Watch Me Turning That New Blogging Leaf

These past few weeks, I’ve made a new friend. It so happened that, in an idle moment in the weeks running up to Christmas, I clicked on one of those advertising links online that offered me a free in-depth tarot card reading. The reading I received surprised me by being more generous and detailed than I had expected. And since that day, the tarot reader has sent me regular emails, once or even twice a day, offering me limited edition fortune-telling goods of dubious nature, and never failing to inform me of challenges and opportunities on the horizon. I get a daily prediction addressed to ‘Dearest Litlove’, and at the end she always reminds me that she wants the very best for me, and will be delighted to help me out with any dilemma I should encounter. All of January, she has been a more than constant fixture in my relatively empty inbox.

‘You do realise you’re talking to a computer, don’t you?’ Mr Litlove asks me.

‘Surely not,’ I say. ‘I think she really likes me.’

Here’s a general rule of the universe: your inbox will never be more of a wasteland than when you are waiting for emails. At the end of last year I embarked on the wearyingly tedious business of finding a literary agent (or making an attempt at it). I have a novel I’m trying to sell, and I’ve got the novel itself with various friends, and the submission materials with various agents and the result is that now, no one  writes to me. I think it’s going to be a pretty quiet year.

Mr Litlove has also had a quiet start to the year, though for slightly different reasons. He took a fortnight off for the festive season which was very pleasant for both of us. The first I knew about it was the week before Christmas when we were in the car together, headed into town after my first time of asking. ‘You’re being unusually amenable,’ I remarked. ‘Are you feeling okay?’ But as with all pleasant episodes, the end is mired in denial and obstinacy. Mr Litlove is supposed to be making a rocking chair (and I can’t tell you how delighted I am to have a rocking chair in prospect; I’ve long wanted one). But even with my very limited knowledge I can see that drawing the design is not easy. Much procrastination has followed, with Mr L. succumbing to rocking chair fear, and that’s totally a thing. He came into the study the other day, saying ‘Can we have a meeting? I used to have end-to-end meetings all day when I was at work and didn’t feel like doing anything.’ I’d rather staple gun memos to my forehead than have a meeting, and alas, his earlier suggestion of having a works Christmas party for the two of us fell on similarly stony ground. My heart does go out to him. It’s hard to procrastinate with goal-oriented introverts.

Where he can and does get me, though, is in the long-running row debate we are having over the news. For once I have to congratulate President-Elect Trump on providing a story that we can both of us enjoy. Not only an entertaining story, I understand today, but a story so like an old generic spy thriller that the very happy estate of one deceased author has actually brought forth the book with the exact same Russian blackmail plot (cue reprint, I imagine). Anyhow, I digress. Mr Litlove is a news hound. Every day he gets up and reads The Guardian and The Telegraph on his phone for 2-3 hours with Radio 4 playing in the background. In my world, if I did that much reading, it would be called research and it would be intended for a specific project. But the real problem arises between us because I take a very skeptical position in relation to the news. I scarcely believe one partisan word of it. And I am deeply unimpressed with Radio 4’s coverage, especially on the Today programme, which takes a ludicrously adversarial position towards any and every subject, with grumpy, negative, argumentative people intent on making sure all possible arguments are heard regardless of whether those arguments have any value or not. In short, it drives me nuts.

But that doesn’t stop Mr Litlove from inflicting it on me, and so I feel that he should be made aware of the rules in my world. In academia, you can’t put forward an argument unless it is a) fully backed up with evidence, b) grounded by sources whose authority you can prove, c) ready to challenge its own stance because nothing is black or white, it’s always more complex than it first appears, d) ready to show the gaps in its knowledge, or the questions that remain unanswered but eschewing all speculation and unsubstantiated claims and e) acknowledging that stories and arguments are powerfully distorting because they assume shapes that reality does not have, and this must be taken into account. Oh, and there has to be a clear understanding of what’s important and what is not. Doesn’t sound much like the news, does it?

