So, after getting all smug about nailing my Goodreads reading challenge for the year (because, apparently, I now live a lifestyle where 30 books in a year genuinely is a challenge), this month my reading all but slowed to a halt.
At least, my quantifiable reading.
Part of the reason for it was that, just as I was about to set off on my holidays, the new Jennifer Egan novel silently slipped into my Kindle. Manhattan Beach is nothing like Egan’s previous novel. It’s quiet, deliberate; a slow burner I feel I’m yet to get to the heart of, despite its delicious prose. A Visit From The Goon Squad is one of my all-time favourite books, a huge, fizzing, technicolour epic full of structural indulgences and giddy, glittering prose. Manhattan Beach is nothing like that: it’s a fairly conventional WWII-era novel; about a young woman who becomes a diver despite institutional resistance, and her disabled sister and her missing father and the mobster that they met on Manhattan Beach all those years ago. I’m savouring it, a chapter or so a night, in between bites of the new Joni Mitchell biography I got at a launch event with the author in Toronto.
Reading Jennifer Egan’s ‘Manhattan Beach’ in public may not be the best idea for a father who hasn’t seen his 2 year-old daughter in over three weeks but here we are, crying in an airport
— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) November 15, 2017
My house is full of books. My Kindle, my bedside table… the drawer under my bed (oh, yeah, that too: those are the ones I brought from the flat, back when I still thought keeping things neat was an obtainable goal). I’ve tried to instigate no-buying rules, at least until I make a dent, but I’ve never been good with taking orders. Or not spending money. Is there a measure of mortality more potent than the knowledge you will die before you read all the books that you want to?
I like the Goodreads challenge because it reminds me, in those quiet moments, that I’ve forgotten that getting lost in worlds made of other people’s words is my absolute favourite thing to do. But, once I’ve remembered, there’s no need to rush it.
The Good Place, season 1 (Netflix): It took me a couple of episodes before I realised that The Good Place was the latest comedy by Michael Schur, co-creator of my beloved Parks and Recreation – making its adventures in the afterlife the ideal, bite-size comic fodder for lying in a hotel bed in Toronto drowsily adjusting to the time difference to. Who needs dinner? Of course, that clever and talented professional storytelling husband of mine had nailed the first season plot twist by about 10 minutes in – but who cares when a show, and its always delightful lead Kristin Bell, is this much fun? ****
Wonderfalls: The best I-knew-him-before-he-got-famous show from Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, Hannibal) and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. Wonderfalls centres on 20-something underemployed gift shop sales clerk Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas, also of Hannibal) who, one day, begins receiving cryptic messages/instructions from various animal-shaped objects/signs/knick knacks. Wonderfalls was cancelled after just four episodes, but unlike almost every other TV show that outstays its welcome or loses a little of the original magic, its 13 episode arc is a perfectly-pitched story with an ending that gives me the warm fuzzies every time.
I like to re-watch Wonderfalls every couple of years, so I timed it to coincide with my trip to Canada (even though, technically, it’s set on the US side of the Falls…). This was the first time I’d noticed the really bizarre biphobic subplot though, maybe because I’d just put the finishing touches to my essay for Monstrous Regiment‘s The Bi-ble (coming soon!) around the same time. Y must all my faves be problematic. *****
Lion (2016): In which my mum and I finally get around to watching the DVD I bought her for Mother’s Day… not long after it becomes impossible to see a Weinstein Company logo without cringing. Lion is based on a true story: that of Saroo Brierley, an Indian-born Australian, and his search for his birth family. This film was beautifully done, quietly dramatic and packed a huge emotional punch, with Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) as Saroo particularly excellent. Definitely one to watch with your mum. ****
Alexandra Kleeman – You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (2015): September’s Reading in Heels pick was another slightly odd, post-postmodern one, about identity and obsession and consumerism and woman’s search for meaning. A young woman known only as A lives with a roommate, B, who is increasingly attempting to turn herself into a twin of A – so what does that mean for A’s relationship with her boyfriend, C? And if you think that’s dark, you should hang on until the second half of the book. I got definite echoes of David Foster Wallace in this, thanks to Kleeman’s vivid descriptions of disturbing advertising campaigns and warped reality TV experiments, and if I’m not convinced I liked it all it doesn’t mean it wasn’t brilliantly done. ***
Denise Mina – The Long Drop (2017): Based on contemporaneous press reports and court transcripts, Denise Mina’s McIlvanney Prize-winning novel is a vivid, compelling and disturbing fictionalisation of the events leading up to the trial of 1958 trial of Glasgow serial killer Peter Manuel, one of the last men to be hanged at Barlinnie Prison. Mina skilfully gets into the heads of William Watt, her protagonist of sorts, who she portrays as a kind of Scottish version of Martin Freeman’s character in the first season of Fargo, as well as Manuel; but it’s the way that her book brings 1950s Glasgow to life that elevates it to genius. ****
A lot of Tom Petty, for obvious reasons. The singles, of course, but it was Full Moon Fever – Petty’s 1989 “solo” debut – that was the one I kept returning to on Spotify, and the one I bought my own copy of in Toronto’s Sonic Boom Records.
