Saturday, 6 October 2012

Why I read, or, my secret obsession with escapism


I read. I've read ever since I can remember: ladybird books on the first day of school, fairy tales, Famous Five, modern fiction, literary fiction, classics, crime fiction, historical fiction, sci fi, fantasy, biography, history, psychology, feminism, Dickens, Mills and Boon, cookery books, essays, poetry - the whole lot.  And in this reading, I have felt happiness, contentment, curiosity, sadness, despair, desolation, and I have cried tears of grief after a favourite character died (still to this day one of my favourite characters - and no, I've never managed to go back and re-read that book). 

I've read to escape: to escape the day, to escape frustrations, problems, politics, and personal tragedy.  I've read to distance myself from immediate challenges of life,  to allow my mind to wander, to recharge, to imagine.  Mostly, I read because the stories we tell are too important not to be read, because the stories we read tell us something about ourselves and how we relate to the world around us.  Stories give a voice to those who have no voice, they give meaning where we imagine there is none, and they bind readers and listeners together in sharing whilst giving us individual freedom in our personal responses.  Stories allow us to see ourselves in characters: our humour, generosity, meanness and darkness, and thereby, to see those characters as ourselves. 

At their simplest, books give us another point of view; whilst grounded, in our head we can travel somewhere else - such juxtapositions offered to us might be the only chance in a day when we can experience this journey, this other view of the world. For some, this journey might be the only thing that makes the day extraordinary.  We can be in the future, in the past, in the body of a man, woman, girl, boy, animal or machine, and only imagination is the limit.  And yet we are safe - safe in our armchair or bed, safe in the afternoon or evening, or in the middle of the night when the hour of the wolf strikes and everything we fear terrifies us.  We can soothe ourselves with poetic words or action adventure.  We can make ourselves feel better, by reading words.

Then we can put our book down and know that we can pick up where we left off, we can go back to the murder scene,  or the grey-blue skies of Scandinavia, or the wild Yorkshire moors.  And then, when we have finished our book, which we have picked chocolate box-like from thousands of many others, we can talk about about it, and discover the many other translations in many other minds.

Very occasionally, maybe once or twice in a lifetime, a book will unlock something in the reader which they will never forget: a feeling, thought, a truth, a realisation, a connection.  This thing will spark off a reaction which will change the way the reader sees the world forever.  

This is why I read.

Monday, 24 September 2012

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones, by Alexander McCall Smith

Everyone's favourite character in this series is surely Bertie, the precocious but loveable child of dotty Irene.  Poor Bertie, just when we think he might escape the dreaded psychoanalysis he drops himself in it with talk of imaginary eagles.  That's a shame because Dr Fairbairn, with his uncanny likeness to Bertie's brother Ulysses, has left the therapy practice to sit on a chair somewhere - or so Bertie thinks - and his replacement, the nice Dr Sinclair, was beginning to think that Bertie was a normal, well-adjusted 6 year old (considering his mother) until Bertie launches into a discussion of his imaginary world. Bless him.

Elsewhere, Matthew, who frankly does need a good woman to sort him out, finally finds a girl who will marry him,  and returns from honeymoon with some help from a marine mammal.  Vain Bruce, also with matrimony on his mind, at last sees the error of his womanising ways when he is dumped.  It seems a bit of his own medicine is a shock to the system and he emerges from the experience a changed man - or does he? Something about Bruce's reform doesn't quite ring true and I wonder if this will last.

The saga of the blue Spode cup continues in the building where Domenica and Angus reside, providing a backdrop to Angus' daily life where - there must be something in the air - his thoughts turn to the possibility of proposing to Domenica, who seems to be the only woman who might have him. Somehow, amongst all this, Domenica's neighbour Antonia becomes known as a dealer of illicit substances.

This kind of gentle chaos is what we have come to expect of the prolific Alexander McCall Smith.  Hugely entertaining, this instalment, as usual, not only provides philosophical thought, but its comedy also provokes much smirking and tittering (beware if reading in public).  Long may it continue.

Friday, 31 August 2012

A Feast for Crows, book 4, by George RR Martin

And the answer to the question on my last blog about the this series is, yes he can.  Keep the pace, and story and action going, that is.  This is the first part of the next section in the ice and fire series, and as Martin explains in the last page of this book, it focuses on the story in the south of the lands, in and around Kings Landing: the two remaining Lannisters at court, and their friends and foes, who turn out to be not all they appear.  It's the genuine surprises in these books which keep the pages turning.

