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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, , , , , .

Weeknotes 2022.30

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

It was in last Sunday’s paper, but I read this article about coffee this week, which has this comment in the first paragraph:

The mother-of-one, 36, who works in a lettings agency, is such a fan that she often makes the 20-minute round trip in her car to pick up a caramel latte if she’s working from home.

My initial reaction was a mildly judgemental one, wondering why someone would drive for a drink while working at home, and wasn’t that terrible for the environment, and so on and so righteous. And then I realised that I sometimes get a sandwich or salad delivered when I’m working from home, and that’s more expensive, more replicable at home without special equipment, and possibly worse for the environment. I promptly dismounted my high horse.

I’ve written before (11) about my worry that my complete absence of desire to ever enter politics is part of a wider problem:

If I’m not willing to engage, why should anyone else bother? Are people who enjoy party politics really the people we want making decisions on our behalf? Shouldn’t we all engage more for the good of society? Is “I don’t want to” just a selfish whinge? How can things improve if we leave politics only to those who can be bothered? Aren’t decisions made by those who show up?

The spectacle of the Tory leadership contest just illustrates why I could never bring myself to try.

It’s painful to watch the candidates contort themselves into arguing that they will bring “change” through “continuity” with the party’s 2019 manifesto; performing sleight of hand to impress a tiny unrepresented selectorate without alienating the Tory voting base; trying to dodge sledgehammers thrown by colleagues who, in a short time, will be telling us that the candidate they currently despise is the best Prime Minister since Thatcher.

It’s unedifying, but worse than that, nobody but nobody could sensibly argue that leaving the selection to a small cadre of self-selecting unelected fee-paying loyalists is the best way to find the right person to unite and lead a nation. And yet, there is consensus on that element of the process for replacing a Prime Minister across both main parties. It is absurd, and it shows that neither party truly values good Government over party management and membership.

Why would anyone with solid principles and a real drive to do the right thing by the population debase themselves by participating in this sort of vaudeville trash?

I know most politicians will never in their life enter a leadership competition, I know that most MPs quietly beaver away, I know local politics is different, I know party membership isn’t a prerequisite for political impact. But the system is patently broken, there appears to be a collective decision to pretend it’s not. I don’t understand why anyone would choose to leap into the shallow, fetid puddle we’ve collectively decided to pretend is an elite swimming pool.

Nine years ago this week, I shared this Radio Free Europe article about Facebook. I particularly drew attention to this point:

Characters revert to type on social media, but their attributes are turbo-charged. The annual family update (“Chloe has had an impressive first term at Brown and seems to enjoy the social life as much as the academic!”) has become the hourly update. The whiny friend we once met now and again outside the grocery store is now a daily occurrence. Of course, we can hide these people on our feeds, but this is information we love to hate. That is the dichotomy of Facebook.

I’ve not been on Facebook for years now, and so I feel a little more removed from the whole thing. But from hearing people talk about it, it strikes me that everything in that quote, and everything in the RFE article, is still substantially true. The problems highlighted seem to have deepened rather than being solved.

Even I watched a few minutes of football today.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

Weeknotes 2022.29

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

With all the talk about “the lionesses” this week, and with more no doubt on the way next week, I can’t help but keep thinking of this bit from The Sellout by Paul Beatty, which I read years ago.

“I can think of a more despicable word than ‘nigger’”, I volunteered.

“Like what?”

“Like any word that ends in –ess: Negress. Jewess. Poetess. Actress. Adultress. Factchecktress. I’d rather be called ‘nigger’ than ‘giantess’ any day of the week.”

This, from Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation which I’ve been reading this week, brought back happy memories of when Wendy and I visited Capri in 2014:

We did not understand where we were going when we took the boat over to Capri. It was early April. A light cold rain misted over the sea. We took a funicular up from the dock and found ourselves the only tourists. You are early, the conductor said with a shrug. The streets smelled like lavender and for a long time neither of us noticed that there weren’t any cars. We stayed at a cheap hotel that had a view out the window more beautiful than anything I’d ever seen. The water was wickedly blue. A cliff of dark rock jutted out of the sea. I wanted to cry because I was sure I would never get to be in such a place again.

