A Capsule Collection for the Satirical Sartorialist

Every once in a while, Fashion’s gospels will dictate that one must have certain items in one’s armoire: essential capsule pieces worth investing in due to their timeless style and versatility. Undoubtedly, Fashion’s recommendations will drip with impracticality, expense and adjectives. Items of clothing will be oddly and impossibly rendered in singular form (for instance, ‘the perfectly tailored jean’). There will definitely be mention of ‘luxurious knits’, ‘expensive tailoring’, classic trenches, crisp cotton shirts… and oh god I can’t go on because the blandness is suffocating me. These items are the preserve of neat, clean people who eat colourless food and who have the presence of mind to iron. No matter how crisp the cotton shirt and how well-tailored the ‘pant’, if I’m in black and white I look as though I’m about to perform in a school band. So I reject the neutral palettes and practical versatility and offer instead my recommendations for MVP wardrobe items.

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My Super Mum and Her Super Foods

I am nearly 30 and my mother still cuts my fruit up for me. In this sentence is everything you need to know about our relationship. Indeed, it’s only twelve years since I discovered that mandarins came with pips in them. Mum used to carefully remove them before placing the fruit on the table. It wasn’t until I moved out of home that I discovered the horrible truth that I would have to extract my own mandarin seeds. That’s the first piece of background you’ll need today.

The second thing is that I am extremely petulant. When I’m told in hyperbolic extortions that I MUST watch [insert popular TV show here – yesterday it was The Wire] I instinctively reject the entire show (whilst simultaneously being so evangelical in my need to get everyone to watch Outlander that only my gender and lack of tie distinguishes me from Mormon proselytisers). My ego is so fragile that I want the discovery for myself, and the knowledge that my taste is a little outside the norm.

So combine extraordinary maternal devotion and a daughter’s petulance and you might go some way to understanding why I am nearly 30 and having regular arguments with my mother about not wanting to try new foods.

You see, my mother is on a quest to single-handedly cure my auto-immune disease. Growing up, our family debates demanded you brought peer-reviewed sources to accompany your statements. “I heard on morning television” would earn a red card straight away. Yet, when it comes to miracle foods, my mother – through a fog of love and hope – will take a punt on the word of everything from New Idea to New Scientist.

The foods I might have been happily eating one moment will become ruined the second I am told about their designation as a super food. That’s when I turn into a toddler.

Every couple of months, a whisper of incredible results! pain gone! cured! thanks to eating certain foods will reach my mother’s ears. From there, it is a very short trip to my fridge. It starts with carefully clipped columns earnestly pressed into my hands. Then starts the “you should eat…”, then little parcels mysteriously appear in my fridge.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of food that has elbowed its way into my fridge:

  • purple vegetables
  • apple cider vinegar
  • raw honey
  • kimchi
  • blueberries
  • kale
  • yoghurt
  • turmeric
  • ginger
  • fish oil (not capsules – which aren’t powerful enough, apparently – but oil that I was to drink which had lime flavouring that couldn’t possibly outstrip the horrible oily fish taste so just left the most vomit-inducing strong, acidic fish taste. And swallowing oil is awful)

Kimchi was my favourite.

Mum: I’ve just read about how wonderful kimchi is for inflammatory conditions

Naomi: yes, that’s because it’s a fermented vegetable and like sauerkraut (which I eat a lot of) it has pro-biotics that are good for gut health

Mum: (ignoring me) it’s fermented spiced vegetable dish…

Naomi: I know. I’ve had it often. In fact, I had it on my breakfast burrito last week.

Mum: … like a Korean sauerkraut.

Naomi: Dude. I know. This is not a mystery to me. I quite like kimchi.

Mum: SO I’VE PUT ONE KILO OF KIMCHI IN YOUR FRIDGE THAT YOU SHOULD ADD TO EVERY MEAL.

Naomi: I’m never eating kimchi again.

We are currently in the Age of Turmeric.

Mum’s efforts aren’t limited to food: every week I’m goaded to try meditation, try yoga, try mindfulness, try try try try. But every day I’m trying. Trying to get out of bed. Trying not to let pain and immobility and fatigue and sickness stop me from living. Trying to do all stretches/exercises/planning/resting that might mean I get through a day without collapse. Being told I should try harder, try more is soul-crushing.