As we begin this part, Tyrion is on the run from Cersei, and Arya is still trying to find her way home.  Sansa remains 'missing' and Brienne mounts an increasingly desperate search for her in an effort to keep her promise to deliver Sansa to her mother, with some help from a surprising ally.

Becoming one of the most intriguing characters, alongside Tyrion, is his brother Jaime.  Jaime has lost his fighting hand by a blow from a sword and becomes a far better man, regretting some of his past actions and beginning to mistrust his sister, Cersei.  And about time, we think. Cersei in her turn, becomes deliciously more vindictive and conniving in ner role as Queen regent, scheming to take the realm for herself and her young son, whom she is grooming for kingship.  We haven't had so much fun since JR Ewing.

Closing in on the Lannister den of iniquity are their enemies, both openly and in the shadows.  In the next part of the story, we are promised news of Tyrion, dragons, sorceresses, and Jon Snow.  I can't wait - just as soon as I can get my hands on a copy.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold, part 2 of 2, by George RR Martin

Part 2 of the second part in this series ramps up the action from part 1.  Part 1 felt like it was setting the scene, doing the groundwork, leading us around a path. Part 2 has us worrying about our favourite characters, as well as some not so favourites.  We've learned by now that Martin isn't afraid to dispense with characters who have outlasted their usefulness, and we anticipate their demise everywhere as the world they live in becomes more at the mercy of magic and treachery.  

The children of Winterfell have grown up: Jon Snow feels the burden of his bastard status and his vows to the Night Watch, and Robb Stark is weighed down by his new crown.  The Stark sisters find themselves alone in the world, each thinking the other dead.  The siblings bear theirs fates as well as they can in the face of duplicitous plots to ensure alliances, personal political status, and royal heritage in war torn lands.

As for the Lannisters, the gods answer a prayer from an enemy of Joffrey, and all is not lost for the Lannister brothers, one finding kindness, and the other the beginnings of humanity.  The depraved Cersei remains, well, depraved, and hungrier than ever to retain her grip on power.

Part 2 returns to the form of the very first instalment in the series: so far so good.  Can the author keep it going through the next two books? 

Friday, 13 July 2012

A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin


It's a shame about Ned Stark. This character has honesty and integrity; a natural leader who doesn't want the power associated with leading (there are woefully few of those around). To say that this book is about the Stark and Lannister families set in a pseudo-medieval backdrop is oversimplifying a complex plotline but much of the action is centred around their bitter rivalry.  The story entertains familiar themes in the fantasy genre - ambition for power, deceit, warring factions at the heart of kingdoms, relationships between humans and animals - and just for good measure, a healthy dose of illegitimacy and incest. 

You do have to trudge through the early scene-setting chapters necessary to this type of fantasy opera normally filling several novels.  Don't let this put you off however, I started the second instalment straight away after finishing the first.  Novel number one can be read in isolation, but the characters are so devious and nasty that you really hope they get their comeuppance.  And so I begin the second novel in anticipation. 

Ned and his family are at the centre of this first story - the attempted murder of Ned's small son and an accusation of another murderer made by his slightly disturbed sister in law sets in motion a chain of events which ends in a vicious war between rival families across kingdoms.   Innocents and oddballs caught up in events add extra depth to a tried an tested formula.  A good escapist romp. 

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Are we devaluing paid work?

The views expressed in this post are my own only and are not related in any way to my employer or their views.

 In recent times I have come across many examples of 'professional' voluntary work - that is, voluntary work done by professionally qualified individuals, and also by graduates of all kinds, where I believe the work in question should be done by paid staff. Many of these examples come from library, archives and museum work, where budgets have been cut to such an extent that organisations feel they have are forced to look to volunteers to carry out such work, otherwise they argue, valuable work would not be done at all.

 This has been taken one step further by the recent trend for increasing numbers of public sector bodies to 'employ' graduates for project work where extensive cuts have been made and the are larger gaps then ever to be filled by volunteers. Don't get me wrong, I can see the advantage in supplying work experience for students and graduates, however, we have to ask ourselves what the cost is to the paid workforce. If we use an ever increasing supply of non paid 'staff', why would we go back to using paid staff?

