The Crimes of Winter, Philippe Georget

This is the third Inspector Gilles Sebag mystery, and I have to say, I was worried. (Here be spoilers, so don’t read on if you don’t want to find out if his wife was cheating on him.)

I was worried because I’m tired of the usual middle-aged, miserable, hard drinking, loner detective thing. Which is not to say that I’m not still partial to a bit of Rebus, but even Rebus has a dog and a girlfriend these days. Sebag has seemed to buck the trend and go happily home at the end of the day. But alas, in book 2 (Autumn, All the Cats Return) he suspects Claire has had an affair, and at the beginning of this book, that’s confirmed by a text message that Sebag intercepts.

So Sebag goes off the rails a bit, keeping  cheap whiskey in his desk drawer, sleeping in the office, racked with jealousy. His partner guesses but, in a rare and expected display of tact, Molina doesn’t say anything. It’s terrible timing that the cases Sebag has to deal with are all concerned with infidelity, reflecting his own situation back at him. A mysterious ill-wisher is contacting cuckolded husbands with photos of their wives with other men. In one case, this provokes a murder, when the jealous husband shoots his wife; in another, a suicide as the betrayed husband kills himself. A third incident is avoided, when Sebag manages to talk the man down from setting fire to his wife, his house and the neighbourhood.

With all this going on, what’s mostly occupying Sebag’s mind is the future of his own marriage. Oddly, or perhaps, Frenchly, there’s not a whole lot of moralistic debate going on. The novel avoids the banal simplicity of whether infidelity is right or wrong by acknowledging that marriages are not that straightforward. The more interesting question is what happens afterwards. The book presents various alternatives, from the violent to the accepting and by the end, Gilles too has found a way forward that he can live with. And caught the bad guy, of course.

So I’m relieved, because I hope for more Gilles Sebag novels and he’s more interesting as a happy family man than a bitter sot.

 

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Slightly later than mid-year reading roundup

After  a rocky start to the year when I thought I’d try not buying any new books for a bit and promptly read nothing, this reading year hasn’t gone too badly. I’ve read/listened to 59 books so far and there’s been some good stuff in there. So, in no particular order…

Best re-read/listen

A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell. I mixed this up so I could read a volume, then listen to a volume, which worked really well. For fans of Audible who also have long drives, this sequence is a great listen. Although I’ve just looked up who some of the characters are based on, and I’m somewhat distressed to find that St John Clarke is based on John Galsworthy, because I really like The Forsyte Chronicles. I hadn’t realised, either, that X Trapnel is based on Julian MacLaren-Ross. Anyway, I don’t care who Widmerpool is based on, he’s too monstrous.

Best new translated fiction

Summertime, All the Cats are Bored and Autumn, All the Cats Return, Philippe Georget. These are French police procedurals, set in Perpignan and starring Inspector Gilles Sebag and his sidekick, Molina. Sebag is a good detective who is madly in love with his beautiful wife, Claire, but begins to suspect that she is having an affair. His personal concerns then run alongside his investigations. He’s mildly tortured by his doubts about his marriage, but beyond that he’s a good cop so not another hard-drinking, rebellious outsider. They are not about cats.

Best Australian novel

The Dry, Jane Harper. I listened to this but I’d be tempted to read it as well because it was proper gripping and astonishingly accomplished for a debut novel. The brutal murder/suicide of the Hadler family in the small town of Kiewarra draws Aaron Falk  back there. Luke Hadler’s family want him to investigate, because they don’t believe their son murdered his wife and children, then shot himself. Luke was Aaron’s boyhood best friend, but Aaron himself was run out of town 20 years ago for a supposed murder and has hardly seen Luke since. As Aaron gets drawn back in and starts to investigate, all the old secrets and tensions start cropping up again.

Best book about the madness of WWII

A Good Clean Fight, Derek Robinson. I’ve previously read A Piece of Cake, which introduces Hornet Squadron, but I hadn’t immediately realised this was a sequel of sorts. The squadron is now in North Africa, being sent out on ridiculous missions to try to lure the German airforce out by strafing low level targets in Libya. The tactic doesn’t work and the squadron gets shot to hell, but their batshit commander, Barton, keeps sending them out.

