July 2020 | Books & Links

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31.07.2020

Fiction

The Natashas – Yelena Moskovich

I didn’t realise how menacing The Natashas would be until I was about half way through, engrossed in the split narratives, and very much committed to seeing it through. I tend to save reading reviews for after I’ve read books, so as to avoid spoilers and form my own opinions about what I read. As such, I went by the synopsis and thought I was signing up for a bit of Murakami style surrealism mixed in with the parallel, real world narratives of Béatrice, a French jazz singer, and Céser, a Mexican bit part actor in Paris. I thought it’d be odd, maybe a little bit dark in the style of David Lynch – but not quite as horror filled as it is.

The Natashas is written like a play which both suits and sets the mood for the novel, and I really enjoyed Yelena Moskovich’s writing style and approach to storytelling. As a filmmaker, the detailed scenes really appealed to me. I wasn’t expecting it to be as violent or as graphic as it is though, or for it to be such a deep dive into the dark worlds of sex trafficking, exploitation and objectification. It’s a very good book, just very dark, and not quite what I was expecting. I’ve got Moskovich’s ‘Virtuoso’ on my TBR list, so I look forward to reading that when the mood strikes me.

One small issue I have is that the publisher and/or editor has chosen to refer to ‘Ukraine’ as ‘the Ukraine’ throughout the book. I find this curious given that the author was born in Soviet Ukraine and so I would have thought she and/or the publisher would have strong views on the use of the definitive article given Russia’s views on Ukraine and Ukrainian independence. At one point in the novel a character explores how women from Eastern Europe are all seen as the same, no matter which country they come from. To Americans, they’re all called ‘Natasha’ and they’re all Russian. The use of the definitive article to describe Ukraine is jarring when the novel itself offers up such a damning critique of objectification, and the loss of individual agency and identity.

Articles & Links & Essays

Mariah Stovall on falling out of love with punk and in love with literature. I found this really sad to read, because I love both punk – specifically punk-rock, pop-punk and melodic-hardcore – and literature. As Mariah notes, they don’t have to be exclusive loves and they both have a place in my life. I’m probably ten years older than Mariah, and I still get giddy for a good bass line, breakdown or chorus, I still feel the magic when the roadies do a sound check on the drums and I can feel the vibration deep inside my chest, and I still think in lyrics, certain words triggering me to burst into song. It’s usually something by The Menzingers or The Wonder Years, but sometimes something buried deep inside my memory that I haven’t listened to in months or years, and that will inspire me to dig out the record and play it in its entirety on my ancient hi-fi.

Punk was not a phase for me. It’s very much part of my life, and still will be when I’m 90. I recognise that punk as a scene is very male and very white though. This is something I notice as a white woman at shows, and it must be even more noticeable and uncomfortable as a black woman. The scene is very welcoming and the artists I know and love actively support and champion people of all races, genders and sexual orientations, but I can understand why a disconnect might develop because ultimately songs are personal, and a white man can only ever write lyrics from his perspective and experience as a white man. There are new bands and artists coming through all the time though, and there’s space for everyone.

Because this history is our present, I can never get used to it.

Hope Wabuke on the pain of the KKK joke

A really inspiring and confidence boosting podcast episode about building an audience and connecting with people who share your interests, no matter how unusual or niche they may be. I found this really, really helpful. I’ve felt pretty hopeless and directionless about my work since the beginning of the pandemic, and listening to this has given me a much needed boost. I use AntennaPod for podcasts, a great open-source podcast app for Android.

On Substack and the growing subscription based funding model for creatives. I’m thinking of using Patreon as my subscription platform, but I’ve seen quite a few writers move their newsletters and work over to Substack in recent months so I’ve been curious about that platform’s offerings too. What’s really heartening is seeing creatives of all backgrounds move away from the standard advertising supported model of earning a living to something more reliable, personal and ethical.

Watch black TV reporter Shannon LaNier, a direct descendent of Thomas Jefferson, as he works with a team of creatives and photographer Drew Gardner to recreate a portrait of his famous white ancestor.

The enduring romance of the night train. Ed and I took the sleeper from London to Inverness a few years ago, when we spent a few nights in the Scottish Highlands to celebrate my 30th. I enjoyed reading this piece as I love train travel, and it reminded me of our trip. When we went we booked recliner seats but on the way up to Scotland were given a free upgrade to a private cabin as the lights were broken in the carriage our seats were located in. It wasn’t the best night’s sleep, I remember sleeping fitfully because of the grinding and shunting sounds, especially when the train split in three at Carstairs to continue as separate services to Fort William, Inverness and Edinburgh. Our trip was before the refurbishment, so the train was very old fashioned and it felt like we were travelling back in time. I’d love to know what the new carriages are like.


Memories from summer camp, 1968.

Because political power is in the hands of corporations, and is therefore as undemocratic in the West as it was under a one-party communist government. In capitalism, people and objects are interchangeable, and often objects (or rather, capital and property) are more valuable than human life. Violence against objects, statues and private property rattles both conservatives and liberals more than the regular, systematic violence against living, breathing human beings.

Vesna Marica on Yugoslavia, cults of personality, and the cult of capitalism

The Lottery | a dark little short story from 1948

A cold war bunker, an eccentric from the Netherlands, and an underground dark web server farm.

Perhaps this is a time of not-doing, of not-mowing, of not-dominating, of not-taking. A time of resting in caterpillar soup, preparing to leave the tissues – the attitudes we don’t need – and instead reimagine, reimagine, reimagine what it might look like to be good co-tenants with other species.

Pathways in the Urban Wild | Lucy Jones on lockdown, weeds, wildflowers and letting ‘nature’ be

Abandoned

The Parisian – Isabella Hammad

The Parisian has been on my list of books I’d like to read since it was released last year. I read a rave review in the Guardian, I love historical fiction, and I am interested in both the era – early twentieth century – and the politics and history of the Middle East. This should have been something I loved. I gave up after 200 pages though. Isabella Hammad is a good writer, and her writing is beautiful and carefully crafted, but I felt that the book is overwritten and in need of a good edit. There are simply too many characters – the family trees at the beginning were a little off putting before I even began – and there are numerous deviations and tangents thrown in that don’t particularly advance the plot or help in the character development of the protagonist, Midhat.

I also found it quite jarring how often she uses French or Arabic phrases, untranslated. The French wasn’t too much of a problem for me but the use of multiple languages broke the flow and made certain sections hard to follow. Historical fiction is a tricky balance, particularly novels that span decades filled with as much action and change as the early twentieth century. Sadly I just couldn’t get in to this one, but I will keep an eye on her future work because I think she is a very promising writer.

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