A Woman’s Work – Harriet Harman

I’ve never actually had all that much patience for Harriet Harman, seeing her as yet another New Labour architect. But in A Woman’s Work, she takes the opportunity to set out her case, and highlight the compromises she took that in her belief improved the world around her.

Her memoirs run from the heartbreaking of struggling against the establishment during the Thatcher era, through to the ridiculous of Robin Cook’s assumption that she was having an affair, when in truth she had kept a promise to her son about a day out. Her lessons from this are:

Firstly, while children will never forget a broken promise, there’s always someone who can stand in for you at work. And secondly, that while it would, in the eyes of my colleagues, have been beyond the pale for me to be absent because of my children, falling down in my duties because of an affair was not only understood by my male colleagues but thoroughly approved of.

But throughout the strong clear message is that compromises are not ideal, but they are worth it if it means that Labour can get into power and start making changes for the betterment of society. When she unexpectedly finds herself as acting leader after Brown’s resignation, her speech is that

….we should be proud of our legacy and that it would endure.

We also get a ringside seat for the Blair/Brown troubles from a woman who was close friends with both, which provides valuable insight to how the power struggle there started, and how it would end. She is also how Ed Milliband first enters politics, along with providing mentoring support to so many of the women who are now household names.

But above all else she is in politics for feminism. To promote equal rights and be a leader who facilitates other women’s liberation. Her use of her whole career to this arena is impressive, and despite her claims that too little progress has been made, to see how much can be attributed to Harman directly or indirectly is inspiring.

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The Elements of Style – William Strunk Jr and E. B. White

The Elements of Sytle is a classic writing style guide, referenced by The Sense of Style, and then again mentioned in an edition of Slightly Foxed.

Not a book for a single reading, this is full of advice on how to write – from how to structure writings through to specific grammar rules and full of examples. The advice is good, however after reading Strunk’s guidelines to omit needless words, it is hard to write at length about this tiny little guide.

Men Without Women – Haruki Murakami

Men Without Women is a set of short stories by Murakami, about central male characters for which a large part of their identities is the absence of specific women. From this central theme we have an actor in declining health, a bar owner and various degrees of criminal.

Murakami convincingly enters all of these minds, and draws us into the mystery of their current existence. He is a skilled writer, and builds each story elegantly to draw the reader in. However none of the stories end on a satisfying high note. Instead each conclusion is bitter, or in some cases, downright frightening.

Slightly disappointed, as I mostly read for escapism and like there to be some joy in my reading, along with the writing quality.

The Lost Art of Letter Writing – Menna van Praag

This is a very improbable book, made less so by some of the characters having stated Powers. However it runs into the uncanny level of Powers, I find it easier to read full-blown fantasy than “real world” with people just having supernatural levels of perception. The former is escapism, the latter is a bit weird.

However once that has been set aside this is a lovely comfort read. Nothing very challenging, and about the power of writing to transform lives. The historical story set within letters is more emotionally challenging, but is set at one step removed.

I would recommend Menna van Praag’s writing for lazy Sunday morning reading.

Acts of Union and Disunion – Linda Colley

This book was written in the lead-up to the Scottish Independence referendum, so should be read through a filter of not knowing the outcome of either that, nor the Brexit vote.  But as a historical look at how the constituent parts of the British Isles have combined and been seperated through history, this is fascinating. The perspective of each of the four main nations are considered, and both peaceful and warlike.

As a Northerner (England) I particularly appreciated an acceptance that there are parts of England that do not benefit from Westminster rule, given the London bias and also that having the English and UK representation from the same parliament causes consitutional issues.

This is well-written about a subject matter that could be very dry, and is worth a read for anyone wondering how the UK got into the pickle it is currently in.

Tempests and Slaughter – Tamora Pierce

With the Numair Cronicals, Pierce is doing what she does best, and is taking us back to school. But this time we are not learning to hit things with sticks, but Numair is learning how to practise magic. Not only Numair though, we are back with his closest friends, Osborne and Varice.

