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.


NaBloPoMo and out

1. US to S’s flat, Oxford (June 2010)

2. S’s flat to Summertown (July 2010)

3. Summertown to Glympton (September 2011)

4. Glympton to Piddington (December 2012)

Yes, that’s four moves in two years, which is going some even for me. Stick a fork in me, people. I’m done. Next time my belongings are relocated, I intend to be out of the country enjoying a holiday while professional movers wrap, fold, box and pack everything; then unwrap, unfold, unbox and unpack everything at the other end. I will simply leave detailed instructions and oversight to someone I can trust.

The new place is lovely, and in about two weeks’ time, when everything is sorted and I can step through the front door, into warmth, and have a glass of wine popped straight into my eager hand, it’ll be terrific. My plan now is not to move house in 2013 at all. If I suggest otherwise at any point next year, I give all of you permission to stage an intervention.

In other news, this has been NaBloPoMo. I missed one day, but what the hell. Stats went up to a stratospheric 70 views, and are now pretty much back to normal, but I do seem to have picked up some new followers. So, ‘Hello, new people! I hope you stick around.’

Let’s go with the pretty things

Since the cottage is what is technically known as ‘fucking freezing’ and looks like an explosion in a cardboard box factory, I need warming things to cheer me and distract me. And lo, Banana Republic stepped right into the breach by emailing about new stuff. Screw the-season-that-shall-not-be-named, but what I do appreciate about this time of year are the lovely gifty things and the beautiful colours.

Like this bracelet, which could certainly bring a little glitz to my life. My proper jewellery is all silver but every now and again warmer tones are called for.

Meanwhile, did someone say ‘cashmere’? I lurve me some cashmere, and ok, I already have one cashmere scarf but it’s black and not so long and fluid and comforting as this one.

That colour is apparently ‘saucy red’, and I think we can all get behind that as a choice, n’est ce pas? Thought so.

In which case, staying with the saucy red [someone is going to pitch up at this blog and be very disappointed at where their search terms landed them – Ed.] cashmere theme, what about this sweater dress?

Now, admittedly it is nowhere near the lost sequinned gorgeousness. But, I’d probably wear it about once a week for the rest of winter, and therefore if I did have any money and wasn’t just window shopping, it would be darn near a sensible choice.

Ok, so the fact that I have just taped up a fairly large box of handbags might suggest to the uninitiated that I didn’t need any more bags. ‘Pah’ I say. And also ‘Pfft’. I’ve had a hankering after something orange ever since I returned the beautiful orange chiffon, grecian style summer dress that I bought in a moment of madness on my last trip to NY. Realising that, in fact, I lived in England where hot colours don’t play, I took it back to the store for something more practical. Which turned out to be a good decision given that we had no summer at all this year and even the replacement capri pants and lightweight sweater barely made it out of the closet.

I digress. Back to handbags.

This is such a fab colour, and I know BR do good bags because I keep looking at them and not affording them. I’m not usually a fan of tumbled leather, but d’you know, I’m willing to make an exception in this case.

Small print: Honestly, this post is not sponsored by BR. Although, it could be if they sent me something…

On freedom of the press

The Leveson Report landed today, I’m sure with a hefty thud. It doesn’t seem so long ago that the news was full of daily revelations of the wrongdoings of the press, and at the time, as the truth came out about the misdeeds, the cover-ups, the lies, the absolute moral disintegration that had led to wholly despicable activities being carried out under the mantle of ‘the public’s right to know’, I didn’t think newspapers would recover. And I was pretty glad about it. A murdered child’s mobile phone was hacked. That is a horrible, horrible fact, that cannot and should not be readily passed over.

Asking the press to self-regulate is like asking the wolves to guard the sheepfold. Too many journalists and newspapers have proven consistently incapable of acting responsibly or with integrity. If there’s a story or money or power to be had, then that is what will win out, and to hell with whatever damage is done along the way.

