Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Book review: It's So You

Subtitled '35 Women Write About Personal Expression Through Fashion & Style', this is a wonderful collection of essays and recollections on the subject of clothes and make-up.  "Fashion is self-expression; Fashion is identity; Fashion is feminist," declares the blurb. 

Edited by Michelle Tea (who I have such a girl crush on: check out her regular column on xojane about her quest to become inseminated[1]), it features thirty six women – mainly writers but also ‘model/mechanic’ Jenny Shimizu and musician Kim Gordon, of Sonic Youth fame - musing on the often thorny topic of how clothes and make-up contribute to women's personal identity and expression of self.

Tea is a San Francisco-dwelling writer and that fact is reflected in the range of contributors, who tend towards the alternative.  But beyond that limit, the book features a wide range of voices, experiences and ages.  I particularly enjoyed Diane di Prima's (b.1934) essay Ideas of Fashion from the Great Depression to Today

A couple of other favourites were Felicia Luna Lemus' S.W.A.K. - a wonderful 9 page rumination on red lipstick, taking in personal reminisence, lesbian politics, Aztec history and more besides - and A Torrid Affair by Cookie Woolner, who writes, "The mainstream fashion and beauty industries exist to keep us alienated from our bodies and desires, in a constant cycle of consumption and false expectations.  Fashion should be about joy and expression, not fear and loathing - loving and truly inhabiting our bodies, not hiding from them."  It had me nodding along frantically.

I loved this book, which got me reflecting on the style choices I have made over the years (and made me excited about trying out red lipstick for the first time in my life: turns out it looks great, who knew?).  Be prepared for it to change the way you perceive the contents of your wardrobe and your make-up bag.

[1] A word which I always mix up with ‘exterminated’, bringing to mind images of Daleks with turkey basters.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

One bookish birthday list, and one practical list

I usually get childishly excited about my birthday, but this year I'm not so much.  Various reasons - the fact that I'll be spending it camping with year 8, the fact that I'll be SO OLD, oh my gosh, why God why?! - but in large part because I know I won't get many presents because, let's face  it, I'm about to move halfway across the world and so there's no point people buying me anything.  However, that hasn't stopped me coming up with various fantasy birthday lists, of which this is a bookish version...

1. What Matters In Jane Austen by John Mullan.  I love his literary puzzle books and as a self-confessed Austen geek, this will be a perfect summer read.
2. Penguin Classics deckchair from Art Meets Matter.  I have had this on a mental lust list for years but never got round to putting it on an actual list.  Error!  Yesterday I really rued the lack of a deckchair in my back garden.
3. Kindle Touch 3G.  I know, I know, but it will be SO useful when I'm away.  This is the one thing on the list that has made it onto my actual birthday list, and fingers crossed my dad comes up trumps.
4. Pride & Prejudice Literary Transport mug from the Literary Gift Company.  Let's face it, this will not travel well.
5. Virginia Woolf quotation ("Books are the mirror of the soul"), also from the Literary Gift Company.  Why anyone who is buying me a gift would ever shop elsewhere is beyond me.

But for some gifts more becoming to my imminent departure...

1. Mini dot travel holdall from Cath Kidston.  I'm long overdue an upgrade to my usual Primark weekend bag, and this fold-up bag from Cath Kidston will be just the thing to take to the States as a carry-on.
2. Small tan satchel from the Cambridge Satchel Co.  Perfect to remind me of England when I'm far away.
3. "Are we there yet?" map print from Folksy.  Perhaps not very practical to hoik to the other side of the world, but I love the ambiguity of the statement and the vintage map it's printed on.
4. On The Road Penguin Classics luggage tag from Gifted Penguin will be more practical than the Penguin Classics deckchair above: bookish and practical.
5. Clarks Classics sandals.  In summer I walk everywhere, and my usual New Look sandals aren't good for my feet.  At the weekend, after I ended up with blisters on the soles after walking across London, I was finally convinced that what I need are some properly made, comfortable sandals, so Clarks it is.

And finally, it's baffling that no-one has ever given this card to me: how perfect is it?!

Monday, 28 May 2012

Music Monday: Regina Spektor

Truthfully, there are many other Regina Spektor songs that I like more than Summer In The City (Us, Flowers and Samson are my top three if, like me, you enjoy knowing these things!), but it fit nicely into what I wanted to write about today.

