Poverty is romanticised only by fools

very good livesVery Good Lives
by J K Rowling

I was commissioned to write some short comments about this book for For Books’ Sake, but I found that I had more to say than I could squeeze into 150 words, so here is my longer review.

This is Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement speech, published for the first time in book form. Taking as her subjects “the fringe benefits of failure” and “the importance of imagination”, Rowling shares the wisdom of her own experience with the new graduates. Some of her comments and advice are profound, some less so. Some of it is old and familiar, some new and original.

As you might expect of a speech that took maybe 20 minutes to give, this isn’t a big book, even though to bulk it out the publisher has added illustrations to every page by Joel Holland, in bold black and red. His style is so-so but the overall effect still makes the book feel special and beautiful.

Continue reading “Poverty is romanticised only by fools”

From veggie to…pesce?

I made a decision a few months ago that for me was a really big deal, though it has little to no impact on anyone else. It will make me less of a pain at mealtimes, but there’s limited people who got to see me being a pain anyway, I hope! What am I talking about? After almost 19 years of being a strict vegetarian I have started eating fish.

Fish 'n' Chips

As I say, this was a big decision and not one I took lightly. I became – and stayed – vegetarian for a raft of reasons, many but not all of which apply to both meat and fish. I’m not going to list all my reasons for the big switch here, but they include the fact that between IBS and lupus it’s really useful to have more options of where and what I can eat. And I also like the idea of being able to travel more widely without stressing about what I’ll be able to eat there (it really helped in Sicily; the diet there seems to be at least 50% fish and seafood).

For the record, the idea of my eating meat still makes me feel a bit sick (I have no problem with others eating meat, that’s just my personal reaction) but somehow fish has always been a completely separate thing in my head. And I don’t feel that I was lacking any nutrients on a fully vegetarian diet. My various health problems mean I’ve been pretty closely monitored by the docs over the last 10 years and not once has it been suggested that something was wrong with my diet.

What I really wanted to write about here is the process of adding fish to my diet, because almost everyone I’ve spoken to about it has been really interested. Or maybe they were all being polite. Anyway, once the decision was made, Tim and I made a careful plan. There were a few things to consider. The primary worry was that fish would turn out to be an irritant to my IBS, because that would be a complete fail. Slightly less worrying was the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to properly digest fish after so many years. I say less worrying, because the human body is pretty impressive and quickly adapts to changes in diet, so that would only have been a temporary problem. And the third worry? That I just plain wouldn’t like it. The thing is, as a child I really disliked fish, but then I also disliked tea, coffee and other things I’ve come to love.

We started with a small quantity of smoked salmon in some pasta. It was probably the first smoked salmon I ever ate and man was it tasty. And such a strong flavour; I hadn’t expected that, somehow. I really didn’t want to wait a whole week for the next culinary experiment but, y’know, we were being sensible and all. Next up, Tim poached some haddock. Another success, this time with the mild kind of taste I’d been expecting. Week after week, I discovered new textures and flavours, all of which I loved. I even, when Tim had to go away for work, cooked myself a tuna steak (loved the taste but I was a bit put off by how much it looked like a slab of meat on my plate).

So far the only fails have been prawns (I was a bit bothered that they still look like the animal, if that makes sense, and I threw them up, which may have been psychological or may have been a genuine reaction; I’m avoiding them for now) and small fry (a bit of an ordering fail while in Italy, to be honest, but good to know that it is possible for me to dislike a fish dish!).

I am finding this whole thing genuinely exciting, there is so much new stuff for me to discover! And it even makes me a little sad to think that in a year’s time or maybe even less, fish will just be one more ordinary ingredient in my regular diet, rather than a new discovery. For now, though, it’s all about the fun. (Tonight we made monkfish tacos with homemade guacamole – super tasty!)

I do feel a twinge of guilt now and then, because for so long being a vegetarian was part of who I am. It’s very strange defining myself as pescetarian. But so much fun queuing up all the possible permutations of fish dishes! Fish lovers out there: what dish do you recommend?

Time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it?

