Thursday, December 31, 2020

A Dangerous Year of Reading

This past year may have been one huge cluster-fuck of bad news, but one of the good things to come out of it was I had a lot of time to read. So much so, that I have finished 2020 having read more books than ever before (I have a spreadsheet; of course I do). The not-so-great news is, even with all this reading time, I still only managed to finish 44 books, which tops my current record by a slim margin of 1, leaving me, in equal measure, pleased and chagrined. Additionally, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that, when I saw I was closing in on my erstwhile record, I cheated a bit by selecting two rather slender volumes, the last of which I finished only this afternoon.

Still, an ugly win is still a win, and perhaps this will encourage me to try harder next year.

I am, you see, not a very fast reader. I have friends who can finish a book in a day (at least they tell me they can; I’ve never actually seen them do it) whereas I spend up to a fortnight on your average murder-mystery. What I found helpful, especially in my rush to ram as many books as possible into these final weeks of December, is a quota of pages per day, and I discovered something rather remarkable about it.

If you accept the notion that the average book is around 350 to 400 pages long, all you need to do is decide the number of books you want to complete in a year and read that many pages every day. (e.g. 1 page a day will get you 365 pages, or a single book, 2 pages, two books, etc. You’re welcome.) It helps if you develop a reading habit, such as devoting your lunch hour to reading while you scarf down your tuna-and-mayo sandwich, or reading before bed, or carrying a book with you everywhere you go so you can fill the downtime by reading instead of staring at the back of the person in front of you in the queue. (Ebooks work great for this, as do audio-books.)

In his book, A Year of Reading Dangerously, Andy Miller states that he decided on 50 pages a day and, subsequently, read 50 books. (I didn’t read his book, by the way; my wife did, and told me about it.) In addition to a scattering of popular titles, such as Catch-22, Lord of the Flies, The Da Vinci Code and The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Miller also tackled the types of books people claim to have read but actually haven’t, including Don Quixote, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Communist Manifesto, Beowulf, Jane Eyre, War and Peace, Middlemarch, Frankenstein and that bane of every American English Lit student, Moby Dick.

My list for the current year is shorter, less ambitious but, quite likely, more entertaining:

I admit to gravitating toward popular fiction, and murder, mayhem and madness in particular, therefore, the Jack Reacher books of Lee Child are on my Guilty Pleasures List. Unfortunately, Mr. Child has recently retired, so that particular stream has dried up. I had also been enjoying the books of Edward Marston (Keith Miles), but I’m afraid that has soured for me, as well.

Mr. Marston is, if nothing else, prolific. His historical thrillers—set in the 1850s, 1100s, WWI, et al—are fast-paced and superficially interesting, but also read like a first draft turned in by a talented 16-year-old. I used to be able to get beyond that, and take delight in the fact that I could point out things I would never do (like have two characters sitting in a room telling each other things they already know simply to get the information to the reader; simple, Writing 101 stuff) and thereby feel that I was a superior writer. But the fact that he has published nearly 100 books and has been nominated for an Edgar Award sorta puts a damper on that bit of fun.

As a substitute, I have discovered the books of Elly Griffiths, and I recommend reading anything with her name on it.

In addition to low-brow lit, I also read some non-genre fiction, thanks to the book club I belong to. This year, these included:

  • Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke, a murder mystery set in the south. I recommend it.
  • Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, cold war shenanigans, really interesting.
  • The Snakes by Sadie Jones, good book, ruined by the final chapter. Don’t bother.
  • The Ballroom by Anna Hope, love in a prison. Recommended.
  • Wanderers by Chuck Wendig, a weighty but highly recommend tome about (gulp) a pandemic. Must read!
  • The Midnight Library by Matt Haigg, quirky, very entertaining, and short.
  • My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, ditto.
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, really quirky and not as short, but I still recommend it.
  • How to Fall in Love With a Man Who Lives Under a Bush by Emmy Abrahamson. The title says it all. It’s fun, entertaining and short.

Books I highly recommend are:

  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. If you have not read this book, go out, buy a copy and read it now.
  • His Dark Materials, a trilogy by Philip Pullman. Stunning in scope and imagery.

Books I do not recommend:

  • Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin. Prominently displayed at my local bookshop and heralded as a great read. It was anything but.
  • Lockdown by Peter May. He wrote this years ago and his publishers passed on it but, when the real lockdown happened, they pulled it out of mothballs and hyped the shit out of it. I read it, and now I know why his publishers passed on it. Utter rubbish. Read Wanderers instead.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the books by Catherine Ryan Howard. Rewind and The Nothing Man were both good books and Ms Howard is gaining traction as an upcoming talent. Keep an eye on her, and buy her books.

