On fault and appreciation

I cannot remember a time when I did not gain pleasure and inspiration from reading books. As a child I would drink up the adventures of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five before riding my bike to the fields and glens close to my parent’s house to re-enact their exploits in my solitary play. When I was feeling down and friendless I would imagine myself to be a suffering heroine from a Frances Hodgson Burnett story, or find some aspect of my life to be glad over aka Eleanor H. Porter’s Pollyanna.

As a teenager I read Arthur Conan Doyle, C.S. Forester and Tolkien, imagining myself to have the courage, stamina, intelligence and power of their famous protagonists. Although I went through a short lived stage of reading trashy romances I could not relate to these books, comforting my oft hungry heart with music rather than literature. The books that I savoured took me to worlds that I knew I could never experience, they were the stuff of dreams.

As I have grown older I have become more picky about the books I will read. I fear that I have become something of a literary snob, not an attribute to be proud of. There is a fine line between choosing wisely from the plethora of available titles and condemning an entire genre. Who am I to say what constitutes a good book?

This question has reared it’s head recently. Having carefully researched many review sites I decided that I wished to read ‘Infinite Jest’ by David Foster Wallace. I was aware that it was long and complex but felt comfortable with the idea of tackling such a tome. The literary snob in me believed that I could cope and benefit from such a read.

Can a book be described as good if it is not enjoyed? In a little over a month I have struggled through a mere hundred pages of this novel. As an avid reader I am feeling starved, yet I cannot bring myself to spend long in the company of this book’s unpleasant characters. I recognise that this is rather the point of the plot, but to me that point is questionable when it becomes so hard to enter the world described.

I am a monogamous reader by habit. I will plough through a Great Work of Literature for the personal satisfaction of having read it. ‘Infinite Jest’ is, however, making me question my usual resolve. I am hungry for the escape that books give me, for the feeling of satisfaction that a good story provides.

This weekend I finally succumbed to temptation and allowed myself to stray. I picked up a book recommended by my daughter, John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars’. Oh my. I was thirsty for a good book and I found an oasis. I read it cover to cover in two sittings. I cannot remember the last time, if ever, that a book has made me cry.

It is a love story, which is not my usual choice of genre. It is about two young ‘cancer survivors’ but does not seek out sympathy, nor dwell unnecessarily on the pathos of their situation. It’s use of language is magnificent.

I love the lead female, her honesty and ability to put into words what she is thinking without glossing over the truth. I love the lead male for appearing real, with his love of computer games, bad driving, and for appreciating the girl’s attributes. What really sets the book apart for me though is how easy it is to read whilst relinquishing none of the depth of feeling, time or place. I was there with them, rooting for them, despite knowing how hopeless the outcome had to be.

“There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s 0.1 and 0.12 and 0.112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities […] I am grateful for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.”

This was a book where every word deserved to be there, was needed and served a purpose. There was nothing gratuitous, voyeuristic or pretentious. The author was not trying to show how clever, astute or sagacious he could be. His story climbed inside me and made me care. The use of language was sublime.

And all of this is, of course, just my opinion. To gain the reviews that it did, ‘Infinite Jest’ must have impressed many readers. Perhaps I am just not intelligent enough for it; perhaps it is simply not a book for me. There may be satisfaction in ploughing through to the end of a worthy work of esteemed literature. I am stubborn and am likely to keep trying to work my way through simply because I do not like to admit defeat.

In terms of recommendations though, ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ has blown me away. I wish to savour this intimacy before I move on. Perhaps if you have read it you will understand.

“Okay?”

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Book Review – Any Human Heart

‘Any Human Heart’ by William Boyd is not a book to read in one sitting. It covers the life of the fictional Logan Mountstuart, a marginal author and journalist from a wealthy family, whose life is woven around a tapestry of the culturally rich and famous in the twentieth century. As a piece of literature it is deep and satisfying; as a study of the human heart I found it depressing.

The book is presented in the form of a personal journal, a device that works well given the time span and subject matter to be covered. The strength of the book lies in the authors ability to write believably as a seventeen year old school boy, an aspirational graduate, a middle aged philanderer and an elderly gentleman.

