Friday, 13 January 2017

Jeeves and all that

On Only Connect the other week Victoria scolded one of the contestants who said they had never read any Jeeves and Wooster books. I promptly ordered 'The Inimitable Jeeves' on audiobook from the library which Dunk and I listened to together. I confess I did not find them particularly funny, and after the first two the story lines became very predictable. I was sorry that they were so short and we did not get to know Jeeves at all, since he is the character I remember from the TV series, which I did watch with much enjoyment. So I feel like I have given Wodehouse a chance but I don't think I am going to become a fan any time soon. 

Blackbirds in the garden

One of the trees in the garden lost all its leaves and looked faintly ridiculous with all the apples still attached. As winter set in they finally dropped and the blackbirds have been feasting on the fallen apples; the females seem to be chasing off the males, who sit in the surrounding trees waiting their turn. It's just nice to look out through the kitchen window and see them there, frequently oblivious to the neighbourhood cats who crouch down by the shed watching.

I bought John Berger's 'Bento's Sketchbook' several years ago. I hoped it might inspire me to go back to drawing. It is a strange little book, physically very satisfying with a textured hard cover and thick pages, an excuse to just meander through his own thoughts, about art and philosophy and life, and fill pages with random sketches. The idea for the book sprang from the information that Spinoza carried a sketchbook with him, but after his death none was found amongst all his letters and manuscripts. The book is scattered also with quotes from Spinoza (about whom I know nothing), but I found them rather vague and unfathomable.
"Each spring when the irises begin to flower, I find myself drawing them - as if obeying an order. There's no other flower so commanding. And this may have something to do with the way they open their petals, already printed. Irises one like books. At the same time, they are the smallest, tectonic quintessence of architecture. I think of Mosque Suleiman in Istanbul. Irises are like prophesies: simultaneously astounding and calm." (p.106)

I like this, and I don't have the faintest idea what 'tectonic quintessence' means.
"When I'm drawing - and here drawing is very different from writing or reasoning - I have the impression at certain moments of participating in something like a visceral function, such as digesting or sweating, a function that is independent of the conscious will. This impression is exaggerated , but the practice or pursuit of drawing touches, or is touched by, something prototypical and anterior to logical reasoning." (p.149)
He fills the book with stories about art that he has valued and places and people who have had quiet impacts on him, close friends and casual acquaintances. I liked it because it is so casually intimate, just like you are listening to him talk. And the simplicity of the drawings that he includes is encouraging, things that are just around and he happened to draw them. 
One quote from Spinoza I did get to grips with (even though it is a long convoluted sentence), from Ethics, Part IV, Definitions VI (and isn't 'we are won't a wonderfully archaic expression). 
Just something to ponder:
"But it is appropriate here to note that we can only distinctly imagine distance of time, like that of space, up to a certain limit, that is, just as those things which are beyond two hundred feet from us, or, whose distance from the place where we are exceeds that which we can distinctly imagine, we are wont to imagine equally distant from us and if they were in the same plane, so also those objects whose time of existing we imagine to be distant from the present by a longer interval than that which we are accustomed to imagine, we imagine all to be equally distant from the present, and refer to them all as it were to one moment of time."

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Shoe Fly Baby

'Shoe Fly Baby' is the Asham Award Prize short story collection edited by Kate Pullinger. I recommended a short story by Kate a while back in another anthology. I drifted though this book a little, kept coming back to half read stories with no recollection of what had been happening, I'm afraid that does not recommend it very highly, or maybe I am just in such a bad slump at the moment I was not concentrating. 
The one that struck me most was 'An angel in the garden' by Jane Maltby, about an elderly woman who's life is altered by a car crash at the bottom of her garden. She forms a bond with the family of the young man who is killed, while her own faculties go into rapid decline. It has a lovely metaphor of cryptic crossword clues running though the story, reflecting the confusion she increasingly experiences: 

"She kept finding bits, all over the place, even after they'd cleaned up. Not from the victim, of course not, that would be silly, although he went straight out through the windscreen and along the road, face down, they told her. She didn't look. Even when all the neighbours ran down their gardens to the road, and all the police cars with their lights were parked all over the grass, and it was even on the radio, the cars were queued up for that long.
The boy's car embraced the lamp-post deeply. That was the thought that struck her. It had sucked the post into its vitals. Glass and metal lay on the ground, and there were the bits that, weeks after the crash, she kept crunching over when she finally went down, to check the flowers. The body had come to rest perhaps twenty yards away, just on the boundary with her neighbours, who kept cats. Just inside the boundary. It was her accident, all right." (p.62)


Thursday, 5 January 2017

One flew east, one flew west ...

