I feel like I’ve been doing a lot of writing recently. Not here on this blog, although I’m trying to do that too (it’s not going so well – I wrote a whole, slow, post about Iron Man yesterday but I don’t think it will ever see the light of day), but in various other places. Firstly, I have become a ghostwriter. I had to an article for someone else, as if it was them writing it, and under their direction. It was a bit weird, and tested my control freak-ness somewhat. I had lots of information to use, and there were some specific things they wanted me to include, but we had quite a small word limit so it was tricky to write it in a way they were happy with and keep to the word limit. It was hard to write it the way the person I was writing for wanted it and not the way I wanted to write it!
Secondly, I’ve been writing an evaluation report at work. It seemed like a bit of a slog, even though it got written fairly quickly. I think it was just a bit of a struggle because I hadn’t written an evaluation report before, and hadn’t written anything so lengthy for a while. I enjoyed writing it, although I’m quite glad it’s finished…well, it’s finished unless anyone tells me there are changes they want me to make!
I’ve also been doing more proof reading than usual. I had some articles to proof read for the Somerville Foundation, and around the same time a friend of my mum’s sent some more proof reading me way, in the shape of the booklet/book she had been writing It was quite long (17,000 words), but, fortunately, also very interesting!
For leisure purposes, I’ve been reading The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson, which is supposed to be a comic novel, but I found it rather depressing (apart from one sentence and I can’t remember now what that sentence said). I also read Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home, one installment of Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small mysteries; a series I’d never heard of before. Not quite sure how I missed it since I’m a fan of mystery stories and interested in Judaism! Although the book feels slightly dated now (it was written and is set in the 1960s) and occasionally displays an interesting lack of political correctness, I enjoyed it overall.
As anyone who knows me in real life (or has been a reader of this blog for more than five minutes) will know, I have a very slight tendency towards negativity. I see problems everywhere, I have little confidence in my own abilities, I tend towards melancholy and I am a pessimist. Yes, one of those.
The problem for me, and others like me, is that in society in general, and the workplace in particular, it seems that it’s not acceptable to be negative, even when the negative thing is the true thing. For example, the other week, we were evaluating something at work. We’d had quite a few negative comments from staff, which we wanted to put into the report because we felt it was important people had the chance to have their say about the situation. But one person in our group said we should leave them out because they were too negative. But they were people’s opinions – why should they not be entitled to have their voices heard just because their feedback wasn’t positive? (We put it in the report in the end as the majority of us thought it should go in.)
Anyhow, one of my (two) new year’s resolutions was to try and be more positive, so I have decided to actually do something about this. I usually enjoy reading Oliver Burkeman’s columns in The Guardian weekend magazine, so when I saw he’d written a book called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, I decided I would read it. Happily, I was able to download it as an e-book from the public library. [I'm still slightly over-excited about the fact that one can borrow e-books from the public library - perhaps I should write a blog post about this and get it out of my system.] I enjoyed the book, and I think it’s worth reading, particularly if the usual run of self-help books just makes you feel worse than you felt to begin with. For starters, the book describes just what a waste of time positive thinking (aka pretending everything is alright when it’s not) can be. Hooray! I felt better already.
I was going to summarise the main points of the book here, but (a) it’s probably better if you read it for yourself, and (b) this post would be too long if I did, so instead I will share the quotations used at the head of each chapter, which are a sort of summary in themselves:
Try to post for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.
- Fyodor Dostoevsky - Winter Notes on Summer Impressions
Pessimism, when you get used to it, is just as agreeable as optimism.
- Arnold Bennett, Things That Have Interested Me
You want it to be one way. But it’s the other way.
- Marlo Stanfield in The Wire
Future, n. That period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends and true and our happiness is assured.
- Ambrose Pierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 per cent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself – and there isn’t one.
- Wei Wu Wei, Ask the Awakened
Security is a kind of death, I think.
- Tennessee Williams, ‘The Catastrophe of Success‘
You can’t turn a sow’s ear into a Veal Orloff. But you can do something very good with a sow’s ear.
- Julia Child
If I had my life over I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death…without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.
- Inspector Mortimer in Muriel Spark‘s Momento Mori
One of the most helpful ideas I got from the book was the idea of, when worrying about something, to think about what the worst-case scenario could really be. In most situations the worse-case scenario is probably not really going to be as bad as we might think it is, and even if it is bad, it is unlikely to be something that we really can’t cope with in some way. Also, being a brilliant procrastinator, I found the idea of procrastination being a result of feeling that we can’t do something rather than us really, literally, not being able to do it an interesting one that I hadn’t thought of before. E.g., I might feel that I’m unable to do some Hebrew exercises, but really, I am literally (physically) able to do them, I just don’t feel like it. So, the answer to procrastination is to just get on and do things.
