Big Magic: Or, Some Pre-NaNoWriMo Wisdom

NaNoWriMo is a month of fear and excitement. It’s thirty days of creativity, pressure and bloody minded determination that sometimes ends in 50,000 words. NaNoWriMo, whether you’ve done it tons of times or are making your first attempt, is a pretty daunting prospect, and I can think of no better advice to get you started than that given by Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.

Because we all need a little NaNo-spiration.

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On fear (and getting started anyway)…

‘Dearest Fear: Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life, and that you take your job seriously. Apparently your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting – and, may I say, you are superb at your job. So by all means, keep doing your job, if you feel you must. But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones making any decisions along the way.’

On living a creative life…

‘You can live a long life, making and doing cool things the entire time. You might earn a living with your pursuits, or you might not, but you can recognize that this is not really the point. And at the end of your days, you can thank creativity for having blessed you with a charmed, interesting, passionate existence.’

On writing…

‘Most of my writing life, to be perfectly honest, is not freaky, old-timey, voodoo- style Big Magic. Most of my writing life consists of nothing more than unglamorous, disciplined labor. I sit at my desk and I work like a farmer, and that’s how it gets done. Most of it is not fairy dust in the least.

But sometimes it is fairy dust. Sometimes, when I’m in the midst of writing, I feel like I am suddenly walking on one of those moving sidewalks that you find in a big airport terminal; I still have a long slog to my gate, and my baggage is still heavy, but I can feel myself being gently propelled by some exterior force. Something is carrying me along – something powerful and generous – and something that is decidedly not me.

On originality…

‘…the older I get, the less impressed I become with originality. These days, I’m far more moved by authenticity. Attempts at originality can often feel forced and precious, but authenticity has a quiet resonance that never fails to stir me.’

On rejection…

‘…editors could reject me all they wanted; I wasn’t going anywhere. Whenever I got those rejection letters, then, I would permit my ego to say aloud to whoever had signed it: “You think you can scare me off? I’ve got another eighty years to wear you down! There are people who haven’t even been born yet who are going to reject me someday – that’s how long I plan to stick around.”

Then I would put the letter away and get back to work.’

On being an artist without losing your mind…

‘The paradox that you need to comfortably inhabit, if you wish to live a contented creative life, goes something like this: “My creative expression must be the most important thing in the world to me (if I am to live artistically), and it also must not matter at all (if I am to live sanely).’

On life, the long game…

‘All I know for certain is that this is how I want to spend my life – collaborating to the best of my ability with forces of inspiration I can neither see nor prove, nor command, nor understand.

It’s a strange line of work, admittedly.

I cannot think of a better way to pass my days.’

 

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The Raven Boys

Even if blue hadn’t been told her true love would die if she kissed him, she would stay away from boys. Especially the ones from the local private school. Known as Raven Boys, they only mean trouble.

But this is the year that everything will change for Blue.

This is the year she will be drawn into the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys. And the year Blue will discover that magic does exist.

This is the year she will fall in love.

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I avoided reading Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys despite years of amazing reviews because when I read Shiver – I was seventeen and in my first wave of Twilight-related paranormal romance burn out/feminist awakening (don’t even talk to me about Stephanie Meyer) – I was not into it. And yet the amazing reviews of The Raven Boys just kept coming.

So I caved.

And it turns out (for not the first time. At least I’m honest.) that the bloggers were right and I was wrong. THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD.

Another reason I didn’t read The Raven Boys for so long is the blurb. It reduces it to nothing more than a romance (which is fine, if you’re in the mood for that. For me, right now, I need a little more), a marketing technique that woefully undersells what Maggie Stiefvater has created (in my ever-so-humble opinion).

The town of Henrietta is a complex and magical creation. It is a place with massive economic disparities. There’s a famous boy’s boarding school there, Aglionby where the richest send their sons to become the next generation of businessman, bankers and politicians. Across town, there are the native residents, most of them lower middle to working class. The Aglionby – known because of the crests on their jumpers as the ‘raven’ – boys and the townspeople rarely mix.

