My TinyLetter

Most of my writing on books is now going to be over on my non-public TinyLetter. I have started to think about what I want to do on this blog, and I have some ideas, so watch this space. Right now, I’m going to just leave this here as a placeholder.

Some recently purchased books (actually purchased in a single weekend … ahem, day):




Shouldn’t we be somewhere where something is moving?

The past few weeks, after reading Knausgaard’s fifth tome in a long, breathless gulp lasting a little over a week, I have been reading Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. Pond is a collection of about 20 interconnected stories, which sort of tell a story but also sort of do not.

The main thing about this book is that it has made me realise – more than anything I have read in a while – that I have a unique style that I really like. It is the sparse, introspective, interior narrative of a loner – a person on the fringe of our society, or sometimes totally alone in the world. I now have three strange books that I have collected with similar styles, and I didn’t know that I was collecting them: Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson, Speedboat by Renata Adler, and now Pond.

I discovered Markson’s experimental novel first, urged on by David Foster Wallace, and it has rolled around in my head since I read it. The first sentence completely hooked me, and the sparse, addictive and totally unreliable narration drew me in – possibly because this was the first book of that type that I had read. It starts like this:

In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.

Somebody is living in the Louvre, certain of the messages would say. Or in the National Gallery.

Naturally they could only say that when I was in Paris or in London. Somebody is living in the Metropolitan Museum, being what they would say when I was still in New York.

Nobody came, of course. Eventually I stopped leaving the messages.

To tell the truth, perhaps I left only three or four messages altogether.

I really love these types of unreliable narrators – they feel like magic to me, maybe after the hyper-realistic and theoretically reliable narrators that dominate so much of the 19th and 20th century literature. Those narrators are often unreliable in other ways, or blinkered because of their particular perspective, but they are meant to be so sure about their perspective.

The whole point of these narrators in these types of books is that they are the opposite. All three of these solitary narrators are female; Markson is the only male writer (and he does a pretty good job with his female voice in WM). I wonder if that is why I have immediately welcomed this type of unreliable narration: I hadn’t realised how foreign the self-assured, hyper-realistic narrator was until I read these wobbly ones. Anyway, it is an interesting point.

Pond starts off more self-assured, with a single paragraph on the first page, titled “Voyage in the Dark”:

First of all, it seemed to us that you were very handsome. And the principal windows of your house were perfectly positioned to display a blazing reflection at sunset. … I made my way over the wall into your ornamental garden, laid down upon the unfeasible grass and fell to sleep wrapped about a lilac seashell, which was of course my most cherished possession.

So far, not that similar to the narration style, but the next page gets you really into the narrative style, beginning with a long discussion of bananas and coffee and the setup of the kitchen, and general rambling about the ripeness of fruit.

The language in Pond is beautiful, more beautiful in Markson, and therefore slightly less reliable in some senses – you know that it is produced by an artist. But it has the tinge of madness and honesty that I love, like this bit, which is perhaps my favourite:

English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things. I expect I will always have to do it that way; regrettably I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see. I think it has to stay where it is: simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.

In some ways, you can see from that that sometimes both Pond and WM are a bit too wobbly and weird, and it gives you an uncomfortable feeling. They contradict themselves or they say their verbal tics a few times in a few sentences, and it makes you feel that you have perhaps interrupted them with a question that has made them uncomfortable, or that they deserve to be left alone because they are so weird. But I like that as well.

For what it’s worth, Speedboat is a bit more traditional and structured and also more edgy and opinionated – but not to a totally different degree. You still get very arresting sentences and thoughts about loneliness and existentialism, which I am clearly a sucker for. Like this:

When I wonder what it is that we are doing — in this brownstone, on this block, with this paper — the truth is probably that we are fighting for our lives.


Sunsets and sunrises of 2015

The best thing I started doing last year was documenting beautiful sunsets and sunrises. I didn’t do it nearly enough, I realise now, because it brings me such joy to look at these again.

There is something magical about sunsets, and about being outside when the sun sets – and I miss it. But sunsets are beautiful from windows or in the fresh air.

