In which I wrap up… March

(1) Things which I have read and enjoyed.
I had a week’s holiday this month, so I was able to read a bunch. Or rather, I was able to demolish a 1000 page fantasy novel, and some other short things. So, I read The Wise Man’s Fear which is the second of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles and which was just as fun and absorbing as the first. Can we have the third now, please? Did I leave it late enough to read these that I won’t have to wait too long?

I also read:

  • The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, which is an Egyptian dystopia about queueing for the bureaucratic central office of a central regime to open in order to get a certificate that you need. Think Brazil but with a wholly different cultural world.
  • The Foreign Correspondent in which Alan Furst provides a suitably Alan Furst-y European WW2 spy novel. They’re always an atmospheric treat.
  • Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones was our book club book, and we all wanted to like it more than we found we did. A fascinating idea – a novel about a very particular cultural rarity – that didn’t land as a novel.
  • The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville. I am enjoying current novella-focused Miéville a very lot. This was a wild idea tightly done, and I had a total ball with it. And now I’m going to the Tate Modern to see the surrealists again.
  • Following On by Emma John, which I demolished in one evening because I was also a teenager in the 1990s with a baffling and determined affection for the England cricket team. This was just so much fun to read as I made heart eyes at the book while remembering Graham Thorpe, and sniffly noises while remembering Ben Hollioake, and more heart eyes over Dominic Cork. I have zero idea how this works if you weren’t a female teenage cricket fan in England in the 1990s, but if you want to understand us as a species, start here.

(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
At the cinema I saw Logan, which I bloody loved for being tough and brutal and really going with the concept. More of this kind of X-Men world, please. And I saw Beauty and the Beast, which was enjoyable fluff for a Sunday afternoon.

At the theatre I Stoppard-ed out, with Travesties and Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead, both of which I loved, but especially Travesties which was new and therefore more hilarious to me. And I saw Twelfth Night at the National, which is very good generally and a revelation for me in how gender-switching Malvolio to Malvolia (the might Tamsin Greig) changed my feelings about how Sir Toby & co. treat the character.

And at the Royal Ballet, I saw the latest triple bill, Human Seasons, After the Rain, and Flight Pattern. I enjoyed Human Seasons fine, but After the Rain is one of my favourites, and I got to see Zenaida Yanowsky dance it, which was just lovely, and Flight Pattern was hypnotic and powerful.

(3) Things which I wrote
I reviewed Kent Annan’s book *Slow Kingdom Coming*, which I really enjoyed last year. I also worked out and listed my top twenty favourite Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes in honour of its twentieth birthday.

(4) A photo from the month gone by
I went to Egypt. I’m steadily editing and uploading my photos to flickr (has anything replaced flickr for good photo sharing and storing yet?)

(5) In the pile for April
I don’t have a firm list. I’m reading Ted Chiang’s collection Stories of your life, and others and a Stefan Zweig collection, trying Oliver Langmead’s Dark Star, which is a noir poem, and slowly plugging away at Peter Oborne’s Wounded Tiger which is a bit sludgey in style. I’m also reading Shauna Niequist’s Present over Perfect and finishing Justin Welby’s Dethroning Mammon, and getting back to Lauren Elkin’s Flaneuse. At the ballet I’m seeing Jewels, and at the cinema I am looking forward to Free Fire and the next Fast and Furious installment… (yes, I am).

20 episodes of Buffy, 20 years on.

In case you hadn’t noticed (because you aren’t a nerd or aren’t on twitter or just don’t care about good television), Friday marked twenty years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer first aired. Buffy… was my second great teen-TV love (after My So-Called Life) and almost certainly the most formative for me. I was 16 when I started watching, in my first year of A-levels. Season seven finished during my final year of university. I essentially grew up with Buffy, even if my teenage demons weren’t exactly her teenage demons.

Buffy… has shaped me in ways I don’t necessarily understand, let alone feel particularly comfortable talkin about because it’s deep and feelings-y. And it’s shaped my language and vocabulary. It wasn’t perfect at the time (cough Beer Bad cough) and it’s imperfections show up more from today’s perspective (why is Southern California so white?) – but it’s imperfections, and those of it’s characters, make it all the more human and strangely more loveable. Anyway, in honour of it’s twentieth birthday, I picked my favourite twenty episodes. It was pretty tricky – there’s a runner up list of another 10–20 pretty close behind – but I refused to allow myself to make the two-parters into one item on the list in order to get extra episodes.

