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Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Problem with Phases

I am definitely a person who lives my life in phases.  As a child and teenager I would go through weeks wanting the same food every day.  Even today, I will listen to one band for days on end, or have one outfit I want to wear every weekend.  This applies to my reading too.

If I read a good book about, say, Afghanistan (see last post) I then want to read all the books about Afghanistan.  I find it hard to settle into a book on another subject as I just can’t care in quite the same way (sorry, ‘The Interestings’, it’s true – I struggled even to remember the title just now).

afghan

But that causes a problem when you blog about books.  Because I am just not sure, you, readers, want to read read a series of reviews of books about Afghanistan.  So I force myself to mix it up (though I did give up on The Interestings, because ironically, it wasn’t very…)

For your information, my reading list, in no particular order is currently:

– The Engagements: a novel about 1940’s America, advertising and diamonds

– The Goldfinch: the new Dona Tartt (ridiculously exciting, though it isn’t out yet) about a boy who loses his mother

– The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul: (oops, how did this slip in here), a novel about a coffee shop in…well… Afghanistan

– The Affairs of Others: a novel about loss, and rebuilding relationships, set in one apartment building

– Ghana Must Go: the story of a Ghanaian family, struggling to establish a life in America

– Wise Men: a novel about lawyers and race, set from the 1950s to the present day

Any suggestions for topics always welcome (although that doesn’t mean I will actually read them – see ref above – I have no difficulty dropping a book if it bores me.  Reading is a hobby, not a chore)

Something a little bit magic: and the mountains echoed

As I get older, I cry more frequently because of fiction. As a young child, apparently I cried at books all the time, so my parents had to skip the ‘sick socks’ page in Dr Seuss, among other things. But as a older child and young adult, I was known for my stoic nature. I never cried at books or films, stating simply ‘I don’t cry at things that aren’t true’. My family tested me on Old Yeller – nothing. I don’t quite know when this changed, but I do now cry occasionally, at a film or more often a book (note, ‘more frequently’ is still more infrequently than most people).

But, ‘And The Mountains Echoed’ is the only book I can think of that has moved me to tears on multiple locations.  There is something magic, something kind and whimsical and totally engrossing about this book, which means any little slight, any cathartic moment, sets off a wave of emotion which is almost unheard of with other novels.

Khaled Hosseini has kind eyes.  He looks like someone who could write a beautiful book like this.

Khaled Hosseini has kind eyes. He looks like someone who could write a beautiful book like this.

This is one of my favourite types of book – novels which move through time and space with intertwined narratives. The earliest stories begin in the 1930s, the latest in the 2000s. All have ties to Afghanistan, few are set there. The protagonists are American, French and Greek, as well as Afghani.

This is a book about memory, and those fleeting moments that change everything. It focuses on moments where we make commitments we fail to meet up to, or promises we live to regret, or tell brief lies, with long consequences. It is about the grey areas in life – the times you think you are making the right decision, which has unintended negative consequences, or vice versa.

“When you have lived as long as I have, the div replied, you find that cruelty and benevolence are but shades of the same colour.”

One of the many things about this novel, is that it is not really a novel about the ‘newsroom stereotype’ Afghanistan. War, warlords, drugs and the desert form the backdrop to the story. The story is about people, who could almost be from anywhere. Occasionally it passes commentary on the outside perception of Afghanistan:

“Women who are admired by some in the west – here in France, for instance – turned into heroines for their hard lives, admired from a distance by those who wouldn’t even bear walking one day in their shoes.”

But quickly moves on, back to the narrative and the characters. This novel evokes characters like few I have recently read. Each one is described in terms so perfect that you can’t fail to form a mental picture of the person who’s tale you are so closely following.

“He had a face right out of film noir, a face meant to be shot in black and white, parallel shadows of venetian blinds slashing across it, a plume of cigarette smoke spiralling beside it. A parenthesis-shaped piece of hair managed to fall on his brow, ever so gracefully – too gracefully perhaps.”

“Mama believed in loyalty above all, even at the cost of self denial. Especially at the cost of self denial. She also believed it was always best to tell the truth, to tell it plainly, without fanfare, and the more disagreeable the truth, the sooner you had to tell it. She had no patience for soft spines.”

