Books, life the universe

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Missed Monday and Tuesday

Not sure how I missed yesterday - but miss it I did.

We took the cat to the vet for her vaccinations yesterday. Many people have said they don't see why we bother because she never goes out. We do it because if both of us were ill she'd have to go into a cattery and if her vaccinations weren't up to date this could cause difficulties. As she gets checked over for any possible health problems we think it's worth it.

I'm following the media panic attack over the HPV vaccine. I feel sorry for this unfortunate girl's family but all the people who are panicking about it have as ever got everything out of proportion. Cervical cancer kills about 1000 people each year in this country. 70-80% of these deaths could have been avoided if the vaccine had been around years ago. Having sex can be dangerous. You can pick up this virus at any time and not have any symptoms. Not all cervical cancers are caused by this virus so anyone not vaccinated could still get the other types but to me eliminating the risk of 70% of them is pretty good odds.

I must admit the growing anti vaccine lobby does worry me. They seem to be gaining a lot of support at the moment. The people who are anti one type of vaccine seem to be anti all of them. These people think that looking things up on Google is research. It could be if they bother to read both sides of the argument and pick reputable and responsible sources.

I find the people who think we're all going to be made to have the swine flu vaccine and at the same time we're all going to be micro chipped just so hysterical. One person put a comment on one of the newspapers' websites saying the government were going to change the mental health act so that you only need one doctor's signature if you want to section someone. That way if you refuse the vaccine you'll be sectioned and given it anyway. The straight jackets are hanging behind the door - please take one on the way out . . . .

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Crossing Places

I've just started reading a crime story by Elly Griffiths called The Crossing Places. It is really good. Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist living on the north Norfolk coast near King's Lynn. She is asked to help DCI Harry Nelson when some bones are uncovered near a beach. Fortunately or unfortunately the bones turn out to be an Iron Age burial but that is not the end of the story. On the basis of 100 pages I would happily recommend it to anyone who enjoys the less violent crime story. The author also writes as Domenica De Rosa - whose Summer School I read and enjoyed a while back. This is different in style and content but every bit as good.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Great news

The best news I've had since I was told I could have early retirement is that I don't need to go back to the hospital unless I notice anything changing in my eyes. As I now know what to look for and would be on the phone straightaway if there was the slightest change that is fine by me. I usually have my eyes tested every year anyway for obvious reasons. The specialist is satisfied that after 3 years with no bleeding it's unlikely to start again - marvellous! Of course there are medical advances being made all the time and stem cell research is coming along quite well for my particular complaint so if it happens again it may be there will be something available to reverse the damage already done.

Friday, 25 September 2009


The title of a book by Lisa Sanders. It is American but still relevant to the UK. It goes through the diagnostic process and shows how doctors these days are so keen on having complicated tests done they forget their best chance of deciding what is wrong with a patient is by examining them and listening to what they are saying about their symptoms. It is absolutely fascinating reading. I've been left wondering how doctors manage to diagnose anything when you consider there are only so many symptoms a body can produce and not everyone will exhibit all the symptoms for a particular disease.

If you are at all interested in things medical - read this book. Its full title is Diagnosis: Despatches from the Frontlines of Medical Mysteries by Lisa Sanders.

Appropriately enough I'm off to Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham to have my eyes checked tomorrow and I'm in my usual panic about it. I can see Rescue Remedy will be much to the fore both today and tomorrow.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

The World According to Women

I'm currently reading The World According to Women by Jane McLoughlin. It is trying to show how popular culture has ruined women. She appears to be excluding The Guardian - for which she does/has work(ed) - from her definition of popular culture. I would be more impressed with her theory if there was a contents list, an index and a bibliography in the book. I'm just over half way through and at the moment it seems to be her own views about Margaret Thatcher et al and how they emasculated men by depriving them of their traditional jobs. Um, really? So the miner's strike is all the fault of feminism - or at least women?

I'm not quite sure how encouraging women into work emasculates men. She seems to be saying popular culture excludes men and tells women how to denigerate them so that they feel worse about themselves. If she could really support her theory with facts and figures I would be interested. What she seems to be saying is that the 3 million unemployed in the 1980s were all men and women had been put into jobs at the expense of the men. She may well be correct most of the unemployed were men but for totally different reasons.

If women were unemployed they would not have been able to register and claim Job Seeker's Allowance because their husbands were working. Also a lot of women paid the Married Women's rate of National Insurance and therefore weren't eligible to claim Job Seeker's Allowance so again they wouldn't have been registered.

By creating jobs which are part time and low status the author is saying men became marginalised because the only jobs available suited women and made use of their inherent skills - caring, domestic work etc. These jobs were demeaning to men. Oh right - now I see. So it's women's fault because she goes out to work and because she's willing to do the jobs other people won't do.

