Thursday, February 27, 2014

life imitating art

Have you been reading this book?  If not, you really should.  My work pal Emma recommended it to me after her little boy came home from school with it.  I didn't actually realise it was ANOTHER Julia Donaldson until our copy arrived.  You might think, from how often I blog about her books, that I'm some kind of crazy Julia Donaldson fan.  I'm really not.  I like her books, I enjoy reading them aloud, I love that Dulcie loves them and I will admit The Gruffalo has the feel of an absolute classic, but I'm quite take-her-or-leave-her in other regards.  (What other regards are there?!)  This book, however... Gasp!  Oh, I love it so much.  It's just the sweetest and simplest story, told so beautifully and the illustrations are magical.  They really manage to capture something of that haphazardness of childhood and all the little rough-around-the-edges and random treasures of it.  As does the text, actually.  This is one of those Julia Donaldson books that is not written in rhyme, but has a recurring song that crops up every few pages.  I like it that way.

Every time I read a book with a little song to Dulcie, I make up a tune for the song on the spot on the first reading, which I then feel I have to stick to for consistency's sake.  Mostly, that doesn't work out too well and my tunes for Tabby McTat and The Smartest Giant In Town are less than catchy, but I feel like the tune that popped into my head for this book's song is THE tune, so perfect (except that I strain for the high notes!) and I can't believe anyone else would sing it any other way.  It would be really interesting if everyone who had this book recorded their version of the song so we could all hear the variety.  Or maybe we really do all sing it to the same tune... Spooky.

Anyway, if you have read the book, you'll see what I mean about life imitating art in the rest of this post.  If you haven't read the book, then I guess this post could be considered a spoiler and you might want to stop reading now!  Ha!
Inspired by our reading, Dulcie and I decided to make some paper dolls of our own (while wearing our pyjamas).  Dulcie was pretty impressed when I unfolded the paper and turned one doll into five, but then she was also impressed that I could use scissors, so, you know...
I made two sets of dolls.  One for me to decorate...
...and one for Dulcie.  I drew the stripy tights, the shoes and the bow on these to give Dulcie the idea, but the rest is all her own work, including the spotty dress on the far left which took her ages and a huge amount of concentration.
The paper dolls held hands and they danced and they jumped and they sang.
They kicked crumbs on an island.
And then somebody who is too small to use scissors for snipping (naming no names, but there's no harm in looking, as my primary five teacher used to say) said she was going to tear them all up into tiny pieces...
...and she did.
And the paper dolls flew into our memories...via the kitchen bin.

We've tried to make paper dolls again a few times since, but now they don't even get to experience the singing and jumping and dancing and kicking of crumbs.  Most times, they don't even get to experience being drawn on before they meet their tearing maker.  (See what I did there?  Meet their MAKER?  Yes, very clever, wasn't it?)  Every time she does this, Dulcie says, "Paper dolls got brokened, Mummy fix them," and is genuinely sad when I tell her I can't.  Hours after the dolls have gone in the bin, she asks me where they are repeatedly and begs me to go and get them back.

I'm not sure where she gets these destructive tendencies from (I do really - I blame her father!) but hopefully one day in the not-too-distant future, she'll stop making things "brokened" and we can spend a bit more time decorating our dolls and making them super-duper fancy.  Oh, yes, I'm talking glitter, ribbons and other accoutrements, people!  One day...

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

wishing and hoping/the hopeful heart

Today I'll be spending the day at the hospital, having my boobies manhandled and covered in lubricant.  This is not as much fun as it sounds, honest!  As well as all the manhandling, lubricating and scanning, I'll be pedalling on an exercise bike, hooked up to all sorts of monitors and wearing a mask, until I collapse.  Literally until I collapse.  That part is maybe more fun than it sounds.  Maybe not, it's pretty horrible really, but it's kind of fun to REALLY exercise since it's not something I'm able to do normally.  Today I'll have highly trained medical professionals on hand to resuscitate me if I collapse more seriously than they want me to.

Last time I did these tests, about five months ago, it marked the beginning of THE HORROR.  The results were not good and the proverbial really hit the fan.  If the results are even the tiniest bit worse today, the bullet I've been dodging will be coming to get me right between the eyeballs and I've been finding everything pretty hard lately, puffing and panting and swooning, so I'm preparing myself for the worst while hoping for the best.