The joy I feel from them is a continuous line from my West Texas childhood, where the skies are so large – my first photography project in junior high was of a person looking into a sunset.

This joy continues through my college days, and evenings of working late on the student newspaper, in wrong-temperatured rooms with scraps of pizza ground into chairs and couches.

It bittersweet when it reminds me of Ben, who loved sunsets and who I always think of and miss when I look at these – but who reminds me to love and value these fleeting moments.

I feel privileged to live in England now, where these magical moments come at radically different times over the course of the year: 8 a.m. (or later) sunrises and 3 p.m. sunsets in winter, compared to 4 a.m. sunrises and 10 p.m. sunsets in summer.

I remember each of these moments: many of the sunset pictures were taken with a smirk or a sigh about the day (last year was rough), and many of the sunrises inspired hope or new resolutions.

I also remember the guilt and awe I had when I took the pictures. Many times, I thought: “Am I destroying this moment by capturing it? Does this reduce my present joy?” But, looking back on them, they are such a comfort to me – like a little reminder that the sun sets and rises and each of the emotions I was feeling when I took the picture has passed, and come back and passed again, and however overwhelmed or joyful I felt then, things have moved on.

So, here they are, with minimal annotations (NB – these are not good photographs, but I haven’t used filters either – colors are original):

01 2015 sunrise

January – sunrise (barely) – London


01 2015 sunset

January – sunset – London


02 2015 sunset Louisiana 2

February – sunset – Louisiana


02 2015 sunset Louisiana 3

February – sunset – Louisiana


02 2015 sunset Louisiana

February – sunset – Louisiana


02 2015 sunset Savannah

February – sunset – Savannah, Georgia


03 2015 sunrise 2

March – sunrise – London


03 2015 sunrise 3March – sunrise – London


03 2015 sunriseMarch – sunrise – London


03 2015 sunrset

March – sunset – train from London to Exeter


03 2015 sunset

March – sunset – London (Canary Wharf)


04 2015 sunrset Kosovo

April – sunset – Kosovo


04 2015 sunset

April – sunset – London


05 2015 sunrise VA

May – sunrise – Virginia


06 2015 sunset

June – sunset – London (Canary Wharf)


08 2015 sunset

August – sunset – London


09 2015 sunset

September – sunset – Exeter


10 2015 sunset

October – sunset – London


11 2015 sunset Ukraine

November – sunset – Kyiv, Ukraine


11 2015 sunrise

November – sunrise – London


12 2015 sunrise Manchester

December – sunrise – Manchester

My 2015 music year in review

I am still doing 2015 in review. I think that’s okay because the year is long, and it takes some time to go through everything. You don’t want to do these things too quickly.

I tend to keep songs I like on a playlist and then start a new one every few months over the course of the year. This year, I’ve pulled my favorites from these together to make a playlist from all of my seasonal playlists. It has been fun to listen to these again, and so I hope you enjoy these – it is an eclectic mix, and I’ve kept the things that are embarrassing on there, even:


My favorite song is easily either Sjowgren’s “Seventeen” or the Trishas’ “Drive” or Kacey Musgraves’ “Dime Store Cowgirl”. But most of these songs on this playlist have been on the top 5 list at some point in the year, so it’s a bit unfair to rank them. To put this in perspective, these are songs that I listened to for entire weeks at a time on repeat, sometimes on repeat for entire 45-minute commutes.

My favorite albums – the ones that I’ve come back to over and over – are probably the following:

  • Sturgill Simpson,
  • Kacey Musgraves,
  • Courtney Barnett,
  • Erin Rae and the Meanwhiles,
  • Patrick Watson,
  • Sufjan Stevens, and
  • Sylvan Esso.

But my weirdest favourite is probably Land Lines, whose album The Natural World immediately sounded like my feelings or the soothing I needed. Does anyone else know this band? I can’t explain why I liked it so much.

And, finally, I went to a lot of gigs – most of which were with my friend C., with whom I now I have a great gig tradition that I really love. We saw tons of music – I have talked about this elsewhere, but gigs are perfect if you work too much because they start really late, and they’re fun without being exhausting (you don’t have to drink) and you can tag food onto it easily.

