What I Read in 2016

Well, ignoring the fact that 2016 saw a chain of events begin to unfurl that is likely to bring about the end of civilisation, the last year was a pretty good one for reading.  It wasn’t a fantastic year for me personally – spending much of it coping first with a bullying manager, and then the fall-out from dealing with that (he has been dealt with!).  Books provided an excellent refuge from all of that.  I also took on a couple of whoppers – War and Peace and Ulysses – which I am rather proud of.  23 of the 41 books I read were written by women – hurray!

I have been keeping my book diary for over ten years now – it’s funny to look at the early entries, where time and space seemed plentiful:

img_4562

Compared to the desperately tight scrawl of fearful middle-age:

img_4563

Anyway, on to the books:

  1. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying – Marie Kondo – I got as far as clothes, and threw out about 8 bags of clothing that didn’t spark joy!  As far as books and knick-knacks go, she can do one!!
  2. SPQR – Mary Beard – Making up for all those Roman History classes that I spent in the pub.
  3. A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson – I nearly didn’t buy this, as I didn’t like the cover (a dead rabbit), but absolutely loved this. It’s linked to another brilliant Atkinson novel: Life After Life, and I recommend both.
  4. Dept. of Speculation – Jenny Offill
  5. A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler
  6. The Complete Eightball Vol.1 – Daniel Clowes
  7. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald – Therese Anne Fowler
  8. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy – I have to admit that reading this was both prompted and aided by the the excellent BBC adaptation.
  9. A Book for Her – Bridget Christie – funny!
  10. Purity – Jonathan Franzen – not my favourite, but still really readable.
  11. The Big Short – Michael Lewis
  12. A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
  13. A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding – Jackie Copleton
  14. The Portable Veblen – Elizabeth McKenzie
  15. Not My Father’s Son: A Family Memoir – Alan Cumming
  16. A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson
  17. The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid
  18. Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits – David Wong
  19. Dancing in the Dark: My Struggle Book 4 – Karl Ove Knausgaard – I’m still working my way through the My Struggle series, and still enjoying them.
  20. Nod – Adrian Barnes
  21. The Life and Death of Sophie Stark – Anna North
  22. My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante – I was curious about the hype, and now I’m hooked – I’ll be reading more of her work in 2017.
  23. The Kindness – Polly Samson
  24. Hotel du Lac – Anita Brookner
  25. Ruby – Cynthia Bond
  26. Slade House – David Mitchell
  27. The Deaths – Mark Lawson
  28. Time and Time Again – Ben Elton
  29. 2666 – Roberto Bolano
  30. American Housewife – Helen Ellis – I’m not a huge fan of short stories, but these were really funny.
  31. The Nest – Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
  32. The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote – Dan Micklethwaite
  33. Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body – Sara Pascoe
  34. Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff
  35. We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson
  36. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary – David Sedaris
  37. The Complete Eightball Vol.2 – Daniel Clowes
  38. Ulysses – James Joyce – This was a bit like reading a novel in a different language and  at times I felt lost.  I’m glad I read this, though, because it’s so radical for its time.
  39. Bonkers: My Life in Laughs – Jennifer Saunders
  40. The Actual One: How I Tried and Failed to Remain Twenty-Something Forever – Isy Suttie
  41. The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney

This year has begun promisingly – just started reading The Essex Serpent.  So, 2017 – any reading recommendations?  Any more whoppers that you think I should try?

What I Read in 2015

2015 was a bumper reading year for me – I managed to clock up 42 books. 18 were written by women, which is a bit disappointing since I had been aiming for at least 50% female authors this year.  In 2015 I learned about Brutalist Architecture, the events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and why you should never read those books that are free to Amazon Prime members.

The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

I enjoyed this, but then when talking to my friend Rob about it I realised that there are too many loose ends.  Without spoiling it too much, it’s frustrating that the character of the Miniaturist is not really explained or explored.

Ayoade on Ayoade – Richard Ayoade

I love Richard Ayoade, and this was funny and WAY better than most books written by comedians.

Concretopia – John Grindrod

concretopia

I was at the Hepworth gallery with my friend Penny, having a browse in the gift shop (in my moronic opinion the best part of any trip to a gallery or museum) and saw this book.  It looked pleasing, so I treated myself – despite knowing that I could buy it online much cheaper (yes, I am like a modern day Mother Theresa – I am awaiting sainthood).  This was so interesting and really changed my perspective on what many people think of as concrete monstrosities.  A few days after finishing this book, I was celebrating my 40th in London and took a walk down to the South Bank and saw the buildings there with fresh eyes.

Under the Paw: Confessions of a Cat Man – Tom Cox

This was a Kindle cheapy – I’d read Tom Cox in The Guardian and enjoyed his columns about living with cats.  I’m not sure it really warrants a whole book.  It’s a bit too fluffy – I got furballs.

The Casual Vacancy – JK Rowling

I finished reading this on the day that the BBC adaptation started.  Both the book and the telly adaptation were good – but quite different.  I normally hate BBC drama, but actually this story of small town politics worked incredibly well. I recommend both.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

I read this because it won a prize.  It’s very well written, but Jaysus it’s grim and depressing.

Santa Land Diaries – David Sedaris

After reading the Eimear McBride I needed mirth, and fast!