1 & 2. Suprise & Innocence. AKA, the one where Buffy and Angel have sex and Angel loses his soul, and all teenage girls proxy their way through relationship angst. This two-parter taught me that television could do things that I didn’t know television could do, and I will never be the same again. I came to love Buffy and Spike, but Buffy and Angel will forever have my heart (and the cookie-dough speech in the final episode is one of my TV moments. I’m cookie dough), and this shredded it.
3. Hush. The gloriously creepy fairy tale is one for the ages – as well as proving that Buffy‘s sharp scripting isn’t just about the dialogue.
4. The Body. I’ll just be over here, howling, particularly over Anya’s speech. I am more equipped for grief because of this.
5. Passion. Oh look, more crying, this time over Giles. This is the pitch-perfect peak of the ‘when Angel was evil’ arc, and it’s emotionally destructive.
6 & 7. Becoming Part I & II. “It’s a big rock. I can’t wait to tell my friends, they don’thavea rock this big.”My favourite season finale. I love Buffy and Spike. I love Buffy and her mom more. And I love Buffy on her own stepping up to save the world.
8. Restless. Season four’s weird and wonderful dream finale, with the man with the cheese. It captures dream profundity wonderfully,
9. Once More With Feeling. Yes, I love the singing. But no, the singing is not my favourite episode. It is incredibly bold and brave and effective though. Favourite number: the Giles and Buffy 80s training montage.
10. The Gift. For all season six gave us a musical, and there are highlights in both seasons six and seven, I would have been perfectly content (if emotionally trashed) if Buffy had ended here, having saved the world a lot.
11. Something Blue. One of season four’s best and the series’ best funnies. It’s a really nice way of dealing with the fallout of Willow and Oz without getting terribly heavy. Also, Buffy and Spike’s engagement.
12. Tabula Rasa. The other episode that really justifies the existence of season six. I love the mind-wiped scoobies (espeically Giles and Spike), and the heartbreaking ending. I lost some of my love for Willow over time (she was my favourite early on, but was supplanted by Buffy in my affections by mid-season five and Buffy and I grew up), but in this moment, I feel for her rather than being frustrated at her.
13. Band Candy. In which we all realise why adults need to be adults – except for Principal Snyder who is much much more enjoyable as a teen. If you want to give yourself a heartbreak, note the music that Giles and Joyce listen to and then skip to Forever in season five to note what music Giles is listening to.
14. The Wish. “I wish that Buffy Summers had never come to Sunnydale.” Why would you wish that, Cordy? That aside, I love a good AU, and while AU Willow and Xander are wonderful, I really really love AU Buffy – it’s a gorgeous insight into what might have been.
15. Prophecy Girl. In which Buffy deals with boys and the end of the world at the same time, and comes of age in her own show.
16. Doppelgängland. The return of Anya and of AU-Willow is a total delight – and showcases Alyson Hannigan wonderfully.
17. Gingerbread. Not always a hot fave, but I do enjoy it’s analysis of what might happen if people did get a glimpse of what is really going on in Sunnydale.
18. School Hard. In which Spike and Drusilla arrive. What, you need more reason to love it?
19. Lies My Parents Told Me. My lone season seven entry, and another Spike-centric story – this time with some truly delightful flashbacks. But mostly in this, I enjoy the dynamics between Spike and Wood, and Buffy and Wood and Giles. Giles’ betrayal is brutal, and Buffy’s response is a painfully perfect moment of growing up.
20. Never Kill a Boy on the First Date. This is on the list because this is the episode in which I truly, deeply, became a Buffy fan, setting up the VCR to record every Thursday evening.

Review: Slow Kingdom Coming (Kent Annan)

You will know the truth and the truth will set you free
John 8:32

The truth will set you free, but not until it is finished with you
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Any book that includes these quotations within its chapter epigraphs is aways likely to be a winner with me. But I liked Kent Annan’s Slow Kingdom Coming beyond it’s epigraphs (which also include Kierkegaard, Wendell Berry and Dostoyevky). So much that despite the fact that I’m tired of adding books by white Anglo-American men to the recommended reading list, I’m adding this to the recommended reading list for people interested in Christianity, justice and development work.

[Two asides: can someone recommend me somethings to read in this field by more diverse authors, and can someone at a publishing house publishing this kind of thing find some more diverse authors to publish and publicise, Kthx.]

In my case, Slow Kingdom Coming is preaching to the choir – but it’s a really good book for the choir members to pass on to their friends. It’s short, really nicely written (yes, including the epigraphs) and reflective but practical. Rather than asking the questions, ‘How do we do justice work?’ or ‘How do we bring justice?’ it asks the question: ‘What kind of person should I be in order to be a part of seeing justice come?