The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes

This book has left me puzzled. I was happily reading it, enjoying the slow, thoughtful prose, and then the last page happened and I thought, “What?!” Is that a standard sign of a Booker prize winner? Or is it just my standard reaction to Julian Barnes?

It’s a little difficult to discuss this book without giving too much away. It’s so short, only 150 pages, and is one of those books where you could say very little happens, or that a lot happens. Which is fine. The language is beautiful, measured and philosophical.

Briefly, narrator Tony Webster is retired, divorced, but generally happy with his ordinary life. Then something happens (and we don’t find out what until halfway through) to remind him of his childhood friend Adrian. Adrian was always the brilliant, serious, passionate one and Tony muses on the lost passions of youth, love, friendship, life and death. There’s a lot of musing.

“The history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent. We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history – even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?”

Through flashback, Tony revisits his childhood and early adulthood. During the story he is led to question his memory, not just of events but of other people’s experiences of the same events. Which isn’t exactly original, but it’s done reasonably well.

“I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.”

The storyline annoyed me but the writing was provocative, intellectually stimulating. I’m glad I read it but I’m not sure I rate it as highly as other Booker winners I’ve read. I know a few people have said that it’s a book that demands re-reading so perhaps I should do that to see if I missed something?

“It ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.”

Published 2011 by Jonathan Cape.
Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2011.

Sunday Salon: Here and there

The Sunday Salon

We keep on doing lots of stuff with our weekends. Mostly of the fun variety, which is good, but it isn’t half cutting into my reading time!

Last weekend we went to visit my family. As my Nan has been ill we dropped by to see her and my Grandad, which was lovely as she is now doing well. We saw my Mum’s new house that she moved into a few weeks ago. I got to spend time with my little brother who I hardly ever see. I showed Tim a few more sights from my younger days. And we enjoyed being in the countryside. Even if it was raining almost constantly.

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Before we came home, my Dad had the brilliant idea to take me and Tim fossil hunting. That was so much fun! We were on the Severn Estuary and it was hideously muddy but we found loads of real actual fossils, which was amazing. And the dog had a whale of a time.

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This weekend I went to London to see my friend H while our menfolk did their man thing at Farnborough Airshow. I finally got to go to Persephone Books, which is just as wonderful as I had imagined. Huge thanks to H for taking me there and buying me one of their beautiful books. We also talked endlessly and painted our nails and had a generally brilliant time.

Persephone Books

It’s all been great. But I’m still a teeny bit glad that we don’t have much planned for the next few weekends. What have you been up to lately?

Sunday Salon: Ups and downs

The Sunday Salon

It’s been a bit of an up and down week. I haven’t got much reading done but I am currently completely absorbed in an old Nick Hornby novel. Which is something good to alleviate the curled-up-under-the-sick-blanket day I’m having.

For most of the week Tim was working so many hours we didn’t really see each other but on Wednesday he surprised me by taking me out to dinner. Which was lovely. It was a beautiful evening, we ate tasty food, strolled along Bristol harbour arm in arm, talked and laughed. Perfect.

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Then I found out my Nan was ill. It’s not super serious but her general health hasn’t been great this year so any illness is a bit worrying. So I got stressed. Then I pushed myself to do too much stuff and got tired.

And I thought maybe I’d got away with it. Yesterday I felt good, it was the weekend, we went into town for the afternoon, got alternatively cooked and soaked by the changeable weather, sorted some chores, drank good coffee, had a nice evening playing silly computer games and watching DVDs.

But today I feel terrible. Completely bleurgh (to use a technical term). It will pass, it’s not even the worst I’ve felt this year, but it’s still a bit of a crap end to the week. Here’s to a brand new week starting tomorrow.

How has your week been?

The Sunday Salon: I ♥ coffee

The Sunday Salon

I love coffee. I mean: that smell, that taste, that buzz, even the appearance of it steaming away in a cup. And the effort that a good barista puts into getting it just right – it’s a joyous thing. Did I mention I love coffee?

Until this week I had not drunk coffee for about six weeks, since I had a flare-up of irritable bowel syndrome. Having to eat and drink more cautiously for a while is fine (in fact, when my lupus flared in the meantime it was quite helpful – when thinking through brain fog, fewer choices = good) but damn I missed coffee!