 Over the last six months, the adverts for volunteers have increased alarmingly in the fields I work in, and have previously worked in. I have seen job adverts complete with person specs for volunteers for work that is obviously meant for qualified professionals - now being done by volunteers. We are not just talking about individuals expressing an interest in an area and asking for some hours of voluntary work - we are talking about some sectors actively recruiting volunteers, and training staff to recruit and line manage volunteers. I call that employment.

 Similarly in Universities, the explosion in work and voluntary opportunities for undergraduates in their place of study can't be a coincidence, when it follows widespread cuts in education funding. It's bad enough that students have no choice but to pay the current fees in HE but now they can be expected to work for their education, filling in the gaps in the business of running a university.

 At some point we have to say: enough. This is enough. Is there some point when we would be happy to go to a volunteer doctor, or dentist, or even surgeon? No? Would be want to engage a volunteer plumber or electrician? Would we want volunteer bin men or women on the street collecting our refuse? So what are we saying? Are we saying that we value some jobs more highly than others? Are we saying as a society that some jobs matter but others don't? It looks like we think librarians don't matter, or archivists, or many other information based professionals. How about teachers? When our children have a question at school, 54% of youngsters google them - only 3% ask a teacher. So we can substitute our teachers for volunteers, right? Think how pleased David Cameron would be if the big society was taken to that level.

 Though the information profession is feeling cutbacks keenly, there are other areas where young people are being asked to work for nothing and people with professional or industry experience are being asked to work for less. We need to shift the focus back to values of skills and experience, and adequate recompense for these attributes. Going down the road of cheap labour is not the answer: its short sighted and as a society this costs us far more in terms of social welfare and ill health, both physical and mental.

Friday, 13 April 2012

The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks

There are a few books by Iain Banks in our house - or even by Iain M Banks.  But this is the first that I've read, and I will be reading many more.  This story is about aspects of the human condition, and I'm going to list them here because my other half insisted that if I knew what it was about, I had to tell him.  Well, it's about a man getting over his first teenage love, about families and how nutty they are, tolerance and acceptance, and a small scale observation on large corporations.  

Alban McGill falls in love with this cousin as a teenager and spends the next ten years of his life getting over it.  But what happens in between is a life story of a man who is not quite as conservative as his family would like, who goes his own way, taking the long road, in the words of the Dixie Chicks.  Although the narration does meander a bit (hence the confusion about the exact premise of the story) it perfectly illustrates the story of a young man who has lost his way in the world, doesn't know where he quite fits, doesn't feel he belongs anywhere.  

Alban is a likeable, even loveable, character and I cheered him on which is he secret of the page turning quality of the novel.  I cheered particularly at his anti-capitalist outburst directed at the representative of the multimillion dollar company who wants to buy his family firm.  

Also lovely in this novel is the Shakespearian comedy duo of great Aunts Beryl and Doris, lending light relief with their mis-heard comments and half-sloshed ramblings, occasionally promoting a laugh out loud moment.   

Alban eventually does find his place in the world, but to tell how this happens would ruin the story... 

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Madness in post 1945 British and American literature by Charley Baker at al

This title looks at the portrayal of mental illness, or 'madness', in postwar english writing literature. The term madness issued deliberately to de-medicalise it and dissociate from medically-defined types of mental illness. It challenges head-on the notion of madness as 'other' simply by using the term madness, and asks us to question our beliefs of what madness is, and why our perceptions of social norms exist as they do, and why anything other than these norms are locked away inside the sanatoriums often depicted in the novels examined in the book.

Amongst many themes, the role of institutions are examined, as are psychiatrists, and their relationships with their patients. Patients in the novels mentioned in the book suffer from a whole range of illness and psychosis, reminding us how far we have come (and how far we haven't). An obvious example is shell shock - what we now call post traumatic stress syndrome- and the treatment for it, which was institutionalisation immediately post-war.

 Modern life brings its own problems, however, and a common theme in the book is a warped sense of reality common in the LSD soaked 60s, and in the new century, isolation and fragmentation of society and the consequences this can bring to the vulnerable. In a fairly recent talk, psychologist Oliver James said that if we are said to be well in this society then we really are in danger of being mad, as this society is not a healthy one. Can we then use the bibliography of this book as a 'symptom checker'? Can we look at, for instance, Ken Kesey's 'One Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest' and see now far we have come in the treatment of madness, the symptoms of which, taken in isolation, can identify most people at some time or another? When is, say, OCD madness and when is it attention to peculiarities of environment?