Annan provides five practices for Christians to develop. These should be a part of our discipleship and daily life, but, as he makes clear, it is also essential for them to underpin Christian mission, development practice, and justice work. These are:
* Attention. Paying heed to the world around us, as the first and most important step in exercising care. Annan challenges his reader – broadly, white, western, evangelical Christians – to first pay attention, and then to focus and maintain their attention on something particular that breaks their heart and where they want to see the kingdom come.
* Confession. Admitting and lamenting past pain and faults and seeking restoration. The western reader is challenged to confess the self-interested motivations for seeking justice, our own privilege, and the roads they lead us down – towards hero complexes and grand public gestures.
* Respect. Honouring others and waiting – earning – respect in turn. He argues that seeking justice involves seeing people finding and building lives that reflect the respect they deserve, then this work must be done with respect: listening, bearing in mind the imago dei, promoting rights, and living with incarnationally.
* Partnering. Building relationships in which people are truly equal agents in the pursuit of justice. Annan challenges his readers to avoid saviour complexes that cause us to play rescuer or fixer for people, but to prepare the way for others – as John did for Jesus. He also challenges the reader to partner with God, pointing out that, ‘If you think you’re bring God anywhere you’re on the wrong trajectory of for not with.’ As he says, the resurrection is not just a rescue from something – it is a liberation for something: for faithfulness and participation in God’s story.
* Truthing (telling and seeking). Breaking down the distance between ourselves and other people to check our assumptions against the realities of the world. This helps us to learn and to improve the things we do, the way we serve, and the relationships we build – and it enables us to tell the truth to others about the justice we seek.

Slow Kingdom Coming isn’t a scary book, but it is a challenging one for a lot of the western church in thinking about what it looks like to do – or rather, participate in mission, “development”, and the pursuit of justice, because it challenges the norms that exist in our cultures, inside and outside the church. It asks us to change and give up the easy options we’ve got used to. However, it’s also a bit liberating, because it reminds us that while we’re called to be a part of seeking justice and have a responsibility to God for that: we’re not responsible for the success of the whole show.

He is not, therefore, eternally responsible for whether he reaches his goal within this world of time. But without exception, he is eternally responsible for the kind of means he uses.
Soren Kierkegaard.

in which I wrap up… February

(1) Things which I have read and enjoyed.
Moonglow, by Michael Chabon. Chabon has been a favourite of mine for a long time, and I liked this more than Telegraph Avenue, his last novel. It’s got a lot of atmosphere and some great storytelling, and I like the point that he’s working with about memory and history and memoirs. However… Chabon just isn’t rocking my world like he used to (and it’s not just my age, I re-read Kavalier and Clay last year and still found it glorious). This felt lightweight.

The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton. This was our book club pick and I was glad to have the chance to read it after having loved the film for so many years. It took a little while to get into, breaking through the familiarity with the film to get to the book itself, but then I loved it. Lily and Lawrence frustrating themselves at every turn – and Wharton showing why this is so tied to the age in which they live – is heartbreakingly painful.

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi. How does a twentysomething write something like this? It’s warm, it’s rich, it has an amazing ability to capture a life and its connection to all the others in the family chaing in one chapter focusing on one moment in that person’s life. That through-the-window approach is remarkably similar to that of The Underground Railroad, and like that novel it provides everything you need by way of satisfaction (even though you’d really like a little bit more.

Liturgy of the Ordinary, by Tish Harrison-Warren. One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to have some Sunday reading time where I would focus on faith. This was the first book to fill that space, and it has been lovely. It’s beautifully written and nicely thought provoking, being in my space but challenging me enough in the right kinds of ways (for me) to move forwards.

(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
Loving – which not wholly what I expected from the trailer, being much slower moving and focused on the couple in question much more than the world around them. It was almost too slow, for me, but it was really good.
Lego Batman – which is deeply deeply funny. Not quite Lego Movie moving and hilarious, but a very worthy sequel. Also, there’s nothing weirder than a film featuring Ralph Fiennes’ voice and Lego Voldemort in which Fiennes is NOT voicing Voldemort.
Hidden Figures – which I loved with all of my tiny heart. It’s got a great story, a brilliant cast, and a fabulous soundtrack. It doesn’t shy away from the struggle and injustices the women face, but it also tells the story in a really warm way – without getting sickly. It’s the best space movie since the The Dish, and I want to watch them in a doube bill.

(3) Things which I wrote
My book club is heading into it’s fifth year, so I picked my top ten reads of the first four years.

(4) A photo from the month gone by
Westminster Abbey

(5) In the pile for March
I’m on holiday with The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss and Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan by Peter Oborne. Then Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones is our book club book. I will also be at the ballet for the Royal Ballet’s new triple bill, and at the theatre for Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead (with DanRad at the Old Vic), Twelfth Night (at the National with Tamsin Greig, SCREAAAAAAM), and the White Devil (at the Globe).

My London Book Club Top 10

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I wouldn’t have let anyone who wasn’t my English teacher tell me what I had to read. Suggestions, recommendations, gifts, yes – but outright direction, no. But then I moved to London, and in search of a friends, I joined a book club that some people I knew on twitter were setting up. And thus did four years pass, and London Book Club became a monthly bedrock of my social life. And every month other people participated in a democratic(ish) process to choose at least one of the books I will read for me.

We’ve read quite a lot of books in that period of time. I’ve not read all of the books in this table. When I miss a month, I decide whether or not I fancy it (sometimes yes, Art of Fielding, and sometimes no We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves). The whole list is below, but here are my top ten (in no particular order) of the books we have read – that I had not read before.

