How Not to Read Books

12 May

A shipment of freshly-printed copies of The Talisman

This week, with some relief, I returned The Talisman to the library. It’s a fantasy novel by Stephen King and Peter Straub, roughly the size of a breeze block – and I hadn’t finished it.

There was a time when I hardly ever left a book unfinished, no matter how little I was enjoying it (I’m looking at you, The Lord of the Rings) and when I did, I felt bad about it. I’m a quick reader, so it was usually a case of lack of desire rather than lack of time. These days, time is harder to come by so the quality of the book (or to be fairer, my enjoyment of it) have become more important.

I’ve recently got into the KonMari school of tidying and organising, and discovered the deeply soothing quality of an organised sock drawer. One of the ideas of KonMari is that you should throw out books, which sounds scandalous to a book lover, but when I read on, I could see Marie Kondo’s point. Why keep books you are never going to read (or re-read) and that just stare at you sadly from the bookshelves? If it’s because just seeing them makes you happy, great. But if it doesn’t, why are they taking up valuable bookshelf space?

My sock drawer is a small oasis of order

So quite a lot of my books recently went off to Music Magpie, and others are going to find their way to charity shops in the near future. Some of them I had started but never read. Some of them I hadn’t even started, and knew I probably never would. Getting rid of them is not failure; it is liberation.

In that spirit, here are some books I have left part-read, and the reasons why. Feel free to use the comments to give me your own list.

*

The Talisman, Stephen King & Peter Straub

It is just. Too. Long. That’s not a problem in itself, but when nothing much happens for several hundred pages, and what happens is fairly repetitive, it is a problem. This is especially true when any action present has an unsettlingly sadistic feeling to it. I’ve never failed to finish a Stephen King book before, but this just wasn’t worth the effort. The addition of a semi-human bit of – what? comic relief? – doesn’t improve a long book either, whether it’s a werewolf or an anthropomorphic countryside spirit. (Yes, I’m looking at you again, LOTR. Tom Bombadil should never have made the final edit.)

*

The Lemon Tree, Sandy Tolan

This is not a bad book. In fact it’s very informative, and quite well written. But the author’s insistence on not straying beyond the recorded evidence at all, even for emotions and motivations, eventually makes this non-fiction, novel-ish book unengaging. I know it’s trying to keep cool about an inflammatory subject (the Israel-Palestine conflict) but in the end it was just too cold to hold my attention. Non-fiction novels can be done better than this; just see Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. That leaves you chilled, not frigid.

*

The Celestine Prophecy, James Redfield

This was only vaguely interesting at the start, and became less so as it disappeared deeper up its own worldview. The protagonist experiences spiritual and psychological insights which don’t seem to amount to much in terms of a system of universal truth (spot my western post-Enlightenment bias there) but are so enthralling to him that he must talk about them, at length, while nothing much happens. Then men with guns turn up, he escapes, goes somewhere else and has another insight. Repeat ad nauseam. Real psychological and spiritual insights, I like (try looking up Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning lectures on YouTube for that sort of thing) but this was not my cup of enlightened tea at all.

*

The Fall of Lucifer, Wendy Alec; The Shack, William Paul Young

I’m lumping these ones together because, while they’re dissimilar in some ways, they are both based on Christian (or thereabouts) theology, and they are both really bad. I mean truly, truly appalling. I couldn’t get further than the first chapter of either of them. The writing was so bad it was almost physically painful. I may be a bit hypersensitive when it comes to bad writing, but the very thought of reading these books makes me shudder.

Again, this can actually be done well. This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti is about a hundred times better than The Fall of Lucifer – and that’s a modest estimate.

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I don’t think these are the only books I’ve rejected. I have a strong memory of throwing a book across the room when it irritated me one time too many, not so long ago (I know, I know, violence against books should never be condoned), but I can’t remember which one it was. Maybe it will come back to me, and I will add it to my list. In the meantime, let me know which books you have rejected, and why, in the comments below.