It’s in the poorer part of town where Blue lives, in a house full of women who all happen to be psychics (with the exception of Blue herself). If there is one thing I would have asked of this book, it would have been more time in the ‘little bright blue house at 300 Fox Way.’ I adored this community of women. There is a very specific thing that happens among some older, single, heterosexual women, which is a certain man-scepticism. It’s like there came a point when they just decided they didn’t want them around anymore. My family is 90% divorced women, so it’s an environment I grew up in (though sadly my family are not psychics) and not one I see represented in YA all that often. I especially haven’t seen it written in such a perfect, funny and loving tone.

Full points to Maggie.

The other, and probably most important aspect of Henrietta, is that it sits on criss-crossing ley lines (sometimes known as the corpse road) which makes it an intensely magical place. In addition to the psychics who live there, it is rumoured that a sleeping prince, Glendower, is hidden within the ley lines. Whoever wakes him will be granted whatever they want. However, finding him, as Gansey – a raven boy who is kind of like a teenaged Alaric from The Vampire Diaries but with less dead girlfriends – is no easy task.

All these elements are drawn together when Blue – despite not being a psychic – witnesses Gansey’s future death. With that event, she steps from her own world into that of the raven boys.

The Raven Boys is at its heart, a book concerned with the idea of freedom. I mean, could a book filled with psychics really be about anything else?

Blue has lived her entire life according to what her family have told her to do – up until she meets the raven boys. In choosing to get involved with Gansey, she disobeys her mother for the very first time. However, she disobeys her mother to run off with a guy it has been predicted she will either fall in love with or kill – so can the action really be considered free?

Freedom is also looked at from an economic, as well as a magical perspective. For some, like Gansey, freedom appears to be state he was born into. His family have a limitless budget, and that has allowed him to travel the world following his paranormal whims. On the other hand, his hunger to prove the existence of the supernatural is so great as to dominate his existence. Every decision he makes is based on finding the ley lines hidden beneath Henrietta. Gansey’s supposedly boundary-less existence is ruled by his obsession with the paranormal. It is an inextricable part of his identity, and something he believes he was fated for. Much like Blue, can he be really be free if he has a ‘fate’?

Adam, on the other hand, is a poor kid at a rich school. He lives in a financially unstable home with an abusive father, and believes the only way to be free is to get through his Aglionby scholarship and earn the sort of job that would make him a true raven boy. Adam’s friends are desperate to get him out of his abusive home, but he refuses to leave on anybody’s terms but his own. Is the freedom that Adam seeks – a freedom that can only be achieved alone – just another kind of trap?

Yeah. This book holds a lot more than romance.

The first book in The Raven Cycle has got me all kinds of intrigued. I only hope the rest of the series is as good.

Zodiac Book Recommendations

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AQUARIUS (January 20 – February 18)

The Aquarius-born are super intelligent deep thinkers. Without mental stimulation, they quickly become bored and irritable. As a result, they are often perceived by others to be cold or even insensitive people. But the truth is, they’re just really smart, and while they are seemingly ignoring you talking about that annoying thing that happened when you went out to buy groceries, the truth is you interrupted them as they were attempting to untangle a problem so complex your brain would never stand a chance. They weren’t just sitting on the sofa staring into space, as you had assumed.

An Aquarius thrives when there are problems to be solved, so to satisfy that itch in their reading, they really need a good old fashioned murder mystery. Enter Garvie Smith, the teenage Sherlock-a-like protagonist of Running Girl by Simon Mason. Garvie is pretty uninterested in life until the body of his onetime girlfriend is dragged from a nearby pond. After that? Everything is about finding her murderer.

PISCES (February 19 – March 20)

These are the emotional types. The artists. They are friendly and empathetic, and as a result, always seem to be surrounded by a group of interesting and diverse friends. You know the types – they aren’t interested in small talk, but instead want to get right to the heart of the human experience.

Book-wise, a Pisces doesn’t shy away from the more intense stories. They are looking for emotion, romance and lessons learned. I’ll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson, would be perfect. The need to create art is this story’s spine. It props up a narrative of grief, love and forgiveness, all those things that appeal to the intuitive personality of a Pisces.

ARIES (March 21 – April 19)

Energy is the word that comes to mind to describe those born under Aries. They are forever in motion – multitaskers with organisational skills that are second to none. They are driven by a need to take action.