(I had read The Handmaid’s Tale before, and it remains one of the most important books of my still-young life).

  1. Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel
  2. Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien
  3. Girl at War – Sara Novic
  4. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal – Jeanette Winterson
  5. The Interestings – Meg Wolitzer
  6. Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain
  7. The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton
  8. The Art of Fielding – Chad Harbach
  9. In the Light of What We Know – Zia Haider Rahman
  10. High Rise – JG Ballard

You should read any or all of the above, and many more of the others. Personally I would recommend steering well clear of Idiopathy and The Accidental Apprentice, and regard Fates and Furies and Outline as thoroughly overrated.

In which I wrap up January

(1) Things which I have read and enjoyed.
I had great plans to read a lot more this month, but then one book completely shellacked me and it took me a week to get into anything again. Also, you know, there’s been some political stuff going on, and weirdly I’ve not been escaping into fiction that (admittedly mostly due to time constraints). Anyway, I read Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, which I hugely enjoyed and ripped through on the plane. It’s big and sprawly and fantastical, with just the right amount of brains and a lot of heart.

Then I read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which apparently won the Pulitzer last year, and which I really enjoyed. It was very acute on the which-way-is-up world of spying, the complexities of identity, and the utter misery that comes on both the winning and losing sides of a war. And I will never see another Vietnam war movie in the same way again – and that is good.

Finally, I read The Power by Naomi Alderman, which kick-started a fire in my brain that won’t go away. I read it in three days straight (which included two days at work) and then spent a week recovering from it by not really reading anything else – at least, not fictional. It’s a simple, brilliant premise, and very very on the nose. It felt like a book that was written for me.

(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
Well, I saw La La Land, which I loathed for being a shallow as a very shallow puddle and implying that we should like and root for a guy who wants to save jazz from evolving and from John Legend. I loathed it more because I am the kind of person who likes musicals and tap dancing and jazz and Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. It puts me in a very small minority, but I feel like time will be on my side.

I also saw three most excellent films, though. Firstly, A Monster Calls, the film of the Patrick Ness book about stories and surviving pain and life. It’s beautifully, magickally, done, and I utterly howled at the end. More beautifully, so did the teenage girls sitting across from me in the cinema, who were given tissues by a young man on his way out of the cinema. Then I saw Scorses’s Silence, which worked on me in I don’t really know how to write about. The book’s been living with me for a while now, but the film made me notice and think about different things, mostly about incarnation and what it means to sacrifice yourself – and I really really really love that it doesn’t try and have an answer. And finally I saw T2: Trainspotting which, guys, was just a ball. I was sceptical of it when it was announced, somewhere between panicking and over-excited when I saw the trailers, and then finally, happily reassured. I don’t know what I expected it to be about or like and it was simultaneously what I probably should have expected from Danny Boyle and nothing I ever would have from a sequel to Trainspotting. It was funny, melancholy, hyperactive, relaxed about itself – and a very warm return to some very mixed up (and therefore human) people.

At the theatre I saw Art at the Old Vic, which was huge fun – short, sharp, and thought provoking (and not about art).

(3) Things which I wrote
Some thoughts on The Power and going on my first march.
On the ‘Read Harder’ challenge, which I’m going to use as a way of keeping an eye on my reading habbits.

(4) A photo from the month gone by
I went to Paris for a quick weekend. Here’s a place I hadn’t been before: The Pont de Bir-Hakeim (aka, that bridge from Inception)

(5) In the pile for February
Post-Power– stymie, I’ve got myself halfway into Moonglow, Michael Chabon’s latest, and Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, which is our next bookclub book. I’m also working through Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary. Homegoing is next up, after I leaped over it for The Power, and I’ve got the sequel to The Name of the Wind still, obviously, which I may take on an upcoming trip as a chunky fun read. I was sent Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years and Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time as Christmas gifts, I picked up The Vorrh in Foyles, and Our Soul’s at Night and Flaneuse at Shakespeare & Co.

A week that started with me reading The Power and ended with my first march

On Saturday, the Women’s March took place. It turned out to be a pretty big event. It was always a pretty big deal – but then, I suppose I probably wouldn’t have chosen to go to the London march if I hadn’t thought that. It was my first march.

I’ve been fortunate in that I haven’t ever had to march out of a personal necessity in my life. I’ve thought about going on previous marches, admired those who have, but never taken that step. In brutal honesty, the bottom line is that there has always been something else going on on those days, something I wanted to do more: it was never convenient – and never an absolute necessity.

