2018 – Books and Things

I always spend a few days at the end of a year thinking about the books I’ve read, and what I enjoyed and why. This year, I’m going to keep track of the books I’m reading as I go, making much more of an ongoing reflection than previously it has been!

  1. Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie – fast, entertaining read. Not her best, with rather less quirks of Poirot as I would expect (He doesn’t complain much about the heat in the desert and the impact it will have on the ‘little grey cells? Or how the dust will ruin his shoes? Hmmm). Much better than the run I was otherwise going to do…
  2. The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land In Between by Hisham Matar – The very precise writing in this memoir gives a very human and rational (perhaps too rational at times?) insight into experiences faced by those living under Gaddafi. Documenting the author’s journey to learn whether his kidnapped father is dead or alive, allusions to torture, controlled frustration at British politicians, and farcical interactions with Gaddafi’s son feature, with the author trying to come to terms with both the lack of certainty about his father and the fact he doesn’t fully belong in any one country.
  3. 13 reasons why by Jay Asher – Really didn’t like this young adult book at all. Tbh, I’m unsure why of my friends recommended it – but wish I could remember who so I ignored their recommendations in future… Tbh, screw anything that ends up broadly glamourising suicide in such a way.
  4. Among the Russians by Colin Thubron – Had higher hopes for this than it ended up delivering. Have really enjoyed lots of Thubron, and a fascination for both what was the USSR and what is now Russia. However, I found the writing a little too heavy at times, and was frustrated that much of this felt a little bit like “An English Man goes abroad and has some thoughts…”, rather than providing a more complete picture of the place and and people.
  5. Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon – Clearly on a bit of a detective theme at present in books. Not sure if it was this translation or the fact it was the first in a series, but wasn’t a big fan. Shall try to find a book from later in series before I give up on Simenon entirely.
  6. Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie – Can’t go wrong with a Ms. Christie novel when feeling slightly rundown and wanting a Friday lazy night read.
  7. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Wow. One of those books which suddenly gives you an insight into other ways of being. Wish I had watched it before.
  8. A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear – Anachronistic (language seemed off for the period) and seemed to spend too much time enjoying and showing off knowledge of Cambridge (and yet not bizarrely other arts of the country in which the UK was based).
  9. The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane – This book made this former country bumpkin fall back in love with the countryside again. While not quite being sure of the ‘inner journey’ the author is doing on through this book, the descriptions of the landscapes visited are glorious rich and vivid.
  10. Before She Met Me by Julian Barnes – Ordinarily I love this author, but I couldn’t cope with this book. His way with words kept me reading to the half-way point, but having got just past the 100 page mark I couldn’t cope any longer and skimmed to read the end. Terrible and weird ending, really jarring representation of women, unenjoyable story – it’s a piece of his very early work and it shows. Avoid.
  11. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe – A book that makes me want to apologise for my ancestors, causes me to curse Christianity as a tool of colonialism, and that I want to hand to everyone who tells me the British Empire was a glorious thing. Jaw dropping, with an outstandingly subtle transistion to the perspective of the District Commissioner.
  12. I’m the King of the Castle by Susan Hill – Just found it a slog. Couldn’t get past the first few chapters.
  13. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng – I never felt a true connection to, or with, any of the characters – although I was fascinated with hints and much that was left under- , or un-, stated: how Yun Ling survived the war, learning about Aritomo. War, colonialism, terrorism, and questions about memory and forgiving/forgetting. All to a gorgeously described backdrop of Malaya – which giving me cause to learn more about the history of this place.
  14. I’m Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti – Someone called it ‘A nightmarish fiarytale’, and that’s a fair summary. The author captured perfectly the feeling of long, sun drenched summers that last forever, and of the battles and disagreements between children. Dark, claustrophobic feelings – and the whole affair is given an additional level of complexity when you realise that one of the village sings Bella Ciao (a song sung by Italian anti-fascists in WW2 – who knew my love of Manu Chao would help me understand a throwaway reference in an Italian book).
  15. Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala – 3 stars. I was fascinated by the premise, but found the parallels between the two women too heavy handed to be interesting, with the story feeing more Mills & Boon in places that a Booker Prize winner tends to.
  16. Half a Life-Time Ago by Elizabeth Gaskell – None of the characters are pleasant, yet it’s a reminder of the impact our life choices have upon the shake of our lives, and a reminder to be less stubborn.
  17. Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys. If you dig beneath the perhaps hard to parse stream-of consciousness, you find words that are true and honest – ones that I found hard to read, as it brought past times home to me hard. The author can only be a woman who has experienced desperation, anxiety, and depression. It’s sad, hard, uncomfortable reading, but a fascinating book.
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Waving goodbye to July

