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Why Plain Jumpers Are Worth Celebrating

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

I was wandering around H&M at the weekend and debating with myself whether anything was worth buying. I'm on a sort-of spending ban and although there are no real rules to it (I'm just being even stingier than usual), I wasn't going to break it by buying any old crap. Luckily H&M was totally on my side here and had made all the nice stuff in either horrible fabric or at a weirdly cropped length, thus rendering it unbuyable to me. Cheers dudes!

Then I saw a lovely navy jumper and I genuinely went "Ooooh!"

Cos who doesn't love a good jumper?

Yes, it's very sensible and very plain and I'm sure lots of you wouldn't be caught dead blogging about something so boring. Well sod ya. I'm blogging about it.

Check out that photo above. It's an actual appropriate length!!

And it has nice cuffs!

And it fits well under my big coat. Hurry up spring.

I don't even care if navy jumpers aren't interesting. Clothing that makes you happy is always worth celebrating.

I was away from my proper camera today so you'll have to accept hastily snapped iPhone snaps of it. My selfie game was not strong. Soz.

Jumper and stackable rings - H&M
Jeans - George
Coat - F&F via charity shop
Shirt - Toggi

My Favourite Podcasts: The American Invasion

Friday, 13 March 2015

I've written on here before about how much I love podcasts. Recently, my horizons have expanded across the pond and I've been working merrily through a whole heap of American podcasts. My UK based favourites are still going strong (Answer Me This, Wittertainment, Empire, anything by Radio 4) but the voices in my headphones at the moment have a decidedly more American twang to them.

I'm going to start off with one that's really quite English but bear with me here, there's a trail to follow:

Helen Zalzman from Answer Me This launched a new solo podcast this year called The Allusionist. It comes highly recommended by me: short, snappy 15 minute etymological discussions that are both fascinating and great fun.

Try it: If you're fond of a good swear, Detonating the C-bomb is excellent.

The Allusionist is part of Radiotopia, a collective of the best story-driven shows on the radio. Once I'd heard Helen talking about it, I listened to it, loved it, and thought "Ooh, maybe I should try some of the others and see if they're as good." 

What came next?

99% Invisible is like crack to me. I listened to every episode in the iTunes feed in a scarily short space of time. Two reasons: the voice of Roman Mars (I could seriously listen to that man all day) and amazing stories. It's a podcast about design and that doesn't immediately sound that interesting, does it? Well it's brilliant, trust me. Each episode touches on something about design, architecture or the invisible things that shape our world but the important thing is the story that it has to tell. I would seriously encourage everyone to give this a try. You learn about things you genuinely never knew existed.

Try it: Wild Ones Live (ep 91) is very unlike a standard episode but it's brilliant and features a song called Dear Sir which absolutely entrances me. In more standard format, I have a personal liking for Walk This Way (ep 126) but basically, pick one at random and see if you like it.

Criminal features stories about crime, both big and small. It's not a documentary in the vein of Serial, it's shorter, more intimate and off-beat tales that are all loosely connected to the overall theme of crime.

Try it: check out the first and most recent episodes, Animal Instincts and Poster Boy.

I'm yet to try all of the Radiotopia podcasts and I've definitely ruled out a couple - The Theory of Everything isn't for me and The Truth, although good, features fictional stories whereas my taste is very much for factual ones. Mortified is good for a cringey giggle though!

As with anything internet based, once you've teetered on the edge of the rabbit-hole, you usually end up diving straight into it. Such was the way with American podcasts.

I came across This American Life ...actually, can't remember how I did, but I did. Blimey, it's good. Hard to describe, but good! They basically run with a loose theme each week and the show is made up of three or four stories/investigations/mini-documentaries that fit within that theme.

Try it: Cops See It Differently is a two parter about race and policing in America and it's genuinely shocking. For the more usual format, try their favourites page.

A spin-off from the team responsible for TAL (and probably more well known than it over here!) is Serial. You've probably heard of it. It was everywhere a few months ago and although I came to it a little later than others, I enjoyed it so much. The investigation into a true-life crime is utterly compelling listening from start to finish.

Try it: start at the beginning.You really need to.

If you liked Serial, Reveal is also worth a listen. It's produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting and uncovers hidden stories. There aren't many episodes so far but it's really good.

NPR (National Public Radio) has some good ones too. There are probably many many that I haven't got round to yet but I'm giving Pop Culture Happy Hour a double thumbs up. The contributors are all so deliciously nerdy and enthusiastic about anything and everything that falls under the pop culture banner. Two main topics per episode, plus a roundtable "what's making us happy this week" feature. I always get very happy when British things make an appearance in the latter section.

Try it: find an episode that features something you like and take it from there.

