Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Year in Books: December 'Us' by David Nicholls

I've been neglecting the blog recently: it's three weeks since my last post.  I've been trying to think why as I'm not really any busier than usual.  Mainly it's because I've been hibernating!  I sleep much more when it's dark or even if I don't sleep I spend more time in bed as it's too cold to get up.  This is a good thing, I suppose, as I generally feel less stressed and grumpy after a good night's sleep, but I do miss the long quiet weekend mornings I get in summer when I wake at 6am and can blog undisturbed by the rest of the family.  But I'm up earlyish this morning and joining again with Laura at Circle of Pine Trees for the Year in Books, my favourite link up.

My November read was the Booker nominated 'Us' by David Nicholls, pictured above.  I had high hopes for this novel, having enjoyed 'One Day' a lot.  Reviews were good and the subject matter appealed to me as he was writing about the marriage a couple in their 50's with one teenage child.  Now I am not so narrow in my reading habits to simply want to read about people like me but, even so, the similarity to my own family situation did appeal.  I'd expected, and hoped for, a book which explored the complexity of a long term relationship from both sides.  Unfortunately I was disappointed, as it really doesn't do this at all.

'Us' is written from the perspective of Douglas Petersen whose wife announces in that she thinks their marriage has run its course and she intends to leave him when their son goes off to university.  He desperately wants to keep her and plans a long road trip to Europe for the family, a kind of Grand Tour, visiting key works of art in major cities, in the hope of saving their marriage.  Douglas is socially awkward and introverted whereas Connie is his opposite: attractive, amusing and extrovert, only marrying him in the first place because she needed more stability than her previous partner had offered.  Douglas also feels a little jealous of his wife's close relationship with their son, Albie.  He has a rather troubled relationship with his son and the book is as much about this as it is about the marriage.  Douglas tries hard as a parent, advising his son and doing the things he thinks he ought to do such as forcing him to eat his greens, doing his maths homework with him and encouraging him build Lego according to the instructions. He doesn't understand his son's distress when he 'helps' by gluing the completed Lego models together.  Albie turns out to be more a of free spirit with artistic leanings like his mother and he falls out spectacularly with his father during the trip, going off travelling with a girl he met busking.  Much of the book tells of Douglas's attempt to find his son and bring him home.

It was all very readable and you cannot help but sympathise for poor Douglas.  I was reminded a little of Harold Fry from Rachel Joyce's book.  My problem with it was that I expected something different.  As a portrait of a marriage in crisis it failed: it was too one-sided.  We don't get to know Connie at all: she seems too perfect and all the 'blame' for the relationship breakdown is heaped on Douglas.  There are much better portrayals of long term relationships in crisis in Ian McEwan's novels. Both 'Enduring Love' and 'The Child in Time'  do this well.   Also it just didn't ring true - Douglas and Connie are just too nice too each other when breaking up.  From what I have seen in observing friends and acquaintances going through divorce, it's rarely 'amicable'.

So for my last book of the year, I'm avoiding the best seller list and going for a book lots of people have recommended, 'A Prayer for Owen Meany' by John Irving.  I hope it's good as recent books I have chosen have failed to meet my expectations.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Bad Grammar

Last night I spent an hour or so reading my favourite blogs on my I-pad, adding the occasional comment, while sleepily watching tv at the same time.  This morning, I noticed that there are quite a few typo and spelling errors in these comments and, in one of them, I have muddled my homophones using 'to' instead of 'too'.  Somewhat ironic, since I spent quite a lot of time on Friday afternoon telling students about the importance of proof-reading their work to avoid errors just like this.

Looking back over my previous blog posts I can see other errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar (or SPaG as the exam boards call it) and am aware that I am setting myself up for criticism. How can I, as an English teacher, publish writing which contains errors?  Shouldn't I be ashamed of myself?  I've been asking myself these questions recently.  Perhaps I shouldn't blog at all, when I don't have time to construct careful sentences or proofread properly.  And I compare myself to other bloggers: two of my favourites write flawlessly, despite having English as an additional language.  Why can't I manage this?

Before half term our Year 10 students, including my daughter, completed something called the Spoken Language Unit for their GCSE.  Their task was to produce an essay in which they analysed examples of their own use of digital communication and considered whether they were similar to spoken language.  This meant collecting examples of their texts, Snapchats or other messages and commenting on them. A pointless, time-wasting activity in my opinion: I am not sorry this particular part of the English Language GCSE has been dumped in the latest rewrite.  However what emerged was quite interesting.  My daughter and her friends use a whole range of techniques to make their 'chats' similar to spoken language:  repeated !!! or ???, capital letters to suggest tone of voice and emojis to suggest gesture and facial expression.  She doesn't worry about sentence punctuation much but does make an effort to use the apostrophe distinguish between words like 'your' and 'you're'.  The important thing for her is communicating and the speed at which she does so astounds me: she can type accurately on the tiny I-phone keypad without looking.

