comments 11


I haven’t made any New Year resolutions for, well, years.  I traditionally shy away from both New Year and birthday celebrations, because they’ve always resounded with years escaping, never to return.  But more dismayingly, it’s inconceivable that you’re going to stick to your New Year’s resolutions for the rest of your life.  Therefore, haven’t all resolutions been invented only to be broken?  Why would you set a poor helpless resolution up for that?

My Guardian feed suggested to me yesterday an article on how to make resolutions work by making sure that they turn into habits:

(Although I don’t think I’m any of the listed personality types – upholder/questioner/obliger/rebel.  I’m just someone who has quite an awkward lifestyle.)

Also, someone else emailed me yesterday and asked me what my resolution was.  His was to procrastinate less.  And strangely, for someone who remains ambivalent about the concept, recent changes in my life have meant that I have been thinking of ways of changing my habits in order to stay on top of everything.  In other words, I suppose, time for resolutions.

Keeping it simple, my two resolutions are:

  1. Make sure the kitchen is tidy at the end of each day.  The rest of the house, for various reasons, can go to pot.  For example, the living room remains at constant risk from other family members.  And my own bedroom is even worse, being the first to slide in times of crisis, since it multi-functions as both laundry centre and paperwork park.  But the prospect of coming downstairs to fresh coffee and a clean start might be enough to get me out of bed.
  2. Linked to the above, waste less time, ie get up straight away instead of just thinking about it.  Try to do more of the things that I need to do, and which I also find rewarding in themselves: cook, clean, school governor things, read, write, exercise, and not necessarily in that order of importance.  I’ve left off the most important activity, which is sleeping.  If we (my friend The Guardian and I) are talking about understanding ourselves, then the reasons I procastinate are either that I’m too tired to get into gear, or that I’m anxious that if I ramp up the activity level, it’s going to leave me too buzzing to sleep.  Therefore I’m going to try to let go of the idea of sleeping at prescribed times, and let my body tell me yay or nay.

So, how am I doing, one day in?

I tidied the kitchen last night, which earns a big tick.

This evening, I was going to go to the gym, but decided that after a morning out walking, I wasn’t feeling quite up to it.  Fine.  So I wrote this post instead.  And I feel good.




comments 15

Time off at Christmas

So I’ve decided to do a post!  It’s been about nine months and although I’ve been reading blogs to work out which books to read, I’ve been a bit too busy to post for a couple of reasons.

  1. My social life has been getting increasingly livelier since I moved house and it’s just gone mad recently.  Partly due to having a much better house/location to invite people round to, which means that they invite me back.  And being more willing to travel out because it’s easier and more pleasant to get back home.
  2. I’ve been a school governor at a primary school for six years (and the chair for the last five).  In the last year I’ve taken on an extra voluntary role chairing the governor association for the county, which involves running meetings and working with council officials to see what we can make of the horrendously stretched budget to help governors across the county get together and work together.  And then early in 2016, the long running difficulties at my daughter’s secondary school culminated in the governors agreeing for it to be run by a Multi Academy Trust (MAT).  Now fundamentally I’m suspicious of the idea of MATs, because I don’t agree with the road to privatisation that everything in this country seems to be steam rollering ahead on.  But this MAT employs a lot of experienced ex-Headteachers who have particularly good track records with turning round failing schools, and they all seemed very committed and knowledgeable, and when I contacted them to say I’d be interested in becoming a governor, they said that sounded great, and now I’m chairing that too.  Which means that most of my 29 days of annual leave are spent doing school governance now, and it’s very exciting, but doesn’t leave so much time for other things.

This week, however, I’ve had a week of holiday, because the school where I work closes between Christmas and New Year and sad cases like me who love doing things with data and spreadsheets are forced to take some time off.

My most Christmassy read was this:


which I read about on

I’m often (most times…) disappointed by detective stories, and this is the first collection that has recaptured for me the atmosphere and puzzlement of my discovery of Agatha Christie, aged 11, or that of this present my uncle gave me for Christmas when I was 12:



Christmas present to myself was the time to read Zadie Smith’s Swing Time.


