black father and a white mother. His mother is heavily reliant on drugs, and as such, is unable to take care of Leon and his baby brother, Jake. Put into the foster care system, cute white baby Jake is soon adopted, but Leon is sent from one place to another, unable to settle. Leon manages his anger at losing his mum and Jake by stealing from the adults around him, hoping to save up enough money to go and rescue his mum and baby brother.

My Name is Leon.jpg

I probably would never have chosen to read this book. The story of a mixed race boy growing up in 1980s Britain doesn’t immediately fit into the mould of books I normally read. I read this through Penguin’s Bookmarks, and I’m so glad I did. I enjoyed its style and its sensitive handling of some very difficult topics. I also liked its cast of extremely relatable characters, including Maureen, who adopts Leon, Tufty, who teaches him about gardening, and of course Leon himself.

This is a story that deals with incredibly difficult issues – racism, addiction, anger, and loss. But it does so in a very accessible way.  My Name is Leon is primarily a story about a young boy growing up, and it is through his eyes that we experience each of these challenging topics. It’s a story about an individual, not a manifesto, and yet it leaves you with a greater understanding of these issues than I think a manifesto might. The question of race, for example, is a subtle thread woven throughout, which is very effectively brought to the foreground in the climax of the novel.

One of the things that appealed most to me was the style – the way it was written with a slightly naive voice, as though Leon’s thoughts. It’s a wonderful example of “show not tell”, as we learn things through the narrator. We learn how Leon’s mother, Carol, is unable to cope with parenting, we overhear snippets about her relationships, but all without the narrator/Leon ever fully understanding. It’s a way of being able to really relate to Leon and his situation, and to understand his anger and desire to steal. Seeing his unconditional love for his mother through Leon’s eyes was particularly touching. Despite her failings, her inability to cope, Leon never considers giving up on her.

In amidst the naivety are some mature motifs – when Leon is given an allotment, his care for his baby brother transfers to caring for plants. There is also the question of identity – one of the first things Leon says is “My. Name. Is. Leon.” to baby Jake. And yet so many people fail to get his name right throughout the novel, and in the same way they fail to understand his needs and desires. It’s a symbol of how his identity is so difficult to nail down, both because he’s mixed race and because he has to move from one home to another.

Kit de Waal, My Name is Leon (Viking, 2016)

 

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

Spill Simmer Falter Wither is the exquisitely crafted, exquisitely sad tale of a man, Ray, and a dog, One Eye. Both outcasts from society, they become companions in loneliness. When One Eye attacks another dog, Ray panics; packs up their lives and takes to the road.

This post discusses the end of Spill Simmer Falter Wither in detail. It also makes liberal use of quotations, but they’re too beautiful for me to apologise for that. 

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I found this book utterly absorbing, moving, even devastating. Much of this is down to Baume’s beautiful writing style, which is well-crafted without ever feeling laboured, as well as her characterisation of Ray and his relationship with One Eye. The two take almost equal roles in the narration. Third person descriptions of One Eye bookend the narration. Ray’s first person narrative regularly breaks into second person, as he addresses his observations and recounts his memories to One Eye. Then Ray’s dreams about One Eye’s past, in which Ray sees through One Eye’s eye(s), transform second person into first person, narrowing the distance even further between these two lonely figures.

One of the things that has stayed with me most in the weeks and months following reading this is the depiction of Ray’s sadness and isolation. “Everywhere I go it’s as though I’m wearing a spacesuit which buffers me from other people. A big, shiny one-piece which obscures how small and dull I feel inside. I know that you can’t see it; I can’t see it either, but when I pitch and clump and flail down the street, grown men step into the drain gully to avoid brushing against my invisible spacesuit. When I queue to pay at a supermarket checkout, the cashier presses the backup bell and takes her toilet break. When I drive past a children’s playground, some au-pair nearly always makes a mental note of my registration number. 93-OY-5731. They all think I don’t notice. But I do.” (p.13). He’s afraid of the impact he will have on other people: “We can’t be spotted by such cheerful strangers. We mustn’t dare to mar their joy with our shabby faces, our carload of stolen nests, dead bears and decomposed fathers on such a day.” (p.265). Ray’s fear mirrors One Eye’s own – every object One Eye sees has the potential to be used as an instrument of torture:”Plastic bags with their rustle and squeeze, aluminium foil with its twinkle and gash, dishcloths with their thrash and wallop.” (p.35).

