2017: My Year in Books

Rarely have I read more voraciously or more gratefully than I have in 2017. My commute is devoted to reading and I am incapable of going to work with only one book with me – I take two if not three in case one doesn’t take my fancy. This is partly because 2017 is the year I have started Actively Avoiding the News. I hit my emotional limit after the terror attacks in Manchester and London Bridge, and the Grenfell Tower fire. Each horror on its own would have scarred me, but the headlines about lost partners and family members became so gratuitously designed to twist a knife in your heart that I became too angry with the media to want to engage. Instead, I read books, and read even more fiercely than I do normally. Here are a few highlights and lowlights.

The Good

How Not to be a Boy by Robert Webb

This is a late entry for 2017, as it was a Christmas present. The writing is brilliant, and his story is by turns very funny and completely heartbreaking. His take on masculinity and his wise words on how toxic it can be make this a vitally important addition to the feminist literary canon. I learnt an enormous amount about the pressure boys and men are under from a very young age, and had a little more insight than I needed into how a teenage boy’s mind works. How he had the courage to put to paper some of the ways he acted at university is beyond me – a more accurate title for those sections would be ‘how to be a complete penis’, and they make me want to instruct all girls not to date a man below the age of 25 – but that, I suppose, is his point. The patriarchy benefits nobody, not even white boys who went to university at Cambridge. This book should be compulsory reading for all.

Night and Day by Virginia Woolf

I’ve tried to read Virginia Woolf before, and found it impossible, but something made me try again with Night and Day. I absolutely loved it. The characters are brilliantly drawn, the dialogue is perfect, and the relationship between mother and daughter is so accurate it’s uncanny. Some might find the moment-by-moment descriptions of emotional states wearing, but I thought they captured the difficulties of everyday trials and tribulations only too well. I’ve since tried reading a few others of hers, but so far they’ve all been too whimsical and ‘let’s float off on a tangent’ for me.

Happy by Derren Brown

This is a self-help book for people who hate self-help books. Brown argues against the popular case for endless positivity, pointing out how this can quite easily just make everyone feel worse. He outlines various ancient philosophies in very accessible language, and generally made me feel a whole lot better about things. This and Night and Day are now fixtures by my bed for nights when I’m having trouble getting my brain to calm down and switch off.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Towles’s novel Rules of Civility has been one of my absolute favourite books for about five years, and I was a little nervous about this second book. The hardback, which I loaned from the library, is simply enormous and the cover is brash and unappealing. However, once I got into it, this is a wonderful story. It follows an aristocrat in revolutionary Russia, who is put under house arrest in the opulent Hotel Metropol (which I was very excited to find afterwards actually exists, and if Russia wasn’t such an autocratic, sexist, homophobic shitshow of a country I’d want to go and blow a lot of money staying there). He makes friends and loses them and has more adventures than you would think possible in only one building. The whole thing is brilliantly atmospheric, and I loved the little bits of Russian history he slipped in, too.

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr AND To be a Machine by Mark O’Connell

I’ve read a lot more non-fiction than usual this year, and found some real corkers. These books were both excellent examinations of technology’s effect on modern life. The Shallows focusses on the ways the internet is affecting how our minds work – fascinating stuff, and frightening too. Our attention spans and short-term memories are getting worse and worse, and this has knock-on effects for our relationships and how we interact. We are getting less patient and more fidgety, our brains are tired and our expectations are getting bigger and bigger. It’s a cautionary tale. To be a Machine follows the extraordinary world of transhumanism – people who want to extend human life spans, perhaps indefinitely, and perhaps by melding man and machine. The writing is superb, and along with The Shallows, it’s a great read for encouraging us all to take a step away from the technology and assess what’s really important to us.

The Bad / Unfinished

Agatha Raisin and a Spoonful of Poison by M.C. Beaton

I decided to give this a try as I grow worryingly close to reading every single one of Agatha Christie’s books, and thought I’d better look out for a “replacement” author now so the pain of having no more of her books to read will be easier to bear. However, Agatha Raisin is not for me. I read a couple and they’re reasonably funny but there is no skill involved in solving any of the crimes, only endless irritating returns to question the same people, long past most folk would have taken her to court for a restraining order, and then finding the culprit by falling over them by accident. Tedious.

The Big Four by Agatha Christie

Having said that, this novel by my beloved Agatha is really rather dreadful. An attempt at John le Carre-esque spy thriller-ness is just confusing and tortured, the ending is baffling and it involved Poirot’s twin – which I think may be the one and only time he makes a (sort of) appearance. The only one of hers I haven’t enjoyed, so far.

