I am losing weight. I think it’s because now that it’s light on my commute, I am walking to and from Brixton tube every day rather than taking the bus. It’s barely a mile away, but I suppose it adds up.

Anyway, looking at myself sideways-on in the mirror this morning (I do this a lot; I am pretty certain I know what I look like from every angle better than anyone else, with the possible exception of the beloved), I noticed that the curve of my belly has shrunk, and that unless I slump a bit, it doesn’t really stick out any more.

Well, that’s OK: I am officially overweight anyway (though I think I look fine), so it doesn’t matter if I lose a few pounds. And yet, I am a bit sad about my belly not being curvy any more.  Not as sad as I would be if my bum shrank, but close.

In my women’s group a few months ago we talked about weight and size and body image, having first read Fat Is A Feminist Issue and Lessons From The Fat-o-sphere: Quit Dieting And Declare A Truce With Your Body. The subsequent discussion was really interesting and raised all sorts of questions I hadn’t thought about before, including my own realisation that when I am thin, I assume nobody is going to take me seriously, and when I am fatter, I think I seem more important and worthy of consideration. At the time I wasn’t sure what that was about, but on reflection I think it might just be that when I put on weight I wear more sensible clothes, so I feel like a grown-up.

So maybe I should just dress more sensibly all the time! Except that without my miniskirts and heels I wouldn’t feel like me. There was a time in my life when I did dress sensibly, because I thought I needed to be a sensible person – and I hated it (it passed). It’s a tricky one, which I shall put aside for consideration another day, when I don’t have lots of work to do. Meanwhile, the sun is shining and I may celebrate the discovery that I’m not going to go overdrawn this month with the purchase of an unwisely revealing summer dress.

Me Cheeta

It took me ages to read Me Cheeta, mainly because I lost the first copy and had to wait while Amazon delivered a replacement. In the meantime I read Murder At The Academy Awards™ by Joan Rivers, which coincidentally was quite similar, except that it was rude about living movie stars rather than dead ones.

Anyway. To begin with I had a conceptual problem with Me Cheeta because I couldn’t quite work out what it was for. Why publish a fictional autobiography of a real animal? If it had no ambition other than to be funny, would that sustain 300-odd pages?

To begin with, I didn’t think it would. It’s full of scandalous stories about legendary Hollywood characters, but without knowing whether they’re true, false or vicious rumour I couldn’t quite bring myself to care about them. I had the same problem I have when I read fantasy novels (OK, I only tried it once), which was that without an anchor to something I recognise that tells me what’s real and what isn’t, none of it matters.

Except that bit by bit, it grew on me. There is a certain amount of scurrilous badmouthing of people who don’t seem to deserve it, but as it goes along it turns into something quite different – a love story, a poem, a tale of loss and loneliness, which is certainly made up, but now that we’re definitely in the realm of fiction that’s suddenly OK.

And there is some beautiful writing. You know when an image is so lovely you have to stop and drink it in for a few moments before you can carry on reading? Those images must be different for different people, and anyway they probably only work in context, but I’m going to share one with you all the same because I think it’s just perfect. Here’s Cheeta describing the view from the terrace of a movie star’s mansion:

The lawn that rolled your eye down to the inevitable rectangle of turquoise was as densely irridescent as a hummingbird’s breast. If you watched very closely you could see the dents left in it by the gardeners’ footsteps disappear slowly back into its sheen, like the marks of fingers on a human arm.

Isn’t that great?

And it is very funny, and very smartly written in places. And, well, the last chapter made me cry. So despite my initial misgivings, I am recommending it wholeheartedly.

Peace at last

Did I happen to mention that I was reading War and Peace? I finished it last weekend, but I was so drained by the whole experience that it’s taken me a week (during which I read the Everyman Book of Detective Stories, Dan Rhodes’ Anthropology and the first 200 pages of The Phantom of the Opera: god, but it’s good to have my reading mojo back) to marshall my thoughts on it.

Thanks to a wise old Russian woman I once knew who declared that when it came to War and Peace she “only read the Peace”, I had always thought that War and Peace was neatly divided into alternating sections. It does begin that way, but gradually the two strands resolve into a single story. And there’s a third strand, which has nothing to do with any of the rest of it and reads as though it was written by someone else entirely, which consists of intermittent discussions on history and military tactics and how the two are related. You can spot these sections immediately because the close-set narrative voice disappears and we swoop out to an omniscient level that is somewhere on a par with god.

