Monday, 4 April 2016

When to Connect on LinkedIn

A funeral director wants to connect with me on LinkedIn. Should I be worried? Does he know something I don’t?



The name doesn’t mean anything to me, so it’s not an ex-colleague that’s taken a drastic career change (Steve, you know, data analytics was never for me: what I really always wanted was to be surrounded by cadavers).

My wife quipped that he only wanted me for my body. That’s the second joke she’s made this millennium and as the first was something about ordering my headstone, already I’m beginning to sense a disturbing trend – yeah, yeah, I know, two data points isn’t much to be going on. Anyhow, I wasn’t going to start a debate on the subject as she was busy at her daily routine of sharpening the kitchen knives – I never knew they needed such attention until I met her.  

But back to the subject, random Funeral Director Guy, who doesn’t know me from Adam, suddenly thinks it would be a great idea to hook up on LinkedIn. Oh, the hours of fun we will have online discussing casket styles, trends in floral tributes and the like. Really?

Now, most people who connect to me on LinkedIn are of four types. And each gets treated differently.

Firstly there are colleagues and ex-colleagues with whom I share mutual trust, admiration and a sense of bon homie. We might meet up when visiting each other’s city, or even help with a referral to a new job. These people get a CONNECT and a personal note asking how things are going etc.

Second are the colleagues and ex-colleagues with whom I don’t share any friendly mutual feelings but one of us got bored on the internet and LinkedIn suggested we break the permafrost on our professional relationship. They usually get a CONNECT, too, but that’s all.

Third are the IGNORE crowd. You know them, the usual dregs of society: Russian ladies looking for a lasting relationship (passport); Nigerian ‘UN representatives with surplus funds’ looking for a stupid person; social media “experts” and, of course, bankers. The only ones missing from this list are real estate agents, but I understand that: the last one I dealt with was far too dumb to do anything complex like operate a mouse. If only we could link up the world’s realtors with all those Nigerian gentlemen?

Last are family and friends who don’t know the difference between LinkedIn and Facebook. Unfortunately, as nobody at LinkedIn or Facebook also knows the difference between LinkedIn and Facebook this is an increasingly common, and increasingly cringe-inducing experience. Hey, why don’t you connect with your cousin Toby? We found him in your contacts, so it’s probably great that he can review your career and see all the people you know and add witty asides to all your posts while tapping you for cash. Toby is currently holds the position of “Having a Difficult Time” at the Company called “Nowhere Much” and has been there since 1994. So does Toby get a CONNECT? Only if it would offend to refuse, but in this case it is probably safe to IGNORE as you are most likely to meet up next at one or other’s funeral.

Oh yeah, that reminds me: Funeral Director Guy. What to do? He doesn’t really fit with the above categories, so I don’t know if good things or bad things will happen if I hit CONNECT. Maybe he’s just trying to sell me something, but it really isn’t anything I, or anyone else, wants to buy. It’s something we buy when we have to. And, of course, you only ever buy for someone else. And in any case, why would he think LinkedIn would be a great way of drumming up some extra business? Only if some “social media expert” ignoramus was advising him. And now, here’s the really crazy part…


…let’s take a look at the profile. We have none of the same contacts, which isn’t surprising as I tend to deal strictly in the land of the living, and people who work for local government.  I was concerned for a second that he might be connected to my doctor (that really would be worrying!), but no. And again, not surprising as…wait for it… HE LIVES IN CANADA! Ottawa, to be exact. Now, I admit that I have been to Canada – once to see Niagara Falls in 1985, and once skiing in Whistler in 1996. So, do I think I might like to get buried there? Is it even legal?

Sometimes something is so left field (an ‘outlier’ to my data friends) that it really has to be explored. My mind at this point takes to revelry. Maybe the Canadians have found a great new industry I’d never heard of? Hey look, they figure, the country is pretty empty and in London funeral plots go for big money. Why don’t we ask the Brits if they’d like to get planted on the cheap in Canada? What could be nicer? Save a whole bunch of money on something you don’t want to spend on anyhow, without compromising on quality. Even the service will be in English. Oh, and the quality of the air here…  Well, maybe scrap that last point.

The Canadian Ex-pat Ex-person industry (as I have chosen to call it) could really be the next big thing. You heard it here first. Opportunities, as well as graves, are just opening and all you need is a big empty country. I expect the Russians will be muscling in pretty soon – though they will have to be a little careful of where they start digging owing to previous similar, though less well-intentioned initiatives, back in Soviet times.

So, thank you LinkedIn. I have seen the next big trend. This is going to make Smartphones and sliced bread seem like small fry. I’m going to cash in now, and my very first step will be to hit CONNECT to Mr Funeral Director guy.