My Struggle. Book 1 – Karl Knausgaard

51maejxEQlL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

It felt like every day I would come across someone writing about how brilliant Knausgaard’s huge, multi-part autobiography was, and felt compelled to see for myself.  Yup, it’s good!  Nothing happens – but everything happens!  It’s a work of great skill – writing in such great depth about thoughts and feelings, revealing the parts of himself that authors would normally want to conceal.

How to Build a Girl – Caitlin Moran

We’ve been here before with Moran and, funny as it was, I’m looking forward to reading something different from her soon.

How to Be Both – Ali Smith

This is so clever – much cleverer than me, who hadn’t realised that the Kindle edition has both ‘versions’ of the book back to back and ended up reading Part 1, Part 2, and then a chunk of Part 2 again before realising my mistake.

My Struggle Book 2: A Man in Love – Karl Knausgaard

It’s very hard to explain why I’ve enjoyed reading the Knausgaard autobiographies so much this year – all I can do is heartily recommend them.

The World of Yesterday – Stefan Zweig

I think I picked this up because of a reference to Zweig in The Grand Budapest Hotel’s credits.  This guy led an amazing life – through a turbulent period of European History.  Zweig and his wife committed suicide immediately after posting the manuscript for this work and so the whole thing has an extra layer of poignancy.  I intend to read more Zweig in 2016.

Gods Behaving Badly – Marie Phillips

The blurb for this book sang to me – ancient Greek gods living in the modern world – but the reality was a bit disappointing.  It was quite funny, but (and bear in mind that I spent eight years studying Classics) I felt that so much more could have been done with this.  The end result was a bit trashy.

The Comedy Hotel – Guy Bellamy

‘Oooh now I have Amazon Prime I can read books for free!’.  Yes, there’s a reason these books are here and not in the Kindle Unlimited range, and that’s because they’re shit.  This was dreadful.

Eight Months on Ghazzah St – Hilary Mantel

I needed something substantial and turned to Mantel to blot out the memory of the previous book.  This was fascinating.

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

Over the last few years Sarah Waters has become one of the authors whose new works I look out for. I was really looking forward to this, and was not disappointed.  Once again Waters creates a completely believable period piece with fascinating female characters.  The plot had me gripped.

Monkey’s Uncle – Jenny Diski

This was clever and funny and I’m glad I read it, but I still haven’t warmed to Diski that much.

Funny Girl – Nick Hornby

funny girl

I really enjoyed this – a fictional account of a young woman’s rise from Blackpool beauty queen to sitcom stardom.  It had warmth and humour.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – Claire North

There seem to be a few books around at the moment with a similar theme – living life over and over – and this one was pretty good, but nowhere near as skilled as Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

There was a lot of buzz around this book and while I enjoyed reading it, it wasn’t one of my favourites of the year.  Yeah, a muted response.

Stone Mattresses: Nine Tales – Margaret Atwood

I’m not a huge fan of short stories, but I DO love Atwood, so I thought that (in light of the previous reads being a bit underwhelming) I would give this a go.  Good, quirky, inventive.

Expo 58 – Jonathan Coe

I’m a big fan of Coe and was looking forward to this coming out.  It’s a really good romp.

Lingo: A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe – Gaston Dorren

This was really interesting and led to many of those partner-annoying conversations where you just have to keep reciting interesting facts.  The only problem is that it was quite technical and now I can’t remember ANY of those facts at all!

The Ipcress File – Len Deighton

I was listening to R4 while I was making felt skulls and a programme came on about Deighton.  I was intrigued to learn that the unnamed protagonist (Harry Palmer in the film) was from Burnley!  With a sense of home-town loyalty I decided to read it – despite not being a massive fan of spy fiction.  It was actually pretty good – although I was a bit disappointed that there weren’t any shoot-outs at the Thompson Centre or secret codes hidden in the fountain.

The Emperor Waltz – Philip Hensher

Another author whose work I always keep an eye out for.  I think this book got some fairly negative reviews, but I thought it was fantastic – especially the Bauhaus episodes.  Like Sarah Waters, I think you can see Hensher’s academic background in his work, and he creates really believable historical background and texture.

The Versions of Us – Laura Barnett

Another book which explores lives in a Sliding Doors fashion. It was pretty readable, but nothing to write home about.

Seinlanguage – Jerry Seinfeld

Love Jerry Seinfeld.  This was pretty funny, but if you’ve followed his stand-up you’ll probably have heard a lot of this before.

My Struggle: Book 3 – Karl Knausgaard

Still got a few of these to go!

The Girl With All the Gifts – MR Carey

A neat premise – the zombie-apocalypse from the perspective of the ‘zombie’ (it’s a bit more complicated than that).  It wasn’t especially well-written, but was still a page-turner.

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

I initially resisted this because it felt like everyone and her dog was reading it.  It was pretty enjoyable, with a few twists and turns.

The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion

It’s a testament to Didion’s skills as a writer that she can take us right into the heart of her own grief and pain and make it so exquisite.

Barracuda – Christos Tsiolkas

I didn’t expect to read any more Tsiolkas after abandoning The Slap about fifty pages in.  I still don’t think he’ll be one of my go-to authors – there’s something about his writing style that kind of jars with me – but I did enjoy this.

