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Archive for August 2014

Reading things in places

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The book: The Charioteer, Mary Renault 

The place: Snowdonia

A weekend of camping in Snowdonia: pitching tents in horizontal rain in the dark; climbing a mountain in mist and hail, only to have the clouds lift dramatically when we were on the top to expose the view; marshmallows over a campfire and one of my fellow campers nearly setting me on fire; magnificent Welsh breakfasts; and the new-to-me game of ‘Horse’, which greatly enlivened the multiple-hour trip back to London.

So very little reading done on the weekend itself, but on the journey down from Glasgow I found myself rather grateful for the parts of the trip where I was wedged into train corridors while festooned with camping equipment, as that meant I couldn’t legitimately work and could therefore do nothing but read. The Charioteer has thus gone straight to my top five books I’ve read so far in 2014. Antonia Forest references Mary Renault in one of her books, and I can see a certain similarity in their writing: the precision of their writing, and their incisive take on human nature. I want to read everything else Mary Renault has read now, and am very pleased that they’ve all (? – I think) just come out in ebook form.



(Wrong country, chaps.)


P1080275 copy

The book: Little Failure, Gary Shteyngart

The place: London

Note my gigantic pile of mud-smeared camping equipment, comprehensively lowering the tone of the rather fancy hotel where I was staying.

A generally Russian-themed time in London, as Emma and I also took in the magnificent Malevich exhibit at the Tate Modern. I know vanishingly little about art, and am not even sure what I like half the time, but I do love Malevich, as indeed I love pretty much every cultural product to have come out of Russia in the twentieth century.

(I haven’t finished the Shteyngart yet, but I am getting on with it rather better than I did with his fiction. His violently acerbic brand of humour works better, in my view, when it’s self-directed.)


The book: Memory, Lois McMaster Bujold

The place: en route to South Wales 

Me: “I was rereading Memory a while ago, I don’t know why…”

Emma: “Probably because everyone should reread all the Vorkosigan books every year, because they’re the best books ever, and why should anyone deny themselves as much Cordelia Vorkosigan as possible?”

She has a point. The Vorkosigan books are becoming some of my favourite comfort rereads, up there with Antonia Forest and Marian Keyes. A Civil Campaign is probably my favourite, or Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance (Ivan!), but Memory was the only book I had on my Kindle, and so Memory it was. I may plough through the whole series again soon, as I haven’t done so since Guinea Bissau in February 2012.


Written by Jess

August 29, 2014 at 6:45 pm

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Less than a month to go until the vote on Scottish independence.


Although I am nominally resident in Scotland (sufficiently resident to vote in the referendum, in fact), in reality I am here so rarely that my only real understanding of the independence debate is in snapshots. Six months ago I would have spoken smugly about how measured and reasonable the debate was; now, things have taken on much more of an edge. A friend told me the other day that this is the first time that he has ever felt like he wasn’t comfortable sharing his likely voting choice with other friends, for fear of how they would react. What makes me uncomfortable is the widespread conflation of what is essentially a constitutional issue with a party political one. It is natural, of course, to link unionism with the party that happens to be in power in Westminster, and independence with the party that happens to be in power in Holyrood, but I have to keep reminding myself that that’s not actually what it’s about.


Nathan Coley, The Lamp of Sacrifice

In 2011 South Sudan had its own independence referendum, the results of which were more or less a foregone conclusion, ever since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in January 2005. South Sudan voted for independence – as I recall, the state with the lowest percentage of independence votes still polled something like 98% in favour – and has just passed its three-year anniversary as the world’s 193rd country (UN count). Obviously things aren’t looking so great in South Sudan at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that independence was a mistake for them. It just means that becoming your own country is – in all sorts of ways – bloody hard work.

It’s hard to talk about Scottish independence in Africa – or at least the bits of Africa I spend the most time in. When I tell South Sudanese or Somali friends that my adopted country is having an independence referendum soon, their response is overwhelmingly positive. “Get rid of them!” one of my Somali colleagues urged me the other day; I didn’t bother trying to explain to him that I am actually one of the Them that is perhaps being got rid of. That isn’t the way I feel, most of the time, as an English person living in Scotland, though perhaps I would feel differently if I lived somewhere other than Glasgow (or Edinburgh). But it is hard to explain the nuances of the Scottish independence movement to someone whose primarily model for independence struggles is one that involves mass murder and repression. This is not to minimise the debate in favour of Scottish independence – there are very strong arguments to be made that only an independent Scotland can fix the country’s myriad problems. But one of those myriad problems is not English people flying Antonovs over the border and dropping bombs on Cumbernauld.