What a month July was – I’m not sure I’ve had such a busy month for a very long time… lots of travelling as part of work (doing NHS Citizen stuff), but also lots of seeing friends in different places such as managing to see my best friend in Manchester, and fulfilling a life long desire to stroll up the Champs-Élysées for breakfast after lots of jazz.

I still managed to do a bunch of reading though…

Things I read

Tanglewreck – Jeanette Winterson
“Today lies on top of yesterday. And yesterday on top of the day before, and so on down the layers of history, until the layers are so thick that the voices underneath are muffled to whispers”

You can rarely go wrong with a good children book – and this is an OK one. Gorgeous concept, but I’m possibly a bit too old and too ‘sciency’ to buy into the idea of time travel as portrayed here.
 
Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
It had long been on my to read pile – but I found that I really need to spend some time just sat down with it as the largely stream of consciousness writing style meant it wasn’t a book to pick up and put down. It explores some of my favourite themes – interactions between individuals, understanding/acceptance of decisions made, reinterpretation/subjectivity of perspectives, and mental health. The ending made me itch with frustration as I wanted greater resolution…
 
Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
Time, age, and introspection seemed common themes for books in July. I loved the period of time the book could span due to the tale told, always from a single perspective. Reading through an individuals slow stepping their way towards forgiveness – you can read this as a book about faith, or you can remove the religious aspect entirely and read it as being about family, relationships, and human interactions.

 

Things I did

  • Building Digital Democracy event in Parliament – interesting afternoon. I wasn’t convinced by everything that was being presented as being new/interesting/valuable, but certainly a step in the right direction of getting digital and parliament talking to each other more. Wednesday lunch time is rarely a good time for a Parliamentary event though.
  • Turkish baths, champagne, and chinese in Harrogate – there is a place in Harrogate where you can do 3 of the best things ever. You can go to Turkish baths (bathing, heat, cool water, all surrounded by amazing architecture), and then eat chinese and drink champagne after. Possibly the best evening of my life.
  • Open Government Partnership launch – I’m very pro greater openness in Government, so was very happy to be at the launch event for the next national action plan. It was excellent to be involved in conversations about ‘open data’ going beyond just openness in terms of licensing. Anyone who has heard me rant about this over the last few years will know *quite* how happy I was to hear others talking in these terms in this meeting…
  • Wikimedia UK Volunteer Strategy Gathering – conversations about communities, community building/empowering, strategy, and open knowledge, genuinely fit into my idea of a good time on a Saturday. I may be somewhat of a nerd though… I’m not convinced by the processes they are currently proposing, nor their focus on committees and advisory boards, but we shall see what happens next!

Things I saw

Fast and Furious 6 and 7 – Incredible. For all the wrong/right reasons. 7 was the better of the two – if only for bonus Jason Statham, The Rock pulling a gun from a Predator drone having literally flexed a cast off his arm, Vin Diesel and the amazing car jump to hook a bag of grenades onto a helicopter. Oh and a glorious scene where a car is driven through multiple towers in Abu Dhabi. And the bit where the team parachute out of a plane in their cars. It’s ludicrous. But so much fun.

Green Hornet – An absolute farce and terrible film that was perfect for a giggly evening in with pizza. Will NEVER watch it again, and will never recommend it.

The Man Who Knew Too Little – Mildly amusing. Not recommended

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off– Hard not to see the appeal for many. A giggle and a backward glange to an idealised teenage day that no-one ever actually had, and to a person none of us ever were.