It’s the story of a what it was like to grow up mixed race in the Eighties, and the descriptions of childhood friendships and the insights into family life were astonishing.  I thought it was going to be one of the best books I’d ever read, and was thinking of getting copies for the girls, as an encouragement to actually read books.  Unfortunately, the later scenes just didn’t convince or interest me.  The protagonist spends most of the second half of the book as a PA to a thinly disguised Madonna-like iconic pop star, and it read like a fictionalised Wikipedia entry, with no real insight into what a relationship between a normal person and a star would actually be like.  Which admittedly is a tough call, because not many people actually do possess that insight.

One person who did possess a unique insight into the life of a star from the point of view of a normal person was Carrie Fisher.


I’ve enjoyed all Carrie’s books, but I liked this one best.  I think her combination of wisdom and flippancy reached its zenith in this book, published only a month before she died. It’s amazing that she never lost her wonder at being who she saw as an ordinary person (albeit with famous parents) who was plucked out for such an extraordinary life.  So sad to lose this talented, unassuming person.

Of course we took Science Fiction fan daughter number two to see Rogue One.


It was OK, but I don’t get the number of high ratings.  It’s not comparable with Star Wars VII, which abounded with great characters and humorous references.  I just spent most of the time not understanding what was going on.  The scene with the data tower was pretty cool, just for making data look like the sexy thing that that it is.  And the storyline coming together with the beginning of Star Wars was slightly meaningful, in a science fictiony way.  But overall I was underwhelmed.

Not underwhelmed with Book of Mormon though, which we saw on Boxing Day as our annual London Christmas treat.  This is becoming a bit of a pattern, where I make the girls see an exhibition first (Abstract Expressionists at the Royal Academy) which they usually don’t like, followed by a speedy Christmas shop around Fortnum and Mason’s, and then a show, which they actually want to see.

We had a great pre-show dinner at The Argyll Arms in Oxford Street, and the girls let me take a picture of them together for only about the third time since they were both under ten years old.


Book of Mormon is a story of missionaries plying their wares on a village in Uganda.  It’s a satire on American preconceptions of Africa and a wry look at how people cope with terrible circumstances.  It’s really funny, and the musical talent is incredible (the keyboard player is also the conductor, just don’t understand how that is possible), and unlike Matilda and Billy Elliott, there were no slow bits, the first hour especially went in a flash.  The only weak part was the way the ending was tied up, although it’s probably not possible to think of a satisfactory way of working out what to do with a despotic war lord character, considering that the real world hasn’t been able to in the last few decades/centuries.

The girls and I have been enjoying doing loads of things together recently, not just over Christmas, as I am very aware of Rhiannon going away to University next October.  (Her current preferred offer is Bristol for Maths and Philosophy.)  Since we got back, we’ve had a few film nights, where we settle down with takeaway.

After we’d watched Zootropolis, I asked whether it was even better than Monsters Inc, which is the ultimate test.  Apparently, it wasn’t so, but it was very close.  I can’t understand why it’s not in every top ten list of the year.  It was funny, the characters were buzzy, it had a great mystery story which had me (veteran reader of mysteries) fooled, and I was very surprised by the depth of the satirical take on race relations in the USA.


Also a film that should have been higher up on films of the year was Sing Street.  Coming back to the theme of childhood, this was a laugh out loud film about teenagers in quite a rough area of Dublin forming a band in the eighties.  Again, some really touching insights into a troubled family life, a nostalgic soundtrack, and a very cleverly composed set of original songs of catchy eighties-esque music that the teens could conceivably have written.


And sadly, that is all for Christmas!  I have one more day of holiday and then back to work on Tuesday.  I might be back with a change of direction in the New Year.  Basically, the specification for GCSE English Language has changed and Isabel has to do a new style (harder) exam in June 2017.  One of the things they have to do is write pieces in response to articles of topical interest, in particular styles (eg opinion piece in broadsheet newspaper), and their writing has to be “engaging” and “varied” to get high marks.  Which is going to be a challenging ask for someone who’s only read a newspaper about twice in her life.  I’ve suggested “just write a bit every day/few days” on her blog, and that I will help by modelling this on mine.  Which is also going to be a challenging ask for me.  Watch this space.

comments 7

Review: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

We broke up from school/work last week.

