August favourites

I’m not going to lie, August has not been a fun one for me. From career set backs (or, as my friends are determinedly rebranding it: new opportunities) to a sudden family crisis (all turned out fine) to a horrific stomach bug that took me down for days, I have spent a disproportionate amount of August feeling sorry for myself and not much like reading — or writing about it.

But, despite the repeat plunge into the unknown I’m going through right now and the big change coming up that, unfortunately, is very much not a change I wanted, for the past few days I’ve been feeling unusually optimistic. It’s been a hard couple weeks; hard enough that, for once, I’ve sort of let myself off the hook. I have a very loud, negative, naval gazing interior monologue that I pretty much leave to chunter away unimpeded to call me a piece of shit regardless of whether I’m doing something helpful or nothing at all. But the past couple weeks as I’ve struggled to meet work deadlines around hospital visits (like I said, everything is really fine now) I sort of realised the time had come where I needed to be on my own side a little bit. Like, life is hard enough without me making it even harder for myself, you know?

So that was a realisation I’m trying to carry forward as I plan the next stage of my life, a process that will also include the need for me to cheer for my own team of one. I bring this up because I feel like that’s important for everyone — be on your own team a little bit. It helps.

Anyway, as this is a officially a monthly favourites post, here are a few:

Reading: Elle September issue

slick-woods-elle-ukI haven’t written about it much on here, but I care very much about trying to be more ethical and environmentally sustainable in my buying, particularly when it comes to clothes. After I watched The True Cost documentary a couple years ago I knew I couldn’t go on buying in the way that I had done before, so ever since I’ve been gradually searching out shops that care about the environment and the people producing their stock as much as I do. This issue of Elle was entirely dedicated to just that and I had a really fun time reading it — there was little in there I didn’t already know, but it makes me happy to see ethical clothing lines getting the credit they deserve.

If you want to know more about making ethical buying choices I would recommend either watching The True Cost (it’s on Netflix) or reading Slow Fashion by Safia Minney, founder of People Tree.

Listening: My Dad Wrote A Porno

220px-My_Dad_Wrote_a_Porno_logoYes, you read that right. In this podcast Jamie Morton and his friends James Cooper and Alice Levine perform a dramatic reading of Jamie’s dad’s self published erotica series Belinda Blinked — the least sexy, most anatomically confusing porno book you’ve ever heard. Would recommend headphones.

 

 

Watching: Luke Cage

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I am yet to watch the last episode because I’m horrible at finishing things (also I need to watch it during the day because I have a feeling it’ll be stressful enough that I won’t be able to sleep after and haven’t yet had the opportunity) but I have loved this season. Season one, I was in two minds about — I enjoyed the beginning but lost interested a bit after Mahershala’s surprising early exit, then came back around again for the last few episodes. But this season — with the exception of the Danny Rand episode — has kept me gripped throughout. I love the way Marvel’s Netflix shows complicate villains so authentically. They are both super evil but I am actively dreading the inevitable demises of Bushmaster and Shades (please don’t spoil me) — that’s another reason why I am yet to watch the finale.

How was your August? Any faves I should know about?

 

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No One Tells You This

If the story doesn’t end with marriage and a child, what then?

This question plagued Glynnis MacNicol on the eve of her fortieth birthday. Despite a successful career as a writer, and an exciting life in New York City, Glynnis was constantly reminded she had neither of the things the world expected of a woman her age: a partner or a baby. She knew she was supposed to feel bad about this. After all, single women and those without children are often seen as objects of pity, relegated to the sidelines, or indulgent spoiled creatures who think only of themselves. 

Glynnis refused to be cast in either of those roles and yet the question remained: What now? There was no good blueprint for how to be a woman alone in the world. She concluded it was time to create one.

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I have been really into non-fiction lately. In this seemingly endless slump of mine only it and the occasional thriller seem to be holding my attention – and keeping me awake on the train. When Ann Friedman interviewed Glynnis MacNicol about her new memoir, No One Tells You This for the summer reading episode of Call Your Girlfriend, barely five minutes into the interview I knew I needed to get my hands on this book, hardback be damned. One fortunately timed Amazon voucher later, and Glynnis’ memoir – which has an enviablely stylish cover for its genre, btw – was in my greedy hands.