 

So, roll on August – a month of more travel, lots of planned films, and hopefully some time to actually see some exhibitions. I plan to actually settle down and get back into reading something non-fictional as well, and I have the feeling I have some proms tickets for something…

Reading – Oct to Dec 2013

After a long time of not reading any books at all, I made a concerted effort to start reading again. And have turned back into the book hungry monster I used to be…

The Rapture of the Nerds – Cory Doctorow:

I normally love Cory. I.. I just couldn’t get through it. I found the writing slightly.. not quite lazy… but something. In crafting the new world, simple descriptions were given eg. the coast of France was described as being radioactive. In brackets.While I get the value and use of describing these changes casually… it just didn’t sit comfortably for me. First book I learned to put down.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury:

“It was a pleasure to burn”

Such a strong opening line, and a brilliant first couple of pages. But the promise of these weren’t fulfilled.

I had been waiting a long time to read the book, and was always careful not to hear any spoilers. However, I think this meant I expected too much from the book. It had always been mentioned by others in the same breath as Huxley’s Brave New World and 1984, both books I have lost myself in multiple times, and I just didn’t find it lived up to these.

While in awe of some of the scarily presentient ideas contained Fahrenheit 451 (with one scene reminding me strongly of Police, Camera, Action) I found both the book and Montag as a character too disjointed. I couldn’t connect with Montag (and I always get *far* too emotionally involved with lead characters), and found I cared little about what happened to anyone.

Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen – P. G Wodehouse:

Not my favourite of Wodehouse books – but I do enjoy any visit to the world of Wooster and Jeeves. There is a bittersweet irony as it is believed to be the last novel fully completed by Wodehouse before his death.

The Beautiful and Damned – F. Scott Fitzgerald:

I couldn’t get through the book. The story is slow, and while I don’t need to like the characters in my books,  I found Anthony and Gloria were neither interesting nor likeable. The blurb tells me that ‘their marriage is a passionate, theatrical performance’, but I found it excruiating, unhappy and I just wished for both the marriage and the book to end.

Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose – Sandy Balfour:

This was a delight to read. Delicate, enticing, the book pulled me to keep reading until I had pulled together an understanding of the authors life. While also exploring the fascinating issues of culture, national identify, politics and history, this autobiography is centered around cryptic cross words. While this may sound bizarre – it works. Really works. And even though I’ve never been the biggest fan of cross words, I have been left with a fresh appreciation for them.

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie:

Agatha Christie books are something of a dirty secret for me – like having fallen into bed with an ex against all good judgement, they touch all the right spots, filling me with suspense, before culminating in a great climax, and then leave me feeling empty and hollow.

‘And Then There Were None’ is a masterful book by Christie, in which she lays out the premise early on, building up suspense (to almost breaking point by the end of the book), knowing what but not who. Without a Poirot or Marple like character, the reader is left not knowing who to trust – leaving you very disoriented, questioning the motives of all. I found it absorbing to read – but I won’t think much of it again.

Death Comes to Pemberley – P.D. James:

The first half of the book felt like a step into a world I thought I would never get chance to re-explore. Stepping back through the wardrobe to the world of Pemberley was bliss.

However, rapidly the focus moves away from Elizabeth. And good God, I found Darcy dull. I know the novel is set in a period of time of time in which the role of women was very different to now, however I had hoped that Elizabeth would have some part (indeed any part) in solving the murder mystery. She was the first woman I perceived as ‘strong’ in literature (in contrast to a number of strong girl characters I had ‘met’ in books) – so I was disappointed to see her take a back seat.

Following Darcy through a couple of hundred pages, was painful and tedious. I never understood my friends fascination with Mr Darcy, and now I do so even less. I found much of this rather dull, so skim-read the last 100 pages or so to find the resolution – only to find this rapidly taking place in the last 30. I really don’t think the pay off was worth it, and have no desire to hear from Mr Darcy for a long time.

I will certainly be reading the first half of the book again though. If nothing else, for this gem of a sentence:

“If this were fiction, could even the most brilliant novelist contrive to make credible so short a period in which pride had been subdued and prejudice overcome?”