If men have become emasculated and marginalised by society how come they can still be found at the top of most big organisations in far greater numbers than women? In the organisation I worked for once you got above a certain level 90% of the jobs were held by men. For those of you who are familiar with general civil service grades I was an Higher Executive Officer when I retired. In the job I did women were in the minority - only about 35% overall at that grade are women. The area I worked in was very macho and male dominated so the percentage was probably less.

This is an interesting book but it seems to be a manifesto in support of Guardian Women rather than anything else. I do agree though that the magazine Nova was excellent and in a class of its own. Even though it was resurrected a few years ago the new one wasn't as good as the original. My mother - not a lover of women's magazines - used to buy it and we both used to read it.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Feeling ill today

Not so much ill as just not 100%. For some reason I did not sleep well last night - getting to sleep late and waking up early - which is unusual for me. I shall probably feel better once I've had a meal and a decent night's sleep tonight. I wasn't worrying about anything it was just my brain would not switch off. I think I'd better go back to reading fiction - the lighter the better - late at night otherwise my brain is just too active for sleep I think.

Maybe a longer - and more interesting - post tomorrow.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The Bradshaw Variations

The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk is a good example of modern literary fiction. There is virtually no plot and the book looks at what goes on under the surface of the Bradshaw family life. Most space is given to Thomas, his wife Antonia and daughter Alexa though there are also chapters about Howard and his wife Claudia and the Bradshaws senior.

The motif throughout the book is musical and Thomas has taken a sabbatical from his (unspecified) job to learn to play the piano and look after his daughter. Antonia is struggling with a recent promotion to head of the English department at a university. I liked the writing style and the musical analogies helped to explain the characters. I wondered when I started whether it was going to be a bit too self consciously literary but in the end I enjoyed it and found it worthwhile reading.

Monday, 21 September 2009

The Lost Symbol

Finally finished Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol - which I enjoyed. The body count of the walk on parts was a bit on the high side for my taste and I'm claustrophobic so some of the scenes were read with one eye shut as it were. I had guessed the identity of the villain very early on but that didn't spoil the suspense and I certainly could not have predicted the ending.

The villain is very much a product of the 21st century with his obsession with his body and identity. Ultimately his undoing is his failure to realise other people don't have his values and priorities. Some of the other characters were a little wooden and Robert Langdon himself could have done with a bit more flesh on the bones. I liked the scientist Katherine Solomon and the priest Colin Galloway as well as the Japanese CIA lady - definitely scary! I did question briefly whether the Americans would have employed someone from Japan in the CIA but no matter - it was convincing.

It was a good fast paced read with an intriguing background of codes and symbols and less well known scientific research. Yes people are going to trash it because no one seems to like success these days. I have read worse written books than this and after all thrillers are not meant to have characters who get in the way of the action. I read a review which criticised it because all the dialogue was plot driven. Well actually that's how it should be in a thriller otherwise it slows down the action. All creative writing books tell you to take out the irrelevant dialogue for that very reason. So for me that was not an issue. In fact the book is a good one for budding thriller writers to study for that very reason.

If you're visiting Washington - read it - it's as good as a guide book to some of that city's famous landmarks.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Considering a course of study

I started an Open University degree in 1996 and I still haven't completed it. Various things got in the way including having to study for work. I've got 160 points and I need 350 points for my degree. Most courses are 60 points which involves about 14 hours study a week and often an examination at the end of it. I've always enjoyed the study - apart from the philosophy course I did which I never thought I'd pass. I started another history course but never finished it- because I started a new job and 4 years ago I did a short creative writing course and had hoped at that point to go on and do more - but work got in the way.

Now I'm seriously thinking of doing some more study but I'm reluctant to commit myself to something which is going to force me into a routine. I do need to do something to keep my brain active and I've noticed I've been reading a lot more non-fiction recently. If I register for a course this week I could start in October but I think I'd rather wait until next year - when I could be eligible for financial help as well because of my low income. Decisions, decisions. I find OU study works for me because it gives me deadlines whereas an ordinary correspondence course doesn't work because often there are no deadlines so I never do any work!

I could combine two interests and do a short course in writing family history - to get me back into study mode . . . .

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Lovely weather

I went and had my hair cut today - in beautifully Indian summer type weather. There is something really special about warm sunny weather in September I always think. I was reminded that it was very similar weather this time last year when I was off work because of my broken arm.

It amused me to note that everyone knew everyone in the hairdressers and conversation is always general whenever you go in there. It just shows the difference between living in a (very) small village and in a town or city. I don't know that many people but the hairdressers always remember me so it must be a case of once seen never forgotten.

It's much the same in the post office/village shop.