My petulance is a protective mechanism against the fact that so far the only impact of a diet high in something has been mildly interesting wee. I need to not be disappointed every time something doesn’t work. If I were, I don’t know how I’d have survived nearly a decade of gradual declines, of failed trials. Not getting my hopes up is very different to giving up hope.

Mum knows this, but we continue to play our merry little game. Why? Because Mum is devoting to her cause – me – the energy, attention and positivity that I have lost. Because Mum is doing the hoping for two. Because I know her desperate attempts to do something are driven by the unbearable impotence of being unable to help. And, in return, to her I devote a grudging willingness to try. Even the bloody fish oil. Because I see her pain too, I see her efforts as the parcels of help and love that they are. Because I would do the same for her. Because one day they might decide that a nice shiraz and cured meat are the next cure for everything. Because I love her, and know she loves me.

And because I am nearly 30 and my mother still cuts up my fruit for me.

Breaking Up With My Past Self

To be given a diagnosis was a relief.

“Are you certain?” I asked.

There can be no doubt. The fusing of your sacroiliac joints is clear to see. She continued to discuss treatment but I was suspended in that moment of certainty, of being believed. For two years, as pain wracked my body, so severe that I would lie screaming silently to myself with hot tears leaking from clenched eyes, specialists had told me they couldn’t find anything wrong. I had taught myself to brace for further disappointment, yet here was an answer. An autoimmune disease, a form of arthritis. Connective tissue hardening and fusing my joints together. Ankylosing Spondylitis.  A word I’d always need to check the spelling of. But I was only 23. Now I had an answer I could resume living life.

**

Are you in pain now? My bikini waxer asked as she spread hot wax in my most intimate areas.

The answer was yes but the question wasn’t as daftly obvious as it appeared.

I am always in pain.

**

I could adopt a guise of normality at first: slamming back the pain killers at night to sleep, slamming back the double-shot espressos in the morning to rid myself of the druggy veil. But then the disease struck my most vulnerable spot. My body

Medications conspired with reduced activity to quickly dump thirty kilos onto my small frame. I was so enraged and humiliated by what my body had done to me: not only was it sabotaging me from within with fatigue and pain, now it was turning me into a grotesque joke.  It was a traitor and I hated it.

Women are taught that investing in your body with exercise and diet are signs of self-love. We are taught that our sexual appeal decreases as our size increases. Here I was, flabby, soft, bloated and married to an athlete. We chose each other when my fat was appropriately placed and thus considered ‘curves’. How could I believe his claim to find me attractive? Compounding this was the ever present duo: pain and fatigue. He wanted to help. He saw my agony and felt helpless. He wanted to hold me but the pain wouldn’t allow even a gentle touch. Our roles melted from lovers and partners to patient and carer.

**

Life is measured in numbers

Weight.

Income.

GPA.

Who am I now, if my identity cannot rest on the certainty of success that these numbers gave me?

**

The next blow was to my social life. A day at work left me too exhausted for midweek plans and weekends became closely protected and utterly necessary recovery periods where I yielded to the fatigue and sleep. If an invitation was accepted, odds were I’d need to cancel at the last minute – body winning over mind. If I went, I’d pay for it with days of pain and tiredness.

I became so guilty. I missed so many things. And so few friends understood. I could look so well. They didn’t see the collapse that followed. Many, many friends drifted away.  Those who didn’t, those who understood without being told, those who checked in with compassion, who never forgot me in my prison – those friends are my strength.

**

It feels like my spine is made of something rigid. Wood that I’m trying to coax – through stretches, through diet, through aggressive medications – into yielding and moving like the myriad bones in my back should. Around this wood I am tender, bruised, swollen. This is the pain that is my everyday – my normal – that makes me come across as though I’m always slightly pissed off about something.

Sometimes, the pain screams. A crescendo through my whole body, intensifying from dull ache to sickening shock. Pulse after pulse. A knife twists in my spine: cold, probing metal, finding bone, pushing further in, twisting.