In this honest, emotional and ultimately inspirational read, Glynnis MacNicol takes us along with her on her fortieth year – months of inner conflict (husband? Baby? Should she? Does she want? What does it mean if she doesn’t?), travel, empowerment and grief as she deals with her mother’s rapid decline in health after a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. In this gorgeously written memoir, Glynnis dives deep into the minutiae of her life as a single, childless woman in a society still stuck on both as measures of female success and happiness – which, don’t get me wrong, for some people they totally are. But it’s not for everyone.

“Being alone sometimes felt like a solitary tree atop a very windy hill; there was nothing between the world and me to break its impact. I had to root myself very deeply in my belief about what was good about my life so as not to be tossed to and fro.”

This book is essentially about how societal expectations fuck with us all. Despite a life in which she is pretty much successful, fairly happy and financially stable (with the occasional hiccup), Glynnis still can’t help but but feel like she has done her life, somehow, wrong. Her friend’s mothers often reassure her at parties that there’s “still time” – for husbands. Even for babies, at a push – and when she meets a man even slightly promising finds herself calculating how long it might take them to get married and pregnant. It’s not until she’s 40, the societally agreed age at which women cease to be relevant (lol), that she starts to really interrogate these notions, and to ask whether these calculations add up to anything she actually wants. 

When she really thinks about it, she finds that husbands and babies were something she assumed would be the endgame of her life through constant conditioning rather than any real desire. In one of my favourite passages in the book she goes to stay with her younger sister to help her look after her new baby. Every night Glynnis sits with her newborn nephew in her arms and forces herself to confront the question of whether or not she wants children, whether or not she’ll regret not having them. She finds she doesn’t, and as for regret – well, there’s a risk of that in everything.

What felt so deeply authentic to me in this book was that for every moment of empowerment Glynnis felt, she experienced equal boughts of insecurity. Scrolling through her Instagram feed looking at her friends snapshots of life with their husbands and babies that familiar pull of do I? Should I? resurfaces. But then, away from The Feed she knows those lives have as many complications and frustrations of their own. Even her friends in good marriages spend a lot of their time wondering if their life might be better had they made different choices – so really, their situation is not at all different from Glynnis’ own. She differs in having the burden of moving forward in on a path without a recognisable blueprint, where often strangers will perceive her life choices as a threat to their own.

No One Tells You This shows all of the wonderful progress in attitudes towards women, but also all the garbage we still carry around. Oftentimes it seems the main sources of Glynnis’ insecurity are external, whether that be the random acquaintance questioning her choices, the barrage of images of love and romance as the Ultimate Goal that suffocate our culture, and, of course, The Feed, which invites us to create stories about people’s lives that very rarely have much in common with the truth. It’s crazy that forging a path as an adult woman choosing to be alone is a revolutionary act, but it still is. And in writing about it, Glynnis MacNicol has create a revolutionary book.

No One Tells You This is a beautiful book about fighting for yourself, believing in your decisions and creating a life that is truly your own. It’s a vital to read for everyone, regardless of your relationship status. It isn’t a book about being alone so much as, actually, a book about being yourself.

Redefining Realness

Trigger warning: sexual abuse

In this profound and courageous New York Times bestseller, Janet Mock establishes herself as a resounding and inspirational voice for the transgender community – and anyone fighting to define themselves on their own terms. With unflinching honesty and moving prose, Mock relays her experiences of growing up young, multiracial, poor and trans in America, offering readers accessible language while imparting vital insight about the unique challenges and vulnerabilities of a marginalised and misunderstood population. Though undoubtedly an account of one woman’s quest for self at all costs, Redefining Realness is a powerful vision of possibility and self-realisation, pushing us all toward greater acceptance of one another – and of ourselves – showing us as never before how to be unapologetic and real.

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I’ve been a big fan of Janet Mock’s for a while now. I loved her Never Before podcast (the Kris Jenner interview!) and her journalism is fantastic, as is her jealousy-inducing Instagram account. I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to reading her first memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More. I mean that title alone screams Lydia, READ ME.

I think sometimes my subconscious tells me to put off reading books until I’m ready for them, and that was very much the case with Redefining Realness. As someone who has spent much of the last year or so consumed by questions about identity (‘be yourself’ is about the most stress inducing advice a person can give me), reading Janet’s story hit me hard. So, next time you’re beating yourself up for not having got to a particular book yet – relax. You’ll read it when the time is right.