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath:

Simultaneously the best and worst book I could read at this time – I found an odd solace in the book, empathising with the suicidal depression, exploring mental illness through a piece of semi-autobiographical writing, which drips with cynicism and humour.

I found the ending somewhat disappointing in a way – it didn’t ring true with the same rawness that I had found in the rest of the book. Although perhaps that’s more of a reflection of me than the book?

Outsider – Albert Camus:

This was a re-read of a book I had read years ago. For some reason, I can’t remember anything about it.

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul:

Yes I was high on codeine – no, I don’t think this in anyway changed my impression of this book. Mad in all the right ways, and leaving my giggling with glee. Handed to me by a friend, largely to stop me moaning about being a) in pain b) bored, I rushed through this in a single reading. As a big Douglas Adams fan, I only have two questions: 1. Why did it take me so long to find this book. 2. Why are aren’t there more in the Dirk Gently series?

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams:

No sooner had I finished the Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, then I ransacked my friends house hunting for this book. Sad I couldn’t find it though, so I bought it for my kindle app and read through this in a few hours (spread over two days). Very happy to have bought it in such a way – as it means I can dip in and out whenever I want. I know the characters now. It’s exactly
that type of book.

Hackers – Steven Levy:

If I never hear the phrase ‘The Hacker Ethic’ (caps not mine) again, I will die a happy woman.  I found the book semi-religious in the worship of ‘true hackers’ and ‘The Hacker Ethic.’ While I’m really interested to learn more about the time and places the author was writing about (accepting that he was writing about only a few locations – and was missing other developments in other place – which is a problem itself), the lack of critical comment really disappointed me.

Two examples stand out clearly. One is not questioning the idea that “it was only the rarest hack who called the ARPA funding ‘dirty money'”. There seems to be something interesting about use of defence money and development of technology – and it would have been nice for that idea or concept to be explored.

Secondly, and more problematically, the author fail to question assumptions regarding the lack of female hackers. The single paragraph exploring this culminates in two sentences that I hear even today as justification for fewer women being in tech:

“Even the substantial cultural bias against women getting into serious computer does not explain the utter lack of female hackers. Cultural things are strong, but not that strong” Gosper would later conclude, attributing the phenomenon to genetic, or “hardware” differences.”

Yet the book also contains a number of unnecessary anecdotes about men getting laid, or trying to get other men laid which add very little to the story – or needlessly sexualised similes:

“Even if the time-sharing system allowed the machine to respond to you in exactly the same way as it did in single user mode, you would just know that it wasn’t all yours. It would be like trying to make love to your wife, knowing she was simultaneously making love to six other people!”

Urgh.

Little Women – Louise May Alcott:

It’s a ‘classic’ that I missed out on when growing up. I do wonder what I would have thought of it had I read this when younger. It’s unlikely to make the list of books I recommend to my niece when she starts reading – as I found it a little preachy, Christian, and teaching us to learn to be good, well behaved and demure.

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov:

I’ve long wanted to read this – and finally found a library copy – but sadly, my brain has been in too many dark places in recent months for this right now. The start was interesting, but I found myself holding back from all the characters in a way I’m not happy with. I’ll put this back on the shelf for the time being.

Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Omnibus – Arthur Conan Doyle:

I cannot say how much I loved this book. 5 stars.

Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control – Medea Benjamin:

If you are looking for a balanced book that  will give you the pros and cons of using drones in warfare – this isn’t it – written as it is by one of the co-founders of Code Pink. There were contradictions in the arguments at times (eg.as a remote pilot you can kill without remorse and you aren’t as affected because you are not in a war zone, but also the stress and impact of killing people must be high on remote pilots). However, it is an interesting easy-to-read primer on a topic that can be difficult to get to grips with. It did jump occasionally jumps between use of drones in a civilian and war backdrop a little quickly – and this could be confusing (deliberately so?), and didn’t contain quite enough references for my tastes, but a good read nonetheless. As with any book written to further an agenda  – I will be checking what I learned from it against other resources.