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Weeknotes 2022.31

A few things I’ve been thinking about this week. The thirty-first post of a series.

I’ve moaned more than enough on here about ridiculous imprecise business jargon, but I’m being invited to a rash of “birdtable meetings” at the moment. This phrase manages to be both linguistically excruciating as well as grammatically irritating. I can accept “birdtable” as a non-standard compound adjective in the phrase “birdtable meeting”—but the moment people use “birdtable” as a noun, and continue to omit the space, it really makes my teeth itch.

I’m fully aware that this makes me a ludicrous human being, that the rules of grammar aren’t fixed in any case, that I make much worse grammatical errors all the time, and that I should just breathe through it: but it still irritates me.

I’ve been reading Caroline Knowles’s Serious Money this week. She mentions that when wealthy people dig out multi-storey basements below their central London houses, the digger used is often left in situ, because to extract it again is uneconomic. I think I’d heard that before, but I’d never really pondered the details.

Presumably, one has to be quite careful about removing all the fuel to prevent a fire hazard. Does the digger get walled in, or is an access point left just in case? If the latter, do you finish the room where the digger is, or is it just a dark and dusty dug-out dungeon? Do people try and make a feature of it, like some of the London Underground tunnelling machinery? So many questions…

I’ve long been irritated by self-censorship in the news which leads to scripts referring to “the n-word” or “the p-word” or whatever. It irritates me because it omits a key fact from the story and fails to educate the reader or listener that the term under discussion is inappropriate. Language changes over time and these are “teachable” moments—and no-one can be reasonably offended by an appropriately couched single mention. I’m not calling for offensive advice words in banner headlines.

This has reached a fresh nadir this week, with BBC News publishing an article about the removal of a word from some lyrics. The only clues given are that the word “has been used to demean people with spastic cerebral palsy” and that it has a variety of other meanings. I can think of multiple words that fit those criteria—words I wouldn’t use—but what if this is a new usage of a word I would normally use?

Even The Guardian, which has a specific policy of stating words “when necessary to the facts of the piece”—which is surely the case here—kept it secret.

This could have been an article that helped me to be more sensitive to others’ perceptions of language. Instead, because they haven’t told me which word is offensive, it’s essentially just noise.

This week, an expansion to the Guggenheim in Bilbao has been approved, with two extensions on sites 5km apart connected by a greenway, and connected to the main museum—40km away—through a brand new tunnel bored through a mountain.

Having never even been to Bilbao, and having seen only a couple of paragraphs about the plan in the press, I’m really not at all qualified to have an opinion. Nevertheless, I got a little thrill at the sheer audacity of the plan when I first read about it this week. I felt a little boosted by the confidence the plan projects about the world… even though, on the face of it, it doesn’t sound environmentally ideal, and even though we all know that few such grand projects ever reach fruition.

Also from Serious Money comes the revelation that there are more people employed in domestic service in the UK now than there were during the Victorian era.

The largest and most elaborate houses employ cleaners, waiters, maintenance staff, housekeepers, security staff, drivers, gardeners, chefs, nannies, tutors, PAs and, sometimes, multiple butlers. The twenty-first century domestic service labour force is as complex and specialised in its own way as its nineteenth-century predecessor.

Of course, the population has grown by 2-5 times (depending on what we’re calling “the Victorian era”, but even so… I wouldn’t have expected that.

The images in this post are all AI-generated images for the prompt “brightly coloured painting of a bird on a bird table with money” created by OpenAI’s D-ALLE.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

On book reviews

Last week, I posted my regular “What I’ve been reading this month” post and was surprised to note that all the books were by female authors. I noted that this hadn’t happened before, and by flicking back through the series, I could see that the last time all the books were by one gender was in February 2019.

This made me wonder what other secrets were hiding in the archive of book reviews on this blog. I decided to make a spreadsheet of all the books I’ve ever reviewed on here, and the posts in which they first appeared.

This was a bigger task than I anticipated: it turns out that I’ve reviewed 561 books over a period of 17 and a half years.

My first review was of Dan Brown’s most famous novel, in January 2005. Since then, there have been 74 other posts reviewing single books (plus a few slightly edited repeats, which I didn’t count) and a total of 75 “what I’ve been reading this month” posts (plus a few ‘favourite books this year’ repeats, which I didn’t count).

The authors I’ve reviewed the most are Ian McEwan (7 books) and David Sedaris (7), followed by Ali Smith (6), Jon Ronson (6), Julian Barnes (6) and Kazuo Ishiguro (6).

Just over half—53%—of the books have been fiction.

Diversity hasn’t historically been a strong point for me: more than two-thirds of the books I’ve read are by men, with only 12% being non-fiction books written by female authors. Less than one-in-ten of the books were first published in a language other than English, with French (9 books) and Italian (9) the most common non-English original languages.

However, I’m getting better: over the last year, exactly half of the books I’ve read have been written by women, and nearly 20% of the books I’ve read have been translations from one of eight different languages. I’ve also been reading more fiction, which accounts for 68% of books I’ve read over the last year, but still less than 30% of the non-fiction I’ve read has been written by female authors.

