Super exciting life update!

So yesterday was a pretty momentous day for me. It was the last day at my job... and a busy one! I didn't leave the office until it had gone 11! This is mostly my fault as I assumed that I would have time in the last couple of days to sort out the data on my work computer and clean my desk, but I didn't vouch on new work coming in earlier this week. Ah well! It's weird how staying that late doesn't seem like a bad thing when you know that you don't have to work the next day (and that you won't be wasting most of a precious weekend day by sleeping, because it's Friday and everyone else is at work. Mwah ha ha ha!).

Anyway, I quit my job as I got to the stage where I think I either had to accept that I would be working there until I was forced to quit for whatever reason, or to actually try to do something that I've been wanting to do for ages, which is becoming a freelance translator. I have no idea if the freelance lifestyle will suit me (or if I will be able to get enough work to make this financially viable!)... I expect that the reality will be radically different from the idealised version I've been pining after for years, but if I am going to do this then I figured it was better to try now, than in a few years when my husband and I might have more responsibilities than we currently do. And if it doesn't work, then I can go back to an office job (or an English teaching job) and feel more satisfied with the decision.

In terms of books... this means that for at least the next month or so I should have more time to read! Yayyy! I haven't really been aiming to read a particular number of books this year, but according to goodreads I have finished 82 books so far (I'm pretty sure that my blog does not in any way give off the impression that I have read that much!) which is so close to 100 that I feel tempted to aim for it... but then I don't want to rush through books (which is something that I do too much anyway) just for the sake of having read a nice round number by the end of the year. So I'll probably just carry on reading the same way that I normally do. Hehe.

Also, I think that I am probably not going to be able to get that much work for the first half a year at least of doing freelance stuff, so I have been toying with the idea of doing NaNoWriMo, and I think I might give it a shot! I have an idea that I've been mulling over for a while, and although writing was always something that I really enjoyed, I haven't tried to do any for years. I realise that fully deciding to do this on the last day of October probably isn't the way to go into it, but I may as well try, right? I've been secretly wanting to since I heard that it existed (so at least 10 or so years ago?).

....now wondering what to do with the rest of my day. Maybe changing out of my pyjamas and showering would be a good start! I'm also feeling a really strong urge to clean my house, but that doesn't seem relaxing enough for a day off!


Mini reviews of October reads

I seem to have read a lot of books this month that I don't really have that much to say about.. so mini review time it is!

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling

Obviously this was amazing (and a re-read). My husband has slowly been reading his way through the entire series, and I knew that if I started re-reading them as he was reading them I would end up irritating him, so I was waiting for him to finish to indulge in some proper comfort reading.

The last time I read Harry Potter (in English - I have read the first one at least in German and Japanese since then!!) was years ago, so I had forgotten how many little jokes and things there are scattered through the books that make me smile. I ended up reading this when I was in the middle of trying to read Five Days at Memorial, because my slightly cold-addled brain couldn't comprehend it any more, and it was just what I needed!

Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death by M. C. Beaton

This is another book that I read whilst trying to get through Five Days at Memorial, and again it was just what I needed! I'm sure British people will have heard of the Agatha Raisin series, but if you haven't, it's based around a woman who has retired and moves to the Cotswolds to a village where lots of murders seem to happen (I assume). This is the first book in the series, and is about her moving there, and trying to fit into the village by entering a quiche competition which ends in murder.

It's a bit daft, but the actual character of Agatha Raisin is unusual in that she's actually quite unlikeable, but pretty fun to read about. All in all, it's quite silly, but lots of fun and oh so very British, and seeing as Britain is so very far away, it's nice to read something like that once in a while. (Harry Potter is kind of similar in its Britishness... maybe being sick makes me slightly homesick?) I will definitely have to remember to keep the other Agatha Raisin books in mind when I want something light and entertaining. I only wish that there were charity shops near here where I had a chance of finding the books for cheap!

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

This is my second Asimov book. I read The Gods Themselves ages ago and really loved the middle section (and thought the beginning and end section were okay), and I was hoping that Foundation would have at least a section on the same level as the middle section of The Gods Themselves... and it didn't really. But seeing as I have since read reviews of The Gods Themselves saying that it might be the best thing that Asimov wrote, my expectations were almost definitely too high.

The book is about a group of people who travel to the far reaches of the universe to work on an encyclopedia... which is a pretty interesting idea! I was fascinated by the encyclopedia idea, but the story quickly changed into lots of important people having important conversations with each other and outfoxing each other. Which was fun, but towards the end I realised that in the whole book, which covers over a century of this new society being established there were TWO female characters (that I noticed!). One is a servant girl who gets excited by some pretty jewellery, and another is the nagging wife of one of the male characters. Not great. I get that this was probably a consequence of the time when it was written, but.. hmm. It doesn't particularly encourage me to read more!

I sort of want to read the next book, as this one was more a collection of short stories about the foundation (see what I did there?) of this new society, but... I'm not convinced that this will ever happen! It's not a bad book by any means (apart from the lack of female characters - because half of the population of the new society isn't worth mentioning?), but it just wasn't my thing.