I enjoyed 90% of the peace, 50% of the war and 50% of the philosophy, which mathematically makes this a success story, except that when you take those numbers and apply them to a 1400-page book, assuming for the sake of convenience that each strand constitutes about a third of the whole, you are still left with 500-odd pages of big fat no fun. Add that (yes, more maths!) to the voices of the various people who warned me before I started that the final section of the book was impenetrably dull, and you begin to see why I picked it up with a slight but perceptible sense of doom each time.

The other problem I had was that there are so many characters; so many stories to follow, that it’s hard to know which of them to care about. Even Leo himself seems to have lost track, because several threads are started which never go anywhere. The story starts in the elegant salon of Anna Pavlova Scherer, a bewitching and playful woman whom I expected to loom large in what followed, but she is barely mentioned again. Other characters appear and disappear without consequence; people make spectacular entrances early on, then die abruptly a thousand pages later without having been mentioned in the interim. It took Tolstoy five years to write War and Peace, and I can’t help thinking that by the time he got to the end, he had forgotten the beginning.

I did enjoy most of the Peace, though. The Rostovs are a seductive, chaotic, convincing mess of a family, and the various people who walk in and out of their lives are all worth meeting, though Count Anatole, like his sister Helen, is a pantomime villain. The contrast with the sadder and sterner Bolkonskys is good, too. And I enjoyed the various romances very much, even if they did (with one exception) all get wrapped up in a sentence or two, Tolstoy clearly not sharing my avid interest in the small rituals of betrothal and marriage.

The War is good when things are happening, and less good when nothing is, which is often. I struggled with long descriptions of where the army were stationed, and the benefits and disadvantages their position offered. It may have been beautifully observed, but it was also quite boring. And I have never been able to discern the hierarchy of the various ranks, so I’m sure some subtleties were lost on me there.

I didn’t mind the philosophical stuff, although it suffers from the same problem it criticises in written accounts of history, which is the assumption that the author is capable of abstracting himself from his own time and circumstances and writing objectively about the world. And the last section, a 44-page essay on the nature and meaning of free will, is interesting and I’m glad I read it, but I wish it wasn’t the final section of War and Peace, because the section immediately before it would have made a perfect ending. Without giving too much away, here is what would have been the final paragraph of the book had it ended where it should have done, with the firstborn of the new generation contemplating his family’s past and future:

‘Non’ answered Nikolai, and fell back on his pillow. ‘He is good and kind and I am fond of him,’ he said to himself, thinking of Desalles. ‘But Uncle Pierre! Oh, what a wonderful person he is! And my father? Oh, Father, Father! Yes, I will do something that even he would be content with…’.

And here is the actual last paragraph:

In the first case it was necessary to surmount the sensation of an unreal mobility in space and to recognize an emotion we did not feel. In the present case it is similarly necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist and to recognize a dependence of which we are not personally conscious.


I am glad to have read War and Peace, if only because it’s something I thought I didn’t have the discipline and earnestness of intention ever to do. And there’s lots in there that’s good, and although I wouldn’t unhesitatingly recommend it, I certainly wouldn’t warn you off it. But I am enjoying The Phantom of the Opera more than I’ve ever enjoyed a book, and that’s not because it’s very good (it isn’t).

Peace by peace

As I may have mentioned here before, I am reading War and Peace. I’ve been reading it since the start of December, when I loftily and optimistically expected to be finished by the new year. As of this morning, I am 1,155 pages in with 289 to go, so I’m well in sight of the finishing line, relatively speaking, but I still don’t quite believe I’m ever going to get there.

Part of the problem is that the physical thing itself is so large that my reading locations are limited. I lug it to and from work every day and read it on the tube, but I can’t read it in bed – which is where I get most of my reading done – because I have a habit of dropping my book on my face when I fall asleep, and doing that with W&P would result in severe facial injuries (or at the very least a nasty shock).

Another distraction is the pile of mystery books I was given last week: I am currently also in the middle of The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime, which is as much fun as it sounds, and once I’m finished with that I’ve got an anthology of detective stories to read, as well as Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. All of these books draw me in and keep me breathlessly bound to them in a way that War and Peace is not doing, though I admit that the fault may lie with me rather than with Leo. I am so used to reading stories with a mystery that must be solved that I keep waiting for something to happen, some sort of denoumenent or revelation; and I can’t help feeling that all that will happen is that various people will get married and some of them will die, and it all will be a bit like real life, only…longer.