The thing is, hoping isn't really what I'm doing at all.  I think what I'm doing is wishing.  Does "hope" imply some belief that things really might turn out that way?  I think it does and I'm lacking that belief.  So really I'm wishing that things would be different from how I fear they are.  And I don't have much faith in the power of wishing any more.  Ugh.

Yes, I'm fed up.  The last two-and-a-bit years have been a constant fight and I've been fighting and fighting and fighting for so many things, day-to-day and life-changing things, and sometimes I'm not sure I have enough fight left in me.  I've been keeping going and going and going, but I feel like now I need something to go well and just give me a break for a while, something to start feeling hopeful about.

In the meantime, I suppose I'll do my best to enjoy all the lubrication, sweat and masks and, to be honest, I'm up for the fight of the bike test - a short, sharp burst of determination makes a nice change from the constant slog my brand of fighting usually consists of.  See? Positivity.  Oh, yeah...

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

time travelling carpets and blasts from the past(s)

 Last week Dulcie and I spent an impromptu afternoon in our local library, by which I mean Dulcie dragged me in there while we were en route to another never-reached destination, so I honestly did not pre-plan this 1970s orange extravaganza!
 I only wish Dulcie had been reading a more era-appropriate book when I took these pictures, something like Rosie's Walk, perhaps, with its autumnal hues.  Would it be a step too far to Photoshop that into her hands?
And here's a standing shot, just to prove she does more than just lying around.

Can carpets achieve listed status?  If so, I think the library carpet would be a definite candidate.  I hope they never update it.

Talking of carpets...  Did I ever mention the carpet in my hometown's nightclub?  Really, I didn't?  Not bad enough that a nightclub has a carpet at all, this carpet's pattern was made up of, er, ejaculating appendages spilling onto eagerly awaiting tongues.  No, I kid you not.  I wonder if it's still there.  I'd campaign for that carpet to be listed too.  I've certainly never seen another one like it!  Mind you, I can't imagine it was bespoke, which means there is actually a company out there somewhere producing pornographic floor coverings...

Monday, February 24, 2014


Dulcie's favourite thing to do is stay at home, preferably stay in her pyjamas.  She spends lots of her time in the flat with her blankets and cushions, making cosy nests for her and her soft toys wherever she goes.  Lately she's been setting up home inside her tent, sweeping it out with her mini brush and spending ages arranging these two cushions and the ripple blanket.  The vintage cushion was a gift to Dulcie from my sister, the Jane Foster cushion I won in a giveaway and the blanket was crocheted by yours truly, of course.
Dulcie loves hanging out in her tent and claims it's "nice and quiet".  I feel a bit guilty to see her setting up a cosy and stylish home for herself like that.  Well, it's as stylish as it can be with her limited means!  I really want to be able to make our home a nice place to be, for her as much as (more than?) for us, but I sometimes feel it's beyond me/us.  I say "us" but I feel like Graham could do it if he was doing it alone.  "Millstone" is not a fun (or probably accurate) sense of oneself!  One of those books I treated myself to on Amazon is turning out to be a great source of inspiration, though.  You can find it here and it's full of lots of fun ideas that seem (mostly) quite achievable and not too designery or expensive.  I'd definitely recommend it!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

buttons are us

One day, while on "jury duty", I decided to clean a bag full of buttons that had got all dusty so I could add them to my button jar.  Dulcie was out with my mum, but got home before I'd managed to clear all the buttons away.  She spent ages just holding and sorting and moving the buttons around...before scattering them all over the kitchen floor and secreting a few rabbit-shaped buttons in her pockets, the tyke.
Dulcie quite often eyes up my giant jar of buttons, but hasn't worked out how to get into it yet.  I think I might have to get her started on her own collection in order to protect mine!  I've got too many buttons to fit in the jar now anyway and am tempted to spend a precious Dulcie-free afternoon sorting them all out - putting matching sets together, setting aside buttons to use on clothes and for other crafty purposes, maybe getting rid of some of the less exciting specimens.  It seems such an extravagant use of time, but, hey, why not? :)

Saturday, February 22, 2014

human cat-ipede

This is a fairly typical winter position for our cats.  It reminded me of that gruesome film The Human Centipede, hence this post's title.  I suppose "the feline centipede" would have been more accurate...but less entertaining.