Oh and in the book they say "Space!" and "Galaxy!" instead of swearing. Which is fun, and something I might try to incorporate into my everyday speech!

The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson

Fascinating look into slightly insane techniques that have been tried out in the American military. I found this when I read the psychopath test a few years ago too, but I always feel like I should like Jon Ronson books WAY more than I do. I'm not sure what it is about the books, but although I find the subject matter interesting, there's something that stops me from finding the whole book as enjoyable as I feel I should. Maybe I just don't like his writing style? I'm not entirely sure...

The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo

My parents LOVE Jo Nesbo, and as almost all of the e-book versions were really cheap a while ago I thought I would give him a try. This is actually the third Harry Hole book, but it was the first published in the UK which is why I got it. I would have preferred to try the first book, but never mind. This is why I should do more research before I buy things!

There were certain parts of the book where I found it hard to put down (even when I really should have done as it was already late and I had work the next day). In general I thought that the story was good, and I learned a load of stuff that I didn't know about Norway and its role in World War II, but I don't think that I'll be reading any of the others. Yet again, I have reminded myself that I'm just not a massive fan of crime as a genre (when it comes to books, anyway). I told this to my parents when I skyped them earlier and they recommended me a different crime series that they thought I might like, so maybe I'll give that a try at some point! I do like the idea of having a series of books that I know I'll enjoy!

Screen Burn by Charlie Brooker

I have actually been reading this really slowly over the course of the last 5 or 6 months, reading one or two columns before sleeping. I have loved Charlie Brooker's columns for years now, and this is a collection of them. They're from between 2000 to 2004, and mostly diatribes about how rubbish TV is (with the occasional thing that he actually liked). He gets a bit obsessed by 24 which made me feel really nostalgic! He also talks about loads of programmes that I had completely forgotten about, and the early episodes of talent based TV competitions which are somehow still going. If you like the way he writes, enjoy his rage, and want to enjoy a nostalgic look back at TV from over 10 years ago, you will enjoy it!


Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink

Oh Five Days at Memorial... I wanted so much to love you like I thought I would, but... well, we'll get into that.

Before we start, you should probably know that I'm fascinated by medicine in general, I like (hypothetically!) thinking about ethical dilemmas, and find seeing how humans react to natural disasters fascinating (although living in Japan puts me in a bit too much danger of actually being a victim of a natural disaster for my liking!). So given that this book is about possible euthanasia performed at a hospital in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina, you would think it would have been right up my alley.

And it was, for the first half at least. The book starts in the middle of the disaster, and then goes back to the beginning, to the preparations (or lack thereof) made for it, to previous hurricane damage in New Orleans and the aftermath, and what people should have learned from it, and then goes into what happened during the hurricane itself. I really enjoyed (although that is not quite the right word) all of the first half of the book, up until everyone had either been rescued or was dead. I even stayed up late reading it on a weeknight, which I don't do very often.

My problems with the book really started in the second half when it was talking about what legal action was taken, who said what about whom, and what was going on in general. My main issue was that there was far too much information for me. There were a lot of people who were working in the hospital during the hurricane in the first place (and although I was much more interested in that part, I did feel a bit overwhelmed by it), and then introducing all of their lawyers, the prosecution, people doing other investigations into the case just became too much. I couldn't keep up with who everyone was, and the narrative seemed to jump around all over the place. I think it was trying to keep everything in chronological order, but I just found it confusing. I also would have been quite happy to just read a really pared down version of what happened afterwards, and the issues that it had raised, rather than a whole run-down of exactly who said what and when. I just found it a bit tedious.

For example, when talking about the main surgeon who was accused of performing euthanasia, Anna Pou, it talks about how she was treating one of her long-term patients, and spends a fair amount of time talking about him.. and he wasn't actually involved in the hurricane in any way. I understand that this was to highlight the good sides of her character, her devotion to her patients and the fact that she ended up not being able to treat him any more after being arrested, but it could have been easily shortened or just mentioned as an aside.

The book does raise some important ethical questions on whether euthanasia was an acceptable choice here (if that is actually what happened, that is), whether it is ever acceptable, what medical professionals should actually do in the face of disaster and so on... and I'm sure that if I was reading it as part of a class on that kind of issue or something, it would have been perfect. I just think it was a little too dry to be read for pleasure, which is why I read.

As a disclaimer... I read the second half of the book while feeling a bit under the weather, which probably affected the amount of patience I had. I did actually realise this and switch to a different book for a while, but when I came back to it feeling a bit better, I still had the same issues.

If you're interested in the book, I wouldn't tell you not to bother reading it, but I sort of wish that I'd just read the original article that the book was based on. Basically, I wanted just the five days at memorial of the title, not the years of case building and litigation that followed.


Jen reads... Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Unaccustomed Earth is a selection of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. It's the first thing that I've ever read by her, but if this is anything to go by, I'm going to love her other books!