Let’s Pretend this Never Happened – Jenny Lawson

I really didn’t like this at all – I hate people blogging about what a naïve clutz they are – but all the while they’re clearly doing very well at generating interest in their blog, getting deals, etc.  It just felt a bit disingenuous – like a comic persona that isn’t that comic.  I know a lot of people are fans of her blog, but I think I have different expectations from a book.

1989: The Berlin Wall: My Part in its Downfall – Peter Millar

Loved this!  I realised that I knew very little about what caused the wall to come down – I remember it happening, but it was just an item on the news to me back then.  I think it might have kicked me off on a Cold War phase – I’m looking forward to the new TV series Deutschland ’83, and I’m also looking forward to watching Bridge of Spies.

Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay – William Boyd

sweet caress

Brilliant!  Double brilliant because of the use of found photographs! One of my favourite books of the year.

The Martian – Andy Weir

Everyone was reading it and I thought I’d give it a go.  It’s hardly a great work of literature, but it’s a good story.

A Brief History of Seven Killings – Marlon James

Ooh this was a chewy one – lots of different voices, lots of dialect, lots of grit.  It’s added lots of new insults to my personal dictionary (‘Get off my cardigan you bumbaclart cat!).  It’s worth the effort, and it was a worthy Booker winner.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – Jon Ronson

It’s interesting that Ronson often writes about things that are on the margins of society, but this was about things in which we all (one way or another) participate.  It’s a big, important subject handled with a light touch.

The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro

This popped up in quite a few end of the year lists of people’s favourite books.  From the blurb I wasn’t sure if it would be my cup of tea, but I really enjoyed the dreamy nature of the fantasy.

The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood

Another really enjoyable book from Atwood.  I think she does a really good job of writing about the future without it sounding cringey or false.

The Children Act – Ian McEwen

An economically told story, that’s well-written and has a good complex female protagonist.

Spectacles: A Memoir – Sue Perkins

I’m a big fan of Mel and Sue, and was very pleased to get this memoir from my sister for Christmas.  I don’t think there are huge bombshell surprises in here, but it’s funny.

Undermajordomo Minor – Patrick deWitt

I’d enjoyed The Sisters Brothers by deWitt, so gave this one a go as my last book of the year.  It’s an enjoyable romp.

So, there you have it!  In terms of goals for 2016, I’m aiming to up the number of female authors, read more of the Knausgaard autobiography, and I drunkenly declared (on NYE) that I would finally get around to War and Peace (along with a million other people who have seen the trailer for the BBC adaptation).  I’m always grateful for reading recommendations – what did you enjoy reading last year?

The Books I Read in 2014

2014 was the year of big whopping books – something that it is easy to forget when reading them on a Kindle. My total number of books is down on the previous year (36 in 2014, 42 in 2013). In mitigation, as well as reading whoppers such as The Luminaries and The Goldfinch, I also moved house – but this is where the Kindle really came into its own, as while all my books were (and still are) packed away in boxes, I had a good selection of things to read when I wasn’t stressing out or throwing all of my junk away or trying to make my old house sell-able.

Inspired by Woodsiegirl, whose excellent statistical analysis I discovered last year, here are few stats before I start:

Books by men = 20, Books by women = 16

Books read for first time = 35, Books read in a previous year = 1 (Where’d You Go Bernadette)

Books read on Kindle = 33, Hard copy books read = 3

Tough Shit: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob who Did Good – Kevin Smith

I always feel compelled to read things by KS and to watch his films, despite the fact that he is starting to annoy me a little bit. I didn’t enjoy this very much – although I did really like Red State, which I only got around to watching recently.

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

Everyone raved about this book, and I did really enjoy it and was gripped by the story. I’m not sure how much of it has really stayed with me though. Almost like disposable literary fiction.

Stoner – John Williams

I was SO fashionable in 2014, reading all of the books that everyone else was reading. This falls into the category of good but totally depressing. A man strives and lives and dies. His miserable life is largely the fault of his wife (!).

Kangaroo Dundee – Chris ‘Brolga’ Barns

Brolga

I make no apologies for loving Brolga (a man who has dedicated his life to rescuing little Joeys from the pouches of road kill kangaroos). This book was a very welcome birthday gift. It had lots of photos of cute kangaroos in it 🙂

A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

I did enjoy this at the time, but in some profound (possibly Buddhist) way it has all slipped away from me – as if the words were washed away on the tide.

A Place of Greater Safety – Hilary Mantel

Reading this made me realise that I actually knew very little about the French Revolution. This book was completely terrifying in its imagining of the paranoia and violence that divides and weakens the revolutionaries.

MaddAddam – Margaret Atwood

I think I need to read the whole trilogy again, I found myself getting a bit lost. It was still really good, though.

Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris

After hearing David Sedaris on R4, I decided to read some of his work. He’s quickly become one of my go-to ‘comfort’ authors – he’s like the nice mug of cocoa of authors. And I don’t mean that to be derogatory at all.

An Experiment in Love – Hilary Mantel

This was interesting – the first Mantel novel I have read that is set in a (relatively) contemporary period. It wasn’t one of my favourite books of the year. She’s much better with ye olde folks!