Friday, 18 September 2009

The Lost Symbol

I jumped on the bandwagon and bought a copy of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol when Amazon reduced the price to £4.99. I've read about 200 pages so far and the story is good. Yes the characters are a bit two dimensional and some of the writing is a bit clunky but it's a good story - which is what it's meant to be.

I can't actually understand why so many people say it's rubbish and shouldn't be published. Why not? I've certainly read worse books than his and it's not as if it's encouraging people to commit crimes or take part in dangerous activities. It's the fight between good and evil as depicted in James Bond, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. The plot is not original - but then there's no such thing as an original plot since there are only 7 basic plots.

Maybe he hasn't got the factual details right - who cares? This is fiction not fact, guys, and if you want fact you would not expect to get it from a novel. Authors distort fact to fit the purposes of their plot. If they were writing non-fiction that would be different and they could be legitimately criticised if they got a fact wrong. Many people don't seem to realise publishing is a balancing act. Get a sure fire winner like this and you might be able to afford to publish books which are aimed at a narrower segment of society. Look at Bloomsbury's output now. They can afford to publish books which appeal to a minority because they've got all the money coming in from Harry Potter. And they've had commercial successes with books which at one time would not have been regarded as commercial at all so there are winners and - oh yes, winners - all round.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Other people's lives

The garden over the back appears to be finished. Now it has three terraces sloping up away from the house. The top one is shingle and large shrubs and trees and the other two are lawn. I can't quite see how she's going to get a lawn mower up the steps but I expect she will find a way. There is a large expanse of slabs now round the conservatory. It does look good though the two pergolas look a little strange at present. I expect they'll look better when the climbing plants grow over them. I would think it must have cost a lot to do because she's bought large plants and the builders were here for about 3 weeks - not that I think they worked as hard as they might have done.

I wouldn't want a garden like that because it's too much maintenance. Gardening is not my favourite occupation and I even have someone to cut our pocket handkerchief lawn and keep the hedge in order at the front! I do like looking at gardens - as long as I don't have to do the work.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Lamb to the slaughter

I have been interested to read the story of the lamb kept by a school to teach children where meat comes from. The outcry about it being slaughtered seems a little extreme to my way of thinking. Unless you're going to be a vegetarian - which is not good for children in any case - you need to know where meat comes from. Children are far more pragmatic than adults in this sort of situation and I suspect it has been blown up out of all proportion by the parents rather than the children.

I saw a comment by a member of the public to the effect that if it turned every child in the school into a vegetarian then it would be a good thing for the animals. So if we all stopped eating meat there would still be lots of animals running around in the fields would there? Perhaps there would be for leather, milk and wool but that still makes the animals into a commodity to be bought and sold and not just to be admired. You can't get leather without killing the animal and cows are slaughtered when they no longer produce milk. Animals kill for food so why should humans be different?

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Good book

Domenica De Rosa's Summer School is like eating a box of chocolates and drinking a glass of wine while relaxing in the sun. It is about 7 ill assorted people attending a creative writing course in Tuscany. The characters are all believable and the dialogue is well written with touches of humour. The text is interspersed with extracts from diaries and pieces of creative writing. My favourite character was Mary - 74 years old spinster and retired civil servant, but all the characters are interesting including Patricia the owner of the castello where the event is held.

Some of the characters achieve their dream while others achieve things they could never even have dreamed of before the course. The book is almost as good as attending such a course yourself and there are lots of creative writing tips. I loved it. I think the overall standard of such books is improving and I seem to find more and more which are up to this high standard. The boundary between chick lit and literary fiction is becoming even more blurred - which can only be a good thing.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer

I finished reading Michael Mansfield's Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer yesterday. It is absolutely enthralling, though admittedly I've always been interested in the justice system and the way it works. I don't always agree with his politics but I love his enthusiasm for his cases and his ability to admit when he made a mistake and things didn't turn out how he expected.

He covers many of the famous cases of the last 30 or 40 years including the Jill Dando murder, the Marchioness disaster, the inquest into Princess Diana's death, the Bloody Sunday enquiry and various miscarriages of justice. There are well thought out arguments for retaining jury trials for as many offences as possible and for not relying totally on DNA evidence.

The book is written in an engaging conversational style and Michael Mansfield unravels complicated subjects so that they are comprehensible to all. This is an excellent book whether you are interested in the law or in our life and times.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

A trip out

We went to Norwich today so that I could go to the dentist for a filling and it was a beautiful day for a drive out - warm and sunny. Dentist wasn't too bad though there was an accompanying drama as a very elderly lady had fallen and hit her head and there was a paramedic in attendance when I got there. The lady herself seemed not too dismayed by the whole thing and more worried about the blood on her grey hair and whether her son was prepared to take her for lunch once she'd finished at the dentist. He was more inclined to take her home but by the time I left she was adamant she wanted her lunch before they went home. In the course of the - overheard - conversation she was asked her age, which turned out to be 94 - and a half!

