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Cities of honey and bone

Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea

In troubled times, absorbing books are a blessing: a gateway to a different world, from which we can return with a subtly altered perspective on the problems of our own.

I remember loving The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, a 2011 novel about a richly imagined circus that sets the stage for an age-old struggle between two immensely powerful magicians. The premise (and even the title) recalls Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, and Morgenstern’s confident storytelling and overflowing creativity is worthy company for Carter – high praise from me, as Nights at the Circus is one of my favourite books. (Its other reference point is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke – I loved that too and really must watch the TV series. Coronavirus might see me finally subscribe to Netflix!)

Morgenstern’s new book, The Starless Sea, displays the same dazzlingly fertile creativity, but this time, her inspiration is the video game. Does that sound less romantic than the circus? Don’t worry: she blends in the eternal tropes of Time and Fate; a love story that endures over centuries and past death; and that slam-dunk for any reader who would ever pick up a 500-page novel: an endless, labyrinthine library that extends through galleries, halls and levels in an underground otherworld where time and stories do not always proceed in as orderly a fashion as in our reality. I could very happily live in Morgenstern’s mysterious library with its numberless rooms, bordering the Starless Sea, and I suspect I’m not the only one.

A fantasy library from Desktop Nexus that reminded me of the one in The Starless Sea

Her protagonist is Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a reclusive postgrad student of Emerging Media (i.e. video games) who, as a child, saw a door painted onto an alley wall and didn’t open it. After finding a book in his university library that includes exactly that story – himself, as a child, finding a painted door and not opening it – he gets a second chance to find his way to the world beyond the door, which is… you guessed it, the world of the vast underground library and the Starless Sea. Soon he’s caught up in an epic battle to save that world. This is the main storyline, but there are plenty of inserted fairy stories that form parts of books the characters read. I found all these equally enchanting.

Magic is tricky territory for adult books. It’s so easy to get it wrong. But I recall so vividly that blurry, dreamlike uncertainty about the laws of the universe that is among childhood’s richest gifts. The cat might talk. The wardrobe might open into a mysterious land. I might be the heroine of a quest I know nothing about… yet. The world was sufficiently wondrous and new to me that I wasn’t sure what was real and what wasn’t. I didn’t know how ATMs and washing machines worked – perhaps there was equally incomprehensible, more exciting magic out there? Morgenstern captures this wonder, particularly in her richly layered descriptions (when I said you could live in the library, I meant it – her creations are endlessly imaginative, vivid and precise). However, the story was never ENTIRELY clear to me. Because I read fast and inattentively, I often miss vital plot points, so thought it was my fault, but I see other reviewers agree. I actually think this is a common fault among epic fantasy books – the protagonist is pitched into a world whose rules and history they know nothing of, and so neither do we. This mystery often hinders the plot – see: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings. I feel it’s maybe a bit lazy to have dramatic tension hinge on the fact that the protagonist never has a clue what’s going on, and for me, The Starless Sea does fall into that trap. The characters aren’t quite fully fleshed out and, even as an easily scared reader, I never really feared the antagonist.

But honestly, I would love this book if only for its creation of that incredible library – it will live in my imagination for a long time. And that’s far from its only virtue. I cared about the two central love stories; I revelled in the intricate symbolism; I adored the grandiose boldness of incorporating Time and Fate. I didn’t want to leave this book and I’ll reread it to re-enter that world and catch nuances I missed first time round. So… thumbs up for a self-isolation or quarantine read. It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t far off.

Aiming for 2020 vision

My vision board for 2020

Yep, it’s a terrible pun. (Not least because my eyesight is actually appalling.) And yep, it’s a vision board. (I too find them almost unbearably cheesy.) And yes, I’m a bit late to the whole ‘goals for 2020’ thing, given it’s February already.

BUT. In doing this, I found there is something about finding images to represent your goals that does truly help you clarify them – and, hopefully, achieve them! Score one for the manifesters (ugh) and zero for the cynical journalist. I have Sara Tasker’s 15-Minute Magic course to thank, by the way, for inspiring me to create this board. It’s a hugely useful course and a powerful lesson in the value of getting out of my own way.

I don’t think the board needs much explanation, but just to state the obvious, I’d like to do more writing, more reading, more guitar (I only know six chords so far, but am confidently expecting to be Joni Mitchell by year’s end) and more time gardening and in nature.

Also, apparently, I’d like to become a brunette.

