I wanted to start writing here about the books I’ve been reading. I have been posting them on Instagram for a while but it doesn’t seem quite the place for rambling on about them at length, so I shall do it here (sorry). Remember, this is seven books - that's why it's such a ridiculously long post. Maybe if I do it again, I'll just write about two or three at a time.
First there's Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life. Anne Lamott is a writer and creative writing teacher in the US, and here she talks about some of the techniques she teaches for getting your writing mojo on. It’s a very personal book, almost mundane in the way it portrays her life – mostly, it seems sometimes, sitting in front of a blank computer screen, feeling desperate – but she is funny, self-deprecating and sweet, and very unaffected. I read this not long after finishing Stephen King’s On Writing and, although obviously there’s lots of cross-over, I found Lamott’s view to be the more pessimistic. She seems to suggest that, as an aspiring writer, you sit down every day and try to write. Most of what results will be awful but with a bit of luck, one day you’ll find a little bit, a paragraph or so, that’s very good, and then you can work from there. She does make it sound as if you’ll spend most of your time doing nothing worthwhile. Nonetheless, there is lots of good advice – or at least, advice that made me think twice. Good writing, she said, is about telling the truth. You should embrace what she calls the shitty first draft: ‘if one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it.’ (p.51) It’s good practice to actually finish things you start, and if you have trouble with this, maybe you’re not writing about the things which, morally, you find important. Overall, I really enjoyed this book, despite it seeming sometimes quite morose.
Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton struck me as a smart and funny book. I liked the fact that, whilst I think I was expecting a book about someone who has lots of romantic affairs, it ends up seeming as though the love she is referring to is rather the lifelong attachment she has to her female friends – many of whom she’s had since school. Similarly, I loved how fearless she and her friends were. Indeed, apart from a briefly described period of disordered eating, she has little to say about the kind of worries and insecurities that I associate with being a teenager. I kind of went along with this for a while, thinking that obviously Alderton was just a very different type of teenager from any that I knew (and I’m sure this is true); then, halfway through, I started to get curious and went in search of her photo in the back. She looks very pretty in a romantic, couture-esque kind of dress, sitting on a doorstep. For some reason, it was the colour of the door behind her that made me think ‘money’. Anyway, from then on, everything I read seemed to suggest poshness. Nothing wrong with that, but the fact that this is never acknowledged made me read the second half of the book more cynically.
The other slightly strange thing about it was that, because it has quite a strong story arc, by the end as she starts to wrap up, she sounds – not exactly old – but mature, cynical, even slightly worn-out with relationships. It came as a surprise to me, after all that, to find a chapter entitled ‘Everything I Know About Love at Twenty-eight’ and to realize she’s still so young.
I bought Nobody Knows My Name, by James Baldwin, after reading Deborah Levy’s memoirs, in which she quotes from it. It is the first time I’ve read anything by him, and as an introduction, it felt rather random. There were several essays I really enjoyed, but others – e.g. interviews with and book reviews of people I’m not particularly familiar with – that I didn’t have any basis for forming an opinion on. I did like the way he wrote. He is thoughtful and sympathetic and writes about quite emotive subjects – such as the construction of the hated housing projects in Harlem, or visiting the American South for the first time – with wonderful clarity and, not distance exactly, but a lack of anger, as if racism had failed to embitter him. My favourite essays are those on the subjects I’ve just mentioned – ‘A Letter From Harlem’ and ‘Nobody Knows My Name’. There was something a bit ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ about the former – except of course that Orwell put himself artificially in the contexts about which he writes; Baldwin was writing about the streets of his own childhood. But maybe this illustrates that appealing aspect of his writing I was trying to describe above: he talks about those streets as though seeing them afresh, introducing them to those who know nothing of them.
I sought out The Bronte Story, after reading another of Margaret Lane’s books: The Tale of Beatrix Potter. I loved that and I loved this too. I’m not sure what it is about Lane – perhaps it’s the warmth and sympathy with which she writes about women who would have been considered as anomalous spinsters in their own time, and even today might look rather strange. This is the story of all the Brontes, although it focuses quite closely on Charlotte, because it takes it’s lead from Mrs Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte, explaining how that book came about and filling in the gaps. I loved the account of Charlotte’s later friendship with Thackeray. The discussion of shyness made me think about how little I hear of shy adults today. The image of the shy person seems to have been replaced by that of the introvert, and introverts are often described as people who exert themselves to be outgoing, but who need time alone to ‘recharge’ afterwards. People who are simply too shy to exert themselves seem to have disappeared somewhere in the middle. (Question: does shyness seem less current now because of the internet? Surely nobody appears shy on social media.) This is also one of a number of books I seem to be accumulating which talks about the overwhelming role of imagination in the lives of women, writers in particular. There’s Florence Nightingale, Beatrice Webb, Anne Lamott, and Caitlyn Moran. Lane suggests that the Brontes had sort of familial imaginative life and, whilst Charlotte was able to put this aside enough to interact outside the family, Emily was completely enmeshed in it and never sought to escape. I would love to read a biography of Emily – in fact, I’d like to read all the Brontes’ books again, having read this biography.
