Thursday 31 December 2009

The Noughties: A Decade In Books

Over the past 10 years, I have read a number of books. I now present the best and worst of them. Please note that this is not so much a list of books from the Noughties, as a list of books I have read in the Noughties.

The usual caveats apply: lists are not exhaustive, were dreamed up from the top of my head and may not be representative of my actual opionions. Also, they are not in any particular order.

So, here goes:

Books I Read This Decade And Liked A Lot

1. Possession (AS Byatt)
To be honest, I didn't think I'd understand this, because it was all literary and stuff. The kind of book where I would get a couple of hundred pages in and realise I didn't know who the main character was. But it was very good and I liked it and understood it.

2. The Name Of The Rose (Umberto Eco)
Not being a fan of crime, detective and middle-ages books, this did not seem promising either... I do like monks, though, so maybe that helped.

3. The Time-Traveller's Wife (Audrey Niffenegger)
After re-starting three times I finally figured out what was going on and enjoyed it a lot. Once you realise that he is moving about in time and she is not, it makes more sense.

4. Jayber Crow (Wendell Berry)
I bought this entirely because Jaybercrow had named his blog after it, and I figured that if he liked it, it must be quite good, and also it is about a barber, which you don't always get. By the end I had almost forgotten that there was a whole, real world out there.

5. The Chronicles of Narnia (CS Lewis)
This should not need any explanation; the only question being why I didn't read it until I was in my mid-twenties. I blame my parents.

6. How To Be Good (Nick Hornby)
This is one of those books that wasn't really all that great, but that I liked a lot.

7. The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins)
You may be surprised at this entry, but it is in large part that I felt it was owed a place due to the immense contribution it has made to this blog. When I say I liked it a lot, I am not, of course, referring to its contents, which were mainly dull, anti-scientific drivel (oooh, what's that I hear? Oh, that'll be the comments section going nuts), but I liked when we talked about it. And I liked that it is the only book I have ever shredded (that was fun). And that it inspired what may be the most negative book review ever written, and which was almost on the list in itself.

8. Schindler's List (Thomas Keneally)
If you've never read this, you really should. And it's ok, because the book came before the film, so it's actually really good.

9. Rebecca (Daphne Du Maurier)
Probably the scariest book I have ever managed to read, which is nice.

10. The Remains Of The Day (Kazuo Ishiguro)
I like this mainly because not a whole lot happened, but it was still un-put-downable

Almost made-its: Life Of Pi (Yann Martel), Home (Marilynne Robinson), The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-time (Mark Haddon), The Secret Scripture (Sebastian Barry), A Prayer For Owen Meany (John Irving).

Books I Read This Decade And Did Not Like

1. True History Of The Kelly Gang (Peter Carey)
By the end, I was willing them all to die. Should probably get bonus points for drawing the characters so well that I hated them, I suppose, but I'm not that nice.

2. Miss Wyoming (Douglas Coupland)
I'd been promised a lot, and this did not deliver.

3. The Purpose-Driven Life (Rick Warren)
See number 2

4. Catch-22 (Joseph Keller)
We've discussed this before. We hated it.

5. To The Lighthouse (Virginia Wolff)
We have also discussed this. We got bored after the first sentence, which did not end till page 5.

6. The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown)
I hated this not for the crappy plot, the over-hyped excitement, the non-existent characters, the symbolism nonsense, or the poor dialogue. I just hated it, just because.

7. Captain Corelli's Mandolin (Louis De Bernieres)
Much like To The Lighthouse, I tried, I really did. But I just couldn't.

and I can't think of any more books that I did not like this decade.

Wednesday 30 December 2009

The Noughties: Review of the Decade

And so we come to the ten-yearly event marked by a communal roly-poly, leap of faith and accidental wandering from the old decade to the new, and it is therefore time to review the decade that was.

The build-up began with the Prince song "Party like it's 1999", which promised that one day we would all party like it's 1999, but it would actually BE 1999, and then it would be 2000 and a new year, decade, century and millenium would be upon us, and with them, a new hope, a new dream, a new resolution and a new future for all. But first we had the argument about when it would start and what to call it.