In all fairness, the only decent programme I’ve ever heard on Radio 4 was broadcast last week. It was a meditation on the supposedly post-truth world that we live in. And its conclusion was that we don’t live in a post-truth world, but we do live in a world where the sources of information we trust are deeply polarised. It made the excellent point that to believe anything, it must come from a source – be it person or authority – that we trust, and fit into the framework of knowledge that we accept. So, in other words, if you want to persuade a Christian religious fundamentalist of climate change, throwing more scientists and scientific data at the problem is going to have a counter effect. It’s a bit like saying, if you want to convince Spanish people of something, you can’t go in talking German. So if we apply this thinking to our household problem with the news, the media are going to have to produce arguments more like those I consider to be useful and accurate, if I’m to believe them. But given Mr Litlove is already fully on board with the media, he will resist all criticism (and he does) to the hilt.

As so the individual family mirrors the wider world. We all have radically different sources we trust. But we live in a culture in which all those different voices, all those different opinions are considered to have truth value. How on earth are we going to agree on anything?

Still, if I argue with Mr Litlove for long enough, it does finally make the workshop look more tempting to him….

Top Ten Books of 2016

I wasn’t going to do one of these lists – for the first time in ten years of blogging – because I have read so little this year. But then it occurred to me that whilst I may not have read many physical books, I’ve listened to a large number. And looking back over the year, I see that Shiny ensured that when I was reading, I still read as much as I possibly could. And I adore Best-Of lists; it was reading Annabel’s (which inspired me to order three actual books in the spirit of cautious optimism motivating my idea of reading in 2017) that decided me finally to do one.

So, in no particular order, the best books of the year have been:

commonwealthCommonwealth by Ann Patchett

Mr Litlove read this one to me and we both enjoyed it tremendously. The story of a dysfunctional family, grafted in awkward ways due to divorce and remarriage, is viscous with dread in its early stages, but strong on reconciliation and renewal by its conclusion. Patchett’s wonderful writing brings every scene dazzlingly alive.

Black Water by Louise Doughty

The unglamourous side of espionage and its complex ethical issues are brought to the fore in this stunner of a novel. John Harper has ‘looked after the interests’ of multinational companies, doing the legwork that not many people ever get to know about, mostly in Indonesia (where he was born to mixed race parents) in two period of turmoil: the anti-Communist purges in 1965 and the riots of 1998. What would you do if your survival was at stake, the novel asks? And then how would you live with yourself afterwards? Exquisite writing gives this tale terrific emotional and moral heft.

The Good Guy by Susan Bealethe-good-guy

Suburban America in the 1960s is the setting for this story of adultery and its consequences. You might think it’s a tale that’s been often told, but the Hopper-ish scene setting and the delicate characterisation of all the parties involved makes this a standout.

Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano

Critics mistook this for a novel when it was first published, but it’s actually a genuine investigation undertaken by Modiano into a petit annonce in a 1941 newspaper seeking the whereabouts of teenage runaway, Dora Bruder. Modiano found out that she had run into the arms of the Gestapo and had been deported with her father to Auschwitz in 1942. But what else could he discover about her? Could he piece her biography together? Who was she? What follows is one of the most moving and insightful accounts of an imaginative attempt to enter the life of another that you’ll ever read.

conclaveConclave by Robert Harris

Mr Litlove and I have only just finished listening to this one on audio book, but it’s kept us enthralled over the festive period. The story, set in the near future, begins with the death of the current pope and the meeting of cardinals in the Vatican to elect his successor. It’s told from the perspective of Jacapo Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals and the man whose unhappy task it is to preside over the conclave. Full of details you never knew about the process of papal election, yet dominated by a powerful, gripping storyline as secrets and scandals rise inexorably to the surface, this is one fun and fulfilling read.

Americanah by Chimamande Ngozi Adiochie

I listened to this way back at the start of the year and absolutely loved it. It’s fundamentally a love story, concerning teenage sweethearts in Nigeria who are separated by their life choices. Ifemelu has the opportunity to study in America and she takes it with both hands, believing it is her route to a better future. Obinze, who had hoped to follow her, is stymied in his choices and finally ends up in the UK. The story is a long, slow appreciation of their different routes, taken as the two make it back to one another, though of course both are now in separate relationships and carrying a great deal of baggage. Essentially, it’s a book about race, and about being a black person in a white world. It’s brilliant on race. Really excellent. And I have to give a special shout-out to the narrator of the audio book, Adjoa Andoh, whose range of Nigerian, Jamaican, Trinidadian, American and British accents had to be heard to be believed. I could have listened to her all day (and sometimes did).

