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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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.

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.

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.

Heritage of Lakeland – A. Harry Griffin

Prior to picking this book up, I was unaware of Harry Griffin’s writings about climbing and general life in the Lake District. He wrote in an interesting era, as the national parks were set up, and climbing was becoming a more popular hobby. He also has the great benefit of writing as a local, who lived his life at the foot of the fells, and knew both the fells and the people who climbed them and made a living from them intimately.

This collection is broken into distinct sections, covering the main publications he wrote for: the Lancashire Evening Post, Cumbria, Fell and Rock Climbing Club, The Guardian Country Diary pieces, and a set of other writings. Each of these display that intimacy, and give imersive descriptions of climbing and exploring the fells, or meeting shepherds in the pub, or of his life as a music journalist.

His descriptions are so inspiring that I am tempted to learn to climb myself, and not just plod across the summits. But I think I’ll stick to plodding and skiing for now. His music pieces have also returned me to regular piano-playing

Because he loved the Lake District so much, this shone in not only his climbing but also his curiosity as to how the ancient routes across the fells came to be. What did Moses of Moses’s trod really smuggle? Who is the Jack that Jack’s Rake is named after? Sadly these are unknown, and become more unknowable as time passes, so they remain as open questions.

This is a well-curated collection by a writer who loved his subject, and well worth reading through.

Mort – Terry Pratchett

I have spent about 20 years telling people I don’t like Pratchett’s writing. Periodically I’d pick one up and give it a try, but it never quite chimed with me. Then a few people convinced me to give it another go, and I ran out of books with only my ereader on me, and spotted Mort (start of the death series) was immediately available.

For everyone who over the years has shook their heads at me not liking Pratchett, I apologise. Mort was unputdownably brilliant.

I now have Reaper Man on order at the library, only because I am too short on shelf space to buy every Discworld book right now (the long-planned library remodelling will be the subject of a later post).

I liked Mort as a character, but Death himself really was what dragged me in. His attitude to life, and kittens, along with the attempt to find an apprentice were all very compelling. The plot is perfectly paced, and the humour light.

Sadly the library auto-returned my copy before I wrote this post though, so I have lost my bookmarked quotes. I shall do better next time…

Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman

Gaiman leads us on an adventure through Norse mythology, as we discover the complex network of relationships and characters that make up this mythology. As he states, it is a shame that many of the supposed tales have been lost through time, and Gaiman only works with those that remain.

The Norse myths to me do speak of a cold mountainous land. One where powers struggle against each other to gain an upper hand, and giants roam the lands beyond. But it is a fully-realised world, with details filled in to make compelling tales.

Gaiman celebrates Loki’s cunning, whilst slightly mocking Thor’s excessive use of strength. And they are all very fallible. In fact the fallibility of the gods is most of what the stories are about, combined with their willingness to sacrifice each other for personal gain, and inhuman speed, strength and stamina.

Not in God’s Name – Jonathan Sacks

An exploration of the history of the three Abrahamic religions and their sibling-like relationship.

Aside from the inbuilt assumption that God is real, this made for fascinating reading. The history of how the three religions came into existence is told through the parables of sibling rivalry. Then we understand how theology has developed peacefully and how all the intention of peace between tribes is subverted into violence and rivalry.

Unfortunately as this was recommended to me by someone who was trying to explain where faith comes from to me, it still felt like faith as a social control method, even if it is supposed to be used for good.