Spine #6


Laura Waddell writes the latest article in her regular book club series.

When I’m on a plane I rarely read the book I’ve diligently packed in the hopes I’ll get through some of my to-read list. An anxious flyer, I am more likely to be paying attention to any sounds I perceive to be unusual (all of them), any micro-expression of the flight attendants that betrays what could be alarm. I spend my time in the air despising the confines, the menu, and my fellow travellers, until I can find some peace in looking out at the clouds (alcohol helps with this. I recently had the best flight of my life after little sleep, two complimentary glasses of wine with the sun tinging clouds apricot; I pressed my face to the window in tipsy wonder both at the scene and with coming to a kind of peace with flying). The book I’ve brought will sit on my lap, looked at and looked away from, picked up and put down, distractedly.

But recently, flying more often for work (when will someone ask me “Business or pleasure?” so I can answer, “both”?), I’ve had more opportunities to test my pre-packed in-flight entertainment, and I’ve come to realise the importance of picking a really compelling story to best get an uncomfortable flyer through the circumstances.

‘Fever Dream’ by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell, is one such book. A novel shortlisted for the Man Booker International for translated literature, it was the one on the shortlist that kept creeping into my twitter timeline. It’s a tale of maternal and bodily paranoia that gripped me from the early pages, and well titled for how quickly its atmosphere spreads over reader headspace. One more page, and one more, and I spent a flight to Amsterdam engrossed in its strange world instead of the claustrophobic interior of an aircraft. A mother on holiday with her young daughter finds herself drawn to a woman inhabiting a neighbouring house, which soon develops into a confessional conversation about the woman’s son, who was infected by some kind of toxin by drinking downstream from an affected bird. He is narrating the story after it has happened. In a rural location, inaccessible for some hours by medical services, the boy was taken to a local healer, whose curative method invokes a body-soul split, saving the boy from his fever but rendering him somehow strange and different afterwards in habits and expression. A nightmarish scenario develops; the mother and her young daughter are keen to distance themselves from this unusual family and the sickness whilst simultaneously being drawn inexplicably into their world, whilst the narrating boy attempts to draw the story to a precise point at which he can determine just how the illness spreads. It’s a compulsive and mysterious read; I was tempted to ration it, so quickly did I get through the pages, and finished without feeling I had all the answers.

Because I hadn’t anticipated reading much in-flight, I had only packed one book. I walked around Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport before my return journey looking for both somewhere I could find a hair bobble (mysteriously, none to be found) and English language books. Nothing quite took my fancy, but I was happy to see an airport library, with books for a few hours’ borrow (as well as a yoga area and a piano for anyone to play). More importantly, it was somewhere comfortable and pleasant to sit in the terminal, without paying any money. Such spaces are increasingly rare if not entirely absent from UK airports.

Last year I read Olivia Laing’s ‘The Lonely City’, one of my reads of 2017 for its fascinating exploration of artists, New York City, and alienation. It introduced me to the artist David Wojnarowicz, who from a rough start in life with an incredibly abusive family life moved to the city and lived as a photographer, writer, and activist. His memoir ‘Close to the Knives’ was republished this year by Canongate, and contains some of the most heartbreakingly beautiful descriptions of sex, love and friendship as well as searing anger at the inequality faced by gay men impacted by AIDS in the 1980s. We associate the macho beat poets and gonzo journalists with sex and drugs diarising, but I think this beats them all for its humanity, intelligence, artistry and raw sense of what is truly important in our short lives. It is at times unbearably sad, as Wojnarowicz describes friends dying around him, but my favourite passages describe luxuriant joy in transient sex in abandoned airport hangers on the docks, a dreamlike, sensual world lit by the Maxwell House coffee cup neon across the river whilst planes flew overhead. If you are interested in LGBT history, intersectional politics (Wojnarowicz was ahead of his time in critiquing toxic masculinity), counter-culture and simply gorgeous prose, I thoroughly recommend it.

Finally, in brief, there’s a new mag in town. Recently launched Marbles Mag by Kirstyn Smith (music editor at the List) focuses on mental health in a fresh, open way. I wrote about pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder and mapping your own health for the first issue alongside a stellar list of contributors, and the magazine is a brilliant read full of fresh perspectives.

And I’m very excited to be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival as a writer this year, where I’ll be speaking about essay anthology ‘Nasty Women’ alongside Nadine Aisha Jassat and Joelle Owusu on 19 August. It’s a bit of a dream come true and I’m glad of the opportunity to talk about some of the issues raised in the book about being a woman in the twenty-first century.

Until next time, feel free to chat to me on twitter about books on Twitter.

[Laura Waddell]

Read more in the Spine series HERE.

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