In Redefining Realness, Janet details her life from early childhood up until she goes to college and ends with her reassignment surgery. The book is a mix of Janet’s own story with contextualising elements regularly added to place her personal experience into the wider struggles that many trans women, and especially trans women of colour, deal with. She emphasises that her story isn’t representative of the entire community and acknowledges the spectrum of gender, particularly when it comes to parts like her need for reassignment surgery – a procedure that was necessary for Janet specifically, but one that she takes pains to explain is not necessary for all trans women.

Redefining Realness is a memoir that is also a great introduction to transgender identity, the systemic prejudices trans women face and the sometimes deadly consequences those injustices can have.

What I loved most about this book though, was the nuanced, compassionate and equally resentful way that Janet writes about her family. In writing about her parents, Janet navigates the dichotomy of the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parent with ease. Both of her parents were pretty disastrous, unreliable people while she was growing up. She quickly learned that she had to provide for herself, financially and emotionally, as both her parents had limited room for her needs because they were consumed by dealing with their own. Though both her parents at times appear villainous – her mother with her total focus on her own romantic life at the cost, repeatedly, of her children; her father similarly consumed by his own relationships, drug abuse and a need to impose his ideas of masculinity on the child he didn’t understand – they are also loving, complex people all of their own. Though both regularly let her down, they never let her go. Whether it was her mother nursing her back to health after her surgery, or her father’s response after she came out to him (defensively, aggressively) – “Your disrespect for me is apparent… But I’m the parent and you’re the child and it is not your job to love me the way I love you. My love for you is unconditional” – Janet shows that even in their neglectful moments, both her parents still proved their love for their daughter. Families are complicated, painful, delicate ecosystems and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that represented in a way that felt authentic to me until this book.

Janet’s unflinching commitment to describing every inch of the painful, frightening and vulnerable process of becoming yourself pierces right to the heart of the struggle of growing up. A sense of being in hiding from something is, I think, a state very familiar to many of us, and Janet’s gradual inching out of the shadows is inspiring to read as she comes to terms with the abuse, shame and hardship that led her to becoming the person she is today.

She is fucking epic.

Becoming a person is a long, hard process that requires an awful lot more patience than we ever imagined when we were young. Reading stories like Janet’s is a much needed reminder that struggle, pain and frustration are only one aspect of a long, complicated life. And, once again, that there is a lot of baggage behind even the most glamorous Instagram feed.

July favourites

There goes another month. How has everyone’s summer been so far? Are you wearing sunscreen? I hope you’re wearing sunscreen. Sunscreen is important.

I don’t have much in the way of favourites at the moment. I’ve either been working or at the beach – it has been consistently sunny in England for several weeks now and people are starting to lose their shit.

Unless you’re a farmer, I think the sun is a strange thing to complain about seeing as it rains 90% of the time.

Anyway, on to this month’s faves (discussing the weather isn’t one of them):

Our Tiny Bees Vanilla and Honey Body Scrub

Processed with VSCO with f2 presetSo I know this is pretty far off normal topic but I recently started regularly using a body scrub and lemmie tell you: it is a game changer. The lovely one I use functions as both exfoliator and moisturiser leaving your skin feeling smooth and gorgeous and it smells great. Obviously be careful what brand you’re using – you don’t want to be sending anything awful down the drain. I would recommend going for something with more natural ingredients so you can be totally sure you’re avoiding any harmful plastic microbeads. This one, for example, is mostly made of sugar. So good.

The Skincare Bible: Your no-nonsense guide to great skin by Dr Anjali Mahto

Processed with VSCO with f2 presetI purchased this to keep me entertained on the long drive back from holiday last month and it exceeded my expectations entirely. Dr Anjali is just that – a doctor and trustworthy source  – and is all about debunking marketing myths and skincare fads (layering, anyone?) to help you find a routine that works for your skin – without spending thousands in the process. It’s a super informative read (did you know you should still wear sunscreen if you’re inside all day because the rays can still get to you behind glass?!) that avoids market-speak and jargon and left me feeling like I have a much better idea of what I should be doing for my skin going forward.

Podcast: Gossip

GossipI’ve been feeling a bit fatigued by my serial podcasts lately (does anyone else feel like the last season of The Bright Sessions lost its way? I sort of feel the same about Alice Isn’t Dead, as much as I don’t want to) so I was thrilled when I came across Gossip. Written by the brilliant Allison Raskin it spans the regular lunch dates of three friends who get together and gossip – about their neighbours’ polyamory, that time the mayor may have punched a florist in the face, but most importantly, whether or not the local priest is a serial murderer. Her friends think she’s mad but Bethany just can’t let it go…

What were some of your favourites this month? Any podcasts I should check out? I’m particularly interested in serialised stories like Gossip at the moment.