You might have noticed I feel quite strongly about this. And yet, I still can’t quite get behind the idea of legislative regulation either, because at base, I do believe in the idea of press freedom. There are good, investigative journalists digging into stories that the public does need to know about, and they should be able to do that without fear of reprisal no matter who those stories touch. Thus my concern with regulation is that it’s the thin end of the wedge of press censorship, and censorship is generally not a hallmark of democracy.

I don’t know what breaks the deadlock. I fear that we have the press we deserve, and that is quite terrifying in a world in which a lot of people read The Daily Fail. I’m sure many tabloid readers were almost bursting with righteous indignation at some of the Leveson interviews; if only they could think it through and realise they are a huge part of the problem, that might be part of the answer.

For the rest, I think press behaviour will be cyclical. There’ll be shock and apology and promises to do better; and then a gradual re-ascendance to a moral high ground founded in quicksand until it’s time for the whole circus performance to be repeated. The bottom line is that there’s no long-term incentive for improvement, unless and until there’s no market for the tawdry. I’m not holding my breath on that one.

On nostalgia

Moving swiftly past the fact that I missed posting yesterday entirely (don’t tell anyone, I don’t think they noticed), on with the last few goddamn days of NaBloPoMo.

I was just thinking about Bagpuss again, and trying to pin down exactly what is the draw with nostalgia? There are Facebook memes about all the games we used to play when we were kids, there are faux old fashioned sweet shops in which to buy the sorts of sweets we never bought. There is all manner of ways, in fact, in which to wallow in a past that never was.

I remember being a kid, and a lot of the time I hated it. The endless, endless prolongation of boredom that was Sundays, the disempowerment, the stupidly inexplicable rules. I wouldn’t go back to the tumultuous confusion of my teenage years for any money, and I wasn’t mad keen on my 20s. So what’s it all about?

Like chick-lit, nostalgia is real life seen through a soft-focus, optimising lens. All the rough edges are smoothed away. The past isn’t only another country, it’s idealised, like something seen in a brochure. And we fall happily into it: we must, or the nostalgia industry would be dead on its feet.

For my peer group, nostalgia seems to have really started hitting as we got into our late 30s. Is it because, for the most part, by that time we’re solidly entrenched in Real Life?  Work, mortgages, children, school fees, the endless round of bills, pensions; age, aches, the first grey hairs, hangovers coming more easily and lasting longer? Some of those ‘I always thought I’d…’ dreams have either fallen by the wayside or been deliberately put away.

Not that it’s all bad, by any means. I find so many compensations in being older that I wouldn’t go back. But I do wonder if, as the options seem to narrow, it’s pleasantly escapist to think back to a time when we didn’t even have to worry about what the options were.

On liminality

Today has been all about the packing. I don’t move until next Saturday but I can’t abide a last minute rush. Mind you, I don’t much like living in chaos either, it’s just hard to avoid when there are boxes everywhere, either flat-packed and waiting expectantly or already hiding their contents out of sight.

Odd how you dismantle a few key things and a home is transformed back into simply being a building. The cottage is currently mid-transformation: the spare room is packed, the sitting room contains the packed boxes. But the kitchen is largely intact and the bathroom hasn’t been touched. The pictures are down from the walls and all the windows are naked, because the curtains have gone for dry-cleaning. To round things off, I ran out of oil this morning so it’s a bit chilly. How’s that for creating the appropriate metaphor in ambience?

So the week will be spent in a kind of limbo, while I technically still live here but only in a makeshift sort of way. I’ll do more packing tomorrow and over the course of the rest of the week, and my plan is that by Friday night (when I go out for dinner), the only remaining objects will the kettle and the last mug. Then there’ll be a bit of hanging around, nowhere to sit and nothing to do. Which is why I have The Woman in White tucked away for emergencies.

Moving day itself will be the usual mix of exciting and exasperating, of course. There’s no way round it being a bloody great hassle for all involved and I expect there to be a lot of swearing. And that’s just from me. But then, when the heavy lifting is over, there’s all the fun of fitting stuff into a new environment and effecting the reverse transformation: building to home.