Three Things… July 2019

It’s ages since I’ve done a Three Things! Borrowed, as ever, from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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The Terrible, a memoir by poet and short-story writer Yrsa Daley-Ward, falls into the category of prose-poetry that has attracted criticism recently for being easy and vague, and for prizing ‘relatability’ above other artistic considerations. Poets like Daley-Ward, Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur have been disparagingly termed ‘Instapoets’ because of their significant social media presence and use of Instagram to highlight their poetry; given that poets nowadays need to be proactive in engaging with their audience, I don’t find this term useful, and nor do I think that using Instagram makes you a less serious writer. Nevertheless, I broadly agree with poet Rebecca Watts’ now infamous piece in PN Review, ‘The cult of the noble amateur’, which focuses on McNish, that McNish’s and Kaur’s poetry is problematic because it is characterised by an ‘open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft’. This assumes, Watts argues, that poems are not ‘deliberately created works’ but naturally occurring outbursts of feeling, and thus positions them as something that ‘anyone could write’. Unfortunately, I felt that Daley-Ward’s memoir, despite some interesting sections, also ended up in this place.

The Terrible is certainly honest, and it is brave in its exploration of childhood and adolescent trauma. Yrsa and her little brother Roo grew up with their Seventh-Day Adventist grandparents in north-west England; their mother was both present and absent in their childhood. ‘I think she loves us a bit,’ the young Yrsa tells Roo, ‘but not as much as other people’s mums.’ Daley-Ward writes well about how she was meant to feel alienated from her own body before she even hit her teens; entering puberty early, being exoticised as a woman of colour, encountering the ‘powerfear’ of men’s sexual attraction to her. At nine and a half, she writes, ‘I longed for smallness; to be petite. To have small hands and feet and no growing pains; no angry lion dreams and definitely no boobs.’ However, these sections are some of the few in the book that are narrated in prose, and are the stronger for it.

As Daley-Ward moves into her teens, she narrates more and more in prose-poetry (which often just feels like confessional, split-up prose) as she recounts her time in sex work and her isolation in the world. After sleeping with a much older man for money and having to hurriedly leave because his daughters are arriving, she thinks ‘He has daughters. He has a family. It does not feel fair that someone so old should have a doting family and someone as young as me should have no-one.’ But most of these chapters feel like words spilt onto the page, too easy, too emotive, often in a manipulative second-person voice:

You

reduce food to 1200 calories

reduce food to 1000 calories

don’t tell anyone what’s happening with Peter

He wants to leave his wife. Oh God.

He says “You’re losing too much weight.

Eat. Please eat.”

 I wonder if the problem with this kind of poetry, as with McNish’s and Kaur’s, is that it’s really written to be spoken rather than read, that on the page we’re only getting part of the performance. But if that’s the case, this memoir needed to be rethought; for me, this doesn’t work in print. Rather than capturing the specificity of Yrsa’s experiences as her more straightforward writing does, it reduces them and makes them trite. I’d like to see Daley-Ward write more consistently in prose, rather than resort to this hybrid form, as it seems to be where her talents lie.

I received a free proof copy of this memoir from the publisher for review.

Watching

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People who know me IRL will know I’m a huge Stranger Things fan. The first two series packed a huge emotional punch for me, especially as I watched them in a row when I was having a difficult time back in January 2018. For those who haven’t watched Stranger Things, it’s set in Hawkins, a fictional small town in Indiana, in the 1980s (and never lets you forget it; this is 80s nostalgia writ large). The main focus of the show is a group of friends on the cusp of their teens, one of whom goes missing after a game of Dungeons and Dragons one night, and the strange, traumatised girl they encounter, Eleven, who turns out to have psychokinetic powers. Our heroes soon start to suspect there’s something supernatural going on beneath the surface of Hawkins, and decide to investigate…

[Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 1 and 2 follow.]

After how much I loved the first two series, Stranger Things 3 was a bit of a let-down. Partly, this is beyond the showrunners’ control: the charm of the first two series lay largely in their exploration of the last years of childhood, when you no longer believe in magic but really want to, and as the central cast age into adolescence, this was never going to work in the same way. However, there were other aspects of Stranger Things 3 that I found a bit lacking. A number of the characters became caricatures of themselves. I’ve always disliked Mike, one of the pre-teens, but I hated him with the intensity of a thousand suns this season as he’s pretty much horrible to everybody around him, especially best friend Will and new girlfriend Eleven. Similarly, disillusioned police chief Hopper seemed to be vicious rather than just jaded, and local mother Joyce, who always shouted a lot, seemed to be shouting even more. There was also not nearly enough Will, the original missing person, who for me has always been the heart of the series. Some of the brilliance of the earlier series was still present – I will always adore Dustin, and his alliance with Steve and Robin was inspired – but, overall, I felt like this season of Stranger Things was more schlocky, less scary, and less haunting.