But I have one tiny fragment of doubt remaining.  Maybe he has been taking advice from a “social media expert”?

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Slade House - David Mitchell

A promising start and then I found that we were back in the world of horologists and eternals, in what is, in essence, a companion (if a lot shorter) volume to Bone Clocks. The setting in a single location works well and for much of the book it seems like a classic horror with great twists and a somewhat cruel trend in killing off very likeable heroes. In the end, though, I felt a little cheated that the central idea was taken from the earlier book, and so there was little here to get excited about.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Lords of the Horizons - Jason Goodwin

Turning, unusually, to a little non-fiction for the sake of educating myself a little on the middle east. Today's talk of 'caliphates' plus the reading of Louis De Berneire's Birds Without Wings (2004) led me to want to know more about the forgotten 'great empire' - the Ottoman.

To most history scholars, such as myself, the curriculum seems to almost literally skirt around The Ottoman Empire. I did the usual Plantagenet's,Tudors, Stuarts etc. Modern European up to the end of WW1. The Ottoman Empire was a part of all that history, and yet was barely mentioned.

So this book is fantastic at filling in some of the gaps. Did you wonder why there were Muslims in Bosnia during the Yugoslav civil war? - here's the answer. What exactly is a caliphate, and why doesn't it exist any more? What was the whole schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims about? Why did we lose the crusades? Why are Turks called Turks when the Turkmen (and Turkmenistan) are somewhere else? What happened to the Mongol hoards and the Huns are their ravaging? Why did Byzantium become Constantinople and then Istanbul? Its all here, and, as such I feel a great gap in my education has been filled. I also know the difference between a sultan, bey, vizier, pasha and a khan - and I can feel smug in this at least until my rubbish memory decides to throw this knowledge away.

So, all that is good. But this book isn't perfect. Firstly there are 2 mistakes that are entirely down to the publisher:

1) The map at the front is a disaster. It just doesn't work. The shading is awful. It's way too ambitious.

2) The timeline and the glossary are at the back. Well, I'm sorry guys but I read this book in the old fashioned "start to finish" method. I almost spilled my latte when I finished, turned the page and found all this great information that would have REALLY helped my understanding.

OK, that's kicked the publisher. Should I kick the author? On balance, no. Some reviewers do pick up on the inconsistencies in dates and the fact that this history does not follow a fixed timeline, but for me these are trifles. The author obviously has a huge amount of knowledge and could fill 10 more books - this is the skimming primer of absolutely everything. No go read the detail.

Is this a good read? It's tough sometimes, but I found it really rewarding. Better to know a little about what others' histories than nothing at all.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Life After Life - Kate Atkinson

More ambitious than any of her excursions since Days in the Museum, there were maybe too many coils in the serpent, and they failed to divert the readers' attention from the Grandfather Paradox - which, of course trips so many up (see Doctor Who almost every Saturday night).

All that said, and this book has had a load of criticism, the characters are as good as any she has written and you do genuinely start caring for their wellbeing ( or "wellbeings" - there are several for everyone as Atkinson plays with time). And I am very glad that her next offering will pick up where this one has left off - the lady's on a path and is not, it seems for turning.

Angela Carter - The Bloody Chamber

My second Angela Carter book is this delightful set of short stories, loosely based on fairy stories, but given a very adult upgrade.

Somewhere in the centre of the book I got a little bogged down with a few similar werewolf / Red Riding Hood stories, but don't let that put you off. The first story - The Bloody Chamber of the title -  will live (somewhat disturbingly) with you for a long time. Well worth the cost by itself. Other gems include the Tiger's Bride (an twist in the literal tail), and an evil Puss in Boots.

I am not entirely sure what this tells us about 'feminist writer' Carter, except that playfulness, love of the earthy and ability to write beautifully all shine through again. There seems little or not attempt to place a feminist undertone into the proceedings, and, indeed, the female victims are never saved the final coup de grace from the evil misogynist villains.

Also, several of the stories have a sensual, even erotic, theme, which does not look to supplant the usual male / female roles and imagery with anything revolutionary. And if you think it is coming in "The Lady of the House of Love" , in which a vampires lures a virgin soldier to her room, well.. no, I'm not going to spoil it for you.

Do these new fairy tales reinterpret the roles of women? No. But this is far from a traditional telling.

Friday, 25 July 2014

15 for 2013

OK, so I went a bit mad in 2013 - largely owing to a number of long-haul flights to the US and Asia. Over 100 thousand miles in the air meant plenty of time to keep up my resolution to read at least a book a month.

