2013 Review Thingo (thanks, again, to Shauna…)

Like last year, I’m mercilessly plagiarising from  Shauna Reid (see hers at http://www.shaunareid.com/2013/01/2012-review-thingo.html). It’s a great way to figure out where your year went right, and where it went not-so-right, and what to focus on for the year to come. 2013 was relentless, surprising and more than a little surreal, and I’m looking forward to 2014 being a bit less of each, thank you.

1. What did you do this year that you’d never done before?

I took over as head of a large research programme following the death of a friend. Very, very big shoes to fill, and I’ve spent much of this year trying to re-imagine something already wonderful that didn’t belong to me in a way that’s respectful and doesn’t throw out the baby with the bath water. I’ve been to new countries, sat in the Emirates lounge, spoke in front of a number of senior policy makers a number of times. Lots and lots of new things from a work perspective. From a home perspective…? Still no sky diving, still no international espionage. Still need to work on that.

2. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next this year?

Um, still didn’t manage to write resolutions for last year, and with the chaos following A’s death, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. But this year, I’m making three big resolutions: 1) this blog, 2) getting healthier and 3) investing something beyond our pensions/the kids’ college funds.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?

My friend, Nick, had a little girl. Two dear friends had devastating miscarriages, though, and I feel their losses. I’m crocheting a blanket right now in the hopes that one of them will need it before 2014 is out.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

A, although I would never say I was very close to him. We were friends, though, and I’ve learned a great deal about him this year that I didn’t know before.

5. What countries did you visit?

USA, Australia, Singapore, India, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, UAE.

6. What would you like to have next year that you lacked in this one?

Time to breathe and to reflect on everything that’s happened. I’d also like to write a book.

7. What dates from this year will remain etched upon your memory, and why?

22nd November, when I was supposed to be in the States at my grandmother’s 90th birthday party but was instead at a policy event in Delhi, and then 30th November, when my family celebrated my grandmother’s birthday with me there.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

Winning another new research contract, hiring several new colleagues (and, now, friends). Creating a ‘buzz’, from what I’ve been told. Getting promoted was pretty cool too.

9. What was your biggest failure?

One of my dearest friends lost his father in April, and I found out about it in November… My friendships have paid the dearest price for the relentlessness of this year. My children haven’t coped very well, either, with all of the travel, and nor has my long-suffering husband. Complaining about a colleague who was trying to undermine me behind his back, which is just as bad.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

No, thankfully!

11. What was the best thing you bought?

The perfect coffee table in a Red Cross shop for £30. And my kindle for off-line reading.

12. Where did most of your money go?

Interest and my children.

13. What did you get really, really, really excited about?

Almost everything to do with this new research programme, but especially the chance to work with the loveliest team ever. Going to Australia. My sister’s first book selling fantastically well. Getting an assistant. Really, really excited about the last one!

Watching my husband up on stage with Gabby Young and Other Animals at my kids’ first ever live show was pretty cool too. It was only for a few minutes, but it’s a memory we’ll have for a long, long time.

14. What song will always remind you of this year?

Hmm…I don’t feel like I’ve listened to a lot of new music this year. I’ve subscribed to Rdio, and I’ve been listening to a lot of older music. Lots of Eagles in my office.

15. Compared to this time last year, are you:

a) happier or sadder?

Happier. Grateful. Blessed.

b) thinner or fatter?

Neither. I’m exactly the same as I was this time last year. Which is depressing and definitely needs to be remedied!

c) richer or poorer?

Richer, but only marginally. Need to get serious about saving.

16. What do you wish you’d done more of?

Writing for pleasure. Spending time with friends. Being in the moment with my kids. Sex.

17. What do you wish you’d done less of?

Up to a point, travelling. Too much of it all bunched together with no time to breathe.

18. How did you spend Christmas?

At home, as usual, and really chilled out.

19. Did you fall in love this year?

Nope.

20. What was your favorite TV program?

Luther on Netflix and on flights. Borgen. The Vikings.

21. What was the best book you read?

Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. Susan Cain’s Quiet. Joyce Maynard’s The Good Daughters. Graham Alcott’s Productivity Ninja. Lily Baldwin’s To Bewitch a Highlander (shameless plug for my sister’s book!).

22. What was your favorite film of this year?

Watching Pacific Rim in Imax 3-D with my 9 year old son was a real experience. Like being hit with a wall of sound. ‘Did you enjoy that?’ I asked him. ‘Hmm…on a scale of 1 to 10, I would give that A MILLION!’.

23. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?