Now, I can understand the arguments about 2000 being, in fact, the final year of the old millenium, and not the first year of the new one*; I just don't really care. In my view, if you have to have a party, best to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. There was also the important decision of what to call our new Time Home; recent decades (the fifties, sixties, seventies and so on) had all but named themselves, so it was not a problem with which we were familiar, and suggestions included 'The Ohs' (which I can assure our younger readers sounded reasonably plausible at the time), 'The Two Thousands' (dangerously pants), 'Eric' (but that was just me and never really caught on), and 'The Noughties'. In all honesty, we never really committed ourselves, and this was not a problem until about a fortnight ago, when program makers had to think up titles for their Review of the Year show, and the concensus seems to have fallen in favour of the latter option.

(* Note for the slow people: this is because the first year was year 1. Therefore the first 10 years were 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, so the second decade did not start until the year 11. By a process of extrapolation, you can convince yourself it doesn't matter all that much.)

You will recollect that there was a lot of fuss about the Millenium Bug, which was supposedly going to plunge computers and, therefore, the world into abject chaos, as Programmers of Yore had not realised that the world would continue after 1999 and had set a lot of things to keel over and die then. In the event, of course, no such thing happened, since so few were still relying on their Sinclair Spectrum to hold their world together, but I do recollect that Mama Smile had some difficulty for a few years thereafter with the system in the surgery, which was unable, for a time, to distinguish 3-year-olds from 103-year-olds.

Now, left to my own devices, I would have started the millenium in bed, but this was deemed by my mother to be Unacceptable, so eventually my sister and I gatecrashed a party our cousin was going to, and then sat in the corner feeling a bit awkward, because we hadn't been invited really and also everyone else had dressed up. At around 11.30 we all decided to go to Bangor to see the fireworks, which were pretty much like any other fireworks except that it was more crowded. However, for a brief spell no one seemed forlorn, and eventually I got to bed, so all was well.

It is hard now to imagine what life was like just 10 years ago. However, a quick perusal of Wikipedia (itself a child of more recent times) informs me that Bill Clinton was still president of the US, most of us still didn't have mobiles, Windows 98 was the height of technology, Facebook was unthought of, and for a tour of Europe one needed a ready supply of Francs, Punts, Marks and Lira. WhyNotSmile was a mere young thing, and was caught between spending £960 on an 8Gb PC with AMD processor, or £1020 on a similar model with, I think, a Pentium 2. She opted, incidentally, for the former. I still have memories of the excitement when, in the early months of 2000, the computer arrived, in several large boxes - wiring it up, admiring the state of the art Operating System (Windows 98), and plugging it in to the phone line to dial up the internet. Sure, it took 8 minutes for your web page to load; of course, no one else could use the phone while you were online; naturally, there wasn't really anything much to DO online (although I fondly recollect my enthusiastic perusal of online clip art *in colour*, and some kind of personality test which matched you up with your friends and told you which famous person you were most like (I was a charitable loner, like Piglet)); but it brought the world together, and we loved it. And in fact, one should not mock the humble dial-up connection; having been without any internet connection at all for about 5 days now, I would happily hook up to the ole' BT line and await the arrival of the text-only version of the BBC site.

Other technological advances have included DVD players, iPods, smilies and text abbreviations (go back to 1999 and say 'ur gr8 lol lmao ;)' and see how far it gets you), flat-screen TVs and eBook Readers (which we so far seem to be ignoring, and rightly so in my opinion, although I can see how they'd be handy if you commuted a lot).

Anyway, as we said above, the new millenium brought a new hope, a new dream, a new resolution, and a new future for all, but this was quickly killed off with the explosion in reality TV. Big Brother first graced our screens within 7 months of the new millenium, and gained viewers during the early Noughties, thus proving wrong the old maxim that 'several million people can't be wrong' - as it turns out, they can, very much so, and indeed repeatedly and for extended periods of time. If you will cast your mind back, you may recollect that the earlier series of 'BB' were not so bad, and could just about pass themselves off as social experiments - likewise, the earliest Pop Idols were a handy way to laugh at people without leaving your sofa; but mainly the joy came with the advent of text voting, and the realisation that each and every one of us could actually *text* the telly from the comfort of our own homes. It was like being famous, but without the effort, wage packet, or unwelcome exposure.