You know what I’m thinking, right? There is no book more perfect than Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo and of course it’s sequel, Crooked Kingdom. If there is one word to describe Kaz Brekker it is: action. His world is buzzing with schemes, heists and other adventures. But it’s not only about pulling off a plan to perfection. An Aries is all about the personal journey, as well as the literal one. They are searching for the answers to life’s big questions: Who do I want to be? What do I consider to be right and wrong? …etc. Well, so are the crows. In terms of action, both literal and metaphysical, this series has it all.

TAURUS (April 20 – May 20)

These are the dependable types. In good times this can manifest itself as being a devoted friend, partner or artist. In bad ones, it can feel as if they are uncompromising and stubborn. Ultimately though, they are the hardest workers in the world. They will not give up until the task is complete.

A Taurus might enjoy The Lunar Chronicles series, by Marissa Meyer. Cinder, protagonist and namesake of the first book, and central player throughout is completely dedicated to seeing her people set free from the tyrannous rule of the evil Queen Levana. The price for that dedication is high, but Cinder refuses to give up, despite the loss of her family, her personal safety, and maybe even the love of her life.

GEMINI (May 21 – June 20)

Geminis are an expressive people. What they are expressing however, can vary. At times they are sociable, communicative and generally the life of the party, while other times appearing restless and indecisive. A Gemini is often driven by a desire to grab to world by the lapels – to experience all things and all people.

This divided personality really speaks to the main characters in The Diviners, by Libba Bray. Evie and her friends are party animals living under the shadow left by the First World War. They use hedonism as a mechanism for coping with tragedy. Why mourn when you can dance?

While appearing to be normal teenagers expressing themselves the only ways they know how, Evie and her friends are actually anything but. They have powers no human should have. Evie can tell fortunes from objects, Theta can light fires using only her mind and Henry can walk through dreams.

CANCER (June 21 – July 22)

Those born under Cancer are known above all else for their dedication to the people they love. They are driven to create family, whether that be at work or home. This need for community can lead them to be manipulative, particularly when it comes to avoiding conflict. But, mostly, they are a really determined people, whether that’s in career or personal relationships.

Reading about Cancer brought to mind Andie from The Unexpected Everything, by Morgan Matson. It is, more than anything else, a book about love. After the loss of her mother and her father’s emotional retreat from her, Andie built a new family out of her school friends. They spend all their time together, and know all of each other’s secrets. As the book progresses, Andie begins to rebuild the relationship with her father she had all but given up on. And there’s that romance… The Unexpected Everything is a light hearted read about the communities we build for ourselves.

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LEO (July 23 – August 22)

The sign for Leo is a rather grand looking lion, which really tells us all we need to know about this sign. They are the born leaders: dominant, dramatic and totally attractive. I think the majority of men in YA might be Leos.

Leos are out to have some fun, and they are usually dragging a pretty large ego with them. This can be great, as it gives them a sense of clarity about what they want in life. On the other hand, they can pursue their desires without much thought for the feelings of others.

All these macho Leo vibes bring to mind Winger, by Andrew Smith. Winger is a book about masculinity and it’s interactions with sexuality and violence. It also manages to be heart breaking, funny and a little bit romantic all at the same time.

VIRGO (August 23 – September 22)

Virgos are defined by their careful nature. Their approach to their life is methodical and organised. They are goal orientated, and usually have a pretty solid plan about the direction their lives are going to take.

While such personality traits could be applied to a few of her protagonists, the Virgo reminds me of Auden from Along for the Ride, by Sarah Dessen. For pretty much her whole life, Auden’s mother has pressured her to be perfect. She wants her academic record to be spotless and her future one with a high powered career. Auden has been so busy trying to keep up with her mother’s standards, she’s never really had much time to think for herself. Then the summer comes, and she goes to stay with her father. Auden is a total insomniac, and over the summer she makes friends with Eli, and with him explores the night time world the rigid life she lives at home never gave her the chance to.

LIBRA (September 23 – October 22)

A Libra is a person fuelled by beauty. They surround themselves with items carefully curated with aesthetics in mind. A Libra is inspired by art and music and often choose to spend their time in nature, where they can be, as Cheryl Strayed once wrote ‘in the way of beauty’.

Few Libras would be able to pass a copy of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton without picking it up. The cover is a work of art in itself, and the writing more than lives up to its outer shell. It is a masterpiece of magical realism, with lyrical writing that transports the reader into a different plane of existence.

