Moving On

I’m having a full-on quarter-life crisis. Over the course of one month (admittedly, it was way back in August and September), I got married and handed in my master’s dissertation. I’ve been both working and in education for a very long time and I feel that my education days are behind me. I’ve also changed my name. I feel different.

I was excited about starting this blog. I set it up after I finished my English degree. I can see how my writing has moved on with it and I wrote this blog, sporadically, as I was completing a Creative Writing MA. I look back and I’m glad I got my voice into something even a little bit public. I tend to overthink these sorts of things and procrastinate: is that short story really ready? Should I really set up a blog? Should I give up writing this novel because it doesn’t seem exciting enough? So I’m glad it’s here.

And the bottom line is, I’ve changed my name and it’s funny how much of a change this can produce in your identity. All of this feels quite old. And nobody calls me Katharine. Honestly, I just thought it sounded more writerly.

So, I’m moving on. My new blog is (and in case you’re wondering, fellow feminists, it’s his surname too). I’ll be updating once a week. Come and visit me.

Thoughts on New Books by Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Michael Hughes

I’ve recently read a couple of new books and thought I’d cover both of them in one post. Both are multilayered, covering different stories and viewpoints, and they fit together fairly well.

I’m becoming more accustomed to reading crime. I enjoy it. Why Did You Lie by Yrsa Sigurdardottir thoroughly freaked me out. She begins with the culmination of four people’s stay in a remote Icelandic lighthouse. Two of them are in the water and one of them is stabbing another with a knife. What’s happening here? The novel has two other strands: a family back from their holiday has found that the American couple they have house-swapped with have been very inconsiderate and a policewoman is trying to hold down a job within her misogynistic unit and hoping that her husband, who has attempted suicide, comes out of his coma. We are also taken back in time, to see how the people on the lighthouse ended up in their situation.

Why Did You Lie is a seriously well-crafted crime novel. Sigurdardottir knows how to create a cliffhanger and she cranks the fear right up. There were some parts that didn’t seem as well thought out, however. For instance, the policewoman seems fairly detached, at first, from her husband ‘s attempted suicide. This husband was also her best friend and we don’t find out him being in hospital straight away. But, apart from a few little complaints, this was a book I got through quickly. I’d like to read more of Sigurdardottir’s work.

A book I enjoyed less was The Countenance Divine. It’s ambitious, taking place in four different eras: in 1999 when a computer programmer tries to fix the Millennium Bug; in 1888, in Jack the Ripper London; in 1777, when William Blake has a religious experience; and in 1666, when John Milton is finishing ‘Paradise Lost’. This book should appeal to fans of Cloud Atlas but, for me, there’s something missing. It’s all very Dead White Men doing Great Things and stopping the world ending, whereas Cloud Atlas was more about how different people experience their respective environments. I found The Countenance Divine to be fairly unsubtle and I just didn’t get on with it. One thing that attracted me to the book was a quote by Toby Litt, which said the book was like ‘a brilliant cross between David Mitchell and Hilary Mantel’ and I just don’t see where, apart from writing about the seventeenth century, this Mantel comparison comes from. Maybe I was expecting too much from this book. Perhaps it will appeal to you, though!

Thank you to BookBridgr for sending me both of these titles.

Thoughts on Baby X by Rebecca Ann Smith

Baby X is an intriguing novel. I must admit I find clinical intelligent thriller-y type things interesting (see my obsession with House), but this genre, if you can call it that, is rarely coupled with emotional intelligence. Baby X is a great achievement just from the outset: it’s an intelligent novel with a heart.

We begin with Dr Alex Mansfield driving a new-born baby to her grandmother’s old house. Alex is worried and tells us that ‘I did what I had to do.’ Why does she have this baby? And why is it called X?

Alex’s story is interspersed with Karen’s. Karen and her husband have had many miscarriages and they approached Dr Mansfield so that they can realise their dreams of becoming parents. Alex wants to grow the first baby outside of a human body; the imagery of the artificial womb in the lab is sharply drawn. These women’s stories are alternated with chapters dating from ‘much later’ at an inquiry, as we piece together Alex’s actions from her workmates and try to come to terms with what made her steal the baby.

Alex is a complicated character and, initially, I was worried that she would prove too complicated. There are some issues I thought I would have when I started this book – why can’t a woman be a doctor without her maternal instincts getting in the way? In the wrong hands this book could have bordered on offensive, it could have been a “single doctor woman” vs “want desperately to be a mother and have a family woman” but it goes far deeper and is infinitely more compassionate than that. Alex’s reasoning is organic, apart from one major coincidence which felt a little too much.

The inner worlds of both Karen and Alex are well drawn, but so is outer society. The press is following the first artificial baby avidly, keen to moralise about perfect babies and things not “being natural”, which felt too real. Karen and her husband are hounded into an interview and the journalist forces their story into the one that she wants, resulting in heartache for the couple. There is also an interesting meeting between Karen and an online troll, which showcases Smith’s compassion and willingness to write something that doesn’t tread old arguments but confronts society as it is.