Despite the fact that it's somewhat like stepping foot into a different world, I rather like Wait Wait..Don't Tell Me!, their weekly current events quiz, as well. It would probably make a lot more sense to me if I was actually American but I enjoy it nonetheless!

If you've discovered any gems recently, let me know. There's always room for another podcast in my life.

Being Less Of A Bitch...To Myself

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

I can't stress this strongly enough: I am not a person who has any time for self help shit. I see posts about mindfulness and loving yourself and I cringe/roll eyes/immediately enter the sarcasm zone/scoff loudly/all of the above. I'm sure they're meant with the best of intentions and they do genuinely help people, they are just not for me.

Two things happened on Friday night.

I was in my sickbed, reading blogs and simultaneously glomming series 2 of My Mad Fat Diary.

First things first: blogs. Becks linked to this post from Christa, which I'd missed at the time. Digging back into the mists of time and memory, I actually think this poem was in my GCSE English Lit anthology. No doubt I made some vaguely cringey teenage notes about it at the time.

I read it now and it makes me simultaneously envious and a bit sad. Cos I would love to be able to proclaim

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

Who wouldn't love that level of self-confidence? But I don't have it and I never have had. Can't dance either. I'm always far too self-conscious about who's looking at me. 

Second things second: My Mad Fat Diary. Should you wish to split a bottle of wine with me and fangirl extravagantly about it, I am totally up for that.

Both series of this show have hit me right in the feels but the last episode of series 2 really made me cry. Actual boo-hooing took place. If you haven't seen it and have no idea what I'm on about, the lead character's therapist gets a bit cross with her and says something along the lines of "Close your eyes. Tell me what you don't like about yourself, be honest. Imagine a 10 year old version of yourself. Tell her those things. Tell her she's fat. Tell her she's ugly. Tell her she's an embarassment, because that's what you do every day when you tell yourself that."

He also comes out with such gems as this. I like Kester.

If that piece of advice about the 10 year self had been trotted out to me in some sort of inspirational quote, I'd probably have nodded my head and carried on being mildly horrible to myself. Watching it on screen? It really resonated. Painfully so (hence the messy crying). I am very good at telling my friends not to be so self-critical but shockingly bad at taking my own advice.

You know what? I wouldn't dream of being so cruel to 10 year Alex. She was cool. Mad keen on ponies and books (some things never change), owned a snazzy line in Sweater Shop jumpers, coped well with moving halfway across the country, managed to carry off a massive fringe with a certain amount of innocent panache. She wasn't fat and she wasn't ugly.

I wouldn't even be mean to teenage Alex. Cos although she should have ditched the fringe already and suffered the misfortune of growing up in a time where it was genuinely acceptable to wear an Adidas three stripe tracksuit top with an otherwise normal party outfit, she was cool too. Still being completely pony-mad kept her out of trouble and gave her some of the best friends she'll ever have. I'd give her a hug and tell her not to hide so much.

31 year old Alex is cool too. Even when riddled with cold, wearing no makeup and sporting an inadvertent 80s side ponytail. I should stop being such a bitch to her.

Remember, folks: wanky self help = bad. Poetry and pop culture revelations = good.

A Blogging Good Read - March

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Hello bookfans!

The two awesome ladies joining me for A Blogging Good Read this month are Becks from Just Me and Sally from Queenie and the Dew. We all managed to select rather weighty tomes so bravo to us for getting through them! Want to know what they are and whether we liked them? Read on...

I chose The Night Circusby Erin Morgenstern:

I first read this book a few years ago and it's remained in my brain ever since as an almost indefinable whirlwind of circus tents, magic and illusions. It's hard to explain the appeal of it - I think you either love it or it just won't work for you at all and either way is fine. My tolerance for magical realism and similar genres is quite low, courtesy of a dreadful A level experience with the similarly named Nights At The Circus(words cannot express my loathing of that book), yet this completely captivated me.

The Night Circus is, well... a circus that only appears by night. Not your typical clowns and performing animals sort of circus either. This is entirely more magical with a whole host of unusual and sometimes unbelievable sideshows. Celia and Marco are groomed by their magician mentors into a rather deadly competition with their rivalry being expressed via more and more complicated magical achievements at the circus. The plot spins and tumbles and weaves around on itself in the same way that the magic does. I find it an absolute delight.

What did Becks think of it?

The wheels came off for me with this book. I really wanted to like it, and at the beginning I did. I started it on the plane home from Barcelona where I had been away for work and I was absolutely eating it up. And then I just kind of stopped. That means I started this book on the 15th January and we're now in March and I still haven't finished it. That's not like me at all and I feel absolutely terrible that I haven't finished this book in time for the review. This is like not finishing your homework in time and I am mortified.