I try to find reason when it’s like this. How did I bring this pain upon myself? Did I overdo it at work? Overdo it at play? Not exercise enough? Exercise too much? I won’t sleep. I won’t function. I sweep my diary clear as I brace myself for days of stubborn recuperation. I will pay for this ten times over.

**

My body is at war with itself. This is a truism of an auto-immune disease. But my body is also at war with my Self. I must resist starting each sentence with “I was”. I was a gymnast. I was a soccer player. I was thin. I was a pianist and a singer and a performer and a burst of energy and a friend and… I had ambition.

For three years I fought the reality that shoe-horning myself into the ‘normal’ professional environment was headed for disaster. I hated disappointing anyone – my colleagues, my bosses, my parents who were so proud of my academic and professional achievements. I was the type whose bedroom dripped with medals and trophies, whose life was propelled forwards by a singular drive to ‘do my very best’.

And here I was, starting each day with a plea that my body move (that’s step one) then begging the pain to recede. Then battling the constant fog of pain medication and heavy fatigue to do a job that relied on a quick and curious brain. I tried to keep going. Everyone tried to help me. But eventually, I just couldn’t be relied upon. With deep shame, I confronted my failure and my professional persona – so integral to my idea of who I was – collapsed.

**

I sit across from another version of myself. She looks cool and together, and her armour is cropped blazers and pearls and pencil skirts. This is it, she says. The dream, the pinnacle. And now you’re going to fuck it up because you can’t hack it? Do you know where I could go? Who I could be? What my life would be like? I am on the cusp of the world and you’re offering me a little life of brushing crumbs off my boobs.

Yup.

Who am I without this job though? Without the clothes? Without the comfortable descriptors? How do I explain my availability, my free time? What do I write in occupation when ‘inert t-shirt covered in food stains’ is how you propose I occupy my time?

I wave my hands vaguely. Alternate Naomi, with the vision and ambition and capability, slips through my fingers.

**

Over the years, because of the implications of my disease and medications, doctors asked when I might want children. I would pluck the number 28 from my arse – to defer the question as much as anything. It sounded suitably old: an age by which I would have established life on its awesome, adventurous trajectory and be ready to create monuments to my awesomeness in tiny human form.

It started well:

Career at 21.

Married at 23.

Owned a home at 24.

Then the wolf came and blew it all down.

Amidst wreckage, however, we have the opportunity to rebuild.

At 29, I am breaking up with who I was.

Like most relationship breakups, this one is drawn-out. I’ve been sitting in the wreckage for some time, trying patience and compassion and listening, instead of fighting. With tearing effort, I remind myself that Past Naomi wasn’t perfect: she hadn’t found her empathy or sensuality, her confidence or creativity. She was smart, but she didn’t have wisdom. I like these things about Now Naomi.

I have stopped fighting against the monstrous waves that have battered my body and mind for eight years. I have stopped thinking that mimicking an idealised, created version of myself is proof I am doing ok. It is the opposite. I have said, ok enough. I can’t do it anymore. I don’t want to do it anymore. I cannot fight against my disease – against my Self – anymore. I know what I can’t do. Now I just have to nurture what I can do. For the first time in a long time, I’m growing again.

This article was originally commissioned and published by Feminartsy

 

A Political Body

 

My awakening started with the clothes.

As a performer child, I loved creating a character through costume. This was no mere dress-up game but a careful application of hair, makeup and clothing to capture a nuance or signal a mood. Initially, my inspirations were caricatures like ‘fading Hollywood star’ (to practice my wrinkles) or ‘ski accident victim’ (I loved doing bruises). As I grew up, the characters became more subtle; sometimes an expression of my mood, sometimes an optimistic projection of what mood I wanted to be in (my famed poncho of happiness – rivalling the technicolour dream coat for its loud, clashing colours – is a winter staple to forcibly inject joy into Canberra’s grim winters). When I dressed each day, the question I started with is ‘who am I today?’, and I enjoyed that my costume would provide hints to the person within.

But then I got fat.

