Gaslighting? Really? This word that was cool in my childhood appears to have been resurrected by the current generation of internet and social medias users. Thus, Merriam-Webster has recently crowned gaslighting their word of the year. Just when I was about to slam this choice as a tired word merely enjoying a modern audience, I stumbled across this use by Hadley Freeman in The London Times:
‘…to tell women that not accepting biological males in their spaces puts trans people at risk is outrageous gaslighting: women are far more likely than trans women to be killed by male violence in this country, but such facts have suddenly become very unfashionable in progressive circles.’
Perhaps gaslighting isn’t so bad after all.
The Oxford English Dictionary has taken a different approach for their word of the year, having invited the public to vote from a shortlist of three, presumably arrived at via a scholarly analysis of corpora of written and spoken language produced over the past year. A far cry from the subjective, though amusing, lexicography of Samuel Johnson. The OED’s three runners-up were: metaverse, the hashtag #IStandWith and the phrase goblin mode. Since metaverse conjures up images of a self-obsessed Mark Zuckerberg, it didn’t get my vote. The hashtag #IStandWith certainly is a testament of our time of activism, movements shared online and individuals making their mark. Cute and less important is goblin mode, which denotes ‘a type of behaviour which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations’ – a phrase apparently popularised by post-pandemic attitudes to work and socialising. The voting closed on Friday 2 December, and the winner was announced yesterday as goblin mode. It could have been worse, but I’m left feeling outside of popular vernaculars – again.
Collins English Dictionary chose permacrisis as its word of the year. Apparently, this word has been used a great deal this year by the British media and economists to describe Liz Truss’s short reign as PM, along with the state of the UK government and the Brexit-whipped economy. I can’t argue with that even though I did have a problem at first using ‘perma’ with ‘crisis.’ But Collins’ lexicographers have explained that away: ‘While ‘perma-’ could not logically be applied to the original sense of ‘the turning point of a disease,’ it can be applied to this secondary meaning without being a contradiction.’ Yep, life in Britain these days can be described as a permacrisis.
This blog will appear in my last tweet. Ever. I mean it this time. I’m not particularly fond of baseball metaphors, but for me, Twitter has committed its third strike and is now out and should be sitting on the bench humiliated.
The first strike occurred during the Tr*mp presidency. If the orange one’s affectation for the social media platform weren’t enough to make someone want to quit, the twitterer-in-chief was making false claims about Covid. It took Twitter a dangerous while to start posting warnings that the tweets were medically untrue. The delay had to do with ‘freedom of speech,’ allowing anyone to say anything regardless of their position to influence. In the interest of public safety, Twitter finally gave in.
Strike two was made this summer, when Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi PhD student at the University of Leeds, was jailed by a Saudi terrorism court for 34 years for the ‘crime’ of following and retweeting a couple of Saudi social and feminist activists on Twitter. It was obvious that this dental hygienist was not a terrorist. In fact, it would be a stretch to even call her an activist. Not taking on any duty of care for its users, Twitter made no public statement on this. Many have speculated that this has to do with Mohammed Bin Salman’s sovereign wealth fund having an indirect stake in Twitter.
I really wanted to leave Twitter then and make a stand against the Saudi regime’s human rights abuses and the way they are buying democracies throughout the world to ignore their actions. I was in a right huff over it. But then, I selfishly thought about my writing being promoted on Twitter, along with my academic life and socio-political interests being shared on the site. To my shame, I chickened out. I remained on Twitter and spoke up for Salma al-Shehab by tweeting articles about her case and signing yet another Amnesty International petition and posting that on Twitter.