All of the stories focus on Indian American characters, but although the stories share some themes about what it is like to be a first, second or even third generation Indian American, they are all different enough that this is in no way an issue (although I have seen some people bring it up as one). The first half of the book is made up of unconnected short stories, but the second half follows two characters, Hema and Kaushik at different stages in their intersecting lives.

There weren't any stories that I disliked or found boring in any way, which is pretty rare for a collection of short stories! Although my experience of being British and living in Japan is obviously quite different to the experience of Indian families living in America, there were a lot of things about the immigrant experience that Lahiri touches on that I have experienced to some extent, which I enjoyed. There were also a lot of culturally specific issues that I have no experience of, but which I found really fascinating to read about - The role of women in the home, traditional family roles versus modern ones, having relationships with people outside of your own culture, and so on... but the book isn't solely concerned with these issues. It also tackles much more universal problems such as how to cope with the alcholism of a family member, how things appear on the outside may not completely different to how they actually are, what happens to solid relationships when you add children into the mix, unrequited feelings and many other things.

Lahiri writes in one of my favourite styles - her writing is easy to read and not at all pretentious, but still extremely moving and beautiful. I don't normally comment that much on writing style (because it feels too much like I'm still in English lit. at school), but I really found myself appreciating it as I was reading.

The stories in this book are at both fascinating and quietly devastating, and they made me want to read a lot more of Jhumpa Lahiri's work. Highly recommended!


We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

I recently decided that if I'm going to write book reviews on here, I should actually try to take notes or at least highlight passages in books so that I can look back at them and remember what I wanted to talk about... so of course, the first book that I choose to do that with to be one where to talk about the main topic of the book would immediately involve diving into spoiler territory. I won't, but I would love to talk about the book to somebody who has actually read it!

If you have heard anything (other than the booker nomination) about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, then you probably know that there is a massive twist in the story about 70 pages in. I already had the book, which I had bought without knowing much about (other than that it was cheap and nominated for the booker), and was convinced to read it when I heard Simon on The Readers podcast* talk about how amazing the twist is. I hate being spoiled, so I knew that I needed to read it before I heard anything else about the book.

But setting the twist aside for the moment, as soon as I got a few pages into the book I knew I was going to love it. The book does a really good job of setting up this family where something is not quite right, but nobody is willing to talk about it for fear of upsetting the status quo, in an early part of the book where Rosemary goes home from college for thanksgiving. There are also several places where it is hinted that the narrator, Rosemary, is not entirely normal, exemplified by a scene in the college cafeteria, where she gets embroiled in an argument between a couple, where she ends up acting not entirely like a normal person would. This all made me really want to read on and figure out what was actually going on.

Another thing that I really liked is that Rosemary is a really self-conscious narrator. By that I mean that she is extremely aware that she is telling a story, and often makes asides to the reader, saying things like "Such a sweetheart. But don’t get attached to him; he’s not really part of this story". I think this could have been done really really badly, but it is handled really well, and makes Rosemary much more likeable, even when her behaviour is initially inexplicable.

The story starts in the middle, and then moves all over the place before finally reaching the end, but this is done in a way that feels natural and not at all jarring. This is a technique that I really love when it's done well.

 So now we come to the twist... and what a twist it is! I honestly did not see it coming in any way. It wasn't even in the genre of twist that I thought it would be. It turns what I thought was another well-written story about a dysfunctional family into something quite different. To be honest, it completely flummoxed me until I had read on a few pages when it all started to make sense. I think the thing that I like the most about the twist is that it isn't the whole book. I think you could quite happily know what the twist is before reading it and it wouldn't ruin your enjoyment of the book at all. I don't mean to say that because the writing is excellent (though it is), or that the characters are well rounded and interesting (though they are), you are going to enjoy the rest of the book even if you know what happens. What I mean is that the twist reveals the main point of the book, the fact that there is a twist isn't the point.

I would still recommend not knowing what the twist it is before you read it though.

I would be very happy if this wins the booker, and the fact that I enjoyed this so much is making me wonder if I should try to read the rest of the shortlist (I went off the booker prize a few years ago when I tried to read The Finkler Question which I HATED and did not finish, which is pretty rare for me)... I probably won't though, haha.

Quotes I enjoyed:

"When there is an invisible elephant in the room, one is from time to time bound to trip over a trunk."

"“Pass the turkey, Mother,” my uncle Bob said, sliding smoothly into his traditional rant about the way turkeys are being bred for more white meat and less dark. “The poor birds can hardly walk. Miserable freaks.” This, too, was intended as a dig at my father, the enterprise being another of science’s excesses, like cloning or whisking up a bunch of genes to make your own animal. Antagonism in my family comes wrapped in layers of code, sideways feints, full deniability."

"Language does this to our memories—simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture."

"At dinner, I adopted my usual strategy of saying nothing. The spoken word converts individual knowledge into mutual knowledge, and there is no way back once you’ve gone over that cliff. Saying nothing was more amendable, and over time I’d come to see that it was usually your best course of action. I’d come to silence hard, but at fifteen I was a true believer."

* If you like book podcasts and haven't tried that one, you should! I only recently discovered it and have really enjoyed the back episodes that I've listened to so far.