I went on a Met Office course relevant to my job this week. I’m pretty sure I’ve now been on it three times in six years. They always introduce it with a bit of background on how jet streams impact the weather, a topic I seem unable to retain in even the most cursory detail.

This time, I did manage to retain something about orographic rain, which—if I understood correctly—is the reason it rains every time I visit Leeds, yet rarely rains when I’m walking to work in Newcastle.

Wendy and I were talking this week about the mnemonic we were taught at school for remembering the order of the planets of the solar system.

I was taught, “Me Very Early Man Just Standing Under Nine Planets.”

Wendy was taught, “My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets”

And, by sheer coincidence, Offill also cites an example in her book:

My Very Educated Mother Just Serves Us Noodles

Of course, the downgrading of Pluto has necessitated shorter mnemonics.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

Weeknotes 2022.28

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

Corbeil Essonnes, France: Your package was cleared after the scheduled transport departure. We will reschedule for the next available departure.

Truly, the Brexit dividend keeps on giving.

This week, I’ve twice been subjected against my will in a public place to Heart Breakfast with Jamie Theakston and Amanda Holden. (I would argue that the peak of Theakston’s career was a brilliant but commercially unsuccessful game show.)

They frequently plug a competition in which the listener must text the station during songs by a given artist in exchange for cash. They are clear that only entries made during the duration of the song will count. And this led me to wonder how on Earth they would know: with the highly variable delays between FM, DAB and (most especially) online broadcasts, how can they accurately time this?

And so, I consulted the terms and conditions to see how they fudged this, and the answer is specifying certain ways of listening:

To enter the Promotion by SMS text message, you must text in when the sequence of one, two or three songs by the specified artists play, as heard on FM or DAB, following the instructions by the presenter(s) on-air

I have never once heard this restriction mentioned on air… but then, perhaps the internet steam is different, and perhaps I’m hearing an FM or DAB version.

Any which way, pondering this was much more engaging than their execrable ‘chat’.

I feel seen.

I believe that God fed the five thousand with the bread and the fish

Cah I seen mommy do some similar things

I’m pretty certain that if you listened to nothing but Dave and read nothing but Ali Smith, you’d have a better understanding of the state of politics in the UK than most Westminster correspondents.

The two are phenomenal writers, but I think this is also partly a timescale thing: politics moves slowly, but is forced into a daily news cycle (or a minute-by-minute news cycle on Twitter). I’m not sure that’s helpful or healthy.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

Weeknotes 2022.27

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

A few days spent in Milan can be as reviving as weeks spent elsewhere, and seeing family in Northern Ireland is always fun.

It was nothing short of frightening to see the number of MPs who were willing to parrot the lie that the Prime Minister had a 14-million-strong personal mandate over recent months. Our entire Parliamentary system is constructed to avoid that particular individualist populist claim, yet it still gained traction.

Given the unwillingness of many to point out the lie—a key protection our system already has—I fear that our ultimate collective response to Boris Johnson’s disregard for democratic norms will be to attribute the problem to personality, rather than to make any attempt to modify the system.

Some would argue—fairly, I think—that the unwritten constitution worked, as evidence by the Prime Minister’s so-called “resignation.” But it’s also true that long-standing assumptions were undermined, novel questions were raised, and norms were overridden. Surely—surely—we ought to aim to learn and improve, not just unthinkingly conclude that the flexible system sufficiently flexed and everything is therefore fine.

For much of the covid pandemic, the cupboard in which sits behind my desk at work has been adorned with items referencing pandemic scandals. The notorious trip to Barnard Castle, the ridiculous assertion that a “bring your own booze” party was essential work, the issuing of fixed penalty notices, Operations Eagle and Moonshot and Whack-a-mole and more besides are represented, some obliquely and some more plainly. (And no, I’m not going to share pictures.)

Because of its position, the cupboard is the most prominent bit of background when I’m on video conferences, and occasionally provokes questions or knowing grins.