Strike three came about over these last few weeks. This is where the baseball metaphor falls apart as a strike of a bat is quick – perhaps it’s strike three in slow motion. Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has seen three weeks of crashing chaos with the firing of staff, charging users for a special ‘blue’ status only to reverse it days later, and then reinstating Tr*mp to the platform. This last act in this vanity project was made worse by the way this was conducted. Musk held an online election, using Twitter, of course. The Twitter-using public supposedly voted to let Tr*mp with all his vulgarity, racism, misogyny, infantile vindictiveness and misspellings back on to the social media platform. After the vote came out in Tr*mp’s favour, Musk, with his warped sense of democracy, tweeted about the voice of the people being victorious. Firstly, I’m not so sure about the people really being heard. As I placed my vote, I imagined bots and users with multiple accounts voting en masse. Secondly, Musk is again conflating public debate on social media with a form of truth. John Naughton beat me to the punch on this point in his brilliant commentary on Musk’s flailing with his new ‘plaything.’
I joined Twitter in 2011 at a time when the site had just morphed from a place where people recorded the banalities of their lives in 140 characters (‘I’m now mowing the lawn’) to a forum for academics to share their research. Or so I thought. Reluctant to share work-in-progress, academics and their publishers use Twitter as a stream of billboards advertising published work. Despite that and those three strikes, I’m going to miss Twitter. It does remind my followers that I’m a blogger and draws people into conversation with me. I’m also going to miss Led by Donkeys, J.K. Rowling, a few academic journals, some linguists and yes, Joyce Carol Oates (cats and all). That is, I’ll miss them until they join the mass migration over to Mastodon. You’ll find me there: @firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s been a big couple of years for Marcel Proust fans. Today marks 100 years since his death, which comes on the heels of the 150th anniversary of his birth, celebrated last year. It’s been an even better year or two for people who like to criticise Proust fans for being ‘snobs’ and ‘masochists.’ Guilty on both counts. That is, if you accept that reading literary classics is a sign of snobbery. As for masochism, I don’t know why I tackle some of the tomes that I do, especially in French, or even worse for me in Italian.
So, what is it like to read Proust? According to the Proust Society of America, Proust’s longest sentence was 958 words. Why not break this sentence up into other sentences? I ask, wearing my editor’s hat. I’m sure Proust had his reasons. I suspect it had to do with the many thoughts that operate in our minds at the same time, a sense of time collapsing on itself. That is one of the things I enjoy about reading his fiction – it often challenges our sense of space and time in the context of day-to-day life without entering fantasy, sci-fi or magical realism (not that there’s anything wrong with this genres).
Remembrance of Things Past (La Recherche, as the French call it), Proust’s highly autobiographical masterpiece, has a dream-like quality of a broken narrative that reconnects at the will of its narrator trying to figure out his life. I’m re-reading the first book of this 7-volume, 3,000 + page magnum opus– this time in French – snob, masochist.
Proust’s writing and life are intertwined, and I suspect that is a part of the fascination and cult-like following that Proust has garnered. He lived during the scintillating times of the Belle Epoch and hobnobbed with artists, writers and socialites of the day, including Andre Gide, James Joyce and Sarah Bernhardt. Nobel laureate Annie Ernaux, who is also a masterful practitioner of autofiction, says of Proust:
‘He is the total writer. One has the impression that Proust, as a person, does not exist. He is entirely in La Recherche. That’s what I admire so deeply. He is the total work- he cannot be compared with another.’
Although he never publicly admitted to being gay, his relationships with men are well known and included in nearly every biography. According to William Carter, one of Proust’s many biographers, “Proust was the first novelist to explore the entire spectrum of human sexuality.” Carter adds, “Characters could be homosexual in the first part of their lives and heterosexual later, or the reverse.” Proust was ahead of his time as a philosopher and sociologist of sorts on matters of sexuality and gender. While I’m reading La Recherche in order – that is, beginning to end – I dip into it to read a few pages at a time, and sometimes before bed, a few long paragraphs before nodding off. I find myself leaving it for a couple of weeks to read some other novel by a completely different type of writer and then returning to Proust, not always remembering all the details of characters or events. But strangely, that doesn’t matter as the language and sentiments soon draw me back in. According to Alice Jacquelin, literature lecturer at Nanterre University and Proust specialist, “There’s no sacrilege in dipping into it.” The book lends itself to that. The reader can experience snippets of a life and still feel immersed in Proust’s world, a world cherished by us literary snobs and masochists.