Meanwhile, Lampard of the SAS is leading near suicidal missions across the desert, behind German lines, to blow up aircraft while still on the field. There’s an horrific scene where the Germans, attempting to follow suit, set out in motorised vehicles across the desert but are so totally unused to its ways that vehicle after vehicle launches itself from the top of a sand dune and crashes on the other side.

What’s always so startling and depressing about military novels, and in fact military history, is how character driven it is. Which is fine when those characters are sane, sensible types and not so fine when they’re megalomaniac nutters who absolutely don’t care about the men whose lives they hold in the balance. A Good Clean Fight is heavy on the megalomaniac nutters, as I suspect WWII was in real life.

Best action hero

I am so firmly on the Jack Reacher bandwagon that I am glued to my seat. I’ve read Die Trying and Tripwire so far this year and I doubt that’ll be the end of it. Reacher has only been out of the army for a while, he’s travelling around, living off his savings and whatever work he can find, but trouble keeps finding him. He doesn’t talk much, he’s built like a brick shithouse, handy in a fight and a sharpshooter to boot. You’d think trouble would know better. Fortunately for my reading future, criminals and low lifes are dumb-asses, so there’s plenty more Reacher ahead of me.

Best novel that everyone else is recommending as well

I’ve written separately about The Power, so I’ll go with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman. This was a real journey as I got to know Eleanor. It’s written from her perspective and she’s weird. Not defiantly weird, but she lives a life of such solitariness that she simply doesn’t understand normal human interactions. She is incredibly lonely, although this is something she has to realise for herself as the novel progresses and her realisation and reaction to that is utterly compelling. At the beginning of the novel, Eleanor has no reason to comply with social norms because she’s simply not aware of them, or of any acts of transgression. But this means that her responses are often very funny, particularly because she’s intelligent and articulate. She is gradually revealed as a joy of a character.

In which I’m supposed to care about stuff but I don’t

There is a shed load of shit out there that as a woman, I’m automatically supposed to have an interest in. I can tell this, because when I’m looking for gifts for my female friends, it’s all the tat that is specially selected to be ‘Just what she wants’. I don’t know who ‘she’ is, but if I ever meet her, I’m going to bitchslap her for being such a god awful stereotype.

If I weren’t me and I faced the constant barrage of bullshit from websites and TV and magazines, I’d be thinking the problem was me. As I am me, I think the problem is the constant barrage of bullshit. Anyway. Here is a list of stuff that I don’t give a rat’s ass about.

  1. Matching tableware or glassware – because shit gets broken. That’s part of its raison d’être.
  2. Looking younger – and hence, wrinkles/crow’s feet/fine lines/redness. I’m supposed to be spending a fortune on repair creams to fix all that damage. Because, why? What possible difference will it make to my life? It might conceivably make anyone who is looking at me a bit happier, but surely one of the joyful things about being in one’s mid-40s is that no one is looking at me? It’s an introvert’s dream, so I’m not particularly minded to fuck with it.
  3. Pleasing people – so, look. You can’t keep everyone happy all the time so why bother trying? Also, some people are far too high maintenance, so why bother trying? Much better if you just sort of accidentally keep a couple of people happy as you go along, purely by doing whatever you were going to do anyway. That way, it’s serendipitous.
  4. Whatever the latest box set is – it’s the investment of time thing. I simply can’t commit hours and hours to watching television and however good it is, it won’t be as good as a novel. It just won’t. No, not even that series you really loved, unless possibly you have just caught up with either Buffy or Brideshead.
  5. Diets – I think they’re all bollocks. Just aim for not too much of anything, cut yourself some slack if you had say, chips and wine for dinner on Friday (ahem) and don’t obsess about it. End of.
  6. Expensive scented candles – I’m never going to spend £40 on a candle. Sorry, Jo Malone. If I want my house to smell amazing, I’ll bake a cake and make some coffee.
  7. Personalised anything – I can still remember my name. So I think we can leave it a few years before I need it emblazoned on everything I own.
  8. Magazines – not entirely true, I do subscribe to The Economist.  The Economist is not big on celebrity tell all stories, sex tips, beach body tips, beach makeup tips, Christmas party wear tips or Christmas party catering tips. Thank fuck.
  9. Cooking/recipes – I’m increasingly less interested in cooking because I have increasingly less time and therefore I don’t want to fritter it away faffing around with food prep, cooking and clearing up. Bring on the roast veg or avocado on sourdough. Job done.
  10. Interior design – oh look, big empty wall, stick a book case on it. Add one reading chair and a decent lamp. Sorted.