SCORPIO (October 23 – November 21)

Scorpios are characterised by their zest for life and assertive, resourceful characters. Like those born under Leo, they are the natural born leaders of the world. They are expressive and emotional, which can lead them to success, but can also cause problems when they give themselves over to their more negative emotions. The Scorpios can be very suspicious people.

For Scorpios, I can think of no better series than Rick Yancey’s 5th Wave trilogy. Cassie, Ben and co. are the only group of free humans left on a planet decimated by alien invasion. They are committed to the defeat of the aliens – no matter the cost. This series will set the adrenaline pumping in a way perfect for any Scorpios looking to experience the full spectrum of human emotion.

SAGITTARIUS (November 22 – December 21)

If you were born under Sagittarius, chances are, you’re a traveller. Driven by intense curiosity, a Sagittarius prizes her freedom above all else. When they are constrained, they don’t feel like they are really living. Because of this, sometimes a Sagittarius can appear impatient, but the truth is they are just looking for the next adventure.

13 Little Blue Envelopes, by Maureen Johnson, would suit a Sagittarius down to the ground. When Ginny’s aunt dies, she leaves her only 2 things: $1000 for a plane ticket, and a stack of blue envelopes with strict instructions to only open them one at a time. Thus begins Ginny’s adventure across Europe. In true Sagittarius style, Ginny embraces the change and embarks on a summer that’ll change her life forever.

CAPRICORN (December 22 – January 19)

Capricorns prize themselves on their professionalism. They are practical, responsible and tend to be a little stubborn. Capricorns have been known to struggle when asked to work with others as they have difficulty accepting views different to their own. However, they are some of the most disciplined among us and likely to get far more achieved than most do on an average day.

Capricorn readers might enjoy Becoming Bindy Mackenzie, by Jaclyn Moriarty. Bindy is a middle aged barrister living in the body of a seventeen year old girl. She is super smart and finds her peers lack of interest in school perplexing. Mostly she just avoids other kids her age. But when she gets caught in the middle of a dangerous situation and has no one to turn to for help, she realises it might be good to have friends after all…

 

Crooked Kingdom

Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled of a heist so daring even they didn’t think they’d survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they’re right back to fighting for their lives. Double-crossed and badly weakened, the crew is low on resources, allies and hope. As powerful forces from around the world descend on Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz’s cunning and test the team’s loyalties. A war will be waged in the city’s dark and twisting streets – a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of the Grisha world.

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It’s hard to know where to even begin talking about Crooked Kingdom, the obsessively anticipated sequel of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology.

Much like its predecessor, Crooked Kingdom gave me ALL THE FEELINGS.  It made me laugh (and it made me sob, but we’re not going to dwell on that…), it got me so invested, I almost dropped the thing on multiple occasions from trying to turn the pages so fast. I threatened my family with bodily harm when they interrupted my reading.

And the ships. Oh my god.

To be totally honest, I veer toward the cynical and have some difficulty engaging with fictional romances (that said, once you have me I am loyal #KlarolineFOREVER*), BUT there was not a single relationship in Crooked Kingdom that I was not 100% invested in.

Jesper and Wylan were my favourite. I got Wylan – not so much in the sense that my dad tried to have me murdered (lol), but in the wallflower way. In the oh god this is terrifying but I hope it never stops sense. I loved how he found himself – and I mean like he found his purpose, his truth – in a place that he never expected to. In a boy he never expected to. Let’s be honest, every quiet person dreams of a brightly dressed hottie exploding into their lives like a car crash but in a sexy way – and that’s what happened when Wylan met Jesper. It was the small touches with which Bardugo wove their relationship that really gave me butterflies. There were momentary looks (eye contact can be sexy, okay?!), fleeting physical contact – when Jesper unwound Wylan’s bag strap on his shoulder? I melted – juxtaposed with Jesper saying something heavy handed and flirtatious, leaving Wylan blushing.

Sigh. LOVED IT.