You will note I don’t tell you much about the story. This is for two reasons. Firstly, it is a hard narrative to describe, as it swoops agilely across characters, time and space, tying things together gradually. Secondly, and more importantly, because anything I tell you will be somehow ‘giving it away’. This is not a book with one twist, but with a thousand small twists and turns, which I wouldn’t want to ruin for you. Because there is something a little big magic about this novel. Something you have to experience for yourself.

Jonathan Coe: some brief thoughts on the end of a bad relationship

You know when you have it in your head that you really like an author?  Because, at some stage in your history, you read a book by them that was well, almost perfect?  And you read and read their other work, still hoping to find another gem, but always come away a little disappointed?  Sadly, that is my relationship with Jonathan Coe.

In 2001, when it first came out, I read ‘The Rotter’s Club.’  And I remember laughing out loud, and being totally engrossed in what I was reading.  So, like the bad relationship you keep going back to, because you remember one magical day, I am always hopeful when a new Jonathan Coe novel comes out.

And so it was with ‘Expo 58.’  I even stopped reading another book in the middle, to begin this one.  Not. Worth. It.

coe

Now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad book.  It just didn’t warrant all the excitement on my part.  It was just a bit of a nothing.  The setting itself, the Belgian expo, is fairly interesting.  But the characters lack pizazz, the storyline is a bit windy without much to sell it and the much-promised laughs just didn’t come.

My relationship with Jonathan Coe is such that sometimes I wonder whether it is in fact me, and not him that is the problem. Because, if I read other people’s reviews of Expo 58, they seem to love it, and get it, and find it engaging and often funny.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/sep/07/expo-58-jonathan-coe-review

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/review-expo-58-by-jonathan-coe-8803247.html

Sadly, Jonathan Coe, I think it’s time for me to move on.  I don’t see in you what I once did and can no longer love you the way I have.  Luckily for you, there are plenty of others out there to pick up where I left off.

Lean In: A good book for water cooler chat

In general I don’t read self help books.  Or leadership books.  Basically, I don’t like being told what to do.  And definitely not by someone I have never met who thinks they are better than me and is being paid to tell me so.  I also don’t like doing ‘women’ things.  Women’s groups, leadership bodies etc. make me itchy.  I don’t like being defined by being a woman.

So, the fact I read ‘Lean In’ at all is a bloody miracle.  And to be honest, I only read it because the review in Time Magazine told me that it was controversial, and controversial I enjoy.  But, well, it wasn’t really – at least to me.  In some ways it was less than I hoped, but looking back at it, it has made me think, and talk, which I guess was the point of Sandberg writing it in the first place (well, that and the money and the desire to tell me she is better than me).

I get why it might make some people angry. If you were being lazy it could be classified as a ‘women who hate women’ book.  Sandberg does repeatedly mention that women’s lack of success in bridging many of the gender employment differentiators (wage, hierarchy etc.) is often their own fault; which could be taken that way.  But she also goes to great lengths to explain why there are other factors at play which stop many women reaching the levels many men have.

I can also see why this book may make you angry if you are a mother who chose to stay at home.  Sandberg battles very hard to argue that this book is ‘pro choice.’  She claims women can’t have everything, but they should be able to have anything.  However, throughout, you can’t help but note a tone of judgement for those who have ‘chosen’ to stay at home.  At one point, she basically argues that without more women in business, we won’t have more women leaders, ipso facto women who stay at home are helping to maintain the status quo.  “We have to ask ourselves if we have become so focussed on supporting personal choices that we’re failing to encourage women to aspire to leadership”, she concludes.   And although she talks a lot about working mother’s guilt, she carefully provides evidence that children who are not cared for by a parent develop just as healthily as those who are.