 

The Power, Naomi Alderman

As usual when books are getting a load of hype, I immediately get put off and suspicious. This is especially true of prize winners, as I am so often underwhelmed that I use prize shortlists as an indication of what to skip. But. I was on holiday and, huge rookie error, I ran out books. So I fell back on audio and grumpily decided to give The Power a go, largely on the grounds that unless you know exactly what you want it’s impossible to find anything on Audible.

I ate this up. If I’d had it in print and not been on holiday, I’d have put life on hold so I could finish it.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, the premise of The Power is that roughly about now in history, teenage girls aged around 14 or 15 develop the ability to create electricity.  The novel is written from the perspective that it’s several thousand years after the initial awakening and a male historian is positing a theory of how the world got to be the way it is in his lifetime. He’s narrating the years between the discovery of the power and some tremendous cataclysm. Alderman plays slyly with the supposed letters between the male author of the history and the woman who he’s asked to read the manuscript. I imagine female authors smiled wryly at these exchanges.

From what becomes known as ‘The day of the girls’ onward, girls are able to use their power to jolt people, heal people, manipulate people, kill people. The girls can show their older female relatives how to tap into the power and bam! Women suddenly aren’t the weaker sex any more. Initial suggestions are that women should stay home and try not to use the power. (Well, of course. Exactly the same as how men now are supposed to stay home and not accidentally rape or beat up any women.) The boys are separated, for their own protection, so that the women don’t accidentally or deliberately hurt them, and governments search desperately for a cure that will get the world back to the way it’s supposed to be. But there is no cure, and this is the new norm.

What struck me very early on is that it felt like such an audacious feat of the imagination. Women! With power! With a strength that was equivalent to or greater than, men’s physical strength. Then it struck me as pretty fucking tragic that I thought it was so audacious. Then it struck me as even more tragic that I will never live to see even equality. But back to the story.

Women turn. Depending on the state in which they live, it’s with varying degrees of violence. Where they are repressed minorities, there are revolts; in the nice, civilised Western world, it’s an opportunity to make money and political capital. Women effect reprisals and it’s hard to read without thinking that the men involved were asking for it. A quick twist of bitter ‘How do you like it?’ Which I think is natural, partly the point and also, inevitably, within the novel it’s the seed that leads to the cataclysm.

Alderman uses the perspective and stories of four main characters to propel the story along. We’ve got a (male) African journalist; an American politician; a new religious leader, who encourages women to look to Mary rather than Jesus, Miriam rather than Moses; and the daughter of an old school British crime boss. These work well to show how all encompassing the changes are. Putting a female slant on all the main religions, in particular, seems surprisingly easy, just a quick shift of the angle of the light and yes, look at where the light and shade falls now. Exactly where you want it to, or rather where ‘Mother Eve’ wants it to. There’s money to be made from religious supporters.

There are some lovely touches that unfold. A particular US morning TV show recurs, and gradually we see the shift in perceived power and authority between the male and female presenters. When the lead male has an on screen breakdown, he’s replaced with male eye candy, and his former co-presenter, Kristen, gets to wear her glasses on screen. She becomes the main voice, while her cute male junior gets the ‘fun’ slots, giggles and doesn’t know anything about finance or international relations. Nope, can’t see any parallels there at all.

But, as the novel gets darker, there’s also a scene straight out of Greek tragedy, which pivots on the 5th century Athenian trope that women without their legitimate male leader can’t be trusted. In this novel, the violence breaks out when the legitimate female lead is away. It’s a classic hubris and punishment scenario.

