Experiencing Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport

Out of all the novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year, Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport had the most arresting summary: a first-person one-sentence inner-monologue spread over approximately 1,000 pages, covering every thought that runs through the Ohioan housewife speaker’s head, including worries, observations, clickbait headlines, jingles, and wordplay.

More accurately, the book is 988 pages, although that number increases to 1,030 if you include the glossary, appendices, and front matter. It’s also not just a single sentence; punctuating the stream of consciousness is another narrative about a lioness told in third-person prose with the blessed inclusion of full-stops. There are, by my count, 17 instances when the main stream pauses for the lioness’s story, each time for 1-2 pages. The pauses occur every 100 pages or so for most of the novel, the gap between pauses decreasing to as little as 10 pages towards the end. The two narratives are linked thematically and eventually the plots intersect.

I was curious to know how such a novel could work; whether a single sentence could be maintained for that length without degenerating into nonsense word soup, and whether the extreme page-length was justified.Read More »

Students Have the Right to Be Offended

At last year’s Times Higher Education World Academic Summit meeting in September, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Professor Louise Richardson, revealed that she’s

had many conversations with students who say they don’t feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality […] And I say, ‘I’m sorry, but my job isn’t to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. I’m interested in making you uncomfortable […] If you don’t like his views, you challenge them, engage with them, and figure how a smart person can have views like that […] Work out how you can persuade him to change his mind.

This was followed by an official statement from Professor Richardson on the university website, pointing out that the university has an anti-discriminatory policy which she has always supported. She did not retract any of her words from the summit.

As someone who has taught students at Oxford and elsewhere, let me say this: it is absolutely not the role of a teacher to make students feel uncomfortable.Read More »

Brexit: The View from the Moon

Edgar Mitchell steps onto the powdery grey surface, plumes of dust swirling around his feet. The land, empty except for rocks and shadows, stretches to rolling hills and a close horizon. Above him, the huge blue and white disk gleams in the black sky.

‘You develop an instant global consciousness,’ he told people after he’d returned to Earth. ‘From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”’

The Brexit referendum has encouraged some of us in Britain to see, like Mitchell, the world from a new perspective. If we are not going to be part of the European Union, what should we be part of? If we are to remain inside the EU, what are our reasons for subverting the vote? Where is our home — Britain, Europe, or the world?

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When Life Gives You Pumpkins…

I began a pumpkin patch in 2016, mainly because I love the look of big orange pumpkins in October. When I needed to pick them, I looked around for ways to turn them into food. Thankfully, pumpkins are very versatile, and can form the base of many delicious things; not just pie and soup.

This was last year’s crop:

There’s a few different ways of harvesting pumpkin flesh. Some recipes ask you to carve it out with a spoon. That’s all very well but you need arms like Wonder Woman to do it properly. I found it easier to peel the skin off first and then cut the flesh into chunks. Better yet was the oven method: halve the pumpkin, scoop out the middle, wrap it in foil, and bake in a medium-heat oven (140 fan) for an hour. Then you just scoop the flesh out, like ice-cream, and blend to make a puree which can be used in most recipes, and can be frozen for later. This method also makes the kitchen smell of cooked pumpkin – an earthy, exciting aroma – and wrapping something in foil and baking it will make  you will feel as if you were cooking space food in the future.Read More »

How to Dig Graves in the Snow: A Story of Grand Forks, Yukon, and Jews in the Klondike

Last winter I wrote a 1,000 word story titled ‘The Kevura’, about the discovery of a dead body in the snow. It’s now been published, in the online Flash Fiction Magazine.

The story is set in the town of Grand Forks, Yukon, a place now so forgotten that it only has a 72-word entry on Wikipedia. First established in 1896 as a small settlement of forty buildings, the town grew to house 4,000-10,000 people (the number varies according to accounts) after gold was discovered nearby in 1897. The town had electricity, a public bath, a dentists, a famous roadhouse, and a municipal government.

In 1899 gold was discovered in a more accessible location, in Alaska, and Grand Forks fell into decline. By 1911, just fifteen years after the town was established, the town was completely abandoned so that the ground underneath could itself be mined for gold.

This is what the town looked at in 1902, around the time my story is set:

Dawson City Museum (1984.139.1). Reproduced with permission. The annotations were added by someone who lived in Grand Forks from 1903 to 1907 (when they were 10-14 years old).

