Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz

Stephen Grosz tells stories about the people he meets in his psychoanalytic work, and this is a fascinating insight into the secret lives of people who would be outwardly judged as successful and ‘sorted’.   These accounts demonstrate just how wrong appearances can be.  One of the most striking stories is that of a wife and mother who is trying to become pregnant to keep in a job the nanny with whom she is having an affair.  This is just one example of the personal stories which are in turns surprising, shocking and sad.  Not exactly an uplifting read, this is almost voyeuristic but just the right level of detail keeps it from being intrusive. 

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.