73. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? 

That’s the big question isn’t it, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Again we have arrived at a novel that seems to have appeared just at the right time. I have had a busy few weeks and have lost some of the reading momentum that I gained last month, but I have also been to Paris and finally graduated. In Paris I was lucky enough to find a couple more members of what I consider my ‘tribe’ and certainly came home a little more myself than when I left for the airport. In my downtime it was of course time for something that would make me ponder. Why Be Happy is Jeanette Winterson’s silent twin to Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. But instead of the cover story of surviving adoption into a strictly Christian household Why Be Happy is a reflection on the reality of Winterson’s upbringing and herself.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? – Jeanette Winterson

This is one of those novels where Winterson’s writing is at it’s best. It is generous with humour, it is beautiful in agony and it takes you on a journey into madness and out again. But Why Be Happy  also reads an analytical exploration, if one was sitting across from Winterson having a chat about her upbringing, life, love, political views and how books may have just rescued her more than once.

A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place. – p. 40

When I picked up this novel I knew nothing about Winterson really other than I enjoy her work and she is an author I always seem to gravitate towards. After putting this novel down, I admire her. I admire her resilience, the blunt manner she unravels herself with and most of all I admire such close to the bone honesty with the reader. Even in moments where someone else may feel they have lost dignity or made ill informed decisions, Why Be Happy retains an integrity that is unshakable because of it’s frankness.

It is the story of Winterson’s life from Birth. Adoption, her mother (probably depressed), eternally describing the coming apocalypse of quite honestly not feeling like the ‘right’ child and being told that frequently by Mrs. Winterson. A quiet almost absent father who remarries later on in life after Mrs. Winterson has passed away. From what seem to be grim beginnings, that include poor grades and a disrupted school life, there are still books. The beginning of this book is full of dislocation, a screaming baby that is nicknamed the ‘devils child’, and a mother who tries to want to be soft and longs to find her adopted child is the child she expected.

Were we endlessly ransacking the house, the two of us, looking for evidence of each other? I think we were – she, because I was fatally unknown to her, and she was afraid of me. Me, because I had no idea what was missing but felt the missing-ness of the missing. We circled each other, wary, abandoned, full of longing. – p. 103

When young Jeanette Winterson discovers the library she begins reading from Literature from A to Z. But the private war that has always belonged to the Winterson household, sometimes seen by the neighbours when Jeannette is locked out for the night and sleeps on the doorstep, still rages. Mrs. Winterson has banned books from the house (except the bible). But Jeannette smuggles them in. They are promptly burnt on discovery. But this does not dissuade Jeannette, but seems to encourage her thirst for knowledge for what is outside her family and she hangs onto what she loves and who she is with even more violence.

Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home – they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. – p. 61

Then there is first loves, and specifically falling in love with women which is distinctly not ‘normal’ or acceptable in the eyes of Mrs. Winterson. And then university and publication and after a lifetime of not knowing, Jeanette Winterson decides to find her birth mother and unravel the mystery of her beginnings.

It is a poignant novel that speaks volumes about mental health and even in part the creative processes and the misconstrued ideas that couple with them. But this novel also ends at what almost feels like a midpoint because Winterson is obviously not done with her own story and life has an inevitable ending that can’t be written, beyond an obituary.

Creativity is on the side of health – it isn’t the thing that drives us mad; it is the capacity minus that tries to save us from madness. – p171

But it also encourages the reader not to think of happiness as a continual state or of something that can be achieved like a goal in a race. It demonstrates that happiness is something to work on, and work for. It is sometimes fleeting, it sometimes escapes us for months, but it is worth pursuing in the long run. I often find myself thinking of this novel as a bit of a warning. Overall this read was much more satisfying to me than Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. I felt that one seemed to be a deflection, it lacked something for me that didn’t quite grasp me but instead encouraged me to look elsewhere which I suppose vs. Why Be Happy was the point of that novel.

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal is a text I take a good helping of hope from I am a young working class writer, dyslexic, and recently graduated from an MA and differ greatly from what is ‘usual’. Normality, or at least Mrs. Winterson’s version of normality is a bleak place where she disappears for days at a time when she leaves egg custard in the kitchen, and is forever unpleasant to her daughter and insisting that the apocalypse is coming so we must all be miserable in time for that.

So I entirely agree. Why be normal, or someone else’s version of it, when you could be happy.

