Review: Little Children, Tom Perrotta

Unknown-2I’d love to read a biting satire of middle-class, 30-something life in the suburbs with young kids. I am currently living it and to be honest I could do with a good laugh, someone I could sympathise or identify with, and/or at least some really incisive observations on this kind of life. You won’t find that here.

It’s not a bad book – it’s well-written and I wanted to see what happened. Nothing did, but that’s ok (God knows, nothing really happens when you are 30-something living in the suburbs with young kids, that’s kind of the defining factor, whether good or bad). The main reason why you shouldn’t bother reading this book is that the characters will not tell you anything about life. They are thinly drawn, to the extent that I could describe all of them in 3 words or less, and you wouldn’t learn any more than that about them by reading the book. You wouldn’t identify or sympathise with them really, because they aren’t drawn in real, human terms.

There are some neat, isolated observations, that’s true (fungal toenails is one that stays with me), but that’s the sum of it and it’s not enough. The two main characters are somewhat more fleshed out than the rest of the cast, but thats not saying much – all the other characters are pure ciphers, and I know so little about them that I can’t really care what the hell they do, plus it was kind of surprising to see some of them turn up in the denouement as if they were suddenly supposed to be significant.

Maybe these stories work better as movies where we like to take it as read that there are ‘mean girls’, ‘jocks’, ‘feminist-activists’, ‘panty-sniffers’, ‘pedophiles’ etc. (oh look 1-2 word descriptions of all the main characters! Now guess which two are the main characters and add ‘disappointed’ before the description. Perfect.) There were also occasionally passages – mostly relating to American football – where I just switched off, and scanned for the main point. So while I kind of like this author (mostly because I like Election, the movie), this did not do it for me, at all.

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Review: Under the Skin, Michel Faber

under_the_skin1I had never heard of this book until I happened to see the movie on a plane recently – after 5 minutes, I was thinking “What the hell am I watching?” but I couldn’t turn it off. When it was over, I thought “What the hell have I just watched?” At the time I was annoyed to have invested so long in watching a movie that could have been much shorter for all that “actually happened” – but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. It is so mesmeric, the images so striking, the music so alien, and just so horrifying – all in the most minimalist, stripped down style imaginable. You work hard throughout the movie to try to make meaning from what you are seeing, and even so it leaves most things unanswered or open to interpretation. So I went straight to the book afterwards hoping to find a few more clues – only to discover it was 9000 times more straightforward.

The alien in the movie doesn’t even have a name – her mission, her history are complete unknowns, and pretty much remain so. In the book, you find out about all of these things in a much more straightforward, linear fashion. The mesmeric, sexually predatory, menacing mood is not present (in fact you feel rather sorry for Isserley) and you don’t get that sense of pure alien-ness that you do from the movie. This was my one issue with the book – Isserley was SO human that I couldn’t quite understand how the whole premise for the book could occur. On the other hand though, as a work of science fiction, it is satisfying to learn about Isserley’s world, its class structure, what life is like for its inhabitants, on why they are sending people to earth, what they sacrifice in order to come, and why they would do so. You learn more than you probably ever wanted to know about “vodsel”, including a few hideous scenes that you surely won’t be forgetting in a hurry. The themes of what it means to be human, and of the blurred boundaries between human, beast and monster, and of the need for connection and home, come through strongly in both the movie and the book however. If you like science fiction, this is a thought-provoking read that will stay with you.

Review: The Night Watch, Sarah Waters

night_watch_318x500This is a story about people living in London during and after WW2. It is chock full of the tiny ordinary details that convey the reality of life at the time – typing pools, demob suits, bomb dust on windshields, cups of tea brewed with a kettle in a bathroom – and Waters combines this with subtle and meticulously observed idiomatic language from the period, with striking effect. I would recommend the book for this alone. I also enjoyed the fact that book deals with different layers of society, including things rarely dealt with in fiction, especially set in that era, such as prisoners in jail and the everyday life of gay women. It also vividly illustrates how the war threw people together, jumbled everyone up, crossed class divides, and perhaps more importantly, crossed gender divides, allowing women to take roles of importance, and live freely in a way which left them struggling to find their place in the aftermath of the war.