I never blog about the cats any more really.  In real life, they are probably almost as neglected as they are on the blog.
This is Poppy, a strange little creature, the runt of her litter, scared yet intimidating, loves being stroked but will attack when approached from certain angles.  She keeps herself to herself a lot of the time and certainly doesn't cause as many problems as her infuriating sister, Lola, apart from the CONSTANT PUKING.  Although she has always been quick to lash out, she has never been anything less than patient with Dulcie.  When she's up for attention, she has a hearty purr.  She likes to nestle between Graham and I on the sofa when she's not lying on the radiator.  Graham and Lola get to experience her comedy hisses and tuna breath quite regularly.

Lola, meanwhile, is a big daft furball, very demanding, constantly miaowing, exceptionally greedy.  She's all claws and white hair (hair, hair, hair!) which make our carpets, furniture and clothes look constantly shabby.  She's annoying to the max at times, but actually the sweetest natured cat you could ever meet.  Dulcie loves to cuddle her and I'm confident Lola would put up with pretty much any treatment.  She's never drawn her claws in anger once, not even when under serious attack from her sister.  And all that hair means she is beyond soft and simultaneously the best and worst cat for snuggling with.

Our cats are indoor cats who haven't left the house in the almost eight years they've been alive.  I've tried to persuade them to go out, but they're not up for it.  Lola got as far as the windowsill, Poppy never even got close.  Maybe this summer I'll manage to persuade them... if the neighbour's aggressive tom cat can tolerate it and keep his distance.  I'm sure the cats' annoying habits would be somewhat diluted if they weren't constantly under our feet and they might enjoy the great outdoors too.  Couple of scaredy cats.

I often think how much easier our lives would be without the cats (Graham too - he threatens to get rid of them every other day!) and sometimes it feels like they don't bring much to the table.  Then, a few months ago, there was talk that I might have to get rid of them, which left me feeling heart-broken, kind of ironic when you consider it was my actually broken heart that was behind their potential eviction!  They've evaded the chop for now, but I know that might still be on the cards some day.  I hope not.  I do love the little blighters and I'd hate Dulcie to grow up with no pets as well as no siblings.  Effing heart :(

Friday, February 21, 2014


I found these stripy mittens in Tesco's sale for 50p and had to buy them since they were a perfect match for Dulcie's hand-knitted hat.  Uncanny, no?
Dulcie's not always keen to wear gloves, but now we can hardly get them off her.  Here she is wrapped up to watch some TV.  Well, she knows style when she sees it...hence her love for these cats-in-space leggings too!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

noo-castle, pet!

I never got round to blogging about the sans-Dulcie trip Graham and I made to Newcastle a few weeks ago.  It was freezing (FREEZING) and wet, wet, wet, as you can see from this picture, but so much fun.
There's still lots more for us to discover in the city (we'll definitely try to go back again) but we managed to see and do lots considering we were only there for one night, and loved all we saw, including the quirky street names e.g. Amen Corner, pictured above.  

On Saturday, we went to Tynemouth, hit the antique market (I got a dress and a book for £7 in total), ate fish and chips and walked along the pier in a foolhardy manner.  We headed back into Newcastle city centre, checked into our hotel (a Premier Inn on the Quayside) and felt a little bit bad when we saw the empty bed we'd booked for Dulcie that she would have been so excited about :(  But we soon got over it!  We went for a wander around town, ate dinner in a sweet little cafe and went to a gorgeous old cinema to see Inside Llewyn Davies which I loved, loved, loved, loved.  Loved.  When we got back to our hotel, the streets were in chaos.  We thought it might have been a typical Newcastle Saturday night (there really were no jackets to be seen on anyone!) but it turned out our hotel and the neighbouring bar had been evacuated as the fire alarm was going off.  We had to stand outside in the street with hundreds of drunk people in all manner of fancy dress and were very glad not to have Dulcie with us at that point!  Being just the two of us, the whole debacle was really quite entertaining, especially when three random men appeared with an accordion, a saxophone and a tambourine!  Once we got back into the hotel, we had a few drinks and then watched Top Of The Pops 1979 form the comfort of our bed.  Bliss!
The next morning we went overboard with the all-you-can-eat breakfast and then hung out at the Baltic, which was great, a really nice space with some good exhibitions.
Again, I felt sort of bad not to have taken Dulcie since, for an art gallery, it was very child-friendly indeed, but we made the most of our temporary childlessness and hogged the magnadoodle in the kids area, Graham making this oh-so-flattering portrait of me.  Actually, the real-life version of me doesn't look much better! Ha!