I was once asked in advance of a “VIP” touring the office whether I thought I should take it all down: I explained that if “VIPs” were touring the office, then the point was surely for them to see the day-to-day normality, and not for us to hide things from them. To my organisation’s credit, nothing has ever been said again.

As a result, on occasions when “the great and the good” descend unto us, the cupboard often catches their eye. Usually, they pay it some passing attention, express amusement and associate it with the gallows humour of healthcare work. And, in fairness, comic relief is certainly one of the cupboard’s main functions among my office colleagues and me.

But there is another side: it’s a literal representation of the metaphorical background against which we’re working. It’s the context in the mind of many when we’re giving advice that’s unpleasant for people to hear. It’s the public narrative of injustice and incompetence that sometimes undermines our work. It’s a physical representation of our pain and frustration and moral injury.

I’m never certain whether the non-humorous side comes through to our visitors. I like to imagine that it makes them laugh at the time but later makes them think, not least because it’s also the headwind against which many of them are flying. But perhaps I’m expecting too much of a cupboard.

I’ve been reading Ali Smith’s Public Library and Other Stories this week. There’s an incomparably Ali Smith section in which she lists the qualities of ’elsewhere,’ the place we always want to find and head towards. One sentence from this passage:

Elsewhere the words of the politicians are nourishing to the heart.

If only.

I downloaded TikTok a week or so ago. The algorithm is astonishingly good, learning rapidly which sorts of videos the user watches, and which are swiped past. It seems to be able to do this thematically, and I suppose the quantity of video content it serves combined with the forgettability of swiping past something utterly irrelevant means that it seems to give very serendipitous recommendations. It feels like something genuinely new and different compared to, say, Twitter or Instagram, where the user has to spend forever “curating” their feed and following the right people to build an interesting experience.

Almost from the off, I found TikTok engaging enough to mindlessly watch for prolonged periods of times—twenty minutes here, half an hour there—until eventually deciding that this really wasn’t how I wanted to spend my time.

I’ve deleted it now.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

Weeknotes 2022.26

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

When I read Jeanette Winterson’s 12 Bytes in January, I was struck by “Winterson’s impassioned plea for science to involve writers. Precision, and perhaps even beauty, is essential in scientific communication, and is a dying art.”

This week, events have caused me to remember this. There is little more dangerous than imprecise language in situations where clarity is essential. I think people grasp this in acute short-lived emergency situations, but it feels like it’s often overlooked in longer-term fundamentals, like remits for organisations or lists of national priorities.

An active decision to use an imprecise fudged wording can be brilliant in some situations, and is often politically shrewd. On the other hand, unintentionally imprecise language leading different people to interpret fundamental statements differently can be disastrous.

I’m ever more convinced that when precision is needed, a talented writer is needed.

I keep hearing a radio ad for a security firm which says they have “personal identity restoration specialists.”

I imagine most of us could do with one of those after the last couple of years.

This week, the total number of Monkeypox cases ever diagnosed in the UK passed 1,000.

This week, the number of covid-19 patients admitted to hospital each day passed 1,000.

From the public attention paid to these developments, you’d almost think the two milestones were roughly equivalent, which is mind-boggling. To repeat: in the UK right now, more people are being admitted to hospital with covid every day as have ever been diagnosed with Monkeypox.

We shouldn’t downplay a growing outbreak of Monkeypox, but we also shouldn’t pretend covid no longer causes untold harm.

The beach Wendy and I visit most frequently is probably Sandhaven in South Shields… which has just been named The Sunday Times Beach of the Year.

This is from Lorna Arnold’s Windscale 1957, but replace “accident” with “pandemic” and I suspect this might accurately describe a mistake currently in train in many organisations:

The post-accident reorganisation was not entirely beneficial. The structure was cumbersome and overelaborate. Moreover, although the Authority had been seriously under-staffed, some people thought that the rapid expansion after 1957 went too far and left the Authority with major staff and organisation problems. Perhaps the Authority had not needed a massive increase in overall staff so much as a massive redeployment.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

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