It’s funny that none of them are all that difficult to achieve or involve lots of money…

An art critic’s memoir

This week I read Laura Cumming’s On Chapel Sands. It has SUCH an amazing premise: it’s a memoir by an art critic whose mother went missing for three days from a Lincolnshire beach. It happened in 1929 when her mum, Betty, was three – Betty has no memories of this event, and wasn’t even told about it until she was in her fifties. What happened?

As she unravels the mystery, Cumming drops jewels of art criticism, like her description of Sussex artist Eric Ravilious’s work, in which she detects “a kind of surprise that the plain, scrubbed world could be quite so beautiful”.

And she creates an entirely new kind of memoir, using her professional skills to interpret family photos – a shot of her grandmother when young is like a Vermeer, light streaming in through the kitchen window onto the serenely beautiful woman peeling apples into an enamel pie dish. She describes the beach of Chapel Sands as like a Seurat in some moods; a Turner in others – “What is the sea”, she asks, “but a perfect abstraction?” Of the print of Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus that decorated her childhood home, she writes: “No other painting has ever made me feel so keenly alive to the idea that this high round world, lit by the sun, is the very same place where our ancestors once trudged and ploughed and fished the very same seas, in their queer medieval costumes; that we may change but the scenery does not.”

“Life reproves the imagination: look closer,” Cumming writes. And she does, investing her family history – a picture made up of photos and memories and scanty written documents – with more and more possibility, more and more complexity, each time she reexamines it. And she concludes that sometimes the past can only ever be unknowable.

I was enthralled by the depiction of the village of Chapel St Leonards in the 1920s as beset by a kind of pinched conservatism that is airless and depressing. (Funny to think that at the same time, the Bloomsbury-ites were whooping it up with threesomes and all sorts of high jinks at Charleston.) Betty’s adoptive parents – repressed, silent types – never spoke of her true origins, and nor did the tightlipped villagers.

And though she overflows with empathy for the pain her rigid grandparents caused her much-loved mother (she describes her as being “as celebratory as summer”), Cumming finds it in herself to humanise these people who did little Betty so much damage. “What seemed right at the time now seems cruel and inhuman,” explains one villager of the morals – a profound, pervasive shame about sexuality chief among them – that saw an entire community keep the secret of a child’s identity from her.

And eventually the mystery is solved – surprisingly but inevitably. This is just an extraordinary piece of writing on family and love and art and history. I loved it.

In related news, did I immediately rush to spend 10 of your English pounds on a Hay Festival listening subscription SOLELY to hear Cumming interviewed by the co-host of another fave podcast, John Mitchinson of Backlisted? You bet I did.

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What it’s like being a reporter on assignment

Hanging Rock, VIC (Photo credit: Hannah James)

Going on assignment has always been, in my fairly limited experience, an odd mixture of exciting, terrifying, infuriating and boring. But mainly, quite honestly, exhausting.

For a woman who spends most of her time sitting at a desk working on a computer (or – whisper it in case my physio hears – slumped on the sofa, working on a computer), simply walking or driving around all day is tiring enough. Combine that with the early starts most photographers require to capture that dawn light, repeated jolts of adrenaline born of interviewing people and trying to get great quotes out of them, followed by despair if you didn’t and exultation if you did, and flying or driving for long periods of time, and the result is always bone-deep fatigue.

The best bit is briefly, involuntarily turning into a lark. I’m a night owl who loves staying up late and hates getting up at any time, let alone before 6am, but those early starts mean early nights, and sometimes that resets my harried nervous system and results in my collapsing into bed at 8.30pm for nine hours of deep, restful slumber.

Although serendipity by definition never comes when summoned, we were fortunate…

This time I was in country Victoria reporting a story for Australian Geographic, and a short flight followed by a short drive to Mount Macedon was a pretty friendly way to kick off the trip (the same can’t be said for my late arrival at the airport in Sydney, which was occasioned by nothing more than my own idiocy in thinking that I could just drop off luggage at 8.30am on a Monday and breeze on to a 9am flight. I could not).

Slightly sweaty with panic but safely on the flight, I began to realise how little prep work I’d done for this trip. I’d just finished a three-month stint as the features director for two magazines at once, and had barely had time to breathe, let alone pore over maps and academic papers, so I felt a little on the back foot. That can be scary – there are no second chances on a reporting trip; once it’s over, it’s over – but this time, it meant the photographer and I were open to serendipity, with no fixed idea in mind of what we wanted. And although serendipity by definition never comes when summoned, we were fortunate. Chance roadside chats turned into video interviews, a 6pm beer in a country pub turned into a road trip with a knowledgeable local, and an aimless drive with an hour to kill turned into a beautiful photo.

I’m being vague because the story’s not out yet, but suffice to say the trip went well.