Summer, for me, is best enjoyed in the city.  Autumn and spring are lovely times to be in the countryside, and winter is fairly miserable wherever you are, but I love being in cities in the summer. 

My first summer living away from home - the summer of 1997 - had been fairly miserable and damp during June.  I'd just finished my first year of university and, after spending a bit of time at home (and at a legendarily muddy Glastonbury), I moved into a house in Leicester on July 1st.  In my memory, the sun then proceeded to shine for the following two months: day after day of warmth; of wading through the thick, humid air; of working in an unbearably sweaty club by night and wandering the city by day with my new-found friends.  This, then, this scorched concrete smell and shimmering heat haze glimmering above the pavements; this buzz and stutter of a thousand radios and the gathering of friends in parks; this sleeplessness which gives a hallucinogenic quality to the days; this set the pattern for my summers.  Still, now, I love being in Leicester when the sun is out, going to London in a heatwave, or walking around Manchester in the midday glare.  Summer, for me, should always be spent in the city.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The best bookshop in Britain?


I have a list of criteria for the perfect secondhand bookshop:
- squishy armchairs and sofas on which to curl up and read;
- good fiction stock, in paperback;
- wide range of interesting non-fiction;
- even though I'm phobic about dogs and allergic to cats, a shop pet;
- open fire or log burner warming the space;
- friendly proprietors.

It's actually really hard to find a bookshop which ticks all my boxes, but the Astley Book Farm (just outside Bedworth in Warwickshire) does so in spades.  When the owners say 'book farm,' they mean it literally, the shop being a collection old barns and farm buildings on the estate where (impeccable literary credentials for a bookshop) novelist George Eliot was born. 
It's a maze of a place: higgledy piggledy rooms with uneven floors and wide wooden shelves holding a wide collection of non-fiction and, winning major points from me, an incredibly eclectic fiction selection.  Everything from literary fiction and prize winners, to cult novels, romance, crime, thrillers, classics... a choice so wide that even my mum and I (with enormous libraries at home) are always able to find new books to buy.  There's even a children's section built into the cosy hayloft, which makes a wonderful place to revisit childhood favourites or entertain small people of your acquaintance.

Minutes off Junction 3 of the M6, Astley Book Farm would make the perfect place to stop for a coffee (they've just opened a lovely-looking cafe selling locally-made cake) and a browse: loads better than a horrible service station. 

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Writing London

Oh, how I love the maps from East London company Herb Lester Associates.  Their map of Spitalfields life found its way into the box I put together for the Curiosity Project just before Christmas, and I visit the website regularly to ooh and ahh over the beautifully illustrated guides to major cities.

The release of a new map of literary London may be just what I need to put in another order.  Look at how lovely it is!  Maps, books, travel and illustration all in one?  I'm in heaven.  And while I'm at it, I might pop the Austin, Chicago and Brooklyn maps into my shopping basket, ready for a few trips from Colorado next year.  The maps cost between £3 and £5 apiece: beautiful and a bargain!

Monday, 21 May 2012

Music Monday: Finley Quaye

This afternoon I looked out of my classroom window and saw a strange, yellow, glowing thing in the sky.  I'm not sure whether the sun is here to stay, but I'm sure as hell glad to see it at last.

This song takes me back to summer's past.  For a couple of halcyon summers at the start of this century I devoted a lot of time to, for want of a better term, 'larging it'.  My friends and I spent every weekend together: indie or hip hop club night on Friday, Saturday in the park, then a house party on Saturday night blurring into Sunday morning; never actually going to bed until the final crash of Sunday afternoon.  I wrote at least half of my dissertation in the back garden of the party house at about 5am one weekend morning, as I chewed my face off and freaked out.  I got the highest mark of my whole university career.  Finley Quaye and his late nineties/early noughties contemporaries - Air, Beth Orton - were essential companions to our chilled out Sundays.  We'd lie around in the park (or if we couldn't face the outside world, in Andy's music room) listen to Sunday Shining and play truth or dare. 

