Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! – Various Authors

It was an interesting book, and while some of the essays were so-so, some of the essays were really inspirational and made me reconsider what reading is all about. There are contributions from authors (Zadie Smith, Mark Haddon, Jeanette Winterson, Michael Rosen and Blake Morrison), publishers (Carmen Callil, who set up Virago), non-fiction writers (Nicholas Carr and Tim Parks), psychologists (Dr Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzillai), and charity founder Dr Jane Davis MBE, Director of The Reader Organisation.

However, I can’t help but feel that it’s preaching to the converted; I wonder if anyone who doesn’t like reading would ever pick it up. I’ve done a full review on it at our book blog, here, including more about my favourite essays in it.

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Female Chauvinist Pigs – Ariel Levy

I loved this book. I first heard about it from Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency videos, and it seemed to be well-known in feminist circles, so I thought I’d try it.

Most of it was inspiring. Every time she smacked down some self-righteous commenter on women, it was so satisfying. Sometimes it’s easy to think “Well, maybe I am just a prude to be offended by Playboy and Anne Summers and fake plastic sexiness being shoved in my face all the time”, but reading this made me resolute in my convictions and reassured me that it isn’t just me. In fact, it even offers compelling evidence about why nobody wants to argue against raunch culture: it’s because to question it at all is to be a prude, to be ugly, with no sense of humour and no sense of fun. It is the reason it’s so hard to argue against lads’ mag style BANTER – as I’ve just been reading in Gender and the Media, “discourses of laddism and sexism together with feminism and equality are purposely reconciled to rebut critique” (215). Irony means never having to say you’re sorry.

I found the middle a bit confusing, as Levy introduces a lot of different factions of the gay subculture in America that I didn’t know about, and I’ve found the same views echoed in other reviews. I’m not sure whether this was because Levy was not so knowledgeable about this subject, or because it is so unknown to me that I had to learn a lot as I was reading through, but the ending was really hard-hitting and inspiring. I lent this book to a friend who loved it as well and we spent a whole afternoon talking about it and all the issues it brought up. I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone.

The Happy Prince and Other Tales – Oscar Wilde

I found this book in a charity shop in Edinburgh (children’s books are always a good find in a charity shop because they tend to be even cheaper than the adult books), and as I started reading it I realised that I’d read a couple of the stories before. When I was younger I had a large hardback book full of illustrated extracts of children’s stories. One of them was an amazing illustrated version of The Happy Prince and The Remarkable Rocket. The stories are of course full of Wildean wit. Some of them are pretty brutal, such as the last paragraph in the ending of The Star Child. In some of them, such as The Selfish Giant, he seems to use the language of the King James Bible. Many of the stories are satirical, with a humour that children would understand – for example, the water rat in The Devoted Friend who thinks he’s a literary critic and storms off when he is informed that the story has a moral. I think that adults and children alike would love these stories.

Job Hunting 3.0 – Richard Maun

So it’s a shameful amount of time since I updated about reading anything. I think it’s because there are so many books I want to read that I’ve been starting lots of them and ending up halfway through 5 books, without having finished any of them.

The story behind this one is that my dad got fed up of me moaning about jobs every single time I phoned home, and I woke up to a parcel from Amazon with this in, and another book called How to Get a Job You’ll Love. So I plodded through it, and it was alright. It does have the usual annoyingly friendly tone of voice and unfunny jokes that I’ve come to expect from jobs books.

Sad as it is to admit, I couldn’t help but analyse it from a feminist/Marxist point of view as I read. It’s probably a remnant of my English degree. But I think in all cases apart from one, the interviewer was a “he”, and more often than not the person going for the job was a “he” as well, which made me feel kind of excluded. It’s possible to be balanced; I liked how Stephen Poole wrote in his book Trigger Happy, because he kept switching around “she or he” and “he or she” rather than just sticking with one gender and using it to represent every reader. Perhaps there’s a gap in the marketplace for jobhunting books aimed at women? You learn so much in school that you think is going to be important, but when it gets to actually finding a job, you have to dig around and find the secrets yourself (such as having to ask for a pay rise – I know this is apparently something that women often don’t do, but until I read a news article about it I didn’t know that you even could ask for one without getting fired).

It also annoyed me that he kept writing about doing three month internships for free. How have we got to the point where this is unremarkable? A paid apprenticeship, fine, because you’re being paid to do the job and are learning the skills you’ll need for life. But offering your services for free for three months? I just feel that’s unrealistic. Searching for jobs gets a lot more complicated when you have a partner, and you both want to live together, so that narrows the possibilities of where you can work. And I don’t want to live off benefits for three months while some fat-cat company gets the benefit of all my work. I just want to do a job. Just hire me and you can teach me how

We’ve been doing a placement module at uni, and while mine is great (working in a radical bookshop!), some of the publishing companies that students have gone to completely exploit the interns they take on, and often the company is mostly run by interns. I think work experience used to mean something, because it wasn’t compulsory. If you’d done work experience then that was a way of making you stand out from the crowd. Now, though, it’s compulsory, so what exactly is the point of it? I suppose it shows your commitment to the job, but it won’t make you stand out anymore. Even for a job in a bar or a shop, you have to have six months’ experience, and, when I mentioned to a friendly recruitment agency employee that I didn’t think I could even do those jobs because I didn’t have any experience, he asked me “Have you never lied on your CV?” This is what the current emphasis on work experience boils down to. If you can work a till or pull a pint, you could probably do the job, but companies don’t want to use their precious money and time to train you, they just want the benefit of someone else’s training.