Finally, this book may frustrate you because it appears Sandberg has more freedom than most.  She earns far, far, more than most people, and has a supportive husband with a flexible job.   And Sandberg repeatedly acknowledges this.  But I would argue that, to some extent, both are a result of choices she has made, a result of her ‘leaning in’ and defining acceptable boundaries, as she discusses in the book.  Clearly, there are also elements of the ‘accident of birth’, luck etc. but I am loathe to allow her to write herself off as simply being more fortunate than others.

sandberg

The ‘leaning in’ which is the books title is probably its strongest section.  In this chapter, Sandberg argues that women often make poor choices – they lean out.  They don’t take a promotion, long before they want children, because in the future they want children and they think this role and that aspiration may be incompatible.  They sit at the side in a big meeting, afraid to ‘take a seat at the table’. Or they don’t return to work after having children, arguing work only pays childcare costs and not appreciating that in the long term, once back in work, they will gradually earn more.  I think she has a point here.  I have very few female friends who at some point haven’t raised the spectre of how they participate in a big meeting or the issue of work / life balance once they have kids, and I have taken part in many conversations about how roles would work with children, even though very few of my friends actually have children.

She also has a point about women’s need to be liked, and how that isn’t always compatible with being successful – though that isn’t a new point.  And she notes that studies have shown that successful women are far more rarely well-liked than successful men, as if somehow women, success and likeability are deemed incompatible.  This is something I have seen, but I think it is far less true for women of my generation than for women of previous generations who, arguably tried (often unsuccessfully) to be ‘more like men’ in order to succeed in the workplace.

Importantly, Sandberg points out that success at work is often about creating boundaries, being clear about what’s possible and what isn’t.  “The best way to make room for both life and career is to make limits and to stick to them.”  She stresses that being busy, and always being at work, is often perceived as the only route to the top.  But, she claims, women have a responsibility to their co-workers and particularly other women, to show that what is important is getting the job done, and done well,  not the hours you put in.  “Every job will demand some sacrifice.  The key is to avoid unnecessary sacrifice”, she explains.

Finally, Sandberg uses two definitions which I plan to adopt in my own life.

Firstly, her definition of leadership: “leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.”  I want to spend more time thinking about whether I do this (particularly in my absence) and how I can ensure I do it more.

And secondly, her definition of success: “success is making the best choices we can… and accepting them.”  For some, the deciding is hard, for others the accepting (I fall in the latter category) but I think the combination of the two is the route to a happy life.

In sum, I liked this book less than I was hoping, but more than I was expecting.  It didn’t delve as deep into issues as I would like, was often too defensive and sometimes slightly dated feeling.   But it did raise issues which, although possibly declining (though I am sure Sandberg would disagree) are still pertinent for women of my generation.  And, if the test of a book is how often you discuss it with others, I have to regard this one as quite the success.

 

Please Stand By, Normal Service Will Resume Shortly

As you may have noticed, I have taken a few months hiatus from blogging. I needed to stop for a while, because although the blogging in itself isn’t too tiring or time consuming, it changes the way that I read books. Normally, I read without thinking, powering through page after page. But when planning to blog about the book I am much more careful, stopping and thinking and annotating as I go. Sometimes this stops me vanishing into the story in quite the way I would like. And particularly for vacation reading, it was a hard habit to maintain.

But now I am back!

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Mostly, because I miss reading in a way which makes me think and blogging about all my random thoughts. But also because a few of you massaged my ego a little by telling me that you missed the blog. So here we go, it’s autumn, back to school time and a very appropriate time for me to get back into the swing of the blog.

As an aside, some of you have asked me whether I am reading this year’s Booker Long List, as this is what gave birth to the blog in the first place. The answer is, sort of. I am taking a more nuanced approach this year, and instead of powering through an extensive list of epic (and sometimes hideous) books as quickly as possible, I am reading the ones that interest me, at my own pace. Some have been included in my summer reading list.

In fact, here’s my top five summer reads, from the summer just passed (in case anyone was short on recommendations):

1. Five Star Billionaire – Tash Aw
2. Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
3. Zeitoun – Dave Eggers
4. Maggie and Me – Damian Barr
5. The Marrying of Chani Kaufman – Eve Harris

As you can see, it was quite a varied summer – from Jewish North London to Nigeria, Asia to America to Scotland, fact, fiction and everything in between. The five books listed above couldn’t be more different, but all are highly recommended.

And here are the top five books I am currently excited to read this autumn (for these, the normal review service will resume!)

1. Lean In – Sheryl Sandeberg
2. A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki
3. And the Mountains Echoed – Khaled Housseini
4. Expo 58 – Jonathan Coe
5. Ghana Must Go – Taiye Selasi

And as ever, suggestions remain welcome. Ok, back to my book!