Friday, 23 August 2013

I can't be trusted in bookshops alone

I love to read, give me books and cups of tea and leave me alone, I won't complain.


Books are something you can take outside and sit reading while you enjoy the sunshine, or you can curl up with one under blankets at the fireside.

Oh goody! If it's raining I can spend all day inside with my books
Most of the books, and many of the clothes, I own are second hand (at least) charity shops are my supplier of choice.

They have clothes that come in a variety of styles and qualities, Hobbs and Jaeger often sharing a rail with Primark, all at prices I can totally afford. Some days you're going to want to buy everything, some days you won't see a thing. You learn to be decisive as well, that dress might be exactly the perfect thing for that event and just the right colour to match your shoes and only £3.99- but it's four sizes too big and those sweat stains under the arms probably aren't coming out so don't bother. On the other hand you would never have picked up a lilac silk blouse with yellow and turquoise swirls when it was full price, but at only £2.50 it's worth a chance.

Books are the same, you get to see everything all lined up together, occasionally there are attempts to separate them into sections of "Crime" "Romance" and "General Fiction" but generally only in the bigger shops, or ones entirely devoted to books. I prefer the ones where everything is just piled in, no attempt to order alphabetically or by size or anything, just put it where ever it fits and let the covers fight it out. This way you don't start looking with any preconceived ideas, it's just a gamble of whatever you pick up.

Admittedly it can still be as hit and miss as the clothing section, that book so many people have raved about but which seems to missing the first chapter? A Christmas Carol? You have always told yourself you'll read it one day, and for only 50p...

Sometimes the books you buy in charity shops aren't the prettiest editions, but it really is what's on the inside that counts and for less than two quid are you really going to be picky? Books that spend a couple of weeks in the bestsellers charts will generally always be found in charity shops, I picked up a copy of Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman about a fortnight after it had been released in paperback. That was one which went straight back almost immediately but it had only cost me £1 and that money went to a cause so I don't feel in the slightest bit miffed that I didn't enjoy the book. If however I'd have shelled out the RRP of £7.99 for a paperback with a boring cover, well... On the other hand I picked up Arabella by Georgette Heyer a while ago and every day is a struggle not to order her complete works.

I do buy full priced books, sometimes I even buy ones that I end up hating, but not often, I buy books upon their release when they're from an author I adore and if I see a special edition of a book I love (the Penguin clothbound editions for example...

Beautiful books are a luxury but books and stories aren't, second hand clothes might give you the squicks so walk past them, support charities and fill your houses with literature.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

In the event of a zombie apocalypse...

Today I filled out a job application, for a job I'd really like to get, not only to help pay for things like rent and food but because it's an awesome job and something I'd really like to do.

The application was so difficult though, it launched me into one of those pesky existential crises that so dramatically effect French philosophers and teenagers, or people approaching new phases of their life. Anything that starts with "Outline a time when you..." or "Describe an occasion when you..." demands of you looking back and evaluating your actions. You start trying to analyse everything you've ever done so you can distill the experience down to 250 words and use it to convince a stranger that they should offer you employment.

I read Max Brooks World War Z recently and there is a portion of it set in post-armageddon LA where there are a whole bunch of big TV producers and stars being retrained in how to effectively clean a toilet. We also meet characters, a film director is one that stands out, who as society tries to rebuild itself are told they are unskilled useless people, essentially. They can move rubble and help dig graves but really aren't good for anything.

This led to the inevitable pondering of "What would I do if there was a zombie apocalypse/civilisation destroying event of your choosing?" Assuming I found a way to survive the initial onslaught by what could I do next? What skills could I add to the mix of humanity to make sure that we rebuilt ourselves?

That then led me to the inevitable epiphany of "Shit, never mind a zombie apocalypse, what can I do now? What assets do I have that I can use to benefit society or at least my bank balance?"

I've done a lot, I've lived abroad, I'm an ace public speaker, tell me to get something done and come hell or high water it will be done. But I lack direction and motivation to make my own decisions, I struggle when somebody asks me what I want to do because my own ambitions seem dreamy and unattainable. Also, you know the old thing of You can be ANYTHING you want, but you can't be EVERYTHING yeah, that shit pisses me off. Choosing to do something, I find, makes all the difference but without an end game in mind I flounder and when you can be anything you want, how can you possibly choose?

Well, that turned out heavier than I expected it to when I started...

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Lazy lifetimes slip away.

So I'm a student and at the minute there is no uni, it comes back in a few weeks and next summer I graduate which means this summer is possible my last summer holiday that will last long enough for me to wish it could hurry up a bit.

How am I spending it then, you cry? Watching TV, a lot of television and films and books and occasionally leaving the house but I'm on a strict budget of zero and that interferes somewhat with what can be achieved. This isn't entirely voluntary, when I was away on my epic trek round Greece and Turkey I hurt my hip, nothing to serious, but it needs rest and walking more than about two miles or cycling more than five or standing up for too long becomes quite painful.

