Reading round up

With a bit more time on my hands and a newly minted library card, I’ve been getting through a handful of novels a week lately. The downside of being dependent on the library is that I’m on the long, slow-moving list for the latest Galbraith, Rankin, Pat Barker, Sarah Perry and some others. I tried to add Tana French’s The Wych Elm but it’s not even published here yet, I think the US got it first. I’m simply steering clear of bookshops because my resolve will almost certainly crack.

But the positive is that I can take a punt on novels I’m not sure about or that are quite short. Full price, but c.300 page books are those that I’m least likely to buy, regardless of reviews, because they’ll be gone in an afternoon. If I can drop them back to the library a day or so later, then it doesn’t matter. Mostly, these experiments have worked out well.

In no particular order, here’s a bit of a round up,

Books I’ve loved

So Much Life Left Over – Louis de Bernieres. It’s the sequel to The Dust that Falls from Dreams, which I have on audio and could not get through. But, L de B was on Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year podcast and this sounded great so I grabbed it and tore through it. Now I’ve gone back to TDTFFD.

Priestdaddy – Patricia Lockwood. I remember seeing loads of reviews of this when it came out, but it never got as far as my TBR list. It’s a really entertaining narration of the year or so Patricia and her husband moved back in with her parents while they were saving money. Her father is a Catholic priest (who converted after he was already  married with kids) and an extreme character who prefers to spend his time at home in as little clothing as possible, often playing loud electric guitar.

How to be a Woman – Caitlin Moran. Because the older I get, and the more pissed off I get, the more interested I get in feminism. Particularly as we seem to be moving backwards as all the poor, under-appreciated white men start to feel threatened by absolutely anything that suggests that society might move shift in the direction of equality, thereby curtailing their god-given right to behave however the fuck they want towards women at all times. Did I mention getting more pissed off?

How to be a  Woman is a collection of essays that interposes Moran’s tales of her own growing up with the current state of play, and what she learned along the way. And it is very fair, and very reasonable and entirely full of common sense. E.g. being pressured into make up or heels or fashionable clothing is all nonsense; of course women do not have to children to validate their existence. When I have got some money again, I will buy my own copy and carry it around with me at all times. And whenever things are bad I will open it at random and reflect on the wisdom within. It can be my personal tool for bibliomancy.

Uncommon Type – Tom Hanks. Which is his collection of short stories that you will already know about unless you’ve been under a rock, because they were rave reviewed everywhere. And justifiably so. Elegiac, touching, funny, sad, deftly written gems of stories. Plus lovely pictures of old typewriters.

Books that were meh

The Roanoke Girls – Amy Engel. Very much in the ‘give it a go’ category to start with, because I am so over these pseudo-thrillers with the twist or surprise ending. There wasn’t any surprise with this one and I feel as though I had read all its different elements about a dozen times before. Family mystery, missing girl, black sheep returns to home town to figure it all out and reconnects with old boyfriend who never got over her. See what I mean?

Fatal Inheritance – Rachel Rhys. So, to start with the title, the inheritance is not fatal. But I suppose Slightly Threatening Inheritance wasn’t as dramatic. Secondly, I can’t stand unbearably naive heroines who create problems for themselves by failing to say or do something any normal person would say or do. Thirdly, the fact that characters keep arguing as evidence of thinly disguised sexual tension only works if there is the slightest reason for one of them to fancy the other in the first place. Which is something else I also struggle with in respect to unbearably naive heroines.

Anyway, woman mysteriously inherits part share in house in south of France and escapes overbearing, dull husband to visit and try to find out why. Meets fellow inheritors and faithful family retainer, continues to dress badly and be unable to hold her drink but blossoms in sunshine etc. Dull, overbearing husband arrives to take her home (because she hasn’t bothered to communicate with him, so obvs.) and also to underline difference between grim home life in suburbs and glory of independent life in southern France. Mystery resolved.

Books that I abandoned/would have thrown across the room if it was my own copy

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar. What an awesome name the author has. So this I just abandoned, can’t tell you how far in because I couldn’t be bothered to check. After Mr Hancock has got his mermaid back from the brothel, having been shocked by explicit goings on. I think he’d just sold it and decided to build houses in London with the money. Abandoned because I realised that at best I didn’t care about any of the characters, at worst I disliked them. And I’m not hugely interested in the details of the C19th whoring scene.