Thankfully/unfortunately (delete depending on what kind of mood I'm in) my weekends are considerably more sedate nowadays.  But as soon as the sun comes out, this is the tune I rush to listen to.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Seen & heard: May 2012


1. I watched Crazy Stupid Love for the first time last weekend and really enjoyed it.  Although somewhat slow to get going, it more than makes up for it towards the end.  One scene had me crying with laughter; watch out for the backyard confrontation.  It's a glossy and ultimately rather fluffy rom-com, but with a superior cast including Emma Stone, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carrell (reprising every role he's ever played, as a put-upon schmuck), it's definitely worth 2 hours of your time.

2. I've only just discovered E4's latest US import, Happy Endings, just as the series is coming to a close.  Doh.  Following the usual post-Friends set-up of three guys and three girls, it's silly but enjoyable (and definitely superior to the execrable 2 Broke Girls, which seems to think casual racism + a laugh track = comic gold).

3. How Beautiful The Ordinary is a lovely YA collection of short stories on the theme of LGBT identity.  I especially enjoyed Julie Ann Peters' First Time, a present tense, dual narrative retelling of a teenage lesbian couple's first sexual encounter, which certainly took me back to the uncertain fumblings of my youth.  The closing tale, The Silk Road Runs Through Tupperneck N.H by Gregory Maguire is not exactly a 'short' story at nearly 100 pages long, and kept me gripped long past my bedtime.  With sympathetic and realistically flawed characters, I found it incredibly moving and it's prompted me to take a look at some of Maguire's other work (which includes Wicked, on which the hit musical is based).


1. I know I bang on about Karima Francis a lot, but she really is that good.  I had a great time at her gig in Nottingham last night.  Her single, Wherever I Go (not my favourite of her new material, it has to be said, but still amazing), has been getting some radio airplay and I am keeping everything crossed that this is the year she breaks through.  She deserves to be huge (and it'll be nice to say that I saw her back when...).

2. Not so much 'heard' as 'looking forward to hearing', but I'm excited about the new Beach House album.  So far I've resisted listening to it on Spotify (my laptop speakers are bust and make everything sound terrible), instead waiting until I can make a trip to indie record store Rockaboom in Leicester.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Good stuff: Pro-choice comic

Found via Bad Reputation, this amazing comic from Matteo Farinella's Comic Journal blog (which in itself is well worth a look) about the sneaky tactics used by the anti-abortion movement when providing 'pregnancy counselling'.

Comic © Matteo

Monday, 14 May 2012

Music Monday: Alabama Shakes

Alabama Shakes are everywhere at the moment; on the cover of the NME, on Jools Holland, being written about in The Guardian, in session for 6Music, playlisted on Radio One... by rights, that fact should make them get right up my nose, the 'Next Big Thing' label being one that's guaranteed to annoy.  But actually, they're so good that it's impossible to feel anything other than admiration.  Their gig on Friday in Birmingham was a triumph, the band working their way through debut album Boys & Girls as well as playing some new material.  I don't have time to post a full gig review, or even much of a usual Music Monday ramble (the endless task of getting myself sorted for America continues...), so without further ado, here's their performance of Hang Loose from Jools Holland a few weeks back.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Looking forward, not down

I'm finding things tough at the moment.  Rather than feeling excited about moving to the States, I'm just feeling stressed.  The seemingly endless amount of forms I have to fill in to get my visa... the long list of jobs I need to get done, both at school and at home, before I leave... the worry that things might not work out and it could all fall through... the worry that it will all work out and I'll actually have to get on the plane come July!  I know it's churlish to complain, when I worked so hard to get to this point, but I'm definitely in need of happy thoughts and things to look forward to.  And luckily, there is plenty to be cheerful about, with my weekend set to get off to a good start this evening as I'm off to Birmingham to see Alabama Shakes. 

I'm also looking forward to... 
spending tomorrow afternoon at The Lansdowne, an awesome pub in Leicester which has become a home-from-home recently, for a clothes swap, lunch with mates, and much daytime drinking (the best kind);
upcoming visits... from my dad & brother on Sunday, and my mum next weekend;
seeing the peerless Karima Francis on Wednesday;
a BBQ with friends (if this rain ever stops, anyway);
spending the first weekend of June at Field Day festival in Hackney.  Beirut, Metronomy, Jeffrey Lewis, Blood Orange... oh my.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Books Q & A

Helen over at Using My Loaf tagged me in a book post the other day, which excited me greatly because there's nothing I love more than banging on about books.  It's why I became an English teacher after all.