Dulcie, you'll be pleased to hear, had a great time at home with her grandparents and was apparently a dream to look after.  My mum and dad were delighted to get her to themselves too.  A truly win-win-win situation!  We'll need to abandon her more often :)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

dulcie loves magnus

Could she squeeze him any tighter?  I don't think so.

Magnus does have a bit more competition these days, as Dulcie's loving all her soft toys suddenly, but I'm confident he'll always have a very special place in her heart.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

life in the doll's house

Dulcie loves playing with little things these days.  My parents gave her an amazing vintage Fisher Price house (like this one, but with heaps more furniture and figures) which she loves and spends ages playing with, deciding who gets to sleep in the big double bed, making the dog fly the aeroplane and helping pretty much everyone use the toilet.  "Psssssss!  Flush-sh-sh-sh!"  The Fisher Price house seems to have triggered the idea of play on a small scale...
...which is presumably why I found these wooden figures from her wooden merry-go-round making themselves at home in the doll's house a while back.  What a sweet discovery that was!

I'm glad Dulcie is starting to take an interest in the doll's house, which I have been meaning to blog about for almost two years.  I did, in fact, blog about it before it was mine (looky here, pictures and everything) but then totally failed to update you all with the news that I did go back and haggle, then, when I'd got the price down, Graham swooped in a bought it for my birthday.

As I predicted in reply to one of the comments on that original post, this doll's house has not exactly been a positive addition to our disorganised, real-life, full-size home.  I haven't done any of the renovations I'd planned (on either house!) though I'm still hoping I might one day, and the doll's house hasn't yet moved from the hall where it was deposited when Graham and my dad first hefted it through the front door.  Yes, it is a big, cumbersome beast.  Many times this doll's house has given me that horrible oozy headache feeling that clutter causes, but now that Dulcie has (without any encouragement) started playing with it, I'm feeling hopeful again.  Once our flat is a bit more sorted, I'm sure we can find a better location for the doll's house, somewhere at once less in our faces and yet more accessible.  And as Dulcie gets older, I'm starting to hope we can do it up together...provided she's up for the seventies look I have planned :)

Monday, February 17, 2014

been sewing some more

I've been sewing again, making a dress (from the same pattern I used for Dulcie's dress) for my niece Elsie's second birthday.  I bought this fabric specially, but I think there's probably enough left over to make a wee top for Dulcie too.  Yay!  This could be yet more procrastination on my part really, though, putting off the scarier task of making something for myself.
I found these buttercup-yellow buttons in my button jar and was a bit sad to part with them, but made myself do it because I love Elsie and better that she can wear them than that they stay in my jar.  I say that, but I am pining for them already...
I realised I never shared a picture of Dulcie actually wearing the dress I made for her.  She's not easy to photograph these days (too busy to stand still and there is no daylight ever) so these pictures were the best I could do.  You get the idea, though.  Cute, no?
And I just liked this one because you can see the plaster on Dulcie's big toe, which was pretty much the most exciting thing ever to have happened, in Dulcie's eyes, at least :)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

happy meals

 Dulcie and I found this happy face in the lid of our lunchtime houmous today.  He needs his fringe cut, mind you.  (Let me help with that - yum yum yum!)  We ate our houmous with breadsticks, oatcakes and carrot sticks and both licked our bowls clean, having a lovely chat while we were at it.
After the houmous et al, we shared the world's juiciest orange.  Mmm, delicious, as you can see from the way Dulcie was ramming it into her mouth!  I missed out on half of my share by pausing to take these pictures.
Since my mum was here last week to cover my jury duty, it felt like ages since Dulcie and I had a whole day together, just the two of us.  It must have been, ooh, ten days?!  I really enjoyed hanging out today.