Honeymoon – Tina Seskis. Full on shoddy thriller territory, this one. Cuts back and forth in time, between a woman on her honeymoon on which her husband has gone missing, and her earlier dating life. What drives me nuts in this type of literature is the artificiality of the attempted suspense, created by really obviously hiding some information. In this instance, it’s the name of the husband that is dodged, which means that all the dialogue, including the internal dialogue, avoids mentioning his name. Clunk. This is in order to protect the part-way through reveal that the husband is, in fact, the brother of the guy she was dating! Gasp! Or rather, snore, because you can’t deliberately avoid a character’s name for that long without it being a massive red flag that you’re trying to fuck with the reader’s expectations.

Dunno what happened. Don’t care.

 

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Things I actually do now I live on my own

 

white coffee mug on brown surface
Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

Way back when I first put the offer in on this house, before life proper blew up around me, I wrote about what I’d do when I lived on my own. So I thought I’d go back and see if I realised any of that particular fantasy.

  1. Put the lights on in the morning when I wake up – No. But, when I wrote that originally, I expected still to be working and therefore getting up in the dark by now. At some point, I will set an alarm to make me get up before it’s light, but not quite yet.
  2. Get a really good reading lamp in the bedroom – No, but I curse my current lamp every evening. I haven’t bought a new one because I don’t have any money but it’s inching its way up the priority list.
  3. Go back to bed on weekend mornings with a novel and a pot of coffee – Yes! And not only weekends. For a while, it was most mornings, now I’ve managed to shift myself downstairs earlier. It is one of the small but great pleasures of my new life that because I’m not dashing off anywhere in the morning, I get to make a pot of coffee and sit around to drink two cups while reading, or listening to the radio. In fact, it is one of the incentives to make my own business work, so that I have the flexibility to continue to do that.
  4. Or, get all the cleaning done by 9am so I can sit down with coffee and a novel – this varies. I do tend to get the cleaning out of the way as early as possible. It helps that this house is small and easy to clean – 45 minutes tops.
  5. I will buy a beautiful, colourful rug – No, again because by the time I moved I didn’t have any money. But I will when I get some, the impetus hasn’t gone away.
  6. Music throughout the house – Yes! I bought a Sonos speaker months in advance, so that covers downstairs. I’d like another one for upstairs as well, so that whatever I’m listening to can follow me around the house.
  7. Buy more pictures and not have a TV – Yes! I bought pictures from a couple of artists  I visited as part of Oxford Art Weeks. Plus I have a ton of images that I got from my art nude shoot. But, lack of finance is getting in the way again, so nothing new has been framed. In fact, I still have to hang all my old pictures and there is less wall space than I remembered. Definitely no TV though. I did wonder if I would notice this, as during the summer I got quite used to Neflix on a big screen. But I’ve defaulted happily back to my old ways and watch Strictly on the laptop without noticing the difference.
  8. Scent things in the airing cupboard with lavender and rosemary – Not yet, but good idea, Earlier Me! I shall put that on my list. I have rosemary in the garden so I could dry some of that as a start.

But the main difference I’m seeing is not the living on my own, it’s the unexpected change of not working and therefore having so much more time. My dears, it is glorious. I can’t remember the last time I felt this relaxed and it may well be never, given that I’ve been working full time since 1994. It makes the fact that I’ll never be able to retire even more poignant, now that I’ve had a taste of what life could be like.

Of course, I am putting in a good few hours on my own business, but that is currently very flexible. At the moment, I prefer to start later, as a counterpoint to all those early mornings of the last few years. But I spend my time reading or baking or getting other chores done. I also find that I don’t mind working in the evening. I take a break from about 4pm – 7pm, so that I can go for a run, cook dinner, feed the cats and watch Strictly It Takes Two (yes, I am organising my life around Strictly. Because I can.) But then I don’t mind fitting in another couple of hours, particularly if it’s writing work.

Unfortunately, with all that extra time comes less money. But even that has an upside: necessity means that I’m cooking so much more and fortunately, I love a veggie casserole at this time of year. I’m baking my own bread or cakes too, so my grocery bill has plummeted. Over all, I’d say I’m eating less (the workday boredom doesn’t kick in and drive me to snack), but more healthily and for cheaper. I am driven not to waste the fresh ingredients I do have, and that pushes me to be more creative in what I’m cooking. It’s a matter of ‘What can I do with what I’ve got that needs using?’, but I enjoy that, and the knowledge that I’m being less wasteful.