My sister recently emailed from somewhere on the Red Sea and said she’d given up on her current book because, in her words, “I was quite enjoying it, but all the characters had the same name and it always returned to describing war tactics”. Although she happened to be talking about One Hundred Years of Solitude, this is more or less exactly how I feel about War and Peace. I’m going to plough grimly on to the end, however, and will let you know if I experience a sudden change of heart, or if I find out whodunnit.

Bookshop dilemma

A new bookshop has recently opened in Herne Hill, which has for the first time caused me to question my highly successful “no new books” policy. We already have an Oxfam shop with a good selection of books, and I am a library member and anyway have a pile of about thirty unread books sitting in the flat, all of which are good reasons for not buying any new books at all, let alone new books at full price, which in Herne Hill Books they mostly are.

And yet. I’d like them to do well, and not have to close down in six months’ time because everybody thinks the same way as me. Apart from anything else, you can’t give library books or Oxfam books as presents, so it’s useful to have somewhere nearby available for emergency birthday purchases when I’ve left it too late to go anywhere else.

I solved this dilemma temporarily today by buying a copy of East of Acre Lane, which since it’s set locally seemed an appropriate purchase, even though it broke the rule. And I think I have a good ongoing solution too, which is to order my book club books from there, since they are exempt from the rule, being too hard to find by other means. I just have to remember not to accidentally buy a pile of four extra books each time I go in to place an order. I will let you know how I get along.

But right now, I have to go: it’s Ronnie O’Sullivan v Mark Williams in the snooker semi-final. Shh.

Book Crossing

An exciting start to the new year: today I found my first Book Crossing book. I had heard about the scheme (whereby, in case you don’t know, members read books, attach labels to them saying “please read this book and pass it on”, and then leave them in a public place to be found by someone else), but never seen it in action.

My first thought, on seeing a copy of Kate Atkinson’s Emotionally Weird left on the tube at Brixton, was to look for whoever had left it there and give it back, but once it became clear nobody was going to claim it I opened it up and found the Book Crossing sticker. As well as explaining the way the scheme works, the sticker displays a reference number unique to that copy, and you can go online and report where you found it and what you’re going to do with it next, which I have just done. I’ve been giving unwanted or unwieldy books away to the local charity shop, but I think this is much more fun.

I was also quite pleased that it was Kate Atkinson, because when I worked at a bookshop I had two colleagues who used to rave about her, and I could never quite bring myself to be bothered to read her. This feels like the right time to do it, although she will have to slot into the gaps in War and Peace – of which there are plenty, because W&P is too big to be read in bed. Since I started reading it in early December I have got halfway through it, but have also started and finished four other books. It actually works very well to read something big and important during the day and something small and silly at night, although my most recent bedtime book was Julian Barnes’ Nothing To Be Frightened Of, which is many things (very good, mainly) but which is certainly not small or silly.

Now I must send off for a sheet stickers and release some books of my own into the wild. If in the future you ever discover a Book Crossing book registered by “EllseeM” (I know: elsiem was already taken and I panicked), it’s one of mine.

New books!

I’ve proudly stuck to my two-year-old resolution not to buy new books, but I make an exception for book club books, because it’s not always possible or practical to get hold of a library or second-hand copy in time.

As a result, today for the first time in, ooh, ages, two shiny new books have arrived on my desk (literally: we have a very obliging postman at work). The first, Global Women: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy, looks interesting and thoughtful, but the one sending anticipatory shivers up my spine is Come Closer by Sara Gran, about which I know almost nothing except that it’s scary. I like scary books, and the cover blurb is enough to make me want to feign sickness, go home and read the whole thing in one sitting:

Hypnotic, disturbing… a genuinely scary novel


Deeply scary, blurring as it does the bounds between everyday life and the completely unthinkable. Just don’t read it alone.


Sara Gran’s swift, stylish narrative quickly leads to a terrifying place where anything at all might happen


The sly little novel…slides its icicle shard into the warm, pulpy flesh of your dark desires. Gran’s swift finale is very, very cool.

Doesn’t it sound exciting? Fortunately I am sharing both books with other people, and for reasons of timing must read the first one first, so I can prolong the anticipation for a little longer.

I shan’t start either until after I’ve finished my current book, which is When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro.  I’m not sure why I haven’t read it before, since it has everything I like in it, but now I’ve picked it up I’m enjoying it very much. My one small criticism, and that’s too strong a word, is that there is slightly too much of this sort of thing (not a quote, but a composite example from memory):

As I sit here pondering the events of this morning, it occurs to me that my curious conversation with Sarah last night might not have happened at all had it not been for an incident which took place a week ago, at the Palm Hotel.