Isabel went to her first big end of term party, in a field (like you do when you live in a semi-rural area).  Middle class teenage girls are so funny when they’re drunk.  (“I’ve done all the recycling!!”)

Rhiannon and I went on a walk across the Downs for a pub lunch, and I stupidly got slightly sunburnt, as I decided not to wear sun cream because I was fed up with having white arms and shoulders.


Apart from this healthy interlude, the last 5 days for me have been pretty much an unending blur of cooking/baking/eating/drinking.  Oh, and getting stuck into the particular pile of the books I’ve accumulated over the year, where I’ve looked at them and thought “that’s a really big book”, and put them on the really big book pile.

It’s been ages since I had a book that I just couldn’t wait to get back to, and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance was it.

It’s the story of two tailors in India, nephew and uncle, who go to work for a woman who is trying to make an independent living as a “middle (wo)man” in the tailoring business, and who is also providing lodgings to a young student.  The story starts during the Partition and runs up to the Hindu-Sikh violence of 1984 (which I remember from the news), although most of it is set in the 1970s.

The story has a broad sweep, examining the violently murderous oppression of the lower castes by the uppers in rural areas, and constructing a detailed portrait of the ways in which people survive the different pressures of living in the city.  The characters come from a variety of backgrounds – from lost riches, from among beggars and slums, from the innocence of the mountains, hauled up from The Untouchables, and the story is admirably constructed from all the elements that go into it.  It’s the pressure of these elements that give the book its irresistible narrative drive – how do people live among all these daily threats to livelihood?  Although at times you could be cynical and say that the book comes across as over constructed, I chose to take it as a touch of magical realism in the tradition of eg the much harder to swallow Salman Rushdie (hated that Haroun book, I have the Satanic Verses to look forward to next.)

I was also intrigued to see how Mistry would sort out what sort of an ending to give the book – a happy ending would seem trite against the background of such poverty and hopelessness, but a sad ending would be a brave thing for an author to inflict on the reader who’d just invested 600 pages of their lives in them.

Hopefully without giving too much away, it was a fitting ending.  It underlined a main theme of the book for me – how to make a reader understand a world that was in all probability totally alien to them, and quite frightening, and possibly easily overwhelming.  Without sentimentalising it, it did give me a glimpse into how people are able to live, and not just to survive, when surrounded by the constant possibilities of death, starvation, mutilation.

(I can’t believe this didn’t win The Booker Prize, which it was shortlisted for.  The winner that year was Last Orders.)



comments 7

Review: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I’ve written something here.  Not sure where all the time has gone, but among other things, I’ve been cooking for dinner parties.  Most recently, a mini-quiche party.  The girls like them for lunch too.  I am really into whizzing things in with the pastry (still can’t believe how much better pastry is when made in a food processor and not a blender).  These Camembert quiches have sun dried tomato mixed into them, and there is dill mixed in with the smoked salmon ones.


This weekend, I helped out on a Duke of Edinburgh’s expedition.  It rained a lot on the first day, but was also sunny, (one of the students spotted a double rainbow! although you can’t see it here)


and I was really lucky to be stationed on a hill with a great view during the sunshine.  It was encouraging to see so many bees and butterflies feasting on all the flowers.




While waiting around for groups to arrive, I managed to read the whole of Richard Flanagan’s 2014 Man Booker Prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  With its heavy going subject matter of the Japanese treatment of Australian prisoners of war in the “Death Railway” camps, I’d been putting off reading this for a while.

It was much easier to get into than I thought it would be, as it begins by looking back on the trauma as something in the past, including also non-war childhood, adolescent and adult based reminiscences of the hero, Dorrigo Evans, and is written in a softly lyrical style.  But then the periods of taking the reader back to the camps become longer, until we are stuck there, just like the prisoners were stuck there.  Strangely, the style retains much of its tenderness, as the relationships between the prisoners, taking care of each other as best they can, even while gravely sick, are described.

