Thoughts: How to be Both, by Ali Smith

This was originally not on my list but had been on my radar, and when a friend offered me a copy, I considered it a sign. Before continuing, I’ll explain the structure of the book a bit. How to be Both is essentially two novellas, connected enough to warrant the one book but separate enough that some books are printed with one story first and some the other. You won’t know which order you’re reading in until you start, and that will colour your reading. You can read it again in the opposite order, of course, but I think the first reading will already have shaped your perception of the book. To be both a person who read George’s story first and a person who read Francesco’s story first is one both we cannot be.

So that’s the first thing. I read George’s story first, which means that that’s the person I am, that’s the perspective from which I write this post. The second thing is that I’m going to be extravagantly spoilery, because to not spoil this book is not to be able to talk about it, and these posts are much more “spaces for me to talk about books I read” than they are “helpful recommendations for other people”.

You have been warned.

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A map of every town in It’s Grim Up North

Where does the North begin? This debate has been raging on the Wikipedia talk page for Northern England for over a decade. Well, luckily the answer has already been given to us by… the KLF. In 1991, the band – then going under the name “The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu” – recorded a ten minute techno song “It’s Grim Up North”. The majority of the song consists of town names being delivered in a Scottish monotone over a pulsing techno beat, ending with the phrase “are all in the North”.

I’ve taken the song lyrics – using Wikipedia’s interpretation of ambiguous lines (so “Cheadle Hulme” not “Cheadle” and “Hulme”, but “Accrington” and “Stanley” not “Accrington Stanley”) and ignoring the fact that Leigh appears twice – and mapped them all.

So, what is in the North?

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Urban birdwatching in Frankfurt — Urbane Vogelbeobachtung in Frankfurt-am-Main

If you follow me on social media, I’ve probably been driving you mad recently with lots of bird pictures. Lots and lots of bird pictures.

In order to have them all in the same place – and not just have them on a social media site that could disappear and/or use them to hack an election at any time – I’m going to put a little list of all the birds I’ve Frankfurt, and where I’ve seen them! (Und auch auf Deutsch!)

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Thoughts: Heart of the Dragon, by Gena Showalter

Oh my goodness, where do I start?

Let’s start at the beginning. Once upon a time, a husband found two incredible-looking books in a free bookshelf and brought them home to his wife. One day, the wife picked one up and read it, hoping for some frothy, trashy* fun.

This is what she actually got.

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Thoughts: Hild, by Nicola Griffith

After the high-speed frolic of Golden Hill, the syrupy slowness of Call Me By Your Name and the spare elegance of Lady Into Fox, Hild was a thick, soft blanket, and I sank gratefully into it. Another impulse book, because it’s about St Hilda of Whitby, and I’m not used to reading historical fiction set in my part of the world.

Hild was a big, immersive doorstop of a book (though in Kindle form) and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Some things to bear in mind.

Firstly, this book is set in the 7th Century. Griffith has done a lot of research, but she’s also used some artistic licence to fill in gaps and add to the atmosphere. If this is not your thing (and especially if you’re a scholar of 7th Century England and can see the joins) then this might annoy you.

Secondly, if you’re reading it on Kindle, then be aware that it skips the map. The map is useful to keep straight what’s going on, because Hild travels a lot and the place names are pretty different from what they are today. Even if you aren’t the sort of person who follows a story on a map as it unfolds (I’m not at all) I think it helps to at least glance at it and have an overview of what the world looks like before you start.

Thirdly, this is the first book of a trilogy, and it doesn’t take you up to Hild’s famous stint as Abbess of Whitby, so be aware of that. I found myself a little worried at times about the pacing (not that it’s slow, but that it covers such an early part of her life) and wondering how it was going to get everything resolved in time. Spare yourself similar worries – there will be more. Let yourself trust the story.

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Thoughts: Lady Into Fox, by David Garnett

I picked this one up because I read a review of a ballet production of it, and thought it sounded exactly like the sort of thing I’d wish I’d written. Is it? I’m not sure. It’s very of its time.

The premise of Lady Into Fox is that there’s a lady, and she turns into a fox in a freak miracle. It’s short, and written in a sort of reported speech fairytale style, but I wasn’t quite sure if it had any deeper meaning or moral, and if so, what it was. The writing style led me to think that there must be. And there was something, but it never quite came together for me. I always felt like there was something I was missing.

Once Sylvia Tebrick, née Fox, turns into a vixen, it’s the job of her husband to hide her condition and try to maintain their happy married life as far as that’s possible (not far at all). We only get Mr Tebrick’s perspective, and that at a distance, as the story is purported to be a true one, and the author’s meticulous research is what’s enabling us to read it in its complete form. Still, just after her transformation, Sylvia is still recognisably herself – tame, loving and well-mannered. Mr Tebrick’s immediate fear is dogs (all of whom in the story’s environs are trained to kill foxes on sight) and discovery by other people, so his first actions, once they’re home, are to shoot their two dogs and let all the house staff go.

For a couple of days, they manage (though Mr Tebrick is distraught at his wife’s transformation, and she does her very best to cheer him up). But the transformation continues. Sylvia becomes more and more a fox, refusing clothes, eating on the floor, displaying alarming behaviour around ducks and baring her teeth at her long-suffering husband. She also wants to be free, and starts trying to escape.

I couldn’t quite get a handle on it – is it about Sylvia’s need for freedom, is it about something private (the story was dedicated to Garnett’s ex-lover), or is it just the story of a woman who was turned into a fox one day? Threads kept showing underneath the story but I couldn’t make them into a full picture. There was still plenty to enjoy. The conflict between humanity and wildness, the increasing absurdity of the husband’s inability to let go of his fox-wife, even when she has a litter of fox cubs, the way that human manners start to look silly when you try to impose them on what is frankly a fox with no human thoughts and only a recognition of one human face to tie her to the world of humans.

It’s when he allows her to live wild and accepts that he has no hold on her that they fall into another companionable period, though infinitely stranger than before, but allowing her to be wild means accepting the cruelties of that world.

It’s a strange, spare little story, but I can see how it would make a fascinating, weird ballet, and maybe one day I’ll get the chance to see it.

Thoughts: Call Me By Your Name, by André Aciman

After seeing the film I bumped this one right up the list, and I’m glad I did. With the film so fresh in my mind, I felt like I really got to see a bigger picture than I would have if I’d waited, or if I’d only read or seen one version. I’ve read plenty of books that were made into films, and seen plenty of films that were adapted from books, but nothing quite like this. Warning, this is going to be a rambling essay about the book and film in equal measure, because they’re both hopelessly tangled up inside me. Possible spoilers for both.

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What is the top-heaviest country?

This post is based on an interesting Twitter thread about country populations! In particular, this pair of tweets from Josh Fruhlinger:

It’s an interesting thing – how top-heavy is a country or federation? In other words, how much of the population is concentrated in its largest constituents?

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Thoughts: Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford

Oh, this was fun. I put this on my list purely on the basis of a Guardian review of it, and it delivered in spades. This is going to be a hard one to review because it was just so much fun, to be honest, so it’ll be a short one (not to mention the much better review linked). Going to try not to spoil, but still, be wary below the cut.

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Thoughts: Truth and Duty: the Press, the President and the Privilege of Power, by Mary Mapes

Finally back here, whew. Busy weekend doing exceedingly badly in the German iai nationals. Don’t worry; there’s always next year.

Anyway, it’s time to talk about a very frustrating book that was quite a competent film. More below.

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