We then get the story of what happened  a week ago at the Palm Hotel, followed by the curious conversation with Sarah and finally the events of this morning. I suppose it’s a trick or gimmick designed to draw the reader in with the promise of secrets yet to be revealed, and it’s quite effective, but it does require the reader to do quite a lot of work (“what day is it now? Is this happening before or after the scene I’ve just read?”) and I think it’s slightly overused here.

Still, it’s a detective story set in inter-war Shanghai, which is so much my bag that when I’ve finished reading it I shall sling it over my shoulder and keep my lunch in it.

The Da Vinci Problem

I’ve just – this minute – finished reading “The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated by Lucia Graves, who as the daughter of the poet Robert might have been expected to know better. The cover proudly proclaims it to be a number one bestseller and, even more thrillingly, “shortlisted for Richard and Judy’s Book Club”. The first two pages are full of enthusiastic reviews from the usual suspects (The Observer, The Scotsman, The Daily Mail) as well as from some less obvious sources (Trinny Woodall, Susannah Constantine, Elle Magazine).

Now, I’m all for thrillers, generally. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a big, violent, plotty, twisty, romp, and I get a bit cross when people try to argue that a book whose main purpose is to be exciting is somehow by definition an inferior piece of writing. I’m with whoever it was who said that bookshops should just have a “fiction” section in which the best storywriting gets showcased, rather than separate “literary fiction” (what?) and “genre” categories.

But it does annoy me when a book which comes in for huge amounts of praise is full of obvious, avoidable, stupid mistakes. And unfortunately this is one of those books. It is gripping, and I raced through it and enjoyed it very much, but my pleasure was tempered by constant glaring reminders that somebody, somewhere, hadn’t bothered to take five minutes to get things right.

Some of the mistakes are the writer’s, though a good editor should have corrected them. They range from actual, honest mistakes (characters go out for a walk after breakfast and return half an hour later at dusk) to wildly improbable plot points designed to haul the story awkwardly towards a designated point.

Some of the mistakes are the translator’s and I really think she’s done a poor job. The most frequent and irritating example is the dangling construction which occurs when the translation requires a change in word order. In Spanish it’s fine to say “la casa di mi tío, un hombre gordo”, but it’s not OK to translate that as “my uncle’s house, a fat man”. That’s not a real example (I couldn’t be bothered to look one up), but that’s precisely the syntax and it happens over and over again. It’s kind of hideous.

And some mistakes might be his, or might be hers. One character leaves his house “at dawn”, crosses the city, takes a tram up the mountain and arrives at a mansion, at which point “dawn is just breaking”. No way of knowing, without tracking down the original, whether the author really used the same word twice, or whether it’s a lazy and innacurate piece of translation.

There’s also 100 pages of exposition presented in the form of a posthumously-written letter explaining the mystery at the centre of the book, which seemed to me a cheap way of getting to a solution, and a twist in the last couple of chapters which is so cynical and manipulative that I almost stopped reading.

But I didn’t, of course, because it’s also exciting and I needed to know the ending, which is why the book reminded me of The Da Vinci Code, which is slightly better written than this, if you’re counting mistakes and nonsensical plot points against it, but which easily takes the gong by being called “The Da Vinci Code”, as though that makes any kind of sense at all. As you, being educated and naturally smart, know, “Da Vinci” wasn’t Leonardo’s surname; it was where he was from. Calling a book “The Da Vinci Code” is as meaningless and as bizarre as calling the New Testament “The Of Nazareth Story”. All the time I was reading the book, and enjoying it, because it’s a big, violent, plotty, twisty, romp, and because I am a sucker for riddles and puzzles and mysteries (at one point a character says that over 100 anagrams can be made from a particular word or phrase – I forget what it is – and naturally I had to put the book down and work out what they all were before I could keep reading), I had a simultaneous irritation that nobody had stopped him halfway through and said “woah, Dan, you’ve made a silly mistake here: let’s put it right before ONE HUNDRED MILLION PEOPLE read it!”.

So I can’t recommend the book, really. Which is a shame, because it was a birthday present and I enjoyed it and it’s 510 pages long which makes it good for taking on holiday. But now I’ve told you all the annoying things about it, you’re going to find it even more irritating than I did. Sorry.

Fitness, fatness, and other f words

I’m in the middle of a six-week programme with a personal trainer at my workplace gym, but last week I read Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body by Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby, and I agreed so vehemently with most of what it says that, even though I am not and have never been on a diet (I like cheese too much ever to consider a world in which I couldn’t eat as much of it as I like), I found myself reluctant to go back to the gym, even though I enjoy it, because it felt like giving in to the body fascists.