I was 41. I was in the States with my own family for the first time in a long time. My parents made a great dinner, and all of my siblings came over. I spent much of it consoling one of my brothers who has gone through a rough divorce though. Come si, comme sa.

24. What kept you sane?

Sauvignon blanc and cups of tea with good friends.

25. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?

At the risk of sounding very shallow, Travis Fimmel from Vikings. Kind of hard not to growl a little bit when he’s on screen.

26. Who did you miss?

My sister. Always my sister.

27. Who was the best new person you met?

The manager of my new research programme, Heather. I’m not sure I could love her any more if she actually was my sister.

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Cozy mystery leads to rediscovery

My sister has just written her first novel, a romance novel set in medieval Scotland.  We’ve been discussing genre writing, and she introduced me to the concept of the ‘cozy mystery‘. I love crime fiction, but I tend to like my protagonists flawed, my settings dark and my crimes a bit twisted. I love novels that have a political message and reveal something of the human condition. My favourites by a long shot include Andrea CamilleriJo NesboHenning MankellMaj Sjowall & Per WalooArne DahlGianrico CarofiglioMichele Giuttari and Ian Rankin. I do occasionally read books that fall under the ‘cozy mystery’ banner – by Alexander McCall Smith or Colin Cotterill, for example – but most of the books I read in this genre are blisteringly dark.

rebusmontalbanonesbo (from Heather's Macbook Air)

When I sit down to write something non-academic, though, I can’t write like this (and not just because I have barely a whisper of the talent that these writers have!). I get through my ‘darkness’ through my academic writing, which is about the darker side of state-society relations, and when I’m off-duty, this girl just wants to have fun. And so my sister introduced me to the cozy mystery.

moon spinners

I read very little American fiction nowadays, despite having spent the first 25 years of my life in the US, and I don’t have any favourite US crime writers. I toured the cozy mystery section of Barnes & Noble as a complete novice, sure only that I have my limits when it comes to ‘cozy’. I definitely didn’t want Christian and cozy. I didn’t want peach pie baking and cozy. I didn’t want poodle-breeding and cozy. I mean, seriously. I finally settled on Sally Goldenbaum‘s Seaside Knitters series. Set in the North Shore of Massachusetts, just south of where I was born and where I lived very happily for five years before moving to the UK, the series follows a group of women of a range of ages who meet up once a week for a knitting club and end up solving murders. (yes…I am perfectly aware that there’s the finest of lines between knitting books and pie baking books…) I like all of the characters, and the murders are often pretty dark, if not graphic. But the cozy comes through in the setting, which takes me right back to my own time living in a little cottage on the North Shore. The characters are fairly affluent, and so there’s an appeal in their gentle, middle-class lifestyles, filled with good food, original art, charity work and beautiful wraparound decks for drinks parties, particularly as – in good New England fashion – no one is very ‘showy’. And then there’s the knitting. Sometimes the knitting metaphors get in the way and have clearly been placed in order to fit the genre, but I closed the first one that I read (‘Moon Spinners’, third in the series) and went straight away to get my plastic tub full of yarn from the garage.

crochet

I like crocheting, not knitting, but the effect is the same, at least in terms of well-being. In the last month, I crocheted a scarf for my daughter, and am about a quarter of the way through an absolutely gorgeous blanket. Instead of spending the last couple of hours at the end of the day in front of the tv flicking around on my iPhone, I’m crocheting my beautiful blanket, something that will hopefully become an heirloom. I’ve made my way back into the local yarn shop, and I’ve not been able to resist buying yarn already for my own winter scarf, which will come after this blanket is done. As far as hobbies go, crocheting is tactile and soft and warm and colourful and soothing and, let’s face it, cozy.

I may be no closer to penning my own first novel, but at least if I do continue on with it as a winter project, I’ll be able to do it lying under my own handmade and very cozy blanket.

Friends, Lovers, Chocolate

My second easy, cheerful purchase from the Red Cross Bookshop is Alexander McCall Smith’s Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, from his Isabel Dalhousie series. I’m right in the middle of it, so I won’t review it just yet, but I had a horrible realisation this morning.

I’ve always pictured Isabel as someone who is ever so slightly like Miss Marple, an aging spinster who wears a grey skirt when she works and has male friends, but not lovers. Imagine my horror when I discovered that she is, in fact, in her early 40s. Her early 40s??!! My age! How many women in the early 40s wear grey skirts when they’re working at home, or diamante earrings when they go out to meet a new gentleman. How many spend hours in the company of an attractive man in his mid-20s without at least imagining a wee bit of depravity? They might not act on it, but they certainly would be imagining it!

