Not a Good Year for Reading

I’m not sure what I’m doing differently but I seem to be picking a lot of bad books at the minute. I don’t know if I am getting harder to please as I get older. (This does seem to be a genuine problem for some readers. My father in law has been like this for some years and now seems to just read tried and tested authors or books that he already knows.)

For the last few years, I have tried to read different genres more and to expand my reading behaviour. I was stuck in a rut. Now I feel like I have the opposite problem. There is no end of reading choice but a lot of it sounds dreadful.

Following big sellers such as the Hunger Games series and thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, publishers seem to be grabbing at any opportunity to gain the same possible success. Most of these books are dreadful. It is the same in cinema, a proliferation of genre fluff  follows every a big success until eventually the genre is drowned in a sea of mediocrity. It’s making me wary of choosing anything.

Maybe I read too much literary fiction to ever be fully happy reading popular fiction. Maybe I am an intellectual snob. (No maybe about it, some would say.) Undoubtedly this is where my longing for more comes from – more depth, more characterisation, more distinctiveness. Like with watching Indie films and then trying to go back to watching blockbusters, maybe I’ve just spoiled the mainstream for myself.

It’s very easy to wax nostalgic about books and films – “but blockbusters were better when I was young” and so on. Maybe that is true. Or maybe it is just that tastes change and refine and what you like when you are twenty is inevitably going to be different when you are forty. Or maybe the search for the next big money spinner is genuinely ruining the  viewing and reading experience.

Belated Response to Germaine Greer’s transphobic comments

You’d think that ‘are you a feminist’ would be an easy question to answer. Enthusiastically, you’d say ‘of course, I believe in equality, don’t you?’ In fact, if asked, I do say yes, not least because it is important to acknowledge all the changes that have brought us to the position we are now in. The women who won votes for us, women who were firsts, who fought for whatever reason. And I do believe in equality. Obviously. Not just for women but for everyone.

And therein lies a problems with feminism. It isn’t inclusive. You’d think that being on the wrong side of prejudice might make feminism open its arms to all women who have suffered. This does not seem to be the case.

A recent example of this was Germaine Greer saying in her usual subtle way that trans women can’t be women. (Does this mean you’re only a real women if you have all the correct body parts. What if you have had a mastectomy? What if you are intersex? What if you happen to look rather boyish? Do you have to prove your female parts before you are allowed to have a voice?)  I do not think that the entirety of my personality – or anyone else’s – resides entirely in their genitals. I do not look at someone else and think I wonder if they have the correct genitalia for the clothes you are wearing. Greer goes on to say that transwomen don’t always look or sound like women. The assumption is then what do women sound or look like. Is she suggesting you have to be suitably feminine to be a feminist? Surely not but clearly there are some rules. Whatever it is she thinks about women and what they are like, it is very narrow and confining.

If you are going to live as a woman, you are going to face female problems, regardless of what body parts you may have beneath your clothing. If you are going to face sexism in any form then you are surely allowed a voice within feminism. Of course, I am not the same as a transwoman, just like I am not a black woman and I am not a lesbian but that doesn’t mean that I think that feminism should be open only to those who are like me. Difference is important, probably more important than sameness.

Transfeminism exists, has its own identity and doesn’t need the likes of Greer to offer support or otherwise. But it would be nice if mainstream feminism – the view that the majority of people get of the movement – would be a bit more supportive. Greer is listened to and has an enviable position in the media. It is a shame she uses this position to be a bully. Maybe it is true that once you have some form of power, you can no longer relate to others who don’t, regardless of what sex you are.


We’re all narcissists now



Okay, apologies in advance, this will probably be a bit of a rant. And it probably won’t be all that original either. But I need to let off steam before I carry on with my editing or I won’t be able to concentrate.

If you were out, in town say, and there was someone you knew stood shouting in the town square “Look at me. Look at me,” you’d probably go and have a serious word with them. But this is perfectly acceptable on social media. In fact the louder you shout, the better. Or at least that is what it feels like. It must be the same impulse that allows people to bully people online that allows them to be so nakedly needy. I’m sure it is all to do with not actually being able to see the people we are talking to that allows both of these dubious behaviours.

