Tuesday, November 25, 2014

this week #6

So it's been a while since I did one of these posts. I'd like to be one of those bloggers that post regularly. Something about regularity feels comforting. But, I'm not that person. I get distracted by reading book after book and scratching down sentences and paragraphs of my own; and by copying snippets of interesting conversation I overhear into my composition book and taking screenshots of things that feel important, until I come across them days later and wonder why I felt that way. 

I get distracted sucking squares of dark chocolate until they melt into nothingness and all I'm left with is the slightly bitter taste on my tongue. I get distracted drinking tea, mixing my Sencha with my Irish Breakfast and my Marrakech with my China Jasmine and it's perfect. I get distracted by the afternoon sunshine streaming through my window, and I close my eyes enjoying the light and the warmth.

Apart from the distraction, I get so hung up about posting something 'good' that I don't post anything. And then, inevitably, when I don't post I get anxious about not posting. It's a vicious circle. And a strange one at that. 

Here are a few things from this week. And maybe one or two from the week before.

The Electronic Encyclopedia of Experimental Literature is exactly what is sounds like - you'll get lost, but it'll be that good kind of lost, where you aren't worried you're just soaking up the experience, watching the sky change colour and the hours move and feeling like you're in the right spot. Finally.  

The Art of Plating: Food as something more than just nourishment, more than just sugars and carbohydrates and fats and sodium. It's kind of beautiful, no?

The case for finishing every book you start. - Still debating the merits of this theory with myself. Do I have to, really? Every single book? I'm not convinced. 

Sometimes you travel for the experiences, the sights and smells, the people whose stories you discover, other times you travel for the artisan cheese: the men you meet on a cross country road trip.

kb xx

Sunday, November 16, 2014

reading: a girl is a half-formed thing

I think I vaguely knew this book existed, that it was out in the world. But when I saw it at the library the speed at which I snatched it from the shelf perhaps indicated that my vagueness masked something a little stronger. And when I put it down three days ago I felt full with something that I could not yet articulate. 

You know those puzzles you often see online, the ones that appear to be a jumble of letters, nothing quite making sense. But somehow you can decipher the message, something to do with the first and last letter being in the right spot allows your brain to reorganise the letters within each word until you see the message. Until you can read it as clearly as if it were never jumbled in the first place. Over the last few days, as I've let this story wash over me I've thought more and more about those puzzles, about our ability to find what is clear beneath what is not. 

Eimear McBride writes in a stream of consciousness style, but there is nothing smooth here. Her words are sharp, jagged even, torn and rough and sometimes difficult to read - difficult because of both the style and the subject matter. 

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a story about family, about faith, about death, about desperation. It follows the narrator, an Irish girl, from about the age of two as she grapples with the world. With a pious mother, an older brother living with a brain tumour, an absent father, a sexually abusive uncle who rapes her at thirteen - a trail of destructive relationships that leads to an ending not wholly unexpected. 

We follow her as she grows out of her small country hometown, as she moves to the city and starts college, as she follows this path of using sex as a salve for a wound that gapes at the edges. As she continues to engage in a toxic, abusive relationship with her uncle that becomes increasingly violent. As her brothers brain tumour returns and she watches him die. She is falling apart, piece by piece, from the very first pages. Her destruction catalogued across a landscape whose brutality matches her existence, in a family who is saved only from complete failure by the relationship of the girl and her brother - the you in the story. 

No characters are named, descriptions are painted in broad strokes and sometimes not at all. The staccato language, the unformed thoughts, the lingering feeling of reading one of those puzzles, the ones with the jumbled letters, and yet as I turned page after page I understood this story. I grasped these characters, I began to see what was clear underneath what was not. 

There is something about this story. I'm not sure if it's the style, the characters, the ending I had almost hoped for but that still hurt. I don't know, but when I turned that last page and realised that was it, it was a sharp hit to the gut. There wasn't anything else. 

It's taken me a couple of days to sit down and write this and I've barely read anything since I put this book down. Maybe I needed the time to process it, needed the time to get what was in my head and put it into words. And even now I don't feel like I'm doing this story justice. I don't feel like I'm getting this down right. 

Eimear McBride is an Irish author and A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is her debut novel. It took six months to write and nine years to publish. Let that wash over you. It has been almost universally praised, an instant classic. A work of genius and just damn good storytelling. Something that works at you until it gets under your skin and you find yourself wanting to reach into the pages and grab the hand of the narrator and hold onto her tight. 

But something else about this story, apart from the Irish girl at its heart, has grabbed me, has allowed me an insight into my own work that feels overwhelming. McBride's story helped me realise my reluctance to paint my own characters in minute detail, my own preference for broad strokes. It helped me to understand why I place thoughts and feelings above specifics and why sometimes that is not just a way to write, it's the only way. 

Some stories are better when you have to fight for what is underneath, when you have to do some of the work of clearing the dust and dirt and rubble of words to decipher the message. And when you let that message settle into every corner of your mind, when you wait until it bubbles to the surface, maybe that's when you get to be a part of the story, even if only in the smallest way. 

This is not an easy read. But then, why should it be? What it is, is a book worth your time. A story worth working for. The narrator is a character worth knowing, worth remembering. Eimear McBride is an author worth the praise. 

kb xx

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

your imagination is running wild

I have a confession to make. I'm a little obsessed with horoscopes. Just not in the way you're probably thinking. I don't live my life by them. I don't believe the people that write them possess some bizarre ability to predict your future based on what time of the year you were born. I don't believe that specific star signs share characters traits and that Mercury being in retrograde is a real thing. Actually I don't even know what Mercury being in retrograde means.

