Monday, 26 December 2016

My 2016 in books

It's been so quiet on here recently. So much stuff takes a while to process, and I think Great Thoughts but then don't get the space to articulate them while they're fresh. Honestly, I might regain the habit in 2017, but something I did manage this year was to log everything I read on Goodreads. I'd rather have written a proper blog post about each, but that seemed a sheer steep challenge, whereas two lines on Goodreads was manageable. Something that's interesting to me is how some books can make a massive impression while you're still in them, but fade away quickly like a cheap takeaway, and some burn more slowly. This doesn't really get captured if you're logging and writing about books as you read them (but I wanted to do this for the sake of keeping my stats up) so I felt sure I'd enjoy looking over my list for the year to see what stood out.  

January 2016 - 7 books
 January usually starts with some impulse reads, picked up for peanuts in the kindle sale, and there were some turkeys in here. I didn't enjoy the Danny Baker autobiography anywhere near as much as I'd hoped I would, and War Horse was a proper letdown - yes, I know it's a children's book, but I really don't think that's an excuse. But it was my time for falling in love with a new author, too - Sarah Moss captured my soul and heart with Night Waking which I think I might reread once a year while my children are still even slightly small, and then Bodies of Light which is a sort of follow up, or maybe you'd call it a companion, was just as wonderful.  

February 2016 - 6 books
A funny one - I seemed to rate most things at four stars and I feel odd about the only one I truly loved - The Help by Kathryn Stockett. It helped me to crystallise a resolution not to read anyone else's Goodreads reviews before I wrote my own, because I want to be honest and also not to be influenced by others' strong feelings. So many people railed against this one but I can't help it, I loved it (though I remember so little about it already, beyond how much I liked it). I was fascinated by Do no Harm, the memoir by a neurosurgeon, though I'd not read it again.

 March 2016 - only one book??
 Struggling to know what happened here. The only thing on my list is Lean In which is an exceedingly readable long essay, really, on what you might call "corporate feminism" - it gave me vague echoes of how past-Helen might have bought into all this stuff, before past-Helen went off and had babies and changed her views somewhat. Ah! Realised this was also the month I read The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 which I couldn't find on Goodreads but actually did manage to blog about here.

 April 2016 - 6 books
  All becomes clear! There were some short reads in here, including several of the Little House on the Prairie series, and gosh, a small book of poems, Newborn by Kate Clanchy which I guzzled down in one sitting, sobbing, and then again the next day, sobbing again. It's just exquisite, start to finish. But - the big point is that I finished Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety: what a read, it took me so long, and pretty much stopped me reading anything else in March. I still don't know what to say about it - I remember it as a slog, and worth it, but still disappointing to me because it wasn't Wolf Hall, and in fact for me has been the least engaging of her books. I'm glad I read it, but it was a big time-spend.  

May 2016 - 2 books
Again this is a mystery to me. I was thrilled to discover Elizabeth Taylor - it was Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont that I happened to pick up, because it happened to be in the kindle sale, but I'm looking out for more. It was small in scope, and subtle in action, and entirely delicious. I enjoyed Our Endless Numbered Days too, though one part of the plot irritated me, and was slightly taken aback to see the author had read (and liked) my Goodreads review.  

June 2016 - what happened?
Goodreads says I didn't read anything. I think this was partly my new job, and partly a logging failure. Looks like I caught up the next month.  

July 2016 - 9 books
I read the rest of the Little House series, some in June, I think, and some more gorgeous perfect Sarah Moss, this time Signs for Lost Children. I was properly intrigued by Kirsty Logan's The Gracekeeper though seemingly not enough to give it five stars.  

August 2016 - 2 books

Again I dimly recall something was slowing me down here, because the two I read were both quite enjoyable - The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Sweet Home but both properly slight, in the way modern fiction is. It's becoming a noticeable pattern for me that if I'm reading something on my kindle that I'm not enjoying, it stops me reading at all, because I feel I'm not "allowed" to start anything else. This puts me in a cross mood and generally flattens everything for me, and I'm still not sensible enough to notice when it's happening and get a grip (by, for instance, closing the book).  

September 2016 - half-hearted Bookering

 I read Eileen and His Bloody Project which were both sort of fine, but uninspiring, and I've forgotten most of already. Then I got significantly stuck in the next one.