The Archaic Smile

15 Apr

Just a quickie to say that my short story ‘The Archaic Smile’ has been published on The Ogilvie literary review. It is free to read online, so go and have a look.

The story is about an archaic kouros – that’s a type of Greek statue (like the one in the picture to the left), but it is more eventful than you might think for a story that has a statue as its hero. The Ogilvie said it had ‘subtle prose and artful suspense‘ so really, go and read it!

The Art of Complaining

3 Apr

“I couldn’t sleep a wink!”

One of the joys of helping to look after my little nieces is getting to revisit things from my childhood. Last week it was paperchain people (try them with monkeys – it’s really cute!) but the week before that it was the Princess and the Pea, the Hans Christian Andersen story about a girl who arrives at a castle in a storm, claiming to be a princess, and whose royal pedigree is proved by her feeling a dried pea through 20 mattresses.

Coming back to this story many years on, instead of dwelling on how ridiculous this is (and it is), I instead found myself thinking, “Of course complaining about a pea in her bed shows she’s a princess. If she was a nice, middle-class girl she wouldn’t dream of complaining!” I mean really, if you were taken in on trust, out of a storm, alone and helpless, would you tell your host the bed was lumpy? I wouldn’t lie about it, but I’m sure I could find something more positive to say than, “I couldn’t sleep a wink all night!”

This got me thinking about complaining more generally. In Britain, we’re traditionally not supposed to be very good at complaining. To be more accurate, we’re very good at moaning about things, but we would rather die than complain to anyone who can do anything about it, like a waiter or shopkeeper, for example. Perhaps we might write a stiff letter, but never say anything to anyone’s face.

This is a Very British Problem, judging by the Twitter account of the same name, which is extremely funny. (It’s also available in book form for those who aren’t into social media.) This is also one of the areas where I’m not very British, perhaps as a result of spending too much time overseas (or it could just be my personality). I am fairly likely to complain if something isn’t right. I spent 15 minutes in Superdrug the other day trying to return some hair chalks that only cost about three quid, on the principle that if you buy something, it should work. The complaint has been forwarded further up the chain of management. By the time I get my three quid back (if I ever do) they will probably have devalued to the equivalent of 30p due to Brexit.

Maybe I shouldn’t have bothered. But there are some things you are supposed to complain about, or at least not sit on. I often find I’m annoyed by some insignificant thing someone has done again and start thinking, “He/she knows I hate it! They’re doing it to annoy me!”, only to realise that I’ve probably never told them I hate it, and they are blithely oblivious to my irritation. In a situation like that you either have to say something, or learn to live quietly with the annoyance, rather than explode in rage when it happens for the tenth time.

Addictions are another situation where you’re supposed to complain, according to official advice. Without going into any detail, there are some addiction/dependency ‘issues’ in my own family, and while a public blog post isn’t the place to drag them out, it’s not something I keep from my friends. In such a situation, silent forbearance probably makes things worse. But there is probably a level of willingness to complain that lies somewhere between doormat and drooket fairytale princess, which is healthy and practical without being self-centred. With that in mind, here’s a slightly altered version of the well-known Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity to shut up about the things I ought to put up with,
The courage to complain about the things I ought not to,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

(If you’re into Hans Christian Andersen, by the way, check out my lovely audio version of the Snow Queen, narrated by Sophie Aldred.)

 

Top 5 Things Not to Say to a Writer 

22 Feb

It’s another guest post link (although at some point I’ll probably write up my impressions of Bucharest, which I’ve just returned from). 

The Portobello Book Blog kindly invited me to write a post for them, so I’ve given my take on the things you shouldn’t say to writers, or specifically me. Don’t worry if you’ve already  said these things to me – it’s fairly tongue-in-cheek, and I love you really 😉 

How to learn Albanian in 20 seconds 

31 Jan

Bună!  I am in the process of trying to learn Romanian, as I’ll be going there next month for a few days. I enjoy the challenge of learning a language, and Romanian is shaping up to be a fairly easy one, for me at least – it’s basically just Latin, with the odd Slavic word thrown in. 

