The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

Due small print, I got a proof copy from Transworld by asking nicely on Twitter.

Rachel is the girl on the train, and she’s an unemployed, recently divorced alcoholic who is getting the train because she used to work in London and that’s what she does. The whole framework of her life has collapsed and she has no idea how to put it back together again, and this is her way of treading water. Rather than paying attention to her own life, she creates a story around the lives of a couple whose house the train passes, and who coincidentally live on the street where Rachel used to live with her ex-husband. I think anyone who has ever commuted regularly will know the idle speculation that goes on as you become familiar with snapshots of other people’s lives, so this way into the story really appealed.

And then the woman from the couple, Megan, disappears, and Rachel thinks she has information relevant to the investigation because one morning, as the train passed Megan’s house, she saw her kissing a man who was not her husband.

But, Rachel is a thoroughly unreliable narrator. Not only does she have blackouts after drinking, but she’s been behaving a bit crazily towards her ex-husband,Tom, and his new wife, Anna. The police have multiple reasons not to trust her, but Rachel is a bit obsessed with Megan and she won’t give up. It’s as if she wants to protect the fantasy life she’s created for her, so she starts her own investigation.

There are some good twists, so I’ll avoid spoilers. I like this as a thriller and also as a character study of someone who has fallen pretty far down the ladder and might just be on her way back up. Rachel isn’t entirely sympathetic but somehow, Megan’s disappearance gives her something to seize onto. Seeing it through offers her some sort of redemption, even as she continues to screw up any remaining friendships along the way. She’s also not the only unreliable narrator; pretty much all of the characters are hiding something and so the reader’s understanding shifts as Rachel starts to piece together the truth and her own part in it.

Guilt-free snacking

The ‘guilt-free snacking’ concept has been kicking around in my head for a while, introduced there by Marks & Spencer. Yes, really. Occasionally, during lunchtimes, I head to M&S for a salad and a small packet of popped crisp type things. I like the popped crisps and I like that they come in small packets. I don’t like that they say ‘Guilt-free snacking’ on the front, and it annoys me every time, so that I wander back to the office gently fuming at the outrageousness of a food retailer thinking it has the right to lecture me about eating habits. I don’t think there should be any relationship between food and guilt, and I think it’s irresponsible and pernicious to suggest that there is. Food is just food, and maybe we should all strive to eat in accordance with this week’s guidance on healthy eating. But if we don’t, then it’s not a moral, ethical or physical infraction that should result in anyone feeling bad about it. And ‘guilt-free’ implies its opposite counterpart. ‘Guilt-full’? ‘Guilt-laden’? ‘Crisps for the self-loathing’? What the hell? Tell you what, M&S, you leave off trying to make me feel guilty about food, and I’ll forget all about that collapsing factory in Bangladesh. Deal?

Oh, and here are a few other guilt-free snacks i enjoy:

Crisps – just, you know, regular crisps. Not low-fat, low-salt baked vegetable chips. Crisps. And Hula Hoops. For a while after I started my new job, my driving home snack was a packet of Hula Hoops and a Bounty, but now that I’ve got a new car I have a ‘no food while driving’ policy. Also, is it illegal? i mean, eating while driving, not eating Hula Hoops and a Bounty together.  Although Marks & Spencer’s probably do think that should be illegal. Unless it’s their own brand, ‘guilt-free’ fake Hula Hoops and  knock-off chocolate and coconut bar. 

Chocolate biscuits – I particularly like chocolate biscuits with my first cup of tea in the morning, when I really have the time to spare to enjoy them. There’s something about the sweetness that gets the day off to an enjoyable, leisurely start and means that however it turns out, there was that good moment early on. This morning’s chocolate biscuits are Jaffa Cakes. However, I think I’d have to say that optimal morning chocolate biscuits are those insanely expensive Leibnitz ones, that we all only buy on special. 

Cheese and biscuits – my go to snack of choice. Half a dozen biscuits with cheese, as a way to fend off hunger while I’m cooking dinner. Or sometimes, not cooking dinner. Sometimes, cheese and biscuits is dinner, with chocolate biscuits for dessert.

