Monday, 10 October 2016

10 X 10 X 10 Giveaway post

It has been creeping up slowly over the last couple of months, but finally I have reached my 1000th post! It feels like a huge milestone, who knew I had so much to say. I decided to celebrate the things that I have enjoyed about blogging with a 10 x 10 x 10 post. 
Up first are my ten most visited posts:

10: Cool Aid Dying with 1031 visits

9: Cooking and Sewing Post with 1114 visits
8: Carol Ann Duffy with 1124 visits
7: for the home educators HESFES : long self-indulgent holiday post with 1216 visits
6: for the reptile fans Tegu Walking with 1123 visits
5: for the Philip Pullman fans Midsummer's day with Will and Lyra with 1496 visits
4: Engelby by Sebastian Faulks with 1158 visits
3: Luscious Lemon Cake with 1565 visits
2: an early poetry post, visited by many students I think Margaret Atwood Poetry with 3247 visits
1: (not quite fair on Margaret Atwood but combining two as they go together) Lizard Cake and Lizard Cake Tutorial with a total of 4985 visits

Next I give you, with much torturous decision making, my ten favourite books of the 462 that are labelled at book reviews (alphabetical for I could never rank them one to ten):

Any Human Heart by William Boyd

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
Words from a Glass Bubble by Vanessa Gebbie

And the final ten posts are the ten that I love, either because they mark significant things that have happened over the last few years or just times when I wrote something important to me or that I was particularly pleased with:

Don't Apologise speaks for itself, I was angry, I should write like that more often.

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be is a brief post that celebrates 15 years of friendship with the Ridley Birks family. 
Two Deaths, Three Kisses and a Punchup was written in 2011 when I blogged for the Library Theatre's production of Hard Times
Monkey Quilt the Final Chapter is the result of over two years working on our beekeeper's quilt.
Favourite Moments gives the best bits from my visit to Costa Rica with my mum in 2014.
Dead Dog Poems is one of many many post written during my longstanding involvement with the Manchester Literature Festival, it was one of my favourite events.
What I Think is a course review of 'A Brief History of Humankind', of the many courses I have done with Coursera since 2013 it was the most interesting and engaging.
Night of Writing Dangerously: Monkey and I have participated in NaNoWriMo several times, and are planning to again this year.
Luggage: I have taken part in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge every year since 2012, several years I have done flash fictions, and this is one I particularly liked.
Blogger (a poem) that I wrote back in 2010

I hummed and hawed about what to do to celebrate, and thought that of course there should be a give-away. I know people visit when I post stuff and I hope you get some interest or enjoyment out of reading but I thought it might be nice to know who you all are. So here are three outrageously unique tote bags that I made for my short-lived Etsy shop, so maybe if people just say hi and leave their email contact/blog link and I will pick three people at random to send them to.
Red and Black flocked satin lined with white cotton.
Brown satin with gold spirals lined with pale pink satin.
Pink paisley satin lined with pale pink satin.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Literary failures and successes

I have admitted defeat (for the time being) with Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I picked it up in the library on the spur of the moment and struggled with it for a fortnight, but it is impenetrable. Even though there is a wiki specifically designed to lead you through the finer points of the novel I decided that this is just not the right time for me to tackle something that needs an explanation of what is happening in each paragraph. Maybe when I have a year with nothing better to do, or when the arthritis has removed my ability to do anything other than read, or perhaps I'll get one of my grandchildren to read it to me as I lie on my deathbed. Anyway, I'm sure I'll give it another go at some point. 

On the plus side the Manchester Literature Festival is now well under way. I went to my first event last month however, one of the preview events, that saw my wonderful Professor Harari visiting to promote his new book. I did his Coursera course, 'A Brief History of Human Kind' three years ago (unfortunately it no longer seems to be available) and I was so excited to discover he was going to be coming to the festival. His new book, Homo Deus, is an examination of where the human race might be headed next.
I was a little starstruck when I went to get him to sign his book and managed to mumble something barely intelligible about how much I had enjoyed the course, but it was really lovely to see him in person, and he was just like he seemed in the online lectures. 
Last night I did my second event; the most wonderful Lemn Sissay was performing as part of the 8th annual Black and Asian Writers Conference organised by Cultureword at the Contact Theatre. I confess I had not heard any of his poetry previously but knew of him after he was elected Chancellor of Manchester University last year. He approached me in the foyer when he arrived, because I was wearing a MLF volunteer t-shirt, and asked about books for sale, and he was very distressed to find that, due to some very poor communication, there were none. The event, nevertheless, was a roaring success, sold out, and he was so funny and engaging and chatted on during the question and answer session way past the official finish time. 
His new collection is called 'Gold from the Stone'.
I will just give you this poem, called 'Some things I like', which is quite a good example of his style and delivery, though this video is from a couple of years ago. 