Gradually, female dominance edges towards becoming normal, except with tensions and pro-male terrorist groups. But Alderman faces head on the idea that women are gentler and more nurturing, and demolishes it. Women are brutal, they kill, rape, torture and they do it for no reason – exactly as men do now. They do shit because they can. It’s not a better world, it’s just a world reversed, with women abusing their power and the authority that comes along with that exactly as men have done. The counter-argument is always ‘We don’t need to wonder what the men would do – we’ve seen it.’ But it doesn’t stop the women behaving precisely as unfairly. So, in one state, men need a female guardian and she has to authorise their travel. They aren’t allowed their passports, or jobs, or to get together in other than very small groups. They must do what women say immediately, or be punished. As a reader, you can see it’s mad and insane and you think that wouldn’t be allowed to happen – except, of course, that it’s the status quo now in some places and countries don’t intervene because they value political gains more than human rights.

So Alderman is partly making the point that indeed, history repeats itself, whoever is writing it. I don’t think there is a suggestion at the end, several thousand years post-cataclysm (when people are wondering about the significance of the ‘bitten fruit artefacts’, snort) that despite being given another chance, humankind (womankind?) got it right that time either.

The Power is being touted as this generation’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Too early to tell, of course, but it’s a good counterpart to it and I bet reading them side by side would be interesting. Both are mirrors, speculative fiction and cautionary tales.

The mental load

The Guardian published this comic on ‘The gender wars of household chores’ and fireworks went off in my head. I didn’t know there was a term for the ceaseless mental activity of planning, to do lists, forward thinking and logistics that keeps a house running. But there is and it’s ‘the mental load’. And the fact that mostly, women manage the mental load and mostly, men do not, suddenly explains a hell of a lot. And yes, there will be exceptions on both sides to this traditionally gendered breakdown but I will now be speaking to my own experience.

So, the concept of mental load explains why, in a domestic setting, men can present as so helpless (if one is being kind), or such useless fucking twats, God give me strength, you are slightly less use than a bicycle is to a fish (if one has had a stressful day).

Broadly, whereas for women running the domestic chores is a form of programme management, for men any activity is task based. Thus, you can ask someone to clean the bathroom and literally what you will get is a slightly cleaner bathroom. If you also wanted the towels to be replaced and the dirty ones put in the laundry basket, the bin to be emptied, any empty shampoo or shower gel bottles to be put out for recycling, the bath mat to be cleaned and the towel rail to be wiped down, then each of those sub-tasks needed to be individually identified.

So it is this continuous management of the sub-tasks that is so tiring and which leads to so much frustration. On one hand, the bathroom is clean – you got what you asked for. And that is undeniably true. On the other hand, how can so much that is so obvious have been left undone?  I believe the chore blindness is genuine, and then exacerbated by what are often different tolerance levels to dirt and disorder. But then again – how do you think any of this other stuff happens? Which is why men don’t get the gratitude they expect for having completed a basic chore, and women are left eye rolling and thinking ‘If you want something done properly…’

It also explains Male ‘I was going to do that later’ Syndrome. I’ve called out before that I don’t understand when this period called ‘later’ is, when there are not also a thousand more tasks to be done. But now I understand that of course, there can be ‘later’ if you are only aware of one task at a time, and if responsibility for that task has only been ceded until that one instance of it is complete. It actually annoys my partner that by the time ‘later’ rolls around, I’ve already done whatever he was going to do; not that he will necessarily have told me that he was going to empty the bin.

As well, if your only visibility is of a handful of seemingly unrelated actions, then it’s easy not to consider them a big deal. So what if the sheets didn’t get put out to dry? It’s only when you know that they’re part of a chain of events that will require some re-factoring that such minor issues are a problem. So the fact that the sheets aren’t drying now means that the next load of washing can’t be done for a day or two, which means that the running kit will now not be clean for that gap on Thursday when you had tentatively scheduled a run. So if you can leave slightly earlier then, and shift that, and if Sainsbury’s deliver earlier then you just might…

Years ago, in a bad bit in my marriage, I thought my ex had behaved really selfishly. He had given no thought to ‘us’ as unit. He had only considered himself. And I thought, fuck it, I’m going to give that a try.  I did it and it was hugely, astoundingly liberating. Life got so much simpler when I decided that the programme management of our lives was not my responsibility. I did not second guess the implications for another of my every action, presence or absence. I mastered briefly the fine art of not giving a fuck and It. Was. Awesome. I totally get why men exist in that context and don’t want to give it up. If I could walk away from that much responsibility on a permanent basis, I would. It’s one of the reasons why being single is so fabulous and life affirming.