I was also interested to learn that the expression “X [person] is a failure” and the idea of people being “failures” only came into being during the growth of capitalism in the late 1800s when people started to get credit ratings, and bad credit ratings came to determine a person’s “moral worth” as well as their financial status. Also, there is a particularly intriguing chapter on the evils of goal setting that should be read by all managers, IMHO.
In general, Burkeman advises embracing such ‘negative’ things as failure and uncertainty, because seeking after success and security are likely to make us more unhappy. None of this is news, but, when you look around at society and at the workplace in particular you would be forgiven for thinking that it was. I suspect that most people secretly (or not so secretly) know that trying to be perfect is going to do us harm, that setting goals is not the way to get the best out of people, that it’s OK to fail, and that we need to think about death a bit more (in a good way), but ‘society’ and the way we’ve been taught to live tell us the opposite. We spend a lot of time deluding ourselves, in various ways, about a myriad of things, when, actually, if we could just see and accept reality we might just be a bit happier.
My mum gave me The Lion’s World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia, by Rowan Williams, for Christmas. As some of my friends will tell you, I’m a big Rowan Williams fan. There was the time we followed him round Canterbury, when he was taking part in the St Nicholas’ Day parade:
I also had the pleasure and privilege of attending one of his Holy Week lectures on the aspects of the Chronicles of Narnia last year. The Lion’s World is partly an expansion of these talks.
Probably unsurprisingly, given that I’m an admirer of both the Narnia books and Dr Williams, I enjoyed the book. I’ve read quite a lot about C.S. Lewis and the Narnia stories in recent years, but The Lion’s World made me think about aspects of the stories, and about Lewis himself, that I hadn’t properly considered before, as well as valuable points I’d just missed entirely. The book has a lot to say about Lewis and Narnia, of course, not all of which is entirely complimentary – thankfully, Williams is not beyond seeing Lewis’s flaws as a human being or as a writer, despite the obvious affection and admiration he has for him. However, what I found most valuable about The Lion’s World was not the factual information or opinion, interesting though these are, but the fresh (to me) interpretation of parts of the stories.
For example, I was particularly struck by the lessons Williams draws from the scenes in chapter 10 of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where Lucy finds the book of spells. In this chapter, Lucy resists the temptation to cast a spell that will make her beautiful (she wants to be more beautiful than her sister, Susan – in the film version of the story she gives in to temptation, casts the spell and actually becomes Susan) – she wants something other than what actually is, but Aslan helps her to resist the temptation. However, she then goes on to cast a different spell to help her hear what her friends say about her when she’s not there. She hears things she would rather not have heard, and although Aslan steps in to help her, the damage to the friendship has already been done. Williams interprets the scene in this way:
…Lucy [...] recognizes just in time the spiritually suicidal nature of wanting to replace one’s own given reality with another identity, but still seeks to replace the given challenges and uncertainties of human intimacy – including the constantly threatening doubt as to whether I really know or am known by the other – with some kind of guarantee, some kind of magical access to the truth [...It is] the refusal to let ordinary human exchange count as reality…
As Williams says in his previous paragraph, the only answers to the kinds of ‘questions’ Lucy is asking are “to be found in the exercise of love (or in Lucy’s case, friendship)”.
I’m not a child (at least not in age, it’s my 35th birthday tomorrow – just thought I’d throw that in ), but, like Lucy, I still worry about what people think of me and whether they really like me (or love me) and I still wish I was prettier or more like [insert name here] or more cheerful or cleverer and I still want to know that I’m known and not feel like an alien and I still, occasionally, want to ”really know” people, to have those ”intimacies” that Lewis considers, I now think rightly, unnecessary for true friendship (Williams talks about this elsewhere in the book). [Update: Someone said they didn't really understand this last bit about "intimacies". I was already a bit worried I wasn't being very clear, so, to try to clarify; basically what I mean is that I used to think that you had to know all about a person in order to be friends with them, but I don't think this anymore.] Insecurity is a great conduit for sin (or selfishness, if you want to use a less theologically loaded word).
There’s quite a lot more I could say about The Lion’s World, but I think it’s probably better for anyone who’s interested just to read the book itself. As I’ve said, it’s fairly short, as these things go, and it even has pictures – it’s also, I found, quite a nice size for reading on public transport!
I read The Silver Linings Playbook, by Matthew Quick, a while ago. I borrowed it from the public library. Apparently it’s now been made into a film – I keep seeing adverts for it on the sides of buses. When I read it, it didn’t really strike me as a book that would be made into a film – maybe just because I’d never heard of it before I read it.