We don’t start with the fiercely competent Numair from the Daine books, but an awkward Arram Draper, who is sick when watching the gladiator games when his father comes to visit. But we follow him being escalated through the normal classes as an obviously extremely talented student.

“And magic depends on perfection,” Cosmos interputed.

I love that instead of making the teachers difficult people, for the most part Pierce makes them motivated good mentors, who share their research and work with a gifted boy, as long as he works. And work hard is what he does, what all three of them do to work out how to find their own places in the world.

How Ozorne is shaped through this period, instead of being a cruel tyrant this now becomes a tragic story arc to those of us who know its conclusion. His starting place is just to be a boy who wants his own home and a place to practice magic, and he is renowned as the boy who will never get to be emperor. He does not get the same safe supportive mentors as Draper, but instead is manipulated through his grief-stricken state.

I look forward to seeing where Pierce next takes this arc, and the Numair we know is being shaped from the boy Arram.

La Belle Sauvage – Philip Pullman

Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy is one of my favourite rereads. Lyra’s journey is many things: a commentary on faith, a fantasy multiverse and a coming of age story.

La Belle Sauvage is a prequel, and opens in the setting of an unfamiliar pub. But we are swiftly moved into a world of Alethiometers, scholars and the Magesterium. The nostelgia trip is complete with dæmons, witches and gyptians too.

I loved this. Pullman’s fantasy world is as rich as ever, and he continues to explore the dynamics behind abuse of power and how that affects real people.

The Marshmallow Test – Walter Mischel

For the unintiaiated, the “marshmallow test” was an experiment conducted with preschool children to establish what their ability to exercise self-control to wait for a larger reward was. In the original experiment, this was one marshmallow (or similar treat) as soon as they wanted, or double this if they waited until an adult returned to the room.

But crucially, the research underpinning The Marshmallow Test is that self-control at a very early age has a strong impact on outcomes throughout life. Those who can delay gratification for 20 minutes for a greater reward at a young age on average achieve better qualifications, save more for retirement and manage more stable relationships.

Mischel then sets out to understand what factors effect self control, from genes through stress levels in infancy, to factors under the control of adults. He tests public policies, parenting techniques and ways to control your thinking process to allow slower thinking to step into decision making. Thinking Fast and Slow was referenced, along with other research into how we control impulsive decision making and step back.

I found this an interesting read, and am glad I picked it up from the library.

Goodbye Christopher Robin – Ann Thwaite

I read Goodbye Christopher Robin travelling across France on a TGV, with my son next to me giggling uncontrollably as he listened to The House at Pooh Corner on audiobook. He is of course “Christopher Robin” age, happily and innocently talking to his soft toys.

I was surprised by how long it took in this book for a wedge to be driven between author and son, and how devoted the author was, despite his mistakes in sharing that. I can clearly see where all this sharing is going, even without the clear hint from the title. But it is a love story of a marriage and then the bonds between a father and son. How these bonds are severed leads to a heartbreaking conclusion.

 

Reaper Man – Terry Pratchett

I’m starting to get a feel for title puns here: Reaper Man is not only mostly about Death, but about Death becoming a man. And of course, if Death takes a sabbatical, all manner of chaos is set loose across Discworld. No-one can die, and energies are building up.

‘But I don’t think Death ever came for a potato,’ said the Dean doubtfully.
‘Death comes for everything,’ said the Archchancellor, firmly.

This is fast-paced, chapterless, and flits between viewpoints. Ultimately though, there are three-four main threads to the story, which all pull together for a very tidy ending. Death learns humanity and the value of a temporary existence, and the internal politics of Ankh-Morpork nearly prevent the world from being saved.

The supermarket trolleys made me laugh, and the wider theme of compassion made me think, as it was supposed to. The next book as arrived on my ereader via the library app, so I’ll be diving into that soon.