I was a weird shape already. Very short, skinny arms and waist, and an arse that heralded the Eastern European dumpling I would become. A size 6 (unless I wanted to buy pants in which case I tried on the largest size in every store and ended up throwing a tantrum, crying, leaving, binging, purging). I wore a lot of skirts. So when my narrow bits started catching up to the wide bits the clothing options rapidly receded. As a size 12-14, there was no room to move. If it didn’t do up, you got nothing. I was still smaller in weight, size and measurements than the average Australian woman and yet fashion was clearly telling me its doors were not open to the likes of me. Keep walking past those well-lit storefronts and find the shop where everything is draped and baggy. For once you’ve fallen off the size 14 cliff you are to shroud yourself in loose fabric. I did. I hid.

I hid in the clothing fat people are told to wear to look slimmer but actually just render us bland. It was all that was available, serving as a sartorial dunce’s hat to publicly shame us for our grotesque shape. My technicolour wardrobe was crammed to the side as black, beige, more black went on high rotation. I was background while fashion took place on more deserving bodies. The fashion equivalent of playing a tree in the school play. For the odd occasion where I needed to haul an old character out of the wardrobe (the role of glamourous wedding guest, for instance, cannot be played in a jersey wrap dress), I would cram and fold myself into layers of horrible shapewear that would line my body with cruel, red indentations, and give me painful stomach cramps from holding in my soft pudge. I look back at the few photos I permitted at that time and the character I’m portraying is the invisible woman. I didn’t think people like me could be seen, should be seen, let alone celebrated.

 

I recognise that regardless of what I look like on the outside, I will always carry these seeds of a distorted relationship with my body. Even though I have now made peace with my body, I still struggle to shut out the cruel whisper that life would be different if I weighed twenty kilos less. I’m still pulling myself up on my perceptions of health. This is how I’m meant to be. But society, with its warped perception of what ‘fit and healthy’ look like, and an obsession with ‘health-shaming’ people (which is really ‘fat-shaming’ reimagined for the 21stcentury), doesn’t get that, and it’s hard to fight that society off and keep it out of my mind. Every day is and will be an internal battle to quieten that instinct. I still look at old photos and trace my protruding bones with a smile (mmm… sexy clavicle). My closest human helps me through the bad days with compassion and forgiveness that I struggle to show myself. I’m ok, and I’m safe.

 

Psychologists, nutritionists, personal trainers, doctors and gyms aren’t what got me to this place of begrudging acceptance. Not even Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth cut through my conditioning. My awakening began with Instagram. And it went back to the clothes.

I’ve always liked to look at aesthetic things, so when I first got Instagram it was filled with models and celebrities ostensibly marketing incredible fashion. But, as I had with fashion magazines, I had to block these out as they were also marketing a body shape and ‘health’ aesthetic (health is running! And gymming! In lycra! And look at the salad I’m eating! Wow!) that was so far removed from what I needed for my own recovery and reality.

Somehow, I started following a few ‘plus-size’ bloggers, and I thought they were magnificent. There was no baggy jersey here but colour, and texture, and skin, and TIGHT FITTING CLOTHING that showed dimpled thighs, soft bellies, and jiggly arms. I curated my feed so every time I looked I was inundated with something that made me joyful – creative fashion – and that recalibrated two decades of social programming of what visible bodies are supposed to look like. Of what active bodies look like. Of what clothes should fit like. It was revolutionary.

And then slowly, I started making myself visible to the world again. With the help of online brands with more sizing options, I started choosing costumes again instead of disguises. And if felt bloody amazing. So I would take a photo of it, and I would share it, because I wanted to be seen again. I wanted to capture that moment of creativity and confidence so I can revisit it on my shit days. I wanted to insert myself into a landscape that I thought I had been denied entry into.

The rest of the world is slowly catching on, though for now fashion for all bodies remains a side show. And risks abound even in this intended safe space: the curve fashion industry risks being co-opted by brands who want the social cache of concealing naked consumerism behind messages of empowerment, and the ranking of bodies’ worthiness is sneaking in, with tall, white, hour-glass bodies most likely to be deemed acceptably curvy.

We must be awake to this and we must keep critiquing what is put in front of us. But now, because of my curated Instagram with its celebration of diverse bodies wearing whatever they want, I can look more critically at ‘fit inspiration’ images, ‘health’ marketing, fashion only ever displayed on tall, thin bodies and see them for the constructed forms of control, exclusivity and branding that they are.