The Accidental

Arresting and wonderful, The Accidental pans in on the Norfolk holiday home of the Smart family one hot summer. There, a beguiling stranger called Amber appears at the door bearing all sorts of unexpected gifts, trampling over family boundaries and sending each of the Smarts scurrying from the dark into the light.

A novel about the ways that seemingly chance encounters irrevocably transform our understanding of ourselves, The Accidental explores the nature of truth, the role of fate and the power of storytelling.

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So, The Accidental by Ali Smith. This was a funny one – not necessarily in a good way.

I picked it up in a second hand bookshop while I was on holiday, recalling how much I loved There but for the (a story about a man who locks himself in a room inside someone else’s house during a terrible dinner party and doesn’t come out for months) ready for another whimsical, and, if the blurb was anything to go by, uplifting ride.

That is not what I got.

The Accidental is a book split into three parts – the beginning, the middle and the end. Each part is narrated in close third person in Smith’s typical stream-of-consciousness style by the Smart-Berenski family members; Eve, the mother and writer with a serious lack of inspiration; Michael, her cheating university professor husband; Magnus, Eve’s teenaged son; and Astrid, Eve’s 12-year-old daughter and by far the highlight of this book.

They are, as the blurb indicates, on holiday for the summer in Norfolk, ostensibly so Eve can get some writing done (she isn’t writing so much as napping in her ‘writing shed’ for eight hours before coming inside for dinner) and the family can have that specific sort of bonding needed when dealing with teenagers and stepparents – in other words, the kind of bonding that is largely unwanted by all parties (not speaking from experience or anything…).

The entire scenario is shrouded in a cloud of ennui. While the family aren’t exactly miserable (Eve has made her peace with Michael’s constant cheating), they are alienated from one another and themselves in a way that felt very realistic to me. Problems that persist (Michael’s cheating, Astrid and Magnus’s vanishing father) are never discussed. There is a sense that things could be better if any of the family members were willing to try, but as is the case in most families, nobody is. Then Amber, a stranger arrives. Michael assumes she has come to interview Eve about her writing, and Eve assumes she is one of Michael’s girlfriends/students and she ends up staying for several weeks (this is either Smith logic re. There but for the or a comment on Britishness in general – not sure). Amber supposedly blows the lid on the whole situation – I’ll get to my thoughts on that shortly.

First, because I don’t want to be a pessimist and out of a sense of loyalty to There but for the, which I genuinely really enjoyed, I would like focus on the positives. Primarily, Astrid. Her voice felt the most authentic in the whole novel – her meandering thoughts typical of an isolated 12 year old sore at spending her summer in a way she didn’t choose, stuck for companions apart from her brother (and who wants to hang out with their big brother?) and her video camera. Smith has a beautiful way of describing minute details of meandering thoughts that make them feel important and somehow make the reader feel seen in even in their most mundane moments. Astrid’s thoughts veer wildly between her dislike of Michael, resentment toward her mother, questions surrounding her father, the girls bullying her at school – to wondering about asteroids, terrorism (the novel is set in 2003), filming everything from dead animals to every sunrise and trying to figure out who put the racist graffiti on the Indian restaurant down the road. She feels young and petulant, unnecessarily difficult in all the ways you are when you feel like your family has become something you don’t entirely recognise. Reading her put me right back into being 12 and somewhere with my mother’s partner at the time and feeling dreadfully affronted when a stranger referred to him as my dad (cue petulant ‘ugh, he’s not my dad’ (don’t feel too bad for him. He was equally as keen to point out that I was not his daughter)).

My point is, I loved Astrid, and I was always sad when her sections ended – they were by far the most engaging of the book.

My main issue with the novel came with Amber. The Accidental, friends, is a classic example of a manic pixie dream girl story. And, as I have covered on various occasions before, I just can’t stand that particular trope. The way that Amber changes the lives of all these family members has really very little to do with her actions (apart from fucking Magnus, which she does wildly and with abandon), but more to do with the ideas and thoughts that are ascribed to her by Michael, Eve and, to a certain extent, Astrid. Amber has very little agency, almost no backstory, save a couple of chapters where Smith is at her most ‘experimental’ (read: incomprehensible. To me, anyway) that, regardless, don’t really tell you anything other than that Amber has some sort of spiritual connection to movies because she was conceived in a cinema. She is one dimensional, hyper sexual, aggressive and without any sort of personality that you can pin down – MPDG down to a T.

