Books, life the universe

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Why do we feel so guilty all the time?

I've just read this article by Mark Palmer online at the Telegraph:

A refreshing and thoughtful look at how so many things in life these days are conspiring to make us feel guilty about something.

The comments from a vicar struck me particularly as a balanced view:

I put all this to my vicar. His response struck me as sound advice with which to start 2009: "You can get so taken up with all the dos and don'ts of modern living that you forget the fundamental commandments that provide a moral anchor. Don't start thinking that Sally is a better mum than you or that Johnny is a better provider than you are. Or that everyone is having better sex, better holidays or a better social life.

"I would say this, of course, but try going to church. It offers a pause – a chance to reconnect with the big picture. And remember what is at the heart of Christian society: forgiveness. A little more of that in your life will come in handy."

Enough said.

Saturday, 27 December 2008


I am currently reading Deborah Gregory's Dancing with the Dead and I'm not sure whether I will finish it - chiefly because I can't take to the main character. Her name is Gill and she moves with her actor husband - Seb - and two small children, Rosie and Adam, to a house in very rural Lincolnshire which belongs to her mother. All of this ought to make it my type of book especially when you add in the fact that the house is old and full of interesting bits and pieces and that her great aunt is sending her regular letters about the family's past - apparently from the grave. There is something very nasty in the woodshed which is gradually being revealed. Again this is my type of book - as far as I could be said to have a type of book. Gill herself seems unnecessarily self centred and cruel to her small daughter and her husband - which may of course all be explained later - and I just do not take to her at all. As the book is only about 200 pages and I've read nearly half I probably will persevere and finish it. The book is a bit over-written as well and I keep reading sentences and wanting to chop half of them out. Altogether a pretty good plot but . . . .

I am also part way through Alexander McCall Smith's La's Orchestra Saves the World about La - short for Lavender - who moves to rural Suffolk just before the outbreak of World War II and works for nothing on a farm as part of her war effort and sets up a very ad hoc orchestra to help boost the morale of the local people and the nearby RAF base. As ever the writing is charming and the story intriguing, though maybe not in quite the same league as the 44 Scotland Street series or the No 1 ladies Detective Agency but still worth reading.

As I always have at least two books on the go and usually more I read 50 pages of Anthony Trollope's The Warden last night. I was fortunate enough to buy all 6 of the Barchester novels in Folio Society editions just before Christmas and I'm intending to read them during 2009. I read both The Warden and Barchester Towers when I was still at school but have never read the other 4 - The Small House at Allington, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage and The Last Chronicle of Barset.

Thinking about the Barchester novels reminded me that a twentieth century novelist adopted the geography of the novels in her own stories - Angela Thirkell. Not quite the same as a sequel but interesting for similar reasons.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Happy Christmas

Christmas started off last night for me with a short walk to our village church and the Christmas candlelit 'midnight' Mass. It started at 10.00pm because as is normal these days we are part of a group parish and the vicar had to get on to the next parish in order to conduct their service as well. I hope his voice holds out as he has a cold. There was no sermon because he was afraid he was going to loose his voice by the end of the evening - for which we were all told not to cheer - this raised a laugh which started off the proceedings in a fairly relaxed manner.

There was a practically full house - even more than last year - which was nice to see - and there were mince pies and mulled wine for all. It was also good to see the majority walking to church rather than driving.

What slightly soured things or me is that because one of the parishes did not want a female vicar we no longer have the funny and charming lady vicar we had at this time last year. It seems a shame that people can let their prejudices get in the way. This year's service seemed a mite more formal and impersonal when conducted by a man - or maybe it was just this particular clergyman's personal style. Last year's was somehow more inclusive - or perhaps I am letting my prejudices get in the way. It had a different feel to it - though just as enjoyable and uplifting.

Today I have a meal to cook and television or a DVD to watch and books to read - a relaxing day where I do not feel obliged to do much else.