Hello, I Must Be Going – Charlotte Chandler

An account by a woman who spent time with Groucho Marx in the final years of his life. It does give some insight into the man, but I’m not sure it was really necessary to know that stuff. I kept thinking ‘Why am I reading this? I’d be better off watching a Marx Brothers film’.

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

Night-Circus-UK-cover

Yes! One of my favourite books of the year. Magic!

The Circle – Dave Eggers

I enjoyed reading this, and it has repeatedly popped into my brain ever since – especially when my boss texts me and tells me that I have to go and contribute to our company’s social media site so that we are ‘more visible’.

The Long Earth – Terry Pratchett & Steve Baxter

I like the idea behind this – that it is possible to ‘step’ into a parallel world, and that people keep stepping and exploring and colonising these ‘new’ lands. I liked the idea so much that I overcame my aversion to having a Terry Pratchett book on my reading list. It didn’t entirely live up to my expectations, although I appreciate that there are so many ideas that can stem from the basic premise that I would be extremely lucky if it explored the things that I wanted it to. I have the follow-up novels stashed on my Kindle.

Naked – David Sedaris

Argh! I’m moving house and our removal company can’t do the day we need tears hair out and then settles down to a nice cup of Sedaris

Where’d You Go Bernadette – Maria Semple

Argh! I’m moving house and what will we do with the cats while we’re moving?? tears hair out and then settles down to a book that I loved back in 2013

Born Weird – Andrew Kaufman

Not unpleasant, but not really that much to write home about.

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

A big, whopping, prize-winner. Like a nice big bowl of All-Bran; good for you, a little bit chewy, hard work at time, but gives a self-satisfied sense of having done something worthwhile. Doesn’t help with bowel movements, though.

Fatherland – Robert Harris

Fatherland

Still on my quest for good alternate histories, I realised that I couldn’t avoid the old Nazis. Most alternate history writing seems to centre on Nazis and detectives – I decided that I might as well go for the daddy of all Nazi writers and read a Robert Harris novel. There were Nazis (they won the war!) and a detective (hmm perhaps these Nazis aren’t as great as I initially thought). Many thrills ensue.

The Mistress’ Daughter – AM Homes

I like AM Homes, and I enjoyed this autobiographical piece.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon

Another alternate history (Jews are settled in Alaska, a detective solves a mystery). It was a bit dull.

One Summer: America 1927 – Bill Bryson

Bill-Bryson-One-Summer-America-1927-hardback

One of my favourites of the year. Picks a year, then looks at all of the things going on in it.

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K Dick

Alternate history – Nazis, but no detectives.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim – David Sedaris

Would you like (vegetarian) marshmallows and squirty cream with that hot chocolate? Yes please!

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage – Haruki Murakami

Questions don’t always get answered in Murakami’s works (or not in a way that I can always detect, anyway) and I was slightly concerned that this book – which centres around a man’s need to know why his childhood friends stopped seeing him – would leave me hanging. Thankfully I got some answers, along with some more questions. To be honest, with Murakami I always enjoy the journey, even if I don’t reach a particular destination.

The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell

I love the variety in Mitchell’s work – he really seems to be able to turn his hand to anything. Previous works have had a mystical/magical element, but this went all-out sci-fi in parts. It was a really enjoyable romp.

Hatchet Job: Love Movies, Hate Critics – Mark Kermode

To be honest, this was something a bit fluffy to read between two longer books. It was ok.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris

I loved the idea – an emotionally closed-off dentist discovers that someone has created a new online identity for him. One of the most enjoyable books I read this year.

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys – Viv Albertine

Viv Albertine

Really interesting from a few different angles – firstly, an articulate memoir of someone who was right in the middle of the London punk scene and, secondly, as an account of a woman striving to succeed in a man’s world. It’s sad that Albertine fought so hard to make a space for herself in the macho punk environment, but then lost herself in love and marriage and babies. Thankfully she found herself again, and there’s definitely an important message (especially for me, on the cusp on 40) about reinventing oneself.

We Were Liars – E Lockhart

I didn’t realise that this was Young Adult fiction until I had finished it. I know a lot of adults like reading it, but I felt a bit tainted. It was a pretty good story, but fairly simple and unchallenging.

Tipping The Velvet – Sarah Waters

I’ve been meaning to read some earlier Waters, after loving The Little Stranger. She’s a very intelligent writer who is able to evoke a really strong sense of the era that she’s depicting. There’s a lot of interesting material here about music hall, Victorian attitudes to sexuality, and the growing union movement. I’m curious now about the TV adaptation of this that was made a few years ago because, on top of all the fascinating historical details, it’s just a really good story.

Yes Please! – Amy Poehler

This was a bit weak. I think Amy Poehler is hilarious, and I enjoyed the way she writes about her background in (and obvious love of) improv, but this book felt like a bit of a dog’s breakfast.

Attention All Shipping – Charlie Connelly

I picked this up at a second-hand book stall. Connelly travels around all of the British shipping areas. A fun read, although at times it felt as if he was having to force a story out of nothing.

Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut

This has been on my to-read list for years. The title has always put me off – like I’m never really in the mood for something with the word ‘Slaughterhouse’ in it. I’m so glad that I did finally pick it up, though.