And so, like her,  that's what I've decided to do: focus on communication. So forgive me, dear readers, for the occasional error.  This blog is a record my thoughts and experiences: it is not perfectly crafted prose. Blogger allows me to share these thoughts and experiences with others who can respond, if they wish, just as I can respond to their writing. I love being able to do this.  As E.M Forster said in his preface to Howard's End: 'only connect.'  That's what matters.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

The Year in Books - November: Reading 'Best Sellers'

My October read was this Booker Prize nominated novel, We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.  I noticed yesterday that it is number 3 in the best selling paperback list published in 'The Times'.  In fact quite a few of my recent reads are on there (The Chimp Paradox, The Goldfinch) as well as my November choice Us by David Nicholls.  This has lead me to consider how much I am influenced by marketing in my choice of reading: the book promotions and displays in Chester's only bookshop, Waterstones; the reviews in the papers; the radio interviews; and even the appearances at literary festivals: all of this is marketing.  And even though I know this, I am still easily influenced. It makes me a bit uncomfortable: how will any new writers get on the shelves if booksellers fill them up with these heavily promoted books, often written by those who have already had a best seller? So I am going to make a deliberate effort to avoid such books in the future, basing more of my reading on recommendations like those on this link up The Year in Books by Laura at Circle of Pine Trees.

I quite enjoyed We Are Completely Beside Ourselves which I chose initially because of the intriguing title, though possibly also because of its position in the Waterstone's display.  (I didn't actually buy it from Waterstone's but did my usual library order.  It's usually either that or a Kindle purchase for me so I am guilty, I suppose, of contributing to the demise of independent bookshops and their support of new writers.)  It was another book which was really promising in the first few third, but then lost pace later on.  It's in the first person again, like many books I have read recently, and tells the story of a young woman who is the daughter of psycholgist parents and how the family breaks down because the father chooses to experiment with his own family. There's a major twist which I won't give away, but after that is revealed, I think, the book goes downhill and I felt sometimes that the writer's research was a bit intrusive - more scientific detail than I wanted. Perhaps others like this: I noticed it had a rave review in The Guardian. (Don't read this if you want to discover the twist yourself).

I have started Us, by David Nicholls.  It's about the marriage of a couple in their fifties whose son is about to go off to university and so interests me as I'm not so far from that stage.  But so far it seems depressingly similar to One Day: the main character is a kind of older version of Dexter,  Anyway - will reserve judgement until I read some more.  I have also tracked down the book I referred to in my last post and I have ordered it from the library.  It is 'Happiness by Design' by Paul Dolan.  I'll be reading this too.  And now I am off to rake up leaves in the garden, an activity which makes me happy.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Doing Too Much

Thank you to all those who commented on my previous post.  After a week off school I am now feeling more relaxed and on top of things.  I've been thinking about why I got myself into such a state: it's because I always end up taking on too much,  It's a mistake I make again and again. I agree to do things too easily, without thinking of the consequences for me and the rest of the family.  A recent example was editing our school magazine,  a demanding task which I ended up doing in evenings and at the weekend, snapping at anyone who interrupted me.  It has now been printed and distributed and I am pleased with the results.  But was it worth the collateral damage to my mental health and relationships at home?

This week there's been another example.  In the summer I was offered the opportunity to host a Boden clothes party.  I like Boden clothes - pricey but good quality - and I have bought a few items recently. So when the email arrived, I signed up for it and was offered a date in half term.  I liked the idea of hosting an all female party and trying on the clothes.  Of course, I didn't consider the downside - the huge effort required to set up all the clothes and pack them away again.  Did I enjoy it? Yes - it was lovely seeing my friends and I quite enjoyed transforming our living room into a clothes shop. Yet it really wasn't lot of fun getting up early yesterday morning to pack it all away. My daughter helped - she set up and put away the accessories you can see below.  But, because I was so busy, I got stressed and snappy with her again and angry words were exchanged; too many fluctuating hormones in our house at present.