It’s been a good week for adjectives. The abrupt end of Liz Truss’s premiership, positioning the country for its third Prime Minister in two months and worryingly fifth Chancellor (finance minister) in four months, has given political writers and pundits plenty to say. But what do you say when a country and its leading political party are in meltdown that doesn’t sound cliched or as inarticulate as pub-speak on a Saturday night? I was hoping for some colourful metaphors but have mostly encountered adjectives.
I’m not a great fan of adjectives. Their overuse plagues student writing, genre fiction and celebrity memoires. But today I make an exception, noting that the weekend papers have resurrected the adjective in good form – at least for now. Among those used to describe the actions of Liz Truss and her cabinet include ill-fated, calamitous, demented, brexity, Gonzo, eye-popping, chaos-churning and career-serving (though obviously careers at the top of government have crashed to an ignominious end, these clown ministers will likely have high-paying jobs in the private sector for years to come). The best stacked-modifier award goes to Patrick Cockburn of The Independent who described Boris Johnson, who is bizarrely a contender for PM again, as having a career with ‘a comic opera Gilbert and Sullivan feel to it.’
But it hasn’t all been about adjectives. The -ism nouns haven’t done too badly either. Several pundits have stepped back from the immediate circus that is the British government to ask what this means for the ideologies that have gained prominence in the West in recent decades. Could the fall of Britain in such a way trigger the end of neoliberalism, of libertarianism, of populism, of nationalism? As these ideas have been put into practice and have disastrously failed, one does wonder. Writing in The Independent, Adam Boulton, remarked that the Conservative party, which is likely to reign for another two years, will continue with its factionalism and the instability it creates. That is, some of the aforementioned isms aren’t likely to go away overnight, or quietly for that matter.
Oh, yes, I did stumble across one metaphor from Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer that brought a smile to my face for its sentiment as well as its creativity: ‘… the polls suggest the Tories will be disembowelled by the voters when they get their hands on them at the polling stations.’ Nothing beats a good metaphor.
Move aside dystopian literature and make way for thrutopian tales that give hope without the silliness of sugar-coated utopias. In recent years, I’ve been reading about this call to arms to establish a new genre of literature. The word has its origins in the idea of going ‘thru’ from one place to another.
In 2017, writing for the Huffington Post, environmental campaigner Rupert Read made the case that a thrutopia could get us through the climate crisis. In sum, his argument was that we need ‘artistic or philosophical vision’ for the future that dealt with the harsh realities without being dystopic and without the blind optimism of utopia. He explains:
‘Thrutopias would be about how to get from here to there, where ‘there’ is far far away in time. How to live and love and vision and carve out a future, through pressed times that will endure. The climate crisis is going to be a long emergency, probably lasting hundreds of years. It is useless to fantasise a shining sheer escape from it to utopia. But it’s similarly useless, dangerously defeatist, to wallow around in dystopias. We need ways of seeing, understanding, inhabiting, creating what will be needed for the very long haul.’
While I agree with the general idea, I don’t think I’d call dystopic literature ‘dangerously defeatist.’ I’m thinking Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which was first in the 80s and more recently thanks to the TV series, a warning of a world controlled by religious extremists. Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are likewise more realistic than defeatist, but with the reader knowing that they have elements of make-believe. The real sense of defeatism emerges when reading commentaries in the media about the irreversible damage brought on by the climate crisis at a time when a world leader of dubious sanity is threatening to use nuclear arms.
This new thrutopic-like genre was also proposed by novelist Ben Okri, writing in The Guardian around the time of Cop26. Like Read, Okri calls exclaims, ‘We have to find a new art and a new psychology to penetrate the apathy and the denial that are preventing us making the changes that are inevitable if our world is to survive.’ Like Read, he criticises dystopias and utopias, opting for a realism that gives us hope.