Us – David Nicholls

It feels like Nicholls is becoming more of a substantial author with each book. I absolutely adored this, and will probably be buying copies of this as presents when it comes out in paperback. It reminded me a little bit of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Even though he’s too old to play the main character, Jim Broadbent was in my head all the way through. That can never be a bad thing.

Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” – Lena Dunham

I’m in two minds about this book. I really admire Dunham – she’s achieved an awful lot, she’s honest, and she’s a great role model in many ways for young women. Perhaps I’m getting old, but she’s SO self-absorbed, and she’s from such a privileged background that I find it hard not to be a little bit annoyed by her. I was slightly perturbed that we share a recurring dream – a much-loved (but in reality long-dead) pet has been forgotten about and is rediscovered in a filthy and uncared-for state. Unlike Dunham, I don’t have a therapist I can call in the middle of the night, so I’m not sure what this means!

Wilson – Daniel Clowes

WILSON_FC_COLORS

My only graphic novel of the year. This was a really moving story, told with great economy.

2015 will see the opening of The Grimshaw Library (i.e. I will finish painting the fabulous wall of shelving that I had built in December) and I will finally be able to unpack my books – many of which have been in boxes since about 2004.  I have absolutely no idea whether I will fill all of the shelving or have some embarrassing empty spaces.  Either way, my self-imposed book buying embargo (because of the house move) was broken on January 4th, with a very nice looking book called Concretopia, about building in post-war Britain.

What books have you enjoyed reading in 2014? What have you got lined up for 2015?

Friends Reunited – Revisiting the 90s via a Box-Set Time Machine

I frequently find myself having those box set conversations – you know the ones where they tell you that Dexter is really worth watching, and you can’t believe that they’ve never seen The Sopranos (but have found the time to watch Dexter – hello!). Everyone is watching Game of Thrones (some people are a bit further behind, which makes everyone talk in rubbish code “Could you believe the one where [winks] pops that dude’s eyeballs out of his head?”). Some people are big on Scandi-crime, others on inexplicably un-funny American animation (Family Guy, The Simpsons). Some people are clearly trying to get their money’s worth out of Netflix or Amazon Prime and will spend an entire game of poker trying to convince you that [insert name of shit comedy] is way better than [insert name of good comedy].

Amidst all of this, I have been revisiting Friends. Back in the year 1994 no-one was watching box sets (unless you count Joey’s icky VHS porn collection), no-one was streaming Breaking Bad on to their phones in the middle of Ross’ (really poor quality) palaeontology classes. In the real world I had just moved away to uni, and Friends saw me right through my degree, my Masters, a year working in a dole office, and right through my PhD. People could be a bit snarky about Friends, even at the time – and in the middle of a box-set conversation here in 2014 they can be downright shocked by the uncoolness of my viewing choices.

You know what? It’s still pretty funny. I’ll admit that coming off the back of watching Seinfeld again, it takes a bit of getting used to the huggyness of it all, but the writing is good and holds up. A few things surprised me this time around, though, and here are my random musings about them:

Porn

Chandler watching video

As Janice would say: Oh. My. God! There’s an awful lot of porn going on. Setting aside my own views about porn, they just seem to talk about it ALL THE TIME. In the early seasons they don’t have the internet, but the guys have boxes of porn stashed away, porn (home-made or otherwise) on VHS seems to pop up fairly frequently. When Chandler buys a laptop (or whatever the hell that large beige box is) it is largely used for watching porn. An episode is dedicated to Chandler and Joey watching non-stop porn that has appeared for free on their TV. Monica is disturbed when she thinks Chandler is getting his rocks off to sharks, rather than porn. Phoebe’s sister is a porn actor for a while. Porn porn porn porn porn.

Perhaps it is because I only have, like, three friends myself – but porn NEVER comes up as a topic of conversation. I’m sure I know plenty of people who like porn (indeed I have a friend who blogs about porn and other films) but it seems to be largely a private activity these days. Is it because porn has moved from the TV to the private screen? I’m sure there’s an A-level Sociology essay in there somewhere.

Technology

Phoebe Phone

Friends covers a huge technological shift in society. It begins when plots could centre around being unable to contact a character, moving into that period where someone rich (Jill Goodacre) might let you use their phone, right up to everyone having a phone and people rarely being out of contact. The internet doesn’t really feature hugely. Towards the end Ross and Chandler proto-frape each other on a Friends Reunited-style website, but that’s as far is goes really (apart from accessing porn). Restaurant and theatre reviews are still eagerly read from newspapers. The answer-machine is king (as it was in Seinfeld). Simpler times.

Modes of Masculinity

Hugging

Urgh that’s such a wanky title – but I can’t think of a better way of phrasing it. Three men – one handsome, confident, stupid, and a big hit with the ladies (whom he treats terribly), another who is funny, devoid of sexual confidence, and (eventually) a loving partner. The third (and more about Ross shortly) is a deluded mummy’s boy who gets the girl in spite of his perceived strengths. Now I’m not making any big statements about any of this (remember these are just random musings) but the thing that hit me this time round was a sort of implicit homophobia that peppers the interactions between the male characters. I think it’s a sign of how far we’ve come as a society that episodes like the one where Ross fires a male nanny because it’s just ‘wrong’ for a man to care for children, stick out like a sore thumb to me now. Ross, Chandler and Joey hug, sometimes snuggle, and even kiss, but the punchline is almost always ‘ewwww DUDE!’. Chandler’s Gay Dad (or is he a Trans Dad or a Drag Dad – oh who cares it’s the 90s and we don’t really distinguish between any of that stuff – it’s all funny) played wonderfully by Kathleen Turner, is the butt of countless jokes and yet I can’t help wondering how much could have been gained if he/she (see, I don’t even know) was delivering the funny rather than being the funny.