So, the rules:
1. Post these rules
2. Post a photo of your favourite book cover
3. Answer the questions below
4. Tag a few people to pass the Q&A on to: I'm tagging Laura and Sarah.

What are you reading right now?
I have the most awful habit of starting books (particularly non-fiction) and then failing to finish them, so my bedside table is always stacked with partly-read books.  Piled on there at the moment are Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher, Rat Girl by Kristin Hersh, and Lonely Planet Colorado. 
Do you have any idea what you’ll read when you’re done with that?
The new Patrick Gale hardback, which has just arrived from my long reservation list at the local library.  He's a wonderful and much under-rated author.

My favourite book cover - the Folio Society edition of I Capture The Castle.

What 5 books have you always wanted to read but haven’t got round to?
I have an extensive collection - 63 at the last count - of books waiting to be read.  Of those, the ones that have languished the longest are:
1. Wuthering Heights, although it's not so much always wanted to read as tried to read, hated and gave up.
2. Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood.
3. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.  I loved the first 50 pages but never read any further.  Curse of the non-fiction book again.
4. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  I promised my friend Caroline that I'd read it if she read Judy Blume's teen classic Forever (surely the reason the name Ralph is so out of fashion?).  She kept up her part of the deal, I'm still trying to get round to mine.
5. Not exactly 'always', but I've been carting Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union round for weeks without starting it.
What magazines do you have in your bathroom/lounge right now?
Oh Comely, Bust, Bitch, last Saturday's Guardian Guide.
What’s the worst book you’ve ever read?
I read and enjoy a lot of 'bad' books - trashy American crime fiction is a real favourite -but if I truly dislike a book I tend not to finish it.  One exception: Disgrace by Michael Coetzee.  Read it from cover to cover then threw it across the room because I hated it so much.
What book seems really popular but you actually hated?
See above.  It won the Booker for heaven's sake, but it's such self-indulgent, middle-aged, middle-class, white male moaning.
What’s the one book you always recommend to just about everyone?
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.  I love this book SO much, and it inspired in me a new love of history and fascination with the Tudor era.
What are your 3 favourite poems?
I love teaching WW1 poetry, especially Wifred Owen's Anthem For Doomed Youth (I always recite the first lines of this -"What passing bells for those who die as cattle..." - during the silence on November 11th) and Dulce Et Decorum Est.  Also Shakespeare's Sonnet 29 (especially as sung by Rufus Wainwright), and John Donne's The Good Morrow
Where do you usually get your books?
Charity shops mostly, but also secondhand bookshops, Waterstones, and independent booksellers.  I'm trying really hard not to buy from Amazon, but it's not always easy.
Where do you usually read your books?
Where don't I read books?!  In bed, on the train, in waiting rooms, in the pub.  But mostly in one of my two reading spots at home: my comfy chair by the fire in the winter, and my sofa in the book-lined but draughty front room in summer.
When you were little, did you have any particular reading habits?
In the school holidays, I'd have to visit the local library every other day, because the six books we were allowed to take out would last me about 40 hours before I needed new ones.  I had fairly shocking taste in books though: lots of Nancy Drew mysteries and Enid Blyton.
What’s the last thing you stayed up half the night reading because it was so good you couldn’t put it down?
The Hunger Games (the first one) a few summers ago.  I started reading at 8pm and finished at 4am because it was impossible not to finish it in one sitting.  Sadly the latter two in the trilogy never lived up to the promise of the first one (especially the final instalmant, Mockingjay.  What a disappointment!).
Have you ever “faked” reading a book?
All the time during my degree.  I sat my finals on 'The Literature Of The Fin De Siecle' having only read Mrs Dalloway, The Importance Of Being Earnest, half of De Profundis and one Katherine Mansfield short story.  Blagged it and managed to pass.  I actually really liked those writers, I was just a twat at the time.
Have you ever bought a book just because you liked the cover?
What was your favourite book when you were a child?
After refusing to read it for years (I've never liked having books recommended to me, especially by my mother for some reason, and her repeated insistence of a book's brilliance is a guarantee that I will never read it), when I was about 9 I watched the first episode of the TV adaptation of Anne Of Green Gables and plunged headlong into the series, devouring the books in one weekend. 
What book changed your life?
Probably Generation X by Douglas Coupland.  Or if not changed, then affirmed the life I had chosen to live in my early twenties.  I still harbour a desire to step out of the rat race and go and live in Palm Springs, a la hero Andy.
What is your favourite passage from a book?
Chunks of Shakespeare that I've memorised because I teach it every year aside, I really can't think of anything.
Who are your top five favourite authors?
There are very few authors who never write a duff word, but I've loved everything by Neil Gaiman, Armistead Maupin, Poppy Z Brite, Christopher Brookmyre and Sarah Waters.
What book has no one heard about but should read?
My answer to this is actually the same as Helen's: What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn.  Moving, funny and brilliant.
What are your favourite books by a first-time author?
The previously-mentioned but utterly amazing Generation X by Douglas Coupland, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite, The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood, Prep by Curtis Sittenfield.
What 3 books are you an “evangelist” for?
Gosh, just 3?  There are a ton of books I evangelise for at school.  As far as I'm concerned, making teenagers read books I love is one of the few perks of the job.  Two I recommend all the time are Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce and The Shell House by Linda Newberry.  Framed is the funniest book I've ever read, it has me howling no matter how many times I go back to it.  If it doesn't make you laugh out loud you are most likely clinically dead.  And The Shell House is a lovely, tender story set partly during WW1 and partly in contemporary times, and deals with sexuality, faith and loss.
Out of school I recommend Interpreter Of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri a lot, often buying copies to give away.  It's Pulitzer-winning short story collection, and although short stories aren't usually my thing, Lahiri's are so beautifully constructed and narratively strong.  Her second collection, Unaccustomed Earth, is amazing too. 
What is your favourite classic book?
Persuasion by Jane Austen, a wonderful story of love lost and found.  I'm an incurable romantic and the final scenes with the letter make me sob with joy.  Some women may want to find their Darcy, but I'm all about Captain Wentworth.
5 other notable mentions?
1. The Great Gatsby is my favourite American classic.
2. For YA fiction which is 2o years out of date but still delightful, Paula Danziger's novels.
3. Stephen Chbosky's The Perks Of Being A Wallflower.
4. Any of Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie series.  Another instance of my mum telling me how brilliant something was and me refusing to read them.  When I eventually picked one up, I finished it in one sitting, howling with laughter all the while.
5. Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Music Monday: The Beastie Boys