As an Eastern European dumpling in a world that values conformity and striving to achieve that conformity, to be seen, even if only in a curated digital world, is an act of political protest. It’s an act of radical self-love in a world that tells me to starve and purge and hide. And I love being part of the revolution.

Experiences of body shame and eating disorders are unique, but you don’t have to feel alone. If you or someone you know needs information and support, please contact a specialist organisation like The Butterfly Foundation for guidance. Be gentle with yourselves. x

The River

Lately I’ve given myself over to a pull I’ve resisted for a very long time. I’m floating in a calm, clear river, carried by the water’s flow and whirls and moods. I don’t know where I’m going, and for once, that doesn’t bother me.

I’m uneasy about the apparent lack of ‘doing’. My closest are too. But I’m learning to trust that I’m doing something very important and very profound, just very quietly. The action is taking place inside and I feel the searching, finding, growing and healing happening in cyclic swells.

I wonder whether it’s wartime, British pragmatism that taught us we ‘must keep going’, ‘mustn’t grumble’, ‘stiff upper lip’. The immediacy of the danger and disaster has receded and yet we still frantically propel ourselves while squashing our instincts into a too-small box. I’ve found myself telling so many distressed friends that it’s ok to stop, be still, withdraw and nurture. To lick our wounds. To create a safe cocoon for a little while. We feel so much anguish when we resist this. Then we feel guilt when we yield. We see this as giving up, of not being able to handle everything. I’m trying to free myself and my friends from this mindset. It’s not doing nothing. It’s not hiding from the world. It’s listening to ourselves and caring for our needs in a gentle, comforting way. It’s no less valid step towards health than doing something others would more easily recognise as being ‘good for you’. To hold yourself close with tenderness is not failing, it’s flying.

I think these summons inwards happen when we’re on an unsustainable path. If we ignore these calls, we risk not hearing an important announcement to ourselves. I didn’t know, until I stopped struggling and started floating, that there were so many sharp corners in my life that I had been repeatedly running into. I forged the path I had been on so long ago that I’d neglected to check it was still the one of least resistance. I have changed and that life doesn’t fit anymore, and I can’t force it too. As I float, I can find new paths led by this change, by curiosity and passion, based on my now, instead of my then.

And so I keep floating. Outwardly restful, inwardly calmly observing and learning. I didn’t know how much I was missing about myself, how much I was yearning for things I wasn’t making time for. Somehow, I had stamped out whimsy and creativity. This was the cost of the contortion it was taking to keep charging ahead. To have stilled long enough to make these discoveries is affirming of the decision I made against the concerned resistance of my driven mind. I’ve never felt such lightness and happiness.

The time will come for me to swim again. Until then, the sounds and the smells of the gentle river are a tonic to my burnt out, injured body. I don’t know where I’m going, but trusting my instincts is what is keeping me afloat.

My First Blog Post, or, Five I Loved And One I Didn’t.

There’s two ways to break the ice: simply, or with a lot of vodka. As the consequences of a lot of vodka are less predictable, my first submission will simply be about books I read last year. Specifically, five that I loved and one that I didn’t.

As a bearer of chronic disease, I spend a lot of time stuck prone in my bed, my mind racing, or lying awake at night in pain, my mind racing. The only effective technique I’ve ever found that stills this mental athleticism (unmatched by my physical capabilities) is to read. This means I get through a lot of written words throughout the year, not only books but long-form journalism, essays, and criticism. If I’m really desperate, I pick an unwieldy topic I feel embarrassingly ignorant on or morbidly fascinated by and read the Wikipedia entry. The American Civil War entry and The Crimes of Ted Bundy being particular highlights (both in content and hours of entertainment).

I digress! I often do. Without further disruption, here are the five books that had wedged a home in my memory in 2016.