Aside from that, the other striking thing about the book is that it is written in reverse chronology, starting in 1947 – which is half the book – then moving to 1944, which is where you really discover who the characters are – and finally there is a short section set in 1941, which fills in the final gaps and ends the story where it really began for the characters involved. It is a clever concept, cleverly done – I admit after the aimlessness and uncertainty of the first part, and the intensity of the second, I did feel that ending at the beginning of a story left me more positive than I expected – though the unveiling was not as satisfactory for all characters. I won’t go into spoilers but I did feel Duncan’s storyline, despite lovely period detail, was unsatisfying in many ways, and I’m not sure how much, in the end, it added to the otherwise very female stories that were being told. Also, it took me a while to get into the book because in the first (1947) section I just didn’t feel that I could get a grip on the characters. I now realise I wasn’t being allowed to, because of this unusual reverse structure – and actually now, I want to go back, and look at again in the light of what I know – but on first reading, it was a bit put-downable for this reason, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some readers gave up before reaching the mid-section. I’d really like to give this 3.5 stars – 4 for the detail and the language, 3 for how enjoyable it was as a book – but I don’t think I can do that here, so I’ll settle for 4 because Waters really is a talented writer and well worth reading.

Just not enough tomatoes to go round

IMG_1787

My timer is an owl. He looks worried. He should.

I am an awesome procrastinator. I’m so awesome at procrastinating that I bought a book called “How to stop procrastinating” about 10 years ago and still haven’t finished it. Suffice to say I am the sort of person who spends many more hours making colour-coded Excel spreadsheets of all the work I am going to do than actually doing some work. So that is why one week ago, instead of actually doing some work I drew myself up a complex system of points, including little tiny tomato drawings to colour in, based on the Pomodoro Technique for time management.

I haven’t researched this greatly but it’s been on my radar for a while. Basically it was invented by Francesco Cirillo, and it’s based on the idea that you work in a more focused and effective way if you time yourself and do it in 25-minute bursts (or ‘pomodoros’), followed by a 5-minute break. There are surely various studies to back this up as it is definitely a Thing (which you can read much more about here). The 25-minute burst is called a pomodoro because when Francesco started using this technique as a student he used a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato (pomodoro being Italian  for tomato, you uncultured buffoon).

What I describe below may sound overly complex for very little, so let me try to explain. I am a stay-at-home/work-at-home mum so before I can think about my work, or other things that I might want to do for myself, I have to factor in the following:

  • drop-offs
  • pick-ups
  • extra-currcicular activities
  • grocery shopping
  • several hours of core drudgery (laundry, cooking and tidying up)
  • meals/snacks/clothing/bathing for 2 kids (possibly me and DH also)
  • inevitably unforseen circumstances relating to, eg, falls, vomit, rainstorms etc.
  • a certain amount of time lying on the sofa in a heap
  • possibly some medicinal wine (it’s CALMING)

I don’t know how many hours you stay up in a day, but I can tell you that for me, it is ALL ABOUT THE TIME. So first of all I tried to estimated how many hours I really had ‘free’ to work, which oddly enough I had never done before despite finishing a masters and working on various publications and projects for the past several years. I estimated (optimistically) 20 hours a week – which translates into 40 pomodoros. Then I tried to break down the different things I both need and want to work on (I can’t JUST look after kids and work, I would be horribly batshit mean and crazy – having said that, I now realise I have at times both done that and been that. Fairly frequently.) I came up with 7 categories. Here are the 4 I thought I would do, placed in the order of time I thought I would devote to them, if I was being honest:

1. Social (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Skype, etc. Some of this is kind of work, honest.)

2. Regular work/professional development

3. Freelance work

4. Admin (bills, taxes, emails, permission slips, etc.)

And here are the other 3, in no particular order as I didn’t think I would really do them (I hadn’t so far):

5. House and home (decluttering, meal planning, organising cupboards, fixing chairs, vacuuming packing baby clothes that have been out for the past 6 years, etc.)