I can't explain why I haven't read it because it really did begin in such a promising way. I was drawn in, I was intrigued, who were these two people and what was this magical battle going to be about? And then The Night Circus was born and it began and I loved reading about the various tents created and then.....blah blah blah. It just ran out of steam for me. I kept waiting for something big to happen and so far nothing really has it's just gone completely off the boil.

Of course I could be in for a huge surprise because I'm still only three quarters of the way through the book but I'm genuinely at a point where I don't really care. Maybe it's because I'm anticipating what the ending is going to be and already feeling disappointed by it.

Sometimes not everything adds up when you're reading a book and for me, this book is just missing the X factor. It hasn't taken me at all and I might even do the (for me) inconceivable and leave it unfinished, putting it in very rare company indeed as I find it almost impossible to abandon a book. But given the time spent reading it and the enjoyment taken out of it I have to question if it's worth it.

How about Sally?

My penchant for all things magical, fairy-like and Victorian meant The Night Circus would be a sure hit for me. Sure enough, I was captivated from beginning to end. Erin Morgenstern has crafted one of those rare stories that truly captures your imagination, leaving you with the smell of popcorn in your nostrils, half expecting an acrobat to begin swinging from the lamppost on your journey home from work. The book lends itself to being transformed into a stunning screenplay, and I can’t wait to see it on the big screen (if it can at all do justice to the magic of the book). Erin paints a truly vibrant, enchanting and colourful picture in your mind – the mark of a talented writer and someone I can’t wait to read more of.

Sally picked Molly Fox's Birthdayby Deirdre Madden:

I’ve read so many books with dramatic storylines – the kind that have you squinting under the glow of a lamp long after bed time, your hands gripping the dog-eared pages and your eyes racing along the lines of text to see what happens next. Once finished, you’ll chat about it for weeks, even months after, before stowing it back on a shelf somewhere, never to be picked up again.

Then there are the books I tend to come back to time and time again, which have a far calmer ebb and flow; a poetic intricacy that needs several reads in order to unpick the many layers. I first read Molly Fox’s Birthday several years ago, and was drawn to the quiet strength of the book. There’s something about a deceptively simple novel that calls you back, and my second reading gave me so much more insight into both the characters, the power of memory and Madden’s perceptive take on relationships and acting. Beautifully written and thought-provoking.

One of the real joys of BGR for me is that it helps me discover authors and books that I'd never normally pick up. This is the sort of low-key book that's been out for long enough to pass straight under my radar and I doubt the front cover or the blurb on the back would necessarily have drawn me in either if I'd come across it in a bookshop or library. But it came my way courtesy of Sally's recommendation and I absolutely loved it.

  It's quite a short, quiet, introspective sort of novel. Therein lies the beauty.  It doesn't need a sweeping plot or grand cast of characters to be effective, it's just extremely well written and incredibly insightful into the workings of people's minds. I'll definitely be going back and rereading this and I'm very glad I've discovered Deirdre Madden as an author. I highly recommend picking up a copy.

Did Becks like it?

I'd never even heard of this badger so I was pretty keen to get stuck in and immediately downloaded it for my Kindle. And I really thoroughly enjoyed it - I enjoyed it even though it kept bringing up questions for me. Not questions about the story but big 'life' kind of questions. Normally I would shy away from books like this, I like to keep my reading more entertaining and less thought-provoking but this naturally brought up questions for me in a way that didn't feel forced, they just left me pondering.

One quote in particular stood out to me - "You won't let me know you".

I found that so enormously interesting. How well do we ever know other people? How well do we ever really know ourselves?

The main protagonist - it only dawned on me halfway through the book that you never get to find out what her name is - stops going to therapy when it becomes difficult, she doesn't actually want to get to know herself, despite all her bemoaning at how much Molly Fox keeps back from those around her. The fact that we don't know her name really resonated with me. We only know anything about her in relation to the other characters and that's something that I have particularly struggled with at the moment, separating who I am from who other people think I am, or want me to be.

It's not often that a book comes along that is a pleasure to read and also leaves you feeling like you've had a brain workout, without making you feel incredibly dumb for not 'getting' the theme that the book is driving at so I have to say well done to Deirdre Madden for that.

Becks chose Shantaramby Gregory David Roberts:

Despite the fact that I am generally curious about the world about me, I have never ever felt the urge to travel the world. The thought of backpacking just doesn't appeal to me at all and I've never really understand the allure that the East has for some people. Maybe it's for that reason that Shantaram has been sitting on my shelf, unread, for about six years. Or maybe it's because that weighing in at 944 pages it just looks too bloody daunting to pick up.

Well I am now kicking myself for not having read it sooner. I was completely swept away from the first chapter of Gregory David Roberts' book and the only thing that I found difficult about reading the book was how to physically hold it open whilst I was in bed and not risk breaking my nose if it fell on me.