Happy Christmas everyone

Tuesday, 23 December 2008


I finished Rosy Thornton's Crossed Wires last night and found it totally unlike her previous two. I was a bit doubtful about it when I read the blurb as it seemed to be mainly about the difficulties of being a single parent - a state with which I cannot identify. Once I'd started it though I found that the blurb was misleading. Yes it is about two single parents and some of the problems they encounter - but these are universal human problems - not knowing where a loved one is, worrying that they don't have enough friends, arguments etc.

The main characters are Peter - a Cambridge University lecturer - and Mina - an insurance call centre worker in Sheffield. How these two manage to sustain a relationship makes interesting reading. It is almost impossible to describe without giving away the main components of the plot. I found it satisfying and plausible. The minor characters are interesting as well - the children - Cassie and Kim and Sal - Mina's Mum and her wayward sister Jess; Peter's friends Jeremy and Martin and his research assistant Trish. The contrast between the two lifestyles is well drawn and shows that money doesn't prevent the same issues arising where children are concerned. I found it well worth reading and I look forward to this author's next book with interest.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

The Winter Solstice and sombre reflections

The Winter Solstice today - the shortest day of the year. From now onwards the days get longer. It's when I start to see in early January that the days really are getting longer that I realise that Spring will arrive eventually. I tend to suffer from SAD but it is exacerbated by the usual gloom of Christmas, my birthday and several sad anniversaries.

34 years ago today my mother died of multiple organ failure at the age of 45. You would think after all this time I wouldn't remember it, but I do every time. I think it is probably because of its proximity to Christmas and my parent's wedding anniversary - 20 December - which is also my own wedding anniversary and the anniversary of my divorce. (33 years ago and 25 years ago respectively). I was married on what would have been my parent's silver wedding anniversary 20 December 1975 - it seemed like a nice thing to do at the time. I suspect now that my mother's death was part of the reason why I dashed with unseemly haste into matrimony just a year later. It was like clutching at anyone or anything which affirmed life.

Once again the festive season will soon be upon us and I find that every year I am more against the commercialism of it all. I had my Tesco shopping delivered yesterday and we were going to Marks & Spencer tomorrow for a few goodies as we have some M&S vouchers we've had for a while. Then I looked at the fridge and the freezer - both as full as they could possibly be - and suggested we didn't go. I haven't a clue where I'd fit anything else in so it seemed a bit stupid. We have booze - neither of us drinks very much; 3 Christmas puddings; chocolates; the meat we're having for Christmas day; a raspberry and frangipane tart in case we don't fancy Christmas pudding; fruit, veg, bread etc. More than enough with which to enjoy Christmas and probably New Year as well. So we've called a halt to it and said what we haven't got now we will go without.

It's not after all the food you eat or the booze you drink - nice though they are - but the people you're with which matters. You won't remember the food later only what you did and who you did it with. With that thought in mind I shall endeavour to instil some cheerfulness into my head - or at least less gloom. I shall start Christmas on Wednesday evening with Christmas Mass at our local church with my next door neighbour and remember what Christmas is really about.

Happy Christmas to everyone

Saturday, 20 December 2008

The Northern Clemency

The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher was a contender for this year's Man Booker prize though it didn't win. I was attracted by its cover - not always a reliable way to pick one's reading matter.
In this case it didn't let me down. This is a panoramic novel covering 20 years in the life of two families - the Glovers and the Sellers - who live opposite each other in a Sheffield suburban street. Their day to day lives are covered in great detail - boring to some but I found it enthralling. The writing is excellent and the characters come to life on the page. Nothing earth shattering happens - there's a serious illness towards the end of the book, a near divorce and involvement in a court case and some deaths of mainly minor characters which are not described in detail. There are misunderstandings and misconnections, people fall out and drift apart and they agonise over trivial decisions. Plans are made and abandoned and hobbies are pursued with more or less enthusiasm.
The period covered by the novel is the mid 1970's to the mid 1990's and the miner's strike has a part to play in the lives of some, though not all, the characters. It is reminiscent of nineteenth century novelists such as Dickens and deserves to become a classic in its own right.
My only complaints about the novel are that at 738 pages it is physically difficult to read and whilst the book is divided into 5 sections it doesn't have chapters as such - making it difficult to decide where to stop reading.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Kate Ellis