How to Worry Less about Money by John Armstrong

Tepid. Obviously aimed at middle-class morons like myself who have time to read a book about worrying less about money, rather than people who actually need to worry about money like those who have to decide between feeding their children and paying for electricity. His main thought is that your worries about money are probably connected to something else, some other deep insecurity which isn’t actually anything to do with not being able to afford the latest iPhone. Well, duh. Don’t waste your time.

A Dog’s Ransom by Patricia Highsmith

Another attempt to find an enjoyable crime writer who isn’t Agatha Christie. Again, not my cup of tea. All rather odd and the sort of book where the mistakes people make are because they’re too stupid to take an obvious course of action. Tiresome and I skimmed the second half rather than prolong the pain any longer.

Underworld by Don DeLillo

Cracking opening chapter, total nonsense from then on. Something to do with a baseball, flitting between time periods, no clue who anyone is or why you should give a hot damn about any of them. No.

Author of the Year

It would be Agatha Christie for the second year in a row, and to be honest maybe it should be – I’ve read so many crackers of hers this year, particularly a few that aren’t Poirot or Marple: Crooked House, Sparkling Cyanide and Sad Cypress. All fantastic.

But one crime author who I returned to this year, and then read four books back-to-back, was Nicci French. I’ve read many of their books (it’s a writing partnership of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French) and particularly enjoyed their series with Frieda Klein, a psychotherapist who gets caught up in a lot of police cases. Earlier this year I read Thursday’s Child, Friday on My Mind, Saturday Requiem and Sunday Morning Coming Down one after the other. The plots are exceptional and I love the characters and places that they’ve created. If Frieda Klein’s house was real, I would want to buy it. The books are very creepy but not revolting, which is good for me – I shy away from a few contemporary crime writers because they’re just too nasty. I once read a short story by Karin Slaughter which was so revolting and poisonous, it made me think she needs some serious psychoanalysis. And to stop writing immediately. But I can highly recommend all these Frieda Klein novels, which are intelligent and completely engrossing.



Playing peekaboo with a squirrel

What a first month to 2017. Particularly the last ten or eleven days. The news has brought one shock of disappointment after another, quickly evaporating any hope that Trump’s presidency might not be as bad as it looked. As a UK citizen, seeing the way May has handled herself has made me sick to my stomach. We appear spineless, naïve, collaborating – Chamberlain and Hitler all over again, if you want to take a very pessimistic view. The sneaking tendrils of the policies of both leaders are weaving themselves into my life and the life of those around me, in ways that make me frightened for my future. I am lucky that I am 28 before my government has made a noticeable negative impact on my life – unless you count the university tuition fees which tripled in time for me turning 18. But seeing what these fees have done since, I don’t feel I have much room to complain about the £25,000 odd debt I still have round my neck. These policies making people feel unwelcome outside their own country, pushing the poor deeper into poverty, and spreading hate and stupidity are affecting everybody now, even if we can’t see it straight away.

The news this month has been overwhelming in new ways, a bit like having your head held in a toilet by the school bully while they flush it over and over again. I started the year feeling good on some new anti-anxiety drugs – indeed I’m now wondering how anyone is getting through at the moment without them (joke). But the last ten days or so, I’ve started getting dragged down if I spend more than a few minutes a day on facebook, where I am bombarded with people’s statuses detailing the latest horror, or NYT article after article explaining why we’re going to hell in a handcart. Every now and then, we all need a break. But the worst thing is that when the news is this bad, it has some kind of centrifugal force that keeps us spinning round and round it, trying to pull away but kept in place by this weird effect of negative gravity. This week, I am trying to take a stand, and return to a few habits I had in the first weeks of the year which were keeping me feel centred and grounded. For me, it’s a combination of looking at the very big – and the very small.

The very small first. I spend a lot of my working week sitting down, so at lunchtime, I try to go for a half hour walk. Next to the office complex where I work, there’s a mosque. Sometimes in the summer, presumably when there are too many people to fit inside, men pray on the pavement outside. Other times I’ll come out for my walk at the end of a service, and there will be so many people filling the road that the occasional car struggles to get through. I watch the people at the mosque, with innocent human curiosity about a religion I don’t know enough about. I hope they take my glances as curiosity, and nothing more sinister. When I see them I wonder how much attention they get, how much courage it takes to walk outside wearing what they wear, marking themselves as “different”. On one of the lampposts by the mosque, there is a battered, rain-drenched flyer about inclusion, and welcoming refugees. I wonder if it was put there by someone at the mosque, or whether it was someone else trying to offer them some support and solidarity, to let them know that not everyone in England feels like they should “go home”.