Taking thrutopic literature a step further, this summer Mslexia, in an article penned by novelist Manda Scott, offered a primer on the topic, giving advice and workshop ideas for writers wishing to try their hand at this new genre. Years ago, I dabbled in psychological science fiction, and the idea of creating a thrutopic story had me wondering. Yes, I could give it a try. Why not?
Then I read ‘The Secret Source,’ a short story by Ben Orki in The New Yorker. It’s set in the not-too-distant future where the world is trapped in the water crisis and cruel, cynical governments conserve drinking water by poisoning its minions. Dark reading from the writer who espoused ‘hope.’ I confess, I enjoyed this deliciously dystopic tale, perhaps for the same reason that I find villains are often more interesting than heroes. That is, I’m hedging towards thrutopia in philosophy if I can sink my teeth into the occasional dystopic story.
According to Read, the philosophy of thrutopia can be simply stated: ‘Don’t defer your dreams. We need those dreams now. Experience the present as paradisiacal, and change it where it isn’t, and then we might just get through.’ That sounds fine to me.
Not surprising, but a shock all the same. You know what I’m talking about. I’ll spare you yet another panegyric on the life of the Queen. I’m also not going to argue the case of the Queen’s role in the last decades of empire or what type of monarch King Charles III is likely to be. Saturated by these stories, I can only offer my account of these last few days from smalltown England.
Early Thursday evening while the news of the death of the monarch was being announced, I was in a video call with a language partner talking about the Queen’s failing health and the news that royals were heading to Balmoral. The end was soon for the tiny frail queen – or was it really? We speculated. At the end of the call, I returned to an article – deadline looming. A couple of hours had passed before I sat at the dining table with the television on. There was only one story, and unusually no one to talk to about it. My David was in France painting window frames in our apartment, leaving me in England by myself with the BBC broadcasters dressed in black. I was taking it in as if I were in a dream, where I’m usually by myself, uncertain about what will happen next.
Friday morning. The newspapers all flogged their special issues on the Queen, full of articles written months, if not years, earlier. I noticed that children were still going to school, the little ones skipping and talking as they walked past our house. The clocks had not stopped, and the world had not gone silent (to paraphrase Auden). I checked my emails as a local councillor and realized that I had been sent a message the day before saying that Operation London Bridge was in effect (code for the Queen has died). The email was sent at 16.09, and according to the media, the Prime Minister was notified at 16.30 by the Chancellor, a quick whisper as they sat in Parliament. Why would I – someone who deals with ward residents’ complaints about rubbish collection and potholes – be given this news before the PM? This cannot be real.
Saturday is market day in Ely. The high street and Market Square are bustling as per usual. But not usual – a strange heaviness fills the air. People are conversing in pairs and small groups, but I’m not hearing any light-hearted intonations or laughs. Others like me walk in silence from shop to shop, noticing the occasional placard or window display about the Queen. My internal dialogue is in the present tense. I want to be in the moments that I know are historical, memorable.
Sunday, and the dream continued as I seemed to be rousing, thinking less about what had happened and more about what is to come. I had been summoned to a ceremony outside of Ely Cathedral. The Proclamation of the Accession of His Majesty King Charles III took place in cities across the country. I was there as an ‘official guest.’ As required, I wore black (even black bra and panties) and donned a black rosette that I had been allocated. In my official role, I said, ‘God save the King’ and three ‘hoorays’ on cue. That woke me up. What followed was more real than dream. I sang the national anthem of God and gracious King, recalling my American childhood where the same tune was sung to ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee.’ Life moves on.
I’ve been receiving the New York Times daily newsletters on the war in Ukraine. In the early days, I was reading every item, every report, every commentary. This was on top of other reports from television, radio, papers (The Observer, I Paper) and magazines (The New Yorker, The Atlantic). As the days turned into weeks and now months, I’ve been skimming the reports and reading only the commentaries, looking for predictions of when and how the war will end. By skimming, I’m left with something like a word cloud in my mind. This week’s reports look like this:
As for the predictions, I’m reminded of lines from Robert Frost’s famous poem:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
Today, the New York Times announced that it was ending the daily newsletter: ‘The pace of news has changed from the initial furious days of the war. And so, we’re changing too. Beginning next week, we’ll be landing in your inbox three times per week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday.’ With this, the NYT is admitting that the war is dragging on and is less newsworthy given the international financial crisis, the pandemic fallout and climate change. In Britain, the news this week has been dominated by rising fuel prices and the shooting death of a nine-year old girl in Liverpool. The Ukrainian war seems further than the 1,500 miles between London and Kiev.