The interactions with the rich and famous are as contemptuous or gauche as the protagonists situation at the time allows. As a writer and minor art expert he is unimpressed with many in these fields who he meets when young, but will invoke their names in later life to impress those around him. He has an awe of royalty which is, perhaps, a sign of the times in which he was raised.

The book succeeds in getting under the skin of many of the varied characters created to allow the story to flow. Those who we get to follow throughout their lives develop as old friends will; some steadfast and likeable despite their flaws, others whose selfishness and egotistical tendencies increase discreditably when they age. As in life, those who appear to succeed are often not those who deserve the accolades.

The book provided much food for thought and was best enjoyed in small chunks to allow for frequent processing of information and development. It was beautifully written, evocative and offered a depth that is rare. So why do I have reservations about it?

Much as I hate to generalise about these things, I suspect it may be a man’s book. The woman were there largely for background and sex; the men seemed obsessed with their virility, their ability to obtain sexual satisfaction driving much of their decision making. For all their many accomplishments and achievements, few seemed to recognise the value of anything other than this physical fulfilment. If that is how men think, then they are considerably more shallow than I give them credit for.

Perhaps it was the fact that the hedonism of youth did not subside until old age that irritated me. Despite a period when he was content to be happily married with an adored young child, subsequent behaviour ensured that this was not a state that he could repeat. If a mistake can only be made once, after which it becomes a choice, then Logan Mountstuart chose to be foolish for much of his life.

The author created a character who was given every opportunity to succeed in life. From his public school eduction, through his time at Oxford, to his early success as a writer; his contacts allowed him to move amongst the best in his field and be regarded as an elite member of the cultural club. His inability to perpetuate these jump starts to his career must be all too common, but it was his inability to be a likeable human being that killed any sympathy I may have felt for the character. Even allowing for the hardships that he endured from time to time, he ended up with more than I felt he deserved.

I found the middle section of the book, his middle age, the hardest to read. I wonder if this is because I am middle aged and wish to think that those around me are better than that which was portrayed in this book. It is to the credit of the author that he has created such a believable set of characters and annoyed me so intensely.

I preferred the penultimate few pages to the final ending, which felt a little weak to me after such a powerful, roller coaster ride through a life lived in numerous countries on four continents amongst a cast of the great, the good and the infamous. Thanks to the recommendations that caused me to add this book to my reading list, I had high hopes for it. I was disappointed not by the quality of the writing, but by my dislike of the human heart portrayed.

The shallowness of the men in this book have left me with an emptiness inside. I hope that real men are not as typical as they have been written to appear.

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Success

So, it seems that all I have to do to improve my cooking skills is write a series of blog posts saying how much I dislike the task and how bad I am at it (see Not a domestic goddess and The making of an incompetent cook). Not that I am now claiming to be competent and skillful. I will leave those accolades to my amazing friend Mrs Gillybird who can produce creations such as this: A Cake Fit For Angels. Still, this afternoon I was feeling in a positive mood and decided to make bread. I am rather pleased with the result.

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This is a loaf of Irish wheaten bread, made using my mother’s recipe with a few adjustments to allow for the fact that not all ingredients are readily available in this part of England. I used to make this bread regularly, until I had a run of unpalatable failures and lost heart. I was inspired to try again recently by a blog post written by Vernacularisms titled Well Raised. I asked for advice and tried his suggestions with great results.

Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing? Interactions with strangers get such a bad press but, just as in the outernet, the people that I encounter are mostly decent, thoughtful, supportive and willing to help out when they can.

Buoyed by my recent successes in a few areas of food production, last week I tried out a recipe that I came across on a fabulous blog written by A Girl Called Jack: Carrot, Cumin & Kidney Bean Burger. These went down very well with my fussy little family, were easy to make in advance and quick to cook when required.