After five minutes of entirely uninteresting pavements, my walk takes me to the canal, which is lined with houseboats. Next to the canal is a strip of greenery and trees, a wildlife garden set up around 15 years ago that’s gone slightly to seed. The small ponds are stagnant and covered in algae, some of the fences are in need of repair and there’s a general unkempt feel to many parts of it. A wooden walkway squishes slightly underfoot, as if (and I think it’s probably the case) the wood has rotted underneath. In one area, I often find three grey squirrels. Grey squirrels get a bad rap in this country: introduced by somebody sometime, they turned out to be rather more aggressive than the native red squirrels, which lost more and more territory to the grey squirrels, and now red squirrels are only rarely to be seen- mostly in Scotland, in pine forests. The grey squirrels also get a lot of grief for their habits of digging up plant bulbs, or stealing food in bird feeders. My dad will run out into the garden at odd intervals shrieking a battle cry or brandishing a cane, trying to get “the little bastards” away from the feed, and prompting my mum to say: “your father’s taken leave of his senses”.

Poor grey squirrels. It’s not their fault they’re greedy and extremely good at procreating. I have made friends with one of the squirrels in the wildlife garden, whom I have christened Chubs, for no real reason other than it’s a comforting sort of word, and he’s a comforting sort of squirrel. He stops and stares at me often when I walk past, interrupting his game of chasing the other squirrels round and round trees, either in an attempt at flirtation or to get them away from some buried treasure, I’m not sure which. One day, he was staring at me and I was staring at him as he held onto a tree trunk upside down. After a moment, he disappeared around the other side of the trunk. I waited, and a second later, he peeked his head round one side. I made a sudden, ha! I see you! action to that side, as you would with a small child. He disappeared. Then appeared on the other side of the trunk. I did the same thing. He disappeared… and reappeared again on the other side! I had to laugh at the sheer ludicrousness of what I was doing: playing peekaboo with a squirrel. He peeked round each side five or six times before he remembered the buried treasure, or the mating, whichever it was, and wandered off.

It’s the little things, the moments and pictures that make you feel grateful, even for only a little time. The benefits of interacting with nature are well-documented, and it’s nice to know it’s possible even in the middle of a large city. I’ve also watched coots diving in the canal, fascinated by their disappearing, reappearing act, and the smoothness of each of their dives. I’ve watched robins singing in trees – something that strikes me as actually quite rare, to be watching a bird sing. I watch birds, and I hear them sing, but not often do I see the bird that’s singing.

So if these small acts of nature watching on a lunchtime walk help make me feel centred in a whirlwind world, I’ve started turning to non-fiction to ground myself. Oddly, because I wasn’t keen on the subject at school, I am taking refuge in science. Specifically, physics. I read Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics at the start of the year, then followed it up with his examination of similar themes in Reality is Not What it Seems, which has a greater emphasis on quantum gravity. How much do I understand? 40-70%, depending on what he’s talking about, I think. I also lose the specifics very quickly, which is frustrating. But I enjoy reading about people discovering things we take for granted, or things that are too weird for us to have comprehended yet. The stories of failure and trying again are quite inspirational, especially in today’s culture of failure being something so monstrous nobody is allowed to fail – everyone gets a medal for participation – or nobody tries because they failure is too difficult to entertain. Science is a beautiful subject in that it is, in some ways, so ready to take criticism. If someone disproves something, then okay, we move on. Einstein proved Newton wrong on some things. Einstein was wrong about some aspects of quantum theory. We are all wrong, and it doesn’t make us bad or useless people. I am finding comfort in that.

I am also enjoying using my brain in different ways, and I’m intrigued to learn how relaxing it can be. Until now I thought to really RELAX I needed to be watching Friends, or reading a Mhairi MacFarlane novel (excellent intelligent “chick lit” which is actually genuinely funny, even if the plot is more or less identical in each book). But I’m finding I can relax with my brain engaged. I am rediscovering the joy of learning, which I think I lost a little after my Masters degree. Reading about quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity and the history of autism (Neurotribes, EXCELLENT book – a pamphlet summarising it should be required reading for everyone) has shown me that I can learn about things I thought I would never understand, and feel better for it. I’ve also read a couple of Jon Ronson books, on public shaming and psychopaths, which are certainly lighter and easier to read, but which I wouldn’t have considered standard ‘relaxation’ fare either. As I found during my degree, placing myself in a wider history or broader story is comforting. Even though looking back on mistakes and seeing them reflected in today’s world is sometimes discouraging, you can take heart from the changes that did eventually come. Paying attention to new facts and history makes it obvious how ignorant many people still are about things they really shouldn’t be ignorant about, but seeing how change eventually arrived in many areas is also heartening. I’m talking here about advances in science in many arenas, physics, but also psychology, as documented in Neurotribes and Ronson’s The Psychopath Test. Neurotribes really deserves its own post as its messages are so important, its approach to people who are “different” and how we respond to and interact with those people. I’d like to send a copy of that and The Psychopath Test to Trump (I’m fairly certain he’d come out as a psychopath) but I don’t suppose he’d be interested in learning anything new outside his own self-centred, self-interested, stupid view of life. I am grateful that I do not think like him. What a prison it must be.