I agree

So this week, feeling miles better, I treated myself. I have also read some good books, including The Light Between Oceans and the first few volumes of Y the Last Man by Brian K Vaughan and Pia Guerra. Life is good.

11 random things about me

Whenever I get tagged by one of these things, I am torn. I have an age-old hatred of chain letters (remember when they were actual letters and you were expected to write the whole thing out 10 times?) but I like to learn more about my fellow bloggers and have no problem with sharing more about myself.

So, because Jo is so nice I will half-reply (and direct you to her far-more-interesting answers) but I won’t continue the chain (though if you want to carry it on yourself, feel free!).

Here goes…

1. I had glue ear when I was little and was almost entirely deaf by the time I turned 6. Thankfully, one operation, two grommets and a bunch of unpleasant wax-drainings later my hearing was completely restored. (Theories about how this may have affected the rest of my life or at least childhood could fill a whole series of blog posts.)

2. I was a quite-good gymnast as a child and am a trained gymnastics coach.

3. I have a phobia of fish.

4. My first foray into journalism was at primary school when I wrote, produced and distributed an environmental newspaper that I now sadly not only have no copies of but cannot even remember the name of.

5. I have been a vegetarian – for ethical/moral reasons – since I was 13 but when I was 17 I worked on the deli counter in the local supermarket and had no problem with skewering chickens for the rotisserie; indeed to this day I’m happy (well, okay with) pulling apart a chicken carcass. I am also very careful about food hygiene since that job.

6. My first job was doing my Dad’s filing. He would take me to work on Saturday mornings and before we left he’d log my hours in the petty cash book and pay me my wages. It was such a good gig I continued to work the occasional Saturday for Dad until I left home.

7. As a kid I always had a project on the go. I planned theoretical trips around the world. I made a database of kings and queens of England that was harder to refer to than the books I’d used as reference.

8. I used to cut out pictures from magazines that I thought might inspire my writing.

9. I was, briefly, a member of the Barbie Fan Club.

10. I once adopted a whale (or rather, it was a birthday present, but I asked for it specifically). She was called Scylla.

11. I have read Ulysses. I had to for the modernism unit of my English degree. I recognise its brilliance but did not enjoy the experience.

Apparently most of the things I think might be interesting about me date back to my childhood.

Do or die

I accepted long ago that I will not read all the great books in the world before I die and I feel no guilt when I admit to not having read this or that other people discuss. However, I seem to have failed to transfer that rationality to other parts of my life. I want to see every good film, play, comedy show, TV series; I want to visit every country, every city; I want to eat at every great restaurant, ride every classic train line, stay in every top hotel. What I don’t particularly want to do would be a far shorter list. And I often feel a bizarre sense of guilt for not having done many of those things yet, as if I am somehow wasting my life by going to work, socialising, sleeping, spending time in my lovely house with Tim, walking or jogging in the park or any of those other things that constitute the greater portion of my life.

Which is crazy because I’m sure if I have any regrets as I get older it will be that I didn’t take enough time out for my friends or that I didn’t appreciate time alone with Tim while I could. I can’t imagine anyone on their deathbed regrets never having seen The Godfather or never having eaten at the Fat Duck in Bray. (Though I’m sure there’s quite a few who regret not having travelled more.)

So where does it come from, this odd need to cram in life experiences? Is it an awareness of how short life is? Or is it just a need to impress other people? So much of small talk is taken up with this stuff: “What are you doing tonight/this weekend?” “Where are you going on holiday this year?” “Have you seen this film/play/comedian/band?” and it feels a bit lame to say “I’m staying in tonight” “I’m using my leave to do stuff around the house” “No, I haven’t seen it/them” every time. It’s like an admission of failure. I would never tell a colleague that I plan to go home and read and yet that’s what I do more often than not.

And why not? I love reading. I love taking time over cooking and eating with Tim. I love hanging out with friends. I love walking around my adopted city, pausing to take photos or drink coffee. This is not a waste of time, this is enjoying life.

And yet still there’s the guilt.