I was a bit ambivalent about the book. From what I remember (it was a few months ago), I quite enjoyed it, but I don’t think I found it to be a massively satisfying read. I know I skipped to the end quite early on. Having said that, I skip to the end with most books (very bad, I know), although I try not to do it with ones that I’m really interested in. I remember being slightly surprised by the twist near the end, but not very surprised at all at the ending itself.
The one thing I really wanted to know when I’d finished the book was, what is a “playbook”? I have looked it up, so now I know, and it makes sense, given the recurring theme of American Football (which I don’t really understand at all!) in the book.
…is Mr C’s birthday. I’ve got the day off (time off in lieu), but Mr C is at work. Perhaps this should be the other way round as it’s his birthday, but hopefully he’s happy at work. This morning I had a blood test. As you may know, I don’t deal very well with blood tests. I had prepared myself with a list of things to think about instead of thinking about the blood test, but when I got in to the room and saw the needle I forgot them all and had a little panic instead. The nurses were very good. One of them helped me to take some deep breaths and not look at the needle while the other one did the blood test, which was actually quite painless. Next time, I’ll try not to look at the needle at all and start concentrating on taking deep breaths straight away, because that really helped. You’d think I would have learned to do these things already, but no.
Anyway, having escaped from the doctor’s surgery I went to do a bit of Christmas shopping. Usually, I don’t start doing this until December, but we thought we’d try and spread the cost a bit more this year. I had quite a nice time wandering round Rochester, which has quite a few interesting shops, including some good charity shops, and bought a few things for people at work, and a couple of small things for Mr C’s birthday. I’ve bought him a new board game (which he asked for) as his main present – it’s about airships, steam punk style. I’m afraid I didn’t manage to resist buying myself some things – two pairs of knitting needles and two Michael Chabon books from the Oxfam shop: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and Gentlemen of the Road. I stopped off at a church coffee shop that I hadn’t been to before, and had some tea and some nice coffee cake, to fortify myself for the walk back up the hill. Then I went home and made some tea (Chinese because we’re running out of milk).
I always think it’s a shame about the scaffolding in this photo, but never mind. I thought this one would do for this week’s photo challenge, because the bookshop is ‘foreign’ (to me) in several ways. Firstly, it is in Paris, somewhere that’s foreign to me, and secondly because it’s an English bookshop in a French city, so in a sense it’s also foreign where it is, although it has become a well-established Paris landmark now – so maybe not so foreign after all.
Or, Miss Mary Russell, as she prefers to be known. I’ve now read four of the books in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, by Laurie R. King, and I’m still enjoying them. I was a bit dubious about the concept of Sherlock Holmes having a wife at first, but the novels work very well, and don’t feel ‘forced’. Cleverly, unless I’ve missed a vital volume, King doesn’t actually describe the courtship or wedding of Russell and Holmes, which in way might seem odd, but I think it probably helps readers to accept the situation and who would want to describe Sherlock Holmes in love? It would be a bit demeaning (to him), I think. Reading the books, if it wasn’t stated that Holmes and Russell were married you might never guess they were, which I think is a good thing. Their relationship is, for the most part, portrayed a good friendship, and it never gets in the way of some good sleuthing.
Mary Russell is a good match for Holmes, in terms of intellectual ability and adventurous spirit, as well as anything else. She first meets Holmes when she’s about 15 and he’s at the beginnings of his retirement – the books are set after the adventures portrayed by Conan Doyle (about whom Holmes and Russell are quite scathing!). Dr Watson and Mrs Hudson appear briefly in some of the novels, and there are some nice references to and interweaving of the Conan Doyle stories throughout the series.
Laurie R. King is an American, but she does a pretty good job of writing about British folk and their ways, and has researched everything British very well, as far as I can tell, anyway. She has made Mary Russell half American, which lets her get some Americanisms in without them being jarring. From the feel of the novels, and the enthusiasm shown for her subjects, it seems like Ms King had a jolly good time writing the series (and hopefully continues to do so, as the series is ongoing) – they are knowingly written, sometimes with a twinkle in the eye, and not always to be taken too seriously, although they do deal with some serious subjects at times. On her website, King describes the Mary Russell books as ‘primarily…”entertainments”‘, and that is indeed what they are, in the best sense of the word.
- Taking some annual leave. I had a few days off before Easter. I didn’t do much, apart from potter about the house and doing lots of knitting to try to complete a very green scarf. It’s still not ready. It’s my first attempt at a lace pattern, and a “slow knit”, as they say.