My irritation is a permanent side effect of looking at Facebook. And while I know I could just not look, I find it is almost compulsive. Perhaps it allows me to feel superior. After all, here I am blogging about my annoyance – no different really. I wouldn’t do it if I thought no one was going to read it. It is ironic to complain about narcissism by being narcissistic but I feel the need to rid myself of some irritation so I guess I’ll just have to cope with it.

What annoyed me today and prompted this blog is the phenomenon of threatening to leave Facebook or unfriend dozens of people if they don’t interact with you in what you deem to be the proper manner. There will be a big proclamation of how terrible social media is, how they can no longer cope with it or with the people who don’t interact with them (or God forbid, disagree with their opinions). There is then a big outpouring from said friends about how they cannot possibly live without that person’s contributions to social media and the original person then decides to stay. I find it hard to believe that people I know are really that needy. Imagine if you did that in real life. You’d probably end up with no friends whatsoever. I personally do not particularly care if someone decides to cull their friends and decides I am on of the ones that needs to go. So be it. You can’t force some one to be friends with you. Would you really keep pushing on real life if you knew that you didn’t have that much in common with people.

I keep saying in real life and maybe that is why I can’t get to grips with this behaviour. I do not live my life through my keyboard and monitor. There is a gap between Facebook and the real world for me but I guess that isn’t true for everyone. And maybe it’s because I’m not that good at sharing in real life so even the mask of anonymity that a screen gives you is not enough for me to lay everything out for inspection. I don’t really understand but I do know it makes me mad.

Everyone likes to be liked and I suppose that Facebook can give you that in spades. I like it as much as anyone when someone likes my status or this blog post. No one is immune. I would just hope that I could hold on to my sense of decorum and not nakedly plead for someone’s pity or love. I do not want to be that person, standing yelling in the middle of town. That is the image I will keep in my head in case I am tempted to do it.


Why you need to vote



I never understand why people say they won’t vote. It’s not something I have ever really thought of as a choice. It is something you have to do. It’s your responsibility to the country you live in – your responsibility to ensure that the right people are running the country. Or at least to try to ensure it.

There are a number of reasons why I will always vote even though, as a political decision, it gets harder and harder. One of the most important ones is the fact that the vote for women was particularly hard-won and to not use it seems particularly disrespectful to all those women who were treated so badly by the Government at the Unknowntime. It isn’t even one hundred years since women over thirty got the vote. Those women were willing to die in order to gain the vote and people now squander it. There are still plenty of countries around the world where democracy does not exist. We are lucky to have a system which allows us to choose. We should celebrate that, not sit on our laurels complaining.

Of course, I know the system is not perfect and the choice now sometimes feels like no choice at all  – which of these rich white men will i choose – but the only way to change that is to use the one form of power that you have – that is to vote. In real life, I wouldn’t let anyone else speak for me and I won’t do that on polling day either. It is not empowering to not vote or to spoil the paper because the decision about who is going to run the country is going to be made regardless of that sort of toothless protest. In fact, we wouldn’t have been stuck with the coalition for these last years if more people had actually voted last time. After all, in general it is not the Tory voters who are disaffected. They will still vote. So everyone else needs to make sure they stop them from getting in again.

Finally, when we wake up on 8th May and we still have the Tories and some equally hellish version of a coalition, if you have not given your vote, then you cannot complain. In fact, you will only have yourself to blame. Don’t squander what is one of the most important rights that you have, get out there and vote on May 7th.

Judging a book by its cover.

I’ve just started reading In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood and in the first chapter she talks about the way we make judgements about genre from book covers. In the course of this discussion, she mentioned two instances when she felt her own books had covers that did not match their content and gave readers a deceptive impression of what they were about. I think she felt a little sorry for the readers who had bought these books expecting one thing and getting another.

I had been thinking a similar thing a couple of days ago. I’d been in The Works as they had an offer on for 3 books for £5. (Rude not to and all that.) As ever, I’d found two books that I wanted (Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin and Let the Right One in by John Ajvide Lindqvist) but I was struggling to find a third.

I quickly dismissed whole swathes of shelves due to their covers. There were the ones that looked vaguely like Twilight and the ones that looked like 50 Shades of Grey and then shelves full of those pastel shaded chick lit books with curly writing and sketches of skinny women on the front. To be far, I’ve not really read any of these but the sheer femininty oozing from their covers really puts me off.