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Not appearing in this photo: Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, by Helen Garner

  1. Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, by Helen Garner

On the recommendation of a friend (and my pretend friends, Annabelle Crabb and Leigh Sales, on their podcast ‘Chat 10 Looks 3’), 2016 was the year I discovered the writing of Helen Garner. I read three of her books this year and I have three more in my teetering pile of ambition awaiting me. Damn she’s good. But it was her book, ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’ which out-lingers the rest. The book records Garner’s attendance at trial for a sensational murder that occurred in Canberra in the late 90s: a woman calls a dinner party, telling her guests it is to farewell her partner who she will be killing. She does. And he dies a horrible, protracted death. It is not the horror and gore that is compelling here, but Garner’s ability to see herself as a participant in the story in a completely non-narcissistic way, and her stunningly evocative observation of the ordinary. Here’s an excerpt that struck me as so prescient that – as I flew across Central Asia on a darkened, sleeping plane – I took a photo of my eReader so I could capture her honest insight, deceptively elegant prose and, in particular, description of female relationships (below). She’s a great Australian feminist writer whose work is so enjoyable to read that you’ll have to consciously pause to admire how good she is. I implore you to track down her work.

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On the unique power asymmetry of (some) female friendships

  1. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt

Let’s imply that there was any design to this blogpost and continue with another crime novel. As I was reared watching British crime drama on the ABC (my first words were probably ‘you have the right to remain silent’), I do like crime as a portrait of society, power and people. However, it is very, very, very rarely anything other than light diversion. That two ‘crime novels’ make this list, then, is exceptional. I’d heard this book mentioned as the archetypal great crime novel for some time, and so it was added to my lengthy list of books to look out for in second-hand bookstores (I need a focus otherwise I turn into Violet Beauregarde and want everything). In the musty mecca that is Gould’s in Newtown, I found an artfully tattered original copy and dove in, but… this was no crime novel. Yes, a murder takes place (in an ornate mansion stacked with ornate antiques inhabited by an eccentric millionaire who hosts parties to rival Capote’s). However, the majority of this book – and what makes it spectacular – is not the crime itself but its drippingly rich portrait of Savannah high and low society with its Dickensian characters. The characters are so outlandish and the writing so vivid I could feel the southern heat – and the madness/eccentricity it incubates. I felt as though I had passed through the wardrobe into another, almost unbelievable world. But the story is true. And now I really want to visit Savannah.

  1. The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

I now feel compelled to assure you that my literary tastes extend (well) beyond crime writing and narrative non-fiction (especially because the other two works on this list are non-fiction and really, I read a lot of fiction and I do really like it I just haven’t gotten to my stack of Booker Prize finalists yet and I got distracted by reading THE ENTIRE Outlander oeuvre which comprises – to date – eight novels of 1000+ pages each and really I’m an intelligent well-rounded person with lots of interests, except for science and sport, unless these are in a historical and social context and… anyway).

There’s a reason Julian Barnes’ writing is so highly awarded: his prose is witty, warm and elegant. I’m not getting up to check but I think I must have seven or eight of his books – probably more than any other author who has made it onto my shelves.

I had somehow convinced my husband that I deserved ‘just a look’ inside a really good bookstore in Bowral (a break in the mind-numbing drive between Sydney and Canberra that we had been doing too regularly in order for me to attend medical appointments). When I saw a new Barnes novel I squealed. When I saw it was about Shostakovich – one of my favourite composers, on whom I had written a major research essay in the third year of my history degree – I started trotting on the spot.

The book is written from Shostakovich’s point of view as he is subjected to the scrutiny of the Stalinist police state. So many artists faced impossible choices: to flee, to become a propaganda tool of the USSR, or to risk life and family to stay and resist. Shostakovich went from Soviet hero, to inadvertently offending Stalin’s musical sensibilities (a crime that saw him ostracised from cultural circles) to restoring his place as a favourite – at enormous cost to his musical and personal integrity.

It includes the fantastical, yet completely true, anecdote that Shostakovich was to return to the terrifying headquarters of the secret police for further interrogation but his integrator was himself arrested in the interim – an emblem of the insanity of 1930s Soviet Russia.

The Noise of Time does not require an appreciation or understanding of Shostakovich. It is a portrait of a man in a horribly crippling and intractable crisis. But I will highlight to you something that, for me, made this book so much more fascinating: there has been academic debate over the degree to which Shostakovich tried to resist the regime through his music. Was the Soviet cultural hero actually using his art as coded resistance?