I don’t want you to think that I’m being a humourless, pompous arse about all of this. It is, after all, a TV show that ended ten years ago. I am surprised, though, by the things that washed over me 10-20 years ago, and now seem sort of … odd to me now.

Rachel

jennifer_aniston3_180_240

Rachel’s transformation from Long Island princess to career woman is constantly being scuppered by Ross. I’m not going to lie to you, I fucking hate Ross. I think I hated him back then, but I must have let it go. Watching Friends again re-ignited my hatred of him. I reckon it will take about four years to subside. Thankfully there is little chance of David Schwimmer popping up in anything and setting me off again.

Rachel gets her first big career break, and Ross ruins it because he is jealous of Mark, her colleague. His possessive behaviour almost gets her fired. Ross and Rachel break up because she’s working too much and he won’t give her any breathing space. When they split up I say ‘Huzzah’, then they get together again and I’m supposed to be pleased – all the studio audience coo and aww when they kiss. I say ‘Bollocks!’.

They were not on a break.

Ten series in, and things are starting to get wrapped up. Phoebe has Mike and a ‘quirky’ (but let’s face it, entirely conventional) life ahead of her. Monica and Chandler have babies and a house in the suburbs. Joey has, well, a short-lived spin-off sitcom* in his future. Ross gets tenure – despite being the most unconvincing academic I’ve ever heard. Rachel gets an amazing job offer – wow, the journey is complete…except it isn’t. Here’s Ross again – how can he manipulate things so that Rachel stays in New York? He tells her ‘I love you. Stay here’ and she does. That’s her happy ending. I had actually convinced myself, prior to watching the final episode again, that Ross moves to Paris with Rachel and their kid. I think my brain did what my mum used to do when I was a kid and she would edit books on the fly to make them less sexist (Julian always washed the dishes in the versions of The Famous Five that I heard at bedtime). I was so disappointed when Rachel decided to stay to be with Ross. Idiot!

* When posters for the new series ‘Joey’ started popping up around Leeds, someone wrote the words ‘Twat Rascal’ across Matt LeBlanc’s face. Possibly my favourite billboard vandalism of all time.

Obesity

fat monica

It’s kind of funny that fat Monica is probably thinner than about 50% of the American population now. I’ve seen a chap running a British Heart Foundation obesity awareness stall who was fatter than fat Monica.


So, now I’ve finished watching Friends I need a new box-set to watch – anyone got any recommendations? Anything worth a second viewing? Anything new to recommend?

The Books I Read in 2013

Thanks to a last-minute push (otherwise known as being really lazy and not leaving the house for a week) I was able to take my 2013 reading tally up to 42.  As is the case every year, I failed to finish a book on Quantum Physics (I seem to buy a new one every year, but then read ten pages and realise I’m just not getting it).