I wasn’t getting very far and I realised that I was going to have take a closer look. It was then I found a small section of Murial Spark books, decked out in the same pastel covers as the chick lit books. Imagine thinking you were getting some light, modern comedy romance  – so I imagined anyway, maybe these books are deeper than they look –  and getting the darkerness of The Driver’s Seat or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It would be a bit of a shock to the system, I’m sure.

It is interesting that we make these decisions, dismissing or accepting a book before we’ve even picked it off the shelf. I told myself that in the future I would make myself look closer before dismissing things out of hand. In reality, I doubt I’ll keep to it as these processes happen somewhere below conscious thought and so aren’t really controllable. And it would obviously be a time issue if you had to scrutinise everything before making a decision. I guess, I’ll keep judging a book by its cover.

Reading Habits

I was looking for inspiration by looking through old posts and I realised that I had resolved to read more female authors this year. That was after I only read 5 female authors out of 31 books. This seemed a low percentage. Hence the resolution. However, I had forgotten so I haven’t particularly been making an effort. I went straight to Goodreads to see how many I had read.

It wasn’t good. I have read 42 books so far and 5 of them were by female authors. (It’ll be 6 when I’ve finished the current read, The Painted Girls.) So even less than last year. Interestingly, two of those were academic books – The Female Malady by Elaine Showalter and Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. But in terms of fiction, the men are winning hands down.

The question is whether this really means anything. I think of myself as a feminist but does the fact that I read so many male authors mean that I subconsciously think that male writers are better. It isn’t something I really think about when choosing a book – whether the author is male or female. It neither encourages me or the opposite.

Perhaps it is a question of identification. I’ve always been quite tomboyish (if that is still an appropriate term when you are nearly 41.) I’ve probably a lot more in common with the narrator from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity than with Fielding’s Bridget Jones. I don’t really like girly things and the women that I do read – Atwood, Barker, Carter, Atkinson – aren’t really girly either.

Nevertheless, I will try for the last few months of the year to read more female authors. I’ve a Susan Hill I’ve been meaning to read and, of course, the new Atwood will have to be bought. That’s at least another two.

A sense of nostalgia

We’re in the process of a massive, house size, sort out at the minute. We have now lived at our current address for six years and suddenly the house seems as cluttered as the one we left behind despite being twice the size. There are two reasons for this – my inability to stop buying books and my husband’s inability to throw anything away. We cannot afford to move again and there is nowhere to put new shelves so something had to give.

So I’ve given myself of sorting out all the cassette tapes that we still have with aim of putting any that might still be listenable to onto CD via a USB cassette player and throwing away all the others. A stupidly large task but at least with the advantage of listening to some things that I hadn’t heard for ages or even before. (I’m already more than halfway through putting all the vinyl onto the I-Pod and am currently listening to Babble by That Petrol Emotion, well worth a listen if you like noisy indie tunes from the late eighties and last listened in about 1992.)

It was when I discovered a tape from my university days with The Would Be’s on it that I started to feel nostalgic. I used to love this tape. Of course, in time honoured fashion, this was completely warped and unlistenable. And the tape didn’t say whether it was an LP, a series of singles or anything useful. I felt a little depressed given how much listening time I had given this tape albeit twenty odd years ago and my first thought was I’ll never be able to replace this. I doubt you would happen to find it just looking through the shelves at HMV. It’s not as if they were even very famous at the time.

Of course, this just shows how old fashioned I am. Of course, I could just go to I-Tunes and search for them and there it would be. It’s probably on Amazon as well. So that’s good, isn’t it? Progress you know. I could be listening to it again, right this second if I so desired.

But I’m not. And I can’t really explain why but I find the whole ease of finding it a little bit depressing. I want it to be difficult. Everything is so easy, a mere click of the mouse away. Why wait for anything? It was only a few weeks ago that A Field in England was released on all formats simultaneously. A far cry from the months you used to have to wait for a film to come out on video if you missed it at the cinema.

I can’t help feeling that it takes away some of the meaning. Part of liking indie bands and alternative music was that sometimes it was difficult to find but part of your dedication as a fan was looking really hard. Instant gratification seems to build a really short attention span. After all, if you spend weeks looking for something chances are you are going to give it some attention once you have it. But if it appears in a second, how long before your off for your next fix of new and exciting.