Dulcie is such a bundle of fun at the moment, a total delight to be around.  Her speech is coming on at a great rate of knots.  Her main catchphrases at the moment are, "Quite easy," whenever she's doing something a bit tricky, "What's that, Mummy?" ALL THE TIME and, "No, Daddy! That's Dulcie's!"  She's really interested in using terms of address all of a sudden, so she'll ask the same question repeatedly to different people  ("What's that, Mummy? What's that, Daddy? What's that, Granny?") to see who will answer each time.  She's been working on her manners too and says please, thank you, excuse me and sorry without too much prompting.  Her vocabulary seems to double almost daily and she picks up words and expressions so quickly, adopting them into regular use after hearing them just once or twice.  She's also using different words for the same thing, so one day she'll say, "What's that noise?" and then the next she'll say, "What's that sound?" in the same situation.  Today everything has been enormous rather than big or giant.

She's singing a lot too, quite often songs we don't know that she's learned at nursery.  She used to get frustrated when we couldn't sing them, but now she tries to teach them to us.  We have to give the tunes our best guess really, but she's always very encouraging of our efforts!  She's really into counting and colours these days.  She can't do either perfectly, but is pretty good at both and has definitely grasped the idea of how numbers work.  This morning we were chatting about gold and silver (for the first time as far as I'm aware) and then, when we got caught in a snow storm this afternoon, she pointed at the newly sparkly pavement and exclaimed, "It's silver, Mummy!"  So cute and clever.

The way she plays is changing too and she's getting a bit better at entertaining herself long enough for me to chop some vegetables or tidy up after lunch, which makes life so much easier.  We went to the park this afternoon and she spent ages pretending to make me food in the imaginary kitchen of the tiny wooden hut.  At first she looked at me like I was crazy when I was stirring my imaginary tea with the imaginary spoon ("Where's the cup, Mummy?") but she soon started joining in, pouring me bowls of soup and hot chocolates to keep warm. She kept opening the imaginary fridge to eat imaginary jelly after imaginary jelly and laughing like a loon while she did it.  She's really much more imaginative in everything she does, spending ages creating little scenarios with all her cuddly toys.

She's still loving Peppa Pig (I think she'd win Mastermind against adults if she could have that as her specialist subject!) but she's less worryingly obsessed and will go off to do something more creative after a couple of episodes.  Play dough, pens and stickers kept us entertained for ages today.  She's also branching out into other TV shows and is more able to follow slightly longer stories.  She's been enjoying Tinga Tinga Tales just lately, which I'm quite excited about as it's exactly the sort of show I would have loved when I was wee, though not as wee as Dulcie admittedly.  Books are still a major interest for her.  We've had loads of good ones lately, but I'll try to share them in a separate post.

All in all, I am absolutely besotted and amazed by her.  One of the best things about having a child is that feeling of having an incredible crush on them, but a crush that not only lasts but actually intensifies all the time.  Whenever I think I couldn't love Dulcie any more, I do.  She's the best :)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

treating myself

 I'm really excited (and a bit intimidated) by the thought of making our home into OUR HOME at last.  I'm forever wish-listing home-decor books on Amazon, but today, when I was meant to be looking for a present for someone else, I decided to treat myself to a couple.
I'm really meant to be saving money, but I justified it by telling myself that each of these books was equivalent to 2-3 interiors magazines in terms of price and without all the adverts and hopefully with lots more inspiration and things I actually like and might be able to tailor to my own tastes and recreate without selling a kidney.  And...and...and...  Well, I bought them.  Yay!

I can't wait to be at the stage of making things look nice rather than being at the stage of scratching our heads and trying to make things work/undo the dodgy DIY of the 1970s that we keep finding everywhere.  I suppose it does no harm to start gathering inspiration early, right?  Well, that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!

I have a small collection of vintage home decor books, mostly from the '70s, that I'm always meaning to share here (some of the rooms are amazing!) but that would involve setting up the scanner and scanning and saving... I just don't have time/space for that sort of blogging at the moment.  It's so much easier to steal a picture from the internet and blog about that.  Bad, bad me.  I hope to be back to my blogging A-game one day!