To some extent, for me, it still wasn’t yesterday. I’m still well-off: educated, employed, and living in a country with a social security net and public health service – at least, for now. Even if I dislike the result of the #Brexit referendum and think many of the factors behind are shady, I still live in a fairly functioning democratic state. But at the same time it has become more and more clear to me over the years exactly how untrue that is for so many others, for the majority of women around the world, and how we’re not exactly making steady progress towards those things for the majority. Slow, unsteady, steps forward are crashing into barriers, and being bounced into lurching tumbles backwards and sideways. Frankly, it was bloody well past time to leave the sofa and the novel behind and go and numb my toes in Grosvenor Square.

And it was great. It was fun and it was serious, it was warm (ok, not the weather, that was freezing), and it was hopeful and encouraging but but not under any illusions that it on its own was going to be enough. A few tweets (coughpiersmorgancough) suggest that the existence of the march unnerves some – but not enough, yet, to upset the order of things. When a march comes close to upsetting the order of things, there tend to be arrests. But it was enough to be a start that encouraged more – and that should demand more too.

Coincidentally enough, at the beginning of last week, just before the march really began to solidify as a reality in my personal future, I started reading Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power. If you’ve not heard of it, the premise of the book (with as few spoilers as possible) is that women start to develop a skein across their collarbone that generates electricity, giving them the ability to deliver electric shocks. The novel is framed by a couple of letters, which places the writing in a very different future society looking back at what, it becomes clear, is our present.

It is a stunning read. Two of my book club friend have accurately summed it up as, ’So HANDMAID’S TALE, but on CRACK.’ We have a dinner booked in for a serious post-THE POWER debrief, because OMG are there ever things that I need to talk about.

There were a couple of things that really struck me – and neither of them were the gender-power-imbalanced future that emerges was as undesireable as our gender-power-imbalanced present. That I already knew, thanks. Most feminists do.

One was the cumulative build of events: everyone in the book is trying to the best they can to protect and preserve the people and things that they care about and think are good – with varying degrees of recognition and caring of what that might do those outside that sphere of things ‘worth saving.’ Obviously I have certain sympathies within the novel – the novel itself has certain sympathies – but the principle holds across the board. The second was how this cumulation contributes to the growing sense that losing must be held to be impossible. Because the losing side won’t go back to square one, they’ll go back to square minus at least five, people will do things – extreme things – that they might in abstraction choose not to do to other people. Doing something terrible is worse – for you – than the consequences of not doing it for you and others. The battle becomes a zero sum not necessarily because it is a zero sum game, but because at least one side insists that it is one.

Let’s be clear, The Power definitely has a view on where we’re starting from (a fairly accurate view IMHO), but is also clear-eyed might, might have to and might choose to do, and where it might lead. It would be nice to think we might get from yesterday’s marches to a future where a man can’t boast about sexually harrassing women and then go on to be elected president (amongst other things) without going through a The Power-equivalent scenario, but I’ll be honest, I also think it would be naive. There were plenty of people not at marches talking about the importance of dialogue and the search for unity, and they’re not wrong: but if we’re to avoid The Power and The Handmaid’s Tale then the side that wasn’t marching has to get better at the dialogue too. And fast.

read harder?

If you’re of a bookish disposition and frequent twitter, you may have come across Book Riot’s Read Harder 2017 challenge (and it’s previous iterations). ‘Read Harder’ is basically about challenging yourself to go beyond your default choices to read new or different things. I generally have a mixed response to reading challenges, because I tend to think of myself as fairly wide-ranging AND I already want to read more books than there is time for reading.

But I did a quick survey of my list of the books I read last year, f my 40 books last year:
* 14 were by women.
* 11 were by authors from outside the UK / North America / Antipodes, and four of those were originally written in English anyway.
* If you include UK/North America/Antipodes then I add another 3 authors who aren’t white (four books, because I read two by Colson Whitehead).
* I covered Africa and Asia, but had nothing from Latin America
Only 18 books are by white men, which makes me feel marginally more balanced, but still, I want to keep an eye on my reading. I’m clearly going to read the new Michael Chabon, because I love Michael Chabon, but I want to not read Michael Chabon followed by the most recent Jonathan Lethem followed by Joshua Ferris as my default setting.

So, this is Book Riot’s list, which I think I’m going to use as a prompt. I’m not going to get all competitive and ‘must finish this’ with it, because that is just not me, just keep an eye on what I’m reading through its categories. I’ve included some of the things I’m thinking of reading in some of the categories, many of which I already own or know I’m going to pick up, and there are clearly some gaps for me to think about – and some categories where I could look further afield. Please send tips.