It is testimony to Barnes’ human insight that his Shostakovich is simply a man trying to stay afloat as he is buffeted by wild torrents; an artist who simply wants to produce his art but battles the anxiety and creative inertia bred by the State peering over his shoulder. Here, resistance does not storm a platform and wave a banner. It is irregular, and subtle, and opportunistic. And it just tries to stay alive. And The Noise of Time is less inspirational than it is a deeply human portrait of the tragic absurdity of trying to produce transcendent beauty amidst utter terror.

  1. Memories from Moscow to the Black Sea, by Teffi

Teffi is the nom de plume of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhivitskaya – a fin de siècle poet, playwright, journalist and satirist. And total freaking boss.

She wrote for the first Bolshevik newspaper in Russia, knew Lenin, stared down a slimy Rasputin at a dinner party and saw the ideals she extolled be somehow subsumed into a revolution that would destroy her glittering, intellectual world. Memories records her experiences as the revolution encroaches, the danger and uncertainty forcing her to leave St Petersburg – she thinks only for a brief while. However, as Bolshevism eats its way across Russia, she slips further and further down a slide made smooth by the exodus of the many whose lives were upended by revolution. It is a dramatic, tragic, character-filled and funny read.

There is a little of Tolstoy here – an incredible gift for finding humour in darkness. The lightness of the prose. The wry sendups of the powerful. I finished this book not only wanting to be Teffi’s friend, but to grow up and be as witty, resilient and utterly modern as this woman was.

  1. The Mitford Girls, by Mary S. Lovell

Biographies (and even more so, autobiographies) rarely appeal to me: either the focus on a single life is too niche for my curious mind that wants to go down dark side streets, or I’d much rather know the person through the medium for which they are famed (to read about a musician, for instance, omits the very thing through which you could know them most).

But this one works – so well! – for the sheer improbability of this family when looked at as a whole: amongst the seven siblings of this minor aristocratic family were a Nazi, a Communist, a famous author, and a queen of London society who then became a queen of scandal.

Mary S. Lovell allows the characters and personalities of this remarkable family to sing, and her restraint (when presented with such melodramatic material) allows a fantastical normalcy to emerge, for instance, the way siblings butt heads as they seek to define their own path.

The Mitford Girls has also inspired me to track down the works of the two writers in the family – Nancy (best known for Love in a Cold Climate) and Decca (a journalist) – and in this case, finishing a book hungry is a very good sign.

 

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I did not like this book.

The Romanovs, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Since swapping my Eastern European studies for an East Asian focus, I have strictly rationed the time I allow myself to return to my first love (I’d never read anything for work otherwise). But, after a long hospital stay, I treated myself to the latest tome (and it’s a tome – everything about its marketing shouted ‘THIS IS A TOME!’) by a historian whose works on Stalin I was familiar with from my Russian studies. Simon Sebag Montefiore is a pop-historian: credible, great access, readable but academically light. His latest book on the Romanov dynasty would be a treat I could fall headfirst into.

Except I hated it and couldn’t bring myself to finish it (I made it three quarters of the way through a three hundred year dynasty).

I thought this approach to history was on the out: it concerns itself only with men, dates and battles. The rule of each leader is set out as if following a formula. They were born. There was a struggle with a half-brother for power. There was almost certainly a skirmish with Sweden or the Hapsburgs. They died. Begin again. How dull. How incomplete. Were the odd Machiavellian female not engaged in the odd power play, Montefiore would have confined women to footnotes noting who they married (not mentioned for human interest, of course, but because these women were state resources). It dismays me that this book – which received the publicity and print run that most historians dream of – has such an outdated and patriarchal view of history. I simply cannot read another book that erases so many people and so many textures from history. It is not only women who are erased – the Romanov story was inextricably shaped by the people they governed, by the increasingly hostile dialectic between peasantry, society and the elite,  by the omnipresent authority of the Church, and by the remarkable blossoming of Russian culture after a protracted dark age. That’s the Romanov history I’d like to fall into. But nup, none of that in here. I’ll have to go back to Teffi for that sort of insight.