Thinking

I’ve been listening to a brand new podcast, What Editors Want, which is about what publishers look for in an author and book. The first episode, featuring Louisa Joyner from Faber & Faber, was excellent, and it’s nice to get a different take on publishing after having read 1000+ articles on ‘what agents want’. I went to an event with Joyner at the Durham Book Festival where she was talking with three of her debut authors, and I really admire her approach to getting good books to readers. While I disagree with her that there’s no distinction between commercial and literary fiction, I definitely agree that there are a lot of fantastic books that fall into that liminal space.

Three Things: February 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter, and apologies for playing with the format a bit!

Reading

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The Binding, Bridget Collins’s first adult novel, is set in an alternative past where bookbinders bind people’s memories into individual volumes, allowing the choice to get rid of painful recollections – or, if you’re struggling to survive, the option of selling your happy or interesting memories for money. When Emmett is sent to train as a bookbinder under the elderly Seredith, he can’t work out why he seems to be in disgrace with his family, or why he reacts so violently to Lucian, an elite young gentleman he encounters, until he realises that he himself has been bound in the past. Collins’s world-building has something of the simple solidity of the wonderful YA writing I loved in my childhood – Monica Furlong and Robin McKinley came to mind. But there’s also a touch of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith in the clever three-part structure, and in the way a private collection of books functions as both horror and revelation. Spoilers for The Binding follow.

As it turns out, Emmett and Lucian fell for each other before the opening of the novel, but when their respective families discovered their love affair, both were bound to hide the ‘shame’ of their sexuality. At the end of Part One, Emmett manages to burn the book that contains his memories, and so reclaims them. The much longer Part Two flashes back to let the reader see how Emmett and Lucian’s relationship developed, but when we’re back in the present in Part Three, we realise that only Emmett now knows the truth; Lucian’s book is still untouched. The climax of the novel sees Lucian torn between whether he should seek out his book – what if it contains evidence that he’s a murderer or a rapist? – or whether he should leave it be. Although Lucian doesn’t know why he was bound, this works pretty neatly as a metaphor for coming to terms with your own sexuality. How long can you lie to yourself about something you already know?

Collins’s background as a YA writer is put to effective use here. What I really liked about The Binding is the way in which it deconstructs what makes YA fiction work so well, but pairs it with stronger writing and a slower, more reflective pace. Readers of YA, especially queer YA, will know that it often pivots on that moment of realisation, that ‘and then he kissed him’, or ‘she kissed her’, though the latter is still unfortunately much harder to find than the former. The Binding lets this happen three times, when Lucian and Emmett first meet, and when they each respectively regain their memories. Moreover, like Fingersmith, it enjoys playing with power dynamics. The novel starts off with the traditional tale, with farm labourer Emmett seduced by the more sexually experienced Lucian, but once Emmett regains his memories and Lucian does not, the tables are amusingly turned. After their ‘first’ encounter, Lucian reflects ‘what he showed me wasn’t tenderness; it was experience. When he first kissed me I thought – in spite of everything – he was innocent. As if he’d never touched anyone else. But that’s absurd. No one fucks like that unless they’ve done it a lot.’ When both Lucian and Emmett learn the truth, their relationship is the more balanced for it. Totally absorbing, and great fun.

Watching Listening

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I don’t seem to have watched anything recently, but I’ve finally found a way to make some time for podcasts – I listen to them while doing repetitive Spanish exercises on Duolingo! Obviously, this requires podcasts that don’t need absolute concentration, but I find BookTube and other podcasts on reading and writing work well for this for me. I’ve been dipping into Savidge Reads and Insert Literary Pun Here‘s channels, as well as some of Tim Clare’s Death of 1000 Cuts podcasts.

I’ve also been enjoying Double Love, a podcast that dissects the ridiculousness of the Sweet Valley High series, one book at a time. I was reading SVH in the late 90s and early 2000s, so I’m much more familiar with the books after #100 (Evil Twin!!!) or so, but it’s fun getting a glimpse at the very different world of the 80s titles.

Thinking

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Yes, yet another book-related one, but I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to see on the Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2019, which will be announced on March 4th. THIS IS NOT A PREDICTION, which is why some of the most obvious picks are missing, but rather the sixteen books I’d most like to see on the list. Links to my reviews, where they exist; I haven’t read Rooney, Toews, Griffiths, Serpell, Miller, Kwon, Hustvedt, Li or Forna, but I’m adding them because I’d like to read them.

Normal People: Sally Rooney

Milkman: Anna Burns

Old Baggage: Lissa Evans

Motherhood: Sheila Heti

Women Talking: Miriam Toews

So Lucky: Nicola Griffiths

The Old Drift: Namwali Serpell

Circe: Madeline Miller

Melmoth: Sarah Perry

The Western WindSamantha Harvey

The Incendaries: RO Kwon

Memories of the Future: Siri Hustvedt

Where Reasons End: Yiyun Li

The Night Tiger: Yangsze Choo

Ghost Wall: Sarah Moss [may be too short to qualify]

Happiness: Aminatta Forna

What would you like to see longlisted for the Women’s Prize?