I appreciate that this is mostly of interest to me, as the reader of the books and the writer of the reviews… but I’m compulsively sharing nonetheless.

The images in this post are all AI-generated images for the prompt “cubist painting of piles of books on balance scales in a library” created by OpenAI’s D-ALLE.

This post was filed under: Blogging, Reviews.

What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve five books to mention this month, all of which—by sheer fluke—are by women. Considering all the inequalities and biases at every step of the journey from conception to being in front of my eyeballs, it’s pretty remarkable that this would happen by chance, and yet it has.

This made me wonder: when was the last month when I read only books by men? This series of posts allows me to answer straightforwardly: February 2019.

We Had to Remove This Post by Hanna Bervoets

Originally published in Dutch in 2021, I read Emma Rault’s English translation of this novella in a single sitting. The narrator is a new employee of an unnamed social network, where her role is to review content reported as ‘inappropriate’ to determine whether it ought to be removed from the platform.

Through a focus on the lives of the narrator and a small group of fellow employees, Bervoets explores the impact of being continually and routinely exposed to ‘inappropriate’ material. It also explores subjectivity, and how even in ‘real life’ people’s perceptions of events can vary—and in ‘real life,’ there isn’t a codified and detailed set of rules as to how things ought to be interpreted.

I thought this was an excellent novella: it’s timely reflective, and effective. It made me think a little differently about the human cost of content moderation. In particular, while there has been much written about the psychological trauma of continued occupational exposure to violent or sexual material, I’ve never really given much consideration to the impact of constant exposure to material espousing conspiracy theories. The consequences are fairy obvious, but the ethics of the whole thing remain dubious. The novella was also a perfect length, with just enough space to make its point.

I think this is the only one of Bervoets novels to be translated into English so far, but this was more than good enough to keep me on the lookout for more.

Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith

This collection of short stories, interspersed by various writers’ reflections on the importance of public libraries, was published in 2015. It is a collection written in support of the UK’s public libraries, which are closing in large numbers as they are starved of public funding. I discovered Ali Smith’s writing through her incomparable Seasonal Quartet and so thought I’d probably enjoy this collection… and I did.

As in her other work, Smith interrogates and plays with language in intriguing ways, while also driving forward interesting and unexpected plots, where it is sometimes difficult to untangle the “real” from the “imagined”. This combination seemed to me to be especially well-matched with the theme of public libraries.

As a rule, I tend to prefer longer pieces over short stories, and so I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as the novels of Smith’s I’ve read. It was, nevertheless, a pleasure to spend time with her extraordinary prose.

The Seaplane on Final Approach by Rebecca Rukeyser

I picked up this recently published novel after it was featured in Tom Rowley’s newsletter with the suggestion that it was as “if Sally Rooney’s characters went to Alaska and actually did something interesting with all their yearning.”

The novel is narrated by Mira, an 18-year-old Californian who goes to work in an Alaskan wilderness lodge staffed by a small cast of compelling and comedic characters, and visited by amusingly stereotypical tourists. She chooses to work in Alaska after developing a crush on her slightly older step-cousin Ed, who lives a few towns away, who she, either optimistically or naively, thinks she will suddenly bump into again.

This book is thin on plot (at least until the final section) but has lots of reflection, longing, and humour. A thread through the novel is Mira’s obsession with developing a taxonomy of ‘sleaze,’ a subject she enjoys but recognises as difficult to pin down. To my mind, the Sally Rooney comparison is not unreasonable (and perhaps inevitable), but I much preferred Rukeyser’s writing.

Idol by Louise O’Neill

This is a recently published thriller with a promising premise. The main character is a successful ‘influencer’ in her 40s who has built a global Goop-like brand (Shakti) around wellness and empowerment of women is accused of having sexually assaulted another woman earlier in life. There could be a lot to unpack here: the fallibility of memory, the challenge of reconciling different perceptions, the emotional weight of building a brand on a personality, and more besides.

O’Neill does touch on these themes, but the novel becomes weighed down. Despite being in their 40s, the central characters are mostly motivated by, and frankly obsessed with, their friendships and relationships from their time at high school. I found this difficult to relate to or empathise with, and I found it difficult to maintain interest as a result.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

This short novel was first published in Swedish in 1972. I read the fiftieth anniversary edition, the 1974 English translation by Thomas Teal. This is a much-loved book by a much-revered author, so please don’t be put off by the fact that I didn’t enjoy it.

The book comprises 22 short stories set during a summer that an elderly artist spends with her six-year-old granddaughter on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. It draws upon Jansson’s experiences on a similar island with her niece, who has written an afterword in the edition I read.

Others describe the book as magical, as capturing something unique about the relationship between the very old and very young, and of reflecting the unique mood of summer. I’m afraid I got none of that: I found it dull, I found the characters as two-dimensional as those in children’s books, and the occasional brushes with philosophy as superficial as can be.

Given the acclaim this book has received over the decades, there is clearly much more to it than I appreciated, but this just really didn’t seem to be the right book for me right now.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , .

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