What happens on reporting trips that don’t go well? I’ll never tell…

RELATED: Another Australian Geographic reporting trip, this time to Carnarvon Gorge. (And that’s me in the white hat hiking around it!)

An incredible AusGeo trip to a remote Queensland national park on my birthday!

A trip to terrific Tulum

And to equally terrific Tasmania.

In 2017 I read 112 books

Bookshelf pic

This is my actual bookshelf, unedited.

In 2017 I read 112 books.

I know this because I track the books I read in Evernote. I have an Evernote for each year from 2014, inspired by reading about an author who wrote down every single book he EVER read.

This is infuriating to me. Why did I not start before 2014? I am 37 years old, I have always been an insatiable reader and I have a terrible memory. Think of the thousands of books I’ve read and lost!

To be fair to myself, I have tried many times over the years to keep records of my reading. Like most writers, I have innumerable notebooks full (or not so full) of never-completed projects. For me, many of those projects centred on book reviews.

But I read too fast, too inattentively and too broadly to review every book I read. Even the tiny purple-covered notebook I started in, maybe, 1992 with the bare minimum aim of filling with one-sentence reviews never made it past five or 10 books.

So 20 years later, tired of my faulty brain software irrevocably deleting so many books from my consciousness, I outsourced to a more reliable program. Evernote worked because of its bare-bones nature. Just write a note. Title it. Save it. Done.

My record is equally bare-bones. Author, title. No review, no rating, just the smallest possible note of what I read. (Plus a monthly and annual count. Because even words people like numbers when they prove how wordy those people are.)

It has not escaped my notice that no less a words person than the editor of The New York Times Book Review, Pamela Paul, does the same. She even wrote a book about it, My Life with Bob, where Bob is her Book of Books. (Hers is an actual, tattered notebook that she tells The Atlantic she took with her on her travels to China, Thailand, etc. Whatever, Pamela. Why you always gotta one-up me?)

It’s on my Books To Read note.

So what did I actually read in 2017?

In January, I was in India, so I read Eric Newby’s delightfully dry A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (it’s very Three Men in a Boat, if you, like me, know and love that comedy classic). I read William Dalrymple’s extraordinary, illuminating Nine Lives, and an anthology edited by Anita Nair called Where the Rain is Born: Writings about Kerala.

I had the enormous privilege of interviewing Gloria Steinem for my job at the time on a magazine (read the story here), so, feeling under-prepared the night before the interview, I downloaded My Life on the Road to my Kindle and read it quickly and desperately.

In February I read Anne Wroe’s Six Facets of Light (and wrote about it here) – she writes about my home county of Sussex in a way that makes me ache for it. I promptly booked a flight home for June.

Sarah Wilson’s First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, about her lifelong struggles with anxiety, stood out in March. Not coincidentally, I had just quit my job.

We went to Bali in April – I duly read Colin McPhee’s A House in Bali, and reread Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (haters, sssshhht).

I discovered Amy Liptrot’s shimmering memoir The Outrun in May and, thanks to the unceasingly brilliant Backlisted podcast, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s gloriously mischievous Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman.

Visiting Trinity, my old Oxford college, in June, I spent some deeply satisfying hours in Blackwells bookshop next door and picked up Justin Cartwright’s The Secret Garden: Oxford Revisited. Which is about… the author going back to Trinity, his old Oxford college. Wait – I could have written a BOOK about it?

Clearly needing comfort in July, I see I reread all of LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books. There are six of them. I needed a lot of comfort.

Another Backlisted recommendation sent me into a Jane Gardam hole in August – a deeply pleasant place to be.

After two amazing outback trips on assignment for Australian Geographic magazine, I read Bruce Pascoe’s seminal Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? Swiftly followed by Singing Saltwater Country: Journey to the Songlines of Carpentaria, by John Bradley and Yanyuwa families (recommend!).

I joined a book club composed of the delightful women I now work with at the Channel Nine website Nine Honey, which finally pushed me into reading Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale.

And the end of the year saw me on a homesick streak, with Madeleine Bunting’s The Plot: A Biography of My Father’s English Acre, a reread of Adam Nicolson’s Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History, and another reread of Katherine Swift’s The Morville Hours, an account of how the author created a garden at a National Trust heritage property that beautifully tells the story of the place.

As Pamela Paul doubtlessly says far more elegantly in her book (dammit, Pamela), my list tells my story far better than a diary ever could. It tells me what I was thinking and doing and feeling and learning, and gives me pointers for where I might direct my reading – and therefore myself – in the future.