Despite that, I’m at the frustrating stage where I know a few words but can’t actually say anything. I can say that I should, I need, I must or I would like, but not what I should, need, must or would like – except coffee, so I suppose that is somewhat useful. 

So in light of my own frustration with Romanian, I’m going to teach you to speak Albanian in 20 seconds. You won’t be able to hold an intelligent conversation about Proust, but you’ll be able to cope in most social situations. All you need is one word: mirë. 

Mirë is pronounced meer, as in meerkat, and it means good or well. (Technically e/i mirë means good, and mirë means well, but let’s not complicate matters.) The wonderful thing about it is it can be a question (Are you well? Is that ok?) as well as an answer to the question, and an assent to some proposal. Let me give you an example of a conversation you could hold in which you only use the word mirë. (You have to imagine it’s all in Albanian, although to be honest it wouldn’t matter that much whether you understand it or not.)

Hi, how are you? 

Mirë. 

How have you been? 

Mirë. 

How’s your family? 

Mirë. 

How’s work? 

Mirë. 

How’s your health? 

Mirë. 

We should go out for coffee sometime and catch up. 

Mirë. 

How is Tuesday afternoon for you? 

Mirë. 

Great, see you then! 

Mirë! 

See? Now you speak Albanian, at least as long as you are prepared to be fairly passive in any given conversation. If you’re thinking that there never would be a conversation like this, with such a screed of questions, you’re wrong – I’ve actually cut it down a bit. When you haven’t seen someone for a while, this list of questions can seem to stretch on for aeons. And throughout those aeons, you will be able to give pertinent replies – provided that they are all “mirë”.

(By the way, if anyone does happen to ask you for your opinion on Proust, tell them he’s mirë.)

The Moral Importance of Foundation Garments

23 Dec

foundation-garments

It’s 23rd December, Christmas-Eve Eve, so naturally you would expect me to be writing about Christmassy things. And I was going to, honest. I even had the title worked out, “It wouldn’t be Christmas without…”. But then I got a new bra.

Yes, I know, that’s too much information. But it is relevant because it got me thinking about the (albeit not immediately obvious) similarities between brassieres and moral codes.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a new bra, and ages since I had an expensive, good-quality one, and I had forgotten how much of a difference it makes. The thing about elasticated undergarments, and moral codes, is that over time they have a tendency to grow slack. They are less restrictive, but also less supportive.

I noticed an astonishing difference as I ventured out into the world wearing my spanking new purchase. Some clever engineering goes into these bits of frippery; I felt positively cantilevered! I noticed that I held my head higher, and my shoulders straighter, too, the structured nature of my unmentionable reminding me of other areas that could do with a bit of improving, like posture.

On the first day of wearing the new nether-garment it did feel restrictive and unfamiliar, but by the second day it had become natural, to the extent that when I come to wash it, and have to wear one of my old ones, I will probably miss the new rigour.

I’m never one to leave an analogy unstretched, so bear with me as I opine that moral codes are not dissimilar. (By the way, if the language is more flowery than usual, the glass of rioja I just had seems to have gone right to my head.) Moral codes, like bras, have a tendency to loosen and stretch, without our necessarily noticing. They seem fine, but it’s only when you compare what they are supposed to be like that you notice how much things have slipped.

There was a comment on the Premier website* under an article on three-parent babies to the effect that in-vitro fertilization used to be controversial, particularly for Christians, but now nobody bats an eye. A comment in reply pointed out that this is exactly the point that the ‘slippery slope’ argument makes. Leaving aside that particular ethical quagmire, it’s an example of how things can become looser over time. If there’s something that shocked you years ago, or at least made you feel uncomfortable, and now you don’t even blink, it could be that you’ve become more mature, or worked through it – or it could be that you have grown slack, and not even noticed.