'One flew over the cuckoo's nest' is such an iconic film that the book by Ken Kesey might seem superfluous, but I found that they compliment and enhance each other. The story in the book is narrated by the Chief who is believed by staff and inmates to be deaf and dumb, but who has simply adapted to a world that has ignored him. Into the regular and secure environment of their institution lands McMurphy, who's one aim, right from the start, seems to be to stir things up. The tight ship is run by Nurse Ratched who controls every waking moment of the men's lives, and the Chief recounts what becomes a battle of wills between Mack and the Big Nurse. This book is all about the atmosphere of the mental institution, stifling and monotonous, but also the divorce that happens for the inmates between reality and the life they are experiencing. The Chief, who's presence on the ward is not explained, suffers from delusions and hallucinations, bad dreams, and an extreme paranoia, and throughout the book it is his thoughts and experiences we are pulled in to. It can be quite scary:

"The least black boy and one of the bigger ones catch me before I get ten steps out of the mop closet, and drag me back to the shaving room. I don't fight or make any noise. If you yell it's just tougher on you. I hold back the yelling. I hold back till they get to my temples. I'm not sure it's one of those substitute machines and not a shaver till it gets to my temples; then I can't hold back. It's not a will power thing any more when they get to my temples. It's a ... button, pushed, says Air Raid Air Raid, turns me on so loud it's like no sound, everybody yelling at me hands over their ears from behind a glass wall, facing working around in talk circles but no sounds from the mouths. My sound soaks up all the other sound. They start the fog machine again and it's snowing cold and white all over me like skim milk, so thick I might even be able to hide in it if they didn't have a hold on me. I can't see six inches in front of me through the fog and the only thing I can hear over the wail I'm making is the Big Nurse whoop and charge up the hall while she crashes patients outta her way with that wicker bag. I hear her coming but I still can't hush my hollering. I holler till she gets there. They hold me down while she jams wicker bag and all into my mouth and shoves it down with the mop handle." (p.7)

McMurphy's presence is unsettling for the inmates as much as for Nurse Ratched; their cosy little world is being upset and they are just as worried about changes to their routine. For the Chief however it comes as a revelation, slowly he begins to see things more clearly and to want to change things. Here is his description of the change that McMurphy brings:

"Sweeping the dorm soon's it's empty, I'm after dis mice under his bed when I get a smell of something that makes me realise for the first time since I been in this hospital that this big dorm full of beds, sleeps forty grown men, has always been sticky with a thousand other smells - smells of germicide, zinc ointment, and foot power, smell of piss and sour old-man manure, of Pablum and eyewash, of musty shorts and socks musty even when they're fresh back from the laundry, the stiff odour of starch in the linen, the acid stench of morning mouths, the banana smell of machine oil, and sometimes the smell of singed hair - but never before now, before he came in, the man smell of dust and dirt from the open fields, and sweat, and work." (p.96)

There is an up-side to his sense of being removed and unnoticed; here the Chief describes going into a painting:

"I push my broom up face to face with a great big picture Public Relations bought in one time when it was fogged so thick I didn't see him. The picture is a guy fly-fishing somewhere in the mountains, looks like the Ochocos near Paineville - snow on the peaks showing over the pines, long white aspen trunks lining the stream, sheep sorrel growing in sour green patches. The guy is flicking his fly in a pool behind a rock. It's no place for a fly, it's a place for a single egg on a number-six hook - he'd do better to drift the fly over those riffles downstream.
There's a path running down through the aspen, and I push my broom down the path aways and sit down on a rock and look back out through the frame at the visiting doctor talking with the residents. I can see him stabbing some point in the palm of his hand with his finger, but I can't hear what he says because of the crash of the cold, frothy stream coming down out of the rocks. I can smell the snow in the wind where it blows down off the peaks. I can see mole burrows humping along under the grass and buffalo weed. It's a real nice place to stretch your legs and take it easy." (p.120)

The tale unfolds as McMurphy tries to take the others out of their comfort zone, not appreciating the potential consequences of his high jinks and despite warnings about how the 'Combine' will not be beaten. There is no hope for McMurphy, but there is, in the end, for the Chief. If you love the film I would highly recommend you give the novel a chance, it has a different perspective and added depth to the characters.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Repost: From A to X


I just read in the Guardian that John Berger died today so here is a brief review that appeared in the very early days of my blog in 2009. I can still recall how much I loved this book and I have his book Bento's Sketchbook on my 101 books, so, when I have finished 'One Flew Over the Cuckcoo's Nest' I am going to make it next on the list.