This concerns me. Other recent wars have continued for years and petered out of our collected consciousness in the West, such as in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Official conflicts over, they seem to leave behind anti-western sentiments and percolating terrorists’ cells. But these are problems western governments deal with, experiencing mixed results among peaks and troughs of public interest. The situation with Russia is different. In Putin we see an unpredictable leader, who conducts cyberattacks on foreign powers, imprisons and poisons his personal enemies and makes strategic military mistakes, which are covered up by propaganda. Above all else, Putin’s government, which doesn’t look like it’s crumbling down any time soon, has nuclear weapons – even the smallest ground missiles can destroy crops and cause illnesses well-beyond Ukraine – and Putin’s Russia could damage and is currently circling nuclear power stations in Ukraine.
This is where I’m at after continuing to read the commentaries. I’m afraid the word cloud has been replaced by a mushroom cloud.
I wasn’t looking for a theme, but in the last few weeks I just happened to read two books set in the US and Central America during the 1960s. I was a baby when Kennedy was assassinated and only half experienced this decade as a young child. Yet it keeps a grip on my consciousness – a combination of selective nostalgia for the music and the changing attitudes and a fascination with that era’s dubious social politics and reshaping of world order. These two books, Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer and Angie Cruz’s Dominicana, delivered on both fronts.
A Book of Common Prayer was written in 1977 and has enjoyed a resurgence since the author’s death last year. (I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to it given that I’ve been an admirer of Didion’s non-fiction for decades.) Set mostly in the fictitious country of Boca Grande, somewhere in Central America, it dips in and out of the US, where the main characters are from, with flashbacks and flashforwards. A personal and political story, the novel gently satires the privileged lives of Americans in the corrupt country, war-torn and exploited by American involvement. The narrator, the widowed Grace, owns most of the country’s land and knows its political secrets when she meets Charlotte, a wealthy and naïve norteamericana, as she is called. Charlotte, married to a lawyer who traffics weapons, is eluding the FBI, who are searching for Charlotte’s fugitive daughter, an architype of the 60s rebellious generation. Keenly observing Charlotte’s behaviours that range from flippantly self-centred to darkly mysterious, Grace’s narration exudes a controlled voice that delivers wry comments with aplomb. It’s writing that leaps out at you while never neglecting the character-driven story or the slippery ruthlessness of the US presence in Central America at that time.
Angie Cruz’s Dominicana came out in 2019 and is mainly set in New York in the 60s, when immigrants were arriving from the Dominican Republic to escape poverty, civil war and ultimately an American invasion. In the Dominican Republic, Ana, aged 15, is chosen to marry Juan, who has negotiated a deal to purchase her family’s land and take Ana to America, where he and his brothers are working. With falsified documents, Ana becomes 19 and soon finds herself in a starkly different culture where she doesn’t speak the language, spending her days alone cooking and cleaning for her abusive two-timing husband. The stranger in a strange land is a worn trope, but here it works because it doesn’t drive the plot. The need to send money home to her family and contend with her own personhood while pregnant move this story into a page-tuner. Along with delving into the hardships of immigration and oppression of women, the reader is treated to glimpses of 60s America, where vintage episodes of I Love Lucy bemuse and influence Ana’s views of Americans. Though stylistically not in the class of Didion’s writing, it has its literary moments, including a delightful sex scene featuring a pregnant woman.
Both novels fed into my 60s selective nostalgia, while reminding me of the difficulties of the time. If I could time travel, I wouldn’t go back to that decade, especially as an adult, especially as a woman. Some time periods are best viewed from the vantage point of hindsight with a helping of fictional escapism.