Potato wedges – I have managed to create a habit for myself that says when I’m getting the train back from Marylebone, I get potato wedges. They aren’t even particularly good, which is sort of one of the things I enjoy about them. I’ll buy them thinking, ‘Oh, I probably won’t need dinner’, but in fact by the time I get off the train I’ve forgotten all about them, until the next time I’m back at Marylebone. 

When the food police come knocking, I’ll be guilty as charged. 

TBR update

My Blackwell’s curated TBR list is working really well so far, and I totally recommend that anyone who has an amenable local bookstore gives this idea a go. It is such fun to get a parcel in the post every month, and the lovely woman who sends out my books also explains why she has chosen them. This month, making the most of a current twofer, she sent me both Tristram Shandy and Tom Jones. They feel like reads for long winter evenings, so I’m holding back on them at least until I finish my current reading projects. (Faerie Queene is going well but slowly, thanks for asking.)

Of course, my non-Blackwell’s TBR list is already growing apace. There are so many good books coming out to tempt me that I’m simply trying to steer clear of the bookshops in case I run amok and return home with another stack of books that won’t fit in the bookcase.

This is what’s top of the list of wants at the moment. Behold my superhuman restraint!

H is for Hawk – Helen McDonald. Probably then followed up by T.H. White’s Goshawk. It always struck me that the scene in The Sword in the Stone where Wart spends a night with the hunting birds is extraordinarily well done. Now I know why.

The Amber Fury – Natalie Haynes. No brainer for a classics geek.

Long Way Home – Eva Dolan. I saw her at a Stories Aloud event and she was hilarious, if also someone you wouldn’t mess with. She read an excerpt from this and it sounded great, so I’m waiting to stumble across it in pb.

The House in Norham Gardens – Penelope Lively. I never read this as a child, but now I live in Oxford and quite often park in Norham Gardens, so I’m surprised I’ve missed this. I’d have snapped it up last time i was in Daunt’s but they didn’t have it. Boo.

Shotgun Love Songs – Nicholas Butler. So lauded, and sounds so right up my street.

The Soul of Discretion – Susan Hill. Which doesn’t even publish until October but has been on my TBR list ever since I heard that it would be out this year. I have loved all the Simon Serrailler books so far, and I almost wish I had the willpower to build up a bit of a backlog on them.

The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton. Which has been personally recommended to me as well being praised by a bunch of people on Twitter whose judgment I trust.

Lost in history

Purely by coincidence, I’ve been immersed in different time periods for the past week. There’s my ongoing project of reading The Faerie Queen to start with. One canto per day hasn’t been working out, but six cantos at the weekend is doable, so that’s the revised approach I’m taking. To start with, I was reading it aloud to myself, to help with rhythm and pronunciation, and I find it oddly hypnotic. I love all the ‘quoth he’ and ‘quoth she’ stuff, the rhymes that are odd to my ear (‘sound’ and ‘wound’). For a couple of days, due to connections I can’t quite place, I also had Donne and Shakespeare in my head as well, respectively ‘And so good morrow to our waking souls’ and mis-remembered fragments of the prologue to Romeo and Juliet. The latter we were made to remember at school and then write out, punctuation perfect. I’ve no idea why. I don’t know anything about Spenser, but his language seems older than Shakespeare, so did he go in for deliberate archaisms?

Whatever, it’s thoroughly enjoyable, and there are worse ear worms to have than dear old Donne.

A step further back in time, and I’m listening to Wolf Hall, rather marvelously narrated by Simon Slater. I saw the play back in March, and then Bring up the Bodies late in July, and both were wonderful, gripping pieces of theatre. I know the books are something of Marmite texts and that’s fair enough, but I find them astonishingly rich, detailed and human. And awful too, of course, in the way in which Henry VIII  and Thomas Cromwell become monsters. It’s a shame Wolsey couldn’t stick around for longer, but apparently there’s a great contemporary biography of him, so…

And finally, I read John Williams’ Augustus. I was initially a bit dubious about this, because although I loved Stoner, novels set in Roman times always have I, Claudius to live up to. Or The Memoirs of Hadrian. For me, Augustus takes its place comfortably in that company, giving flesh to the bones of a cast of characters whose names resound, drawing one in so thoroughly to the world in which it’s set that it seems immediate and relevant. The story of the shift from republic to empire I find consistently compelling and tragic, Augustus both hero and villain.