Of course, I know that I could just download all the vinyl and cassettes I have from I-Tunes or some such and save myself the mammoth task of converting it all to the I-Pod. It would be quick and it would be easy. But this way I have to listen to it all and while it may take me longer, I am sure it will be infinitely more fun.

Media Panics and the Need to be Sceptical: Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

I’ve always considered myself to be quite a sceptical person. That’s why I started to read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the first place. It was confirmation of things I already thought – the media are responsible for making the public both fearful and hopeful in a completely irresponsible way. It also gave me new tools with which to judge stories, the way statistics are distorted and science misrepresented, for example.

A little while ago, I went to see Goldacre speak about his new book Bad Pharma at The Showroom in Sheffield. It was both enlightening and deeply worrying as he highlighted exactly the ways that the big pharmaceutical companies bury results that don’t suit them and as a result, how doctors may not have all the information that they need to treat a patient. This was disturbing but, I thought, at least there are intelligent and motivated people like Goldacre trying to do something about it.

Seeing Goldacre speak prompted me to return to his writing and I decided to read Bad Science first although I don’t think it will be too long before I read Bad Pharma.

The first chapters in the book are about detoxing and other nonsense that the media seem to love. While it is always great to read someone debunking things quite so eloquently, part of me thought, well, if you are willing to fork out money for ear candles or an aqua detox so be it. A fool and their money and all that. I didn’t have very much sympathy for them.

One of the most interesting chapters was on the placebo effect. Everyone has some idea about what this means but I certainly had no idea how wide reaching it is. even the colour of the tablets or the packaging was important. Not long after this I tried – and failed – to convince my mother that own make, plain packaging pills were just as effective as the more expensive, official brand ones. She wouldn’t believe me or the doctor on the edition of Watchdog that we saw later that evening. It’s her money, I suppose. images

The subject matter gets more serious as the chapters progress. Goldacre looks at nutritional “experts” such as Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford who play on the nation’s insecurities by peddling not just nonsense but expensive pills, gadgets and books. People may be foolish when it comes to dieting and miracle solutions to eating problems  but it is such an emotive issue and it is so caught up with self-esteem that it starts to be easier to sympathise. If someone is described as an expert in their field then why should the public not believe it. After all, most people don’t have the time to check up on these things. They take things at face value.

The final chapters look at how the media creates health panics and then specifically the MMR scare. I have to say, at this point, that I have no children so it is easy for me to look at this issue in an emotionless way and say I’d take the chance of immunisation and possible autism (if there were a link, which there isn’t) over the risk of a measles epidemic. That was my thought all the way through when this was all over the media. It is exactly the emotion of the case that the media have played on here along with the worry of being a bad parent. Imagine the guilt you would feel, they insinuate, if you did this to your child. Now you might say, this is all well and good because the media thought they were doing the right thing. Well, if that was the case it wouldn’t have taken them long to discover the flaws in this research but it is obviously more dramatic to blow a story out of proportion then to discover there isn’t really a story at all.

As Goldacre points out, there was a cry for more research into this area at the time and there has been more research, all of which finds no link. This does not make a good headline so it will probably never be reported so parents are still unable to make a balanced decision. Because even if you are sceptical, the details they still creep in. A part of your brain says well, there must have been something in it.

It is kill or cure and nothing in between is worth reporting on. Or creating  a scare about. And now measles and mumps are returning. Perhaps we will soon be seeing scare stories about that. And the media will probably blame the very research that they used to create the MMR scare in the first place.

In the end, I think the main thing I got from this book, is the need to be always sceptical. There will always be media panics – on health, video games, violent films, too much TV etc. – and they will always sell newspapers. It is down to us as readers to be aware of the tricks they use. Think it through and look beyond what it is saying.

The Fear of God and Rebellion

The Exorcist is not a film that scares me. It may be that as I am not religious I have no real fear of the devil or possession. That is not to suggest that it is a bad film. It is shocking, disturbing, difficult, even powerful, just, for me anyway, not scary.