C'est la vie.

I've been trying to think about the future in a kind of "Oh christ I graduate soon what am I going to do" sort of way. It hasn't gone well, I get all confused and stressed and have to go away and read or cuddle puppies for an hour to regain some equilibrium.

So on the future front, I've given up. I have never had that knack some people do of knowing where I want to be past a couple of years anyway, I don't have a defined life goal or career objective, I know that if I knew what I wanted to do then I could just work on getting there but I don't so I can't. Instead I'm just trying to focus on the present, what do I want to be doing right now, pick an activity goal for the week and work towards that. This blog is one of those sort of goals, I want to write more and I want to write things people actually read so I'm starting small, I'm putting it on the internet in a quiet personal sort of way and just seeing what happens.

I've been out on the bike a fair bit, getting fresh air and exercise and hoping I'll keep it up. I've been making things, dying silk scarves in the hopes of making some money off them, so far though I've only made a few and I haven't got around to doing anything but looking at them and thinking "They're quite pretty, someone would probably think they were worth something" but I haven't taken photographs to advertise them with or anything yet.

Blergh. Here's to progress, let's hope we make some.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Harpy Reads: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

So one of the things I did when I was on my epic odyssey round Greece and Turkey (and if you saw what I did there you get extra Classics geek points) was read a lot. I read a fair bit anyway, but I knew that this was going to be a long trip that involved a lot of bus rides, ferry boats and generally waiting around in between doing the amazing things I had planned.

I know that when I left I took a selection of books, unfortunately I can’t find the photo of them that I’m certain I took nor can I remember them all. 

The one I really do remember though was this:


Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a book I’ve tried to read so many times before, when it first came out (nearly ten years ago!) it got all sorts of rave reviews and stayed on the New York Time’s bestseller list for eleven weeks. I’ve bought at least three copies (from charity shops, my love of books does not exceed my love of being able to afford food) and they have sat there looking at me, willing me to read them before being sent back for taking up too much space. When I tried to read it I’ve always encountered the same problems.

It’s a very big book. Huge. 1024 pages according to Amazon. This means it’s heavy to carry around with you and it’s difficult to hold, especially if you’re like me and you have hands that cramp up easily.

It’s a slow burner. This is not a book that grabs you from the word go, I know people who are of the opinion that life is to short and if you have to stick with a book for more than 20 pages to get into it then it’s just not worth it. Stick with it for 50.

By the time you get to page 50 you will, I promise, be invested. It took a little while for it to fall into place for me just how clever Susanna Clarke had been, not only has she written a beautiful world, delightful characters and a charming story, she’s done it with style! This book is written in a way which echos a historical tome, it’s a little dry in places and there were passages that could have been cut to give it more zip and speed but that would have spoilt the overall effect.

Half fairy tale and half historic accounting.

The story centres around a single idea: it is 1806 and magic has left England, the great magicians of old have all faded away and are now remembered as “practical magicians” by the new breed of “theoretical magicians” who meet to discuss and analyse the idea of magic. The book opens at one such meeting where the young gentleman Mr Segundus is prompted to ask why magic has left England, where has it gone and will it ever return? These are not the sort of questions, it turns out, you ask at a meeting of English Magicians who cannot do magic. Something though is changing and through two men, see title, magic is being returned to England.

Can you guess how that goes? They both come at the same problem from essentially opposite directions and much chaos ensues.

Jonathan Strange, a young man who falls into magic almost accidentally as a means to impress a girl, is far closer to what I think most of us would expect a magician to approach magic, there’s a lot of airy fairy hippy imagination and creativity goes into his magic.

Mr Norrell is older and more curmudgeonly and set in his ways, he views magic as an academic undertaking, treating it almost scientifically as something limited and volatile.

There are so many other characters woven in, with so many wonderful stories of their own, the man with the thistle down hair, the King of England, the magnificent Stephen and the dreadful Drawlight, to name but a few. We follow these characters all over Europe, on a far more detailed tour of England and into the other realms that Clarke has created.

One of the things I most enjoyed was how Clarke had built her world in a parallel to our own and there were historical details sprinkled throughout to show how she’d done her homework. These ranged from the kinds of drinks and fashions her characters enjoyed to discussing how real Napoleonic battles might have gone differently had magic been a consideration.

I really enjoyed this book, once I got into it but like I said that took a few goes. This is perfect as a holiday read, if you’re going somewhere and you’ll have a lot of time to sit around and read and enjoy a good story unfolding then get this. 

Julian Fellows, of Downton Abbey fame, is currently adapting it into a feature length screenplay and the BBC are filming a seven part adaptation for television so give it a go and see what all the fuss is about.