Ray is defined by his sadness. “My sadness isn’t a way I feel but a thing trapped inside the walls of my flesh, like a smog. It takes the sheen off everything. It rolls the world in soot. It saps the power from my limbs and presses my back into a stoop.” (p.51). Sadness impacts the narrative too. There is a refrain of, “And suddenly, it’s a sad place, don’t you think?” (p.222, p.274) as possibility is blotted out by regret. The extreme beauty of Baume’s writing contrasts with the frequent brutality of what is described and the way it is described. I realise part way through reading that this seems to match the narrator’s negative view of the world. Berries leak “black blood” (p.178.), branches are “severed, bark stripped” (p.168). One imagines that Ray doesn’t see a bunch of flowers, he sees a massacre of stems. It’s such a brilliant way of introducing us to his point of view, a way of allowing us to actually see through his eyes.

Even the gruesome can be lyrical under Baume’s influence: talking about roadkill she writes “creatures pancaked and sundried to a ship’s biscuit of their former selves.” (p.147). And she makes the ugly beautiful: “Dandruff falls from her scalp onto her shoulders. It shows up like glitter through the dark, as if she is sporting a sequinned mantle.” (p.188). And this gruesomeness prepares perfectly for the moment at which Ray’s ultimate secret is uncovered, when we find out he watched his father choke to death, put the body in the attic to be eaten by rats, and then dismantles his skeleton to dispose of it.

Ray describes himself as, “fifty-seven. Too old for starting over, too young for giving up.” (p.12). And yet over the course of the novel, we see him do both. He starts over in adopting One Eye. He complains, “Sometimes the vans collide with my hanging baskets as they leave. We watch as they carry the scarlet heads of my geraniums to their next delivery. Now even the geranium heads are better travelled than I.” (p.34). And yet, again, the novel sees him starting over, packing up his life and travelling with One Eye.

But we also see Ray give up. The ending is ever so slightly ambiguous, incorporating a flash-back to domestic happiness with One Eye just as Ray apparently commits suicide. But the lack of definitive resolution is effective on a number of levels. Firstly, it stays with you, eating at you as you attempt to decipher precisely what happens. Not least because what is likely to have happened is exactly what you want not to have happened. You cannot let it go. You cannot mourn its ending, nor the ending of Ray’s life, because you do not explicitly see that ending. It ends in euphemism, at once despairing and hopeful, as One Eye charges off into the distance, the book’s ending his new beginning.

But the lack of resolution also hammers home the sheer futility and unfairness of Ray’s death. As approached the final pages, I really couldn’t see it ending any other way. And yet Ray’s brilliance – his knowledge, internalised eloquence, his boundless love for One Eye – genuinely make the world a brighter place. Appropriately, given his name is the “same word as for sun beams”.

Sara Baume, Spill Simmer Falter Wither (Windmill Books, 2015)

Reading Fatigue

I think I’m suffering from reading fatigue. A dull, grey feeling fills me as I read, as though my brain has been replaced by cotton wool. I read words, and they’re good words, I know this logically. They’re good words in a good order. And yet they have no effect on me. It’s like I’ve eaten a delicious meal, and I’m so full that nothing I eat really tastes of anything any more.

