Saturday, 20 September 2014

a small, hesitant thing

About this time two years ago I commented what a strange coincidence it was that I read two books in succession that mentioned the Nags Head in Edale. And now I have just read the second book in a month narrated by a librarian. I applied for a job before the summer in the library at Salford University, I think I would have suited me down to the ground and was very disappointed not to get an interview, such things come up so rarely.

"The Giant's House' by Elizabeth McCracken was bought on the strength of the lovely 'Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination' that I read last month. It lived up to the glowing review, quiet and unassuming and exquisite. It tells the tale of Peggy, a young woman growing old in a small town library, who falls in love with a tall young boy. James Sweatt grows, both older and taller, under her watchful gaze. She sees in him a kindred spirit and takes pleasure in seeking out books for him but remains for many years on the periphery of his life. Gradually a friendship grows up with his aunt and uncle, and her life becomes more and more entangled with his. It is a slightly one sided love story because we get to know Peggy so much better than James. Others see him as a curiosity, the locals as well as the tourists, it is as if she is the only person who truly sees past his giant size to the person underneath. There is not much to say about the story, the book is really just about the two of them. They are bonded I felt partly by their quiet acquiescence to their situations in life; James does not yearn to be a normal kid, and she does not aspire the escape her 'librarian' life. While she fights to make a life for him that fits his size he changes hers in much more subtle ways. 

She doesn't like people much, she confesses that straight off, what she has passion for is knowledge:

"People think librarians are unromantic, unimaginative. This is not true. We are people whose dreams run in peculiar ways. Ask a mountain climber what he feels when he sees a mountain; a lion tamer what goes through his mind when he meets a new lion; a doctor confronted with a beautiful malfunctioning body. The idea of a library full of books, the books full of knowledge, fills me with fear and love and courage and endless wonder. I knew I would be a librarian in college as a student assistant at a reference desk, watching those lovely people at work. 'I don't think there's such a book ...' a patron would begin, and then the librarian would hand it to them, that very book." (p.8)

Then this unusually tall boy arrives with a group from school and asks for a book about magic, and things will never be the same again.

"He became a regular after that first school visit, took four books out at a time, returned them, took another four. I let him renew the magic book again and again, even though the rules said one renewal only. Librarians lose reason when it comes to regulars, the good people, the readers. Especially when they were like James: it wasn't that he was lonely or bored; he wasn't dragged into the library by a parent. He didn't have the strange desperate look that some librarygoers develop, even children, the one that says: this is the only place I'm welcome anymore." (p.8-9)

I loved her attitude to her charges, the books, this is a wonderful analogy:

"Books are a bad family - there are those you love, and those you are indifferent to; idiots and mad cousins who you would banish except others enjoy their company; wrongheaded but fascinating eccentrics and dreamy geniuses; orphaned grandchildren; and endless brothers-in-law simply taking up space who you wish you could send straight to hell. Except you can't, for the most part. You must house them and make them comfortable and worry about them when they go on trips and there is never enough room." (p.21)

Then the strain of all his growing begins to tell on James' health and Peggy decides it is a waste to wait for him to fall in love with her, that she will just love for the two of them:

"I loved him because he was young and dying and needed me. I loved not only his height, but his careful way with any hobby, his earnestness, his strange sense of humour that always surprised me. I loved him because I wanted to save him, and because I could not. I loved him because I wanted to be enough for him, and I was not.
I loved him because I discovered that day, after years of practice, I had a talent for it." (p.78-9)

Although the story is bitter sweet it is perfect because in all good love stories someone walks in and changes a small, hesitant life into something else. It is strange because the fact of his giant-ness is both vital and irrelevant to the tale. It is what makes the telling of it so curious. Sorry, that is a bit cryptic, you'll just have to read it. 


Whiffle and waffle

Two quickies. Many months ago I went over to Ted and watched the much lauded talk by Brené Brown. I got her book 'Daring Greatly' from the library and was somewhat underwhelmed. She says the same thing over and over (and over) again, applying the same idea to a multitude of different situations and human experiences. While her ideas are very interesting I would say go watch the talk and it pretty much encapsulates what she's got to say.
The other quickie is 'On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored' by Adam Philips, which came highly recommended by Brainpickings, but I struggled through it over my breakfast for a couple of months before abandoning it in favour of new reads.
He spends the entire book quoting Freud and Winnicott every other paragraph, and the style is very academic and dull, it was not really written for the casual reader. I am sure psychoanalysis has a great deal that is interesting to say about the human condition but sometimes I think people's motivation is not as deeply sunk in the subconscious as they claim. One little quote I wrote down amused me:
"It is, of course, easy to forget that worries are imaginative creations, small epics of personal failure and anticipated catastrophe. They are, that is to say, made up." (p.49)
Something for us all to bear in mind maybe.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Making things in September