The reason why these are lovely little petit fours of books is because they’re in no way dark, but are instead gentle and cozy – gezzelig, as the Dutch say. But there’s no excuse for entirely desexualising a 40 year old woman, nor for making a real-life 40 year old woman go into semi-shock!

Just to make it clear…

Aging spinster in grey skirt and cream cardigan =  

Women in her 40s in grey = 

Can you spot the difference? Answers in an SAE please…

The Gun Seller, by Hugh Laurie

I wanted to read something light and funny while on holiday and picked up The Gun Seller, by Hugh Laurie, at the Red Cross Bookshop. I almost gave up on it within the first three chapters or so, because Laurie’s voice comes through very strongly (very strongly…), and it’s not entirely plausible for his main character. I’ve never met any ex-military, potential assassin types, but if I were to, I doubt very much whether ‘By golly!’ is a key part of their vocabulary. Still, I stuck with it, and I’m glad to have done so.

Despite the ‘By gollys’, the main character, Thomas Lang, is compelling – likeable, brave, honest and violent – a difficult combination to pull together, but Laurie has managed it here. The plot is big, dealing with high politics and corruption, but doing so in a way that is personal. The triumph here is that the conspiracy around which the plot rests, which I won’t go into to avoid spoilers, feels like it could actually happen in real life, and that is very scary.

Jo Nesbo’s ‘Headhunters’

I’m a huge fan of Jo Nesbo’s. As a writer, he manages to deliver consistently excellent plots with deeply real characters and the kind of writing that both makes your heart race and leaves you spitting through your teeth with envy. There’s a scene in The Leopard where he’s trapped in a mountain cabin that’s been buried by an avalanche, and I swear my own breathing stopped, and I had to whip the duvet off to avoid the crushing claustrophobia that came over me. *That’s* good writing for you.

Headhunters is the first of Jo Nesbo’s books that I’ve read that hasn’t featured Harry Hole. I decided to put aside the rest of his books and take this one on face value. Having said that, it is not quite as good as the others, but I suspect that’s because you don’t have time to grow to love the characters. And, it has to be said, not a single character is loveable. But it is funny, and it is suspenseful, and it has to have the best outhouse scene since Slumdog Millionaire.

Roger Brown is a headhunter specialising in CEO-level jobs. He’s very good at what he does, which is a good thing, because he leads a very expensive lifestyle. His beautiful wife runs an art gallery, and in additional to providing the financial backing for this, he makes sure that he gives her a big house, a flash car, and everything her heart desires, except for the baby that she wants and he doesn’t.

Roger makes a good living, but it isn’t enough, so he has a sideline in art theft. It’s the combination of his day job and his night one that gets him into big trouble when an exciting prospect for an executive job is introduced to him by his wife at her gallery.

I’ll leave it there, as I don’t want to give away spoilers, but it is a cracking read. Nesbo has little time for the sort of high-octane, materialistic, yummy mummy, Range Rover driving, designer posers that his Oslo seems to be full of, and his Roger Brown is their king. There’s a scene where he’s trying to figure out the background of a man by guessing his aftershave. He’s sure it’s a particular brand. ‘Or something in that price range anyway.’ Little snippets of interior monologue like this help to build up a sense of a man who judges others solely by their net worth, and expects others to do the same to him. Everything that Rogers gets in the book, every horrible, painful, freaky thing,  you can imagine is what Nesbo would love to see happen to Oslo’s elite (of which he clearly also is…). It makes for a highly entertaining read, where the baddies all get their grotesque comeuppance (or at least most of them do), and there’s even a clever twist (or two, or three…). I’m still waiting patiently for the next Harry novel to be translated into English, but no one does crime as well as Nesbo, including here.

And he’s not half bad to look at, either.

Self-Help Summer Vacation

My reading this summer seems to be either about serial killers or self-help. Not sure what on earth this says about me! My current stack of books is a combination of sartorial guidance, getting organised, getting fitter and developing better leadership skills.

I’ve been away a lot this year, and one of the things that I love about it (other than going out to eat in nice restaurants with an expense account!) is that I have become a master packer. I love how the hotel closet looks, with only clothes that I love and that I actually wear hanging loosely apart. I love getting up and choosing something to wear for the day with very little thought and effort, having planned out my week’s activities and what I’ll need.

And then I get home, cram all of those clothes back into my closet alongside lots of other things that don’t fit or don’t suit me or aren’t my style but were on sale…

It may seem like quite a shallow point (and in the grand scheme of the world, it really really is!), but it’s part of my quest to try to live life a bit more mindfully. On the one hand, I don’t want to consume any more than I need to, and so I want to buy smarter and use what I buy (rather than never use, set to one side and eventually give to charity). On the other hand, I also want to think less about all sorts of things and just get on with it. I want to get dressed in the morning without staring at my closet, eventually going, ‘Sod it…I’ll just wear my jeans off the floor and a shirt’.

