The books, music, films, places and people that made my year better.
The Muse by Jessie Burton:
I loved The Miniaturist but I think I might marginally prefer The Muse, which somehow manages to create an even deeper sense of mystery than its predecessor. Burton always manages to evoke so perfectly places and eras that are worlds away; in this novel the narrative moves from 1960s London to 1930s Spain and back again and it does so so convincingly that after reading it, I felt like I had jetted to Spain and recently visited the Skelton Gallery, spotting Peggy Guggenheim as I went. The story revolves around four women; in London, Trinidadian Odelle Bastien, a writer who works at the art gallery as a typist and her enigmatic superior, Marjorie Quick and in Spain, Olive Schloss, the daughter of two absentee parents and a secretive painter and Teresa Robles, a sixteen year old for whom just surviving was enough before Olive arrived in her life. The novel is really a story about art; what makes us do it, what makes it good and how it changes lives, a preoccupation that Burton herself has struggled with after the super success of her first novel. It also asks the question: is it worth sacrificing life and love for art? I can’t wait to see what Burton does next; she says she writes like a ‘Sister Grimm’ and the fairytale-esque quality, near magic realism of her work is entrancing.
Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky:
After reading about this book on Brainpickings, I just had to buy it when I found it in the most unusual of places even though I did get a strange look from a friend. Rachel Ignotofsky has compiled the stories of fifty women who have changed the world through their research, many of which have been previously ignored. Ranging from Hypatia to Rachel Carson to Maryam Mirzakhani, the book introduced me to Lise Meitner, who discovered nuclear fission – the 1944 Nobel Prize was awarded to Otto Hahn who she had worked with – as well as Alice Ball, who helped to cure leprosy and Mamie Phipps Clark whose research helped to end segregation in schools. Of Barbara McClintock she writes “Nothing says trouble like a woman in pants. That was the attitude in the 1930s, anyway; when Barbara McClintock wore slacks at the University of Missouri, it was considered scandalous. Even worse, she was feisty, direct, incredibly smart, and twice as sharp as most of her male colleagues.” Whatever age you are, this book is important and impressive. And I would buy it for every little girl I know, because it teaches that even if you’ve never known anyone who became an astronomer or engineer or mathematician, you could still become one. If you don’t buy the book because of this, I dare you to resist Ignotofsky’s beautiful illustrations.
I went to Hay-on-Wye:
I’ve actually never been to the Hay-On-Wye Literature Festival although it’s high on my list. But I have spent weeks in the little Town of Books, hours in the Poetry Bookshop and Richard Booth Bookshop, minutes eating Shepherds Ice Cream. So many people come from so far to visit Hay-On-Wye which makes it a bustling, unusual mix of Welsh and everyone else. In the neighbouring town of Crickhowell there’s one of the most amazing, tiny bookshops I have ever had the pleasure of visiting (and Jessie Burton has too!) called Book-ish. There’s a sign outside which, when I was there, described a towering pile of unread books in Japanese: tsundoku, a word I need in my vocabulary. And inside there are gems just like Ignotofsky’s book. Just outside nearby Abergavenny there’s even a vineyard called Sugar Loaf Vineyards which sits at the bottom of a mountain. When climbing that, I met a young woman who was hiking with a baby strapped to her which I thought was incredible. There is such beautiful countryside in the area – which even the rain can’t detract from – and it’s nice to get lost (literally) in the clouds, looking down on wild horses.
I read Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Certainty and Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien:
Photo credit: Romanian publisher, Humanitas.
My review of Do Not Say will be on the Oxford Culture Review website soon, but suffice to say it went straight on to my list of favourite books. Thien is a stunning writer and as soon as I’d finished Do Not Say, I went back to her previous two novels. Thien’s novels might be classified as historical fiction, for they take events such as the Tianenmen Square demonstrations or Year Zero or the impact of the Second World War on Malaysia and turn them into narratives, yet this is no ordinary historical fiction. There are no reams of dates or detailed accounts of what happened. The stories are no less believable but more so. We get the sense, in all of these novels, that history is not merely dates or day-to-day occurrences. It is personal memory, it is the individual trying to make sense of overwhelming, inescapable history. The same themes that are beautifully realised in Do Not Say crop up again and again in Thien’s early work: her obsession with how histories are written and compiled, with how memory is recorded through fiction, with how loss is borne emerge most powerfully in her last work, but in these early works they are still poignant, memorable. In Dogs at the Perimeter, Janie remembers the Communists seizing Phnom Penh when she was just a child and the events that murdered her father, drove her mother mad and turned her brother, as an eight year old boy, into an interrogator and torturer. She remembers losing her brother to the sea. It is a story that seemed all too relevant in 2016. Cambodia in the grip of Khmer Rouge seemed just a moment away as I read, just as it invades the life Janie has built for herself in Canada.
I finally read the last book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that I’d somehow missed before, which was really her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus:
This coming-of-age story, although it may appear so, is no less ambitious than Ngozi Adichie’s later projects – as the voice of fifteen year old protagonist who lives under the tyrannical rule of her abusive father is always believable. Confronted with a different type of life, one that involves love and laughter and learning, Kambili – and her family dynamic – changes radically.