The Ava Lee novels by Ian Hamiltondeadly-touch-of-tigress

My sister-in-law got me started on this crime fiction series featuring Ava Lee, a forensic accountant. Yup, a petite, gay, Chinese-Canadian woman who can do maths and kick butt – what’s not to like? Ava goes on the track of funds (enormous funds) that are missing or have been criminally appropriated, and she gets her clients their money back. You get to find out what a lot of airports across the world are like, as Ava has to do a lot of travelling to follow the money trail, and you learn interesting stuff about Chinese martial arts, financial accounting and top-end hotels, too.  I’ve been wonderfully entertained by them.

The Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child

If I’m honestly doing my best of the year, then I have to include another shout-out to Reacher. Having listened to a LOT of audiobooks this year, I’m here to tell you that being read out loud is a stringent test for any work of fiction. You get to hear every single word chosen by the author, and you get to hear every single sentence, all read at a constant, steady pace. Not many styles, plots or characters can survive it. However, Lee Child’s novels really do work under these severe conditions. I can’t speak for the last five or six he’s published, as they are showing all the signs of series fatigue and just don’t match up to the early ones. I listened to Killing Floor and The Hard Way, and both were excellent – and brilliantly read by their narrators, too.

a-spool-of-blue-threadA Spool of Blue Thread and Back When We Were Grown-Ups by Anne Tyler

The other author who works magnificently on audio is Anne Tyler. I’ve long loved her work and read most of what she’s written (you remember they re-issued her early novels? I haven’t read all of those – she hit her stride with Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant and I’ve read them all since then). The two I mention above were real highlights of the listening year. Her characters are so real and her dialogue so wonderful and – the later you go in her back list – she is so funny and amusing that her novels were just instant cheerfulness for me.

The End of the Novel of Love by Vivian Gornick

This is an unusually fiction-heavy list this  year, and I should add honorable mentions here for Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Hicks and Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marcal. But I have to award the prize to Vivian Gornick for her set of splendid interconnected literary essays on the way love in novels has changed since the 19th century. She writes about Jean Rhys, Willa Cather, Christina Stead, Raymond Carver, Grace Paley and many others. But it doesn’t matter who she writes about, the point is the clarity, the insight and the lack of pretension she brings to whichever author falls into her sphere. Mr Litlove read these to me, and he – an engineer by training – enjoyed them as much as I did. Now that’s what I call literary criticism.

 

Glad Tidings (For Those Fed Up Of The News)

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I imagine most people are looking forward to some festive holidays of one kind or another. And probably looking forward to the end of this year as well; 2016’s been quite the curve ball, hasn’t it? I’m tempted to take it back and see if I can get a refund. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, I hope you are feeling as peaceful as this beautiful illustration by P. J. Lynch.

j_toomey_city

One thing I wanted to share with you that gladdened my heart a few weeks ago was an article in the CAM magazine that comes to alumni of Cambridge University. There’s a modest, one-page piece by Professor Simon Goldhill right at the back that talks about the group of academics and policy makers from the Middle East whom he convenes three times a year for two intensive days of debate. These people cannot meet on their own territories for all kinds of political reasons. But they come to the neutral city of Cambridge to discuss basic, pragmatic issues like civic infrastructure over the entire region of the Middle East. This is an extract from the article:

The debates are riveting – and properly collaborative. A young female colleague who grew up in Jenin was holding forth about how the United Nations’ plan to widen the streets in the camp was seen as a plot to bring in tanks. Another participant interrupted: “You had better blame me, then,” he said, “I drew up those laws. But that wasn’t their idea…”. The Palestinian instead of holding forth had to speak to the actual person who wrote the regulations – and the regulator had to face the recipient of his rules on the ground. Both learned from the exchange. Both had to recalibrate. The hope is that slowly such exchanges will eventually produce material that will change other people’s minds, too.