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Perhaps I’ve been spoilt. Just recently I’ve read a few utterly sublime works. Books that became instant favourites. Impossible Views of the World, with its awkward intellectual heroine who felt like she’d been crafted just for me.The Raqqa Diaries, so brutally honest, its simple style revealing unbearably painful truths.Spill Simmer Falter Wither with its lyrical eloquence belying the heartbreak of a person at odds with the world. Few books are going to live up to these experiences. And yet I keep reading.

Perhaps I’ve just read too much. My reading muscle has seized up, cramped, needs a break. I spent two weeks doing work experience in the editorial department of a publisher recently, so was reading non-stop during the day and on my 4-hour commute. It was an absolute dream. It was my job to read books, write about books, and talk about books. Dream though it was, perhaps a break would be no bad thing. And yet I keep reading.

Perhaps it’s because, since starting this blog, I feel like I have to have something to say about everything I read. I have to have An Opinion. I have to assess what I like and dislike. I have to write down my favourite moments from each reading experience so that I never forget them. And then I have to package those thoughts into a neat parcel to be read, perhaps, by someone else. Perhaps because now I have to read, it’s no longer fun.

And yet, I keep reading. I reach for it, instinctively. As though I’m on a reading treadmill and I have to keep turning the pages or else I’ll fall off. I wait for those moments where a book hooks me, intrigues, inspires me. Those moments where something is so perfectly phrased it’s as though the words sidestep your neurons and an idea arrives, fully-formed, in your mind, as though it’s been there all along. And every time I go to the library, a book store, my own heaving shelves, I find more and more books. And so I keep reading.

Robert Webb’s Teenage Diary

In 2012 Robert Webb was persuaded by Radio 4 to read out his teenage diary to a live audience. As you’d expect from someone who went on to be a writer and comedian, his diary is brilliantly written and very funny, particularly read aloud in Webb’s deadpan style. Much of the diary is taken up with a 17-year-old’s attempt at chasing girls, but, part way through, Webb’s mum is diagnosed with cancer. Six weeks later, she has died. His entry about her funeral is funny, devastating, and exquisitely crafted. It’s even better hearing him read it aloud, which you can still do on YouTube, thanks to the magic of the internet and questionable attitudes to copyright.

1st May. Well in the words of many relatives and friends, life goes on, doesn’t it. Well, yes, for some of us it does. I shouldn’t knock it, what the hell do I expect them to say.The funeral was a real highlight. I don’t have a suit so I unpicked the badge from my conveniently black sixth form blazer. So a couple of hours later, I’d at least taught myself to sew. How’s that for silver linings?

Mark drove with me next to him behind the hearse. He was obviously a bit tense, keeping it between second and third gear, with the clutch on his Astra squeaking with every change. He said, “How about a bit of music?” and turned on the radio. It was Kylie Minogue singing ‘I should be so lucky.’ We endured about fifteen seconds of this before he said, “yeah, maybe not appropriate.” And then, rather wonderfully, he didn’t just turn the radio off. He gently turned the volume down to silence, fading Kylie’s warbling out, as if in respect for the occasion. It occurred to me that this was the single most hilarious thing I’d ever seen or heard, but we all just stared unsmilingly ahead, and I tucked it away for later. What’s that Graham Greene says about every writer having a splinter of ice in his heart? I’ve got a splinter or two in mine now. Mark, fading Kylie out, I’ve never loved him more.

Faces are even grimmer than I expected, especially when they see me. But they’re all old, and they don’t have what I have. I’ve got a school badge in my pocket.

 

Harriet Jane (producer) and Rufus Hound (presenter), ‘Robert Webb, My Teenage Diary’ Series 4, Episode 1, BBC Radio 4, 27 June 2012 [accessed December 2016]

Circular Narratives and Linguistic Relativism in Villeneuve’s ‘Arrival’

When twelve alien vessels arrive on Earth, the world reacts with confusion, violence, and fear. The US military recruits linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to help comprehend the aliens’ language, and attempt to ask the question: “What is your purpose on Earth?”