 October 2016 - NOTHING  

November 2016 - 6 books
 In a perfect illustration of my observation above, I got completely jammed in The Sellout. For about the first quarter I thought I was beholding genius. Really, I was spellbound, but reader, the spell wore off. This let me get myself in such a state that I abandoned the Booker shortlist project only half way through. Highlights after this, though, were the lovely Hollie McNish poetry and prose collection Nobody told me and then Olive Kitteridge which was just burstingly sad in an autumnal sort of way, like the Elizabeth Taylor it is just exquisitely drawn on a small canvas, and has put Elizabeth Strout very high on my list to read more of as soon as I can.

 December 2016 - a rush to the end with 7 books, and the month not even over yet
Some dross in here, but I think All the Light We Cannot See will stick with me for a long time. I was a bit let down by dear Sarah Moss with Cold Earth, which didn't quite live up to my hopes, but then, it was her first novel, and the mood it created was powerful, and besides I love her and will hear nothing bad said of her. Also at my great age I have finally read The Dark is Rising and it was just as excellent as I'd been led to believe it would be.

 What's next?
So much to read in 2017. I've a stack of more and less accessible books on feminism which are calling out loudly to me, and some things lined up on the Kindle, and am hoping to pick up a big batch of 99p bargains, though the sale so far this Christmas has been rubbish. I do love my modern fiction, and this will help if I up my target from 2016's 48 books (which I just about managed) to a neat 52. But I don't want to resist the longer reads, and rereading A Christmas Carol the other day, as I do every year, has made me want to go back to Dickens. So we'll see. I need to be bolder about stopping books if I'm just not enjoying them, and I need to keep focussed on picking up my kindle rather than wasting my brain browsing the internet on my phone. But mainly I just want to keep reading, and keep noting what I've read, and keep talking about books to anyone who will listen. It's been a long post, and I can't promise I won't do another one about everything else in 2016. Somehow the books bit is the easiest to pin down.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 - a storming follow up

I've been hopeless recently about writing about books on here, because I was feeling too much pressure to write lots, so things were backing up. So instead I'm religiously logging each one on Goodreads (actually am a tiny bit behind there too) but wanted chance for a longer rave about this one. You know I'm involved with Mother's Milk Books, insofar as I help out behind the scenes a little when I can, and Teika is a dear friend, but it doesn't change what I think about the books (and I'd certainly not rave about something I didn't find rave-worthy)

The second volume of "The Forgotten and The Fantastical", published earlier this month, opens with a gloriously strong first three stories.

Rebecca Ann Smith's Rumpelstiltskin is such a creative take on the story, with an inspiring writing of the process of drawing a creative output from deep inside the self, at a horrible cost. The way she deals with the promising of the firstborn to Rumpelstiltskin, and its aftermath, has made me cry on each of several rereads. Then the wonderful Hansel's Trouble from Lindsey Watkins - I loved her story in last year's anthology, but loved this one even more. It puts the children's story into a real context, and speaks of the truth for those who suffer young: there is nothing as simple as an escape to ever-after happiness.
Last in these first three is Ana Salote's Grimm Reality, a more whimsical story but no less absorbing for that. Again, I'm a raving fan of Ana's writing, and this shows again her ability to capture magic even in the unpromising setting of Elephant and Castle.

I wanted to talk about these first three pieces in particular because they're such a strong start, and this matters to me in an anthology. I think Teika applied real editorial skill in how she has ordered the pieces, so there's a balance, and some shifting of mood. It also gave the chance for a gap before the other Rumpelstiltskin story, which I also found entrancing. Perhaps I'm biassed towards stories that capture the feeling between a mother and her baby; perhaps I like to tease myself with trauma. But this second Rumpelstiltskin, called Trash into cash (Becky Tipper) was modern, original, and deeply felt.
The other piece I want to mention by name was Nathan Ramsden's Icarus. I'd looked forward to it because his two stories in the last anthology were so original, and elegantly written. This one was, too - to my mind he's one of those writers who will have people saying one day "I knew him when he was starting out". There's just something about the confidence of tone, and the complete mastery of the whole story, that makes a reader feel in safe hands, willing to go wherever they are taken. 

Those were my top five, as it were, but there were thirteen other pieces too, all very readable, and with many other high points. As with any anthology, a few appealed to me less, and one or two were less skilled in execution, but much of this is personal taste. It's a meatier book than last year's, and an even higher standard in general. It's also given me some writing ideas: there were a few pieces in there I wished I'd written.

And, as ever, a beautiful book to look at and hold - Emma Howitt's pictures at the start of each story add atmosphere perfectly, without shouting for attention, but repaying it when they get it. I'm looking forward to filling my shelf with a row of these from year after year...