The paramedic glued the cut together and having checked all the vital signs said she didn't really think she needed to go to hospital though the son seemed as though he was keen to take her anyway so I don't know what the outcome was in the end. Gluing cuts together must be a new thing and certainly I've not come across it before. It makes sense if you think about it because apparently it forms a scab which then drops off after a few days. Who needs stitches?

Monday, 7 September 2009

Interesting reading

I'm about half way through Michael Mansfield's Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer and it is fascinating reading if you're at all interested in the way our justice system works. He has been involved in some of the most high profile legal cases of the last 20 or 30 years. Mainly he defends people which has meant receiving all sorts of threats - up to and including death threats - especially when he was defending IRA bombers. So far I've been reading about the Marchioness disaster on the Thames; an assortment of IRA bombers; the Bloody Sunday enquiry; the Stephen Lawrence case; the miners' strike in the 1980s and the court cases which resulted from it. He has an easy writing style and while I don't always agree with his politics I can see where he's coming from. Well worth reading in my opinion.

Sunday, 6 September 2009


I am finding Ariel Leve's The Cassandra Chronicles really too depressing so I'm reading it in small doses. She really puts the worst possible gloss on everything and only takes pleasure in things going wrong. The whole book seems to have a hollow ring as well as though she doesn't quite believe what she's writing.

Or am I just the wrong reader for this book?

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Very mixed reading

I gave up on Richard T Kelly's Crusaders and put it on the charity shop pile. I couldn't even bring myself to write a review of it.

I am currently reading: Ariel Leve's The Cassandra Chronicles - a collection of short pieces from one of the Sunday papers. Michael Mansfield's autobiography - Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer. Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots: Why we Tell Stories. As a little light relief I'm still reading John Mortimer's The Third Rumpole Omnibus. A pretty varied selection!

Friday, 4 September 2009

Family History and books

I've found two unusual Christian names in the course of my research - Tryphena and Ethelinda - both female and both nineteenth century. I've not come across either of them before.

I've also come across an interesting lady called Caroline Slator. She was born in 1820. She never married and lived in Holbeach, Lincolnshire, all her life dying on 17 May 1898. For a lot of that time - according to the Census returns - she lived on her own and supported herself by means of dressmaking. I've always had the idea from reading social history that women - of any social class - rarely lived on their own, so I think she must have been quite unusual. Or does reality differ radically from social history?

On the books front I've finished reading Disasters and Miracles: How it was Then. This is a beautifully produced book of short stories retelling well known bible stories as well as lesser known ones - including one about St Paul by Anne Brooke. I thought the stories were really good - all of them - and I've posted a review on Amazon.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Save the males

Kathleen Parker's Save the Males is written by an American former feminist. I owe her an apology as I have been giving her the wrong Christian name for the last few days as she is Kathleen not Katherine. I decided I wanted to read both sides of the gender debate and picked this book as it received a fair amount of media coverage a few months ago.

Aside from the fact that it is very American she does raise some interesting issues. I do agree with her that some of the extreme feminist views around do no one any favours and don't represent the views of the majority of mainstream feminists. Men are necessary - whether in the workplace or in the home. I have no problem with that at all. Men and women have different but complementary skills. I have never seen all men as potential aggressors as American society seems to see them.

The author argues women need to take a back seat and encourage men to take their rightful place in the world. I'm afraid I could not recognise the picture she paints of a society where men are down trodden and excluded from family life as well as taking second place to women in the workplace. She mentions a statistic about men between the ages of 15 and 35 spending 2.75 hours a day playing computer or console games as being an indication men are not wanted and excluded from mainstream society. I thought they did that from choice myself as I'm sure there are jobs they could be doing about the home instead.

I also disagree with her about the trend for single mothers indicating women prefer to go it alone without men in their lives. I'm not sure it is a safe assumption to draw as the single mothers I've known have all said they would rather not have to muddle along on their own but that the relationship with the children's father had broken down to the extent that it was no longer viable. They have all said without exception that their children needed contact with their fathers and did everything they could to promote and encourage it.

I thought the best chapter in the book was the one debating whether women should be front line fighting troops. She argues that they shouldn't because they are a liability not an asset and can only weaken a fighting force. Would Boudicca's troops have agreed with her? What about the Amazons? I can understand where she's coming from but what happened to picking the best people for the job regardless of gender? Equality to me does not mean putting people in jobs to which they're not suited and I don't believe this was ever what feminism was about. If women are not strong enough to do the job then they don't do it. This has got nothing to do with discrimination in my book but is a simple matter of horses for courses.

I found the tone of some of the book a little patronising to both men and women which spoilt some otherwise good points.