I have just finished reading Kate Ellis - Seeking the Dead. This is the first in a new series featuring DI Joe Plantagenet - whose family history is that he is descended from Richard III. The story is set in the city of Eborby - based on York as might be expected from its name. There is a serial killer on the loose - known as the Resurrection Man - and Joe and his new boss DCI Emily Thwaite - must catch him before he strikes again. The story raises the hairs on the back of your neck and you almost want to read it with your fingers over your eyes - like watching a horror film. Though it is not gory and the suspense and the horror come as much from the quality of the writing as the content of the story. There is a supernatural and black magic element as well which provide a sub plot and add to the tension. I loved it and will definitely be reading the next in the series - out in 2009. I have posted a five star review on Amazon under the name of Damaskcat.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Brilliant idea for a crime novel

I can't help feeling this has been used in a crime novel but offhand I can't think of one. An actor on stage was supposed to commit suicide by cutting his throat. He picks up the knife thinking it's the usual blunt stage prop and finds out too late that it's a real knife. Fortunately he survived to tell the tale and the audience having applauded a brilliant special effect were shocked when the 'corpse' got up and staggered off stage.

The police are investigating.

Friday, 12 December 2008

The Uncommon Reader

I have just finished reading Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader. It's one of the most charming books I've read for a long time. The Queen stumbles across a mobile library when she is following the corgis. In order to be polite she borrows a book and starts talking to ginger haired Norman who works in the kitchen and is also looking for something to read. A touching and unlikely friendship develops between them. Norman recommends books for her to read but Her Majesty is soon off on a journey of her own. She is never seen without a book in her hand even reading one in the coach on the way to the state opening of Parliament. She hides it behind the cushions whilst she goes to make her speech and discovers it has been exploded as a suspicious object on her return. There are many incidents like this as the Queen's courtiers try to break her obsession with reading and her friendship with Norman. To say more would be to give away the plot - slight though it is. The masterpiece is the finale with Her Majesty inviting the whole of the Privy Council to tea and making a speech to them. I loved it.

