Paused in an atmosphere of extraordinary pallor and thickness

by Rachel Cusk

Though Cusk has written eight other books in-between, this new novel shares a lot in common with her first two books. There is a vagueness about it and a distinct lack of story, but there is also some beautiful writing.

The narrator is an English divorcee writer (a little autobiography peeking through perhaps?) who goes to Greece to teach a writing class for a week. That’s pretty much the whole story. She speaks with a series of people, some friends, some random strangers, and recounts their stories. She has a knack of getting people to open up to her but reveals very little about herself. And yet she does seem concerned with the truth and questions the honesty of those she speaks to.

The title appears to refer to the series of sketches of people’s lives that the narrator presents, but a quote from towards the end of the book suggests another reason:

“She began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank. Yet this shape, even while its content remained unknown, gave her…a sense of who she now was.”

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My love is a suicide bomber

i am the beggar of the worldI am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan
compiled by Eliza Griswold and Seamus Murphy

This is a collection of landays, which are a traditional two-line Afghan poem mostly written/performed by women, many of whom are illiterate. Some are historical, some are modern, often reinterpretations of the old ones. The landay’s apparently simple form often hides great complexity – symbolism, history, politics and so much else.

“A landay [is] an oral and often anonymous scrap of song created by and for mostly illiterate people: the more than 20 million Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Traditionally, landays are sung aloud, often to the beat of a hand drum, which, along with other kinds of music, was banned by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, and in some places still is.”

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Shiny New Books Spring Extra Shiny

Yes, you read that right. The team at Shiny New Books have published an interim newsletter, the Spring Extra Shiny! It features 19 new book reviews, an appreciation of Ruth Rendell plus a new giveaway. And there is a review by me in there. I wrote about The River by Rumer Godden, a lovely novel about childhood that has been reissued by Virago. I highly recommend the book, but if you want to know more, do check out my review, and of course the rest of the Spring Extra Shiny.

Light that gave the present the texture of the past

ESPERANZA-STEsperanza Street
by Niyati Keni

This is a coming of age tale (yes, another one; I think I’m on a run of them) set in a port town in the Philippines. It follows the lives of those who live and work on Esperanza Street, which runs from the sea, a fairly poor port area, uphill to more affluent homes. Joseph works as a houseboy for Mary Morelos, a widow whose own two sons are close to him in age, so he exists in an uneasy balance between servant and friend. Though his story is filled in through flashbacks, the bulk of the novel is set in the summer of 1981, when irrevocable change comes to Esperanza. It’s also the summer he becomes a go-between for one of the Morelos boys, which may turn out to be a dangerous position.

“Though Bobby Morelos had been dead for years, his presence persisted in the room…In a certain tricky late-afternoon light that gave the present the texture of the past, it almost felt as if he might walk into the room at any moment.”

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World Lupus Day 2015

Logo_world lupus dayIt’s that time of year again when I reflect on having lupus, on both how it sucks and how lucky I am compared with many other sufferers. I am aware every day of having lupus, of the effect it has on my life, of the constraints and limits it places on me, but also of the many common lupus symptoms I don’t suffer.

I was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus in 2007 after about a year and a half of tests and investigations into why I was so tired all the time. After diagnosis I realised that there had been other symptoms too that pointed to lupus, but it hadn’t occurred to me they were abnormal. By that I mean things like having cold hands and feet all the time (a sign of poor circulation), dry mouth and eyes, flu-like symptoms such as muscle aches. And there were things I didn’t put together until after diagnosis: exposure to sunlight makes me headachy, dizzy and nauseous far faster than sunstroke would, and strong sunlight brings me out in a rash before it burns me.

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I can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts

slouching towards bethlehemSlouching Towards Bethlehem
by Joan Didion

I love Joan Didion and had been looking forward to reading this, her most famous work. It did not disappoint. Even her introduction is gorgeously artful, packed with lines I want to write on Post-its on my wall like when I was a teenager.

This book collects together essays Didion wrote between 1961 and 1968. They’re grouped into three sections: “Life styles in the golden land”, all about California, “Personals”, which aren’t really personal but are reflections on a topic, and “Seven places of the mind”, which despite the title are about seven different physical places.

Didion’s sketches of places and people are masterful – and distinctly Didion’s own take. She always takes an unusual angle. For example, her profile of John Wayne is a reconstruction of conversations on the set of one his last films. Her piece on Joan Baez centres around a neighbour’s complaint about Baez’s school, the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence.

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Experiment with henna

I’ve been meaning to dye my hair for absolutely ages but really wanted to use natural dye, which I couldn’t find anywhere. Then when browsing in Lush, I spotted that they sell blocks of henna, which led to me spending my entire bank holiday Monday trying not to dye my entire house red. I thought it would be interesting to document the process. Apologies for the terrible cameraphone photos…


I started today with hair that was a sort of mousy light brown with blonde highlights and more grey than I’d like. I covered the bathroom in newspapers and old towels, dug out all the hair clips I never use and headed to the kitchen for the fun part.

I broke up the henna block into a bain marie (one of those kitchen items we own but never use, which made me feel better about the risk of totally ruining it for all future food uses) set over a pan of boiling water, and gradually added water until the henna had turned into a slightly crumbly hot paste. It’s a bit like melting chocolate but takes a lot longer and a lot more liquid. Also it has a weird green tinge, which I didn’t expect.

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