  • Read a book about sports: Selection Day– Aravind Adiga, The Boys of Summer – Roger Kahn; Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan – Peter Oborne
  • Read a debut novel: Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Max Porter, The Sympathizer – Viet Thang Nguyen, The Loney – Andrew Michael Hurley, *Homegoing* – Yaa Gyasi
  • Read a book about books
  • Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author: One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene
  • Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative: Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche.
  • Read an all-ages comic
  • Read a book published between 1900 and 1950: The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene, These Old Shades – Georgette Heyer
  • Read a travel memoir
  • Read a book you’ve read before: I have a pile of re-reading to do, and I’m probably going to pick a Nick Harkaway or a Murakami, or potentially Foucault’s Pendulum
  • Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location: I live in London, so… but Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Max Porter is already in my TBR pile.
  • Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location: to do this, I have to go beyond San Francisco in the west, Nicaragua in Latin America, Cameroon in West Africa, Burundi in East Africa, Beijing, Japan, Myanmar, and so on… The Sympathizer fits, and so does Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System.
  • Read a fantasy novel: I’ve already run through Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, but I’ll take your non-white-american-men recommendations now.
  • Read a nonfiction book about technology: Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari, The Future of the Professions – Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind
  • Read a book about war: Again, The Sympathizer has me covered, but I also have Another Day of Life by Ryszard Kapuschinski, about Angola.
  • Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+
  • Read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country
  • Read a classic by an author of color: I’m going to finally read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and some James Baldwin.
  • Read a superhero comic with a female lead: Margaret Atwood’s Angel Catbird and Sydney Padua’s Lovelace and Babbage
  • Read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey
  • Read an LGBTQ+ romance novel
  • Read a book published by a micropress
  • Read a collection of stories by a woman: The Thing Around Your Neck – Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
  • Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love
  • Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of colour

In which I wrap up December

(1) Things which I have read and enjoyed.
I’ve been reading Kent Annan’s Slow Kingdom Coming over the past couple of months and I think it’s really good and helpful for thinking about approaching international aid and development – even if you’re not a Christian and don’t think of increased global equality and flourishing as a part of the coming kingdom of God. The habits and practices he discusses as ways of approaches to take on board if you’re thinking about ‘helping people’ are just valid, regardless of faith.

Holidays = BUNCHES of reading time. On my holidays I read:

  • Chinaman – Shehan Karunatilake, which is about cricket in Sri Lanka. I enjoyed it a lot, but it was a good 100 or so pages too long. I’m also not sure if it’s a novel that would work if you don’t already like cricket and feel the attraction of its weirdo magnetism: at least 30% of my liking for it came from the fact that it’s populated by cricketers who I used to watch back when crickets was on’t’telly.
  • Human Acts – Han Kang, a powerful book about political revolt in South Korea. It wasn’t something I knew anything about – and the novel was both illuminating and powerful – without being either sentimental or gratuitous. It tells the story in a number of short accounts from different perspectives from the revolt up to the present days, which is a really effective way of illustrating the impact of events on people over time.
  • Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, which I’m about a decade late to, but I loved. I really need to remember how much I enjoy Adiche’s writing and stories and not leave her books lying on my shelf waiting for me to get around to. Like good old friends they deserve bettter attention.
  • Six Four – Hideo Yokoyama, which is our January book club pick and something quite different for us. I’m not usually a big crime reader, but I really enjoyed this: the way that it’s about what is going on within the internal politics of the police force totally worked for me.
  • The Sellout – Paul Beatty, which won the Booker Prize. I tried to set aside my crankiness that this beat out Do Not Say We Have Nothing and just read the book – and I think that the book’s quality is probably higher than my enjoyment level (and that one of the major reasons that it won the Booker is because it’s the kind of book that makes nice middle class white liberals good about reading it and about opposing people like Donald Trump). I never actively enjoyed the whole reading experience, though I enjoyed particular sentences very much, but I am glad that I read it. There was a lot that didn’t ‘speak’ to me or that I didn’t really understand, but equally, I don’t think it was supposed to or trying to, and there’s something refreshing about the fact that it didn’t want to provide a universal experience.

(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
I made it to the cinema twice while I was away, to see Rogue One and Edge of Seventeen again, both of which I really enjoyed.
Rogue One was wonderful to me because it didn’t sell Felicity Jones short and she is my favourite and also because it dared to really embrace it’s stand-alone story status. I loved the fact that it made the rebellion a little murkier and more complicated – I’ve enjoyed the whizz-bang heroics of the ‘main’ Star Wars verse, but this was real-er for me.
Edge of Seventeen made me realise I probably need some therapy to deal with my over-identification with angst-ridden isolated teenagers like Nadine. The scene where she goes to the party was the most ‘It Me’ scene I’ve seen for a long time in cinema and I snuffled my little heart out, to the bafflement of my motherm who came to see it with me.

(3) Things which I wrote

Just a few wrap up posts for 2016:

(4) A photo from the month gone by
Sunset from South Africa

(5) In the pile for January
I’ve been slowly and steadily reading my way through The Good Immigrant, which I’ve been loving, and I’m planning on finishing the last few this month. I started the year with Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind and enjoyed it immensely, so I’ll be reading it’s sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear. While I wait for that I’m reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thang Nguyen, which won the Pulitzer last year and is a spy novel about Vietnam. I’ve also picked up Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue, which is an Eygptian dystopia novel, and Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System, which is about South Africa from the 1970s to now. Coming back home, I’m going to read Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun and Emma Jones’ Following On, while my ‘Sundays’ book is going to be Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary.

the summary version of my 2016

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

Weirdly. Dickens wasn’t writing about 2016.