6. Writing (just because this is specifically something I want to do more)

7. Self-development (please don’t think I believe in angels or anything. Amongst all this stuff to do and with so little time, I find what’s missed from the equation is what just benefits me, which makes me happy, which keeps me learning in a non-work way. So this includes exercise, language learning, etc.)

I am just being honest by putting ‘social’ (media) at the top. I know work should be there really.  It’s no surprise that ‘admin’ is 4 slides down because unless I am having a burst of super colour-coded organisation in a particular area, my brain just assumes people – or creditors – will remind me when the due date is near . . . And everything else – even house and home (yes, I am a really rubbish housewife) – is in the kind of position of the list that my brain thinks of as ‘extras that would be nice but hahahahaha’.

[Man, my life is so #firstworldproblems. Sigh. Quick pause for shame spiral. OK.]

So 7 categories and 40 pomodoros, perfect. Everything got assigned 5 pomodoros, except ‘Social’ which got 10, as I reckoned that’s where I spent most time (I was wrong). One week later, when the scores were in, it looked like this, in order of apparent priority to my confused brain:

1. Regular work/professional development: 12 pomodoros (AKA 6 hrs)

2. Social: 5 pomodoros (AKA 2.5 hrs)

Tie for 3rd place:

3. ‘House and home’ and ‘Writing’ both got 4 pomodoros (AKA 2 hrs – the latter only because I am writing this post)

Tie for 4th place:

4. Freelance work & Admin both got 2 pomodoros (AKA 1 hr)

And in woeful last place:

5. Self-development: drum-roll please – 0 pomodoros (AKA ZERO hours. But I did read a lot)

Ok, this is probably a lot of blah blah to you, and to me too as things change all the time – I’ve just finished a massive batch of freelance work, for instance. But what I really wanted to do here, in the first instance was see if I was estimating my time correctly (something I am thinking about more and more as a freelancer), and see where I did more or less, and try to get a bit more balance into my life, as I constantly feel on the back foot, running from deadline to deadline, both personal and professional. So what I learned from this first week was:

  • I spend way too much time on my main work and professional development, for the remuneration or reward that is involved to me personally. I need to channel some of that invaluable time into other things – such as finding myself more paying freelance work.
  • I need to break down my ‘regular work/professional development’ category . The two are very tied together for me: being aware of what’s happening in the field helps me do my job better (and make it more interesting), as well as keeping my CV alive. But . . . if it’s benefiting everyone else, but not paying me, then I need to think about myself and my family a bit more.
  • It’s also hard to separate ‘social for work’ and ‘social for self’. Social media is massively tied into my work, and a lot of people I have been able to work with/chat with professionally have also become real friends – even if I have never met them. I need to separate these though, and I need my ‘social time’ to help me stay connected to family and friends in far off places. I’ve been away from home in various countries for 16 years now, and I know not only how important my family and friends are, but how easy it is to let that link wither, despite the best of intentions. I need to schedule that time because in my life, if I don’t prioritise it, it doesn’t happen – work does, admin does, but not the things that really matter.
  • Having zero pomodoros for self development is really rubbish. Everyone deserves at least one hour a week for something fun, that they are passionate about, that’s just for them. I have my eye on Bollywood classes (again!)
  • I overestimated my time by at least 10 pomodoros (5 hours)
  • I need to think about what difference it would make if I turned this on its head and worried more about myself, and my family, than ‘work’ (remembering if course that I have a whole sense of self tied up with ‘work’ and this isn’t just about money.)

Tomorrow I’m starting the week again, with a 30 pomodoro minimum. This time the categories that I will definitely do are these:

1. Paid work: 10 pomodoros

2. Unpaid (forthcoming??) work: 5 pomodoros

3. House and home: 5 pomodoros

And some that I will still do, but with less urgency:

4. Social: 4 pomodoros

5. Writing: 2 pomodoros

6. Admin: 2 pomodoros

7. Self-devlopment: 2 pomodoros

Is it silly to worry about such tiny pockets of time? Do you do this or have you learned to let go? I’d be interested to hear if anyone else feels they struggle with time management and what they do to carve out some time for themselves.

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