I am so blown away by this film that I barely know what to say. Every aspect of it has been exquisitely crafted. The otherworldly score by Jóhann Jóhannsson is bookended by Max Richter’s gut-wrenching ‘On the Nature of Daylight’. The visual effects are stunning, with everything taking on a surreal beauty, including the Heptapod aliens themselves and the vessels they arrive in. While the depiction of the world-wide chaos prompted by the arrival of the “shells” is entirely believable, the focus is instead on a group of linguists and scientists attempting to decrypt the alien language of one of the twelve vessels. Amy Adams is outstanding as linguist Dr Louise Banks whose understanding of the world is being literally rewritten as the film progresses. And this leads me to probably the most interesting thing about the film. Essential to its narrative is the concept of linguistic relativism, a theory evolved from the work of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. It states that the structure of a language affects the speaker’s cognition (rather than a person’s cognition dictating the structure of the language). The most famous example of this comes from anthropologist Franz Boas, who suggested that because the Inuit language has so many different words for snow, Eskimos may see snow, even think about snow, differently to the rest of the world.

Linguistic relativism also forms the backbone of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:

“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc—should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.” (from ‘The Principles of Newspeak’, Appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four)

 

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Amy Adams in Arrival. Image © 2016 Paramount Pictures

As Dr Louise Banks learns the written language of the Heptapods, as she begins to dream in it, think in it, communicate using it, her conscious and subconscious begin to resemble those of the Heptapods. The written language itself, known as “Heptapod B” (the spoken language is “Heptapod A”), is created from something resembling squid ink that takes on a 3-dimensional form suspended in space. (Visually, the designers were inspired by Tolkien’s Elvish.) The original story on which the film is based calls it, “fanciful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice.” Its circular form reflects the fact that Heptapod B is non-linear; the Heptapods do not view beginnings and endings in the same way an English-speaker would (in this way it is visually and thematically reminiscent of Ouroboros, the tail-eating snake). When using Heptapod B, the writer knows how the sentence will end. A single symbol cannot be changed without changing the meaning of the entire sentence. The circular writing is reflected in the narrative of the film, both thematically and practically. The first shot of the opening sequence and the first shot of the closing sequence are nearly identical, and Max Richter’s ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ begins and ends the film.

The film goes to great lengths to be scientifically accurate, and the production consulted scientists Stephen and Christopher Wolfram and linguist Jessica Coon to ensure all terminology and references were sound. But while it is intellectually stimulating, and informative without being patronising, it is also profoundly moving. It manages to combine far-reaching concepts about extra-terrestrial life, the nature of time and consciousness, with a deep understanding of love, family, and human nature.

“We are made by what we read.” – Ali Smith

My favourite quotation that I’ve come across this week is from an episode of Desert Island Discs featuring the writer Ali Smith. I’ve long been an admirer of Ali Smith, although the word “admirer” doesn’t quite cut it: I’m more in awe of her, and would happily construct an altar made from her books at which I could daily worship.

I was introduced to her work through my undergraduate degree in English Language and Literature, in the context of what was simply called, “Paper One”. “Paper One”, at the time I was studying, was designed to give us a vague understanding of linguistics, essentially so that we would become better at analysing language in our more literature-based topics. It’s the kind of paper that allowed my friend to perfectly legitimately compare an Innocent Smoothie wrapper with an Emily Dickinson poem. Ali Smith’s writing was perfect for this paper: it’s self-consciously literary, playing around with what it means to read and write, making you pay attention to every single word. At the same time it seems effortless, like every story just tumbled, fully-formed, into the world. I love the way she picks up on the exquisite detail of things, and everything is made fascinating and extraordinary in that detail, whether it’s a bird in flight or a man vomiting.

I was thrilled to find she was a guest on Desert Island Discs, and to find she was every bit as eloquent and brilliant as her writing suggests. I transcribed a small section (from 36:12 onward) that I wanted to keep to remind myself of the immense power of stories.