In 2017, I read memoirs and essays and travel books and novels and instructional books and children’s books. I read books that helped me through deadening anxiety and books that bored me and books that made me cry. I got lost and I got angry and I got reassured.

I also, finally, got the idea and the motivation to start writing my own book, something I’ve been stumbling towards my whole life. If anyone ever adds it to their list of Books Read 2019 (or, real talk, 2025 – or 2050) it will be because of the potent combination of books I recorded, day by day, month by month, in Books Read 2017.

Don’t stop reading books. And for god’s sake, write them down.

 

RELATED:

I wrote about my lifelong love of reading in Sunday Style magazine here.

London War Notes 1939-1945, by Mollie Panter-Downes

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Let’s get one thing out of the way first: school life must have been hell for Mollie Panter-Downes. The name is quite extraordinary and yet somehow perfectly of its time – catch anyone saddling a defenceless babe with such a hyphenate now.

Born in London in 1906, Panter-Downes (no, I can’t do it; she’s P-D from now on) was a novelist whose first book, written when she was just 16, earned great acclaim. With apparently equal – and equally irritating – ease, she soon began selling poems and stories to the New Yorker, and come the Second World War in 1939, her editor there astutely commissioned her to write a series of Letters from London that continued until the end of the war in 1945. These letters are collected in London War Notes 1939-1945.

Despite the book’s subject, I’d for some reason expected a lighthearted look at London in wartime. Partly it’s that terribly unfortunate name of hers, partly because I associate P-D with Stella Gibbons and Nancy Mitford for rapier-pointed wit – and partly, honestly, it’s the legacy of Dad’s Army, which unrelentingly portrayed WW2’s home front as full of bumbling country clots and self-important retired colonels having jolly japes.

At the beginning, the letters lived up to my expectations; there’s the snortingly brilliant evocation of the village of Mugbourne, overrun by evacuees: “Cockney voices shrilled over the village green, where mothers sat listlessly in the sunshine, pining for the fleshpots of Battersea”. The first air-raid warning coincides with the first hunting morning of the year: “Quite unmoved by the warning, old Squire and his merry men continued to tootle and crash about happily in the copses. It was felt to be an excellent gesture which would certainly infuriate Hitler if he knew.” Others react more obediently: “Miss Chubb, one of our sub-wardens, found that she had not yet been provided with the tin hat promised by a benevolent government for such a contingency. Nothing daunted, she donned an aluminium pudding basin, which fitted to a nicety”. Further up the social scale, and rather less prepared, is Miss Sybil Molyneux-Thring, who has been appointed to drive an ambulance but is still in bed when the sirens go off. “She struggled out of her night attire and into most of her uniform as she ran downstairs, completing her toilet on the last lap across the stableyard, where Parker, the chauffeur, had her car waiting with the engine already running. Handing him her nightdress, Miss Molyneux-Thring hopped in blithely and drove off in a scatter of gravel, leaving Parker clasping a few yards of peach-coloured chiffon to his bosom and feeling that this was war all right.”

However, that blithe spirit (Coward’s popularity was at its height in the war years) soon darkens.

It’s sobering to realise that the enduring image of the cheerful, stoical British populace is far from accurate. “Everyone is slightly fed up with something or other: with the Ministry of Information, which doesn’t inform; with the British Broadcasting Corporation, which is accused of being depressing and – worse – boring…” So much for the glory days of the BBC, which comes in later for a dose of scorn for its incessant programming, during moments of crisis when nerves are already frayed to their limits, of Gilbert and Sullivan. However, “The Ministry of Information comes off worst with everybody. The man in the street feels, rather naturally, that he is paying plenty for this war, that he is entitled to know what is happening…” Fake news – or no news – is nothing unique to our era. And it’s not just general grumbling about the war; the coal miners’ strike towards the end of the war hits a discordant note in what’s generally assumed to have been a British population singing a harmonic chorus in patriotic support of the government. In fact, according to P-D, “the British people”, a group that’s always been anything but homogeneous, evinced all the many and varied characteristics during the war that they do today, from stubborn obstinacy (many could not be convinced to evacuate themselves and their children from London, even during the Blitz) to grumbling acquiescence to authority.

The book raises questions about how one’s own generation would react in such a circumstance. It’s tempting to think that in these days of material abundance and individualism, most would refuse to fight, but in the early 20th century, too, people’s patriotism was unpredictable. After all, an Oxford Union debate just a few years prior to the war, in 1933, carried the motion that “this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country.” It’s safe to assume most of those young pacifists did end up fighting, and perhaps dying, for King and Country.

