24 October 2014

Book stuff : Lists of Note by Shaun Usher

It's a short post this week, partly because it's the school holidays, and partly because I am trying to keep my eyes open without the aid of matchsticks. Whilst I totally accept that in becoming a parent sleep and I are not going to be as well-acquainted as we once were, I still struggle with it. A nice, unbroken night's sleep and I feel like I can take on the world- or at least greet a tantrum with a calm manner and a beatific smile. But the last week has consisted of nights interrupted by coughing, the child on the inside doing somersaults, and the child on the outside waking between 4.15 and 5.30 (though this morning, hurrah, 6.15!) either screaming (uh oh, I think the nightmares have begun) or just very ready to get up now, thanks.

Anyway, enough of the inevitable/boring I NEED SLEEP tangent. I discovered the existence of this book this week- Lists of Note by Shaun Usher, which I've yet to get my hands on (Christmas present, anyone?) but have read a sneaky sample on the Kindle. Definitely not a book for reading on my iPhone, I'd say, judging by how beautiful this looks. It includes the shopping list of two 9th-century Tibetan monks, Johnny Cash's list of things to do today, one French novelist's attempt to record every single thing he ate and drank for the duration of 1974 (somewhat different to my diet. Suddenly my arteries feel less clogged) and many more.

So it seems only right to borrow the list that opens the book: Usher's reasons for our reliance on lists. He puts it much more eloquently than I could hope to do.

1 : Life is chaotic- often unbearably so. The ability to divide some of that chaos into lists, to make the onslaught manageable, can bring much-needed relief.

2 : Human beings are fearful of the unknown and as such have a real need to label and group things, to assign them to comfortable lists.

3 : Lists can make us more productive and can eradicate procrastination. Nothing on earth, resignation aside, cuts through the thick fog of a daunting workload as effectively as a to-do list.

4 : Everyone is a critic. Ranking things- best to worst, biggest to smallest, fastest to slowest- can be strangely addictive, no doubt because it make us feel knowledgeable.

5 : Time is precious. Distilling hugh swathes of monotonous information into easily digestible lists ensures that we have more time to enjoy ourselves and make lists.

I'd add one, personally. Without my armoury of lists, and with a brain softened by pregnancy and-yep, you guessed it- a lack of sleep, I'd barely remember to eat*. I'm not joking. I actually have an item on a list that says 'drink water'. Hmm.

* Okay, that's a lie. I never forget to eat chocolate.

Buy the book at a local bookshop (go on), or splash out on the first, limited edition at Unbound. Or there's always Amazon...

18 October 2014

Food stuff : Eaty Treats

I've got a cold.

I've got a cold, I haven't slept properly for ages (okay maybe just a few days), and I've got a weird lump on my gum that has something to do with being pregnant but I'm not entirely sure what.

I am feeling a bit sorry for myself.

Cub has somehow sensed this and so to warm the cockles of my heart and make it all better has repeatedly declared today to be a 'NO mummy day!', refused any cuddles and had a small tantrum because I dared to try and manoeuvre her, the pushchair, her nursery bag and the shopping in the front door before I let her press the doorbell. How very dare I.

On the plus side, she was at nursery for most of today allowing me a cheeky nap and, even better, it's the start of a two-week half term so LOADS of daddy time (and maybe even a bit of mummy-off time...) And there's an M&S chicken gratin in the oven. Mmm.

So today it's five edible treats that make me feel better and slightly less sorry for myself (until I overindulge on them- see number one- and feel very sick).

1 : Galaxy chocolate
Mmmm. Mmmm. Nom nom. Oh, that's the whole 200g bar gone. *oops*

2 : Bacon sandwich
I have fresh white bloomer bread. I have bacon. Tomorrow is Bacon Sandwich Day. I only hope that the anticipation of it does not keep me awake tonight, nor that I wake up on a pillow soaked in saliva.