I think what made the relationships in this book work so well was that every moment was earned. So frequently I read characters who will lay down their lives for one another seemingly on the basis of nothing. I want to feel for them as intensely as they do for each other but there is no grounding for me to do so. In Crooked Kingdom every moment is deserved, and I savoured them all. One of my favourite episodes in the whole book was when Jesper (if it wasn’t obvious already: I LOVE HIM) and Kaz fought. For the entirety of Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, Jesper has wanted Kaz’s approval. He’s wanted forgiveness for his screw ups. He’s wanted to be on equal footing. Kaz knows how badly he wants it, and he refuses to give it to him… until he does it by accident and calls Jesper by his dead brother’s name. In that second every difficult moment of their relationship suddenly makes sense and you know exactly the space Jesper occupies in Kaz’s heart (mine could HARDLY TAKE IT).

This whole scene was emblematic to me of Leigh Bardugo’s genius. She has the tension between Kaz and Jesper reach its apex, the revelation of how these boys feel about each other (Kaz stresses about Jesper like he did about his brother! Is it weird that this maybe gave me even more feelings than things that were happening with Inej?) and then completely diffuses the situation with Jesper’s dad telling the crows off like they’re children. It’s an emotional roller coaster and the whole time I was reading it I was thinking how great it must feel to be able to write like this.

Books like the Crows duology remind me why at almost 24 (oh god), I am still an obsessive lover of YA. In Barudgo’s writing there is so much adventure, growth and heart. And, honestly, this book is also comforting in the current political climate. The six crows are all of different ethnicities, religions and political beliefs, and yet they can work together as an almost unstoppable team. They can coexist with their different belief systems and even learn from them. This is no more obvious than in Matthias’ journey to overcome his hatred of the Grisha. When he actually meets the people he has been taught for so long to despise, the lessons of his indoctrination crumble. I was so impressed too, with how Bardugo didn’t pretend that his transformation was complete. Still, even as he acknowledged his love for her, Matthias found those old words like ‘unnatural’ and ‘threat’ rising to the surface as he witnessed Nina’s powers. The difference though, was that, rather than giving into that fear, he viewed it critically before ultimately rejecting it.

Crooked Kingdom is a richly imagined adventure with a cast of characters I physically miss now that I’ve finished reading. It is YA at its finest. I hope everybody reads it.

 

*loyal in the sense that I trawl TVD spoilers for any sign of a reunion, not that I tell actresses to go die of cancer on Twitter. Those people seriously need to do better.

How to be Bored

How to be Bored by Eva Hoffman is part of The School of Life, a series dedicated to life’s big questions.

I am a person who is forever consuming. Whether it’s podcasts, social media, Netflix, books or Youtube videos, there is always something filling up my mental space.

As I grow up and face my own life’s big questions (how is it possible for me to not know what I want? And, furthermore, if I can’t even figure myself out, how on earth am I supposed to deal with other people?!), it occurred to me that maybe I would have an easier time answering them if I spent half as much time listening to myself as I do… well, the entire internet. That maybe I was even using the internet as a way of deliberately avoiding doing so.

A couple days after thinking this, I found this book (while I was in Hay-On-Wye, actually). I glanced at the blurb and saw ‘We live in a hyper-active, over stimulated age. Uninterrupted activity can seem exciting, but it can also leave us emotionally disoriented and mentally depleted. How can we recover a sense of balance and richness of experience in our lives?’ … I was totally sold.

How to be Bored is a short book that contains a whole lot of wisdom and some simple reminders of how we might best spend our time on this planet. Here are just a few of my favourites:

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On the internet…

‘We absorb large quantities of culture, which may be all to the good; but too often, we consume culture in the spirit of – well, consumerism. We do things in order to have done them, or simply to fill time with an activity.’

‘If we rush ceaselessly through disconnected activities without checking in on our moods or motives, we can lose track of ourselves; in a sense, we lose the ability to experience our experiences.’

On reading…

‘Books help to create a sense that we live in a shared world, or what some sociologists call “imagined communities”. But the fundamental reason for taking the time to read is because books (good books, that is; books that matter) are the best aid to extended thought and imaginative reflection we have invented.’

‘It is often a good idea to read the beginning of a book especially slowly and attentively; as in exploring a new place – or person – we need to make an initial effort of orientation and of empathy. Eventually, if we are drawn in, we can have the immensely pleasurable experience of full absorption – a kind of simultaneous focusing of attention and losing our self-consciousness as we enter the imaginative world of the book.’