I love horoscopes because they are like crazy off-kilter versions of micro fiction with the potential for so much more. Each one, even if it's only a few sentences, feels like a tiny narrative. A real live story, with this big crazy back story that - and this is the best part - you can interpret any way you like! Everything is so general and open-ended, it could mean absolutely anything and still make sense. So, I've started working on this little project, where I take horoscopes from where I can find them, pull one line and create a little flash fiction around it. It's a fun, entertaining pastime that fills in the hours between Serial podcasts and re-readings of The Secret Garden. 

And I thought I might start sharing them with you here. 

Hope you like!

kb xx

Your fantasy world is piqued today, Aries. Your imagination is running wild. Maintain a certain amount of control over your emotions or they may get the better of you. You could find yourself in a cloud of confusion by afternoon. Avoid this by making an effort to ground yourself throughout the day. Make sure your actions result from an equal balance between thought and emotion.

My imagination is running wild. I’m sitting in a busy cafe, my tea going cold, waiting for her to show up. I check my watch, twenty minutes late. I check my phone, my Twitter, my Facebook, my Instagram - no message. I imagine a train wreck, she was catching the train in right? Or was she driving, in that case an accident. I check the local news sites, scrolling through breaking news - nothing.

The waiter approaches, the cafe is full, he probably wants my table. He smiles, but I can see the pity under his full lips and perfectly white teeth. I wonder if he is an actor, they look like actor teeth.

‘Can I get you anything else?’ he asks.

The underlying message is palpable, can you please leave, I have customers who will take up both seats and order more than a cup of tea.

I shake my head, no.

‘Just the bill please,’ I say.

Relief floods his face and another pity smile forms on his full lips.

I reach into the pocket of my jacket and pull out some coins. How much can this cup of tea be?

The waiter with the lips and the teeth returns. He places the bill on the table and smiles again. More pity.

Five dollars for a cup of tea. I shake my head. I place the coins on the bill and begin gathering my things. I shrug into my jacket and gulp the last of my now cold tea. For five dollars I won’t leave any behind.

I feel my phone buzz in my pocket: it’s her.

'On my way!! Sorry!!!! Please wait!!'

Too late. She’s always too late.

I walk out of the cafe into the street. If she’s walking she’ll be coming from the left. I go right. My imagination is silent now. I should have known. You can’t trust someone who uses that many exclamation marks.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

this week #5

Listening: Serial podcast

Yeah, I know. Me and everyone else who is aware that podcasts exist. I'm normally adverse to the zeitgeist, not a fan of bandwagons etc. But I love This American Life and many of the names involved in Serial are formally or currently involved with This American Life, so I figured Serial would be on par. And I'm kind of hooked. I stay up late Thursday nights waiting for the new episode to appear and will either download and listen right away or download to listen to first thing on a Friday. 

Something about the way the story is unfolding, something about the uncertainty, the way nothing in this narrative seems concrete. And perhaps there is some voyeuristic thing happening, too. The way the story is unfolding feels like we are participating in it, in Serial's investigation of it I mean. We are listening and digesting all this information and forming our own conclusions and opinions. Maybe that's the pull, we as the audience are not passive, we are active? I'm not sure, but it's damn good radio. 

Check it out here, but please start at episode one. It's really the only way to listen. And, you're welcome. 

Reading: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale in 1985. I wasn't born in 1985, didn't make it into the world until 1986 for reference, make of that what you will. It has taken me until now to read this dystopian speculative fiction classic and I devoured it in a few days. Atwood has a way with words that I thoroughly appreciate and this story of a society overtaken by religious extremists, a society where women are stripped of just about every right they have and relegated to subservient roles: wives and daughters, marthas (cooks and cleaners) and handmaids (concubines, basically, walking wombs) is told from the point of view of Offred, one of the first generation of handmaids, a women who can still remember her previous life; a life with a husband and a daughter who are long lost to her. 

Offred lives with the Commander and his wide Serena Joy, an elite couple who are unable to conceive. Enter Offred, who acts as their walking talking womb. Every month the Commander has sex with Offred during 'the ceremony', an occasion Serena Joy is present for. However, soon the Commander begins a strangely ambiguous relationship with Offred outside 'the ceremony', something that is expressly forbidden. And things kind of unravel from there. 

There are a few themes running through this book, notably the importance of language and the complexities of oppression, but the most significant is the subjugation of women. In fact, worse, the politicising of women's bodies, reducing women to merely modes for reproduction. Ugh. Sometimes as I was reading this I would get so angry, so annoyed, despite being fully aware it was a work of fiction. But then, there is always some element of truth in every story. 

Look, the end point is, this is a really great read. So if you haven't already, read it. 

Watching: Not much, but there is this...

True be told, the only thing I've been watching this week is more episodes of Twin Peaks. But there is something else that happened this week I feel is worth mentioning, especially in light of the fact that I wrote so generously about it here. 

This past week I booked my flights to London. I officially have a seat on an airplane that is flying to London next April and I hope you'll excuse the plethora of feelings I have about this. Feelings that will no doubt manifest themselves on here. For the moment, it's a curious mix of excitement and fear. I say curious because those two words seem odd together - at least to me they do. How can there be fear in excitement? And how can there be excitement in fear? I'm not sure. And maybe what I'm feeling isn't either of those things exactly, but something that can only be described in a way that conveys some meaning by those two words. We'll see what other words rise to the surface over the next few months. 

kb xx