3 : Chinese dumplings 
Ach, I miss Old Thingy(have temporarily forgotten his name)'s teeny tiny dumpling shop in Beijing where we regularly impressed/disgusted ourselves by getting through about 50 dumplings between two. The restaurant down the road is no match, but an acceptable substitution. Lovely crispy fried veggie and pork jaozi dumplings dipped in vinegar. Had them last night. Tick.

4 : Carrot, Apple, Lime and Ginger juice from the deli down the high street
Wellllll, I had to include something vaguely healthy and aside from genuinely liking it I also feel smugly better having had a (much needed) vitamin injection. Didn't stave off the lurgy, mind.

5 : M&S peanut butter with pecans and maple
I've no idea if this is going to make me feel better but it sounds amazing and I have recently remembered that I actually like peanut butter (I usually have to smuggle it into the house as Husband is so disgusted by it). Maybe with a little layer of chocolate spread on the bread too. Maybe without the bread. Maybe just in spoonfuls straight from the tub. Alternating with chocolate spread. Excuse me a moment...

10 October 2014

Book stuff : We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Books! Everyone told me that I'd never read again having had a baby, and I guess for a short amount of time that was true- with all the broken nights I'm not sure my eyes ever stayed open long enough to read a single page. But I've always loved reading, and my habit has been to read last thing at night, I guess because I've always found it the best way to wind down from the stresses of the day. And reading gave me a bit of an escape from what can be a tiring and- let's be honest- sometimes boring routine of the early days of feeding, nappy changing... um... talking about feeding and nappy changing... thinking about feeding and etc etc. I manage to stay awake a bit longer these days to read (only achievable by being in bed by 9.30pm) and last week decided to try something outside of my usual cycle of crime/ thriller/ post-apocalyptic teen fiction/ vaguely sci-fi, and went all Man-Bookery for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

First things first: it was an enjoyable, easy read, and not at all the literary, meandering, high-brow book I sometimes live in fear of when it comes to book prizes (but to be fair, very few of the Man Booker nominations I've ever read actually have been like that- my misguided expectations, I suppose). Yes, there are deeper themes to ponder on- how reliable our memories are, how reliable a narrator is (or isn't) and some others that to mention would give too much away- but it's also a funny, sad, interesting and engaging story of a childhood, of growing up, and of families and friends, that leaps backwards and forwards in time. Everyone talks about the great twist but I'm not sure I'd call it that- it's more of a key plot point that the narrator chooses not to mention for a while, which is key in itself- but it takes the story in an unexpected and interesting direction. A gentle, engaging and satisfying read. (I'm no eloquent reviewer- as you might have noticed- so for a better one please have a look at my friend Lonesome Reader's review here.)

I may have made a mistake picking up (aka downloading and clicking on) Rick Yancey's The Fifth Wave straight afterwards, though. Whilst I once really enjoyed this kind of post-apocalyptic fiction I'm not sure I cope with it as well these days. It's fiction, obviously, but I like to get properly caught up in a story and this brings out all kinds of parental fears and nightmares that are still a bit new to me. I'm not very far into it and am already a) wondering how I could ever have been so selfish as to have children in this world, and b) thinking that since I've gone and done it now the only solution is to dive under a duvet with them and never ever go out anywhere ever. So I might put this one on hold for a while until I'm better equipped to cope with it which, given that the raging pregnancy hormones are unlikely to make me feel any less emotional/balanced as due date beckons, might be a very long time in the future.

So the list- perhaps just the last five books I read...

1 : We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

2 : Pretty Honest by Sali Hughes (I bought an ACTUAL, not electronic book! I may even do it again, because it's lovely with it's cover and pages and smell and typography and all that jazz. OK, I haven't really read it, I've flicked through it, but it is more of a reference book with practical beauty advice and has told me things I'm sure I should know already. Not my usual kind of thing but I aspire to one day do more than just slap on some tinted moisturiser and a pair of jeans and go out into the world. One day. Look out.)

3 : Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (took me two attempts- a meandering, bleak story but nonetheless evocative and beautifully written, and I never thought I'd know so much about 19th century rural Iceland or find it so interesting.)