With the death of James Lovelock last week at the ripe age of 103, the obits have been full of his quotable remarks. He once said, ‘Too many greens are not just ignorant of science, they hate science.’ Lovelock wrote this in 1964 in his seminal book Homage to Gaia, reflecting on his hypothesis that the earth was like a self-regulating organism. It seems unimaginable now, but this idea that greens hate science held through the 70s and into the 80s. That was when the shift started to take hold and green politics was shedding off its hippy-come-new age origins. I recall being on the crust of that wave and how it changed my life.
My early childhood in the 60s was peppered with tie-dyed t-shirts, peace signs, Joan Baez and psychedelia. Although I was only superficially aware of it, the 60s saw the birth of the ecology movement and green politics. Although Lovelock was publishing his Gaia hypothesis before this time, the science behind his ideas hadn’t yet taken hold in the popular mindset. Unlike environmentalism today, the hippies and new agers lead this eco-awareness by pointing the figure not only at governments, but also at scientists that gave us the technologies that polluted our air and water. The emphasis was on returning to the sanctity of nature. This would have a huge influence on my thinking for years to come, aided and abetted by my post-divorce mother, who was a compulsive shopper for spirituality.
My late childhood and teen years were marked by a parade of Hindu swamis, mediation groups, psychic readings, Course in Miracles meetings and creative consciousness workshops, dabbling along the way in the Kabala, Zen Buddhism, Sufism and the writings of Carlos Castaneda. All of this was laced with pop psychology, and all of this was seen as cool. The highlights were the spiritual retreats led by the spiritual group du jour out into nature – forest preserves near Chicago or a jaunt up to the Wisconsin countryside. Since my family didn’t own a car, any trip that was devoid of public transport and that meant getting away from city neighbourhoods and skyscrapers was itself an otherworldly experience. Meditation and chanting were not required.
At these retreats that, alongside tree-hugging – I mean this literally – I was exposed to a dangerous dichotomy. Spirituality seemed anti-science because it accepted phenomena (e.g., psychic healing) that could not be explained by science. Scientists, especially medical scientists, didn’t know what they were doing. Like the materialists, they were seen as corporate and were pushing us away from higher consciousness, formerly known as God. I was aware of some of the ironies even then. The new age movement was in its own way commercial and corporate and had its share of charlatans, looking to separate people from their money. The biggest irony of them all was that scientists were the ones informing us about the long-term consequences of pollution – the greenhouse effect and climate change.
I was also troubled by this polemic as a teenager as my interests in biology and astronomy was growing in parallel to my interests in literature and language. Such is the mind of a teenager, where everything and nothing seem possible. I suspected a non-spiritual career move into the sciences would have had a detrimental effect on my relationship with my mother, self-righteous and judgmental in her quest for spirit.
As my world opened through education and travel, the spiritual movement was losing its grip on me. But something in it, perhaps its comforting familiarity or the idea that these spiritual paths went against convention, still held an attraction for me. It was there like an old song from childhood, a welcomed earworm.
In the mid-80s, when I was a postgrad at Edinburgh studying linguistics, my mother would write to me hinting that I take advantage of being in Scotland to visit Findhorn, a spiritual community in Inverness. It was known at the time for its organic farming and less charitably as a place that Americas visited to become hippies. I was intrigued enough to take the four-hour train journey – but on my own terms. I attended an environmental conference held at the community. It was a heady mix, intended to bring together spirituality and environmentalism. Interestingly, despite the distinctive styles and ways of speaking, the two domains did not clash. I realised that these worlds were no longer divided as they were in my childhood. As an aside, in the years since then, Findhorn has renamed itself as an ‘ecovillage.’
While my mother thought I was at Findhorn discovering spirit, I was meeting with Green Party members and representatives from environmental NGOs. And it was there that I encountered Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, in all its beauty, its science and metaphor rolled into one.