But this is Julius Caesar talking:

How long have we been living the Roman lie? Ever since I can remember, certainly; perhaps for many years before. And from what source does that lie suck its energy, so that it grows stronger than the truth? We have seen murder, theft, and pillage in the name of the Republic – and call it the necessary price we pay for freedom. Cicero deplores the depraved Roman morality that worships wealth – and, himself a millionaire many times over, travels with a hundred slaves from one of his villas to another. A consul speaks of peace and tranquillity – and raises armies that will murder the colleague whose power threatens his self-interest. The Senate speaks of freedom – and thrusts upon me powers that I do not want but must accept and use if Rome is to endure. Is there no answer to the lie?

I have conquered the world, and none of it is secure; I have shown liberty to the people, and they flee as if it were a disease; I despise those whom I can trust, and love those best who would most quickly betray me. And I do not know where we are going, though I lead a nation to its destiny.

(Augustus, p. 19)


Plus ca change…

Everyday Sexism

I follow @EverydaySexism on Twitter, of course, although it makes for such depressing reading that I have been tempted to un-follow. Earlier in the week, I dipped into the book, didn’t feel the need to buy it because I think I’m fairly familiar with Laura Bates’ arguments by now, compelling as they are. I admit to being confused. The stream of harassment, catcalling, degradation, assault, misogyny that many women experience day to day (and that is the strength of the Twitter feed, it captures the thousands of incidents that are part of ordinary life for so many women) is not my experience. Reading Lucy Kellaway’s interview with Laura Bates helpfully crystallized my own confusion for me.

Of course, in the bad old days, I got my share of comments from builders or blokes who wouldn’t accept ‘No’ as answer in a bar. I’ve used the ‘I already have a boyfriend’ line to get someone to leave me alone. We all did. I’ve said, straight faced and looking them in the eye, ‘I don’t have a phone’, to avoid giving out my number. I’ve sat on a night bus, listening to a couple of hee-larious drunk guys saying to my boyfriend ‘Oi, mate, your bird’s a bloke’, because I had very short hair. That last comment, if you think about it, achieves multiple layers of sexism in six short words, which would be an admirable brevity of levels of insult if it had been achieved consciously.

Who hasn’t been told by a complete stranger to ‘Smile, luv, it might never happen’, or been casually touched up in a nightclub?

But it’s all different now, and I don’t miss those days. I like being able to appear in public in exercise gear without generating comment. I don’t have to worry about getting my car repaired, or being taken seriously at work. People don’t look past me to the male who must be in charge, and I can eat dinner out on my own without interruption. I don’t even get grief about not having children, possibly because I am so robustly unapologetic about it. (‘Do you have children?’ ‘Dear gods no, I don’t like children. I like peace, quiet and disposable income.’) I don’t think that this general lack of hassle is age kicking in just yet, although I do look forward with interest to experiencing the well-documented invisibility of the older woman.

And yet… There’s the conversation I had with a colleague a few years ago, in which we agreed that if exhibiting the behaviors that make you effective at work got you labelled a bitch, so be it. There’s the effort I put into finding clothes that are appropriate for work: smart, stylish but not sexy, as though any unwitting effect my appearance might have is my responsibility. A recommendation for a good pub was expressed as ‘If you want to get him to take you out somewhere nice for dinner…’

This is mild stuff to navigate indeed, not at all the deep waters that young women in particular seem to be facing. What I don’t understand is why what looked like progress is moving backwards. But it does seem to me that the Everyday Sexism Project is throwing out a useful lifeline.

In which I embark on reading projects


Update: I’ve started with the Faerie Queen and I’ve read the Nabokov. Oh yes.

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.