Who Are You? What Do You Do?

CramondA couple of weeks ago I met a friend for coffee and a catch up. After a while, we got to talking about meeting new people (she’d been to a wedding as a +1 the day before) and how, when you’re an adult, the first things people ask when they are introduced to you are “how do you know the host?” and “where do you work?” When we were teenagers it was about the music we listened to, at university it was the course we studied. Both were vague indicators of personality or taste. Our jobs? Not so much.

Most of my friends fall into two categories. Those who knew what they wanted to be when they were starting their careers and are now doing it (the doctor, the primary school teacher, the musician). The rest of us have fallen into our jobs with varying degrees of satisfaction. I suspect, if we are really honest, a lot of us just don’t know what we want to be when we grow up. Some folk are ok with that, some are not.

For the friend I met for coffee, talking about her job is a source of frustration. It’s what she does – but it’s not who she is, and while she is unhappy at work, she’s enjoying so many other ways of spending her time. She volunteers. She runs. She’s doing an evening class. But those things rarely come up in conversation.

It led me to thinking about how I’d answer “how do you spend your spare time?” if I was asked that, instead of about work. I swim. I read. I cook. I lift weights. I go to art galleries and museums. I practice my photography. Except, as I realised while talking to my friend, I’ve not been so good at doing those things lately. When I’m busy with work and tired at the weekends I find myself putting hobbies on a back burner. I end up putting off who I “am” in favour of what I “do” to pay the bills.

With that in mind, I dragged myself to Cramond with my camera on Sunday and went for a walk along the beach. The light was awful with clouds rolling in over the Forth, it started to snow, and the wind was howling. I only took one, maybe two decent pictures, but it was so nice to be out in the fresh air, reminding myself of how I enjoy spending my spare time and forcing myself to switch off and relax.

February in books

“Most of what makes a book ‘good’ is that we are reading it at the right moment for us” – Alain de Botton

This month I have mostly been getting two or three chapters in to a book before realising it was due back at the library, or getting bored and deciding that it wasn’t for me. Any bedtime suitable page-turner recommendations? In the mean time – here’s what I did finish…

M R Kasasian, The Mangle Street Murders

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When Marge’s beloved father dies, she moves to London to live with her guardian, Mr Sidney Grice, the famous personal detective. On her first evening in his home, their tea is interrupted by a woman desperate for their help – her son in law is being tried for murder, and she’s convinced he is innocent. Marge believes her, but Mr Grice is not so sure…

I thoroughly enjoyed The Mangle Street Murders – largely because of the unusual starring characters, more than the mystery itself. Marge, an outspoken gin drinking rebel, would be welcome on a night out with me any day. Her uncle? Not so much… Grice is an unusual hero, an unpleasant vegetarian with a penchant for a cup of tea, he’s clever and entirely motivated by money. At least he’s honest about it. The murder itself wasn’t a huge surprise to me (although there were some fun twists and tangles), but I’ll be reading the next one with glee anyway.

Jojo Moyes, After You

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After You picks up where Moyes’ bestselling Me Before You left off (consider this your spoiler warning…), revisiting Lou as she tries to come to terms with what happened when we first met her. Eighteen months later, and she’s living in London, working in an Airport bar, barely in touch with her family. But then she has an accident, and a visitor, and she’s drawn back into Will’s world.

I loved Me Before You. Loved it. I did not love After You. While I was keen to revisit the story, having since read more of Moyes’ books, I was sceptical as to where the plot would take Lou next. When we left her, she was grieving but ultimately the first book ended on a high, with options and possibilities in Lou’s future. After You sees them dashed rather spectacularly (to say nothing of the personality transplant our leading lady has had in the mean time) and Moyes relies heavily on additional characters to push the story forward. I eye rolled a lot. Never a good sign.

Lesson learnt: don’t read sequels.

Dan Brown, Inferno

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The fourth in Brown’s series (so, technically not a sequel) about Robert Langdon, cryptologist and star of his famous Da Vinci code, Inferno begins with Langdon waking up in a Florentine hospital with no idea how he got there. He quickly realises it’s related to a mysterious alerted image of a painting depicting Dante’s Inferno. But why does Langdon have the image? Why is he being chased? And why does he keep having flashbacks?

Sometimes you just to suspend all intelligent thought and go with the flow of a book in order to enjoy it. This is one of those books. The plot was bonkers. Utterly ridiculous. A polymath doctor and a university professor solving riddles which may save the world from an unknown major threat? With the UN involved? Three weeks after finishing it I still have no idea what on earth was going on – but regardless, I did enjoy it, probably because it was set in Florence and made a lot of references to nice art and buildings. I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to read another though.

Anna Freeman, The Fair Fight

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The Fair Fight tells the tale of Ruth, born and raised in a Bristolian brothel in the 1790s. Too ugly to join the family trade, she finds herself training up as a pugilist – a boxer. Intertwined with her story is that of Charlotte, her financial backer’s affluent but miserable wife.

The first thing that struck me about The Fair Fight was the language. The crude local dialect brought the characters to life quickly, and I loved how Freeman changed her words to indicate the social class – and genders – of those giving the narrative. I also really enjoyed the setting, for once not in London, and not the aristocracy. Parts of the novel are brutal, particularly in the descriptions of neglect and poverty, but they are so subtly written in to the plot that they don’t stick out or become judgemental. The only downside? The multi narrative format. As well as Ruth and Charlotte, a third character, George, tells the majority of the first third of the tale. It’s jarring, in a book about women – although he gives additional details and context which pop up later, I found his section long winded. An impressive debut.