2016: My Year in Books

I’m planning to write a few ‘Review of the Year’ type blog posts in the coming week or two. Some might address the general shitshow that we all believe this year to have been, but others I want to be quite light and more positive too. Here are a list of my favourite and least favourite books from this year. I’ve noticed that most of the favourites have a bit of a theme: they are about hope. No wonder they were my favourites in 2016. Let me know what you think!

The Good

All the Light we Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

I walked past this book and picked it up and read the back numerous times before, one day, it was the right day to actually buy it. I’m so glad I did: it is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. The story follows a young French girl and a young German boy through the Second World War. The girl is blind and escapes Paris with her father, while the boy is a whizz with radios and electronics and gets inducted into the Hitler Youth as a result. The innocence and fragility of their young lives is stunningly well-written, and the moment when the two eventually meet made me incredibly emotional. I’ve sought out other books by the same author since, and haven’t been disappointed. About Grace is also a gorgeous, if at times painful, story of love and loss.

Girl meets Boy, Ali Smith

Not published this year, just one I got round to this year. It’s amazing. One of the most gorgeous, hopeful books I’ve ever read. It’s all about gender fluidity, feminism, and standing up for what’s right. Totally accessible, small but perfectly formed. I loved every word and the end made me sob like a baby, but with happiness.

The Art of Happiness, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler

Speaking of happiness: I read this classic this year. I think it will need a few rereads, as some of the ideas take a while to sink in, but it was very well-written and engaging. I loved that it used mixtures of Eastern and Western philosophy and showed how often ideas from totally different backgrounds match up, even if one is rooted in science and other in philosophy or spiritualism. The thing that stuck with me the most was the idea of being honest as an antidote to anxiety. If you are honest with other people about what you can do, you have no need to be anxious. It also quoted this classic piece of advice: if you can do something about it, do it instead of worrying. If you can’t do anything to change it, there’s no point in worrying. Easier said than done!

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Close and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers

I haven’t read much science fiction but I absolutely adored these books. They can be read as a series or equally as stand-alone books. She has really gone to town imagining different species with totally different customs, examining human nature and society with real insight and compassion. Her examination of people’s feelings, gender, love, and what it means to be alive is brilliantly thought out and, again, very very easy to read. She also veered away from a common plot line in fantasy/sci fi of things going steadily to shit, and then a big battle at the end, and then things are good. She mixes it up and messes things around, but also keeps most of it on a wonderfully low key- the books are by no means uneventful, but I was never too stressed out by them. Can’t wait to see what she writes next.

The Descent of Man, Grayson Perry

A late entry as I just read it this week. I think Grayson Perry is brilliant and fiercely intelligent so I was really interested to hear what he had to say on masculinity. It was thought-provoking and engaging, even if it did feel a little bit like a draft of an essay that one of my old lecturers would say needed polishing, tightening, and a rework to bring the main argument front and centre stage. Very much worth the read though because he challenges so many aspects of patriarchy that one might not have thought of, and some of his examples are very useful. Extremely well-written and easy to read.

The Bad / Unfinished

I try not to leave books unfinished, but have also started abandoning them when I am really not enjoying them at all. Thankfully most were acquired from the local library. I walked away from a few classics this year – apologies in advance if this offends you!

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

Apologies to all those who thought this was phenomenal. I got about a hundred pages in and stopped. I have a strong dislike for books that go off on endless tangents rather than getting to the sodding point (unless it’s Ali Smith, who is just too awesome for me to care) and I found I just gave zero fucks about any of the characters or any of their stories. I didn’t even get to the bit where the boy finds out he’s magic or whatever, which may have been a mistake. Just the endless stories about noses and whatnot made me start losing the will to live.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman

I was given this as a gift so I’m not sure it’s advisable to include it on the list, but the gift giver was my best friend so I’m thinking we’ll be able to work past it. Both she and my partner love this book, and I loved Neverwhere, so I was expecting to love it too. Instead I found the main theme of the story – that we have gods now but they’re of electronics etc – quite dull and one-dimensional, and I also found the fact that there were basically no female characters who weren’t sexual objects exceptionally tedious. There also seemed to be a lot of unnecessary references to their breasts, or other women’s breasts, or just breasts randomly, and I found that pretty dull too. That probably speaks to my own issues rather than anything else, but I get enough of teenage boy humour around me in life in general, I can do without reading about it too.

