In which I embark on reading projects

The recent run of summery weather must be over-heating my brain and making me lazy. After all, it surely can’t be the early evening gin & tonic or Pimm’s that is wrecking my concentration and making me disinclined to read anything more demanding than chicklit. Yet, with a TBR shelf that isn’t doing too badly at the moment, I don’t have anything I want to read. But as I’ve just bought a new, and horrifically expensive car, I’m feeling too guilty to go and buy a stock of book shaped mind snacks as well.

Instead, it’s time to crack on with some of the titles that have been hanging around for far too long as it is. Maybe this will be the summer in which I finish vol 3 of Proust? (I can see Mr W laughing out loud at that one). Well, maybe not, but a little more discipline wouldn’t go amiss.

So, here’s a summer reading list. It’s not complete because it’ll doubtless get interspersed with ad hoc choices and the monthly delivery from Blackwell’s. And first, I need to clear the decks and finish No Harm, but then it’s full steam ahead!

  1. The Faerie Queen – Edmund Spenser. This has been sitting on a shelf for five years. Five years! I know, because when I opened it up I found, firstly, a bookmark at the end of the first canto (oh well done me, tremendous effort that); and secondly, a receipt from a bookshop in Amherst. I’m thinking, one canto per day. It’ll be a bit pathetic if I can’t manage that. I might see if I can get it on audio as well, then I can switch back and forth.
  2. Family Life – David Kynaston. This has been sitting around for so long that Kynaston has delivered volume 3. I almost bought it as a matter of course before remembering that I hadn’t got anywhere with vol 2. Sigh.
  3. Speak, Memory – Vladimir Nabokov. I’ve absolutely no idea where this came from. It’s a US copy but that isn’t to say I didn’t pick it up last year on the grounds that I’d read it at some point. Anyway, I was quite surprised when I found it on the bookcase, and moved it to TBR at once.
  4. A High Wind in Jamaica – Richard Hughes. I actually only acquired this one a couple of weeks ago, but I do know my own tendency to go off the idea the longer a book lies around unread. Unfortunately, I just abandoned Hughes’ A Fox in the Attic. On the plus side, A High Wind in Jamaica has pirates and morally challenged children.
  5. The Story: Love, Loss and the Lives of Women – Victoria Hislop (ed.). I keep telling myself that as this is short stories, one can just dip in and out at whim. Which is true, but very little dipping is happening and it is too beautiful a volume to be neglected.

There you have it, kids. You may all mock me as being a namby-pamby, illiterate lightweight if I don’t make it.

In which I don’t know what to wear

A feeling that has been building for a few months, now. There are a couple of reasons for this: first, the not-so-new job environment is smarter than publishing ever was, so I can’t fall back on jeans; secondly, a lot of my clothes are still those that I bought in the US. They’re starting to look tired, and I can’t find any replacements.

And the reason I can’t find replacements is because I don’t know where to shop any more. And worse, I can’t be arsed. Y’all know I love shopping, but I mostly don’t like what’s in fashion at the moment, and if I did it’s either work inappropriate, age inappropriate, or both. The UK high street is become an increasingly depressing place: clothing from low end stores that skimp on fabric doesn’t fit me because I am not 15. In the middle territory, Jigsaw, one of my old standbys, is heading into J-Crew land, and is really starting to take the piss with the pricing.

I’m also suffering mild identity confusion, which I suspect is in part due to turning 43 shortly. While the numbers per se don’t bother me, I am at that point where, however gratifying it might be that you can still physically fit into an item of clothing, that doesn’t mean you should wear it. ‘Mutton dressed as lamb’, as my gran would have said. But where are the great clothes for women my age hiding? They all seem to be crappy clothes for hiding women my age.

Ideally, I’d outsource the whole problem to my personal dresser and an army of bespoke tailors, but I’ve looked and looked and I can’t find that inherited fortune anywhere. So, I guess I’m going to have to tackle it myself. Le sigh.

In which I abandon Facebook. Again.

It may well be said that it’s not the first time I’ve walked away from Facebook, only to head back weeks or months later and allow it to insinuate itself into my life again. But I can stop any time! But it’s so damn easy. Open it up, scroll passively down the timeline, like a few things, LOL a few others. Hey, I’ve kept up to date with my friends and… wait, how did it get to be 10.20pm?