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72. The Handmaid’s Tale

As the recent television adaptation is being celebrated far and wide, I decided it was time that I read it before jumping on the binge watching bandwagon. This is one of those novels that I dived into completely blind without looking at the blurb or synopsis but I wish that I had. I am certain I would have read it a little sooner had I been a little better informed. This is a dystopia, humanity is on the edge of extinction and few women can produce viable children. These women, the red Handmaidens, are treated like cattle, or a walking incubator. A surrogate without autonomy, they are moved from household to household, stripped of their real names and once a month submit to medical examinations and fertilisation from the eligible male in the house.

The Handmaid’s Tale turns women into objects unable to rule themselves, sex into that which is pleasureless, and pregnancy is rewarded with social status and privilege. The other side of this coin is that the inability to reproduce is punished, abortion and (presumably) birth control are illegal, and this totalitarian society will kick you to death while it softly smiles.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

I don’t think I love this novel, but the Handmaid’s Tale has given me some complicated feelings. It is a novel that seems to look at you accusingly. I don’t know how or whether this is intentional, but I had that overwhelming sense of silent judgement, but it is a gaze that stares at you directly, unflinching, while a very frank narrative is unwoven. But this accusation, this sense of guilt that comes from this novel is delivered from a protagonist who is in a position least able to accuse. Offred is required to be passive, but we hear the narrative through her introspection. She is also a character who is forced to hide her face, to walk with subservient posture and is not to directly put her will on anyone beyond her intended purpose. This results in the only safe place for Offred is within her own mind.

The Handmaid’s Tale made me feel uncomfortable and powerless, particularly because this society seems to be built overnight. Assigned gendered roles, laws suddenly dismantling lives and how helpless Offred is within this tsunami is harrowing. While reading it I could not help but think how easily it would be for Offred to drown, how easily under these circumstances one’s will could break. It is as if Atwood has shifted the entire cosmos off it’s recognisable axis, but left enough that read with the right set of social opinion this is a horror story. But read by the casual observer this is still a novel dares you to say these circumstances are humane and are something for a society with a dropping population to aim for.

Offred’s position as a Handmaiden is relatively routine. She does the shopping, getting items in exchange for plastic tokens. She daily has to pass the Wall of dead traitors, displayed like a butterfly collection. She has to navigate other Handmaidens, probing for who is a true believer and who is part of the underground movement. She witnesses births. She reflects upon her own life, grieving for her family and once a month she joins the Commander and his awful wife, Serena Joy in the bedroom.

I should also mention that in this world, men don’t have an easy ride with sex either. Men aren’t allowed to have sex unless it is properly sanctioned.

The monthly ritual is a loveless affair, much like ploughing a field. And life, I expect, would’ve continued like this until something very odd happens. The Commander invites Offred into his study one evening, requests her to kiss him like she means it, and to play scrabble with him. This sounds like the cheesiest date in the world, but Offred is not allowed to read or write, she is not allowed to kiss or be kissed by the Commander and she is certainly not allowed to be alone with him in his study.

Offred agrees to spend time alone with him curious to where these meetings will take her and he gives her old magazines to look through and they often fall into discussions in a way that two people with these very different social positions shouldn’t. While this is going on the oblivious Serena Joy seems to be hatching her own plan. The usually terrible woman offers Offred a plan and a cigarette in an unexpected moment of kindness. But things of course don’t work out as intended (but you’ll have to read it to find out why).

Although this novel left me with conflicting feelings I really enjoyed it. Atwood seems to take pleasure in delivering her horrible world and it is beautifully written at times. The candid intimacy between Offred and reader that cuts close to the bone and Atwood also writes a whole host of women who are convincing and believable. From Offred struggling in the now, to her reflections on her wild feminist activist mother, to her old friend Moira, to the wives and the other handmaidens. The world of women dominates this novel, albeit it is a helpless and horrible one and of course, who do you trust when everyone is waiting for everyone else to slip up? Men in power seem to circle above these women dipping in and out only to pick at the carcass that is left for them as if these little shreds they grab are trophies.

There is really something terribly sickening and emotionally exhausting about this novel but also it awakens that enduring rage and drive that is ever rekindled by social issues. The Handmaid’s Tale jolts awake the senses with a powerless protagonist who has had her choices taken away but who is suddenly given unexpected options. This is an important novel. Put it on your ‘novels to read this year’ list.