Friday, 5 December 2008

100 things you might want to do - or not

I'm indebted to KCM over at Zen Mischief for this. I'm sure I've done fewer of these than he has. The ones I've done are in green. If you want to do it yourself then copy and paste etc:
  • Started my own blog - this is it
  • Slept under the stars - and very cold and uncomfortable it was too
  • Played in a band
  • Visited Hawaii
  • Watched a meteor shower
  • Given more than I can afford to charity
  • Been to Disneyland/world
  • Climbed a mountain - does Ingleborough count?
  • Held a praying mantis
  • Sung a solo - now that would be a good way of getting rid of unwanted guests
  • Bungee jumped - I can think of easier ways of frightening myself to death
  • Visited Paris
  • Watched lightning at sea - yes driving - well I stopped to watch it - along the cost of East Yorkshire near Bridlington
  • Taught myself an art from scratch
  • Adopted a child
  • Had food poisoning
  • Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty - saw a marvellous cartoon once of someone playing golf on the top of the flame
  • Grown my own vegetables
  • Seen the Mona Lisa in France
  • Slept on an overnight train
  • Had a pillow fight
  • Hitchhiked
  • Taken a sick day when you’re not ill - yes but about 22 years ago
  • Built a snow fort
  • Held a lamb
  • Gone skinny dipping - I have swum topless though I suspect that doesn't count
  • Run a Marathon - don't intend to either
  • Ridden in a gondola in Venice
  • Seen a total eclipse
  • Watched a sunrise or sunset
  • Hit a home run
  • Been on a cruise
  • Seen Niagara Falls in person
  • Visited the birthplace of my ancestors - I live pretty close to the birthplace of one of them
  • Seen an Amish community
  • Taught myself a new language
  • Had enough money to be truly satisfied
  • Seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person
  • Gone rock climbing
  • Seen Michelangelo’s David
  • Sung karaoke
  • Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt
  • Bought a stranger a meal at a restaurant - though I have had a stranger buy me one!
  • Visited Africa
  • Walked on a beach by moonlight
  • Been transported in an ambulance
  • Had my portrait painted
  • Gone deep sea fishing
  • Seen the Sistine Chapel in person
  • Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris
  • Gone scuba diving or snorkeling
  • Kissed in the rain
  • Played in the mud - yes I used to love making mud dams in streams
  • Gone to a drive-in - movies or restaurant? Been to a drive thru McDonalds
  • Been in a movie
  • Visited the Great Wall of China
  • Started a business
  • Taken a martial arts class
  • Visited Russia
  • Served at a soup kitchen
  • Sold Girl Scout Cookies
  • Gone whale watching
  • Got flowers for no reason
  • Donated blood, platelets or plasma
  • Gone sky diving
  • Visited a Nazi Concentration Camp
  • Bounced a check - to my eternal shame!
  • Flown in a helicopter
  • Saved a favorite childhood toy
  • Visited the Lincoln Memorial
  • Eaten Caviar
  • Pieced a quilt - if a small cushion cover counts
  • Stood in Times Square
  • Toured the Everglades
  • Been fired from a job
  • Seen the Changing of the Guards in London
  • Broken a bone
  • Been on a speeding motorcycle
  • Seen the Grand Canyon in person
  • Published a book - no but I hope to eventually
  • Visited the Vatican
  • Bought a brand new car - more than once
  • Walked in Jerusalem
  • Had my picture in the newspaper several times including earlier this year when we were campaigning to keep our office open - we failed.
  • Read the entire Bible
  • Visited the White House
  • Killed and prepared an animal for eating
  • Had chickenpox
  • Saved someone’s life
  • Sat on a jury
  • Met someone famous - Sir George Young - is or was a Tory MP
  • Joined a book club
  • Lost a loved one - depends whether you mean close relative or partner
  • Had a baby
  • Seen the Alamo in person
  • Swam in the Great Salt Lake
  • Been involved in a law suit - if divorce counts
  • Owned a cell phone
  • Been stung by a bee
  • Ridden an elephant

That was interesting - I seem to have led a very unadventurous life!

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Management Speak

Anyone who is in paid employment or who has any interest in news stories will be aware of the strange expressions which become common currency - especially amongst managers. The latest one seems to be 'across the piece' - meaning, I think, across the whole organisation, territory etc. We had thought it was peculiar to our manager and we'd all got to the stage where we cringe when he uses it. Then a couple of days ago I heard a politician being interviewed on television use it - I think it was Jaquie Smith. So obviously this is the phrase du jour. We will have to add it to our 'bullshit bingo'.

In case this hasn't reached your neck of the woods this consists of a piece of paper divided up like a bingo grid with a popular phrase in each square which you can take into boring meetings. You then listen for all the usual management speak and cross off each expression as it's used. Our version is a bit out of date now as it has such things on it as: It's not rocket science; we'll run this up the flag pole and see who salutes it; quick wins; low hanging fruit etc etc. Some of the expressions I like - and probably annoy other people with them, but most of them become so irritating it's difficult to sit through a meeting without becoming totally wound up.

My least favourites are: heads up (making people aware of something in advance); 'Happy to discuss' - in an e-mail when you've just told someone to do something they don't want to do and of course 'across the piece'.

While I'm moaning - I dislike anyone who tells me I'm being negative when I'm simply not agreeing with management. What I'm saying may not be politically correct or in accordance with the party line but it is NOT automatically negative because of that - it might well be very constructive, just not what the powers that be want to hear.