Moving from the small screen to the big screen, the discerning cinema-goer of the Noughties has had a wide choice of viewing. The big news, of course, was the release of the Lord of the Rings series, and this gave us opportunity to admire how much film you could cram onto a DVD, and can you imagine if it had been released on video, how many videos would you have needed? WhyNotSmile is not, of course, a big one for films, but enjoyed Shrek, Shrek 2, Juno and The Shawshank Redemption (which may have been released a lot earlier than 2000, but I didn't see it until more recently).

The important thing, of course, is books, and the last decade was one in which WhyNotSmile found much to occupy her Literature Time. However, I think we will come back to this in another post, and not concentrate on it here.

In terms of career (always a laughable term where WhyNotSmile is concerned), at the start of 2000 I was still finishing my masters, and dreaming of a big job, teaching or in medical physics, or possibly air traffic control. I decided to take a year out to consider further, and spent the twelvemonth from September 2000 drinking tea with students, and sometimes doing Bible studies with them. Toward the end of this year, Voxo took The Soapbox, John and me to the library in a Theological College, which was nice because the caretaker took us onto the roof with binoculars and let us birdwatch. At some point over that week, I decided I wanted to do a PhD, so I did, which brings us to December 2004. After a spell of post-graduate work, which (if memory serves, and it may not) mainly involved eating lunch and going to conferences in exotic places like Sweden. For reasons I now forget, I decided I wanted a real job, and got one in August 2005, which is when I met Alex, who has contributed much to this blog. This lasted until May 2008 or thereabouts, when they decided they could no longer afford my services, and I left to create websites, which is going ok, although I could do with getting paid a bit more and a bit more often. However, I have Big Plans for the next decade, so watch this space.

The world, you must understand, is bigger than just us, here, and this past decade, things happened in the rest of the world - big things. The defining moment, the 'where were you when?' time, the one that will stick in everyone's memories for ever, was of course September 11th, 2001, when the World Trade Center was attacked. By a bizarre twist which involved the recently-wed Jayspero not wanting to be separated, but him having to go to a conference, so her having to go to and only being allowed to go if she cooked, and her wanting someone else to come and cook too, and talking WhyNotSmile into it, I found out about the whole thing by overhearing a report on a car radio while passing through a parking lot in Shropshire, shortly after 3pm, on an otherwise sunny day. Being something of a novice when it comes to world affairs, I had no idea what the World Trade Center was, why anyone would attack it, or generally what was going on, so I remember taking myself off the next morning to the little village shop in Weston Rhyn, which had sold out of virtually all newspapers; and so arrived the only time in my life when I bought a copy of the Daily Express.

Other big world events included the Madrid bombings and the tsunami in 2004, the London bombings and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Now be honest. If you had to name the years in which those things happened, how many would you have got? Honestly? Obama, ok. The London bombs, I would've put at 2006/2007, although I could have worked it out as I was on holiday at the time. Katrina seems like 6 months ago. Which just goes to show you.

We had our share of health scares too. Mad Cow Disease, for instance. Remember that? The one we all got from eating meat, but we didn't find out until it was too late, and we probably won't know we have it for at least another 30 years. The phrase 'Why Worry?' springs to mind. Then there was Bird Flu, which we roundly failed to catch, and then swine flu, which some people did catch, but not as many as they originally thought. There has also been the looming spectre of Climate Change, which we have talked about a lot and not really done anything about, but which, it is now widely agreed, will Get Us soon.