Anyway, favourite gigs:

  • The funnest crowd was at Sons of Bill – lots of really nice middle-aged men who really love this band in an infectious way;
  • Patrick Watson with C., but also with N. & S. He puts on a very good show;
  • the entire Marlborough Jazz Festival, where I discovered Ma Polaine’s Great Decline and Lil Jimmy Reed; and
  • Dar Williams – I still totally love her with my whole heart.

There were quite a few more (but, it turns out, not as many as 2014 – this year was brutal at work), including Sharon van Etten and Cat Power, but they don’t make favorites list.

Would love to hear more from you on your year in music!

The answer is “no”.

Today, I was going through various news reads and wondering what I’d write on my blog, and I came across this question:

Is James Joyce’s Ulysses the hardest novel to finish?

(Link here.)

The answer, in my opinion, is “no”. So far, in my life, the hardest-to-finish book is László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below. To be fair to him, he might have books that are even more difficult to read, but I have not attempted them.

I think maybe my favourite thing about this book is that they somehow re-released it in 2015, calling it a new book, as if that whole 2013 release didn’t happen. Like they could trick us into trying again. I felt smug every time I saw it in the book shop, and thought, “Fool me once…”

Seiobo There Below does not have a discernible plot, it has immensely long sentences, no chapters, etc. Joyce is a breeze, comparatively.

So, question: What’s the hardest book you’ve attempted to finish. It’s best, in my opinion, if it remains unfinished, but of course feel free to brag about having finished it. 

I have lived out my conflicts not my fantasies…

… and so has New York.

So goes a line in Vivian Gornick’s memoir, published last year, which I kept seeing on various “Best of” lists for 2015. From everything I’ve read, it was exactly the sort of book I like: witty and about being female and about being a female in a city, and about friendships and the 20th century.

Vivian Gornick - Odd Woman and the City

And it is all those things, and so I enjoyed reading it. I’ve always wanted to be an odd woman, and feared it, the way you do if you’re a girl from a mid-sized town/city in West Texas.

(I had a moment of panic in college, when I thought I might turn out to be “normal”, but then I realized that I had been trying my whole life to be normal, unsuccessfully, so it was unlikely that it would happen inadvertently. This is both prescient and likely to lure a person into a false sense of comfort, but that’s all something to discuss another time.)

I have read this book quickly, and I have also folded down a lot of pages. (I am a person who likes to write in the margins, but after opprobrium from other readers, I have started turning down the corners of pages where I liked the quotes, and then trying to find them later. It’s not the same. I need to start travelling with pencils, which is a better compromise.) All of that supports the idea that I enjoyed reading the book.

It is, for starters, a wonderful description of friendships:

“We are one,” I decided shortly after we met. … It took years for me to realize this sentiment was off the mark. What we are, in fact, is a pair of solitary travelers slogging through the country of our lives, meeting up from time to time at the outer limit to give each other border reports.

Yes, a bit melancholy. But she asks great questions, and has similar insights throughout. I liked this one too:

In both friendship and love, the expectation that one’s expressive (if not best) self will flower in the presence of the beloved over is key. Upon that flowering all is posited. But what if the restless, the fluid, the mercurial, within each of us is steadily undermining the very thing we think we most want? What, in fact, if the assumptions of a self in need of expressiveness is an illusion? What if the urge toward stable intimacy is perpetually threatened by an equally great, if not greater, urge toward destabilization? What then?

She made me add a lot of things to my Goodreads list, which is not really a to-read list but is basically a list of all the books I might want to look at and peruse if I had infinite time: Seymour Krim, George Gissing (see below). I need to watch Gypsy, it turns out. This was a helpfully curated guide to somewhat obscure references to strange women and loneliness and urban life. I’m always grateful for a book that gives me more writers and books to read.