All summer we have been watching the neighbour over the fence get gradually plumper. When we heard that the baby had finally arrived I whipped up a little something for him. This is done to the 'bananahead baby beanie' pattern which I have used once before back in 2009. I bought this yarn to make Hesfes Bunnies but it is even more cute as a baby hat.
I made three batches of preserves with blackberries this year; four jars of blackberry and apple jelly, four jars of blackberry and pear jelly and ten jars of jam. Not bad considering the crop was very early this year and I was a bit late to go picking.
Monkey and I made felt to cover her special monkey notebook, but I only took one photo for some reason. I was going to make a cover that went around the spine but she wanted to be able to fold it back and thought it would get in the way so we made separate pieces and just glued them to the card covers.
And this is 'Toerag the Tubemouse' (pattern here for free at Whodunnknit) that I knit and secreted in the pocket of the Monkey Quilt.
Now back to the reading, I have 'The Goldfinch' which has to go back to the library on the 20th.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Welcome to the Monkey House

We have been joking for weeks that it has all been just a game, but the deed is finally done. The last of my offspring has flown the coop. Yesterday I drove Monkey, with most of her worldly goods, down to the wonderful and exotic Golders Green, where she will be sharing a house with four other monkeys. She has a couple of days to herself and then the others will gradually be joining her in the metropolis. 
 She nobly offered to take the tiny bedroom; we have tried to make it feel cosy and personal but there will definitely be no cat swinging:
 After a trip to Tesco, a five minute walk away across the Hendon Way, we toured the delights of Golders Green high street, with its many delicious smelling kosher bakeries, and then came back and ate some tea with an episode of Gilmore Girls. It was very strange to say goodbye on the doorstep and drive away leaving her there. 
There will no doubt be regular updates of goings on in London once the Year of the Monkey gets started in a couple of weeks time. 
Reading etc has all still been happening recently but I have been a bit taken up with preparations for the move. Hopefully I will do a few catchup posts over the weekend.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Monkey Boots

Just over three years ago now I bought this shiny pair of Doc Martens for Monkey:
They have been well loved and well worn but are on their last legs (she is in denial about it and has been refusing to give them up). I invested in a new purple pair for myself two years ago because my white nubuck ones were filthy and getting worn. However they sat on the shelf because they were not really in 'throwing away' condition. A while ago I put them in a bowl of hot soapy water and scrubbed them clean. They came out pretty well:
 Add a dozen brightly coloured sharpies and they have become completely
and utterly
 fabulous!
 (But she still doesn't like being photographed)
The countdown to 'Year Of The Monkey' is now under one month, with moving out day probably in less than a fortnight. The last minute panic is setting in. Only about half a million things left to do.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Books, socks and all that

'The Faraway Nearby' by Rebecca Solnit was requested on the strength of 'A Field Guide to Getting Lost' that I read last year. I guess this is an example of how your own mood affects how you react to a book. This one was a similarly meandering mix of stories and reminiscences but I found myself irritated by it. Partly in a process of reflecting about our adventure in Costa Rica I have been thinking about what is adventure and why have we become so obsessed with it. It is as if the whole 'living life to the full' and 'YOLO' culture has become so pervasive; that if you don't go out and travel and do exciting things then you are not really living, that you are wasting your life. This really could be the subject of a whole blog post ... but I fear becoming too hectoring so I will just say that some days it makes me want to crawl under a stone and stay there and be glad of my quiet, predictable, un-spontaneous life, it has a lot to recommend it. And why is it that people who write these kind of books invariably have poor relationships with their parents. Is there something the matter with have a nice secure childhood and getting on well with your mum and dad as adults. Maybe it means I have nothing to run away from or 'search for' but I think I am happy without the existential angst to be honest.


The lovely socks that I started knitting for mum when we went to Costa Rica have finally been completed, it's only taken a mere three and a bit months. They were knitted to the Jigsaw socks pattern on Pink monkey Knits, but someone at knitting club pointed out that the design looks like waves so I decided to call them 'Pacific Ocean Socks'. So now I can give some serious attention to a fair isle sweater that I started equally long ago.