My second book of the year was 'From A to X - a story in letters' by John Berger. Sometimes I request books from the library on the spur of the moment, when I read something on the internet or in the paper, and it just catches my interest. This title intrigued me. It is a book of questions, and no answers. There is no story, no plot, just ideas and experiences. The book is made up of letters from A'ida. There are no replies, but in places Xavier has written thoughts at the end of the letters. Each letter is different; some talk about her life, some are reminiscences, some imagine the future. There cannot be a future because Xavier is in prison, but she hopes, for them and for their country. The setting is deliberately vague. I imagined eastern Europe for some reason, but it could be anywhere, so many parts of the world have experienced political unrest and repression. I grew very attached to A'ida, she is strong and resilient, kind and fiercely loyal. You don't see Xavier so clearly. She describes something of their relationship and life together, but because you never get his thoughts you have only a superficial impression. The fact that they are separated is the theme that runs through the book, sometimes it is raw emotion that you feel really intensely, sometimes it just sits in the background of her tales of everyday life. What I liked about the writing is the complete lack of pretension. He creates a whole world that feels so real, with people you care about. In spite of the need I usually have to get closure from a book this one leaves you hanging. You accept that you cannot know if their story has an end. But it leaves you hoping, because they do.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Appearance and disappearance

'The Sudden Appearance of Hope' by Claire North was a weird book. I think that is its defining quality. Hope has this quality of 'being forgotten', not just 'not memorable' but that, moments after leaving her presence, people have no recollection of ever meeting her. It makes life quite hard, as you might imagine, so her life has become a little unconventional. Living by stealing and gambling means she has become part of a subculture that includes the criminal underworld. When a young woman she considers a 'friend' commits suicide she blames it on the insidious 'Perfection' app that is taking over people's lives, and she becomes involved in a plot to destroy the app. I think Claire North is trying to write a book for the iPhone age, and as someone who doesn't own a smartphone I found it hard to care that much. It was a really long book that went round in circles, with the recurring fact of Hope being forgotten by everyone she meets as a tediously repetitive feature of the narrative. I persevered with it because ... well to be honest I just stared at the pages for a bit then turned them. Are we really all being programmed by phone apps to be and buy what is fed to us? I don't know anyone like that. I liked this bit about Manchester:

"I took the train to Manchester. Straight streets between stiff, industrial architecture. Short cathedral tucked in between shopping mall and roaring traffic. Museum dedicated to football, galleries from warehouses, town hall snaked around with trams, stone columns, red brick, not enough trees, crossing the canals at the lock gates, clinging to the black iron handles as you edge, one foot at a time to the other side. The screech of the railway lines, the cyclists ready to pedal through the Pennines, is this home?" (p.326)

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Books of 2016 (because the rest was too awful)

It's been a bad year; politically, socially, economically, environmentally, and pretty much all the other allys. The kind of year when you just want to crawl under a rock and hide. I have tried not to hide from it, to, at the very least, know a little about what has been happening around the world even though the sense of being unable to affect it can be overwhelming. To all my regular and random visitors, Happy Christmas and I hope wherever you are that life is treating you kindly.

I feel a little lacklustre about the reading I have done this year so I hope my annual review of books is going to remind me that it has not been a total dead loss. 

Night Waking by Sarah Moss
Lives like Loaded Guns by Lyndall Gordon
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
Emma by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Ausen and Seth Graeme Smith
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds
The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
The Bluebird Cafe by Rebecca Smith
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
How to be Both by Ali Smith
Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
Camila by Chingiz Atimatov
The Boy who Kicked Pigs by Tom Baker
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Letters of Note by Shaun Usher
Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume
The Fault in our Stars by John Green
Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World by Donald Antrim
Boneland by Alan Garner
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
may we be forgiven by A.M. Holmes
The Illusion of Separateness by Simon van Booy
Alone in Berlin by Hans Falada
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
The Offering Grace McCleen
Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
My Antonia by Willa Cather
A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale
A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving
This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Holmes
Without a Map by Meredith Hall
The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia
The Boat by Nam Le
The Buried Giant Kazuo Ishiguro
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
The Sneetches and other stories by Dr Seuss
The Crow Road by Iain Banks
The Many by Wyl Menmuir
Tony Hogan bought me an ice-cream float by Kerry Hudson
The Motorcycle Diaries by Erneso Guevara
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
How to be Wild by Simon Barnes
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood
Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century by Neil Postman
Foxlowe by Eleanor Wasserberg
The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
Children at the Gate by Lynn Reid Banks

54 books, which is about average for me, though sometimes reading has felt like wading through treacle and I have made myself finish a couple of books even when I wondered why I was bothering. Recommendations from the year: unexpectedly fascinating, Lives Like Loaded Guns, about Emily Dickinson and her legacy; for a totally absorbing story, A Prayer for Owen Meany; for lovely understated writing, Grief is the Thing with Feathers; to understand another's experience Yellow Birds. The best, best thing I have read this year however is Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake that Monkey and I have been reading aloud together. We are only about half way through, and she has been away a lot recently so little progress is being made but do watch out for a coming review of this, it is a classic and a book unlike anything else you will have read.

I have done little knitting, more crochet and quite a bit of sewing, though my Turkish coat project has been sorely neglected, finishing it may be my new year resolution. Dunk has a new job, which seems to be less depressing than the old one, as least he feels appreciated. All other things are pretty much the same. In case you are wondering the Christmas tree was inspired by this video, and what with having to buy a glue gun it cost as much as a real tree.


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