There is a also thriller aspect with a troublesome ex-boyfriend of Alex’s; this builds throughout the novel, which is running over three timelines. The pace never slows because of this and shows excellent plotting.

I read Baby X so quickly and would definitely read more by Rebecca Ann Smith. Mother’s Milk Books have done it again – they are carving out an identity for themselves as a publisher of compassionate stories, stories which aren’t saying the same thing as everybody else.

Baby X is available from Mother’s Milk Books.

Thoughts on Sara Pascoe’s Animal

I have neglected my blog in the past month. For the usual blog not-posting reasons. Life things, business, general anger and inability to read due to the shit-storm that was the EU referendum… But here we are, now. I finished Animal by Sara Pascoe in the heady days before the UK became un-united, and am just now finding myself able to think about normal things again.

So! Animal is an amazing book. My boyfriend works in a bookshop and he asked me where I’d put it – funny books, memoir, feminism? I said yes, he could put it in any of those. I have a weakness for these Smart Thinking books – I find them interesting, especially the psychological ones. In fact, I’ve been reading this sort of book far more than novels this year. But back to the book: Animal made me see the ways in which we are very much part of the animal world, no matter how much we believe ourselves distant from it. We’re constantly reacting to stimuli; there are reasons why women are made to feel so awful by advertising. We may think that we’re in love / lust because of somebody’s sense of humour or intellect (or whatever…) but, even if we don’t want children, our bodies assume that we do. We pick people based on how well we think they would raise children. We are responding to our hormones, our chemicals.

Pascoe goes into the history of dating and mating and sex and why we do all of these strange things. We are not special, hyper-evolved beings. We are animals. We have a well-developed part of our brain that is bolted on to the side (top?) of our mammal and reptile brains, so we don’t always use it. From my now seemingly nihilistic viewpoint, it explains a lot. Pascoe goes into the reasons why we, for instance, commonly mate off in pairs. We have evolved to have this tendency because human babies need a lot of care:

‘CANCEL THE ORGY! The science books say we lived in social groups but with strongly bonded pairs raising their own children.’

And then there’s the memoir aspect of the book. Pascoe goes into her own sexual history, her background which informed her future relationships and the relationship she has with her body. Pascoe discusses everything honestly; it feels painfully relatable but almost revolutionary. We often avoid talking about such things. She writes:

‘It’s scary how much of my inner monologue is consumed by debating food choices, berating myself for what I’ve recently eaten and promising I’ll do better. […] My weight has stopped me doing things, has kept me from parties and dinners and awards ceremonies because the stress of attempting to look ‘nice’ has beaten me.’

I too have not gone out because my body didn’t look “right”, and I suppose most women have. But we don’t say this. We meekly cut important food-groups from our diets and blame ourselves, punishing ourselves for our transgressions. We at least need to acknowledge this as a serious issue.

And then, because it’s written by a comedian, there were plenty of moments when I was reading Animal when I actually and genuinely laughed out loud. A book like this could be so dry: there are a lot of facts in it. But, conversely, it could have been too much of a piss-take; I’ve read a few books by comedians and, although they can be funny, the comedian sometimes wants to be funny at the cost of everything else, which can undermine what they are saying. But this was a smart compromise.

So, I don’t know where I would put Animal in a bookshop. Pascoe has invented her own scientific-humour-memoir genre and I want to read more of it.

On Beige Short Stories

This article over on the Guardian by Mark Haddon is bloody wonderful. It helped me put my finger on something that has been irking me about some short stories I’ve been reading lately. Close reading stories has been an interesting exercise for me (and I’ve written some of my thoughts here, here and here). I found that certain stories which I enjoyed first time around are flimsy and dull when I re-read them. I’ve even avoided writing about some of the stories I intended to blog about because I just couldn’t be bothered to think enough about them after I’d finished reading, well-written enough though they were.

I think that people on writing courses are taught to see short stories in a particular way. I’ve noticed that I get higher marks if I play it safe in my stories, so perhaps others have found the same thing. I think this is a shame because, in our busy-worshiping lives, we need to grab attention if we want actual readers to notice our stories. This line of Haddon’s particularly stood out to me: ‘It seems to me that if you are writing a short story and it is not more entertaining than the stories in that morning’s newspaper or that evening’s TV news, then you need to throw it away and start again, or open a cycle repair shop.’ I would rather watch Netflix than read another ho-hum short story, and for a long time I thought this was a failing of mine. Perhaps I wasn’t actually cut out to be a prose writer! Over the last two years I have become rather fond of the short story form, but only when it is done well. The strongest short story collection I have read recently is Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood. She isn’t trying to impress, because she’s Margaret Atwood. You get the sense in Stone Mattress that she’s just trying to amuse herself and, because of this, the stories are fun to read.

We are taught Chekhov and Carver. When we are taught that only one type of story is the sort of story we should be writing, it makes for some dull, beige stories. Particularly if the writer is just doing a bad impression of a writer they think they should emulate. Perhaps we are not even consciously taught this, perhaps this is just what people think short stories are.

I enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and am looking forward to reading Mark Haddon’s new short story collection.

Thoughts on ‘Lusus Naturae’ by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress is one of the best short story collections I’ve read. The strangest story in the collection is called ‘Lusus Naturae’, which is Latin for ‘freak of nature’. In it, our narrator is the freak. She scares people in her conservative community and, because the story is set in some distant non-specific past, her family are willing to accept her deformities as some sort of punishment. It isn’t quite clear which disease our protagonist has, but that doesn’t matter to her or her family: Feed her bread, the doctor had said. She’ll want a lot of bread. That, and potatoes. She’ll want to drink blood. Chicken blood will do, or the blood of a cow. Don’t let her have too much. He told us the name of the disease, which had some Ps and Rs in it and meant nothing to us.’

Because of this disease, the family plan to stage her death, so that her sister will be able to marry into a good family. They bribe a priest: ‘He said I was lucky, because I would stay innocent all my life, no man would want to pollute me, and then I would go straight to heaven.’ On one level, this can be seen as a story about an “inappropriate” woman being locked away,

The narrator lives for a few years, feeling ‘freer’ dead: ‘If it weren’t for the fits, and the hours of pain, and the twittering of voices I couldn’t understand, I might have said I was happy.’ But her family dies and her mother receives an offer to live in her well-off daughter’s house, and this family house is sold. The protagonist then “haunts” the house, until one day she is spotted and the town feel threatened.

The narrator is never angry about her situation. She even speculates that ‘perhaps in Heaven I’ll look like an angel. Or perhaps the angels will look like me. What a surprise that will be, for everyone else!’ The narrator is always searching for people who look like her, but she can’t find anybody. She is shunned for something she has no control over. It’s a sad story about many things, but it’s specifically addresses being shunned and what that might do to a person. ‘Lusus Naturae’ is a personal story from a viewpoint that would have been ignored at the time. Her illness would have only been discussed in medical journals, using language she wouldn’t understand. It’s amazing what Margaret Atwood can cover in less than ten pages. But she is Margaret Atwood, after all.

Motherhood, Creativity and Fairy Tales: The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2

I just read a story on Standard Issue by a woman who was worried about how becoming a mother would affect her writing. How, when she was very pregnant, a fellow (male) writer gestured to her bump and blathered about ‘the pram in the hall’ debilitating her creative output. I also heard Amanda Palmer worrying about this issue on a podcast recently. Creativity is something that received wisdom tells us disappears when a woman has a baby. I’m not even sure if I want children, but even I can’t stop hearing these worries and discussions.

With this in mind, then, I move onto the second collection of ‘modern fables and ancient tales’, The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2. It’s published by the independent Mother’s Milk books, who aim to celebrate femininity and motherhood in writing. Many of the stories in here celebrate motherhood, or another female pursuit that has been degraded in some way; women who are shamed for being “too” into looking at themselves in mirrors, for instance.

To take a closer look at some of my favourite stories here, then: ‘Trash into Cash’ by Becky Tipper celebrates motherhood in feminist ways, when a mother tries to stop a man stealing her baby. He says he’ll back off if she can guess the word that he’s thinking of and she’s told that she’ll ‘never guess’ it. But the bond between herself and her child helps her enormously.

‘Lilasette’ by Ronne Randall is wondrously graphic: when an evil queen rips out the womb of a woman who claims to have had her son’s baby, the lilac tree was attacked beside ends up doing amazing things to protect the child. The goriness of this story is great. I was unsure what would happen in this story, which is rare because such stories tend to be quite conservatively structured.

‘Lilasette’ also makes important use of a mirror, as do the stories ‘Mirror Mirror’ by Laura Kayne and ‘How Women Came to Love Mirrors’ by Hannah Malhotra. I think it’s interesting that, exploring fairy tales from a feminine point of view, we are very concerned with the way the world sees us. As seen in my post about a make-up exhibition here, women have been chided for vanity for hundreds of years. But, as one line in ‘How Women Came To Love Mirrors’ has it, ‘perhaps she dreamed of a day when women would not need the mirrors.’

My favourite stories are ones which subvert classic tales or do something unexpected with them. Marija Smit’s ‘Little Lost Soul’ is about a futuristic dystopian world in which a young woman is being abused. I loved this story because it manages to add some psychological reasoning, some interior monologue, which fairy tales often lack. ‘Little Lost Soul’ also manages to give the reader a little shock, too, with the story taking an unexpected turn.

So, The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 didn’t disappoint. It is more than a simple collection of fairy tale retellings. I think that we are told that things closely associated with femininity, such as birth, appearance and being the emotional support for others, are not related to Serious Creative Writing. But it’s important to remember that fairy tales are the oldest literature we have and they were told, for the most part, by mothers to their children. It’s very easy to read this as a collection of stories by themselves, so don’t be put off by my overthinkings if you just want to read a collection of other-worldly stories. Or, if these issues appeal to you, there is a lot to think about here that is revolutionary.

The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 is available to buy here.