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Viddy those malenky droogs - Banned Books Week

Banned Books Week was last week and it managed to take me all week to read 'A Clockwork Orange' by Anthony Burgess, it being the third time I have tried to read this book. I finished the last few pages this morning with my cup of tea and was well pissed off I can tell you. Have you read it? What the hell! I searched for some reviews and came across the information that the final 21st chapter was, under pressure from the American publishers, omitted from the original publication, and this version was the basis for the film (I have seen the film but too long ago to recall the ending.) Burgess, however, later in life, reasserted his original plan for the story and now most copies will include the final 'redemptive' chapter. It is wrong, so very very wrong. I am not sure I have disagreed with an author about his own book like this before. There is no redemption for Alex, there is no way he is going to 'grow out of' his profoundly violent, anti-social behaviour, it's just not on the cards for him. 

I decided not to look up a Nadsat dictionary and just went with reading and guessing from context the meaning of the words. The creation of this new way of talking I think is probably the most interesting aspect of the book. The reader is forced to think hard about how we get meaning from language and what words are, and about the way, for some social groups, the way they talk is an important part of their identity and social cohesion (I mean in terms of accent and dialect rather than separate languages). It takes some getting used to but by the end it was totally normal. While some argue that Burgess is writing about a dysfunctional society, I thought that the society, though in some measure reflecting the violence of the gang, was really quite normal. Alex, however, was a psychopath, not merely a wayward youth, and if the book is about whether you can change someone's moral framework, the answer has to be no, if they don't have one in the first place. He utterly lacks empathy or a sense that anyone else is an autonomous human being with rights and emotions of their own. He is impulsive and uncontrolled, thinking only of his own pleasurable experiences and seeks out victims for his violent urges. They are not random events caused by anger or frustration but planned and carefully executed to cause the most extreme trauma. His contempt for women in particular is obvious. He initiates, participates and also observes and gets pleasure from all three. There is no explanation for his behaviour, another thing that makes him seem psychopathic, that there is no reason, he just does it. His reaction to prison, the Ludovico experiment and his subsequent release from prison are all based on how to minimise his own suffering and inconvenience; there is never any change in his attitude towards others, they are always just things that might or might not provide him with amusement. I wondered whether his enjoyment and admiration for classical music was supposed to be some kind of redeeming feature, and there were moments when I felt some sympathy for him, but on reflection maybe that was because he felt so so sorry for himself. This suddenly reminded me of 'Lolita', and the 'unreliable narrator' issue, because Alex is telling us this story, and although he is completely honest about the violence he commits, what you are reading is his excitement at the events, which manages to undermine your own reaction to the description. I wonder if this is why the book, and the film, have sometimes been accused of glamourising violence, because it is Alex's view we have of each incident, so it is almost as if the reader/viewer is almost forced to adopt his 'moral' code. So when I reached the end and he muses about the idea of getting married and having a son it was just completely wrong. This is a boy who has no real relationships with other human beings, not even his parents, you cannot envisage him forming a loving bond with anyone, he is incapable of it. He seems to think he is becoming bored by the ultra-violence and is growing up, but you can't see him getting a nice settled job and being a reliable member of society. 

In my browsing I came across Daniel at The Gemsbok who has a brilliant analysis of why Clockwork Orange is better without the last chapter, and some interesting quotes from Burgess about the book. It is strange to think of a writer disparaging his own most well known work, though it makes me curious to read something else he has written and I may have to seek out some advice at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation where the Manchester Literature Festival holds many of its events. I am not sure what else to say about the book, something this well known does not need further description. The issue of whether someone is still 'human' if their ability to make moral decisions has been taken away seems quite a minor feature of the book, and in fact I felt more that the way the politicians use Alex as a pawn in their game was showing how politicians use people's lives to justify their policies and that they are as amoral as Alex is in their use of other people for their own purposes.
Will finish with this quote, because you need to read it to believe quite how linguistically inventive this novel is. Here is Alex, being arrested after being abandoned by his gang at the house of the old cat lady:

" 'A real pleasure this is,' I heard another millicent goloss say as I was tolchocked very rough and skorry into the auto. 'Little Alex all to our own selves.' I creeched out:
'I'm blind. Bog bust and bleed you, you grahzny bastards.'
'Language, language,' like smecked a goloss, and then I got a like backhand tolchock with some ringy rooker or other full on the rot. I said:
'Bog murder you, you vonny stinking bratchnies. Where are there others? Where are my stinking traitorous droogs? One of my cursed grahzny bratties chained me on the glazzies. Get them before they get away. It was all their idea, brothers. They like forced me to do it. I'm innocent, Bog butcher you.' By this time they were all having like a good smeck at me with the heighth of like callousness, and they'd tolchocked me into the back of the auto, but I still kept on about these so-called droogs of men and the  I viddied it would be no good, because they'd all be back now in the snug of the Duke of New York forcing black and suds and double Scotchmen down the unprotesting gorloes of those stinking starry ptitsas and they saying: 'Thanks lads. God bless you, boys. Been here all the time you have, lads. Not been out of our sight you haven't.' " (p.53-4)

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Still Light Tunic

The 'Still Light Tunic' is designed by Veera Valimaki at Rain Knitwear DesignsJulie and I have been making it as a joint project for the last couple of months. I bought some Araucania Ranco at Black Sheep Wools in the sale and the contrast stripes are done in Louisa Harding Pittura. It has these lovely folded in feature pockets; clothing without pockets annoys me, or, like the Bressay dress, pockets that are too small to be of use.
Julie's is done in Drops Baby Merino
We will do a joint photo some time but it has been a bit warm to wear them; today is cooler so I am enjoying just getting used to it. I treated myself to new leggings to wear with.
We ended up waited nearly a fortnight for new needles to do the bottom ribbing. I had purchased circular needles that had come apart, been returned for replacement and then come apart again. I finally returned them to the supplier because the shop in Chorlton had no more of the right size, and the kind people at customer services at Essentials sent me a lovely selection of bits and pieces: you can never have too many needles. I should add that I have bought this brand several times and never previously had any problems with them.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Motorcycle Diaries

I was one of those predictable students who had a Che poster on their bedroom wall; to a naive teenager there was something romantic about the idea of pursuing and then dying for something you believed in. Ernesto Guevara must be one of the most iconic revolutionaries, almost more so than Lenin, and his early death has allowed him to remain a romantic figure rather than his image being tarnished by a lifetime as a politician. 'The Motorcycle Diaries' recounts a journey taken when he was a 23 year old medical student with his friend Alberto Granado

I was left a little bemused by what the fuss is over this book. To begin with so little of the journey they take is on the motorbike that I felt the title was somewhat misleading; the bike disintegrates and has to be abandoned only a short time into the trip and they continue as hitchhikers, blagging lifts and accommodation and food along the way, using their kudos as medical students to good effect. And to be honest there is very little politics: it is often reviewed as a journey that formed him politically and led directly to his revolutionary ambitions and yet although he observes much in the way of deprivation and inequality in the communities they pass through his reaction is not always sympathetic and they were occasionally somewhat contemptuous of the illiterate indigenous people. They are travelling to see and experience the continent, as tourists, not to learn about the lives of the people. There is much more discussion of their own hunger than that of the poor people they encounter, and their talk is frequently directed towards acquiring some alcohol and recovering from the after-effects. The book is written very much as you might imagine a young man's diary; it is mostly a catalogue of where they went, how they got there, who they met, what they ate and so on, with elaborate descriptions of some of their most desperate hardships and dangerous scrapes. I think what I liked about the book is that it humanises the icon; Che becomes a real person, a real young man with the interests and concerns of a young man, and there are some very thoughtful and perceptive descriptions of the places they visit, showing Che as having a true appreciation of the history of the continent. But I do feel like I got to know him somehow and it reminded me of Boris Pasternak's letters and how it was their very ordinariness that allowed you to see the real person. Some of the writing is mundane but occasionally he waxes lyrical, so I'll give you one of those:

the navel!
The word that most perfectly describes the city of Cuzco is evocative. Intangible dust of another era settles on its streets, rising like disturbed sediment of a muddy lake when you touch the bottom. But there are two or three Cuzcos, or it's better to say, two or three ways the city can be summoned. When Mama Ocllo dropped her golden wedge into the soil and it sank effortlessly, the first Incas knew this was the place selected by Viracocha to be the permanent home for his chosen ones, who had left behind their nomadic lives to come as conquistadores to their promised land. With nostrils flaring zealously for new horizons, they watched as their formidable empire grew, always looking beyond the feeble barrier of the surrounding mountains. And the converted nomads set to expanding Tahuantinsuyo, fortifying as they did so the centre of their conquered territory - the navel of the world - Cuzco. And here grew, as a necessary defense for the empire, the imposing Sacsahuamán, dominating the city from its heights and protecting the palaces and temples from the wrath of the enemies of the empire. The vision of this Cuzco emerges mournfully from the fortress destroyed by the stupidity of illiterate Spanish conquistadores, from the violated ruins of the temples, from the sacked palaces, from the faces of a brutalised race. This is the Cuzco inviting you to become a warrior and to defend, club in hand, the freedom and the life of the Inca.
High above the city another Cuzco can be seen, displacing the destroyed fortress: a Cuzco with coloured-tile roofs, its gentle uniformity interrupted by the cuppola of a baroque church; and as the city falls away it shows us only its narrow streets and its native inhabitants dressed in typical costume, all local colors. this Cuzco invites you to be a hesitant tourist, to pass over things superficially and to relax into the beauty beneath the leaden winter sky.
And there is yet another Cuzco, a vibrant city whose monuments bear witness to the formidable courage of the warriors who conquered the region in the name of Spain, the Cuzco to be found in museums and libraries, in the church facades and in the clear, sharp features of the white chiefs who even today feel pride in the conquest. This is the Cuzco asking you to pull on your armor and, mounted on the ample back of a powerful horse, cleave a path through the defenceless flesh of a naked Indian flock whose human wall collapses and disappears beneath the four hooves of the galloping beast.
Each one of these Cuzcos can be admired separately, and to each one we dedicated a part of our stay." (p.103-4)

Sunday, 11 September 2016

A really bad bargain

'Tony Hogan Bought me an Ice Cream Float before he stole my Ma' by Kerry Hudson has a very distinctive title, but I'm not sure where or when I read about it. 

The story is narrated by Janie Ryan, from her birth to about sixteen years old, though her voice is that of an adolescent the entire time. It tells the story of a chaotic and deprived childhood starting in a neglected and rundown area of Aberdeen but gradually taking her to equally rundown areas of other parts of the country where Ma takes her in search of  a better life. Actually, on reflection, Ma does not take her anywhere in search of a better life, they drift on a stale wind of bad decisions from one from place to another with no intent or plan. I read with horrified fascination as I looked through a grubby window into a world I barely knew existed ... I've never watched 'Benefits Street'. Their lives are punctuated by useless and violent men, financial crises and midnight flits. It is a life of grinding poverty and the inability to imagine another way of doing things. What struck me most was the isolation; Ma does not seem to have a single friend. In emergencies she goes to her brother Frankie, her own mother does not appear to give a shit and she looks on her neighbours with suspicion and animosity. She develops a few superficial relationships based on shared drinking but never finds people she can rely on. The picture is painted of Ma and Janie, and then later Tiny, as a strongly bonded unit, they can only rely on each other. What I really had trouble with was the level of casual violence, aggression and conflict in their lives. There is lots of yelling and smacking of children and blaming it on the 'Ryan Temper', and when something goes wrong it is always someone else's fault. Ma never, never learns from experience. She trusts the men who let her down time and time again. When Tiny is born she falls into a post-natal depression and Janie basically become her carer at about seven years old, and in fact it felt like she becomes the grown-up in the relationship.  

I felt that the idea of Janie being able to escape the rut was not credible; she is bright and reads lots of stories as a child, seems to do well at school but still truants and finds no one there to encourage her abilities, only a careers adviser who puts her firmly back in her place. She might have 'street smarts' but she has no life skills, has never seen her mother cook a meal or manage her money or solve problems other than by hiding from them or running away from them. Janie finally finds a friend in Beth when she sits down with the Goths on the school playing field and you feel like it's the first positive thing in her life, so you know it's not going to last. She goes off at the end, not to forge a life for herself but vaguely in search of her mysterious father in London, like her mother, pointlessly expecting a man to be the solution to what is wrong. I was heartbroken; she buys travel sickness tablets (throwing up on journeys was a regular feature of her life) and it's almost as if Kerry Hudson thinks this symbolises some magically found new ability to solve problems by herself.  Although she brushes off the very helpful bloke who approaches her at the coach station I was just left feeling it was inevitable that that was who she would be turning to as soon as her pitiful roll of cash ran out.