Fortunately Science is on the case, with the investment of millions and billions of pounds in building the Large Hadron Collider, which uses as much energy in a day as all of Switzerland uses in a year, or thereabouts. Having fallen to pieces when one of the magnets wsn't properly welded in, and then been sabotaged by a bird with some bread, it is almost ready to be switched on, but now someone has figured out that it will never really work because people from the future will keep coming back and sabotaging it because otherwise it will blow up the world and the people in the future would not exist to come back and stop it, and you're inclined to think they maybe should have said all that before, but now we have gone down the 'big-not-completely-purposeful but oh-look-how-shiny-it-is piece of energy-eating machinery' route, rather than the 'everyone getting access to clean water and good sanitation' route, we might as well see the thing through and hope that getting into a black hole isn't as painful as it sounds.

Another thing about the past decade was that there was a lot of what you might call 'Economic Turbulence', but I don't really understand that sort of thing, and only know that I have not, at any point in the last 10 years, had a lot of money.

So that is the decade that was, and I think it is fair to say that we looked at the New Millenium, we saw your warnings of abject chaos caused by computers, and we raised you abject chaos caused by all of us, and we did fairly well at it.

Also, we demoted Pluto.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Review of the Year 2009

And so we come to the end of 2009, a year which bucked all recent trends and ended up better than it started, although some may note, with a wry smile, that it didn't have much farther to fall, and this is true.

It began, you recollect, with The Seige, when a group of young chaps from the local estate started attacking my house because I had 'slabbered about their ma on Bebo'. So this got us through about half of January, and then I fell over and broke my arm, which became the new Most Interesting Thing To Have Happened This Year. For about 20 minutes I had fun getting sympathy for having a sling, and then it got kind of annoying.

An inauspicious start to the year, but it got me through to the middle of February and I think I made the best of it. The other key cultural event of the early part of 2009 was the Atheist Bus Campaign, which we almost enjoyed, but not quite. There was also a brief period of trying to read Calvin's 'Insitutes of the Christian Religion', but it was too hard, so I stopped.

Things trundled along fairly happily until April, when I spent a few days with my parents and became addicted to The Apprentice. From then on, weekly WhyNotSmile reviews of the latest goings on in Apprentice-land became the bedrock of the internet for quite some weeks.

May started with me running the marathon, or at least part of it, and almost dying in the process (how people do 26 miles is beyond me; my 200 yards were quite enough Thank You Very Much), and finished with the celebration of John Wesley Day, which is much more My Sort Of Thing.

Then the summer came, and since no one on the planet appeared to be interested in getting a website, WhyNotSmile became available for outings and investigations with Mama and Papa Smile. Hence, we enjoyed the Zoo, the Tall Ships and Gay Pride.

In September, my sister moved in, and I began to spend a lot of time making Resources for Lessons, and not so much time blogging. Of course, since my sister is never here, I ended up seeing a lot of my dad (incidentally, I forgot to tell you about him cutting through the lead of the fairy lights last week while my mum was at her work Christmas Do). This took us through to the end of October, when sister went on teaching practice and moved in with my parents for the duration.

Then around about mid-November, all the people who hadn't previously wanted websites decided that they did, after all, want websites, and that they had to have them by Christmas, Or Else, and that's what I've been doing since then. Hopefully some of them will pay me soon, and I will have money to spend, but this has not happened yet.

So that was 2009, and fairly uneventful it was. However, it must not be forgotten that this brings us to the end of the decade, and that the Noughties must be reviewed as well. Tune in sometime soon for that.

Until then, Merry Christmas and so on and so forth.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

This Is Not Just A Parcel, This Is An M&S Parcel

Today I had to collect a couple of items I had ordered online from Marks & Spencer, to pick up in the shop. So I go there, and get the parcel. Here it is (Cat & Elephant shown for comparison):

It seemed quite big, I thought. So I opened it up. Here are the contents:

Essentially, a lot of brown paper, the invoice, a thing about birthday cards or something, and a smaller box. This is the smaller box:

And this is the contents of the smaller box, which is what I had actually ordered:

So, this is all the not-completely necessary stuff which accompanied my parcel:

So it is a good thing that they have reduced their packaging in an attempt to save the planet.