We get into many different characters’ heads, and I think this omniscient narrator style suits the book’s subject matter and aims.  Without wishing to take anything away from this novel’s achievements, I think it is a novel that doesn’t have any great artistic aim, but which passionately wishes to preserve in its readers’ minds the sufferings and endurance of the men, and how it affected them in the years afterwards in ways that could never be extricated or healed.

This portrait was made deeper by the inclusion of the same portraits of the Japanese and Korean camp guards, illustrating the effects of the systematic brutalisation of the Japanese war machine, and I found the political points observed regarding what was ignored and what was condemned afterwards by the victors very illuminating.

One of the Australian characters, Rabbit Hendricks, captures the conditions in the camp in secret drawings, which are saved and later published as a book, and I feel that the novel has many parallels with this.  There’s nothing groundbreaking about any of the plot or narrative devices used, and indeed, many of them verge dangerously on the hackneyed.  One of the, the one with Dorrigo’s brother Tom, actually goes well over the top, and the novel could have done without it, but overall, it just about stays within the boundaries of OK-ness. The point is not cleverness, or newness, but that these men experienced a scarring we can’t even imagine, and we should understand and remember the whys of the happenings and the whys of the afterwards, always.



comments 10

Books for our times: From The Da Vinci Code to The Year of the Runaways…

Twelve years ago, my husband had just died, and I was having a lot of difficulty sleeping.  For my birthday, someone gave me a copy of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.  They didn’t know anything about it, just that it might involve maths/code and so I might like it.

I really loved it!  I was totally immersed in its urgency and it made me forget about everything going on around me.  I stayed up till about three in the morning so I could finish it (there wasn’t much point trying to sleep anyway.)  I remember being awestruck by the fact that the main characters seemed to be awake for about seventy-two hours solid, as every time they found somewhere they thought they were safe, they had to run away again.

It was only later that I realised the disdain with which the book is regarded 🙂 In particular, I read a review which said that a much better read on a similar subject, the secret life of the Templars, was Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, so when someone suggested that we read this for our next book group read, I said I would definitely go for that.

I actually did prefer The Da Vinci Code over Foucault’s Pendulum.  For a start, Foucault’s Pendulum is huge, and it wasn’t a good start when members of the group had to go down to the Post Office depot to pick up their orders because they were too large to fit into people’s letter boxes.

I was also surprised by how hilariously dated Foucault’s Pendulum was.  It was like watching an Eighties computer hacking-crossed-with-horror film.  Near the beginning of the book, there’s a scene in which the hero has about ten thousand attempts at guessing the password for a computer belonging to his friend, in times that were clearly set before the rules for setting up a strong password became commonplace knowledge.  Near the end, there is a scene where some people get eaten by a blob.  At least I think that is what happens.  It gets very confusing.  The hero becomes very confused as to what is real and what is fantasy and spends a lot of the latter stages of the novel with a headache induced by the twists of what he has discovered or not discovered.  I empathised with this in a way similar to my identification with sleeplessness in The Da Vinci Code.

The Da Vinci Code could almost have been made-to-measure for the nineties consumer, who were being treated to fast developing adventure and special effects driven films in the cinema.  Both I think were products of their time in terms of subject matter too, as well as aesthetic approach.  I found it difficult to care about the worldwide conspiracy theory that underpinned Foucault’s Pendulum; such themes seem now to be the domain of the crackpot in the street.  Likewise, The Da Vinci Code also holds fast to the tenet of the conspiracy, albeit in a less arcane and more immediately compelling way; I am not sure I can think of or imagine conspiracy forming the backbone of a major modern novel in a way that it did in FP and TDVC.  Am I wrong to conjecture that we are more cynical people now and we tend not to believe in things that are not material and individualistic?

Our most recent book group discussion culminated in our first ever unanimous agreement in twelve meetings that we had all enjoyed the book, which was Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, about the Biafran War.  At my other, work, book group, someone asked what novels I would give ten out of ten to, as I had just done that with Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.  I could only remember 100 Years of Solitude, and I’d forgotten Half of a Yellow Sun, which is my other ten out of ten read.

So Americanah, Adichie’s next novel after HoaYS, had so much to live up to.  The subject matter is very different.  It’s a study of racism in North America, as seen through the eyes of Nigerian immigrant Ifemelu.  We see Ifemelu’s early life in Nigeria, where things could be a struggle financially, and her contrasting life as she works her way up the ladder in America, which is an experience not only financially difficult but socially so as well.