The Good Terrorist - Doris Lessing
Maybe not the wisest title to have in your hand luggage, but a great choice for book one. This was a reminder of how life used to be in the early 70's when I was growing up - Britain's youth not really sure of which way to turn - to conform or take their rebellion to some logical, if unpalatable, conclusions. The world is one of of squats, declining standards among public officials, casual racism and sexism, and a multi-layered secretive world of agitators, protesters and terrorists.

The "good terrorist" of the title can easily be seen as the recently-deceased Doris herself: an organiser, a practical person that others rely on. In the end our terrorist though is left nt just with the actions, but also their consequences (which we will never know), as all her friends have deserted her to the wrath of ... the IRA, the police... who knows?

Resolution for 2014 - more Doris Lessing. Her novels have a density of characterisation that is admirable, while the plot grips.

Carry On Jeeves – PG Woodhouse
My first go at Jeeves, and I fear it may be my last. The stories here are very predictable and seem almost carbon copies of each other with just the names changed. Occasional bon mots aside I did not find this to be the comic genius that was mentioned frequently in the blurb. I gave it to my 12 year old daughter afterwards and she got bored half way through. “All the stories are the same” she complained, and I must agree.

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

Not nearly as ridiculous as the movie (how on Earth anyone could follow that without having read the book I don’t know), this is a book that draws you in if you are fascinated by solving puzzles. The puzzles here are how the different stories are linked together, rather than the plots of each story. And this is a shame. The stories are uneven in their quality – some, like that of the early explorer being poisoned by his doctor, drag somewhat. Others, like the Korea of the future and old peoples’ home of the present are quite brilliant page turners, while being very different in character. If you haven’t read Cloud Atlas then do, there will definitely be something in it for you. If you saw the movie first then you might be put off, but persevere and try to keep any mental pictures of Tom Hanks with funny teeth out of your head.

Kate Atkinson – various

OK, as those of you who read last year’s entry will know, I love Kate Atkinson. I now believe that I have read every word she has had published. One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News are “classic” Atkinson and you will not be disappointed. I particularly enjoyed the running theme through the former (as well as it’s fantastic start when a brutal road rage incident is witnessed by a queue of ticket buyers)  and the latter is a great story – a lot darker and maybe with a slightly predictable denouement, but I loved it all the same.  

And so to “Started Early, Took My Dog”, which has some brilliant moments, starts well, then rambles through until a rushed finish. Not a reason to give up on KA, but not her finest ‘in my humble’.

Levels of Life - Julian Barnes

This is a deeply personal book and may be too factual to be called lit-fic. As an exploration of a man’s grief for his lost partner it is deeply moving and I pretty soon stopped trying to read this in public, prone as I am to the odd tear or two. Ultimately though, I found this book highly rewarding – Barnes comes across as an honestly decent bloke in a time when there are very few great male role models in the books and newspapers we read. Of course he could still turn out to be a monster, but if so then this is even better fiction that I thought.

Fugitive Pieces – Anne Mitchells

I have not seen the film version, but can thoroughly recommend the book. The book is divided into two parts and our all-action hero, Jakob, from Book 1, that Mitchells makes us fall in love with and root for, is bravely killed off in Book 2. We have invested a lot in Jakob  - his escape from Nazi Germany and his troubled marriages and now we suddenly lose him. Now we get a new less admirable character, Ben, who is diffident, troubled and makes many poor choices, it seems. But the last few chapters in which Ben explores Jakobs life and home are extremely moving. A great book, as evidenced by the fact that you will read this in a flash and wish there were a few more hundred pages.

The Testament of Mary – Colm Toibin

I loved the premise of this book – Mary finally gets to tell her side of the story. It digs constantly, through Mary’s own indignation, at the process by which her son’s story is being turned into gospel and the establishment of the church. She, and the truth that she knows, are being side-lined by the story-tellers. The survivors write the history, as they always do, and Mary is powerless. The contrast to the church’s own extreme veneration of the Virgin is a confection it seems, as her treatment on Earth by those that created the legend, is far from venerable.

What I Loved – Siri Hustvedt

This is a novel that delightfully plods through it’s early chapters, delighting you with the artistic characters of New York and diverting you on the subjects of female hysteria, artistic pretention and how the academic community live in such a different world from you and I. And then it all changes: death, marital breakup, eating disorders, theft, drugs, breaking of trust and finally murder. The pace is cranked up, we get a “road movie” section and our hero is viciously assaulted in a hotel room. Oh, and rather like Fugitive Games we get our hero killed off (a peaceful death) and then an almost Barnesian exploration of guilt. This is a “big” book in so many ways – ideas abound and the inexplicable nature of people’s behaviour under stress is a theme that constantly disturbs. You want it all to work itself out, but know that there will be no happy endings here.