Of course, this is where the analogy reaches breaking point, because you don’t just go out and get a new moral code. A code to live by is probably less like a piece of underwear and more like a kitchen knife – once you find a good one, you keep it forever. However, kitchen knives need to be sharpened up from time to time, just as foundation garments need to be renewed. Talking to others who think deeply about moral issues, listening to sermons and lectures – challenging ones, not just pleasant homilies – and examining both your own behaviour and issues that you prefer not to think about are all ways of doing so, I would suggest.

So if an acquaintance thinks that something you habitually do is ethically questionable, don’t assume that automatically makes them wrong, judgemental, narrow-minded or all of the above. It may just be that your moral elastic has been through the washing machine** one too many times.

Happy Christmas!


* Don’t read comments on the Premier website. It is time you will never get back.
** Never wash your bra in the washing machine! Not even in a pillowcase or delicates bag. Always hand wash. Trust me.

The Invisible Superhero 

11 Nov

Today’s blog post is another guest post on somebody else’s site –  in this case, Dyslexia Scotland, as it is Dyslexia Awareness Week Scotland. placeholder_couple_superhero

Many of you will know that I have mild dyslexia, since I’ve blogged about it, but it’s not a particularly well understood condition, so do pop across to the site and find out more.

Learning about Albania

4 Oct

The results of the vote are in, and it was unanimous – all three of my readers want to hear about my summer in Albania rather than my adorable budgie or the wonders of digestive enzymes.

I’ve written about Albania before, more than once, and I don’t want to repeat myself or bore you, so I’ll break this down into things you see in Albania that you don’t see in Britain; things you don’t see in Albania that you do see in Britain; and things you, perhaps surprisingly, see in both. The summer feels like a long time ago now, but luckily for you, I kept notes 😉

Things you see in Albania20160812_084248

Goat droppings on the pavement. Our neighbour keeps goats, and walks them out to pasture every morning, and back every evening. They try to eat everything en route, but unfortunately their owner doesn’t take them close enough to our gate to eat the weeds growing there.

Kids out late. I may have mentioned this before, but Albanian children stay up very late. Finding a babysitter is a complete non-issue because the kids just come out with you, even in their buggies. They do take naps during the day, but I can’t help thinking that, cultural diversity aside, keeping kids up as long as adults is not an entirely good thing: they often look tired and act crabby. The idea of “Are all the bairnies in their beds? It’s past eight o’ clock” is just totally alien in Albania, however.

Mobile phone shops running out of sims. This one was quite annoying. All the mobile phone shops are company-specific – you don’t have the likes or Carphone Warehouse or Fones4U – but even so, you’d expect them to have sim cards at all times, right? Or at least to be quite embarrassed about not having any. But no: “We don’t have any sim cards just now. Come back on Monday.” Fortunately, all the mobile phone companies were doing a big push to sell sims to the emigrants returned for the holidays, so there were plenty of other companies to get a sim from. One company even had a buy one, get one free offer on every sim purchase (why?) so I ended up with a surfeit of sims.

Things you don’t see in Albania

Dogs being walked. This isn’t because there aren’t any dogs in Albania, but because the three types you generally see are stray dogs (far fewer than there used to be), guard dogs, which are usually chained up and always stay in the grounds of the house they are protecting, and – a new addition – handbag dogs, which are carried around in people’s arms. I don’t believe I have ever seen a dog out for a walk in Albania, on a lead or just at heel. I have been rather too close for comfort to a guard dog, though. Our relatives’ dog, Çufi, dreams of sinking his teeth into my sweet flesh, and this time he almost managed it, before my mother-in-law slammed the gate shut. My scream could be heard throughout the neighbourhood.

20160814_114233

Drunk people at beer festivals. I didn’t even notice this until the third or fourth day of the beer festival in Lushnje. There was only one type of beer (it was really a “friendship festival” sponsored by Elbar beer) and everyone just got a pint, or a soft drink for the kids, and maybe something to eat, and sat listening to the music and chatting. No one got drunk. No one. There’s not a lot of public drunkenness in Albania anyway, except at weddings, but it was strange to be at an alcohol festival where no one was drinking to excess. Imagine that in Glasgow!