Also, after seeing my dad come home every night exhausted after an hour and a half’s drive in to work and back every day, I’ve decided that I really would not want to do any job that took me more than an hour to commute to. But Mr Maun disagrees. He tells the story of a man who refused to go any further away than an hour’s drive. He persuaded him to look for work ninety minutes away, and he ended up with a job within a month. But it’s not that easy. That’s three hours out of your day commuting. You’re not going to be good at your job if you’re tired and you resent the travel time. Mr Maun also suggests that you consider relocating. But what about the lease on your house, and what if you live with a partner?

So this book does have some useful information on getting a job and interview technique, but it did also depress me about the state of things and how much I might have to sacrifice to actually get anything. It didn’t mention much about housing, my main worry. For example, I want to move to Oxford next year, because I really don’t want to still live at home. But I know it can take months to find a job, therefore I shouldn’t get a house before I have a job. Luckily, my home in England is quite close to Oxford, and luckily (I suppose) none of the jobs I’ve applied for whilst in Scotland have asked me for an interview, but either you have to have the money for train fares and bus fares to get to the job, or you have to get a house when you don’t have a job to pay for it yet. I really don’t know how people manage if they want to move further away.

Anyway, enough of my moaning. Back to reading.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams

I recently discovered that Douglas Adams had written another series of books, not just The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and consequently spent a couple of years trying to find them in charity shops. The other week, I was successful, and found Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency in an Oxfam bookshop. Despite having promised myself not to buy any books until I’d finished the ones I had, I had to get it.

While I was back home with my family, I watched all three of the Dirk Gently TV adaptations that the BBC have done, with Stephen Mangan (aka Guy from Green Wing) playing Dirk. I thought they were pretty good, and were quite like a lighter and sillier version of Sherlock, but I was curious how similar they were to the original books.

Well, the TV series seems completely different to this first book in terms of the plot but also the characters. Adams’s Hitchhiker books have been adapted so many different times for different mediums, and mostly worked (apart from that film recently…). They seem to suit being adapted rather than sticking faithfully to the original. I’m glad that the TV series was very much an adaptation rather than trying to recreate the original, because it left those original stories unspoilt, waiting to be discovered.

I loved this book. It was like discovering a secret drawer in a treasure chest that you hadn’t know existed before. Adams is such a great author because he recognises that humour is inherent in life and essential to any successful story. Without Adams, we would not have Terry Pratchett today. I sometimes think that their humour is what made the Harry Potter books so successful. People tend to think of literature as a serious business, and anything that is funny gets sidelined and undermined. Adams is one of the few authors who has managed to transcend that boundary and be taken seriously, despite having a sense of humour.

I did a bit of research and it seems Adams agreed with me: “People have this idea that humo[u]r is in some way a sort of lesser emotion, which I don’t accept at all. I think that good, funny writing is amongst the finest writing of any type, which is why I think that Wodehouse is one of the finest writers who ever lived.”

There is a brilliant bit in the book, involving poetry, where suddenly something clicks into place, and I really loved that. It was worth doing a degree in English just so I can have that brilliant shining moment of recognition.

The Life and Times of…

Read two tiny books that were in grandpa’s pile to be given away. They were both part of a series called The Life and Times of… and written by someone called A. Noble. One was on J.F.K. and one was on Martin Luther King. The series seems to have a wide variety of names, and oddly includes both Anne Frank and Hitler in the list of other Life and Times titles at the back.

The books are from 1994, but still informative. I feel like I know a tiny tiny bit more about American history now. It’s a shame I haven’t seen many books like this any more; these ones are beautiful hardback books around the size of a post-it note. I’d certainly find them useful because, as I’m realising, I don’t know a thing about anything.

Noble, A. The Life and Times of Martin Luther King. London: Parragon, 1994.

Memento Mori

Finished reading Memento Mori just now. I went to Edinburgh Central library in search of something to read, and one of the few interesting authors I could find was Muriel Spark. This one was weird, shocking and scandalous as she always is, full of unsympathetic characters caught up in adultery and deception. Some weird and questionable bits – I stopped short at the word “negress”, which I’m sure is one of those dodgy old words that people used to say without thought in the olden racist days – and also some euphemisms about paying and lifting skirts that are hard to judge whether I am being too innocent or too worldly in my interpretation of them. One character paid in pound notes and made me realise how old this book is (it was published in 1959). But it’s still compelling, and always great to see some realistic characters, both men and women: people who are selfish, treat others badly, and keep secrets. Affairs seem to be a prerequisite of literary fiction.

I had thought it was one of these ‘classics’, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I’m not sure if it’s regarded as a classic book in itself or if it’s just famous for the title being the kind of saying that spawns endless internet screen names. Strange how it leads on from the last book I read, also about older characters coming to terms with their mortality, and partially set in a retirement home. Maggie Smith seems to have been in the TV adaptation of Memento Mori, as well as the film adaptation of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but she also starred in the adaptation of Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the role which began her career.

The main story of this book is about how a mysterious caller affects different characters in different ways, with their repeated telephone message: “Remember you must die”.