But sadly, not giving a fuck is unsustainable when two people’s lives start overlapping. If those two people want to get out of the door at the same time for work, a day out or a holiday, then someone has to do the logistical planning and behind the scenes stage management to achieve that. Someone has to pick up the mental load, but at least once you understand what’s going on, maybe you can work towards a more equable sharing of that load. To refuse to take on the full burden feels like being selfish, which can be a hard thing for women to encompass. But I’d call it positive selfishness, a way to counterbalance the negative selflessness that leaves so many women ignoring their own need to have someone else just pick up the goddamn dry cleaning already.

In which I have a new job

In fact, I’m four weeks in. It’s a new role within the same company, but for the first time in my entire career, my job has nothing to do with either content or digital. This job is a further big step on the trajectory away from publishing and towards who knows what?

So now I’m working in the team responsible for coming up with new products and propositions. There’s a commercial aspect that I’ve never had before, and since delivery of any new product depends on lining up the customer care and field ops support as well, there’s another whole different area of the business to get my head around. All this was part of the appeal. I work for a big company and there are vast swathes of it that I never got a look at in my old role.

Just to complicate matters slightly, the hiring manager left before I started, her boss leaves at the end of June and as far as any of us are aware, there aren’t any replacements lined up. Mine is a new role in the team. I have no direct reports but 10 people junior to me who need varying degrees of management. A new product launch is looking like it will be 3 weeks late – I swear this is coincidental.

In all this, I’d say my comfort zone is a short drive away. Right through interview, I still thought that my publishing career was the bedrock evidence of what I can do. But that’s no longer the case. I was hired on the basis of the last three years, not the however many before that. I feel as though I swapped firm foundations for a high wire. As I don’t actually know what my job is and there’s no one to tell me, I’m doing whatever the hell seems to need doing. Every day, I’m flying blind. I’ve put out a lot of fires over the last few weeks, I’ve U-turned on a couple of decisions when I got more knowledge and thanked people for telling me. I don’t know how I’m doing, so I come home some days thinking ‘I got this’ and others thinking ‘What the fuck happened today?’

In other words, it’s standard new job stuff. The fear, the learning curve, the anxiety, the successes, the gradual build back up to confidence, to that state when ‘I got this’ is normal. Currently I’m at a low to moderate anxiety level, which is not only not a bad thing (temporarily), it’s what I went looking for. It’ll either all work out, or I’ll crash and burn. So, ok then.

10 things I have learned at work

  1. How to make tea without a teaspoon. There are never enough bloody teaspoons.
  2. Always make friends with security, the post room and the PAs. They are where the true power to make your life hard really resides.
  3. Lots of smart people together can make a whole lot of spectacularly dumb ass decisions; individually, they’ll all know it’s stupid but the Combined Stupidity Factor will out.
  4. In any shared space, standards will fall to the lowest common denominator. Thus, if you don’t have cleaners who clean bathrooms or kitchens on a regular basis, it will be like living back in halls of residence, only worse.
  5. The first 10 minutes of any conference or video call will be spent sorting out the technical issues and then waiting for the people who are late.
  6. Meetings that don’t have an agenda or minutes are a waste of everyone’s time.
  7. Buy your own stationery/as much kit as you can get away with. At least then you’ll have a good pen and a decent notebook, maybe even a workable phone and (holy grail) laptop.
  8. There is always more work. Put a hard stop in your calendar, go home and don’t check email.
  9. Play nice. Then grit your teeth and still play nice. If you really have to, remind people that you are, in fact, playing nice, and things could get a whole lot worse than this if they want? Then go home and pour a big glass of wine.
  10. This too shall pass.