The novel is good, in a much more subtle way than HoaYS – there would have been little point in trying to write something that would better it on the same terms.  Taken together, I think the two books show what makes Adichie such a great writer, that she can get so meaningfully into the lives of so many different types of people.

Ifemelu’s boyfriend’s mother is a lecturer in Nigeria, and refers to Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter as being a great book, which incidentally I had just read a post about here: it seems that George Orwell didn’t like it.  Such a polarising book, of course, had to be investigated, especially as another recent strand in my reading is novels from the post-war era – Waugh, Mitford, Greene, et al, and I will include Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour in that list, even though it wasn’t published until 1981.  Someone asked me whether I read all the words in novels, since I get through so many, and it depends on the book.  For example, reading all the words was never going to be key to my appreciation or otherwise of Foucault’s Pendulum, as the whole novel basically boiled down to: Man hiding in museum – Flashback to man with his student-type friends – some conspiracy stuff with the history of the Templars – some investigations performed by the student-type friends – some dangerous pursuit-type activities between Templars and students – The End.

But I really enjoy the way that you generally have to read all the words in the post-war novels, where there is so much unsaid that you have to pick up from the construction of the sentences.  It’s almost like the difference between a time when paper was more expensive and more had to be said in a shorter space, as opposed to our times now when I often feel that the meaning of a book has been diluted down with too many words because publishers think that it will make for a thicker book that buyers will think of as better value for money.

I have to say that The Heart of the Matter was a very uncomfortable read in places, as the setting, an unnamed African colony, was so miserable and grim.  Nobody would be there by choice, so they were either there because they had to be, or because they had some chronic personal issues that caused them to choose to be miserable.  And then every so often, this hot, sweating fug of misery would be torn through by a really clear piercing image of the true awfulness of existence.  It was very memorable, if not exactly enjoyable.

Good Behaviour was my last example of enjoying reading every single word in a book, but that’s before I started The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sahota.   It’s not often that I read like I did when I was a child, with a compulsion to find out what happens to the characters, and with an enjoyment of learning about the world from their point of view, but I felt that very strongly.  The book is about three immigrants, legal and illegal, from India, and a British born young Sikh woman.  I thought the plotting was very well done, with all the characters’ motivations, which were often less than straightforward, well explored and then used to make them run into each other with dramatic results.  The ending was a little bit weak, however, and the writing style was adequate, if not inspirational, so this is not going to be another ten out of ten book – I’m still on the lookout if anyone has any suggestions!


comments 9

Review: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

It’s been ages since I posted.  I’ve been busy working, reading, writing and doing a bundle of school governance related tasks.

I’ve slightly lost count of who all my reading recommendations have come from, which is a shame, as I’d like to thank whoever thought that I would love A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson, because I did!

I wasn’t mad about Atkinson’s Life After Life, which I found a bit emotionally detached due to all the different possible lives its heroine, Ursula led – I didn’t have a sense of her as one distinct character.

I thought that the descriptions of the war were the best part of Life after Life.  A God in Ruins follows the story of Teddy, Ursula’s brother, in a more conventional narrative: what happens to him in the war, and subsequently, through marriage, parenthood, grandparenthood and old age.

Again, I felt a little frustrated at a certain emotional evasiveness, especially in the context of the war writing.  I’m not that experienced a reader of war writing, but of the books I’ve read, I’d say that Atkinson rates as one of the best, if not the best, at capturing the pathos of both war and death. (War and Peace, yes I know, it’s arrived and is sitting staring at me from the bookcase, all 900 tiny fonted pages of it.  We’ll see how it compares.)

By contrast, the strained relationships of the family members during peacetime seemed a little petty, and some of the characters, such as Teddy’s daughter Viola, were almost completely unsympathetic.

The other thing that Atkinson definitely does better than any other author I know is to convey the sense and wonderment of “What if…?” When I read Behind the Scenes at the Museum, I was totally blown away by the way she described all the things the characters  would never know about each other, heartbreaking juxtapositions of connections that would never be made.

