"underwater signals of the oddball"
(David Peace, Colson Whitehead, Kate Clanchy)
Welcome to this week’s reading is a superpower: quicker than reading the Kindle sample chapters, and almost as entertaining.
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Let’s jump into this week’s recommendations…
In the dug-out, on the bench. The Anfield bench. Bill stared out at the players of Liverpool Football Club on the pitch. The Anfield pitch. In the sun, the players of Liverpool Football Club shining. In the sun, in their kits. Their red shirts, their white shorts. And their white socks. And in the dug-out, on the bench. The Anfield bench. Bill heard the whistle blow, Bill heard the crowd roar. The Anfield crowd.
(David Peace, Red or Dead)
Cleveland was identical to the other dormitories on the campus: Nickel brick under a green copper roof, surrounded by box hedges that clawed out of the red soil. Blakeley took Elwood through the front door and it was swiftly clear that outside was one thing and inside another. The warped floors creaked incessantly and the yellow walls were scuffed and scratched. Stuffing dribbled from the couches and armchairs in the recreation room.
(Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys)
Nevertheless, I persisted, setting an extra, ironical Liam question at the bottom of every worksheet, making special little Liam cracks in class, leaving out piles of books to be picked up: the Morse code, underwater signals of the oddball to the oddball, one writerly mind to the other. It worked: he did get cleverer and cleverer; he did write more and more fluent and lengthy and eccentric essays, full of perceptions that made me laugh out loud; he really was the best and funniest literary critic I’d ever taught, the best I was ever going to teach. He made my lessons worth planning, my job worth doing.
(Kate Clancy, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me)
Most of David Peace’s writing is brilliant, if often horrible - the 1974-1983 saga is one of the most powerful reading experiences I’ve ever had, his evocation of the Miners’ Strike in GB84 unbearably bleak but so vivid it’s like living through it yourself. Occasionally, though, his love for high modernist experimentation pushes past ‘powerful’ to ‘actually unreadable’, as in the case of Tokyo: Occupied City, 300-pages of noodling in search of a plot.
I’d got the impression that Red or Dead, his intensely repetitive biography of Liverpool Manager Bill Shankly (“football’s not a matter of life or death - it’s much more important than that”), was one of the unreadable ones, and avoided it until now. But when I stood in HMV the other day to buy an actual, physical CD, and I saw it sitting next to the till and it was quite clear nobody else would ever want it - and it was only £2, and honestly it looked so sad - I sort of bought it out of compassion.
Anyway, it’s brilliant. Riveting, and unusual, and a masterpiece of form fitting content. It’s a story of obsession, as all of Peace’s novels are, and as in The Damned United it reveals the unending stress of being a football manager - whether it’s describing those results that are never far from your mind, keeping you up late as you calculate exactly what they’ll do to your promotion chances, or cataloguing the endlessness of training, and the pressure to always keep up standards.
I’m no great football fan, but it’s had me absolutely captivated. It’s a story of how lots of small actions add up to a worthwhile life, probably the most hopeful of any of Peace’s books (although that’s not saying much). More than worth £2 if you see it on the shelves in HMV.
Next I’m back to The Nickel Boys, if only to shout about how great it is some more (not that it needs the attention, what with the Pulitzer Prize and all). But it really is a beautifully constructed book, managing in the first section to sweep the reader into Elwood’s idealistic existence as a young black man with a MLK speech on his turntable before brutally pulling the rug out from underneath him.
It sounds like a punishing reading experience, and yet in the moment it’s not. What lingers afterwards is the sense of institutional injustice, the sense of a system that by its very nature works against you:
Academic performance had no bearing on one’s progress to graduation, Desmond explained. Teachers didn’t take attendance or hand out grades. The clever kids worked on their merits. Enough merits and you could get an early release for good behavior. Work, comportment, demonstrations of compliance or docility, however—these things counted toward your ranking and were never far from Desmond’s attention.
It’s easy to be dismissive of the idea that fiction can open your mind to the lived experience of people whose lives are radically different to your own, and you’d have to be a fool to assume that a single book can do so. But books like The Nickel Boys are a starting point for those conversation, and by creating a powerful sense of engagement to show their reader exactly what that systematic injustice feels like, they can be an important tool.
If all that sounds too worthy, then you should also know that, purely as a work of fiction, it’s both gripping and terribly sad. It’s a great book, in every sense.
Finally to Kate Clanchy’s Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, a book whose title is so astoundingly awful I’d written it off long before it won the Orwell Prize for Political Writing. In my defence, I assumed it would simply be another in the long line of teaching memoirs, where:
a plucky young teacher starts their teaching career in a middling school
he or she finds some kids who say funny things
he or she finds some kids who are rough but trying to get better
he or she gets worn down by marking, lesson planning and targets
he or she ultimately despairs over the rough kid getting expelled
he or she leaves teaching for another career
If you’ve read one of these books (and there are many), then you should know Kate Clanchy’s memoir is emphatically not one of them. It is empathetic, wise and profoundly insightful. Divided by topic, into sections with titles like “about love, sex, and the limits of embarrassment”, “about writing, secrets and being foreign” and “about poverty, art, and how to choose a school”, Clanchy’s book steers away from typical broad-brush school stories to dig deeply into the sociology of her local area.
Every section is a welcome reminder of how many different factors - social, cultural, racial, political - are at play in a classroom, and the challenges of working in such an environment. Much like Red or Dead, Clanchy’s memoir shows why your hard-won victories are such a triumph, and the occasional beauty of being in a context where everything comes together into a once-in-a-lifetime moment. It’s miles better than you’d expect it to be.
Dongwon gives great advice
If you write, you’ll get advice. Literary agent Dongwon has some great thoughts on it.
This felt particularly resonant:
Here’s the secret of advice. It’s never right. It is impossible to give advice that is correct. Correct in all ways, or correct in every situation, or correct for every person. But more than that, it is still impossible to give correct advice for one person in one situation. The best you can do is give advice that unlocks a door. Something that suggests a path. An edit is not a decree, it’s a question. And that question can lead to better answers. But not right ones.
There is no good advice because there is no right answer.
Molly Young explains the ‘Tiers of Fun’
“A friend of mine recently introduced me to a concept called Tiers of Fun”, writes Molly Young in the latest instalment of her excellent newsletter (it’s basically like the one you’re reading now, only better). “The context was this: I was telling her about a period in my life in which I had a stressful job and got in the habit of carrying plastic bags in my purse in case I needed to barf on the subway from anxiety… by the time I told her about the barf bags, years had passed, and I’d refurbished it into a humorous anecdote. “That’s classic Tier 3 Fun,” she said. And then she explained the tiers.”
To find out exactly what they are, you’ll need to go here. It’s a great tool.
Until next time,