(Personally I’m not a fan of beer, so I took the opportunity to introduce Albania to the concept of shandy. I don’t think it’s going to take off.)

Things you, surprisingly, do see in Albania

Cycle lanes. I remember while I was preparing for my DPSI exam a couple of years ago discussing the best way to say ‘cycle lane’, as it was something I had never come across in Albania. Now the centre of Lushnje has a cycle lane running right through it and, what is more, people were using it! In fact the whole of the central square has been made a no-car zone, and it’s lovely. (You can spot the red cycle lane in the photo above.)

Toffee apples. I associate these with frosty nights, Hallowe’en and bonfires, rather than with sultry Mediterranean evenings, but I don’t suppose there’s any good reason why Albania shouldn’t enjoy them just as much as we do. (I use ‘we’ in a generic sense – I hate fruit.)

Fried pizza. I thought this was purely a Scottish institution (served with chips, of course, because a deep-fried pizza doesn’t contain enough grease), but I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised that such a delicacy also exists in Albania; they are awfully fond of frying things, often in gallons of oil.

I always seem to learn something new when I go to Albania, and usually not just about the cuisine. The rigmarole over the water supply in our house in Lushnje (two pumps in two different, locked locations, a valve on the roof and a stopcock half-buried in the yard – not fun) gave me a greater appreciation of the running water system we have here. In fact, our street might get proper running water before next summer, which would be wonderful!

I also learned to hold my possessions a bit more lightly. That’s already wearing off, since I live in a society where ownership is very clearly demarcated and closely guarded, but I do appreciate the Albanian willingness to lend and share, and not to care too much when something is lost or broken.

I was also reminded of the value of boredom. There’s a lot of waiting around in Albania; it’s just part of life. In the summer there are also times when it’s too hot to do anything, too hot even to sleep, so you just lie around. After a while, a bit of boredom opens up areas of your mind that lie dormant when you’re constantly busy or entertained, and that’s a good thing, especially if you work in a creative field. As well as getting on with the novel I’m working on (The Gates of Janus), I polished off a wee short story while I was there as well, which might not have happened if I didn’t have a lot of time just staring into the distance and dreaming.

So there’s your annual report on Albania. I can’t promise not to bore you about my budgie in future, but if you’re lucky something might occur to me that is interesting to a slightly wider audience 😉

A new decoration in Lushnje's park

The opposite of writer’s block

5 Sep

As usual I have to apologise for not writing  a new blog post for ages, but unusually the excuse is not just that I’ve been insanely busy (which I have) but also that I don’t know what to write about – or more accurately, I don’t know which thing to write about.

I have jotted down a few ideas for posts (I do this – I have an extremely rubbish working memory, so scraps of paper and memos on my phone serve as an alternative) but don’t want to write about all of them (if I wrote three posts in a week you might worry that I’d been replaced by the body snatchers!) and if I try to space them out over the next several weeks I’ll forget, or they will be out of date, or something else will come up.

So it’s over to you, patient readers who have just slogged your way through two one-sentence paragraphs. Do you want to read about my summer in Greece and Albania, with reflections on different culture, the changing face of Albania, and possibly language learning? Or would you prefer to hear about my beautiful new budgie, Gatsby? (I may become a bit of budgie bore, I’m afraid. He’s so cute!) Or would you like to hear about lactase? No, I’ll not tell you any more; if you’re intrigued, vote for it.

The survey should be showing below. (If it’s not, click here.) I look forward to getting my writing orders!

Rio’s Hug

10 Aug

This blog post is simply going to direct you to another blog post, on Premier Christianity‘s website. But no, I’m not being lazy, because I wrote that post too.

If you have seen the statue of Christ the Redeemer on your TV during the Olympics, and want to hear my musings about its significance, and how it connects to the Games, please do have a wee read:

Christ the Redeemer: Why Rio’s statue is the true God of the Olympics

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Photo: Paul Mannix

The compassionate embrace includes everyone, from Olympic athletes to drug dealers, from top politicians to favela kids.