This Isn’t The Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You – Jon McGregor

An utter delight and now vying to be my favourite Jon McG book. This is a collection of stories that all have a lightness and sense of wonder about them: these aren’t the kind of things that usually happen to ordinary people, but just occasionally they do. Richly amusing, beautifully descriptive of Fenland, and each story beautifully different from all the others. I may re-read this very soon.

An Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguru

Really on a run of form now. In the west we seem to know little (or maybe care little) about Japan in the immediate post war years. This book tells the story of one of the losers, a man whose identity, status and philospohy have been undermined. Worse, his view on art has been confined to the follies of the now defeated regime which he vigorously supported. His old world has gone and there is no sympathy for him. Even his drinking club has closed as the city also undergoes renewal. 

Like all his novels, the pace is to be wondered at. Have decided I need to read everything he has ever written too.

A Spot of Bother – Mark Haddon
Afraid I really didn’t go for this. Not as moving a description of English middle-class life as many out there, and not funny enough to live alongside the likes of The Curious Incident. The fast moving plot keeps you going, but ultimately I had no sympathy with the characters and was glad to move to the next book on my list.

We Need New Names – No Violet Bulawayo
Sadness and exploitation run deep through this book, but the joyous spirit of our narrator and her stark honesty perhaps give us a little hope. Ultimately, as she is transported from Zimbabwe to the US we realise that her hopes for her own future are dulled and blunted by the her feelings for the friends she leaves behind. This book made a large impression on me – educating me to just how hopeless and joyless the world is for so many of the world’s children. Brilliant, truly brilliant.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

12 for 2012

So here are my 12 reads for this last calendar year. I wonder whether I should step this up to 13 for 2013 and so forth - it has certainly been an enjoyable New Year Resolution to keep. So here they are on all their glory:

The first way of describing this year's picks is - eclectic. There's some old, some new, some Booker and some for pure enjoyment.
Bring Up the Bodies - Hilary Mantel
Better than Wolf Hall? Surely not! Of course with 2 works as huge as these comparisons are pretty worthless, but Bodies benefitted from a smaller cast of characters than Wolf and a condensed period of time. This made the whole thing easier for my brain to manage. On the downside, I learned less about Cromwell, who has become someting of an obsession. I now work a few hundred yards from Austen Friars so am reminded on an almost daily basis that there will be a long wait for part 3. Should I cheat and read a biography? Would this be disloyal to Hillary? Should I wait for her?
Nights at the Circus - Angela Carter
Nights is quite an extraordinary book. From chapter 1 you are hit with the feeling that this story cannot be at all true, and that the author will be taking a huge risk if she sticks with the main premise to the end. Surely our main character must be found out in chapter 2 and then we can have something more conventional. But no, not in 2 or 3 or 10 or until maybe the last page, and then maybe not even there. Each plot and subplot seem to want to outdo each other for incredulity and as one bizarre character exists stage left so an even stranger  one emerges from a trapdoor, or floats to earth with no visible means of support. And so is the author - she walks a tightrope from first to last (trapeze would be more fitting, perhaps) always risking that the reader will judge her dashed on the rocks. But then you realise that you have been amazed, deighted and, at the very end, wishing deeply that there was a sequel - sadly this will never be. 
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry - Rachel Joyce
Now I know this has reached Richard and Judy's list, but bear with me. This book is also a delight, but a sad one. The suspense is beautifully judged and the denoument done with the soft touch that seems fitting of Harold himself - this superhero in plimsoles. I often rant about books with stupid endings - this has the very best, in the very sad circumstances. Call me a softy or a romantic, but this book shows how much there is left to cherish in a long and ordinary life.
The jouney in Julian Barnes  The Sense of an Ending I had less sympathy with. My initial reaction to the opening, set in an English public school, was that this was going to be yet  another study of the emotional depth that only the upper classes truly possess. But, swallowing the chip on my shoulder (it had been there a long time and was cold and rotten) and ignoring the pretentious nature of the two main 'characters' I really liked the plot. And then, bingo! another great ending. Someone should really re-write this basing it in a Milton Keynes comprehensive (that chip grew back pretty quick).
So far all the books have been written in the last 30 years, and I promised you eclectic, so here you go Candide, by Voltaire. This is all Melvyn Bragg's fault - he talked about it on Start the Week and I was intrigued. Candide is incredibly fast-paced, often a little crude and almost comic-book. Without understanding the political and cultiural references of the day it can't read as the satire it was intended to be. That said, what a romp!
Next up came Kate Atkinson and Case Histories. I read Behind the Scenes at the Museum a while ago and it was great, but frankly I was a little snobby about this one which is the first of her oddball, dysfunctional, brooding Detective Brodie stories. The problem was seeing it n TV where it was a cross between Morse and Rebus. In the book the story is grimmer and funnier at the same time and, like Museum, there is plenty of coincidence and a wholeness that hangs the thing together. Indeed, the way the different Cases are tied up with one ball of detective string is highly ingeneous. So, again, I read a book with a great ending this year. This, and a conversation with an Atkinsonite on the tube led me to do something I haven't done since college: I went straight on and read another book by the same author.
Atkinson's Emotionally Weird is a very different kettle of the proverbial. Now, I was told that this wasn't as good, and sure there are some dodgey plot moments and the structure is "challenging", but I loved it. This is quirky and original and deeply charming. Some of the characters (especially the University lecturers) are superbly funny and outrageous and I loved the 1970's attitude to student work; fading when I was "up" and has probably completely vanished now.
C by Tom McCarthy seems to be a novel chiefly about mourning, loss and sadness yet is wrapped in the clothes of technology, travel, altruism, control and misogyny which keeps the whole from being unbearably heartrending. The huge shifts of direction in Serge's life are maybe the only things not handled with supreme skill. We do not exist in episodes, but are blends of all our pasts and sometimes I felt that this was handled too infrequently or awkwardly. That said, this book has had a lot of critical praise and I will be seeking out Remainder for one of 2013's reads. Where are you taking me next Tom?
C was the first book I read in 2012 and the last was The Lighthouse by Alison Moore. Although the ending is ambiguous that doesn't make it bad, indeed you could hardly think of a better way of bringing this to an end. While reading The Lighthouse I kept thinking of L'Entranger and that of all the outsider-type characters this year (Harold Fry, Serge, Brodie, Stevens, Ned Kelly) Futh was by far the strangest, misunderstood and prone to mishap. There is a problem when so many unfortunate things happen to the central character - is it believeable any more, or is it just falling into farce? I am really undecided about whether she pulls it off, but any book that explains the human condition through such a light touch works for me.  
And that brings me neatly to Stevens, the central and only fully explored character in Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. I was told it was hard work and I was even told that it was boring. It was neither. This is a book that I consumed in a week and was so sad that it ever had to end. The book shows immense craft in the writing and the lightest possible touch in explaining the emotions and motivations of Stevens. We know him by the careful explantion of what he does, how he moves and serves, converses and even how he drives. We feel his deep embarrassment at trying to perfect "banter" and the obligations he feels to those who rescue him when he runs out of petrol. Life's imperfections and unpredictability seem almost unbearable to him and we feel this pain. But there is no shouting and screaming, nothing explodes and nobody even dies. Indeed, virtually nothing at all happens in Remains. The author doesn't need events. As such, and unlike many of the other novels of the year, time is not condensed, but can play out in all its nuances. We are left with some thoughts from Steven's mind (sometimes charmingly inconsistent and confused, like our thoughts all are), a short drive, some recollections about a former (perhaps misunderstood)  employer and a conversation with an unrequited love. And it is this stilited, inconclusive conversation that is the most important part of the story. The day has little left by way of remainder and perhaps any hope of happiness is dashed. Brilliant.
Lots and lots happens in Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang. Quite why this remarkabel story only amounted to a bad film with Mick Jagger in the past is beyond me. The story itself is one of injustice, and hope, the latter always dashed at the last second. Carey books are invariably an event in themselves and this may not be his greatest, but it nonetheless makes you feel that this has been a grand undertaking, dilligently pursued and not without a huge amount of craft. In the past Rafeael and Michaelangelo painted huge scenes in life-like detail and told the big stories. To me Carey's novels are Michaelangelos.
And so, lastly, to a daub. A wee splatter of paint that amuses a little, but leaves little lasting impression. To say that the most memorable thing about Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday is its title may be a little cruel. But not a lot. (anyone remember Across the Andes by Frog?) It's about trying to fish for salmon in the Yemen, and er... Well, the story is told as a series of diary entries and frankly unbelievable emails (people don't write emails like that). Most of the characters are thin and unbeliveable and the plot is poorly executed. The whole idea of this was to take something "impossible" and show how it wasn't - but that never really happened. That said, I'm sure Mr Torday has made a fortunte out of the film rights and, as such, if I could have written any of the books on this I wish this was the one.
Happy reading in 2013 all. I've started with a real belter - Doris Lessing'sThe Good Terrorist.