Saturday, 29 June 2019

YOUR BEST YEAR YET by Jinny Ditzler


Regular readers will know I am on a self-help kick.  A friend of mine recommend this one to me, and I found it pretty good – it’s a straightforward guide to trying to decide on your goals.  As Ditzler puts it:
After the initial spurt of growing up and becoming an adult, most of us don’t stop to think about goals in the same serious way we did when we carefully planned our education, our career, our first place away from our parents.  We begin to ‘follow our noses’, reacting to circumstances . . . Time goes by and soon we begin to feel our lives are out of control and there’s nothing we can do about it.  Things which matter most to us aren’t getting enough attention and life gets frustrating.  We feel we are no longer in charge of our own lives. 
It’s broadly framed as a workshop to do at new year, though you can do it anytime, and is structured around ten questions.  The first are about reviewing the year past.  She claims:
Almost without exception, people’s initial thoughts about the past are negative.  . . Unless we stop to think about what really happened, we assume that there is far greater cause for disappointment than celebration
I found this to be shockingly true.  I was amazed to see how much more I had achieved in the last year than I had failed at.  Indeed, one of the more interesting parts of the book is not just doing the questions but hearing the author’s review of the many people she has seen answer the questions. 

She provides a structured set of ways of thinking about your life, which I found quite useful, and various examples of how people succeeded by being pragmatic in their approach.  I was tempted to eyeroll, but was stopped by:
. . . take note if you find it much harder to believe these experiences than the earlier examples of peoples’ problems
Her guidance to getting your goals is something she has rather clunkily branded “Gold Time” self management, where you carve out time to focus on what is important but not urgent, which she argues is the stuff that most frequently drops off our list, but is in fact the stuff we should absolutely be doing to actually be in charge of our lives.  

To my mind, figuring out what you want in the first place is much harder than actually executing it, but still, it was an interesting way of thinking about your priorities. 

I recommend this book and have tried to put some of its steps into practice.  It is remarkably difficult to give up one’s prejudice against self-help.  The author notes:
Most of us trap ourselves by not being willing to take the necessary steps to be the master of our own lives, yet we’ll be damned if we’ll let anyone or anything serve as our master in the meantime!  The result- no one’s in charge.  We get nowhere.  Every bit of true progress I’ve made in my life has come from really listening to a teacher or an author and having the discipline to practice his or her lessons until I have learnt them.  Action and follow-through are everything.  
I may as well try someone else’s approach.  It’s not as if mine is working so well. 

THE MIGHTY FRANKS by Michael Frank

It is amazing what different worlds books can take you in to.   The last one was all about the challenges of being an Icelandic sheep farmer.  This one is all about the challenges of having a charismatic aunt.

It’s an odd memoir, almost a misery memoir, except the misery is of so very niche and specific a kind it’s hard to take it seriously.  At the nub of it is his aunt, who is not just the sister of his father but also the wife of his mother’s brother.  That is, siblings married siblings.  One couple had three children (including Michael, the author, the oldest), and the other none.  The mothers of both pairs of siblings live together, and everyone lives walking distance from each other. 

Now that I write that, it’s clearly a recipe for trouble. The trouble comes in the form of this aunt, who is a very successful and wealthy screenwriter, very charismatic, and very obsessed with Michael.  She constantly singles him out for attention, non-sexual but very intense, and the only thing is, he needs to agree with her.  This is okay when he was younger, though a measure of the bizarreness is that she recommends to him – when he is just eight – OF HUMAN BONDAGE and SONS AND LOVERS. “Take my word for it, Lovey, between (them) you’ll learn everything you need to know about what it feels like to be a certain kind of young person.  Your kind, if I may say.”  These are not child appropriate books, unless of course that child is tortured artistically and sexually. 

Anyway, as he heads to adolescence he naturally rebels, and in parallel his aunt becomes increasingly unstable.  Nothing actually specifically bad really happens; no one even gets a slap.  The most extreme is someone going home from holiday in Paris early.  This is not exactly the high water mark of human suffering.  But clearly Frank was troubled enough to write a whole book about it.  And his parents agree: in later life, they apologize for not protecting him from whatever it was his aunt was. 

There’s an interesting side point on his mother being involved in early feminism, where suburban women held “CR groups” that is, consciousness raising groups.  One result of this is that she stops allowing the aunt to decorate their house – which indeed was a weird part of the family dynamic. 

