Reading roundup

Let’s see if I can remember what I read recently. The bookshelves are all full, so recently read books disappear wherever I can cram them into the shelves and I haven’t been keeping proper track.

Invisible Women  – Caroline Criado Perez. Won various prizes last year, including from the FT. The main thesis is that women are comprehensively overlooked in all sorts of significant ways, from designing transport systems to basic health care, because of an historic, current and probably depressingly eternal lack of data. In effect, by stupidly deciding not to be men, women make data gathering too hard! Sooooo complex! It’s nooooot faiiiirrrrr, why are you so different and weird and icky? So the mens go on deciding not to bother, and thus creating data structures that handily reinforce their existing worldview and incidentally, kill women. Nice. Obvs any women who call this out get ignored, threatened, fired, or murdered.

All women should read this, and then let’s smash the patriarchy and menstruate on its shattered bones.

Magpie Lane – Lucy Atkins. No word of a lie, I got this because it’s set in Oxford and I know where Magpie Lane is and it used to be called Grope Cunt Lane. Well, it probably didn’t have a properly capitalised street sign but that’s what it was known as. I do love old place names that tell it how it is. Anyway, this is a mystery with my old fave, the unreliable narrator. She is called Dee, and she goes to be a nanny to the neglected daughter of a media mogul-turned-head-of -Oxford-college and his very un-Oxford Danish wife. The daughter has selective mutism and an interest in animal bones.

Clearly loads to play with there. Whose fault is it when the daughter disappears? That bit is actually no real surprise at all, but it’s interesting parsing the narrative for how unreliable you think Dee really is versus how much she’s reframing to present herself in the best light.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte. The National Theatre is streaming weekly plays at the moment, so I watched Jane Eyre. Didn’t love it, decided to re-read the novel as well. Didn’t love that either. On the one hand, I do think it’s a classic for good reason. On the other hand, I have a problem with Rochester. He’s basically just a right bastard, as arrogant in his belief that because he loves Jane he has the right to throw convention away as St John Rivers is in believing that his love for God allows him to mow down any obstacle in his path. Jane’s annoying but she could still do better.

Big Sky – Kate Atkins. The latest Jackson Brodie novel, kindly sent by Blackwells. I haven’t read any of the other Brodie novels, and I’m not tempted to go back to them. I think I’m missing something, because this was a perfectly pleasant read but nothing special. I think it’s supposed to be darkly comic? And Brodie is supposed to be not hugely effective, except by happenstance? I don’t know. It was fine.

Various Jack Reachers – Lee Child. They’re comforting to dip back into, so I chain read three of them. Bad shit happened, Reacher kicked ass. I’m vaguely wondering if one could put together a thesis positing Reacher as a modern day combination of Ajax and Odysseus. The evolution of the hero to have brains and brawn, with reference to Sophocles’ Ajax. I mean of course, one could, but would it stack up beyond a bit of playful thinking? Bet it’s been done.

Another Man’s Moccasins – Craig Johnson. This is vol 4 in the Walt Longmire series, which I think has been turned into a TV series I won’t watch because TV is hard. And boring. There’s a murdered Vietnamese girl, a homeless, ex-con Indian and a backstory set in Vietnam when Walt was serving. It’s all very deadpan and practical, without over the top violence, and Walt is a good guy.  I might have to make this the next series that I work my way through, and I started looking up Wyoming as a holiday destination.

I have more Reachers on the way, because I listened to some of them and therefore have gaps amongst the paperbacks. So I’ll re-read those when they arrive. And I finally watched an entire movie all the way through on Netflix, but only because it was The Breakfast Club. Then I ordered Pretty in Pink, St Elmo’s Fire and Say Anything.




Forest Christmas

I’ve had Christmas already this year. I met up with my sister and her husband, my new nephew (Gus the Poodle) and my niece (Ruby the Golden Doodle), in a cabin in the Forest of Dean. And we had a jolly nice Christmas.

Now, I don’t know what that last sentence conveys to you, but fuck me, people are having a hard time getting their heads around this extremely simple concept. I’ll grant that there’s a more traditional date that was chosen arbitrarily a few years back, but there are also other festivals that shift. No one says ‘Easter in March isn’t really Easter, is it?’

Despite which, it seems that Christmas is so effectively tied to December 25 that people absolutely cannot fathom that it could happen at any other time. To the point that they are almost, almost affronted.  I’m now so fed up of explaining and justifying that I’m simply not going to bother.