I satisfied my mother’s spiritual needs in my letter to her with a new age spin on Gaia – that is, the Native American’s has been saying this all along – and I mentioned to her the Druids and self-proclaimed psychics and healers that I had met. I left out the geology, chemistry and biology supporting Lovelock’s work.
That was the last ‘spiritual retreat’ I went on. Gaia was the footbridge that took me into the sciences, leaving behind on the other side a dubious spiritual land. The river in between flows with psychology that I dip into and accept and the mindfulness in my daily meditation practice that can be seen as spiritual and/or physiological.
It’s that time of year when we’re bombarded with recommendations of what to read while on the beach or in the garden or, if your British and it’s raining, in the camper or beach hut. The New Yorker’s recommendations start with ‘For your summer reading, it might be nice to go with something relatively light.’ As I’ve been reading these listacles and adding a couple of titles to my Amazon Wishlist (though eventually I’ll get some from the library), I’ve noticed what’s missing – the books I’ve been reading so far this summer. Explainer: with an apartment in Nice and no school calendar to follow, my summer began in mid-May. I’m not complaining.
The three fiction books I’ve read for my first half of summer, and summer does seem to be more about fiction, are all authored by Ukrainian writers. While a couple have had favourable reviews in the popular press, with one on the New York Times best-seller list, none of them appear to be worthy of ‘summer reads.’ Is summer reading all about light subject matters for our holiday-mode brains? Or is there an unwritten rule among media outlets that summer reading should be detached from the harsh realities of current events?
Ignoring the summer hit list, my reading choices came from my friends and book reviews from earlier in the year.
Late May was consumed by Sweet Darusya: A Tale of Two Villages by Maria Matios. A deceptively simple read with a hint of magical realism, it could have been on any summer list. Perhaps it didn’t make the cut because it deals with some of the cruelty of life in Ukraine. Not the Ukraine that has been in our news since late February. This novel is set in a rural Carpathian village from the 1940s to the 60s, telling the story in three parts in reverse chronological order. The dysfunctional and often brutal lives of the two families at the centre of these interlocked tales have their moments of dry humour and weirdness. Ultimately it takes the reader back to the Second World War when the village was seized by the Romanians, followed by the Soviets, the Germans and back to the Soviets again. Though not a story about war, the fighting holds a shadowy presence. ‘Life and war continued simultaneously, at the same time dependent on and independent from one another.’
A few weeks in June went to Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov. Set soon after the Russian annexation of Crimea when Russian-backed separatists were fighting Ukrainians in Donetsk and Luhansk, this story is all about war but from the view of civilians caught up in it. During this conflict, Donbas became a grey zone, which included a village where only a beekeeper and a ‘sort of friend’- that is, a friend of convenience – remain with limited resources. More of a page turner than Sweet Darusya, Grey Bees has characters I cared about and could chuckle with. The novel is sprinkled with light touches of humour and socio-political satire, and yet at the same time manages to convey the gravity of the circumstances for these lost souls.
I’ve ended this Ukrainian trio last week with a collection of stories by Oksana Zabuzhko called Your Ad Could Go Here. Indeed, the stories are as diverse as advertisements, a potpourri of subjects, written with the sophistication and bizarre juxtaposition of Zabuzhko’s celebrated poetry. I’ll let her prose speak for itself in this passage of a woman trying to go about her routine the morning after a casual sex encounter:
“Later she takes a long, thorough bath, and brushes her teeth three times because the odour seems permanent, and when she steps out of the bath, it’s starting to turn grey outside. Vovka Lasota lies in her bed with his head wrapped in the sheets like a Bedouin corpse ready for burial, and just like the dead Bedouin, he has nowhere to go (sure, divorce isn’t easy on anyone, especially on men, who soon seem like abandoned dogs who’ll lick anyone, seeking a master).”
I’m glad I didn’t let the heat wave (39C in Ely last week) stop me from taking in these books that might not be beach reading but seem as important as they were enjoyable. Forget the summer reading listacles, I’m keeping some of my thoughts with people trapped in this ruthless war.