Ali, I expected better. I am tired of this trope. I am tired of women being seen as a service – to make people feel a certain way (sexually and in terms of ego), look a certain way and be, somehow The Answer (you are not the answer*). It exhausts me, and nothing turns me off a book faster.

*This is a reference to The Type, one of my all-time favourite poems by Sarah Kay (and in general). You should read it. It’s like the anti-manic pixie dream girl read. I’m going to go read it now.

In all, The Accidental was a disappointment – even more so because I was prepared for full on book love. Sigh.

Never World Wake

Bee hasn’t spoken to her best friends since her boyfriend’s mysterious death. Now, a year later, she needs to face them. They’re beautiful, rich and deadly. She is certain one of them holds the truth about what really happened to Jim.

A whirlwind night leads to a narrowly missed car collision and a sinister man knocking at the door as a storm rages outside, to deliver a world-shattering message.

As secrets unravel and time backbends, the five friends must make a shocking choice.

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So that was three weeks. I apologise.

I am in kind of a weird place with reading right now. I was in a fairly sustained slump (had to give up reading The Idiot but I will get back to it at some point. Does anything ever actually happen? I was around 150 pages in and as yet nothing had) which lifted briefly while I was away so I could read The Closed Casket (a new Hercule Poirot novel by my love, Sophie Hannah) and the book I’m reviewing  today, Never World Wake by Marisha Pessl (Belletrist pick. Amazing, as always), but then I moved into The Accidental by Ali Smith and the slump has descended once again. I think I have the summer blues (that’s a thing, right?). If you have any cheering reading suggestions please throw them my way. I would like to get out of this slump for good.

Anyway. Never World Wake. This book came as a total surprise to me in all of the best ways. It’s the first YA book Belletrist has picked, and it is a stunner. We have ALL of my favourite ingredients: rich boarding school kids (with the obligatory outsider scholarship kid obviously), mysterious death, unreliable characters (all these fuckers do is lie) and magic.

Don’t judge it by its pretty cover. This book is one intense ride.

So we have a bunch of recently reunited rich teens – the aforementioned hedonistic rich kids and Bee, the scholarship student and the “good girl”, torn apart by the mysterious death of one of their group (Bee’s boyfriend), Jim a year prior. They come together for one final night of partying before they all depart for college, and on the way home driving in a collective drunk stupor they almost have a head on collision with a truck.

This is when shit really hits the fan.

They return home to their mansion, only to be visited by a strange elderly man (The Keeper, as we will come to know) who tells them that actually, that collision wasn’t a near miss. It was a direct hit. The five of them aren’t so much home and clear as, in actual fact, lying dead in that car, trapped in something called a Never World Wake. The way to escape? Only one of them can. The group have to unanimously vote on which of their number lives to see tomorrow. The rest of them die forever. In the mean time they are doomed to repeat the same day until they can reach a consensus on which of them will survive.

From this explosive beginning, Pessl takes the narrative in so many winding and shocking directions, with the storyline of the Wake and the mystery of Jim’s tragic death running concurrently, meeting and diverging during the absolute roller coaster ride that is reading this novel. Watching how each of the characters deals with the Wake – from trying desperately to reach a consensus and escape to losing themselves in the distractions that you can find in a consequence-less world that resets every 23 hours – is a fascinating insight into the worst of human psyche in a claustrophobic nightmare about survival at all costs or total self-destruction – depending on who you are.

Nothing in this novel is what it initially appears – what you remember as the grand love story of your life might actually turn out to have been a house of horrors, precious objects become rusted, broken and dangerous on closer inspection and the person you always felt was the strongest and the coolest under pressure? They will be the first one to break.

Pessl’s writing is rich, sensual, poetic and infused with a brutal darkness that really appealed to me. If you enjoyed We Were Liars by E. Lockhart or The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma it’s a pretty safe bet you’ll be into Never World Wake. It’s a truly gripping read.

“We swear we see each other, but all we are ever able to make out is a tiny porthole view of an ocean. We think we remember the past as it was, but our memories are as fantastic and flimsy as dreams.”

Gone fishing

I am on holiday.

I had this whole plan where I wrote enough posts to cover my time away or even – gasp – blogged from the safety of my holiday bed, but it is becoming increasingly clear, after the first thing didn’t happen that the second won’t either.

I am lazy.

See you in a couple weeks x