In writing this post it sounds rather as if I didn’t enjoy this book.  However I did.  It’s always interesting to see the specific craziness of someone else’s family.  And I’m always amazed by memoirs: who even remembers their past that clearly?  My theory is, nobody does; but I always admire the boldness of someone willing to write up their fantasy of what happened

Thursday, 27 June 2019

INDEPENDENT PEOPLE by Holdor Laxness


Guys, I’m now fully informed about the life of subsistence sheep farmers in Iceland in the early twentieth century, and let me tell you it is not pretty.   I’m so fully informed I am hoping Icelandic shepherding will somehow come up in dinner party conversation so I can impress others with my incredibly niche knowledge.  This seems unlikely. 

This book is a good corrective to any idea we might have in the modern day about how ‘busy’ and ‘stressed’ we are.  Truly stressed people make their children work sixteen hour days in the rain, because they need to or else they will starve.  Also, they don’t think rain is a big deal.  Here’s the main character:
And if Bjartur heard them complaining about the damp he would reply that it was pretty miserable wretches that minded at all whether they were wet or dry.  He could not understand why such people had been born.  “It’s nothing but damned eccentricity to want to be dry,” he would say.  “I’ve been wet more than half my life and never been a whit the worse for it.”
You would think he must be joking, but no.  When looking for sheep on the mountains he often sleeps out in a cave even when there is snow on the ground.  All you have to do, I learn, is wake up four times a night to turn the boulder you are sleeping on over sixteen times.  Then you are quite warm, and even if not you are so tired you don’t notice it.  Handy tips, if ever my life goes so horrifyingly wrong I have to be an Icelandic sheep farmer.  Then I can look forward to rye bread with a ‘lump of tallow and cod liver’ for breakfast, and salted fish for 100% of other meals, though in spring that should read ‘meal’ as you only get one of those a day.  Brjartur’s elderly grandmother in fact does not like fresh food, arguing it makes her ill. 

The main message of this book, other than to make you very, very, very grateful for your own circumstances is that one life is not long enough for the poor man to ever get out from under.  It’s a bleak, but probably true, opinion, and the central tragedy of the story is Bjartur’s effort to be ‘independent’.

He works 18 years for someone else to afford a small piece of land, and then works himself and his sickly family astoundingly hard, to build a flock ("Whatever happens you can always comfort yourself with the thought that the sheep are in the home pastures," he helpfully comments when someone dies).  That flock is then occasionally wiped out, by worms, or storms, or on one weird occasion by ghosts (?). 

They have one piece of luck: the First World War!  It drives up prices for Icelandic lamb. 
 “Oh let them squabble, damn them,” said Bjartur.  “I only hope they keep it up as long as they can. . . . I only hope they go on blasting one another’s brains out as long as other folk can get some good out of it.  There ought to be plenty of people abroad.  And no one misses them


Poor old Brjartur does well off this, but them overreaches to build a house, which plunges him into debt again.  This does not deter him. He is a battleaxe of a man.  When his only remaining son plans to emigrate to America, leaving no one to take over the shabby field that is his life’s work

He made no further attempt to talk his son over; it is a mark of weakness to try to talk anyone over.  An independent man thinks only of himself and lets others do as they please.  He himself had never allowed anyone to talk him over.
This gives you a flavour.  It’s a sort of sad novel, but also quite funny.  Here is a local middleclass landowner
Now the Bailiff’s nature was such that had he been accused of theft or even of murder he would have preserved an unruffled exterior and have seemed, indeed, to be quite gratified.  But with one crime he would not have his name connected: if anyone insinuated that he was making money the ice was broken and his tongue was loosened, such a slander was more than he could stand. 
You also learn the fate of Bjartur’s whole family, who do all sorts, get pregnant out of wedlock, die in snowstorms, etc.  There’s much wisdom to it, often of the melancholy kind:
 But the first days are always the worst, and there is much comfort in the thought that time effaces everything, crime and sorrow no less than love. 
Poor old Bartjur.  He loses everything anyway, not in the end because of the worms, or the storms, or even the ghosts, but because of the debts.  The tagline of the novel might as well be: You can’t fight city hall.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

DEVIL'S CUB by Georgette Heyer


A Duke elopes with the wrong sister.  He’s got a temper that in a modern novel would be a red flag for domestic violence, so when he finds out his mistake determines to carry on anyway.  Then he falls in love with her but not before a visit from the characters of the previous novel THESE OLD SHADES. 