4 : I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes (very mixed feelings about this- a great fast-paced terrorist-threatens-the-world thriller, but bleak (see my point about post-apocalyptic fiction above) and frankly just irritating in places with a character who has a very high opinion of himself for reasons I failed to notice. Not sure why I persisted.)

5 : The Bones of Avalon by Phil Rickman (I love Rickman's Merrily Watkins series- mostly crime, a bit supernatural, an unconventional and vulnerable 'heroine' and some great history of the Welsh border area- but this Elizabethan-era mystery left me unconvinced. Well-written, but somehow unsatisfying.)

What have you read recently? Any recommendations?

06 October 2014

Photo stuff : Five photo apps for iPhone

One of my addictions- aside from eating chocolate and playing pointless word games on my phone instead of doing something more constructive- is taking pictures. Admittedly this addiction has, uh, evolved a little over the last couple of years. Where once my computer was filled with beautiful photos of exotic worldwide locations, it's now overflowing with average-to-good photos marking every minute day of my daughter's life. Where I'd once spend hours trying (and largely failing) to learn to use my lovely Nikon SLR properly, I now spend three seconds whipping my trusty iPhone from my pocket to capture the millisecond when Cub is smiling adoringly in my general direction.

The iPhone takes great pictures in good light but equally I've taken some fairly rubbish pictures- blurred, out of focus and grainy in low light- so I do plenty of adjustments afterwards, when I've got a moment. These are a few of the apps that I have used consistently- which doesn't mean there aren't better ones out there, just that these are ones for which I've suspended my miserliness for long enough to fork out a bit of money, and which have worked for me.

1 : Snapseed
I love Snapseed. I have it for both iPhone and iPad, and think it's one of the best for ease of use and range of options. I have in the past massively overused both the Drama and Tiltshift functions, but occasionally am restrained enough just to do a few subtle tweaks for contrast, saturation and brightness.
Free (Free?! Really? I'm sure I paid for this. Worth it, though.)

2 : Over
Over is an app for adding text and artwork to photos. I don't find it very intuitive to use, in honesty- editing a lot of text is awkward and fiddly, especially on the phone (the one below was done on an iPad Mini)- but the results are nice and the range of free fonts good, and of course you can purchase more. I'm pretty sure you can import fonts from your own computer too, but it's possible I've just made that up. My biggest gripe with this app was that it didn't save in a very high resolution, so printing at any size bigger than about 6x4 would look pixelated. I don't know whether this has been resolved yet. Obaby is another app from the same team aimed at parents and parents-to-be, so has plenty of pregnancy and baby-related artwork to add.
£1.49 - but there is a sister app called Quick, which is free, and is a pared-down version for adding text only. Marginally more intuitive to use too.

3 : Frametastic
OK, I have no particular love for this app but it serves a function, which is to provide simple photo collages. I don't use them much, and I don't much like that I have to pay more to get the exact configuration I want (stingy to the end- when did this expectation of getting apps- the result of someone else's hard work- for free start?!), but it does the job.

4 : Mextures
Just discovered this one and I love the range of filters, the ability to layer and save a combination of actions as formulas, which you can also import from other users. And for absolute control you can even change the blending modes on each layer. It also lets you make standard adjustments like contrast and exposure, but the filters are the best bit. I've only really tried it on landscapes so far (yes, occasionally I manage some pictures without Cub in), but with some nice results. The example below is me being lazy and just using another user's formula.

5 : Instagram
Oh, OK, I'd best include as I've used it a fair amount recently... I love Instagram filters and frames, but given that it's not really a photo editing app so much as a photo sharing app, I'm not an enormous fan. I don't always want to upload my photo for the world to see once edited, so admittedly I do cheat and make changes, then cancel so that it only saves to my photo library.

There are a ton of other apps I've tried and used for limited periods, but these are the ones that have stayed on my limited-memory phone. So which essential ones am I missing?