Nevertheless, some profound differences in social attitudes between then and now are evident. Despite P-D’s blistering intelligence and finely honed observational skills, she is as much subject to the customs of her time as the rest of us. Constant references to ‘housewives’, to whose lot falls sole responsibility for managing food rationing and clothing coupons, stand out to a modern ear. P-D’s personal opinions, however, remain for the most part mysterious. She’s self-effacing, rarely using the first person singular and almost never recounting her own experiences or emotions. One of her most impressive achievements in this book is her regal stance of journalistically impartial observer, maintained steadfastly throughout the war.

Interruptions to the even tenor of everyday life, small and large, are inevitable in war, but it’s arresting to hear them enumerated: everything from being unable to read on the train due to the blackout regulations to being rendered instantly homeless after a bombing raid. The immense exhaustion of Londoners during the endless night-time air raids during the Blitz is movingly evoked. Tiny details bring alive the experience – and unsettlingly, even in the 1940s the unreality of it all raised comparisons to a Hollywood movie.

The book sags, as did public morale, during the long middle years of the war, but picks up as it rattles towards what everyone was aware would be its conclusion. D Day, however, fools everyone by being just another day: “What they definitely hadn’t expected was that the greatest day of our times would be just the same old London day, with men and women going to the office, queuing up for fish, getting haircuts, and scrambling for lunch.” Even the liberation of Paris was taken quietly, P-D reports, although the news “made Londoners feel as though they were waking up from a long and horrible dream and returning to a sanity so overwhelmingly good that it had to be taken slowly.” But as spring – and V-Day ­– approaches, the impression is “of a city struggling toward a gaiety in which it still hardly dares believe”. When it finally comes, it is with the atmosphere of a “vast, happy village fete as people wandered about, sat, sang and slept against a summer background of trees, grass, flowers and water.” It’s a glorious picture of unexpectedly rural bliss amid the devastation of a city that had suffered so much – and could now breathe, rejoice, and begin to build a new world.

 

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

LincolnintheBardo

Acclaimed short-story author George Saunders’s first novel is extraordinary – I mean that quite literally. In a long and varied reading life, I haven’t read anything quite like it.

The novel is based on the true, and almost unbearably sad, story that when President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie died, Lincoln went several times at night into the cemetery where the child was buried, to grieve and to hold his body.

Beginning at a state reception held by Lincoln as Willie lies dying upstairs, the book gives multiple narrators a sentence or a paragraph each to report on events. It isn’t clear which are fictitious sources and which are real (research revealed it’s a mixture of both). Viewing an event through different people’s eyes, particularly when they occasionally flatly contradict each other, is far more illuminating than a single voice can ever be. But it risks a restive reader starting to wonder when the authoritative voice of the narrative proper will start, as I did. Any discomfort doesn’t last long, however.

If you don’t already listen to the New York Times Book Review podcast, you really should – the calibre of the guest authors is predictably high, and unlike on radio or TV shows, they’re given time to speak at length on their work. In the episode from 10 February, which features Saunders, he explains that this technique of employing multiple narrators was a practical solution to the problem of telling a story mostly set in a graveyard – I’m not spoiling anything by revealing that most of these voices are those of Willie’s dead companions in the cemetery. They inhabit the bardo of the title, a Tibetan Buddhist concept of the space between life and death where the spirits of the recently deceased, and form a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the action.

Formal innovation is often offputting in novels – just tell me the story! (Virginia Woolf always excepted.) But it’s a bold, elegant solution to the problem Saunders set himself, and it becomes an essential element of the story – I found myself looking forward to the next appearance of particular characters.

It’s a powerful book, and funny, and tragic – and recommended.

Currently reading

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Six Facets of Light by Ann Wroe. This one is so beautiful, I’ve slowed down so I don’t finish it too quickly. It’s hard to categorise – I suppose it’s part reflection on the ways in which artists and writers have used and thought about light in their work, and part collective biography of those artists and writers, interwoven with personal reminiscences. So the material is fascinating, and Wroe’s language is so crystalline, it shimmers occasionally into poetry.

As I grew up on the Sussex coast, which is the area Wroe mostly writes about, this book keeps giving me little shocks of recognition and a powerful longing to go home again. It’s sent me down countless rabbit holes, too – how do I know next to nothing about Eric Ravilious? And nothing at all about Samuel Palmer? This is the best type of book: one that sends you to countless others (there’s plenty of to choose from in the Notes at the back).

It isn’t often I wish I’d written the exact book I’m reading: this is one of those times. (Plus, the author writes obituaries for The Economist as her day job! What a fabulous way to pay the bills!)