'Shantaram' is the name given to our main character - a guy with a colourful past - he is an ex-heroin user and armed robber and has escaped from prison in Australia and found his way to Bombay, which is where we meet him at the beginning of the book. He has an almost other worldly experience - learning Marathi and going to stay at a remote village with his new friend Prabaker, going to live in a slum and setting up a health clinic, joining the local mafia, spending time in a Bombay jail, oh, and smuggling himself into Afghanistan to fight with the Mujahedeen against the Russians. Obviously.

About a fifth of the way into the book I thought to myself "I cannot believe how good this guy is, he's making it all come so alive, I don't know how he does it." It was only then that I realised I was being a thick idiot in not having read the back of the book properly and realising that it was based on his real experiences. So of course he was good at making it come alive.

There's a lot made of this element - just how true the story is that he is telling. Lots of people saying "This couldn't have happened like that." or "He's exaggerating this, that and the other." For his part, he has never claimed the book is a true story or a memoir, just that it is based on his experiences. And actually I think to get caught up in that whole debate is a mistake because it's really beside the point whether or not he actually did any of these things, the fact is he is a magnificent story teller. And I really do mean magnificent.

You could be forgiven for reading the back of the book, taking in all the things this one person is supposed to have done, partaking in a huge eyeroll and putting the book down to one side, never to be read again. But when you're reading it, none of it feels fantastical, the tale didn't feel ridiculous - you were aware of the ridiculousness of the situation, but you were so caught up in the story that you are just swept along with it.

The theme of trust is long running through the book, and is at times a little laboured, but I can forgive him that, in a book this long it would be easy to lose themes along the way. But his storytelling is vivid. At times it is a little brutal, the recounting of his time in a Bombay jail is particularly harrowing, but it all feels so real. I wanted to be there, among the hustle and bustle of the streets - smell the sea air, wander in the slums, meet the people.

I salute you Gregory David Roberts. You made this person who has never wanted to travel, go all the way to India.

What did Sally think of it?

Seeing Shantaram on the list had my heart doing a little skip. I knew nothing about the storyline, but I’d previously seen a couple of quotes from it that had left me nodding vociferously and balancing it right at the top of my (teetering) ‘to read’ pile:

“I don't know what frightens me more, the power that crushes us, or our endless ability to endure it.”

“Sometimes you break your heart in the right way, if you know what I mean.”

I just knew Shantaram would be one of those novels that would have me buying copies in bulk for every friend and family birthday. Needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a veritable tome: over 900 pages, but captured within those pages is a story of such magnitude, wit, suffering and strength that I clung to it in the hopes it wouldn’t end. The novel goes through moments of breathless, magnetic pace, interspersed with pockets of belly aching humour and soul-splitting sadness. It captures beauty, wretchedness, brutality, sorrow, absurdity and repugnance in one perfect package.

I'd like my review of this book to be as glowing as the other two but rather shamefacedly, I must admit that I didn't finish Shantaram and so I can't write a proper review of it. I'm entirely blaming it on the fact that I've totally lost my Kindle and that meant I had to try and read this on my phone during a very long train journey. At 900+ pages, that's far from ideal! I hate not finishing books that are due for review but this month has been tough and I just couldn't get back into it. Becks has described it beautifully above though and if her description of it has piqued your interest even a little, do yourself a favour and read the book.

  What I did read, I enjoyed.  If I'm being entirely honest, I wasn't expecting to because I have a bad tendency not to enjoy fiction that goes into raptures about foreign climes (note to self: stop being so parochial in your reading tastes!). There were certain elements of Shantaram that were a little bit irksome in that respect but it's a truly impressive achievement: vast in scope and brutal and beautiful in equal measure.

Thanks ladies! What a good month of books that was. Pat yourselves on the back for managing to read and review them! I will finish Shantaram, I promise...

Next month we'll be reading Guards! Guards!by Terry Pratchett, Notes on a Scandalby Zoe Heller and A Cup Of Teaby Amy Ephron.

All The Florals

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

I realised the other day that we're now into March and I haven't bought any new clothes since before Christmas last year. Not particularly by choice. I'm not on a spending ban or a no-new-clothes ban or anything. I'm just poor. Fun eh?

Ah well, I was never much of a shopper at the best of times and haul posts tend to make me feel a bit icky nowadays. I'd rather read about why you've bought something lovely and how you've chosen to style it up rather than seeing quite how mad you went in Primark.

This stuff is all old. Also mildly inappropriate for work but why break the habit of a lifetime?

Look, it makes me awkwardly happy to look like an accident in a soft furnishings shop.

Everyone loves a good pair of floral heels, don't they? This pair are mega. Short people like me need all the help they can get from a big pair of wedges.

Jumpsuit - Wallis
Blazer - Matalan
Tapestry wedges - present, via Office