I've been on jury duty this week.  It was a logistical nightmare and my mum had to come and stay in case we needed her to look after Dulcie.  As it turned out, I didn't have to sit on a jury and just had an unexpected week of free time with my mum here to distract Dulcie on non-nursery days.  Hooray!  I went into ruthless/productive mode and cleared out many dusty heaps, drawers and cupboards.  If I was trying to get rid of 365 things this year, I think I'd have set a new record by completing the challenge in early February!  The British Heart Foundation have been inundated with bags of random stuff all week, mostly junk but with a few things they might hopefully be able to make a bit more money from.  I don't think anyone visiting us would notice a great difference (and anyone setting foot in our flat for the first time would certainly still be horrified) but it makes a big difference to me to know that progress has been made and that a few cupboards are no longer housing hidden horrors.  I wish I could take some time off work this week and continue.  I'm raring to get to stripping wallpaper etc!

I mentioned a few weeks ago that someone advised me to gather the low-hanging fruit.  I've been following this advice and it really has made a difference to how I feel about everything.  It's all progress, all positive, all distracting and, at the end of it, you have a basket of fruit even if the upper branches remain untouched... if you see what I mean!  But even the low-hanging fruit is easier to gather when you have some time off work and a live-in baby-sitter who also cooks and cleans!  Our freezer has magically restocked itself :)

Goodness, I'm getting good at writing nonsense.  That last post about reading made no sense whatsoever when I looked back at it.  Sorry if you tried to read to the end.  I knew what I meant at the time... I think! :)

Monday, February 3, 2014

been reading some more... and thinking about reading too

Having read four-and-a-bit books so far this year, I've already read nearly half as many as I did in 2013.  Good going, no?  As well as being a (relative) success in terms of quantity, my 2014 reading experience has been a great success in terms of quality as I've really enjoyed all four books I've read so far.

I thought The Ballad Of Trenchmouth Taggart might be a bit macho for me (I did get a bit lost in the shoot-em-up parts, to be honest) but I ended up being completely engrossed by it.  It tells the story of a pretty remarkable West Virginian from his birth at the end of the 19th century to his death at the end of the 20th.  I usually hate it when books set in the olden days (I mean that to be vague) try to bring the story into modern times, like Birdsong*, for example, but in this book it actually worked really well.  It added to the sense of the epic, I thought, and the central character was strong enough and the setting alien enough to pull it off.  There wasn't a sense of the protagonist having changed, looking back on their previous existence, it was all one continuous story.  Plus the book was full of bad breath, blood and guts and juicy language.  Possibly my favourite description was the twice-repeated, "This place stinks of assholes and oregano."  (That may be a slight misquote as I do it from memory, but the "assholes and oregano" part is definitely correct.)  There were also lots of interesting historical details.  I learned that early Model Ts had a poorly designed engine, so that the petrol supply was cut off if the car was driven up a hill beyond a certain incline.  This led to exciting scenes of high-speed getaways driven in reverse.  I guess I ended up enjoying the macho side of the book too!

I suppose I've just cited a character not overtly reflecting on their youth/past as a good thing, but that's really the whole premise of The Sense Of An Ending and it was what I liked about the book, what I like about many other books, in fact.  (I think I probably only dislike it when the narrative is in the present tense throughout the book, if a narrative is backwards-looking from the outset, it becomes a good thing.)  I've read and enjoyed Julian Barnes before, especially Arthur And George, but this book in particular ticked quite a few of my boxes - short, easy to read, plenty to think about.  I like that in a book.  And I do like introspection, especially if it comes from men of middle age to advancing years.  But hey, this won the Booker Prize, so I'm not sure what I can really add to further recommend it.

I recently read Mariella Frostrup's problem page in The Observer.  A woman had written in complaining that she was over-sensitive and took life too seriously, couldn't handle criticism and that it was affecting her relationships.  She had tried meditation and reading up on psychology, but was finding it hard to toughen up, roll with the punches and take life lightly.  Mariella's advice was surprising to me.  She advised reading fiction.  Hmm, interesting.  I'll give you a lengthy quote from her reply, but you can read the full article here.