Sample conversation #1

‘So did you have presents?’

‘Yes, it was Christmas.’

‘What about a tree?’

‘Yes, because it was Christmas.’

‘What about…’

‘Look, we had presents, and decorations, and Christmas music, and a roast dinner, and we watched Die Hard! Because it was Christmas!’

Blank look.

Sample conversation #2

‘When did you have Christmas?’

‘Last week.’

‘So more like Thanksgiving then.’

‘No, it was Christmas.’

‘What do you mean, you had Christmas?’

‘I mean, we did all the stuff you do for Christmas. Because it was Christmas.’

‘What are you going to do at Christmas?’

‘Nothing, because I already did Christmas.’

In some respects, it’s a fascinating insight, first into how difficult people can find it to break what they seem to regard as hard-coded rules. If Christmas is one, are there loads of others that I don’t know about as well?

Secondly, the more specific questions pinpoint what defines Christmas for one’s interrogator. Sprouts are a key signifier; Die Hard is definitely up there too. A couple of people mentioned the queen’s speech, which I have never watched anyway, or midnight carol services. Which I don’t attend.

I actually was thinking about sort of doing Christmas again, and then I thought, why? I had a lovely Christmas. I don’t need two of them. I still have to get some presents, and I’m going to see the stage show of White Christmas so that seems plenty. But there’s stuff that’s just for me, like a tree or fancy bits of food, that is simply unnecessary. So I gave the money to charity instead. As the Other Christmas build up really gets going, I’m finding myself relieved at the amount of tasks I don’t have to bother with and the volume of thinking that I don’t have to do.

We’re thinking of making Forest Christmas a regular thing. It’s an appealing thought, and not only because it involves dog walking and copious amounts of champagne being drunk in a hot tub. It’s  a ‘Get out of Christmas hysteria’ free card, while still allowing me to take a week off when the rest of the country does Other Christmas. Forest Christmas for the win!

Doing one thing at a time

I’m taking the opportunity of all this unaccustomed time I have at the moment to try to learn some new habits. One of the activities my CBT coach got me to do when my anxiety was at its worst was to create a weekly timetable and then evaluate how I felt about what I did in each time slot. I rated from 0-10 for Achievement and from 0-10 for Enjoyment.

Probably unsurprisingly after so many years at work, where I was rated almost entirely on what I got done, I am very task focused. So with my weekly timetable, task after task was an achievement, but nothing was particularly enjoyable. If anyone is feeling that their life is a little, or a lot, off balance, I’d recommend trying that rating exercise, by the way.

Somewhere along the way I developed the attitude that anything enjoyable should be pushed to the fringes of life. Fine to do when the chores are done, but not stuff that can take priority. I am a tidy, organised, control freak anyway and I think my previously frenetic working life exacerbated these tendencies. Life really did become all work.

But the chores are never done and they never will be. I’m learning that that’s ok, and I’m deliberately trying to create more balance by forcing myself not to do things. One way to do that is to focus on just doing one thing at a time. So I started by just listening to a podcast. Then just listening to the radio. Like a lot of people, I think, I’ve tended to use the radio as background noise. But I can’t work or read with background noise, and now I’m not driving much I’m missing shows that I liked.

No one thinks it’s weird to sit down and watch TV for a couple of hours. But who these days sits down to give the radio their full attention? I started by settling myself in with a pot of coffee one Saturday morning and listening to Saturday Live on R4. To start with, it felt strange and twitchy. I had to keep reminding myself that this was what I was supposed to be doing with the time. I reached repeatedly for my phone, and then put it down again as I realised I was about to start multi-tasking. I made myself stay still, and I listened to the whole programme. Then I got on with my usual day, but feeling calmer and more grounded. I noticed that my entire day seemed to run more slowly and comfortably.

Mid-week and I listened to a podcast about Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal. It’s long been my favourite poem and this show included Samuel West reading parts of it aloud – absolute bliss. I dug out my copy of the poem to take to bed with me, and over the next couple of nights I read the whole thing aloud to myself. Sunday morning brought The Archers omnibus and ok, I did a bit of a Tweetalong as well. But that was less a distraction and more a shared experience. It’s not as if The Archers is always very interesting – there are whole storylines that are dull as blocked culvert water. So allowing myself to be bored for a couple of minutes becomes part of the experience as well.

I like this slowing down and paying attention. Everything that needs to happen still happens. But, taking one thing at a time smoothes the rhythm of the day and makes everything more enjoyable.