 This book poses many questions about postmodern society and how individuals interact with medical power, cultural differences and our perception of madness. The ultimate aim of this book is to try and use literature to understand madness from a non-medical point of view.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Nocturne by James Attlee

I looked forward to reading this book:  I adore the moon.  The very first and last chapter is about the author's moon watching in his home area; this was gorgeous reading, and really mirrored my own feeling of wellbeing about stepping outside into moonlight.  I don't know what it is about moonlight, but things always seem brighter with a white, full moon in the sky.

The book in split into several chapters of moonwatching in selected countries: the first is London, and provides us with some background about Galileo and his telescopic discoveries, lunar influence on William Blake's and Shelley's writing, and the experiment some years ago in a Hampshire town when the council switched off the street lights.  (The more I think this last item, the more I think it's a good idea, immediately saving the councils thousands of pounds, surely.)

Part two travels to Japan for the lovely sounding Autumn moon watching festival, which is the most important lunar festival in the Japan year, which falls on the 15th day of the 8th month.  This is when folks in Japan make trips to the best moon-biewing places in the land and they have parties, dancing and general merrymaking (although sometimes the sky gets contaminated with party lights which somehow defeats the point).

Part three visits Naples.  I didn't really care for this middle section of the book, Naples seemed dangerous, and willing to lead tourists astray in attempt to deprive them of their cash, hence a trip up Vesuvius when there was no chance of actually seeing any moon.  Apparently Dickens wandered around the same trip.  Part four is where it gets barmy - in Nevada, Las Vegas.  This is where the author visits a couple who have built an interstellar light collector to collect and focus moonlight for the purpose of curing illness.  The story around this is a bit of a shame, because it actually started out as a scientific experiment, but because of the associations around money being paid for cures, the scientific community won't touch it with a barge pole.  Read the book and decide for yourself.  However, the contrast between the brightly lit streets of Vegas where night is as bright as day, with the dark skies of the desert are interesting.

Part five was a chapter that I feel didn't really sit with the rest of the book.  This took a detour around Germany and the painter Johan Christian Dahl, whose painting was influenced by the moon, and the life of Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy.  Hess happened to be influenced by Rudolf Steiner whose ideas were based on the influence of the moon on earth's life, but perhaps this chapter should have focused on Steiner instead?

The book finishes in part six where it began - in London.  This is much more like it, here we get back to a final pursuit of the full moon on a clear night; worries about afternoon shower clouds and bad weather.  I loved the way the author abandoned any concerns about going out very late on a school night just to look at the moon.  Something maybe we should all do occasionally.



Monday, 2 January 2012

Which word?

This is the first of an occasional 'study skills' type post. I've noticed, both as a librarian and in day to day work that many people struggle with these type of skills, and spending a bit of time trying to get these right can really make a difference both in professional work and personal communication.

Today, getting the right word when words sound similar but mean slightly different things:
Enquire / Inquire
Actually both can be used, but enquire is commonly used for an informal 'to ask', and inquire for a more formal 'inquiry'.

Accept / Except
You may accept a gift, or accept or agree with a suggestion, but except is to put something aside or refuse it, for example, "I'll take all the fruit except the oranges".

Affect / Effect
Affect is to realise or fulfil something, eg. the oven temperature affects the baking of a cake.  An effect is the consequence of something, eg. the low oven temperature had a poor effect on my cake.

Lose / Loose
Lose is to misplace something, eg. you lose you keys.  Something is loose when it is not 'fixed' or set, eg. the screws are loose.

Bored / Board
Might seem an obvious one, but bored is what you used to be in Maths, ie. not interested.  Board is a rigid piece of card, or a committee.

Biannual / Biennial
I get confused myseldf with this one:  biannual means happening twice a year, and biennial is every two years.

Compliment / Complement
Compliment means praise or saying something nice about someone, eg. you give someone a compliment.  Complement means in addition to something, or a complement slip in formal letters.

Discreet / Discrete 
Discreet means respectful, low key about someone or something eg. "be discreet about that issue".  Discrete means separate or distinct, eg. the documents are in discrete packages.

Ensure/Insure
Ensure is when you try and 'make sure' of something, eg. Ensure you pack your swimming costume.
Insure is taking out insurance on the car. Enquire is Inquire is

Disinterested / Uninterested Disinterested is when you don't benefit from a situation, eg. A lawyer is disinterested in the outcome of a will. Uninterested is... just plain bored (see above).