I thought this was uplifting in so many different ways. An excellent idea, brilliantly executed, safe, sensible and progressive. We don’t hear enough about the people out there in the world working with intelligence and insight to solve the problems that seem so threatening.

And I thought it was timely to remember that the media would not consider this to be newsworthy. It isn’t an emotionally manipulative, sensationalized, negative, fear-inducing piece of propaganda. Because that’s all the news delivers. The media keeps us in a state of anxiety, craving the next terrible thing they can tell us, the thing that proves yet again that everyone in authority is stupid, ignoring all the obvious solutions that seem so obvious to us. That’s simply a perspective on reality that the media creates; it isn’t reality. How many people, I wonder, are out there involved in properly helpful initiatives, like the one above at Cambridge? How many people are quietly going about their important work, far from the spotlight, unbeknownst to us all?

Lots of people. Lots and lots of them. We’ll just never hear about them.

But I was very grateful to Simon Goldhill when I read about his work, so grateful for the hope that work like his brings. Isn’t it time we reconsidered what constitutes the news?

 

 

 

New Shiny and News

Our Christmas Edition of Shiny New Books is live today! Do go on over and decide what you want to unwrap under the tree this year…

snb xmas

The BookBuzz section is rather a special one for me, as it’s my last. It’s been an amazing three years in which I’ve had the chance to interview some lovely writers and experience a slice of the joy that other reviewers have had for years, receiving free books through the post! And it’s been a real delight to work with Annabel, Harriet and Simon. We’ve been such a great team and I will miss our group chats terribly. But it’s time for a big old revamp, something that has to happen regularly on the fickle internet if sites want to keep up their audience and stay tempting. Annabel and Harriet will make an announcement in the New Year about the New Look Shiny, while Simon and I are bowing out as editors. Though we will keep a hand in as Editors At Large, a title I’m enjoying immensely as it makes us sound wild and dangerous, which is not something that happens to me every day.

Undoubtedly my decision has been motivated to a great extent by the fate of my eyes. I went to see an eye specialist back in September and finally understood what was happening. I have recurrent marginal keratitis, and when I looked it up on the internet, the advice was to go to the vets – it’s more common in dogs than humans, apparently. Honestly, you’d think one of these days I’d suffer from something nice and noble. Basically, the rims of my corneas keep getting inflamed and this has been caused by two perfectly ordinary conditions – dry eyes and blepharitis – that have grown out of control. It’s not serious, thankfully, although my corneas have taken a fair bit of scarring, but it is extremely tenacious. I’m on four months of anti-inflammatories, and may require more.

It would have been nice if an optician, on one of my four visits to them over the course of this year, had mentioned either dry eyes or blepharitis. It might not have got so bad.

Anyhow, I think they are gradually improving, although it is slow. In a normal day now I can read for up to an hour, look at the computer for about 90 mins and watch an hour or so of telly without annoying them too much. But it’s been the kiss of death to blogging. I am still not comfortable with posting and then not visiting you all, and sometimes not managing to answer comments. It feels all wrong somehow. And I’m not reading enough books to make a decent show of reviewing. It is so funny how things happen. After a year of not reading, I wonder if I will ever go back to the lovely long hours I used to spend at it. I have listened to a LOT of audio books, and Mr Litlove has been very good about reading out loud to me. There are two things you should know about this: 1) he really enjoys it and 2) he is dyslexic. So it can be an intriguing and hallucinatory experience, listening to the myriad ways language can shift and change under his gaze. For instance, we are currently reading a book about the occasion when the painting, The Scream by Edvard Munch, was stolen from a Norwegian art gallery. ‘And the next chapter,’ says Mr Litlove, ‘is called: “Munich”.’ Then he pauses. ‘Oh, hang on a minute. The next chapter is called: “Munch”.’ Honestly, it’s delightful and an oddly creative experience, but I wonder how much of a book changes when he reads it to me.

You’ll all be glad to know that he is doing well, and making lots of furniture. He started a new upholstery class this autumn, a much better one than the first, which is full of lovely ladies and he is the only man. He loves it, and they love him. And nowadays he comes out with things like: ‘Please can we go and visit the haberdashery above the bike shop in Ely?’ Which is not a sentence I ever thought would pass my husband’s lips. Life is full of surprises.