- Finally getting my grandma’s sewing machine down from the wardrobe and having a look at it. Looking at it was as far as I got, because I have absolutely no idea how to use a sewing machine and there were no instructions. I guess my grandma didn’t need them (she was a bit of a sewing genius). Anyway, I found instructions on-line and downloaded them, but I’m still at a bit of a loss. I’ll try and have a go with it again this weekend.
- Being ill. After a few days of leave, I developed a horrible cold. It was not fun. We were supposed to visit my parents and in-laws over the Easter weekend, but I only managed one day at my parents’ house and then went home again to be ill in my own home. Mr C went up to see his siblings and nephew and other in-laws, though, and had a nice time.
- Continuing to catalogue the music scores, which I have now finally finished! I’m still slightly paranoid that I (or someone else) will discover another box of them hidden away somewhere, but hopefully that’s them all done. Now on to the donated education books! Only three large boxes to go…
- Reading The Game, by Laurie R. King (another one about Mr and Mrs Holmes) and The Four Loves, by C. S. Lewis.
- Baking some chocolate cakes for the first time in ages the other weekend.
- Attempting to learn Hebrew – for the second time. I’ve finally started trying to learn it again after a gap of about five years. Needless to say, I’ve had to go back to the beginning of the book and start again. I’m trying to be more disciplined with myself this time, and do some every day during my lunch break, but I don’t always manage it.
- Sorting out my wardrobe. I’ve managed to get rid of about a third of my clothes. I will try not to buy too many new ones.
- Drinking tea.
Here is a collection of 11 random things I’ve learned about, read, seen, experienced, or otherwise enjoyed in 2011. In no particular order:
As I’ve already said elsewhere on this blog, I’ve really enjoyed watching Rev. Each week, I watched it, slightly worried that the week’s episode might not be as good as the one before, but I was never disappointed. Each episode made me laugh and gave food for thought, and some even made me cry. What more could one ask of a TV series?
Not having seen the first series, I watched the second series of The Killing on the recommendation of a colleague, and I wasn’t disappointed. I do like a good crime drama. Sara Lund proved a worthy heroine, and the fact that she wears the best jumpers on TV is a bonus.
The Shadow Line
This BBC drama had even more twists and turns than The Killing, if that’s possible. It was a bit over-the-top at times, but I really enjoyed it (although I had to watch it on mute and/or look away from the screen quite a lot, as there were some scary or otherwise disturbing moments.
On to books now. I read Planet Narnia towards the beginning of the year. I found it to be an unexpectedly fascinating read, and it set me off on a course of reading quite a few books by and about C. S. Lewis. I’ve done my book list for 2011 now, so you can have a look at it if you’re interested.
I’ve read a few books I’ve really enjoyed this year (including The Final Solution, The Children’s Book (despite its sadness) and I Shall Wear Midnight) but I think Markus Zusak‘s I am the Messenger just pips Michael Chabon‘s The Final Solution to win the non-existent prize for my favourite fiction book of the year. It’s a most excellent book and everyone should read it. Everyone should read The Final Solution too, though.
If you like knitting, Ravelry.com is the place to go to. I’ve found it really useful for finding new patterns, discovering new techniques and keeping a record of the things I’ve made.
I bought a new DSLR camera in March, and since then I’ve been learning more about photography, and taking lots more photos, probably much to the irritation of the people around me! I’m still learning (I think that’s going to be a forever ongoing process), and still enjoying it very much. Having taken lots of pictures has been very useful for blogging purposes, apart from anything else, as I’ve been able to participate in the Photo Hunt, Wordless Wednesdays and the WordPress Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge, which have given me something to post a couple of days a week, at least!
I started my job as a full-time cataloguer (well, apart from when I’m doing other things in the library) early in 2011. I’ve now catalogued many items, from textbooks to music scores, to hand puppets, and learned lots about cataloguing, as well as about the things I’ve had to catalogue. It’s a fascinating business.
I’ve tried to read more poems this year. I like poetry, but I’d never really made a concerted effort to read much of it before. However, this year, I decided to read Poem for the Day: Two – I bought a copy of it secondhand. I didn’t suceed in reading a poem every day, but I did read more poems this year than I have in other years, and found the exercise helpful, interesting and comforting, amongst other things. I’ve now also bought a copy of the original Poem for the Day, so I’ll try and keep up the poetry reading next year.
Unsurprisingly, singing has been a highlight for me (again) this year. I’ve enjoyed the concerts, but I’ve probably enjoyed the rehearsals a bit more – they’re not so nerve-wracking! I think my favourite pieces I’ve sung this year were Chilcot’s version of The Angel Gabriel and Fauré’s Requiem, the latter of which I think is one of my favourite pieces of music ever.