And finally, it’s an absolute joy to spend so much time with the cats. In the seven years I’ve had them, I’ve always been away most of the time. They are older and calmer these days, and spend most of their days sleeping. But they come and find me several times a day, and Belle in particular likes to be nearby. Previously, it seemed that just when they wanted attention, I had to head out the door. Now, I can always stop and make time for them, so I do.

These halcyon days can’t last, because I must earn some money. I am gathering all the rosebuds I can right now.

Being broke

Going from a salary of around £50k to around £0 is a bit of a shock to the system. Especially when you do that immediately after buying a house – not that my mortgage is any more expensive than rent was. I am fortunate in that I can afford to tide myself over for a few months, so I’m not really down-to-my-last-dime broke. But, I very really could be. Oddly, this situation is still a whole lot less anxiety-provoking than my last job was. As time goes on, I’m still unpacking how very damaging that was for me.

I have started my own business offering business coaching to small businesses and for a couple of weeks in, I think it’s ok? Some interest, anyway and I will keep pursuing that. But, I’m also still applying for jobs – full time, part time, anything I can get. Some money is better than no money and fortunately, I never thought I had a career in the first place so it’s not like I’m wedded to anything in particular.

And, inevitably, I have a budget and am suddenly very aware of where my money goes. I don’t have disposable income any more, so unavoidable costs like parking have to come out of money allocated for something else. Probably food, as that’s the one area really under my control that I can whittle down even further.

Other than the fact that having to sense check every purchase adds a lot more decision making to my days, it’s all ok. The luxuries just go, and I don’t really mind. I’m cooking and baking more, which I enjoy. Now that it’s Asda and Lidl rather than Sainsbos and Waitrose, why buy their crappy bread (and it is crappy) when I can bake a better loaf at home?

The interesting thing is with job applications, though. I’m used to being able to drive everywhere and not consider distance. But for a minimum wage part time job, I do have to take that into consideration because I could easily wipe out a most of a week’s earnings in petrol and parking. Or parking and bus fares. Or parking and train fares. So although part of me is thinking apply, apply, apply, that’s not actually realistic. Argh.

Well, all I can do is to keep chipping away at the problem. I won’t say ‘and hope something comes up’ because it’ll take more than wishful thinking!

 

5 things I learned this summer

lessons-learned-SYLVIE

It is safe to say that 2018 is not going down as one of my favourite years. But, I am mostly through all the stressful stuff and safely on the other side, and it’s a very different place to where I was in the first six months of the year. So I’m in retrospective mode, because you might as well learn when you get the chance.

The sit rep is that I finally moved into my own house nearly three weeks ago. I’ve got the cats back and they have settled in here more easily than I’ve known them settle anywhere. If anything, they’ve been more affectionate since I got them back, and Charlie is already back to his one mouse a day diet.

Today, I’m going to a business networking event to introduce myself as a ‘business coach and accountability partner’ (the LinkedIn version), which basically means ‘helping people get the right shit properly done’. I’ve done a couple of planning and prioritisation sessions with a business owner who is prepared to pay me for my time, mostly because the first session contributed directly to a big uptick in revenue for her business. I spy a case study! A few more of those and I’ve got an income…

I turned 47 last week, which seems a weird number to apply to myself but, ok. I still think, overall, this is a good time in my life.

So, what have I learned?

  1. A lot about my own resilience. That it’s not about how you are on the way down, it’s the bouncing back that counts. I had a long, slow fall for the first time in my life but the come back has been quick. I’m tougher than I thought I was, and that gives me confidence for the next time round.
  2.  This year saw several of my big fears realised and when that happened, it was manageable. Not enjoyable, but manageable. I believe that in critical thinking, nothing is off the table for discussion and re-evaluation. And yet, I have shied away from objectively assessing my relationship with my job, and my huge fear about not having somewhere to live, and let those concerns dictate my actions. Now I know that all the worst things have to be faced head on, so that they can’t come and lurk around your bed in the early hours.
  3. What comfort zone? Someone blew up the boundaries to mine and it’s been liberating. From the art nude shoot, to sending in writing samples to a magazine, to attending the networking event today, I am stepping forward in ways that I would not have done six months ago. The thing about giving fewer fucks is that it’s positively re-affirming. It’s getting to the point where I don’t even think ‘Fuck it’, I just get on with it.
  4. Rolling with the punches. Oh, this is a hard, hard lesson for me, but I realised that my control freakery is increased in times of stress. Turns out, ‘time of stress’ has been my single mode of living for I don’t even know how long, until the situation finally hit critical and was so out of my control that I had no choice but acceptance. I’m going to spend my life learning acceptance, but at least I now have a huge, flashing neon example to remind me of the benefits.
  5. Get help sooner. I lived with clinically high levels of anxiety for a long time before getting a counsellor and I don’t ever want to feel like that again. My anxiety was situational, which I knew, but I should not have relied solely upon the certainty of future change to fix things.