"In the second week of comprehensive school I came home to hear Ma roaring with laughter. The last year, since Frankie, had left Ma as thin as skin on a blister and I tried my best to watch for the sharp moments that might leave her raw and sore.
Hearing that laugh made me stomach twist, though I had my own worries resting on my nylon-blazered shoulders. The table had a half-empty whiskey bottle, a pouch of Drum tobacco and a Sun newspaper on it, and before I saw him I knew he was back.
They looked so cosy, the three of them sitting on the sofa, knees pointed into each other's and Tiny, four now, with a sturdy body a miniature of her da's, sitting on his lap. Stupid Tiny, she didn't even know him. Not as stupid as Ma though, because she did.
'Janie!' She was pissed, words sliding off her tongue like oil. 'Look who's come tae visit an' he got yeh a present!'
She sloshed her glass towards the table where a bright yellow tape player sat.
'I wonder who he stole the money off fer that then?'
I didn't want a visitor. I definitely didn't want Doug. I wanted to disappear into the sea of bottle-green uniforms like all the other kids at comp; just another sloping back and shy bobbing head." (p.166)

I was just depressed by this book. I have lived on benefits in my time, for extended periods, and on very low income, and lived in crappy housing, but I guess my advantage was always that I knew life did not have to be like that. I had supportive family and a sense that I was capable of making my own life. I think she was trying to write an upbeat story of redemption but what the book does for me is graphically portray the nature of the poverty trap and how it holds on to its victims. 

Friday, 9 September 2016

The Many

'The Many' by Wyl Menmuir is on the Booker longlist and I read about it in several places, so it was one that I picked up in Waterstones the other week. 

I am not sure that spoilers is the right warning, because not much happens in this book but in order to say anything about it I need to disclose what kind of nothing happens. I did not feel surprised by the denouement of the story because as it went on I began to realise that the whole story is a kind of metaphor. This is not a story about a man buying a house in a tiny isolated fishing village. The blurb on the back makes it sound like a weird psychological thriller, and it's definitely not that either. The house is not a house, the boats are not boats, the fish not fish and the people not people. Nothing is what it seems. I felt the entire time like I was reading a bad dream and in reality that is what it is. 

Timothy buys a long neglected house in the village thinking he will bring his wife to live in this place they once visited. The village is hostile to his presence, though in time he befriends Ethan one of the few remaining fishermen. The boats go out but they do not catch anything; their fishing grounds are demarcated by a row of anchored shipping tankers on the skyline, the waters polluted by mysterious poisons. Timothy persuades Ethan to take the boat out beyond the tankers and they catch shoals of deformed fish which are then purchased by a rather sinister government official. Timothy's attempts to renovate the house are half-hearted and ineffectual; he finds himself distracted by questions about Perran, the long dead man who used to live there, questions nobody seems willing or able to answer. 

Timothy is grieving and the story is his struggle to cope with and make sense of what he is experiencing: the house he is clearing out, his inability to communicate with his wife (the 21st century 'no phone signal' metaphor), the unwelcoming and suspicious people, the cold and dangerous sea, the flood followed by the cracks as the village itself seems to be disintegrating, his desperate and thwarted attempts to leave, are all part of this struggle. He starts out with some determination, trying to forge a new normal life out of the desolate shell of a house, but his efforts wane and he becomes ill and cold, lonely and afraid, the village become even more threatening, eventually destroying all his feeble attempts at reconstruction. The writing often has the same confused and disorientating feeling that dreams have, without logical sequences or predictability in the events or behaviour of the people. The whole atmosphere is dark and threatening, an abiding sense of unease. I just realised that it is written in the present tense, which is probably why it is so intense, as if it is happening in the present moment. It is almost impossible to describe but the book left me very disconcerted and confused, as if I just woke up and definitely didn't want to get back to sleep.

"The house has not been cleared, the agent had said to him from behind a wide empty expanse of desk, and the words come back to him as he lies back in the bath. Timothy gets out of the bath quickly and wraps a towel around himself, and not bothering to dry off, he goes down to the kitchen. With a growing puddle of water gathering around his feet, he stands in front of the kitchen units and takes the handles of the cupboards nearest to him in both hands, opening both units simultaneously. There is the briefest moment in which he feels the open cupboards retain their darkness for a fraction of a second longer than they should  before they allow the light in. Both cupboards are empty, and so too are the drawers in the kitchen and the small pantry cupboard by the fridge. All he finds is yellowed newspaper lining the bottoms of all the drawers and shelves. He takes some of the paper out of one of the drawers and, on the paper that is still legible and that does not disintegrate as he pulls it up, he sees the articles are written in a language he does not recognise and the pictures that accompany the articles are blurred, as though the hand that took the photograph was shaking at the time they were taken. Going through all the rooms he finds the small items of furniture that have been there all along and the items he has brought to the house himself, but not sign of any clothes that were there before he arrived, no personal belongings. His search becomes more and more frantic but he finds nothing that could give him any clue about the previous owner, as though all the evidence of who he was has been erased." (p.92-3)


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