Left of the Bang, I can’t remember the author

Got it out of the library. I don’t know why. Girl has unsatisfactory relationship with boy, meets other boy from her past, has fantasies about him, does bugger all of use about it. Meanwhile her boyfriend starts having sexual fantasies about children. How About No.

Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

I was really excited about this for the first half, and then sort of faded out of it. A big part of the mystery of the bookstore was revealed, and not as exciting as I’d hoped, and the boy starts going to save the day as per usual while his girlfriend tags along as sidekick. Also, as with American Gods, the teenage boy-ness of it started getting me down. OMG, my girlfriend is super intelligent, geeky, and really attractive!! FFS. Stop being surprised and give her some freaking flaws to make her an actual person. And again with the boobs: the lead’s mate runs some company making tools for software companies to make perfect, realistic CGI breasts. Which were used to make some beach volleyball computer game. Give me a fucking break and take me out of this teenager’s wet dream.

High Fidelity, Nick Hornby

It might not be fair to include this as I read literally about five pages. Douchebag runs through list of break-ups; isn’t fussed about most recent one, tries to work out when he’s next going to have sex. Broke up with girl at school because she wouldn’t let him touch her – you guessed it – breasts. I swear to god. This year’s books have done nothing to get me past my fear that men are obsessed with perfect boobs. The guy sounded like a complete arse and I put it straight in a bag to go to the charity shop.

Author of the Year

Agatha Christie

I have read SO many of her novels this year. They are perfect when you are ill, or in a book rut, or just want something that doesn’t require any effort but still has an amazing plot. They are so easy to get into, and I never ever guess the outcome. What an incredible brain. How did she think of all those plots?! I know many people think her books are ‘light’, or simplistic, and they are light in the sense that they’re so well-written you don’t have to work to find them interesting or enjoyable. But I think her talents as a writer are often underestimated. I would love to write a single book with such an enjoyable and unguessable plot, never mind however many she managed to write. Stand out books were Then There Were None- fabulously creepy; and The Secret Adversary- almost more of a spy novel, but just brilliant.


Josephine Tey. Another female detective writer. Love her style of writing and again, brilliant plots.

Uprooted, Naomi Novik. Loved this. A really different fantasy novel with some great twists – also really quite frightening. I never quite got to see the characters as fully rounded people, otherwise it would be in the favourites list.

Hurrah for the end of January: Empathy, Labyrinth, Rules of Civility

First of all, congratulations to everyone on making it to the end of January. All my close friends seem to have had a terrible January for one reason or another. If it wasn’t total job upheaval, or anxiety spinning out of control, it was relationship struggles, or having to move house. In some cases, it was a jolly mix and match of all of the above.

When you are having a difficult time at the same time as those around you, it can get very difficult for you all to really help each other. I recently read Brené Brown’s book I Thought it was Just Me (But it Isn’t) and one of the focuses of this book is empathy. Some of us may think we’re pretty good at being empathetic – I thought I was – but after reading some of the points she made I realised that it’s more complicated than it sounds. There is a big difference between sympathy (from over here, I can see that this looks bad and I’m sorry for you) and empathy (I am seeing this through your eyes, and I want to understand). When we are all struggling with things, and someone starts to talk about their own problems, it’s easy to get frustrated and respond in a way which shuts down what they’re feeling.

Some of the barriers to empathy that Brown talks about are the ‘stacking the deck’ response: I see your break-up, and raise you a father with an illness. “Oh, you think you’ve got it bad? Wait ‘til you hear about my day.” Sometimes of course it isn’t that black and white. People can think they’re ticking the empathy box by saying “Oh, poor you.” But then cut off the other person’s problems by expanding at length on their own, without giving the other person a chance to expand. Or someone might talk to you about something, and you can’t immediately relate to what they’re saying. Someone might say: “I have been thinking about self-harming lately.” And you think “Wow, this is heavy. I don’t know anything about that. I’ve never considered doing that. I don’t know what to say. So I don’t risk saying the wrong thing, I’ll say nothing at all.”