And, here we go. Into the last quarter of the year with a whole lot working in my favour. Maybe 2018 will redeem itself yet.

Reveal: Robbie Williams

Something of an unlikely book for me to be listening to, given that I wasn’t ever even much of a Take That fan and I’m not particularly interested in Robbie Williams. I was aware of Reveal but I’d assumed it was the usual ghost written celeb biography/hagiography and I wouldn’t have gone near it were it not for it being picked up on Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year podcast. I’m always on the look out for long books, too, and this clocked in at 17 hours.

The book is actually written by Chris Heath, who seems to have shadowed, interviewed and had a bunch of friendly chats with Williams over more than 10 years. Although Heath does make his own stance very clear, particularly when recounting the Twitter abuse Williams gets, the book is very much warts and all. Two things become clear very quickly: First, that Robbie Williams has no filter. Despite his years in the business, his tendency is to react first and then deal with the consequences later. But secondly, that despite or because of his success, he’s a hugely polarising character and plenty of people seem to hate him just for being there. They are very happy to express their hatred, for which we all have social media to thank, without any seeming realisation that there is a person at the receiving end of the invective. That’s disturbing and probably unhealthy and I’m sure studies are being done on the way that internet anonymity intensifies force of expression, and I’m equally sure that the results will tie in with those famous torture studies. Net result – people suck, unless they are very watchful of themselves.

Add to that the consistent and deliberately negative misrepresentation by the press, and there is absolutely no way Williams can win. His choice is either to work very hard at crafting a press friendly personality that then has to be maintained 100% of the time. Or just to carry on being himself as much as possible.

So I found Reveal very interesting, although less because of Williams himself and more because of the insight given into the damage that fame, money and the press can do to someone. In this case, particularly if that someone started as a 16 year old with pre-existing depressive and insecure tendencies. The book goes up to about 2016, by which time Williams is describing himself as agoraphobic. If this were an allegory, it would be one at which people could nod wisely and note the irony in being a hugely successful pop icon who yet prefers not to leave his own estate. But that’s his life, and if I had that kind of money and faced that kind of relentless scrutineering and abuse I wouldn’t go outside either. In fact, I would reinforce the bars of my gilded cage with something a whole lot stronger than gold, hire bodyguards with a zero tolerance policy and become a complete recluse. All of which means that I simply could not do the job that is ‘being famous’.

Fame just looks like an absolute nightmare, a game that is played with loaded dice. Robbie Williams is just a regular bloke, except with such incalculably huge insecurities that none of the markers of success manage to weigh in the balance against them. He loves his wife, he loves his kids. He falls out with people, his weight fluctuates, he’s a songwriter even during the period when he thinks he’s retired from the game. After making it through his wild years, about his only remaining vice is smoking. I lost track in the narrative but I actually think he quit that too. His job is to make music but it’s every single aspect of his life that is continually judged and usually found wanting.

There were times when I had to stop listening, usually when Heath was listing the troll comments Williams gets on social media. Experiencing the abuse third hand was overwhelming. The other eye-opening moments were when Heath unpicked various media storms. We all know that the tabloids are purely exploitative and will never let the truth get in the way of a damning story. Turns out, it’s not just the tabloids – everyone will run with the dominant narrative. So the take aways for me from this book were that I need to re-evaluate my own relationship with social media, and with the press in general.

As for the famous, it’s a reminder that they give us their talent. They don’t owe us their lives. As Neil Gaiman put it ‘G RR Martin is not your bitch.’

 

In which I discover podcasts

Yes, indeedy, cutting edge as ever. Next up, I discover Netflix. (Not necessary, the BBC currently has all of the last 10 seasons of Dr Who on iPlayer, so who has time for anything else when you can re-run David Tennant?) But while I was packing up all my belongings prior to moving, I wasn’t in the mood for music, had run out of audiobooks and couldn’t face daytime radio. And so, podcasts it was. Mr W, looking at you now you finally have a smartphone.