Nuts, I know. And I did go back, yesterday, and enjoyed it as much as ever.  And I don’t think it’s any saner to deliberately gain or keep weight than it is to try and lose it (though having read the book, I don’t think it’s any madder, either).

It’s a great book, by the way, and I don’t think you have to be fat or on a diet to get a lot from it. I like my round bottom very much, but I had started to feel a bit self-conscious about getting naked in the changing rooms in front of the skinny twentysomethings (and thirtysomethings, and fortysomethings) who are the biggest users of the gym. Yesterday, for the first time, I happily undressed without caring who was looking (not, of course, that anybody was). It may not be a gym bunny’s bottom, but it’s mine and if it weren’t round, all my clothes would fall off.

I am all about liking yourself the way you are, in any case. For a bit, I thought I wanted to get the gap between my two front teeth fixed, but this postcard, sent in to the always-wonderful PostSecret, convinced me otherwise:


Spring reading

A very quick roundup of books I’ve read in the last few weeks, otherwise this will turn into an actual essay, and I don’t have time for that (I’ve all kind of things to do on my “things to do” list, and it’s already nearly Monday).

I thought I was really enjoying The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay at the time, but a few weeks later I can barely remember anything about it. If you like long, twisty intelligent stories about magicians, I recommend The Deptford Trilogy instead – though there’s nothing actually wrong with K&C. I still think Michael Chabon is very good and will seek out more by him.

I picked up The Diary of a Nobody in Dublin before Christmas, but only got around to it last month. I had seen some snippets of a TV adaptation which I enjoyed very much, but since the TV adaptation actually consisted in somebody dressed as Edward Pooter sitting in a chair and reading from his diary, the style and format didn’t come as a surprise. It’s fairly slight, and again, I could recommend a superior but similar alternative, but it was an enjoyable enough way of passing a day or two.

I’m still sort of halfway through The Singapore Grip, which I bought after enjoying Troubles so much. It has flashes of the wit and subtlety that had me enchanted in Troubles, but in between there’s a lot of dense, fact-heavy prose which makes me feel as though I’m swimming through treacle. I still have high hopes for The Siege of Krishnapur.

I waited months after spotting it on the shelves before I succumbed and bought a – new! – copy of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. I’d read a description and it sounded just my kind of thing: the story of nineteenth century country house murder told from the point of view of the investigating detective. It had had lots of good reviews, and I was very well-disposed towards it when I started out. Accordingly, I allowed it a certain amount of latitude before I started to become irritated by it, but I had still reached that point within a few pages. It’s as much my fault for having overly high expectations as it is anyone else’s, but this is essentially a true crime story written by a hack. The reasoning is poor, there are frequent and baffling non sequiturs and the writing itself has no elegance or elequence, and it turns out murder mysteries need a bit of both to work. Unrecommended.

Two books whose target readership is significantly younger than me – Two Friends, One Summer and Rain – had me walking between tube station and office with my nose buried in them, in the way that only good children’s books and a certain type of thriller can achieve. I shan’t give them detailed critiques because I know the author a bit so it would be weird, but I will certainly be  recommending them to acquaintances of the appropriate age.

Talking of thrillers, I justified buying Mr Whicher by taking up Waterstones’ “buy one, get one half price” offer, and the second book was one which I’d never heard of, but whose cover blurb made it sound fun. The Brutal Art looks and mainly reads like a run-of-the mill gorefest, but it’s also really very well written and thoughtful, behind the shiny cover. If you’re looking for an intelligent but undemanding crime caper it’s one to stick on the list.

I dutifully finished The Road, but I didn’t start enjoying it any more than I did to begin with. I like books where things happen, I think. Things happen in Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, which represented my first foray into the work of John Mortimer. I often only think of starting to read someone’s books after they’ve died, which makes me exactly the demographic authors don’t want. Anyway, I liked it a lot and shall be reading more. Like The Diary of a Nobody it doesn’t stay with you for very long beyond the reading of it, but it’s perfectly absorbing for the duration, and I don’t ask more than that.

Right now I’m in the middle of reading another book by Jesse Kellerman, author of The Brutal Art, and once that’s finished I’m changing slant completely and moving on to Hardcore From the Heart: The Pleasures, Profits and Politics of Sex in Performance, in preparation for a book group I’m going to later this month. It’s a long time since I read anything beyond a newspaper article or blog post which had an actual argument to make, so I’m quite excited.

(Forgive the slow typing, by the way: I have painted my nails and I don’t want to smear them.)