When somebody shares an emotional pain with you, it’s often easier to step back than step forward. Especially if you are having a hard time yourself, and don’t feel like you have a lot of energy or time to give the other person. But empathy is a two-way street. Showing empathy to somebody else helps you with your own issues. Maybe you haven’t experienced the exact same thing as that other person, but you might have felt something similar. Maybe you’ve never thought about cutting yourself when you’re feeling frustrated or unhappy, but you can probably connect to the idea of release that people can experience when they do that, even if you experience that release in less self-abusive ways. And if you listen to them, and respond to them, they will probably be happy to hear you, and will be in a better place to listen from a position of giving and thoughtful response. Empathy really is the practice of truly listening to and hearing others. It’s so common to try and explain a problem to somebody, but they will only half-listen and fill in the rest of the gaps for themselves. In the end the person reaching out is left feeling diminished and small because they haven’t been heard, and the person who hasn’t been able to fully hear them is feeling frustrated and bored. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to stop and fully listen to people.

Another point about empathy, which is part of this notion of giving empathy being as useful to the giver as the receiver, is that empathetic conversations are two-way streets. I speak to several friends every day, and we are all very good at talking about ourselves for a while, but making sure we also respond to the other person and ask questions and make them feel heard. I’m sure you all know how quickly a conversation dies when only one person is asking the questions, especially over text or email. The person doing all the asking will often eventually give up and respond without any questions either, and the conversation dies without having anything new put into it. It’s often very difficult to fully show empathy over electronic communications, particularly as we’re often replying quickly and may not have read every word of the message. It’s a good idea to slow down for those few seconds, and think about what you’re writing. If the other person has said they’re struggling with something, respond to that in the first half of the message. Then talk about yourself in the second half. Of course there are exceptions to this, but I think it’s a nice rule of thumb for making people feel appreciated.

There are many more aspects to empathy that Brown talks about in her book, but this is the one that really stuck with me and that I found most useful, this concept of truly hearing and listening to other people, and having the courage to reach out to others when we are feeling down. Reaching out in this way can be very scary, so it’s important that you know how to respond if someone does it to you: if you cut them off or make them feel unheard, they probably won’t reach out to you again. It is less painful to not reach out and to keep painful emotions to ourselves than it is to reach out and get knocked back.

I know this is a pretty heavy topic and many of us have had a pretty heavy January, so here are some other things from this month that are more cheerful:

After the terribly sad death of David Bowie, I finally got around to watching Labyrinth for the first time. What a bizarre movie. Apparently they’re making some kind of sequel, which got me to wondering how on earth they’re going to do the Goblin King without Bowie. How on earth he still manages to be sexy while sporting the worst wig I’ve ever seen, flowing blouses and those tights I don’t know. I was saying to a friend that it was bizarrely attractive but I don’t think anybody else could pull it off. Do you think anyone has ever asked their partner to dress up like that as a fun sexual fantasy type thing? “Yes, so a blonde wig with a kind of mullet, and a lot of silvery eye make-up, a low-cut blouse, and tights that are VERY tight in some places and strangely baggy in others… I don’t know why this isn’t working…”

I was ill in bed for a week this month, and discovered that I’ve finally overplayed Friends. It just isn’t so much fun when you realise that you’re older than the characters are, especially if you’ve been watching it since you were 12. I felt very old. My new mindless TV is now Sex and the City, which I was actually too young for when it was first around. They’re all a few years older than me so I have some time. This may be a sign that I should investigate getting Netflix or something, but the internet signal in my room seems to have been on strike for January so maybe it would be a waste of money.

I read The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat a few weeks ago. It’s incredibly gripping and interesting, and makes you feel supremely lucky for being able to do simple things like recognise faces, or for having proprioception – an awareness of the your own body. One of the women in the book lost proprioception through a freak incident with some antibiotics. She cannot feel her own body. She has had to relearn how to move and walk visually, because she doesn’t know where, say, her arm is unless she is looking at it. Extremely odd but many of the stories were surprisingly life-affirming and optimistic. Highly recommended.

I also tried to read The Knife of Never Letting Go this week. Not recommended if you are having any kind of struggles with anxiety or depression. It is BLEAK. I have sought solace in Rules of Civility, one of my absolute favourite novels, set in 1930’s New York. The writing is delicious, with such lines as: ‘The game had changed; or rather, it wasn’t a game at all anymore. It was a matter of making it through the night, which is often harder than it sounds, and always a very individual business.’ In honour of the characters in Rules of Civility, let’s raise a martini (or martini glass containing your beverage of choice if you think martinis taste like toilet cleaner) to a good February.