71. Giovanni’s Room 

‘Tell me,’ he said ‘what is this thing about time? Why is it better to be late than early? People are always saying, we must wait, we must wait. What are they waiting for?’ p.33

Alongside the stack of unread Discworld novels, beneath my bedside table there is a good chunk of varied literature that I haven’t gotten my teeth into yet. Weirdly, (I am a hopeless romantic), I have never really read into much romance or ‘love’. Whenever I have, I have found formulaic novels devoted to the conquest of a ‘happy ending’ which more often than not is a tragic ending. In my mind to make a classic Romance, you need the stoic, emotionally unavailable lover, the miserable tortured artist, a straying heroine, a third party’s return to dash all hope of an affair becoming more than an affair, and the truth finally uncovered. It’ll be a novel riddled with foolish mistakes made due to fear, miscommunication, and the human condition of hoping there can be more but never quite managing to be brave enough to reach out for it.

This is actually the majority of Giovanni’s Room in a nutshell, but Baldwin puts a spin on some of these classic elements and as a result the novel is enjoyable, if not a little hopeless and tortured. Giovanni’s Room is a tasteful coming out story, it is the explorer realising himself as ‘other’ and discovering how terrifying it is to be ‘other’. It is a protagonist’s rejection of himself and his lover and of course how foolish it is to reject yourself and the consequences of denying your own feelings.

Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin

One of the more interesting things about this novel is David’s, the protagonist, awareness of how tenuous his own masculinity is. Or perhaps maybe his masculinity itself isn’t tenuous, but it is how tenuous the projection of social masculinity is and how easily it is unraveled by prying eyes ‘seeing’ what has long been suppressed. David initially has an impulse to maintain his projection of masculinity as a barrier between himself and the rest of the world. This impulse seems to relax for a while but returns later on in the novel.

I have been trying to decide where I think this impulse is rooted but it’s not simplistic. I think it is heavily implied by Baldwin that David’s impulse is fear boiling to the surface, and the difficulty of having an identity that doesn’t ‘fit’ with social expectation, as his lover is another man. This is quite a difficult thing to achieve in any novel, even with a good helping of introspection and Baldwin pulls it off like a master puppeteer.

The narrative follows David’s reflection on his love affair with a man called Giovanni. It is the story of how they meet, how they were, who they socialise with and then how it ends. But this is framed by some sinister knowledge that Giovanni is somehow going to die because of this love affair which is never revealed fully until the very end of the novel. David is also part of a bit of a complicated circle in Paris, the rich old ‘fairies’ pay the boys on the street for ‘release’ and the rich old ‘fairies’ also seem to run things with their spoilt tantrums. Poor Giovanni is at the mercy of them for part of this novel as he is jobless and helpless.

David meets Giovanni while his woman is away in Spain, deciding how she feels about him. He rediscovered feelings he repressed in his youth and although he is involved he cannot fully let himself be with Giovanni. They live together for a while and Giovanni is revealed as a man who has dumped his life into one room, he belongs to his endless artistic projects that include the room itself. But there seems to always be a distance between David and Giovanni and it is in the most heart wrenching moments of the book where Gio’s painful past is revealed and the reason why he left Italy.

It is in these passionate discussions that I cannot help but feel as if David is attempting to be the stoic emotionally stagnated character. Neatly timed for Hella’s return from Spain David throws himself back into the fantasy of her and they decide to marry but he quickly fades away from her and is wracked by guilt for Giovanni.

There is certainly much more to this novel than at first meets the eye. This is not a novel that has the artful postures of love, that shapes itself on long sighs and whimsy. It is a novel that is supposed to be a tangle of forces pulling David in all directions and it did leave me a little sad in the end. Sad for David. Sad for Giovanni. Sad for Hella. It felt like a decidedly Kafka-esque conclusion, which I suppose is true for many love affairs. Gender roles in this novel were handled in quite an interesting way, David rejecting the idea that Giovanni wants him to be a ‘housewife’, the ‘other’ masculinity that belongs to ‘deviant’ sexuality, Hella’s instance she now wants to be a wife. But it also demonstrates how fine the line is between love and agony and how quickly people reject one another’s company or even who they were with said person because they are wounded.

This novel succeeds to create a facsimile of just how complicated sexuality, gender, and social pressure can be when you are concerned about the expectations placed on you. It is a tragic story in many ways but will give you ample to think about regardless of your own sexuality, gender identity, or relationship status.

70. A Closed and Common Orbit 

Everywhere I look online I find people celebrating this novel (granted I haven’t looked very far or very deep into the internet). Personally, I am ready to bludgeon anybody who refuses to give a closed and common orbit a chance; so be warned. If you ever find me on my soapbox in a bookshop with you (it happens often) handing you this novel and you do not buy it, it will somehow find it’s way into your bag anyway. (Or perhaps it won’t.) But seriously this novel is now high up on my favourites list alongside the novel it follows a long way to a small angry planet.