I don’t know how I will vote, still. I’ve been through periods of being definitely yes, and periods of being definitely no, and periods (like now) of being definitely ambivalent. My feeling is that independence would be better for Scotland and worse for the UK, and so the question remains where my loyalty lies.

Written by Jess

August 21, 2014 at 6:56 pm

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Reading ‘Living With a Wild God’ in Mogadishu

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The book: Living With a Wild God: An Unbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything, Barbara Ehrenreich 

The place: Mogadishu (still) 

The only Ehrenreich I have hitherto read is Nickel and Dimed, but I’m extremely glad I picked this up when it was on Amazon for cheap the other day. Ehrenreich says in the acknowledgements that the book was originally intended to be a history of religion, until her agent persuaded her to turn it into a personal narrative, and effectively what the book is about (so far – I’ve yet to finish it) is how non-believers can fit the numinous into their world views.  Ehrenreich speaks candidly about her own mystical experiences (or dissociation) throughout her teenage years, and how they affected her, as an avowed atheist by upbringing; while I can’t say I entirely relate to the intensity of Ehrenreich’s struggle with the transcendental, elements of the book ring very true: “This was the function of religion, in fact -” Ehrenreich says, “to serve as a safe storage place for the unaccountable and uncanny.”

Ehrenreich writes with elegance and humour and passionate interest in all aspects of life and knowledge and humanity. She is the sort of writer I would like to go for a beer with. Something that has struck me throughout the book, however, is quite how preternaturally intellectually sophisticated Ehrenreich’s adolescent self seems to have been. She certainly knocks my own pretentious, pseudo-intellectual teenage self into a cocked hat; while I was dipping my toe into Camus flipping through Nietzsche in bookstores and writing impassioned, ill-thought-out faux-philosophical treatises in my journal, Teen Ehrenreich was grappling with quantum physics and reading Proust and having a proper, grown-up existential crisis. I like to believe that Ehrenreich has at least proofread the excerpts of her teenage journals that she includes in the book; at the very least, Teen Ehrenreich must have misspelled the occasional word, surely? (Speaking as someone who could not reliably spell ‘privilege’ until her early twenties.)

Written by Jess

August 12, 2014 at 2:08 pm

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Reading ‘Our Lady of the Streets’ in Mogadishu

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The book: Our Lady of the Streets, Tom Pollock

The place: Mogadishu

2014 is bringing three trilogies that I love to a conclusion – the first was Hannu Rajaniemi’s Jean le Flambeur series; the third is Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy (the third book of which, The Magician’s Land, came out in hardcover in the UK three days ago, but is not yet in ebook form, meaning that I shall have to actually wait until I am in the UK to get my hands on it; my life is terribly hard) – and the second is this. I bought the first book of the trilogy, The City’s Son, on a whim just before taking an overnight flight from New York to London, and read it in pretty much a single sitting; the second book, The Glass Republic, came out in August last year, and I read it while besieged by unrest in downtown Cairo – and then the third one appeared on my Kindle a day or two ago. As if by magic.

I spent a significant amount of my childhood (and, if I’m honest, a not insignificant amount of my adulthood) keeping an eye out for some sort of gateway into an alternate version of reality – you know, just in case – and so I’ve read a number of books set in some form of alternate London: Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun. It seems to be a city particularly prone to being reimagined in this way, but probably I’m just more aware of books set in an alternate London because I’m more aware of London, full-stop. (There’s also Ekaterina Sedia’s Secret History of Moscow, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s books about an alternate Barcelona – but I can’t think of any examples for, say, Paris, or any large North American cities.) I loved Neverwhere and liked Un Lun Dun, but Pollock’s alternate London is definitely my favourite, and the one closest to my own understanding of the city: filthy and dangerous and vulgar and gritty and utterly unmistakeable. Pollock’s books are, technically, young adult books, but there’s no lack of complexity as a result of that (take that, Slate) – Pollock treats his young readers (and his adult ones) as if they’re as capable of nuance and subtlety as his teenage characters. And perhaps my favourite thing about the books: two young, female protagonists, who are as tough and capable as any man, and whose friendship is at the very centre of the story – more important than either of their romantic entanglements, or even their families. This foregrounding of female friendships is much too rare, even among female writers; it’s very impressive coming from a male writer. Tom Pollock, I salute you.

(There’s a lot more that I could say about these books, but that’d risk entering spoiler territory. Read them for yourselves.)

Written by Jess

August 8, 2014 at 9:15 am

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