This is the second novel of the series, and the second of the new genre of historical romance, invented by Heyer for THESE OLD SHADES and now with literally thousands of novels in its wake.   It's interesting to see the birth of a genre, and it's hard to believe it didn’t exist before: the love story in the historical setting.  I guess it's like Facebook.  Now its hard to imagine why no one thought of it before.  Why are all the best business ideas so obvious once someone has thought of them?  Brownie mix is the one that really tortures me.  Who would have thought people would pay for pre-mixed flour and cocoa powder?  I can't believe someone got rich off that one.

THESE OLD SHADES by Georgette Heyer


This was Heyer’s second book, and her first big success.  The first, BLACK MOTH, was apparently written to amuse her sick brother, and was something of a melodrama.  In this one, she hit on the formula that was to make her a fabulously wealthy woman and invented a genre at the same time.  It came out during the General Strike, and thus had no publicity.  The fact that it was still a best seller confirmed Heyer in the idea that she did not need to do interviews.

In this one, a Duke takes on a new page, and over time we learn she is in fact a girl, and through a series of unlikely events in fact the legitimate child of his greatest enemy.  They fall in love and etc.  It’s a reasonable book, and you can see she still thought of it as a book, rather than as a formula.  Next up, the sequel, DEVIL’S CUB. 

Monday, 24 June 2019

DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? By Philip K Dick



I had to give up on this one.   Let me give you a sample: 
After parking the department’s speedy beefed-up hovercar on the roof of the San Francisco Hall of Justice on Lombard street, bounty hunter Rick Deckard, briefcase in hand, descended to Harry Bryant’s office.  
I mean, snore. Let me tell you he even uses the term ‘beefed-up hovercar’ more than once.  The book is all about trying to tell who is human and who is cyborg, and focuses much on tests to tell who is which.  I propose one additional test: 100% of humans will be able to identify that the above sentence is written by a man.  And indeed the book is full of things men, particularly middle aged men, are interested in: looking tough, ignoring your wife, making tough choices where you may not be a good guy but we understand why, etc.

That said, I did enjoy learning about Philip K Dick, who led a fully bonkers life.  He was on amphetamines for years, so he could turn out books at speed.  He also had various out-of-body experiences, the most important of which was one time when sunlight hit the gold necklace of a delivery girl and he saw a ‘pink beam’ that gave him wisdom. Things go downhill from there.  As Wikipedia enjoyably puts it: “At one point, Dick felt that he had been taken over by the spirit of the prophet Elijah.”  And “In 1974, Dick wrote a letter to the FBI, accusing various people . . . of being foreign agents of Warsaw Pact powers.  He also wrote that Stanislaw Lem was probably a false name used by a composite committee operating on orders of the Communist party . . “

Now this is a book I’d be interested in reading

THE GRADUATE by Charles Webb


This book was made into a much more famous movie.  Apparently it made $100m at the box office, but poor old Charles Webb who was 24 at the time had sold the rights for just $20,000.  Apparently (according to Wikipedia) he felt the movie took away from his status as a serious artist, so he was ‘glad’ it worked out that way.  You need to tell yourself what you need to tell yourself I guess.  

In any case, it’s a great little novel, and I’m surprised that its original reviews were not good.  It tells the story of Benjamin Braddock, who comes back from university to his parent’s home in the suburbs with a good degree and everything in front of him; the only hitch is he doesn’t want everything.  Or indeed anything.  He doesn’t care about traditional success, but then he can’t seem to find anything else he does care about (even ‘travelling,’ which he briefly tries).  Then he is seduced into an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner, Mrs Robinson.  This at least arouses his interest (among other things) but then very unfortunately he meets her daughter who he falls in love with.  YIKES.

I won’t tell you how it all works out, but I will tell you this daughter is only like 22 and has had 3 marriage proposals!  People did not waste time in the 1960s.  Based on how that worked out for Mrs Robinson, who had to drop out of university to get married because she got pregnant, this is not the smartest move.  Better to do what we do today, date for like 10 years and then change your mind at the last minute in the hopes of finding someone ‘better’

THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS by Isabel Allende

Here is a book packed with all sorts of things.  It tells the story of three generations of a family in an unnamed South American countr...