While indie has been my constant for the past twenty years, there's not a genre of music that I haven't been a fan of for however fleeting a time.  UK garage; thrash metal; funky house; riot grrrl; hip hop: they've all taken their turn on my stereo.  In my first and second years at university I got heavily into The Beastie Boys, thanks in large part to Graham, the DJ at the club I worked in (and spent half my life at), Alcatraz.  And so began my first hip hop phase, as I bought the records (on vinyl, naturally.  I was such a poser), wore the t-shirt, read Grand Royal, the Beastie's magazine.  I'd wear my baggy jeans slung low on my hips, a baby tee with Tank Girl or Spiderman stretched across my chest, sneakers on my feet and my hair in spikes.  When Sabotage or Sure Shot came on in the club, I'd charge around the dancefloor with the boys.  I cringe now to think of that gauche 19 year-old trying too hard to be cool and urban.  Trying too hard to keep up.

I was surprised by how sad I felt when I heard that Adam Yauch, aka MCA, had died on Friday.  The Beastie Boys will always take me back to those good times on the Alcatraz dance floor with Steve and Kirsty, Millar and Pacey.  And later in the 90s, around the time of Intergalactic's release, with Adam, Becky, Dave, Mike... people I've largely lost touch with but who were the centre of my world for a long time. 

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing

Life is either a daring adventure... print from the Happy Deliveries Etsy shop

My mum is amazing at knowing just the right words to say or, in this case, share.  Knowing that I'm feeling a little overwhelmed by the daunting task of packing my life up and relocating to America for a year, on Sunday she gave me a slip of paper on which was printed the above quotation in full:

"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all. 
Security is mostly a superstition.  It does not exist in nature."

How perfect is that?!  If I wasn't in the process of getting rid of all extraneous stuff and putting the rest into my attic, this print would be top of my lust list.