The annotated panoramic lists some of the towns amenities, including a Japanese restaurant, a German bakery,  and a photographers’.

This is the same site in 2017:

Google Earth aerial photograph.

Almost nothing is left, except for a single derelict building and the remains of the cemetery, carved into the hillside, protected from mining by (let us assume) reverence for the dead. In 2009, historian and conservationist Ed Jones began restoring the cemetery.

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Some Preliminary Thoughts on Wonder Woman

I saw Wonder Woman last night and I thought it was excellent. Director Patty Jenkins pulls off a bold and ambitious story with aplomb.

There’s a lot to say about the film, and even more to say about the 76-year history of Wonder Woman as a character, but for now I just want to get a few preliminary thoughts about the movie down.

These are basic, raw thoughts, and I may change this blog post as my thoughts continue to develop. If you have any comments or you can correct / challenge me on any of the below, please do so!

This is also my first foray into the critical discussion of the film, and I am indebted to Abigail Nussbaum’s blogpost for its inspiration and links to other articles discussing aspects of the film.

Spoilers follow…

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Looking for Mars

For my birthday last year my Dad took me to the Observatory Science Centre at Herstmonceux in Sussex. It was the site of the Royal Observatory between the 1957 and 1990, after it moved out of London to escape light pollution. Most of the buildings have since been converted into a science museum, but the six telescopes are still there, and on special open evenings expert hobbyists use them to look at the stars and planets.

I particularly wanted to look at Mars. I had been working on a Mars writing project for over a year, and for research reasons – as well as pleasure – my reading diet was almost exclusively Mars-based. I had come to know Mars pretty well. But I had never actually seen it.

Seeing Mars with my own eyes would, I hoped, bridge the gap that lay between my ideas of the place and its reality: between all the ideas and images drawn from fiction and non-fiction floating in my head, and the actual, solid, brute-fact of Mars.

It would be like seeing a famous celebrity in person for the first time. Actually, it would be like looking at a famous celebrity through a long-range telescope, but that just sounds creepy.

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The Thing about the Thing Itself

9780575127739I recently finished The Thing Itself (2015) by Adam Roberts. I don’t want to reveal too much about this book because one of the pleasures of reading it is being surprised by the plot twists. And when I write ‘plot twists’ I don’t just mean revelations about the characters or developments in the order of events, I mean actual twists in the plot; moments when the plot twists into a new form or setting whilst adhering to an overall structure (albeit a structure which doesn’t become fully apparent until the end). Reading The Thing Itself feels like tracing your finger along one side of a Möbius strip: you go inside out and upside down, but eventually the twists connect together seamlessly.

The main plot follows Charles Gardner, a ‘Reading born and bred’ astrophysicist, and his experiences with Roy Curtius, a Kant-loving sociopath. There are other plots as well, which I won’t spoil.

Roberts knows how to use the perfect image to convey setting and character. Take this description of the sun in Antarctica, for example:

The sun loitered near the horizon. A cricket ball frozen in flight.

– p. 8

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Satire in the Age of Trump

In 2001 the critic and journalist Charlie Brooker was writing fake TV listings when he realised that reality had overtaken satire:

The problem, he says, is that some TV has become so bizarre, it’s pointless to try parodying it. “Touch the Truck made the point for me,” he says, referring to the show in which contestants stood round a truck touching it for as long as possible, with the last one standing winning it. “I was seriously considering just copying the listing from the Radio Times and putting that on the site straight.

Fast forward 16 years and the words of U.S. government representatives seem to be having the same effect. Take Sean Spicer, for example: the White House Press Secretary, the man who explains to the world the position of the U.S. government, spoke about dangerous five year olds, twice burped up some random letters and numbers which may have been his password, and endorsed (presumably by accident) a headline from satirical news site The Onion which stated that his job was to ‘spread misinformation’.

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The 2016 Man Booker Prize

In November I was lucky (*Kylie Minogue voice* lucky lucky lucky) enough to go the 2016 Booker Prize announcement dinner.

After a difficult journey — the train was cancelled so my Dad had to drive my mother and me into central London from Oxford — we arrived at the drinks reception in the very grand and beautiful London Guild Hall.

It was a particularly special night as my mother remembered going to the first prize dinner back in ‘69 when her father won. That, too, was also a very glamorous event, even though the prize did not yet have the international recognition it has today.

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My mother and I at the dinner
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My place at the table

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