That is my reading year in review. I wish you all a Happy New Year and hope you enjoy many good books in the months to come.

I’ve got my spreadsheet ready for 2021, with 45 empty slots for the books I’m going to read, as long as I can fit in 45 pages a day.


Monday, December 21, 2020

An Early Christmas Present

 “Ask about getting a Shingles vaccine,” my wife says, as I prepare to leave for my flu jab.

Shingles? Isn’t that some medieval affliction, like cholera, typhoid fever, or the Black Death, and similarly consigned to the fringes of society? She assures me it is not, and is, furthermore, something I do not want to have.

And so, I ask the needle nurse about getting a Shingles vaccine. She tells me I won’t be eligible until I am 70. I am comfortable with that. I have never given Shingles a thought, and was certainly not planning on contracting it, so I tell her I will ask again in five years’ time.

Then I went home and got Shingles.

This caused great consternation, for two reasons. First, it is jolly uncomfortable, but more on that in a bit. Secondly, and initially more concerning, was this: for the past ten months I’ve been masked, sanitized, distanced, and going through bars of disinfectant soap like a wino through boxed Lambrusco (in a “gone as soon as it’s open” sort of way, not actual consumption), so how did this malady evade all those defences? And, more to the point, what else might get through? (I’m looking at you, COVID.) 

My fears were quelled, however, when I learned that one does not “catch” Shingles. Apparently, I’ve been carrying this around with me, like unwanted baggage, for some 63 years, ever since I had Chicken Pox. The virus, Dr. Google informed me, has lain dormant all that time, waiting for a chance to strike.

I blame my wife.

I’ve been happily going about my business with this sleeping virus inside me, not causing a bit of bother, until she pipes up and starts talking about it. I’m certain the virus perked up its ears when it heard her mention “Shingles” and thought, “Someone’s calling! Time to get to work!”

That’s my version and I’m sticking with it because there is no way I would have done this to myself.

It began innocently enough. Just a patch of tender skin, slightly tingly, like someone had rubbed it vigorously with extra-fine sandpaper. I dismissed it, but my wife put on her concerned face.

The next day, it had spread over the right side of my torso and my wife pronounced it to be Shingles. I dismissed it.

The next day, the rash appeared. My wife managed to avoid saying, “I told you so,” and I consulted Dr. Google.

I was advised to call the non-emergency health number (111). So, I did. I explained my symptoms to the person who answered the phone (they said they were a Doctor, but you never know; he could have found the gig via the Job Centre and took it because it was a step up from Loft Insulation cold-calling) and they told me to call my local GP. So, I did. There, at least, I was told up front that the person I would be talking to was not a doctor, but to spill all the gory details anyway, because that’s what they were there for.

I told the lady I had Shingles and she replied (literally, I am not making this up), “What do you expect us to do about it?”

Taken aback, I said, “Well, nothing, really. I checked your website. It said to call 111. I did. They said to call you. So, I am. I’m just ticking boxes. I have Shingles. If it gets worse, I’ll call back. Okay?”

She was happy with that, and I was certain the disease was already at its zenith and did my best to forget about it. Then I spent the next four days in bed, unable to move.

I know I must have, at some point in my life, experience more pain and discomfort than I have from Shingles, but I struggle to recall when that might have been. It was so excruciating and supremely uncomfortable that it was impossible to stand, or even sit. All I could do was lie in bed and pop paracetamol like a Ketamine junkie. Even breathing was painful.

Further research informed me that Shingles lasts from three to six weeks and that, sometimes, the rash and blisters go away, but the pain doesn’t. It can, Dr. Google affirms, last weeks, months, or even years.


However, despite all this, given the choice between COVID, the flu or Shingles, I’d take Singles any day, mainly because its list of common outcomes does not include “death.” (I have since learned that you can, indeed, die from an extreme case of Shingles, but in much the same way that you can die from an extreme case of Stubbed Toe.)

At any rate, after a few days, the pain subsided to a point I would call “Manageable,” which allows me to get up and go about my business in a manner I would describe as nearly normal but involving more paracetamol and lengthy naps. If the malady follows its normal course, I can expect to enjoy it over Christmas and have its company as I ring in the New Year. I can only hope it is well and truly gone before my birthday.

I didn’t include any pictures on purpose. If you really want to see what it looks like, consult Dr. Google. I don’t advise this, however; some of those graphics are horrific.

In a way, now that I have Shingles, it seems like it was meant to be. What better way to end 2020 than with yet another unwelcomed calamity?

I hope your Christmas is as festive as it can be under these circumstances. And if you are ever offered a Shingles vaccine, take it.