  1. The 100 Most Pointless Things in the World – Alexander Armstrong & Richard Osman. A Christmas gift of fluff aimed at people like me who LOVE the game show Pointless. It was full of typos, and I tweeted Richard Osman to tell him so!
  2. Filthy English – Peter Silverton.  This book introduced me to the Bosnian curse “I hope your mother farts at a school meeting”. Genius! 
  3. Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel.  It took a few attempts for me to get going with this, especially as I initially got my Cromwells mixed up and was expecting a civil war to happen at some stage.  Once I got past my own stupidity, I loved this book (and the next) and am now eagerly waiting for Mantel to get the third one out.
  4. The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared – Jonas Jonassen.  A great comic fantasy, marred only by the fact that everyone and his dog seemed to be reading it.
  5. Pure – Andrew Miller.  About a man given the task of clearing a Parisian cemetery – I was reading this while undertaking my own Herculean task of removing asbestos from an old folks home, so felt a good bit of empathy.
  6. The Lost Books of the Odyssey – Zachary Mason.  Ooh this was good!  It played on the fragmentary nature of many of our surviving ancient Greek texts, and presented multiple, non-linear versions of episodes from Homer’s Odyssey – some of which were funny, some made me cry.
  7. The Rachel Papers – Martin Amis.  I remember seeing the film of this, many years ago, with Dexter Fletcher, and thought I would give it a go.  It’s a strangely hollow book.
  8. Nelson – Rob Wilson & Woodrow Phoenix (eds.).  A fantastic idea for a graphic novel (born, incidentally, at the Thought Bubble event here in Leeds) in which different artists all visit the same character on the same day in different years of her life.  Loads of different styles, but a moving and coherent whole.
  9. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce.  Another one that everyone was reading in 2013.
  10. Various Pets Alive and Dead – Marina Lewycka.  Purchased as a Mother’s Day gift, then promptly borrowed back.  Fairly fluffy, but still an enjoyable read.  
  11. Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn.  I know, I know – trashy, but really gripping!  Sometimes you need to read something like this.
  12. My Animals and Other Family – Clare Balding.  I realise that at this stage in the reading year (April) my reading choices are a bit Heat, Book of the Week, and I shouldn’t be expecting a call from Newsnight Review any time soon. 
  13. Skios – Michael Frayn.  I really didn’t find this particularly funny.
  14. Lost at Sea – Jon Ronson.  I don’t actually remember an awful lot about this – I think it was a collection of his columns.
  15. The Yips – Nicola Barker.  Michael Frayn should read this, and see what a good farce looks like!
  16. Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel.
  17. Going to Sea in a Sieve – Danny Baker.  Oh Christ, committing all of this to the public domain makes me realise how much trash I’ve read this year! 
  18. The Testament of Jessie Lamb – Jane Rogers.  At this point in the year, I had developed an urge for some kind of speculative/alternative history and began casting about for some reasonable sci-fi.  This didn’t quite hit the mark.
  19. Where’d You Go, Bernadette – Maria Semple.  This book was a JOY! Best thing I read all year!
  20. The Universe vs Alex Woods – Gavin Extence.  I hate it when you read a fantastic book and then you have to read something else, and no matter how good it was, this just wasn’t Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
  21. This Book Will Save Your Life – AM Homes.  Even though the plot is pretty static, I really like Homes’ style.
  22. May We Be Forgiven – AM Homes.  So I read another of her books! 
  23. Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter – Carmen Aguirre.  This was fascinating – and a useful reminder of just how appalling it was that Pinochet was allowed to waltz around the UK despite being a brutal mass murderer.
  24. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom – Corey Doctorow.  Another quest for interesting sci-fi.  This was better.
  25. Big Brother – Lionel Shriver.  It was good until the last few pages, and then I felt quite cross. 
  26. Before I Go to Sleep – SJ Watson.  Gripping, but insubstantial.
  27. The President’s Hat – Antoine Laurain.  I really liked this gentle little book – a tale of Mitterand’s hat, and the power it bestows upon those who wear it.
  28. Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen.  By August I was completely floundering, and went back to an old favourite!
  29. The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde.  So, 2013 was not a high-brow reading year for me – of that we can be certain – but I was looking for something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I wanted fantasy, but not aliens or brutal technology; I wanted a different world with different ideas.  Jasper Fforde came up in a search for ‘alternate history’ and while it didn’t quite tick all of the boxes, it was funny and clever enough to keep me entertained.
  30. Lost in a Good Book – Jasper Fforde.
  31. The Well of Lost Plots – Jasper Fforde.
  32.  The Years of Rice and Salt – Kim Stanley Robinson.  Aha!  Alternate history and then some!; what if the plague had wiped out most of Europe?  An epic exploration of a world where China and the Middle East dominate world history.  Really interesting.
  33. Camp David – David Walliams.  He came across as a bit of a nasty bitch!
  34. Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail – Cheryl Strayed.  A woman who is really lost in her life undertakes a mahoosive hike with ill-fitting shoes.
  35. When We Were Bad – Charlotte Mendelson.  
  36.  The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver.  This was fantastic.
  37. Joseph Anton: A Memoir – Salman Rushdie.  I had really been looking forward to reading this – the fatwa against Rushdie was almost a backdrop to my teens. If this was fiction, you would praise the creation of an unreliable narrator, unable to see his own flaws and weaknesses.  As it is, Rushdie the man (despite the obvious injustice of his situation) comes across as particularly unlikeable.
  38. Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy – Helen Fielding.  This has received enough of a critical mauling everywhere else for me to waste much time sticking the boot in, but oh the disappointment!
  39.  Life After Life – Kate Atkinson. Loved it! Clever alternate histories (futures?) of one woman’s life, with really painfully moving writing about life in the Blitz.
  40. The Fifth Child – Doris Lessing.  After Lessing’s death I realised I had never read any of her work, so started (at random) here.  I will be reading more in 2014.
  41. A Hologram for the King – Dave Eggers.  It felt like a modern parable, and my brain hasn’t quite processed what it’s saying to me yet.
  42. Autobiography – Morrissey.  As someone who’s been a vegetarian for 35+ years, this memoir made me resolve to get tickets to a Morrissey gig and throw sausages at him.  It’s like the Rushdie autobiography in the sense that I don’t think Morrissey realises (or cares) that there is subtext running through his words that he is too much of an arse to see.  The long section about the injustice of his legal wranglings is particularly dull.

So that was my 2013 in books.  Feel free to make recommendations for what I should be reading over the coming months!

The Great Pouffe War of 2013

The Years of Peace

From 2006 until early 2012 relations between the cats George and Wilson were amicable.  Territory was clearly defined (George had control of the bed, Wilson the sofa) with a shared corridor on the landing.  Occasional territorial infractions were tolerated, with the formation of power-sharing executives affording the residents of the house peace and tranquility.

Image

The entente cordiale of 2010

Image

Grainy footage captured during the last bed truce circa 2009

Despite the occasional skirmish over who would be allowed to eat a moth, the relationship between these two powerful brothers was good.

2012 – Casus Belli (or Vicki goes to Home Sense and inadvertently starts a war) 

A pouffe seemed like a good idea – a handy extra seat for visitors, or a comfy foot rest, perhaps even one of the cats would find it a nice comfy spot for a snooze.  It is only looking back on these small decisions that one realises the gravity of one’s actions.  I now see that the purchasing a rather fetching Indian pouffe (at a great Home Sense bargain price) was a provocation on a par with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand or the annexation of Poland.