Why I love books and bookshops

My last blog was very much of the heavy, political variety. This one is mixing it up completely. It is born of various ideas and thought processes from the last few months, and as such is likely to be somewhat wandering and full of tangents. This is how my writing would often be if I didn’t try and regulate it a bit, as some of you who have received essay-length emails from me will know. I’m experimenting with just writing as the thoughts arrive after reading this piece today on following daydreams. I hope it works… I once knew someone who went off on endless tangents in conversation, which might have been okay if he didn’t stop now and again and say, ‘ha- how did I get here?!’ AND THEN TRACE THEM ALL BACK AGAIN. It was fiercely tedious- the kind of tedium which doesn’t just make you sink through the floor with sheer fatigue but makes you scream hysterically at the leaden weight as you go down. I will learn from his mistakes, and not trace paths back. Neither will I keep apologising for my wanderings, as I expect that will get dull quickly too.

The main prompt for writing this was reading The Slow Regard of Silent Things, a new novella from Patrick Rothfuss. Some of you may have heard of his excellent Kingkiller Chronicles, The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear. If you haven’t read them, do it. I have just started re-reading The Name of the Wind for the first time and it’s even better second time round, especially because I can see this time that it’s so rich that the third, fourth, fifth reads are all going to yield things I hadn’t noticed before. The Slow Regard of Silent Things follows one character, Auri, and as the author says in the afterword, it does nothing a book should do. There is little plot, only one character, and ten pages or so on making soap. But it’s delicious. Auri lives her days by what I interpret as enlarged instinct, following what feels right and trying different things until it all slots into place. We all do this, whether we’re aware of it or not- in what we put on in the morning, and what we eat, and the little decisions we make. I have better days when I follow those instincts very very closely. I am prone to anxiety and if I act on the beginnings of anxious feelings then I get along a lot better- it’s pretty simple, and is often things most people wouldn’t even notice changing their mind about, but I overthink so if I make a decision and then want to change my mind, some part of my brain will try to worry about it. I do better if I just get on with it and ignore my brain, go with the instinct. I really can’t tell you much about the book as it’s not about anything in particular. But it is lovely, and if you need a break and a quiet meandering sort of book, it could be useful for you.

The other prompt for this post is an article I read a long time ago about a university in America somewhere that has a library with no books. It’s some sort of technological college, so it makes more sense for them to be only ebooks and journals, and as any student will tell you, if it solves the problem of a class of twenty all needing the same one copy of a book in the library, great. But oh. A library with no books. It makes me want to cry. I have loved books since I was very small. My mum is a very keen reader and she would tell me all kinds of stories: I remember her telling me the story of Romeo and Juliet, and for as long as I can remember I’ve known that there’s a wizard called Gandalf the Grey who dies but it’s okay because he comes back as Gandalf the White. I used to become totally deaf when I was reading; I wouldn’t hear calls for dinner or the teacher speak, and it was so rare for me to look up when I read that when I voluntarily stopped reading to listen to Elvis sing King Creole on the radio, and ask my dad what it was, he knew he was onto a winner and bought his (utterly bemused) daughter Elvis’s greatest hits for her tenth birthday.

I love the feeling of big buildings full of books. The SOAS Library is one of my happy places. There are more fascinating books in there than I could read if I stayed there for the rest of my life. And bookshops make me happy like nowhere else, which is why, since HMV closed, I try to never buy books from Amazon anymore. It’s deeply annoying having almost nowhere to go to buy a physical CD or DVD (yes, I still buy physical copies of these things, I am not sufficiently ‘down with the kids’ on downloading), but if I couldn’t go into a real bookshop to buy a book, it would take away something very significant. I know it’s tempting to buy online when it’s so much bloody cheaper- I’m tearing my hair out at the moment because so many of my favourite authors have new books out at once, and the price of a hardback can be ridiculous. Siri Hustvedt, David Nicholls, Sarah Waters, Colm Toibin, Graeme Simsion, Lena Dunham, Ali Smith – did you all have to bring out hardbacks at once?? You’re killing me here. And publishers, what the hell is up with the price variation on hardbacks?! The new David Nicholls is £20! And I know your game, making the font twice the size so you can charge more- these days I open a book to check the size of the font before I buy it. I will not be conned. Sometimes, in these days of competing with digital books, publishers will go all out on a hardback and make it so beautiful you can’t bear to leave it behind. I’m looking at you, The Night Circus, and Rules of Civility. Two ridiculous stories behind my purchase of those hardbacks. I saw The Night Circus in Daunt Books on Fulham Road and picked it up, flicked through it, sighed, and set it down because I thought I couldn’t afford the (albeit very reasonable) £12.99. I started to walk away but looking back at it I couldn’t entertain the idea of someone else coming in, picking it up, creasing a page, putting it down wrong (I spend half my time in bookshops straightening books) and maybe taking it home. It was mine. I bought it. Rules of Civility was even sillier. I decided I couldn’t afford the hardback, waited for the very-pretty-but-not-as-pretty paperback, then adored the book so much I tracked down a hardback and bought that too anyway. I have a sickness.

