Friday, 13 March 2015

Holiday For One

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single girl in possession of a spare room must be in want of a flatmate. Except, I'm not. It was one of the many things that surprised me about becoming newly single, the frequency with which I was asked whether I was looking to live with a friend. Generally speaking, I've found that living on my own is ok. I'm used to spending time on my own, I like my space, the peace and quiet is lovely, and I'm happy pottering around entertaining myself. When you've got tea, books, the cat, and box sets on demand, what more could you want?

There is a limit to my introversion though. I am really lucky in that it is largely a choice - if I'm teetering on the border of lonely then I can take myself out for a coffee, go to the gym, or give a friend a call.

The only thing that is bothering me? Holidays.
I never used to think of myself as a beach holiday person. As a child I'd hide inside during the summer, playing on the computer or reading. It'd never crossed my mind to go away with a group of friends while I was a student - we spent our summer holidays working, with music festivals as our equivalent of a week in Ibiza. It wasn't until I found myself desperate to escape to the drudgery of work and the constant Scottish summer rain that I really began to see the appeal. Four years on Greek islands... and I'm hooked.

The thing is that I'm not the kind of person who finds it easy to relax. My weekends usually involve one day of cleaning, tidying, cooking and going to the supermarket, and one day of seeing friends. I feel guilty when I lie on the sofa watching a film or reading - I can't enjoy it if I've got housework to do. No offense to my lovely family - who between them have some of the most beautiful parts of the UK covered - but I want warmth. and to be able to crack open a beer at 11am because it's cheaper than a can of Coke.

So, where does the single woman go on holiday?

I've been thinking about a Yoga retreat somewhere sunny and beautiful. There's something very appealing about the thought of a week spent relaxing both my body and mind, with the backup of company or solitude, depending on what I fancy. But the thought of sharing a room with a stranger terrifies me, and I'd be worried I'd pull a muscle on the second day.

Or then there's a city break - Barcelona perhaps - exploring and adventuring, visiting museums and wandering, eating picnics in parks. But is there a limit to how much you can enjoy an experience if there's no one to share it with, and is it wise to travel somewhere alone without speaking the language?

To follow the old cliché of finishing a blog post with a question - has anyone had experience of holidaying alone, and what wisdom would you share with me?

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Books: February Fifty Two in Fifty Two

"It's not that I don't like people. It's just that when I'm in the company of others - even my nearest and dearest - there always comes a moment when I'd rather be reading a book" Maureen Corrigan

I've sort of lost the motivation for reading this month. I've started, and given up on, quite a few books, and mostly found myself listening to Desert Island Discs while walking to and from work, or cooking my dinner. Maybe it's a February thing, several folk have said they've struggled to concentrate recently - I've still not finished this month's Curtis Brown Book Group pick, which isn't like me at all. Anyway, a round up of February's reads:

32. Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. 4/5
Ah, Poirot. After feeling the need for a lot of comfort books last month, I turned again to a favourite author this month. Styles introduces us to Poirot and his sidekicks Japp and Hastings in rather spectacular style. Christie's debut novel, set in 1916, sees Captain Hastings on leave from the army and recuperating from a minor injury at Styles Court, a country estate owned by family friends. When the matriarch of the house is murdered and the family begins to fall apart, Poirot (who has recently moved to England as a Belgian refugee) is called in to solve the crime. It's a fairly easygoing romp, an excellent introduction to the well loved series with a rather good twist at the end. I was surprised that I'd somehow never read this classic. Thoroughly enjoyable. 

33. Marian Keyes, The Woman Who Stole My Life. 2/5.
When this came through the post as part of my Curtis Brown Book Group welcome pack, I was really looking forward to devouring it. Having enjoyed another of Keyes' novels recently, albeit one that is part of a series, I had really high hopes for this standalone novel which has had rave reviews. However... I was disappointed. It started off promisingly, with the introduction of our lead character, Stella, who develops the life changing Guillain-Barre syndrome and finds herself suddenly paralysed. As the weeks in hospital pass, Stella begins to form a friendship with her neurologist, Mannix Taylor. The book has a really odd structure - it's sort of three books in one - spoiler alert - the "present", the "past" and the "book in a book". While this helps the narrative move along, and creates a bit of mystery, I found myself guessing what was coming up due to clues earlier on, which spoilt it for me a bit. 
The other thing that really spoilt it was, if I'm honest - I couldn't stand any of the characters. Stella, the lead, was wishy washy. Her husband was an arrogant arse. Her kids were unbearable. Most frustratingly - Mannix Taylor should have been struck off the medical register at about fifteen points in the novel. I also got really, really frustrated with how unpleasantly Keyes describes the nurses - a little point, but it really jarred and was borderline offensive. I feel a bit like Keyes had tried to write a 'lighter' novel with this one, but for me it flew way past the mark. 

34. Sue Townsend, The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year. 3/5. 
I'm not sure that reading this straight after another book entitled "The Woman Who..." but after starting this a couple of years ago and leaving it on a train several chapters in, I spotted it in a charity shop I thought I'd give it another go. It tells the tale of Eva, who goes to bed on the day that her twins go to university, and refuses to get out of it again. She's not mad - she's just exhausted. Her obnoxious family don't appreciate her, her husband has been having an affair, and she hates her job. As far as key themes go - it's certainly one which a lot of people will identify with. 
I'd been expecting this to be a funny and wry look at mental health and 'normality' so I was surprised when it began to get into a slightly surreal plot. I spent a lot of the book wondering where it was going to 'go'. I'm not sure that's a good thing. What could have been a really interesting exploration ended up being a little bit of a farce - the most interesting parts were the tiny subplots involving the conspiracy theorists who take up residence in her front garden, and her friendship with Alexander, a Rastafarian White Van Man who she hires to get rid of all of her furniture. Speaking of Alexander - the other thing I wasn't a fan of was that he was one of only two characters in the book who were bearable, the other being an elderly man who was horribly disfigured in a plane crash during World War Two.
It passed the time, but I wouldn't rush to recommend it to anyone. 

35. J K Rowling, The Casual Vacancy. 4/5.
Having spotted The Casual Vacancy on my Sunday night TV schedule, I thought it'd be a good idea to give it a read first - it has been on my 'list' for a long time. Inevitably publishing anything off the back of Harry Potter was going to be a struggle (hence, I presume, the Robert Galbraith scandal) and this book has ended up a little bit like literary marmite.
When Barry Fairbrother, member of the Pagford Parish Council, dies suddenly, a 'casual vacancy' is created on the council. It becomes apparent how much one man is held in high regard by his neighbours, and without his input, competition for power emerges. Existing councillors begin to question themselves and their allegiances, and prospective candidates begin plotting. 
At the heart of The Casual Vacancy are some really dark themes. Drug addiction, child abuse (physical and neglect), bullying, depression, alcoholism - all are portrayed so casually that I was almost impressed when I'd finished the book. It wasn't hard hitting as such, it was so well written that it took me a while to really realise how subtly the characterisation had occurred. The contrast between the 'rich' Pagford old town and the 'poor' Fields council estate was slightly overegged (although a family member who is a social worker in the West Country, where it's set, assures me it's pretty realistic), but the snobberies and casual racism thrown about by both sides was very realistic and well written. I really enjoyed the multi character nature too, particularly how well drawn the teenagers were. Arguably they were the most pleasant and enlightened folk in the whole town - unusual to read a novel where teens are portrayed in a positive light. Dark, brutal and thought-provoking - worth reading.