Part of the problem was the lack of ambiguity. I thought there was no suggestion that Regan’s problem was anything other than possession. It was written on her face and on her body. Again, I think my lack of religious belief lets me down. This was just something I am not capable of believing in.  Last week, I saw the film again. As part of Sheffield’s DocFest, there was a showing of The Fear of God, a documentary about The Exorcist, a Q&A with Mark Kermode and then a showing of The Exorcist. I have to admit that the main draw was Kermode who is always incredibly intelligent about film and who I admire greatly. I have to admit that I’ve always been a little unconvinced by his championing of The Exorcist when I so often agree with his opinions about films.

The documentary was brilliant, not least because it showed how difficult special effects were before CGI and how borderline insane William Friedkin was. It is always fun to open up a film and find out exactly how it was put together. Well worth a watch if you are at all interested in horror.

Kermode was his usual charming and knowledgeable self. He dismissed notions that we are desensitized to violence these days, pointing out that this is a debate that has been running almost as long as the film industry itself. Most interestingly, he explained exactly what parts of the film impressed him even after more than 200 views. (Can you imagine seeing a film that many times? I’ve seen my favourite film, It’s a Wonderful Life 5 times.) I found myself excited by watching The Exorcist and spotting these things myself.

One of the things that Kermode said about the film was that when you watched it for the first time, it was unrelenting but watching it for a second time, you would be able to spot the more subtle effects. I found that hard to believe.

It was 1998 when I first saw The Exorcist and it was a completely jarring experience. It felt like one terrible moment after the other. I read once that one of the reasons The Exorcist was such a difficult watch was that it showed no sympathy for its teenage heroine. I could only agree. It was completely without mercy. Every image was shocking, sickening, utterly painful. I could completely understand people vomiting in the aisles or running into the nearest church.

So I found it hard to imagine that it would be different the second time around. And some scenes where just as difficult even when you knew what to expect. The sight of a teenage girl, plunging a crucifix between her bloody legs will always remain one of the most disturbing scenes I have ever seen. But Kermode was right, I was able to notice other things. For a start, one thing that disturbed me, that I barely remembered from the first time, was the horror of all the invasive processes that the medical profession force on to Regan. It is interesting to note that the problems really seem to come to a head after her father forgets her birthday. No wonder she was so very angry.

It became apparent that you could read this as something other than a religious parable. Regan’s bodily transformation could represent the changes at adolescence. It could be a manifestation of her very real anger. It could also represent the fears that adults have about the younger generation. So it became a much better, more interesting film on second watching. Still not frightening as such but certainly more interesting and more powerful.




A Change in Reading Habits or How I learned to Love my Kindle

Those who read this blog regularly will know that I have been ambivalent – to say the least – about the rise in reading on kindles and the like. And I still prefer reading an actual paper book. Especially a second hand book where you can romantically imagine all the other eyes that have feasted on the very same words. There is no better place, in my mind, than a second hand bookshop. And there is nothing romantic about the kindle.

I’ve had my kindle for about eight months now and it has taken that long to get used to. One of the first things I did was buy a cover for it so that it was a little bit more like holding a book in my hands. Even so, it is different looking at a screen for a length of time rather than a page. Not particularly better or worse, just different.

The kindle has changed my reading habits for the better. Because so many books are so cheap, I have experimented much more and as a result, I have read a lot of new authors – Josh Lanyon, Michael Faber, Charles Todd, Brandon Shire, for example – which I might not have discovered in a book shop.

Also I have read more classics than I would normally. I always say I’m not really a classics fan – and I think the majority of my reading will always be contemporary fiction – but as they are often free, I’m much more willing to take a chance and have read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Forster’s Where Angels Fear To Tread so far this year, all of which were very enjoyable.

(Actually, the kindle can’t take all the credit. I’ve started to use the recommendations on Goodreades when I’m choosing the next book I read on the kindle and this has proved very useful.)

There are still things that I find annoying about the kindle. This nonsense about the percentage that you have read. To me, that is meaningless. I like to know how many pages I have left to read but being up to 79% through a book, that could mean anything depending how long the book actually is. Of course, you can make some judgements by how quickly the percentage changes but it is not the same as moving physically through a book or as being able to work it out with page numbers.

Also, if you want to check something back in the book, that is more difficult as you have to turn past every page you have read so I don’t bother which sometimes leaves me a little confused.

Minor quibbles though. In fact, I’d definitely miss the kindle if I didn’t have it now and it is my constant companion on the journey to and from work on the tram. It might never replace reading actual books – for me anyway – but it is an alternative that I have definitely come to terms with.