Those were both debuts, and of course the publisher has to do more to sell a new name. But with all the big names mentioned above- with the possible exception of Lena Dunham, as hers is technically a debut and I love what they’ve done with it, making it look more old-fashioned- the covers are fairly dull. Many are in very similar styles to others by the same author, which makes sense as then people will know they’re by the same author, but for heaven’s sake- the cover of The Rosie Effect is THE SAME as The Rosie Project! No expense spent there, Penguin. And I’m glad I don’t want to buy the new book by the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry- again, the cover is identical. We’re not that stupid, cover designers- you can mix it up a touch.

Anyway, I love being able to go in and float about and pick things up and breathe in the smell of books and decide if today is the day I cave and buy one of these hardbacks I so desperately want (today was such a day, I bought Colm Toibin’s latest as a present to me for finishing an essay). Sometimes it’s not the right day yet. Sometimes I’ll shamelessly judge a book by its cover, find something I wasn’t expecting, and discover that it’s the right day to buy something completely different. I can’t do that on Amazon. A few months ago I bought a book called Naïve. Super. It’s Norwegian, it’s beautifully small, and it’s about a mid-twenty-something who has an existential crisis- loses the meaning of it all for a while, and has to stop until he finds it again. It’s perfect and if any of you are the sort I’ll buy a random book for for Christmas, brace yourself to get a copy of this. This, to me, is a great description of depression from this book:

‘We stood there arguing for a while. I accused him of cheating and we studied the rule book and argued some more. I said a few things that were really off the mark. In the end my brother asked me if something was wrong. What’s the matter with you? he said.

I was going to say nothing, but then I felt everything flowing over inside. It was overwhelming and upsetting. I have never felt anything like it, and I was unable to speak. Instead, I sat down on the grass and shook my head. My brother came and sat down next to me. He put his hand on my shoulder. We had never sat like that before. I started to cry. I hadn’t cried for years. It must have come as a surprise to my brother. He apologised for having been so brutal during the game.

Everything seemed meaningless to me. All of a sudden.

My own life, the lives of others, of animals and plants, the whole world, it no longer fitted together.

I told my brother. He would never have been able to understand it. He got up and said come on, shit happens, it’ll be fine. He tried to get me on my feet, boxing me brotherly in the stomach and shouting a little. My brother used to play hockey. He knows about shouting. I told him to take it easy. I said this was serious. My brother sat down and took it easy.

We were talking. I was completely incoherent. Neither of us could understand much of what I was saying. But my brother took me seriously. I’ll give him that. I could see he was getting worried. He hadn’t seen me like this before.

He said there are probably thousands of people who hit the wall every day. Most of them probably have a hard time of it for a while, but then it gets better. My brother is an optimist. He wanted to help.

I sat there thinking this had to be the pits. I was afraid that I had become fed up with life, that I would never ever feel enthusiasm again.’

Naïve. Super, Erlend Loe, Canongate 2005

I wasn’t going to put the quote from that book in this post but it fit and wanted to come in so there it is. I told you this would be a rambling post. In case you’re wondering, the game the brothers were playing was croquet.

The bottom line of it is: make sure you still use bookshops when you can, while you can. I know Amazon is cheap and easy, but think about a world without bookshops. Homes with no bookcases to go and peruse while your friend is cooking dinner. How much we learn from looking at people’s book collections. Think about not being able to open a new, or an old, or a middle-aged book, stick your face in it and take a deep breath of the smell of the pages. I love doing that. I especially love it when I find books that have a particular smell of a series I read when I was a child, about The Chalet School for Girls. I didn’t really like the stories much- they were all very similar- but I did like a) that they all drank milky coffee all the time which sounded marvellous (sadly it turns out I don’t like coffee) and b) the smell of those books. I come across it in other books from time to time, and it takes me back to days of doing nothing but reading and imagining that milky coffee tastes really good. Go and buy a book, and we’ll see if it smells like the books on The Chalet School. Judge a book by its cover, and make those cover designers do some damn work. And go and read some Patrick Rothfuss – you won’t regret it.

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