Well, I think I’m really done this time. Increasingly, I experience Facebook via my iPhone, and increasingly, it’s been a poor experience. I already hated the way FB put old posts back at the top of the list when someone commented. I hated the way that it didn’t deliver a complete timeline on mobile, so that I was unknowingly missing out. I’ve been uncomfortable with the advertising, which will come as no surprise to those who know that I’m prepared to work quite hard not to be accosted by adverts.

But I really, really hate that Facebook manipulated what information it displayed, just to see if it could influence its users moods (it could). I may not have been affected by it, who knows? Still, the news of that research project is a cogent reminder that Facebook is not a service provided for the good of its users: it is a company that aims to collect as much information as possible about people and then monetize it. Fair enough, that’s what we all signed up to. Although not quite, as Facebook only updated its terms and conditions to cover research after completing said research. But that’s a quibble. Essentially, we all exchanged privacy for ease and were happy to do so.

So this time it was mood management, and next time it will be something else, and then something else again. Facebook won’t change, because they don’t have to. Enough people are prepared to shrug it all off, for the sake of habit and convenience, and then there’ll finally be uproar when Facebook starts charging people for access to their own histories. I want out before then, and as I weighed up my moral complicity in passively supporting a company whose values I find troubling, versus the inconvenience of no long using their platform, here’s something else that was easy: the decision to leave.

So I have downloaded my data, and next will be the battle to get Facebook to delete, not temporarily close, my account. That, of course, is one area that Facebook does not make easy, because it’s not in their interests. And they don’t give a damn about mine.

Friday eye candy

‘It’s Friday, I’m in love’, as Robert Smith sang in a rare upbeat moment. Mostly I’m in love with the fact that I have the day off and am about to head to Sussex for the weekend; at least, ‘about’ if you interpret it loosely to mean when I’ve had another coffee and I’m showered, dressed, packed and know where I’m going.

However, general exuberance of spirit has also tipped me over into fond feelings for any number of items, starting with this hedgehog cushion from Anorak (to which I was directed via Domestic Sluttery). For a start, hedgehogs are adorable.

Hedgehog cushion

Look at the hedgehogs! Like little shuffling lemons.

Turns out they’re even more adorable when cast in sunny yellow on a navy background, pretty much guaranteed to brighten up the gloomiest of days. I have a room for this cushion. I just need a chair for it.

John Lewis velvet buttoned armchair

Chair of wondrousness

Perhaps, this chair. I do love this chair, because it is so ridiculous. Really, who has the sort of house into which a yellow (they’re calling it gold, but it is clearly yellow) velvet armchair will fit?

Answer: me. I could make it work, if only to house the hedgehog cushion. And it would glow like a jewel on dark days and brighten my world.

As there is an accidental summery, yellow theme developing, I shall stick with it. What would Friday Eye Candy be without shoes? On a different blog, that’s what.

Hobbs Hattie Sandal

Super sunny yellow shoes

Hobbs brought these to my attention a few weeks ago,  but fortunately my local store wasn’t stocking them. Their shoes are hit and miss for me, so I wouldn’t buy them on teh interwebs because of the heartbreak if they didn’t fit and I had to return them. I graciously share them with you and I hope anyone who buys them enjoys a long and happy life with them.

Now, look. You’ve got a comfortable armchair and cushion, and a killer pair of shoes. What’s missing from this picture?

Far from the Madding Crowd Penguin classics


Obvs. A well dressed hardback is almost irresistible. I’m not even a huge fan of Hardy (why does Hardy get the fancy treatment but not Trollope? Dear Random Penguins, Barchester Chronicles in lush hardbacks, please, and be quick about it) but I still want this on a handy side table near my new chair.

And with that, it’s time I was off.

In which I am baffled by M&S

Shops are my natural habitat. I’m good at shopping and I can find my way around most stores without a false step. And yet, Marks and Spencer remains a conundrum. Although I like puzzles, M&S is not puzzling in a good way. I know they chuck out the occasional item of wearable clothing and I’d have no problem buying it. But I’m damned if I can ever find anything. It’s like falling into some horrible labyrinth that has suffered an explosion of florally printed synthetic fibres. I definitely saw a cardigan today that, in its putrid blue fluffiness, appeared to be knitted from mould. Although maybe that’s their latest line of organic clothing. Who knows?

After all, they already have roughly 722 interchangeable brands, and I doubt even M&S employees can distinguish between them. Since none of the brands has an identity, but each brand includes the full range of clothing, it means that if you’re looking for a sweater, you have to look in each range individually. I saw the epitome of this folly in the Oxford Street branch, in which the scarves were all grouped by brand. The scarves, for fuck’s sake. What’s that about? It’s complete madness.