I will be searching for more recipes on this blog. Jack cooks on a tight budget so does not use the sort of ingredients that are hard to come by (unless you are willing to pay Waitrose prices or have access to the sort of upmarket deli or street market that seem to exist in the posher parts of London where many of the popular food writers seem to live). Maybe I just order my shopping from the wrong places, but my store cupboard is pretty basic and I like it that way.

I made a curry for dinner this evening and there were no complaints, not even from my spice averse youngest. I really am on a roll. Perhaps my children were distracted by the prospect of pudding as my younger son had made a cake and a batch of cookies when he got in from school. Whatever the reason, producing food is much more rewarding when the results turn out as they should and are then eaten without complaint. I will be interested to see how long I can maintain this run of good results.

Reality check

There are many things about the British state education system over which I despair. The teachers seem to be expected to work in a constant state of flux as governments meddle with the curriculum in an attempt to fool the electorate into believing that standards are rising. Hard though it may now be to actually educate our young people, it is the kids who suffer these ill thought out attempts at quick fixes as the exams they work so hard for become discredited. It doesn’t help when the teachers encourage our young people to expect too much for too little.

My children attend a large, mixed gender, state comprehensive school. Today my daughter was discussing career aspirations in class. Her teacher was emphasising the importance of aiming to do something that could be enjoyed. She told the class not to consider the remuneration but rather the pleasure to be gained from a career. Whilst I would certainly agree that money is not as important as happiness, and having money does not lead to happiness, not having enough money to cover essentials is going to put anyone in a very unhappy situation. I did not consider that the teacher was giving realistic advice.

Unless one has a vocation or another source of income, choosing a career can be a very tricky decision, not least because there is rarely only one path to each destination. Most people will go out to work because they need to pay their bills. They will want a few extras on top of the essentials and these must also be paid for. The money has to be earned.

In an ideal situation a person’s job would be enjoyable and fulfilling. However, in reality, most people will have to compromise in order to achieve a lifestyle acceptable to them. To suggest that the first requirement of any job is that it should be fun is to ignore life’s basic economics. Having to go each day to a job that one hates may be miserable but so is being unable to pay for food or heating. It is to be hoped that the choice need not be so stark, but not all jobs are well paid and the implications of that need to be understood.

Our young people are put under pressure to constantly work towards exams but are not given good advice about which subjects will be well regarded by prospective employers. They are encouraged to aim for tertiary education but are not advised as to which courses lead to jobs where there is demand for trainees. These things cannot always be known, but to encourage a young person to start their life with a huge debt and a qualification that few employers will want seems to me to be unwise and unfair.

I would never wish to stifle a young person’s dreams, but I believe that we do them a disservice if they grow up believing that what they want will happen just because they want it. Most things worth achieving take a huge amount of effort and dedication as well as a degree of luck. Having a back up plan which may not be so enticing but is more realistic should be considered.

State schools seem to be so intent on treating all pupils equally that they have forgotten how to manage expectations. There are careers that will suit the more academically able and careers that will suit the more practical students. Ability will not change just because it is not discussed. There are different routes into many careers for those who may not be able to manage exams successfully. In my view, explaining these alternatives and possibilities serves the child better than encouraging them to foster unrealistic ambitions. If a child wants to be an astronaut he can be encouraged to work towards that but with the understanding that being an engineer or scientist could also be pretty awesome.

The most important lesson that we can teach our children when they are considering a career is that they will have to put in a lot of effort to get where they want to be. It is not going to just happen. Suggesting that work should always be fun ignores why people are paid; the incentive is needed. None of this is to suggest that a career that is of no interest whatsoever should be aimed for just because it pays well. There is a balance to be reached between fulfilment and remuneration. Both matter.

Encouraging a culture of self entitlement is going to lead to dissatisfaction. Encouraging an attitude that accepts a bit of humility and a lot of drive to learn and succeed through hard work is more likely to take our young people to where they want to go. There will always be a few who get to live their dreams. For the vast majority it is possible to live a pretty good life by working hard and enjoying the rewards this brings. A great deal of satisfaction can be gained from knowing that achievements have been earned through an individual’s effort and commitment. I would rate a feeling of self-fulfilment over temporal fun.

Money Queen