Also, Patterson Hood from the Drive-By Truckers’ tribute to Petty for The Bitter Southerner is the only one you need to read.
This month I also really got into Jessica Lea Mayfield‘s melodic, uncomfortable “divorce album” Sorry Is Gone, and St Vincent‘s warped and wonderful MASSEDUCTION.
Should we really let them in on the beds? Chain ’em to a little house outside.)
I absolutely adore the I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats podcast, in which Joseph Fink of Welcome to Night Vale interviews his favourite artist and mine John Darnielle about the making of All Hail West Texas, track by track. West Texas is actually my favourite Mountain Goats album, which makes it even more special as, every episode, a different artist comes on to talk about the track that they love and perform a special cover, all of which will be available to purchase as a tribute album once the series is done. I mean, episode one was Laura Jane Grace, for crying out loud!
Episode 3, in which London-by-way-of-Nigeria electronic band Ibibio Sound Machine absolutely smash “Colour in Your Cheeks” as an anthem of hope amidst the refugee crisis was particularly special, but I can’t wait to see how the rest of the series unfolds.
David Yaffe: Reckless Daughter book launch @ Hugh’s Room Live, Toronto, 12th October: There was something pretty special about attending the launch event for a new, in-depth biography of Joni Mitchell mere streets away from where she got her start performing and David Yaffe – who joined in on piano during Mia Heard and Joel Schwartz’s tribute set, after a reading and interview – was a really engaging speaker whose love for his subject was obvious and touching. I’m reserving judgement on the book until I’ve finished it, but as launch events go this was pretty much perfect – even if the jet lag took me home before the music really got started.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit @ O2 Academy, Glasgow, 26th October: My long-time fave and his band now have the sound, and the confidence, of a huge, arena-filling rock band and I am 100% here for it, especially when it includes a Tom Petty cover and a really beautiful extended jam session during “Last of My Kind”. Also, I keep singing the lyric as “you’re a white man living in a pantsuit nation” – but I feel as though he would appreciate it.
- The speculum finally gets a modern redesign (Wired)
- “That’s another great thing about getting older. Your life is written on your face.” Wonderful profile of/interview with Frances McDormand (New York Times Magazine)
- What I don’t tell my students about The Husband Stitch (Electric Literature)
- To complain is to truly be alive (New York Times Sunday Review)
- The strange philosophy of Percy Pig: the children’s sweet that wants to be eaten (Prospect Magazine)
- Linkin Park’s Carpool Karaoke episode, filmed just days before Chester Bennington’s death, will make you weep with joy.
- the first Scottish Bloggers’ Collective event in Glasgow: learning about working with brands, finally meeting Lauren from Wave PR after years of email chat – and getting inspired to make a media pack! Available on request…
- rosemary and garlic “smash fries” at Glasgow’s new Smashburger;
- FRANK TURNER GOT A KITTEN and also made a new song;
- Equi’s salted caramel apple ice cream, and cookie dough muffins from Snuggle Muffin‘s new Buchanan Galleries bakery;
- birthday cake rooibos from Canada’s own DAVIDsTEA;
- cracking out my podcast mic to join my new BFF Lucas on The Math of You – our episode coming soon!;
- losing six inches off my hair, and re-gaining my glorious goth unicorn pinks/purples, courtesy of Gemma at Rebel Rebel;
- improvising animal noises on demand for my favourite almost-three-year-old.