I watched Moana:
Moana is evidence that Disney are headed in the right direction. Initially there were fears that the film would misrepresent or even exploit Polynesian culture but these fears now seem unfounded. In Buzzfeed’s ‘We Asked Polynesian People What They Thought of Moana’ (https://www.buzzfeed.com/willvarner/we-asked-polynesian-people-what-they-thought-of-disneys-moan) one person commented ‘this is a rare movie because its putting Polynesians front and center and giving Polynesian children a movie that they can see themselves in. That alone is priceless’. Moana is not the typical Disney ‘princess’ (though she may have the animal sidekick or two) with a wasp waist or tiny tapering legs. Caroline Siede in her excellent article on Quartz (https://qz.com/858911/moana-is-the-first-disney-princess-to-show-that-leaders-dont-have-to-fight-to-be-strong/) points out how important it is that Moana isn’t seen fighting. Her strength doesn’t derive from her knowledge of kung fu. Her strength comes from her sense of responsibility towards her people and as Siede says ‘her greatest assets are traits we generally associate with women; empathy, humility and a keen sense of observation’. It is empathy, humility and observation which allow Moana ultimately to save her people, as she convinces Maui through realising his deepest fear and realises Te Ka is no other than Te Fiti. Moana also fails, but she tries again. It’s been shown that its hugely important for girls to know that its ok to fail, as girls more than boys see failure as a sign they lack ability rather than due to circumstances. Moana’s a new kind of leader, one that seems so much more modern. The Lin Manuel Miranda soundtrack is incredible – he’s done the unachievable and proven that a singing crab always improves a film (played by the incomparable Clements) – and the film as a whole is more visually striking than any previously made, perhaps because of the need to show the beauty of Polynesia itself, with shots of Moana alone on the sea under the night sky and birds eye views of Te Fiti. And newcomer Auli’i Cravalho deserves all the accolades she can get, providing the voice for the heroine. I think it will be hard for future films to live up to the promise of Moana, but there is always the hope that they will. Disney might yet again surprise us.
I went to The Royal Academy Summer Show:
The RA Summer Show is always a mixed bag but I did think this was a particularly great year! I saw beautiful work by the likes of Jane Harris and Gillian Ayres and the photography section was stunning. What I love about the Royal Academy is how it caters to all ages, with student guides and children sitting on the floor drawing. It manages to draw in people of all ages, people who might not even really consider themselves great ‘art-lovers’ because of the summery, festive, new feeling it manages to sustain year after year.
I discovered Croatia:
Although my friend got stung by a sea urchin, which meant we had to also discover Croatia’s A&E, we swam in the clearest, turquoise waters off the island of Lokrum, ate delicious seafood and kayaked around an island at sunset (which we were infamously bad at and got left so far behind our group that they nearly sent out a search party, thinking they’d somehow lost some tourists to the calmest sea; really we were still being cheered on by some people on the shore which did make us feel a bit better about our appalling fitness levels). We stayed in Zaton Mali, which was equally calm and quiet – even if we at first arrived in Zaton which, it turns out, is a different place and meant we were left stranded on the side of a motorway in the burning heat. Despite our misadventures, I loved discovering Dubrovnik, especially the Old Town, the amazing weather and the many beaches. The prices and public transport didn’t hurt too.
I completed my first year at college and began a second:
I recommend Bleak House because, despite what they say, Esther is the most far from boring character I have ever encountered – in my effort to convert as many people as I know to this worldview I have bought the very same novel for my mum for Christmas. I would recommend Charlotte Bronte’s Villette because its widely regarded as better than Jane Eyre and yet no-ones ever heard of it. It’s about surviving depression and alienation and female autonomy. I would recommend Gerard Manley Hopkins because he writes the most beautiful poetry I have ever read – and if you have freckles you’ll particularly appreciate him. I recommend Thomas Hardy because he created the indefatigable Bathsheba Everdene and Tess of the D’Urbervilles and beautiful prose: ‘Minute diamonds of moisture from the mist hung, too, upon Tess’s eyelashes, and drops upon her hair, like seed pearls’. Dracula is one of the most captivating novels I have ever read.
This year I’ve passed an exam in Old English (I wrote about Beowulf and monsters), written essays on Plath and the Cold War – and my friend and I ranted about Adlai Stevenson’s injunction to her college about their responsibility to bear children – and learnt about T. S. Eliot and dance (who knew?). Last term, I even wrote an essay on The Faerie Queene. Although The Faerie Queene might be (very) long and have so many characters that its hard to keep track of them, characters like Britomart, a girl who pretends to be a knight to track down the guy she’s fated to marry and Duessa, a witch who disguises herself as a princess, makes it all worth it.
Next year I’m looking forward to:
Reading Olia Hercules Mamushka and Mina Hollands Mamma: Reflections On The Food That Makes Us:
Two of my favourite chefs are both publishing books soon. Hercules has compiled a collection of Ukrainian recipes, whilst Holland – after the success of The Edible Atlas – has interviewed many, many famous food writers on the recipes passed down to them.
Photo credit: Olia Hercules
Watching Hidden Figures:
Image via Fox 2000
This image perfectly encapsulates how I reacted when I watched the Hidden Figures trailer. February cannot come soon enough.
Going to my mum’s exhibition at Turps Gallery:
In Conversation, Roisin Fogarty and Suzy Willey.
You can find out more about the exhibition here: https://www.facebook.com/Turps-Banana-187758767910932/
Learning about Latin America. Seeing Daniel Radcliffe in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Reading The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich. This year holds so many opportunities that I cannot wait to take full advantage of.