  1. My gateway drug to podcasts was, of course, The Archers Omnibus. It is an objective of mine to get back to spending 75 minutes faffing about on Sunday mornings, to the gentle accompaniment of The Archers. In the meantime, the podcasts serve me very well indeed. Will Brine and Jenny Dahling really sell Home Farm? Will Kate ever get her head out of her arse? Is Fallon really going to marry PC Plod? And who will win the Talented Pets competition at the annual Village Show? (For American readers who are not Mr W – I’m not making this up. The Archers laughs in the face of your so called long running soap operas.)
  2. Mrs Brightside – Susan Calman and comedian friends slash guests talking about depression, anxiety, mental health issues and often, how completely mad the Edinburgh Fringe is. If ever a podcast landed at the right time it was this one, because I started listening when my anxiety was at its absolute peak. It’s funny, insightful and incredibly down to earth about the issues suffered by the various guests and Susan herself.
  3. So I daringly branched out even further into Radio 4 territory and on to Front Row. This is R4’s week night arts review show, and it covers everything from 17th century play revivals to grime. The presenters are just as likely to enjoy Mamma Mia! 2 as the latest literary darling, and they venture beyond the M25, so I find it likeably ecumenical. Plus, I’ve developed an intellectual crush on Stig Abell.
  4. Which crush led me to the TLS podcast, Freedom, Books, Flowers & The Moon, because it turns out good old Stig is editor at the TLS. I can only assume the title of the show is a literary reference I just don’t get. If not, it’s a collection of Good Things One is Generally In Support Of.  I listened to their summer books special, and to an ad hoc episode of Stig Abell and that bloke who is the literary editor of The Spectator discussing why Lee Child’s Reacher novels are so good.
  5. Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year podcast is something he launched when the books bit got axed (boo!) from the revamped drive time show (which, separately, I’m not loving. Nothing against Jo Wiley, just it’s not working for me. Also, why axe the books bit? Fools). The podcasts are every two weeks, hosted by Simon and sports guy Matt. They’re only three in so far, but the pattern is two authors and two books each time, one fiction and one non-fiction. This gives the authors plenty of time to talk about their books. My sense is that Simon Mayo is pretty well liked and appreciated in the literary world and so far he’s been getting some great guests: Lynda La Plante, Robbie Williams, Louis de Bernieres. I’ve picked up a few recommendations for the TBR list (D B John, Star of the North) and I’m currently listening to Robbie Williams: Reveal on audio, which I guarantee wouldn’t have happened otherwise. So far, Simon Mayo is resisting being interviewed about his own recent novel (Mad Blood Stirring), but I think I’ll buy it out of sheer gratitude.

Of course, all this merry podcast listening goes to fuck when I hand back the Merc with its useful built in Bluetooth. My new car, which I really won’t be able to identify in a line up, does not have Bluetooth. But it’s cheap, not in negative equity and has room for both cats at the same time! 

I’ll fit Bluetooth.

 

 

London anti-Trump march

Well, shudder. Offer me London in the heat to join a huge crowd of people and I’d usually hide in a dark corner. But at the moment, if you’re a sane and normal person who doesn’t hate basically everyone who isn’t a Nazi or a dictator, then Trump is a lightning rod. One giant orange symbol standing for anti-climate change, anti-refugees, anti-immigration, Islamophobia, racism, sexism, lies, violence, bigotry of every stripe, misogyny… The list goes on and on, even longer than the march.

So, I was there. Not part of a Corbyn ‘rent a mob’ as the right wing gutter press will have it. No one offered to pay me and Corbyn is fucking useless. Just an individual, joining up with a lot of other individuals, because we’re really angry now and we’ve had enough.

People, and women in particular, are not supposed to be angry. Anger is so negative, so uncontrollable. But what, then are we allowed to feel? What is considered appropriate? Because I am angry about Brexit. I am angry about Trump. I am angry that May simpers at Trump (and for the love of all the gods, woman, find either a dress that fits or a fucking tailor. Michelle Obama could probably help if you ask nicely.) I am angry that we have no political leadership or opposition in this country, rendering me disenfranchised. I am angry that I wrote ‘we’ve had enough’, knowing full well that there is more to come and little to be done about it.

So I marched. Because, despite the rage and the fury, I’m not the sort of person who breaks windows or chains themselves to railings.

Yet.

Trump Putin
A picture tells a thousand words

 

Not our cup of tea

The queen thinks you're a twat
Not just the queen.

The finger