Kirsty Young: We started today with a quote from you where you had said, “stories can change lives”. We tell ourselves stories about our lives, we write our lives ourselves, and we choose what to edit out, and what to reinforce, and when to repeat an experience, and when to leave a paragraph behind.
Ali Smith: Exactly.
Kirsty Young: In the process of writing for us what have you learned about yourself throughout the decades, do you think?
Ali Smith: I don’t read my writing, you can’t read your own writing, all you do is see the mistakes and the annoying things and hope that something’s working and not knowing whether it is. But I am a reader. And I feel like I have been made by a million books. I feel like any book I have ever written has been drawn together from everything I’ve read, and I don’t mean just books, I also mean the sides of pencils, and the sides of buses, and the things that catch the corner of the eye as we walk past them. We are made by what we read. We are made by what we take into ourselves. If there’s anything at all in this body right now then I’m going to thank all those books for it.

Sarah Taylor (producer) and Kirsty Young (presenter), ‘Ali Smith, Desert Island Discs‘, BBC Radio 4, 6 Nov 2016 [accessed 9 November 2016]

But where are the chickens? A novice’s look at chick lit

Katie Fforde’s A Vintage Wedding (2015) tells the story of three women in a Cotswold village who set up a business planning vintage weddings. But who could have guessed from the pink and flowery book-cover that romance would lie around the corner?

This post contains spoilers. But we all saw those plot points coming a mile off, so I don’t feel too bad.

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I hope this chicken compensates for the paucity of chickens in A Vintage Wedding

I just don’t get it. I want to. I want to go with my heart and immerse myself in the indulgent, chocolate-box romance of it all. I should relate to it. I like love. I’ve even had my fair share of dramatic wedding planning, from altering a bride’s dress the day before the wedding to improvising a wedding cake when the first one collapsed just hours before the reception. But there’s something preventing me from taking that leap of faith and falling in love with A Vintage Wedding. Katie Fforde’s novel is marketed as “The Sunday Times No.1 Bestseller”, so it seems that there are plenty of people who do get it.

So I’m going to take a moment to try to understand its appeal. It has three very likeable, well-rounded main characters. There’s Lindy, a young mum with two small boys and artistic flair. There’s Rachel, the neurotic recent divorcée who’s just moved into the village, who has a talent for organisation and choosing between different shades of white. Then there’s Beth, who also recently moved to the area after quitting university, and who believes there’s nothing YouTube can’t teach her. Within a few days of meeting each other they realise that between them they have the perfect skills set to start a business helping people achieve the perfect vintage-wedding-on-a-budget. We’re gradually introduced to their mostly inoffensive romantic interests who perfectly complement each of their foibles. The story doesn’t ever do anything unexpected (apart from a few things working out ridiculously easily) but I suppose that’s part of A Vintage Wedding’s charm. It’s comfort-reading: easy, predictable, the perfect escape. And the story is carried forward if not by plot than by a whole host of likable characters. I particularly enjoyed the cameo by Lindy’s Nan, who responds to a question about how long a wedding veil will take to clean with:”Well, when I’ve gathered the right herbs, when the moon is on her back and the nightingales are singing…” (p.343). I found the tension between Beth and her controlling Mum believable and the way they grudgingly come to understand each other is genuinely heartwarming.

So what do I have to complain about? It was partly that I found the writing incredibly simple. Its style bears most resemblance to a novel I read recently for 8- to 12-year olds (maybe Fforde knows the chickens aren’t very good at reading yet). And I think partly it annoys me because it’s so focused on romance. Yes, I did know that’s what I was signing up for. But I think it’s problematic because the novel pretends to be about female independence and female friendship, but we all know the story wouldn’t be complete without each character getting partnered off. The story attempts to be empowering: “even without our blokes, Vintage Weddings is still amazing!” says Lindy (p.454), but we all know entrepreneurship is not what we’re here for, and it’s no use pretending otherwise.