On art…

‘… art reminds us that we are attached to the world through our physical perceptions – through our relish of the textures and colours of our surroundings – and it also helps us understand that the way we perceive the external world and human form is informed by our inner vision. Hostility or fear makes the objects of our vision ugly; on the other hand, aesthetic appreciation arises out of an intense appreciation or cherishing – a way of looking that requires attentiveness and a kind of love.’

On music…

‘Being immersed in the musical language… reminds us that we have inner lives that are more than superficial or politely socialised; that we have the potential for powerful feelings and responses; and that if we consign ourselves to functioning only on the surfaces of ourselves we lose rich dimensions of experience, and a measure of our humanity.’

On making decisions…

‘Arriving at complex life decisions – decisions that involve not only commodities, but ourselves – cannot be done by statistic calculation, if only because we are not statistically constructed.’

‘We need to ponder not only what we are like, but who we want to be – what qualities or attitudes in ourselves we want to affirm, and what we do not admire. In other words, we need to create our own guideposts for important decisions – our own ethical, as well as emotional, criteria for choice.’

On life…

‘It is only when we give ourselves a chance to nurture all our faculties and ways of understanding the world that we can begin to feel ourselves to be rich in internal resources, and to experience richly.’

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

TW for discussions of rape and sexual assault.

The Industrialist

Henrk Vanger, head of the dynastic Vanger Corporation, is tormented by the loss of a child decades earlier and convinced that a member of his family has committed the murder.

The Journalist

Mikael Blomkvist delves deep into the Vangers’ past to uncover the truth behind the unsolved mystery. But someone else wants the past to remain a secret and will go to any lengths to keep it that way. 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Lisbeth Salander, the enigmatic, delinquent and dangerous security specialist, assists in the investigation. A genius computer hacker, she tolerates no restrictions placed upon her by individuals, society or the law. 

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I knew going in that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson was a book that was concerned with rape and sexual violence. What I didn’t realise was that it is consumed by it. There are graphic, horrifying scenes of rape and sexual assault in this novel. Had I known before starting the book how upsetting it would be, I probably wouldn’t have read it at all.

That said, I’m really glad that I did. The words ‘feminist hero’ get thrown around a lot. Usually it refers to a girl with quick wit who isn’t afraid to use her fists. She’s almost always beautiful. She is nothing like the girl with the dragon tattoo. Lisbeth Salander is a warrior crafted by a misogynist culture. She’s unconcerned with beauty and a lot more interested in repelling people than attracting them. She’s a genius of the Sherlock-ian variety.

She’s also a ward of the state who spent her formative years either locked in a psychiatric institution or running from ill-equipped foster families (and usually into the police). After an incident in which she kicked a man in the head (after he groped her, in front of several witnesses), she is declared emotionally disturbed (because she refused to participate in her psychiatric evaluation), and in need of a guardian. This means that all her assets and interests are controlled by a state sanctioned official. While reading, you can’t help but feel Lisbeth is being punished for her lack of conformity to the agreed standards of femininity rather than any actual law breaking. Her crimes are: defending herself from the men who would attack her, having a lot of sex, using drugs and a refusal to co-operate with the agreed norms of society. Worldwide, there is a grim history of the violent removal of freedom from women who are deemed a threat to those aforementioned norms. Whether it’s force-feeding suffragettes on hunger strike, female genital mutilation, institutionalising women for their ‘hysterical wandering wombs’ or burning them at the stake for ‘being witches’ – women who refuse to conform are punished and forced to live as outcasts with control over their finances, spaces and their bodies taken from them.

Lisbeth suffers all these injustices at the hands of the state. In addition to taking control of her finances and thus, her freedom, her government appointed guardian, Advokat Bjurman, rapes her twice.

The rape is an event that is supposed to break Lisbeth. Bjurman’s intent is to control her, force her to submit to the obedience and quiet that comprise the norms of femininity (as it’s defined by misogynist culture). Rather than shrink, as she is supposed to, and continue to have non-consensual sex with him in return for her own money, as he intends, Lisbeth makes a plan. Owing to her history with institutionalisation, the police don’t feel like an option, so she instead develops her own twisted violent revenge scheme. I can’t pretend that reading Lisbeth ruin Bjurman beyond repair was anything but satisfying. In the span of only a few hours she picks apart the pieces of his life, removing his power as thoroughly as he tried to do her own. She leaves him defeated, the words ‘I AM A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT AND A RAPIST’ literally tattooed across his violated, trembling body.