For much of the world, 2016 was pretty terrible and there isn’t much promise of 2017 being better. And yet, just because everything isn’t awesome I’ve been trying to remind myself that everything isn’t awful. 2016 was fast, at times it was furious and exhausting, and at others it was exhilarating and wild.

These are my highlights of my year:

  • I visited four continents – Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas (Central) – three of them for work, which is a ridiculous privilege and a huge joy. I got to meet some amazing people who are doing great work and put my world into perspective.
  • I climbed a volcano and tobogganed down it, I haggled in markets in Kathmandu and Ouagadougou, and I ate some seriously good food in Provence. I walked 25 miles around the Isle of Man on a blistering hot day in June, and climbed up and down Table Mountain in a gusting wind in December.
  • I got to work on two projects at work that really made my brain fizz, and challenged me and made me think new things and start doing bits of my life in different ways, and I’m hugely grateful to the colleagues who gave them to me in the first place and then said terribly nice things about them afterwards.
  • I was also given an interim promotion at work, which was at least as terrifying as it was exciting. There’s nothing like feeling like you’re flying by the seat of your pants to make you feel simultaneously alive and like going on holiday for a very long time. Nobody died and nobody quit, so I’m calling it coming out on the postive side of the scale.
  • I spent the summer at the Proms, on a gallery season ticket, which I’ve wanted to do for a few years now. I got adopted by a motley crew of classical music geeks, and learned that I really, really like Mahler now – and that staying up late to listen to choral plainsong is always a good idea.
  • I also watched three Chekhov plays in 12 hours and didn’t die (which is more than can be said for several significant characters in the plays). It was my first Chekhov, and I liked it a lot.
  • The year in western politics was ghastly, but at least I got to stand / sit / drink gin through them with brilliant people who are clearly going to help me stay sane through the depressing nonsense that 2017 is clearly going to bring.
  • I got voted on to the PCC at church, which doesn’t sound like a highlight I know, but I really wanted to get a little more invovled in my church community this year and this opened a door to that.
  • Lots of wonderful people came for lunches and dinners and short stays, and hung out and helped me make my crazy house into a home. And I got my garden done up so that 2017 can be the year of barbecues without falling through rotten decking…
  • I got asked to be a godmother to two of my dearest friends’ little girl. She’s spectacular, and I’m ridiculously proud to have been asked.

ILU Lists, 2016: Bookses.

Following the films list, the books list… As ever, it’s not just stuff that was published this year, it’s just the stuff that I’ve read and enjoyed. I’ve read 34 books this year, and given up on just one. There’s still nearly two weeks to go, though, so I’ll let you know what I think of Six Four, Half a Yellow Sun (I know, finally) and The Sympathiser in due course.

Fiction
* The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead
* Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien
* The Sport of Kings – C.E Morgan

These are my top three (in no particular order), and they all work whether you just want a good yarn or whether you want to dig around being a literary nerd. The Underground Railroad and Do Not Say We Have Nothing have both been solidly acclaimed, but The Sport of Kings seems to have rather faded, which I think it a shame, because it’s a humid beast of a book.

  • Girl at War – Sara Novic
  • This Census Taker – China Miéville
  • The Gift of Rain – Tan Twan Eng
  • Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood
  • Human Acts – Han Kang
  • Chaos Walking trilogy – Patrick Ness

Miéville and Atwood are long-term favourites, so it was delightful that their new books were magical (almost literally, in both cases). Hag-Seed goes well read alongside a trip to see a production of The Tempest if you can find one. I’d read Eng’s Garden of Evening Mists when it was on the Booker list, and loved it, and Gift of Rain has the same easy-to-read style combined with a depth of emotion and understanding of history and memory. Human Acts was on a lot of end of year lists, so I grabbed it and wolfed it down in a few days. It’s an intense account of a political rebellion, but so well worth it. Girl at War was one of our best book club picks this year. It’s not a flawless book, but it was so easy t read and it has so much in it that it made for a great discussion. And the Chaos Walking trilogy is just immense: I roared through it over New Year, and wished I’d had it as a teen.

Non-Fiction
* The Shepherd’s Life – James Rebanks
* Barbarian Days – William Finnegan

These two were flat out members of my top five reads this year. Both managed to convey whole ways of life that most people think they might know something about but generally only skate the surface of, and do so while using the languages of these worlds without condescending on either side of the boundary and still making sense.