It was also the fact that the romantic storylines were so predictable. If a man is introduced just with his name, he’s not going to be a love interest. But if a man is introduced and his voice or hair are described, he’ll be a love interest. I wrote down my predictions on p.79 (of 454) and I’m giving myself a 90% accuracy score (I don’t want to spoil anyone else who wants to make predictions, so I won’t say what I got wrong). But I absolutely adore Georgette Heyer, and her novels abound with these “faults”, so it can’t really be that.

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This chicken is lonely because there aren’t enough chickens in A Vintage Wedding

I don’t know if it’s because I was looking for things not to like, but I found sections of it to be bordering on offensive. The first I’ll accept as personal bias, and focuses on an encounter with one particularly unpleasant woman. She’s a bully, and horrible to everyone. But more important than the fact she was horrible, or even that she wore too much make-up, was the fact she was fat. Throughout the book (and she’s referred to a number of times) she’s not called “the horrible bridesmaid” or even the pleasingly alliterative “bitchy bullying bridesmaid” but “the fat bridesmaid”. As if the beautiful waif-like women in the novel (like the one pictured on the cover) simply must be nice, because they’re thin.

My second issue is the depiction of Rachel. Rachel likes things neat and tidy, and she doesn’t like other people coming over and messing up her nice, white house. Over the course of the novel Rachel and her new friends accept her eccentricities and even find them useful—she finds herself well-equipped for dealing with fussy B&B guests, for example, because she’s preempted all of their potential complaints. But Rachel’s neatness and cleanliness are often referred to as both “neuroses” and “OCD”. I’m all for sympathetic characters with mental illnesses being portrayed in popular culture. But I’m not for the casual use of clinical labels without properly addressing the issues. It’s briefly suggested that her compulsive behaviour is to compensate for her lack of control in her previous relationship. It makes sense then, that without the presence of this relationship, she would begin to relinquish her obsessive compulsive behaviours. But I’m still left feeling uncomfortable, and while the message isn’t quite “get yourself a man and you’ll be fine”, I can’t quite shake it from my mind. As a contrast, for a positive view on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder see the Guardian’s take on the realistic portrayal of OCD in Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. Or alternatively, see this article in CBC News about using OCD as a punchline in popular culture (something A Vintage Wedding is guilty of).

My final issue is with sex. I don’t mind too much the romanticised portrayal of women whose eyes are suddenly opened to the wonders of sex through their new partners. I mind that a certain type of behaviour is advocated in the book. Be keen, but not too keen. Show a man you’re interested, but not easy. Outgoing in all other respects, each of the women suddenly become shy and unsure of themselves when speaking to men. When one character does sleep with a man after only seeing him socially a couple of times, it leads to  multiple pages of self-doubt. “In her sane mind she would never have slept with anyone she’d only just met and hadn’t even been out with. It was crazy.” (p.299). “Easy didn’t describe her…The thought of it made her cringe…” (p.300). Ok, you think, the character’s quite traditional, and she’s scared of anything moving too quickly because she wants to put her children first. But the casual judgement extends to other characters too: “Lindy and Angus seemed to have got together quite quickly…but that was sweet. He was her first love, after all.” (p.421). It’s as though Fforde is saying, “I know, it’s a bit damning that a woman is so keen to have sex, but look, it’s ok because she’s had a crush on him for ages.” Perhaps this is one reason I enjoy Georgette Heyer’s novels so much—the sexual mores are unambiguous because they’re set in a time when there were such clear behavioural rules.

In spite of my reservations, reading A Vintage Wedding was an enjoyable few hours. Since my recent experience of romantic fiction is limited to the aforementioned Georgette Heyer as well as Fifty Shades of Grey, perhaps I need to read a few more to understand the genre and get past my own biases. And maybe next time there’ll be more chickens.

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