From what I can gather, there were many readers uncomfortable with Lisbeth’s actions. During some reading I did to prep for writing this review, I found book club discussion points online, all of them questioning whether or not Lisbeth took the right action. These questions speak directly to the point that Larsson wants to make about gender norms. As I said, the rape was supposed to defeat Lisbeth. Instead, it enraged her. She was obsessed with regaining her power. That led her to take violent action, something we rarely attribute to women, and especially women we consider victims. Larsson uses the almost instinctive sympathy we feel for Bjurman during Lisbeth’s attack as a demonstration of internalised misogyny. While what happened to Lisbeth was awfully inevitable – the rape of a young, troubled woman with no family support and criminal tendencies – what happened the Bjurman – the assault of a wealthy, middle class white man – was disturbing and completely unexpected.

Larsson originally called this series Men Who Hate Women. I wish the publishers had stuck with it. After her rape, Lisbeth becomes driven by the defeat of such men. It is what the rest of the novel – because the events I have discussed make up barely a quarter of it – is about.

No Matter the Wreckage

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I am one of those people that left school with a certain ambivalence toward poetry. It morphed into something more aggressive when I got to university, and poetry was used to aid the degradation of what other students and teachers considered to be ‘low’ culture (in other words, everything I had enjoyed reading up until then) class after class.

Then I had to read medieval poetry, which really was like banging the nails into an already pretty well secured coffin. I didn’t understand what I was reading half the time, my grades floundered (which was the case through much of my education, honestly. Eventually I figure it out, but it takes me more time than most. At this point, I am coming to the conclusion that I am, however unintentionally, probably a lifelong proponent of doing things the hard way) and I started to blame ‘Poetry’ for my various academic failures, past and present.

… Yeah. I was one of those people. Poetry was to me symbolic of everything I was surrounded by and excluded from at that time: academic success, being able to talk like a smart person, ease with the hyper-academic environment of university and… rich parents (it is less of an issue now but to say I had a chip on my shoulder at the time is an understatement. It was more of a boulder with which I would inadvertently bludgeon rich kids with when they mentioned their parents’ second homes or the fact that they had ‘playrooms’ when they were children).

Thinking about it now, this was a heavy burden to place on a form of writing.

All of this is to say that when I found Sarah Kay’s work and fell in love, it all came as quite a surprise. I came to it, as I do so many great things, through a TED Talk she gave a few years back about kids and creative expression. During the talk, she performed two of her poems, ‘B’, and ‘Hiroshima’. It was like a switch was flipped somewhere inside of me. I didn’t know poetry could be that way.

During a time when stories – which before my degree had always been a place of refuge for me – had for the first time in my life left me feeling excluded and insecure, Sarah Kay’s words invited me in. They inspired me. There is an air of fragile yet relentless hope in her writing that I wanted for myself. I scoured the internet for every video of her performing and watched until I had the words memorised.

Then she released a poetry book, and I didn’t buy it for two years.

I was afraid that it wouldn’t be the same on the page. I had got into the habit of watching people perform it, but I still didn’t read poetry. I didn’t know how to do it outside of a class, analysing it line by line [Me: What is Sylvia Plath talking about? Teacher: What do YOU think? Me: ARGH!]. I was afraid that the special relationship I had with this woman’s work would be ruined if I tried to sit down and read her. What if the worst thing happened? What if I wasn’t smart enough for it? What if the feeling that happened when I listened to her speak went away? What if it was broken?

When No Matter the Wreckage finally arrived (the day before I was going on holiday. I read much of it over the course of a seven hour car journey), I realised I needn’t have worried.

It took me forever to get past the first poem, the playfully named ‘Love Poem #137’. Not because I didn’t understand. No, I quickly realised that reading Sarah Kay’s poetry was like listening to my favourite songs. I wanted to read them over and over again.

No Matter the Wreckage is a beautiful collection of poetry filled with open heartedness, gratitude, heartbreak and a persistent sense of joy in the face of a challenging world. It’s concerned with being a young woman in the world, a traveller, in love and out of it. It’s about family. The sincerity of her words ripped chunks out of me even as it helped me place others back together.

I started making lists of the poets I plan to read in the future. Me and poetry are on better terms these days.