Mother's Milk Books

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Feminism, the workplace, and failed audacity

There's a lot in the news at the moment about women's equality, workplace rights, and so on. The dominant push seems to be for quotas and strictly defined equality, so either parent can take parental leave, meaning neither sex is disadvantaged by time away from the workplace, and all of this kind of thing.
I've been reading this thinking well, they're missing the point. "They" are moving counters around a board, allocating open and closed boxes, and not understanding the early days of mother-baby bonding; perhaps more importantly, though, they are seeking freedom within SUCH a tight and unimaginative set of assumptions.
Yes, if we really honestly believe that the best work is always done in offices between exactly 9 and 5 on a Monday to Friday and that permanent employment contracts are always needed and that every job change should be career-enhancing and give a pay rise and that every business's person-hour needs are an exact multiple of 37.5, then the answer to the problem might be just to treat all employees as sexless, to let each individual take leave on the arrival of a new baby, to put in regulations about discrimination and equal pay and generally to ensure that We Are All Treated Exactly The Same which is to put it another way that We Are All Treated Exactly As Men In The Workplace Always Have Been.

Here, I don't want to explore the issues of why being a mother might not be like being a father, and nor do I want to empty out my heart on my own urgent connection to my sons that makes the full time model impossible for me.

Instead, I want to observe the structural problem. I want to howl, why aren't you looking at other options? Employers, or those who need stuff doing for them and are willing to pay for it, why are you so fearful of stepping away from that path? Instead of recruiting the right number of people for your average busy-ness, so that they're bored for part of the year and stressed beyond measure for another part, why not have a core of full-timers (and many want it. I'm not denying that) and supplement with freelancers, part timers, short term contracts? Why would you choose to limit your options, or do you truly believe that everyone available for full time work has inherently more talents than anyone offering something else?

This, to my mind, is as big a problem for women as whether maternity and paternity leave are well shared. While "we" are stuck in a mindset where there is A Single True Path, and where everyone needs to be physically present at the 10am team meeting on a Tuesday, because This Is What We Do, then we're not letting ourselves access any value from those who, for whatever reason, can't or won't offer that. Women do have babies - we really can't get past that - and while of course lots of these women do, by choice or necessity, get themselves straight back into full time paid work out of the home, we don't all want or feel able to do that. Years of training, and thousands of pounds of investment in human capital, are set aside because so many women experience a sudden shift to offering something a different shape from the crude hole that so many businesses are holding open.

There are gleams of hope, and small setups trying to bring together those wanting flexible work with those offering it, but many of these opportunities are laughable - "part time" roles asking for "only" 34 hours per week, or those described in the top line as "home based" but disclosing in the body of the ad that "occasional home working may be negotiated after a probationary period". It doesn't cut it, though. A good flexible freelancer is an amazing asset to have in your contact book - she might not be visible at a desk, and she might do things at peculiar times of day, but she also might have a pile of skills that you'd pay a fortune for in a full time employee (and not need most of the time), and she might turn things round overnight or at weekends, and she might even reward you with immense loyalty because you've taken a risk.

We do need a societal change in this respect - a move from "how do we enable women to get back to work as soon as possible?" to "how do we match work requirements with those who are best able to meet those requirements, surrendering, as we do so, our artificial and mainly imaginary constraints?".

What about the failed audacity? A personal end to this rant. I thought I could do something audacious. I could show how this can work, holding down a part time job and freelance work, being always with my babies while keeping a sharp brain, meeting other conventional employees as equals, being just as relevant and useful as anyone at a desk all week. And I was doing it, I really was, but I fear now that it's turning out to be in the same sense as an amateur juggler is "doing it" in between the point where he chucks twelve balls in the air and the point when they all tumble down onto his head. It seems I couldn't, quite, and I don't know where things go from here. I can do my best to "be the change I wish to see in the world", but gosh, out on the plains it's cold and draughty.

Note: yes, men. I'm writing about women, and the she-freelancer, because it's what I am. But men too! I believe my point about how unncecessarily limiting these self-imposed limits about timing and location of work really are applies to everyone. It's just that women, particularly in the childbearing years (and I do not love that phrase), might be bringing more of their own limits with them too.

Another note: yes, modern times, first world problem. I'm aware I could be out hoeing fields 14 hours a day, and taking in mending at night, and still ending up in the workhouse. But it matters because in the world I used to fit into, a professional world, there is a constant stream of discussion asking where all the senior women are, why women don't "succeed" (fsvo success) and so on

A final note: I have a million posts stored up, on a million topics. Hang on in there if you prefer it when I write about books or making stuff or my entirely wonderful children.