There’s been a recent attempt to resolve this brand debacle by describing areas as ‘The Knitwear Edit’ or ‘The Trouser Edit’ (newsflash: a store is not a magazine), into which some similar items are grouped; but not all of them. Jackets are still scattered throughout the store, whereas some entire ranges remain discrete. The result, at least for me, is that I wander around hopelessly, like a drunk in a hall of mirrors. Occasionally, I see something on display that I might want to examine further, but as the brand and in-store location are never identified, it’s like setting out on an Easter egg hunt planned by someone who forgot to buy the eggs. Eventually, confused and annoyed, I escape to the light of day.

Then I go to a shop that actually wants to sell me something.

In which I’m looking for a book group

Not just any old book group, of course, or I’d have joined one by now. It’s been almost four years since I moved back to England, and I still miss my US book group. Somehow, they’re still going strong without me, and last year they generously allowed me back as an honorary member. A couple of new people have been a great addition, so it remains a group of intelligent, articulate, well read people, all of whom had read the book in question alongside thousands of others, and could contribute to a lively, informed, wide-ranging and sustained discussion. All that and good food, too. I could weep.

Because I don’t know if you have tried book groups, but I have and they aren’t all like that. They do not all do what it says on the tin. Some are more about the dining out or the getting together; most are more about the being out and having a bit of a chat, in which the book might be mentioned but is rarely the focus. Some do try to focus on the book, but discussion doesn’t get beyond the level of ‘I thought it was really good’, ‘Oh, me too’, which is enough to make anyone try to carve off their own limbs with a sharpened bookmark.

And that comment, of course, is enough to make the average book group absolutely not want me as a member. I get that. I read quite a lot, I’m bloody opinionated, I’m reasonably articulate and I think fast. I can take apart an argument in very little time, or construct a new one on the fly, just for the hell of it, and I expect people to be able to justify their responses and put them in a broader literary context. None of that means I’m right or that my views are more valid, but it does make me (mostly) unintentionally intimidating. I am definitely not the person you want in a book group if most people’s aim is to have an evening away from the kids and eat in a restaurant. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that (if I had kids I would jump at any opportunity to get the hell out of Dodge), but I can go out anytime so it’s not a big treat to me.

A big treat would be a high level, complex conversation that challenged the views I held and made me reassess my interpretation of the book, and in which there was no need to hold back for fear of accidentally scaring someone. That added layers of understanding beyond my own perceptions and made my lazy brain spark in a hundred new ways.

Is that so very much to ask?




In which Good Things are afoot in the bookish world

‘What Good Things?’, you cry, all agog and shiny-eyed, almost exactly like my cats when they think they’re about to get cat treats. But with less fur. Probably.

There are sure to be more Good Things than even I know about, and I invite anyone to tell me what they are so I can add them to the list. But here are a couple to be going on with.

1. Shiny New Books

A review site and newsletter that has been started by a bunch of terrific book bloggers. Since literary coverage is dropping all the time in the press, and anyway they all only review the same four books, this is where to go if you want to know what to read next and why. They cover new fiction, obvs, but also reprints (yay!) and non-fiction.

2. My Independent Bookshop

So, this is kind of a book list and review site, but with a difference. This is your chance to create a virtual shop window in which to display those books that everyone else really ought to read now, this minute, like why aren’t you reading it already? It’s also your chance to link up with a local bookshop, so that if anyone buys the book from your site, your nominated bookshop gets a percentage of the sale.

The interface is very well done, so kudos is due to the designers because they really, really thought about the journey and it shows. There are other bookshops to be followed and competitions to be entered and if it takes off it all has the capacity to turn into quite the online community of only the best sort of people, i.e. readery types.

My Independent Bookshop is a Random Penguin + Hive initiative, and Hive is the bonus in this Good Thing because it’s an online bookstore that unites independent booksellers. We may call it ‘the anti-Amazon’. Although Hive is quicker to say. But it can be the anti-Amazon in our hearts.

You can check out my bookshop, which is called Books do furnish a room and you can also follow @myindiebookshop on the Twitter.

I promise that I wasn’t paid for any of this promotional stuff, it’s just heartening that despite all the ‘no-one reads, high streets are dying, death of the novel’ stories, there’s a counter-argument. And we, the people who read, and who want indie bookshops to stay alive, are pretty much it.