I’ve actually been having a little bit of trouble in starting this post because this is that novel for me in many ways. It is that novel, which arrives exactly when you need it to. It is that novel that excels in world building and foregrounds gender identity, sexuality, and social invisibility. It is that novel that also demonstrates the validity of viable AI personalities deserving a recognised place in society beyond that of property to be sold. It is that novel that supports escape as a means to reclaiming yourself from authorities. It is that novel that demands you recognise the want for becoming autonomous is not only an option, but a right. It is that novel that tells you you are not who you were initially designed and purposed to be and that’s okay.

a closed and common orbit – Becky Chambers

But it is also that novel that calls into question friendship and family and blurs the lines between them. Our main characters are inherently good people who bind together and choose their family and and leaving one another to sink is conceptually unthinkable for any of them. There is kindness to be had even from strangers in common orbit. This novel, for me, is a safe space that throws a lot at you, makes you wait for the ending but along the way it’ll take you into it’s arms and tell you “you’re okay now.”

But as you’d expect Common orbit is a little different from the long way. It is still as enchanting as the space opera that is reminiscent of firefly, however it feels a little more economical without loosing the easy writing style and it’s a little grittier. Instead of flying around all over the place, common orbit is a novel in two parts.

In our current timeline we witness Lovelace’s transportation from the Wayfarer Ship shortly after the events of the previous novel. Pepper takes Lovey under her wing while Lovey adjusts to her new life that she has opted for in the ‘kit’ that makes her appear as human rather than AI. In the other timeline that builds the other half of the novel, Pepper (then known as Jane 23) has an opportunity to share her story from small genetically altered child sorting scrap metal to the streetwise engineering wiz-kid we know today.

It is easy to forget that Jane 23 is a child for a lot of this novel and is sort of raised by the AI, Owl who’s stranded ship Jane is living on. The daily grind of finding water, mushrooms, dogs, scrap that might fix Owl’s ship, is central to Jane’s existence and as a result struggle seems to quietly dominate this part of the novel. Loneliness is a quiet undertone and while Jane 23 has nobody but Owl, Lovey (now Sidra) seems to have too many people around her and too many things pulling her in all directions.

Sidra is struggling to accept the limitations of the ‘Kit’ and to even fix her identity onto it. Her job is to observe everything at once and this makes being outside, where there are no constraints, very difficult for her. It also makes socialising awkward as she wants to always stand in the corner and quietly watch. She is painfully aware just how different she is. It is a difficult adjustment trying to intergrade with living species and even adjusting to the perception of how these living species view AI’s. Sidra’s body kit is extremely illegal, and she begins to fear of what it could mean subjecting her friends to if she is found out by the authorities.

This novel is a little grittier than the last one, it isn’t as lighthearted and as far flung and it doesn’t move around as much as the long way. But that really demonstrates the strength of Chamber’s writing. Chamber has opportunity to get down and dirty with how elegantly she plays with the reader’s emotions, with how wonderful all that subtext is and I am not ashamed to say that this novel made me cry (four times). I’m not sure if it is because this novel is as vivid as it is, or if the sense of social and physical struggle just really got to me, but it got me. Chambers had me like putty in her hands.

Another thing I’m going to mention which I haven’t actually seen being given much airtime in other reviews is that common orbit focuses on non-binary gender identity with absolute elegance. In fact it succeeds so much in giving visibility to non-conforming, gender fluidity that there is an entire branch of a species that can and does switch genders regularly. Sure some people out there right now are going ‘so we’re aliens right?’ but actually pronouns like ‘xe’ and ‘xyr’ are littered around this novel when the gender of the person in question is unknown. It is also mentioned to be impolite to misgender someone in this novel and how important it is to ask for clarity.

Gender fluidity in common orbit is treated just as polyamorous relationships and sexuality in the long way, with absolute distain for anyone who believes it is an incorrect way to be as it is incredibly rude to suggest it. It is not accepted anywhere that it is okay to disregard the customs or beliefs of other people as ‘weird’ because they are not your own. Faced with new things and experiences, our characters adapt and accept. And I love that with every cell in my alien body. More fiercely that you can imagine.

In someways this novel feels just like coming home for me. It is everything I love about the genre and it is everything I wish the world was. A closed and common orbit is that book for me, it is that love affair that I will never let go of or get over because it is pure and precious and safe and it should be my life. I should live on these worlds with these people. So if you don’t read it or the long way to a small angry planet, I will personally bludgeon you – for your own stupid, stupidity at missing out on such poignant novels that resonate so deeply.