'Where Love Lies' by Julie Cohen was a bit of a strange acquisition, I picked it up from the library and had no memory of why I requested it, the cover image told me that it was not the kind of book I usually borrow. Having said that I spent the entire of my day off this week reading it, and didn't consider the day wasted. The plot was utterly predictable, I saw from the first chapter that she was going to have a brain tumour or something and that the whole thing was not going to be real. The relationship with the husband was very suspect, they were completely unsuited, he claimed to be trying  to make her happy but had changed nothing about his life to be with her and expected her to fit in with a life that he had prearranged; it was creepy even though his family all seemed so nice. But I was entertained by her rather erratic behaviour and decision making, and the rather wild and reckless upbringing she had did go some way to explaining her approach to life. I think Julie Cohen was trying to do something cleverer than she was capable of with the story: the idea that can you be 'in love' because your brain is triggering old memories, and are they 'real' feelings, and as such are any emotions real since they are all just a product of chemical reactions in the brain. The trouble was that this rather more profound idea was only dwelt on briefly in passing as she considers the life saving surgery that will probably take the feelings away again. So, sorry, I've spoilt the story completely for anyone who likes her, but a pleasant enough way to pass the time, well written and engaging. Now back to Middlemarch and the trials of Dorothea (who started off very pious and irritating but is growing on me).

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Unrequited love

'The Library of Unrequited Love' by Sophie Divry
This was a lovely little novella, a monologue by a lonely librarian who arrives at work to discover someone unintentionally locked overnight in the library. 

I found myself picturing the hapless man, it had to be a man, probably elderly, as he sat, initially bemused and trapped, but gradually relaxing back in the armchair with his thermos coffee (that she provides for him) and letting her ideas wash over him. There aren't any apparent interruptions to her flow as she meanders through every subject under the sun. What I loved was the way it was a picture of how the human mind works, and how it makes its own connections between ideas and information. Julie wrote a lovely post yesterday on the subject of random learning and how you can't make someone find a particular thing interesting, or make them learn it, or control what someone learns from a situation, and this book felt like a fantastic example of real human learning. The librarian talks, and although her talk has a superficial feel of being random and meaningless if you pay attention there are links between everything she says, one thing leads to the next ... and this is how learning happens for children (and adults of course but we are often so busy doing other stuff we don't notice our learning any more). So starting predictably with the Dewey Decimal System we do a quick run through the history of libraries. History is her aspiration (though she is stuck in the geography section) so her talk takes in the French Revolution to Napoleon ("that uncivilised little runt") to Durkheim to Eugène Morel and then Simone de Beauvoir

And running through the talk is her passion for a young man who comes to the library to work on his dissertation, who she adores from afar. I felt like he was symbolic of her desire to be noticed, acknowledged, valued, by someone and by society, but his real physical presence created this lovely moment;

"I was sitting at my desk. He was sitting at a table, where he'd been working for about half an hour. It was quiet. The sky was grey. I didn't have any coffee left. Then suddenly Martin put the cap back on his pen, closed his book, stood up and walked over to me, with his calm movements and his long legs. I saw him coming, I looked up at hime (not too fast, not to let him think I had been waiting for him), he stopped at my desk, leaned forward slightly (I wonder why, perhaps he thinks I'm deaf), I could see his shirt close up, light-blue stripes, I even picked up a hint of aftershave, a very subtle one, he was right there and he asked, oh nothing much, but so politely put, and anyway, it was me he asked, even though that morning my history colleague was there, in his soft voice he said: 'Excuse me, Madame, but would it be possible to have a little more light?' " (p.57)

She sees libraries as both a place for the unloved and the unwanted:

"They're not really readers. They wander about. To the magazine corner, then to Literature. They come down here so as not to be noticed. They pretend to read. They don't make a noise, they just look for some little spot and hope everyone will forget about them. Sometimes, if they land an armchair, they drop off to sleep, poor things. I do feel a lot of sympathy for them. I call them the 'central heating refugees'." (p.59)

but also the place that offers magic:

"Book and reader, if they meet up at the right moment in a person's life, it can make sparks fly, set you alight, change your life." (p.65)

"Spiritually we can at last fill the terrible emptiness that makes us just worms creeping on this earth. Those endless bookshelves reflect back to us an ideal image, the image of the full range of the human mind. Then all paths are made plain, everything's newly created once more, and we move closer to a mystical vision of Abundance. The inexhaustible milk of human culture, right here, within our reach. Help yourself, it's free. Borrow, because as much as accumulation of material things impoverishes the soul, cultural abundance enriches it." (p.67)

So a monologue in praise of libraries as much as a love story, and I am all in favour of libraries. A lovely understated little book that you could read in an afternoon.

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