Yet as I counted down the pages to the end of them book, I could feel myself appreciating these, thinking they were good, but feeling it still wasn’t quite enough…

… until I got to the end and everything came together and it was amazing.  I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before.

I am going to go and do some more governor stuff, and finish laminating my pain au chocolat now.  I have tried these twice and am still trying to get them right.  Am mainly having problems with the butter leaking out and losing the layers.  The latest theory I have read is not to prove the dough before layering, and make sure the butter is not too hard, that way it won’t burst through.

We shall see…





comments 9

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Something that didn’t seem to exist when I did GCSE and A-level English Lit, is the “compare and contrast” question.  This currently seems to form a staple of my children’s essay writing experience, ie taking two authors/books with a tenuous link and sitting there stumped for hours working out how to segue them into one seamless commentary.

I thought about this over the last two weeks, when I found myself reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami and then A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

Both were very long books (not unusual in publishing these days), and both had scenes in that I found too horrific to read to the end (quite unusual for me).

I can see why A Little Life divided critics.  It’s the story of 4 friends, from college age to middle age, focusing on one character in particular, Jude St Francis.

The opening is a bit slow; the four friends start out rather devoid of individual characteristics, and it is only slowly that we learn that Willem has a brother who died in childhood, and that something awful has happened to Jude in the past, from his physical and mental scars.

Once it gets going, the tension as Jude’s story is skilfully handled.  The slow revelations of his back story are almost unbearable.  Also, the story moves to focus on Jude’s struggle to live a normal life, and the extent to which his refusal to completely do so affect those who love him.

When I was fourteen, I read Deborah Moggach’s Porky, about a girl who is sexually abused by her father, and the terrible consequences it has on her ability to form intimate relationships as an adult.  I remember thinking, “Why is she behaving like that?  Why can’t she just do X?  Everything would be OK if she did that.”

I imagine that says something about one’s perception of how easy it is to change when one is young.  Would it have been easier for me to change myself at that age, or did I just think it would be, because I hadn’t experienced the difficulty of trying to break habits?

So I would disagree with what The New Statesman had to say about A Little Life, which was:

“Although it is not the job of fiction to educate, it is odd to foreground such extreme subject matter without wanting to say something new about it. And it is odd to read such an in-depth treatment of it and come away thinking: well, yeah, obviously.”


There was amazing tension in the question of whether those who loved Jude would ultimately be able to accept him, and as well as being more moved by the depiction of Jude’s abuse than almost any other book I have read, I was also moved by the struggles of those around Jude when they realised that they could not heal him as they thought he deserved to be healed.  I would say that this, in an age where every television programme is either written or edited to portray a positive “journey” counts as “something new,” or at least as a timely reminder.

I did, however, find two things about A Little Life very frustrating.  Firstly, it was unnecessarily long, with people meandering around doing utterly banal everyday things.  There was also too much repetitive and interminable piledriving home about what various people were thinking and feeling.

Also, after the big reveal about the culmination of Jude’s backstory, which ironically I couldn’t read, I rather lost interest in the book.   There was a noticeable lack of the character development you would expect to occur naturalistically over thirty odd years of the characters’ lives.  More fundamentally, I do like a traditional end to a story ie for all the decisions a character has made over their destiny to lead to a revelation, which is not the same as a solution or a healing, about themselves.  There was no revelation, and the events seemed to peter out into a series of happenings, leaking direction and purpose as they went.

Thank you to all of you who recommended Murakami books for me 🙂

Following my underwhelmed reading of Hardboiled Wonderland and The End of the World, I found The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle much more satisfying because of the stronger “real” strand that ran alongside the surreal/fantasy strand.  Again, this was a book that was too long, although its problem was that it took a while to get going rather than going on too long.  It’s the story of Toru Okada, whose wife disappears, and his quest to get her back, which involves him meeting an oddball cast of characters along the way, and his encounters with various dangers and downright unpleasantness.

The straightforward narrative, which strangely had a similar theme to A Little Life, was essentially very simple, but made more mysterious and lyrical by the surreal quest.  I found that this made it a bit of an inside-out story, which, for those of you who know what happens in it, is not an idle comparison.