I’ve had Sula by Toni Morrison for a long time and only just read it. The trouble is that the last Morrison book I read was Beloved and I found that so emotionally unbearable and it stayed with me for so long, that I couldn’t bring myself to pick up another of her books.
However, the recent Black Lives Matter protests, and the subsequent media awareness of the blindness of white people to the black experience of racism, and of the under-representation of black and minority ethnic people generally, has made me realize how few books I read by BAME writers. It has become clear that, for me at least, it is easier to think about these issues (if not actually to talk about them) when I can hear a diversity of voices. Unfortunately, when I had this thought, the only such book in the house which I hadn’t read was Morrison’s Sula. I’m afraid I did have to drag myself to it. Morrison, I should say, has always seemed to me to be a bit of a literary heavyweight, with all the disadvantages that entails. Like Virginia Woolf, I always feel I ought to have read her books, but I don’t always find the prospect particularly inviting.
However, Sula did surprise me. It’s a thin book, and quite pacy – if not exactly upbeat; and in some ways it’s rather lurid – lots of people dying or being injured in horrific circumstances – all without ruffling the narrative too much. It’s about two girls who grow up in a small town in Ohio. One of the girls, Sula, moves away. Years later, she comes back and causes a scandal, putting her mother in an old peoples’ home and helping herself to everyone’s husbands. For much of the book, the story seems to focus on Sula, but then she dies, apparently alone and unloved, and we spend time inside the head of the other girl, Nel. What emerges, I think, is that she is much more implicated in the way Sula turned out than the reader might have thought.
With all the violence and the promiscuity, I found Sula something of a reluctant page-turner, and I found the community that Morrison creates quite compelling. She combines nostalgia and a sort of folksy, American, broad-brush stroke picture with very disturbing portraits of particular individuals. However, I wasn’t quite sure what she was trying to say about Sula and Nell. In some ways, it seemed like Sula’s behavior as an adult stemmed from terrible things that happened when she was a child – she certainly witnessed a lot of violence. On the other hand, you could argue that she was just a bit of a free spirit when it came to relationships.
Anne Lamott, in her book, Bird by Bird, said that creative writing should be character-led, and that once a writer knew her characters, she could only sit there and take notes whilst they did what they wanted. This is what Sula reminded me of; it seemed like a book where the characters had minds of their own.
The Group by Mary McCarthy was on Radio 4’s ‘A Good Read’ programme a while ago. It’s a book about a group of ‘upper class’ girls in 1930s America, and their lives after they graduate from Vassar College in New York. It’s astonishingly broad, covering a wide range of stressful subjects around relationships and morals (but also cooking, working, rearing babies, socialism, getting committed to a mental hospital when your husband’s cheating on you) in great detail, in a rather gossipy tone. It’s very funny and kind of warm-hearted; even the unlikeable characters mostly have their better sides drawn out.
I’m not sure I would have known that it was based in the 1930s if I hadn’t been told. It comes across as a period of great social advances – more like the 60s. But the women were quite well-off so presumably they had more freedom than most, and to some extent I’m sure everyone thinks of their own era as being particularly progressive. Anyway, it felt like a bit of social history.
Seashaken Houses by Tom Nancollas reminded me a little of Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind – written by a scientific mind, but with a great appreciation for the beauty and drama of the historical landscape. Nancollas pursues rock lighthouses in the UK – the ones built out at sea – intertwining the mad, buccaneering, but ultimately quite practical, story of how such structures came to be built that were able to withstand the enormous forces of the sea, and his own tour of the available memorabilia (including a retired lighthouse keeper). Ultimately, on the couple of occasions he actually gets to spend serious time in a lighthouse, the experience does not seem to grip him for long. One gets the impression that lighthouses are more attractive from the outside. I did enjoy the book though. It even inspired me to go on the Apple Store and rent a film I keep seeing adverts for, with Robert Pattison – called The Lighthouse – although I rather wish I hadn’t now. It was a horror film, and set in the US, where lighthouses seem to be quite a different proposition.
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