I read this article in the press recently about happiness. I meant to cut it out and try to get hold of the book it was promoting but the paper got recycled. If anyone knows the book I am talking about, please tell me.  The basic idea was this: you conduct a happiness audit.  Write down all the things you do - work and leisure activities - and how long you spend and then award a score out of 10 for each activity according to how happy it makes you feel. I'm planning to this for the next month.  I hope I will be able to break the 'doing too much' habit and spend more time on what I really enjoy.  Now I am going to stop blogging and go for a walk, one thing that does make me happy - it's a beautiful autumn morning.

PS - Camera playing up. Photos not uploading.  No pics of Boden party pics then.  Am I going to waste precious daylight hours struggling with technology? No  - will walk dog instead. Here's a picture of us on my birthday in July when we found a Gruffalo on a walk in Delamere forest.  He knows how to be happy and doesn't do too much ( the dog, not the Gruffalo.)

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Not Blogging, but...

struggling to cope.  Work demanding; not sleeping well; house a mess and depressing me.  List of things to do seems insurmountable.  Everyone grumpy at home.  And the things I enjoy are getting squeezed out.  This poem in my head a lot:

Not Waving but Drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,   
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought   
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,   
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always   
(Still the dead one lay moaning)   
I was much too far out all my life   
And not waving but drowning.

Half term soon.  Will return when I'm in a more positive frame of mind.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Year in Books: Easy Reading October

I've been on an enforced blogging break recently - busy with work and barely getting to essential household maintenance never mind blogging.  But time this morning for a quick books post, joining in again with Laura at Circle of Pine Trees.

In September, I eventually finished 'The Goldfinch'.  It was hard work in the end and I didn't enjoy the last 300 pages much.  I ceased to care very much for Theo and skipped over the rather complex business of how the painting was found; lost again and then returned for a large reward. There were too many characters; too much violence for my taste; and the aspects of the novel I was enjoying, such as the Theo's relationship with Hobie and Alice, were not really developed.

So my October choices are much lighter, easy reading.  Many other readers who post on The Year in Books have recommended 'The Rosie Project', so I'm now reading it too.  I love it and am already nearly half way through.  Don is utterly charming and a much more pleasant companion than Theo (Is it just me who considers characters in books in this way - especially when there is a first person narrator?)  But I am a little uncomfortable with the humour in this book.  Should we be laughing at the results of Don's social blunders because of his Asperger's Syndrome?  My experience of teaching children with Asperger's suggests that their lives are much more challenging than this.  My other September read was 'The Reason I Jump', which was written by a Japanese boy and translated by David Mitchell, gives a better insight into autistic spectrum brains.

I have also borrowed from the library 'How to Build a Girl' by Caitlin Moran which I'm looking forward to - I love her writing.  And I have reserved  'We are all Completely Beside Ourselves' by Karen Joy Fowler . I know nothing at all about this book but the title is intriguing.

Nothing too demanding then: I'm beginning to wonder if my capacity to cope with more serious intellectual books is declining and that is why I didn't like 'The Goldfinch while others loved it.

Saturday, 20 September 2014


After a very relaxed summer, I am now up to my eyes in school work and have little time to myself to write my blog or comment on others. So forgive me if I go a bit quiet for a while.  That's the problem with teaching - yes you have long holidays but it's full on in term time: I am working evenings and weekends even though officially I only teach half a timetable.  And you can't really get ahead in the holidays - you can design 'schemes of work' but I find rigid planning in advance doesn't work and you can't mark writing until they have done it!  I know, whinging teacher... Despite this I am enjoying the new term, getting to know new classes and new routine.  I spend quite a lot of time driving back and forward from my school which is 3 miles away and not accessible by public transport as I also need to drop off and pick up my daughter and  go home to walk the dog at some stage when I have a full day.

Do have a little oasis of calm mid week. I don't work on Wednesday mornings and this week it was a gloriously sunny warm day so I took the dog for a long walk with my neighbour.  We explored a new park which has been created in unused land between the local hospital and the canal.  Access isn't that easy from our village: we had to walk down a narrow footpath by the side of a busy main route into Chester.  But when we left the road it was wonderfully peaceful there even though it is so close to the main road.

Another highlight this week was a school trip to see NT Live production of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' at the local Vue cinema.  It was a fabulous production with Gillian Anderson very convincing as Blanche. I always identify a bit with Blanche as she is like me an English teacher with rather fanciful romantic ideas about things, though I certainly don't chase after young men like she does or drink quite as much.

I did manage to stop and stare occasionally this week - at the butterflies and bees all over the ivy in the garden.  Glad I haven't bothered to get rid of it if it attracts them.