"You say you've read psychology books in your pursuit of emotional equilibrium, can I suggest you turn to fiction instead?
"Understanding what makes other people behave the way they do can help minimise the impact their actions have on you. I've learned as much about the world from made-up stories about it as I have by living in it. Through great novels you can better understand everything from a stranger's suicidal impulse to the far-reaching effect of the Holocaust on the descendants of survivors.
"I'd recommend The Grass is Singing, by the late great Doris Lessing, anything at all by Alice Munro, the heart-wrenching Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels and perhaps Dirt Music by Tim Winton. The best fiction strikes at our heart, reminding us that we are flawed and fabulous, unique and much the same as everyone else, and that ultimately our duty is to live well and leave a residue of goodness with those we love, not squander time fretting about the perceptions and slights of others.
"Putting irrational issues in proportion by increasing your empathy and broadening your horizons is the best way possible to reduce their power to diminish you and stop you living bravely. You won't look back."
Setting aside the issue of whether we should give much credence to the opinion of the presenter of The Box (who am I to judge?!) I think this stance is really interesting, though I can't decide whether I really agree with it.  You see, I think I have developed a lot of my opinions and understanding of the world and people through what I've read, but I've never been too sure how useful/valid this has been.  
From my teenage years to the present day, I have enjoyed reading books told from the viewpoint of a man (usually) of above-average intelligence.  I also like books that reference philosophy quite directly, as in The Sense Of An Ending.  Tony, the book's narrator, is presented as being kind of external to genuine philosophical thought.  He admires Adrian's intelligence and rides on its coat-tails to some degree.  He has all the right books on his shelves, but hasn't read them all and doesn't feel they represent a sense of himself as his girlfriend's (often less intellectual) books do.  He is flawed.  Aren't we all?  But, ultimately, Tony is a narrator and so has to be insightful and intelligent to some degree in order to make the book worth reading, even if his insight really extends to becoming aware of his own failings.  
I feel, as a reader, that I'm always one step even further removed.  While reading this book, for example, I look to Tony the way Tony looks to Adrian, and I've read and understood even less than he has.  I'm spending a lot of time reading books about people who seem far removed from me and what I know.  In general, the things I like to read about in fiction (e.g. philosophy) I don't really understand or know much about, which I know sounds strange given that I have a first-class degree in the subject, but still...  And nobody would ever write a book where someone like me was the central figure, much less the narrator, because... Well, it just wouldn't make for great reading.  
Also, most people I know (who do tend to be better than me at relating to others and rolling with life's punches) seem to form their view of the world and other people from, you guessed it, the world and other people.  So should I be surprised that they seem to do better at it when I'm forming my grounding in books about things that don't really apply to me, if that is what I'm doing?
So what is it, if not real life, that I'd be developing an understanding of through reading?  I do like the way intelligent books enable me think about bigger questions (life, death, morality, the usual sort of stuff!) and give me a borrowed language to form my thoughts in, making them sound more cohesive than they really are, but I'm not sure that reading books improves my ability to engage with real-life people and handle real-life situations.  The "real lives" I'm reading about are not really relevant to my own real life, I suppose.  They definitely don't seem relevant to the real lives I see others living.  But maybe that's just because reading is quite an introspective/private activity, reflecting the less obvious/less visible sides of all our personalities.  
I suppose Mariella's point is that a well-written book gives us access to the workings of other people's minds in the way that day-to-day communication doesn't and reminds us that our philosophical trundlings (the things we normal-intelligence types can't fully communicate to others but might spend lots of time dwelling on) are not unique to us.  I remember reading a quote from Virginia Woolf (was it in The Waves maybe?) that the closest we can come to communicating with another person is scratching on the wall of our neighbouring cell.  I read that over a decade ago and it really rang true with me.  I guess reading is important because it can seem to overcome that divide, but if that doesn't translate into the real world, then what is the point?  Or maybe it doesn't matter at all that I'm not a great conversationalist.  Is it enough to feel empathy for others and believe we are all thinking along the same lines if you're not able to demonstrate that?
Oh, jeezo, is my aim to read more actually a massive waste of time?  Or is all this navel gazing as valid a use of life as chatting about our days in a scritch-scratch separated sort of a way?
My head hurts, maybe in a good way.
* Hey!  I just realised I read Birdsong in 2013 too, but must have forgotten to add it to my list, bringing my total to a slightly more respectable 11.  Yay!