The movement from peace to war was insidious; the pouffe was initially treated with suspicion – indeed both cats worked together in an alliance of destruction.  Pretty tassels were chewed off, and the sides were given an occasional scratch.  Wilson was the first to occupy the new territory:

Image

February 2012 – the slow march to war.

But it was only minutes after this first photograph was taken that George decided to commit a provocative act, while his brother was off having a wee:

Image

Looking at his expression, George knew that this was no mere sit down.

The War Zone

Now, many months after these early manoeuvres, the pouffe has become the greatest source of conflict that our formerly peaceful house has ever seen.  Attacks on the pouffe-occupant are often swift and merciless; Wilson prefers the use of chemical weapons – climbing over his brother and shoving his badly-washed bottom in his face, until the smaller cat can take it no longer.  George’s strategy, I am ashamed to say, involves mounting his brother and performing acts that have been denounced globally, while making strange purring noises.

Peacekeeping attempts have failed, largely due to confusion over who exactly has the right to the pouffe.  Mum-rules have been brought into play (‘If you can’t be nice, then NEITHER of you will sit on it’), but it is a well-known fact that cats largely disregard such regulation.

The Road to Peace

Talks were initially held regarding the purchase of a second pouffe, but broke down after it was realised that the house is already littered with items purchased specifically for the cats which are never used.  Cats will not use something if it has been bought for them.  This becomes truer in relation to the amount of money spent on the item.

An attempt to elevate the status of an armchair into the next ‘happening’ place to nap, with a blanket and selection of cushions is, at present, failing to ease tensions.  The arrival of winter, however, may provide temporary respite, with new territories opening up on the back of the sofa (beside a radiator) and at the entrance to the spare bedroom (immediately above a hot water pipe) which are reducing the amount of pouffe-related violence already.

Given the British weather, this means that I have until May-June 2014 before the heating will be turned off again and the conflict will resurface. Talks will be ongoing over the winter months, and let us hope and pray that 2014 will be a year of amicable pouffe sharing.

It’s Your Funeral

Three funerals, three common denominators:

  1. My Grandma’s funeral.  She was an atheist and wanted her funeral to reflect her socialist values.  My Grandma’s cousin, a Humanist, was to conduct the ceremony.  UNTIL … a religious bit of the family decided to participate by having my cousin’s husband, a pastor, take part of the ceremony and say lots of prayers and talk about how she would be reunited in heaven with lost relatives.
  2. My friend’s dad’s funeral.  He was a bit religious, but had lots of other hobbies and interests.  His neighbour, a minister, made the whole ceremony intensely religious and there was lots of talk about how he had grappled with his religion towards the end.
  3. My partner’s auntie’s funeral.  An atheist, but someone had found a bible in the drawer of the hospice where she died, with passages marked out.  This passage was read out and the Lord’s Prayer was recited. (Don’t Gideons leave bibles in drawers in every hospice room?).

If you believe in a god or gods, then you can make sure that they are appeased in any way you see fit at your funeral, but why on earth do Christians seem intent in shoehorning religion into everyone else’s last hurrah?  At funeral #3 I turned to my partner and whispered “I’m going to have to get a tattoo that says ‘No religious funeral'”.  Even better, I’m going to make sure that I have a will which specifies this emphatically.

Yes, funerals are for the living, and while I’m lying in a box what do I care about what happens next?  But I see a funeral as the last statement that you make before you slowly disappear from the memories of those who loved you and knew you.  I would hate for that statement to be hijacked by someone else’s belief system – particularly when it’s one that I have been so contemptuous about in life.  If you believe in gods or pixies or ‘energy’ or whatever, fine; you might attend the funeral of an atheist and believe that the soul/spirit/pixie juice/’energy’ of that person is still going.  Fantastic.  That might be less depressing than thinking about a corpse being burnt or rotting in the ground, but it’s YOUR belief, not mine, so at my funeral sit and think about that silently. I attended a Baptist funeral and didn’t tell anyone that they were wrong or insane or a wee bit creepy – I kept my mouth shut and silently fantasised about the death of religion.

A slight digression, but my refusal to pretend to pray actually got me banned from school assemblies as a youngster – the teacher stopped, mid-prayer, and pointed out to the whole school that I was the only person not joining in.  My response (age 8) was “I am an atheist and an anarchist and I will not pray”.  This personal moment of triumph was swiftly followed by a slap.  An ugly scene, in response to an eight year old girl sitting quietly in a non-religious school!

In a maudlin conversation, we might talk about what music we would like to have played at our funerals.  Often, though, the end is such a big emotional mess that this stuff isn’t really communicated.  It is, after all, pretty trivial stuff.  Grieving relatives try to pick something appropriate but do you really want that 80s soft rock playing as everyone files out past your coffin saying their last farewells?

The moral of this story?  Make it clear what you want.  Make it so that it would be an embarrassing and flagrant breach of your wishes to do anything off-script.  Be a nice person, so that no-one is tempted to subvert your wishes because you were a horrid old battle-axe of an aunt, who gave rubbish birthday presents, and smelled of hummus “I hated her – she’s going Catholic-style”.