There were some things about it that were grating, though. She writes about New York in a kind of devoted way that seems to me to be almost redundant and exclusive, in a slightly annoying way. She mentions in a parenthetical at some point in a story about riding a bus at midnight, for example, that there is traffic at midnight because there is always traffic in New York. It seems like you’d know that about New York, or that you wouldn’t even be reading her book if you didn’t know that about New York. There are other examples.

On the other hand, what’s wrong with the personal and specific, and so what if you have to use frustrating parenthetical asides to widen your audience? When I was stewing over what to write here, I thought that maybe I would write that it wasn’t universal enough, but surely the particular can be universal as well?

And right when I was thinking all of that, and feeling a bit frustrated because it’s a very middle-class/white-lady book, full of righteous indignation and a certain slight lack of kindness, she calls herself out on it in the last dozen pages, and totally redeems herself. There is the explanation of “odd women”, from the novel by George Gissing, and this amazing line about what it is like to live in the gap between cold idealism of feminism of the 1970s and the human reality and need for love and community, and the repercussions of that schism:

Sometimes I think that for me the gap has become a deep divide at the bottom of which I wander, as though on a pilgrim’s progress, still hoping to climb its side to level ground before I die.

And there is the following passage:

When I think back on it, I realize that we, the feminists of the seventies and eighties, had become primitive anarchists. We didn’t want reform, we didn’t even want reparations; what we wanted was to bring down the system, destroy the social arrangement, no matter the consequence. …
Here we were, women of the law-abiding middle class sounding, at this crucial moment of unmediated revolt, like professional insurrectionists, when in reality we were just Rose [in Gypsy], demanding our turn. (160)

Then there is an amazing story about a famous actor who has had a stroke and gives a private reading of Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, alternating between his own struggle with his voice and an earlier tape of his 4-year-old self playing the same part in a perfect style. The scene here is vividly recorded, and I feel that I can touch the actor. There is so much dignity in that scene.

There is also a scene in a park, which lauds the changes in a park from a white, middle-class park to a mixed-race park with guitar players and junkies. And some lines about the spirit of New York (not about jobs but about lifestyles), comparing it to more “manageable” cities, which almost crosses the border of my tolerance for New York hagiography. And then, she brings it back, talking about the voices of New York that keep her here.

Sure, she’s writing about New York, but she is also writing about cities. Those of us who love cities understand what she means.

“What’s wrong with Maybe?” (Mary Oliver’s Felicity)

Mary Oliver - Felicity

I often read poetry. I listen to poetry podcasts, and I buy poetry books. I have many beloved poets, but poetry is strange. For me, a beautiful poem is a piece of writing in which the meaning is beyond your grasp, and the different poets I love write things that are further and closer from my grasp. John Ashbery and Lucy Brock-Broido are further away from my grasp.

Mary Oliver seems closer to me. That is not to say that she writes bad poems, but there is a simplicity in her language that is so beautiful and wise. And it represents, to me, a view of what is necessary for a life.

(All of this feeling has increased the more I know about her as a person. You can listen to her on a podcast here, which I feel like I need to listen to at least once a year, to keep me grounded.)

Mary Oliver’s new poetry collection is mostly about love, but as always it is about our place in the universe and in nature. Reading this book, as with many others, feels like coming home, to a wise older relative – an uncle or aunt, who makes me feel safe and brave, but also makes me question what I am doing.

There are so many beautiful lines that represent this. Here are a few:

From “The World I Live In”:

I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs;
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that. And anyway.
what’s wrong with Maybe?

The final line of “Whistling Swans”, which is a beautiful poem anyway, is something I’d like to make a motto:

Take from it what you can.

Here is the entirety of “No, I’d Never Been to This Country”:

No, I’d never been to this country
before. No, I didn’t know where the roads
would lead me. No, I didn’t intend to
turn back.

These are lines that have gone onto my homemade collages this winter, and which have bounced around in my head, from “Everything That Was Broken”:

… Every day has something in
it whose name is Forever.

And, I will leave you with these beautiful lines, from “The Gift”:

Love still as once you loved, deeply
and without patience. Let God and the world
know you are grateful.
That the gift has been given.

But I’d like to reiterate that the whole collection is worth buying (or borrowing) and reading.