Part of this is getting to know my style a bit better. According to the closet-gurus in ‘Nothing to Wear?‘, my style is Bohemian-Chic, which sounds about right. According to ‘Colour Me Beautiful‘, my style is Natural, which translates as roughly the same thing. Both say to avoid anything too structured, too ‘classic’. So this morning I dug out a pair of tan suede Prada shoes that I’ve owned for 8 years – a treat to myself when I first started working – and have worn out of the house exactly twice. They look like the sort of thing a trendier Hilary Clinton would wear. Not. My. Style. So I’m going to eBay them, along with a few other things, and put whatever money I get aside in order to buy a nice pair of ballerina flats, which is much more my style.

One thing I’ve learned though through this extensive and frivolous research, which I pass on to you, dear readers. Molly Ringwald – who I am truly enjoying reading – is wrong about something. Not every woman should own a black cashmere turtleneck. Not everyone looks good in black (according to Colour Me Beautiful, I do…which is useful as 3/4 of my wardrobe is black). And women with boobs (34H I wear) should never, ever, EVER wear turtlenecks…cashmere or not! So the trick is to enjoy reading this sort of fluffy self-help, but remember to be bien dans sa peau, as Mireille Guiliano reminds us – good in your own skin. And my skin will never go near a turtleneck again.

Women, Work & the Art of Savoir Faire

My current book is by the delightful Mireille Guiliano, called Women, Work and the Art of Savoir Faire.

As the book description says: ‘This is a book about life, how to make the most of it, how to find your balance when you are working long days and trying to be happy and fulfilled. Mireille Guiliano has written the kind of book she wishes she had been given when starting out in the business world and had at hand along the way. She draws on her own experiences at the forefront of women in business to offer lessons, stories, helpful hints – and even recipes! – that can make the working world a happier and more satisfying part of a well-balanced life. Mireille talks about style, communication skills, risk taking, leadership, etiquette, mentoring, personal relationships and much more, all from a perspective of three decades in business. This book is about helping women (and a few men, peut-etre) feel good about themselves, being challenged and engaged in our working lives, and always looking for pleasure in every single day.’

I’m torn between feeling like Ms Guiliano is a tad smug from time to time (though that could be both her French and American characteristics coming through! I’ve been in the UK long enough to feel a bit suspicious of anyone who isn’t at least a little self-deprecating), and then wanting to buy this book for every working woman I know. The advice she gives, as someone who has worked her way right to the top in a heavily male-dominated industry, is sound, and is about how imbalance between work and life affects the quality of both. Some of her advice is very practical, and I’ll write more about that another time. Some of it seems somewhat old-fashioned (she is, presumably, in her 60s…albeit a foxy 60s!), and yet I can still see the relevance (quick quiz: when you leave the table, where do you leave your napkin?). All of it is suffused with her clear passion for both her work and her life.

Photo: Andrew French

I say ‘working women’ because it does presume that the reason why you’re reading it is because you work, and she is evangelical about the benefit of work for pretty much anyone. I have to say that I am too, so it’s a message that suits me, but I can imagine that someone staying at home to take care of their kids would find little here for her. The author did not have children herself, and so although she is aware of the challenges of balancing it all with children, it’s not something she herself experienced directly. This is not inconsequential. The reason why I have made so little time for myself in recent years is because my children – not my job really – have sucked it all away from me! I spend less time doing my job than I used to, because of my children. I spend less time on myself than I used to, because of my children. And I wouldn’t want to spend any less time with them than I do. So that means I need to figure out how to do less work, and to do what I do more efficiently, in order to find time for myself.

This book is making a small contribution to helping me figure this out, and for that I’ll give it to friends who are in a similar place in their lives.

A Spot of Holiday Reading?

As my son is often fond of saying, we have ‘Buyingbookitis’ in our family.

This was my hoard find today from the Oxfam bookshop. I was so good in Waterstones, leaving 3 fantastic books in the 3 for 2 deal on a table, but for the same price, I got all of these. In the olden days (i.e., BC), I probably would’ve taken 3 novels and 3-4 magazines with me for a week away, and I probably would’ve finished the lot. Nowadays (i.e., AC…After Children), I’ll take away my Shape magazine, the book I have half finished (Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö‘s The Locked Room), and one other, likely to be Håkan Nesser‘s Borkmann’s Point. I’ll hopefully come back with both books finished…you never know!