I re-read these and they were still so good
* The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon
* War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
* Le Testament Français – Andrew Makine

It’s so nice to rediscover that old favourites are really as good as you remember – and to get something more out of them this time. I got so much more from Rosa’s story in Kavalier and Clay this time, a greater understanding of why the ending of Le Testament Français punches the gut the way it does, and oh, War and Peace – there was just MORE. I think I’m just going to re-read it once a decade until the end of my time. Tolstoy can make you see how people are shaped by their circumstances in to being terribly flawed people who hurt each other all the time, and yet make you love them all the same.

I read these books and they were overrated
* Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff
* Better Living Through Criticism – AO Scott

I really wanted to like both of these, but they just fell flat. Fates… didn’t rip the way I thought it could have, if it really wanted to play with the myths, and while I really enjoy Scott’s criticism, this book just felt like it didn’t really carry all his arguments through, AND I WAS ALREADY ON BOARD WITH THEM. Blart.

ILU Lists, 2016: Filums.

I saw 43 films this year (three of them twice). Thank you world of cine pass (and two airlines). The only film I might still see this year is Edge of Seventeen, if I can find the time while I’m in Cape Town. I’ll let you know if it dislodges anything on this list.

This isn’t a top ten, becuase, bwah, who wants to decide that. But it is categorised.

the ‘if you don’t like these films we can’t be friends’ films
(more accurately: the ‘if you see it, don’t like it, but don’t understand why I do, we probably shouldn’t be friends’ list)

  • Arrival – hello, have you spoken to me recently? I freaking love this film and the way it makes me think and feel.
  • The Queen of Katwe – you, guys, this film is so lovely. It was everything I wanted from a ‘young girl triumphs over the odds’ story set in one of Kampala’s slums. Did you know people could achieve things without white westerners coming to save them? Now you do. Also, you must stay for the credits.
  • Hail Caesar – the Coens made a movie about religion, politics, and entertainment, like it was just for me. Highlights include Channing Tatum tap dancing, a scene where a Priest, a Rabbi and a Vicar theologically vet a film, and the most unexpectedly moving explanation of the gospel you’ll see in a film all year.
  • Knight of Cups – I like Terrence Malick, and that is not stopping, no matter how wilfully obscurant and artsy he is determined to be. Over-privileged middle-aged white men are often terrible, and so is Christian Bale’s character in this, but Knight of Cups is one of the best depictions of limited, human, perspective, I’ve seen on film, and it’s gorgeous.

the ‘I expected to really like these, and you know what I did’ list

  • Rogue One. I was delighted by how emotionally satisfying I found it. I loved Force Awakens, but I tend to flip between favourite films when I re-watch it now. Rogue One I want to watch in its entirity.
  • High Rise. Thoroughly solid adaptation of the Ballard novel, that really got at the concentrated weirdness of living cheek-by-jowl with other people, and at the dangers of rigid stratification. With bonus added creepy songs.
  • Everyone Wants Some!!. Richard Linklater does college baseball, and unreformed 80s dudebros have never been this charming.
  • A United Kingdom. Unfussy, solidly good drama with a story to tell that told it well. In case you didn’t know, Britain’s history is often not that glorious: something that bears repeating in the Year of our Brexit: 2016.

the ‘well these were a delightful surprise for me’ films

  • Creed. I have never seen a boxing movie I enjoyed (But, I’ve never seen Raging Bull). This was heaps of fun.
  • Midnight Surprise. I was enjoying it mightily, and then it literally took my breath away at the end.
  • Love and Friendship. I am solidly pro-snappy, sarcastic, adaptations of Jane Austen.
  • Eye in the Sky. The trailer was terrible, and then it got some good reviews on my favourite film review shows, and I went. One of the most uncomfortable ‘what would you do?’ films about the “War on Terror” that exists.
  • Swallows and Amazons. Could have gone so badly wrong. Didn’t. Swallows and Amazons forever!
  • Anthropoid. I’d never heard of it until Murphy and Dornan turned up on Wittertainment to promote it, and then I thought: hey World War II drama with good people in it, let’s give it a shot. It turned out to be really really solid

the ‘films I saw on planes and wish I’d seen in cinemas’ films

  • Sing Street
  • Hunt for the Wilderpeople
  • Kubo and the Two Strings.

All of these films gave me Altitude Adjusted Lacrimosity Syndrome. I endorse them heartily. I recommend not watching them on an aeroplane.

the ‘films I was disappointed by’ films

  • Captain America: Civil War. It was just fine. Except it wasn’t really a Captain America film, and it didn’t do its ideas justice. Steve is wrong, fyi, until he’s right about Bucky. Tony is right, but does the things in all the wrong ways, until he’s wrong, and carries on being wrong in all the wrong ways. Also, I’m still laughing at the idea that the UN could produce a treaty THAT fast THAT secretly.
  • Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. It was moderate. Magical New York was lovely to see, as long as you didn’t look at it too hard because once you do it’s all going to fall down. I’m officially bored of Eddie Redmayne, but there was Colin Farrell in a suuuuuuper swish suit so that was fine. Until it wasn’t. If you’ve seen it you know what I mean.