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.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Figment of the imagination

'An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination'  by Elizabeth McCracken. I read about this book years ago and I knew there was a copy sitting on the shelf in Chorlton library, and really I was just waiting for the time to read it. I like it when I read something and I know I will go out and look for another book by the same author: this was one of those times. 

This book is a memoir about the loss of a baby, and then the birth of a baby. But it is more than that; it is about how you become a parent, and how even if your baby dies you are still a parent. I read it pretty much in one day at Hesfes and just became totally absorbed in it. It is what makes it such a wonderful and poignant read, that you have both: you anticipate both the happiness and the sadness simultaneously,  somehow she manages to get across their anticipation and sense of excitement throughout her pregnancy and also punctuate it with the process of grieving. I think it would have been a different kind of story if she had not conceived again almost immediately and had her son Gus almost exactly a year after losing Pudding. It is a quiet chatty little book, just letting you in to the intimacies of their lives, private jokes and conversations, what they ate and what they did and where they went, all against the backdrop of waiting to become a family. It is not chronological; time hops back and forth within the story, gradually filling in the details, both pregnancies run alongside each other in sharp contrast. What I loved most about it, which I assume most parents do, we certainly did, is how they give their 'sprog' a life and personality while he is growing. Being pregnant is a process of imagination as much as biological growth. You create in your mind the child that your baby might become, the life you might have. This is not some kind of fixed deterministic controlling thing, where you want them to be a certain way, but an imagining of possibilities. You talk to them, and they talk back. Your baby is a real person long before they put in an appearance. And so when a baby dies, you have not lost some anonymous stranger but a person who has already become integral to your life. 

"He was a person. I missed him like a person. Seeing babies on the street did not stab me with pain the way I know they stab some grieving women, those who have lost children  or simply desperately want to have them. For me, other babies were other babies. They weren't who I was missing." (p.41)

"But a baby. Who's to say? Babies are born needing everything. They're a state of emergency. That's what they're for. Dead, there's nothing we can do for them, and we don't know what they'd want, we can't even guess. I can pretend that I knew Pudding. No, I did know him, not with my brain but with my body, and yet I know nothing about him, not even the simplest thing: I have no idea what he'd want. And so in my grief I understand that mourning is a kind of ventriloquism; we put words into the mouths of  our bereavers, but of course it's all entirely about us, our wants, our needs, the dead are satisfied, we are greedy, greedy, greedy, unseemly, self-obsessed. If your child did not survive birth, everyone can see that clearly. I want. I need. Not him, No pretending." (p.137-8)

And so the life she thought that she would have does not come about, but another one does. She starts the book with an anecdote about a woman at a book signing who tells her she should write about the death of a baby, and eventually and unintentionally she has done. You can't help but feel that part of what gets her though the process is being able to write about it. That although the life was a figment of her imagination, the baby was not, he was real, and the acknowledgement of his existence makes him real to others around her and becomes part of her grieving. I think the story has something to say even to people who are not parents, because in all sorts of ways we imagine possible future lives for ourselves, and most of them are just figments, and what she concludes is that in spite of everything we can only live in the real life we have. 

"Perhaps it goes without saying that I believe in the geographic cure. Of course you can't out-travel sadness. You will find it has smuggled itself along in your suitcase. It coats the camera lens, it flavours the local cuisine. In that different sunlight, it stand out, awkward, yours, honking in the brash vowels of your native tongue in otherwise quiet restaurants. You may even feel proud of its stubbornness as it follows you up bell towers and monuments, as it pants in your ear while you take in the view. I travel not to get away from my troubles but to see how they look in from of famous buildings or on deserted beaches. I take them for walks. Sometimes I get them drunk. Back at home we generally understand each other better." (p.132)

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Books wot I have read recently

Before we went away I joined 99 day of freedom and have been staying away from the notorious time-suck that is Facebook. I got a bit twitchy the first few days but since then it seems, by the regular and increasingly desperate e-mails, that Facebook has been missing me more than I have been missing it. However I have been in a bit of a post-holiday slump, feeling tired and not wanting to do much. The pile of read-and-not-reviewed books has grown and the obsessive compulsive in me can't just ignore them; I tried not caring but I *like* having this catalogue of my reading, I get immense satisfaction out of the end of year list and the sense that I have used at least some of my time productively. So just in the interests of good housekeeping this will be a very quick skim through the books that have passed through my hands in the last few weeks. I will do proper reviews of a couple of others I enjoyed more, hopefully in the next day or so.


'Death at Intervals' by José Saramago is on my TBR Pile challenge and was the third book I took to Costa Rica; it has been my breakfast read for the last month so it only progresses by a page or so every day. Mum skim read it on the plane and said she thought it was dull and predictable, but once we got through the first half and the character of death appeared I enjoyed it. The first half is about a country where people stop dying and how they reacted, individually and culturally and politically. Then death decides to start again, but giving people notice of their impending demise. It all goes well until one of her letters is returned and she goes off to see this person who refuses to accept death.
Saramago has a very particular, and peculiar, writing style which takes a bit of getting used to and his books are very much about ideas rather than characters and plots. Not for everyone but if you are into european avant-garde then give him a try.
Little quote, because I always like references to the postal system in literature:
"She eyes the violet envelope suspiciously, studies it to see if it bears any of the comments postmen usually write on envelopes in such cases, for example, returned, not known at this address, addressee gone away leaving no forwarding address or date of return, or simply dead. How stupid of me, she muttered, how could he have died if the letter that should have killed him came back unopened." (p125)


'The First True Lie' by Marina Mander (an italian author who has no website or wiki page) was a really curious and fascinating book. I know some people are put off by novels with child narrators but when well written I think they make for excellent reads. In this tale a young boy with a depressed mother has his worst fear realised when she commits suicide (either deliberately or accidentally, it's not really relevant) and he tries to carry on by himself so that he won't be a 'complete orphan' and have to be taken into care. While he has quite a mature voice it is heartrending in the way it captures the insecurities of childhood, and how children make sense of the chaotic and unfathomable adult world.
Before she dies:
"Mama feels lonely even though she's never alone, because I'm aways here with her, but it must not be enough. In order not to feel so lonely she went to talk to a man with a beard, who listens to her once a week in a house full of books full of complicated thoughts. I flipped through a few of them while I waited in the lobby. I wonder though, what do you get out of paying someone to listen to you, to care for you?
I care for her for free, but it must not be enough.
It may be that she doesn't want to confess her darkest thoughts to me directly. Sometimes she writes them down using tiny, tiny letters, then forgets the pieces of paper on the kitchen table; or else she talks about them to somebody in a low voice. she talks slowly and she moves slowly." (p.63)
And after:
"I stretch out beside her as if we have all kinds of time ahead of us. An entire weekend. As if we have all the time in the world just to lie here side by side. As if my time was the same as hers.
I know that she's probably not interested in other people's progress any more, but then I'm not interested in her being dead either, in the strange blotches on her face, in how even with my stuffed-up nose I think I can tell she's started to smell. If everything wasn't becoming so complicated I'd say it's all the same to me, that in some ways I understand her, that I understand if she was sick of living." (p112)


'The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year' by Sue Townsend does exactly what it says on the tin. Isn't it funny how when men have mid-life crises they go out and buy motorbikes but when women do it they are more likely to hide from the world. I did laugh out loud several time reading this book, and that was the only thing that made it a good read, because otherwise it wasn't really. The characters are all *so* irritating and unlikeable and somewhat clichéd. It reminded me a little of Harold Fry, that I read two summers ago. He has a bit of a mid-life crisis and goes on a long walk, and people hear his story and try to hijack his life. The same thing happens to Eva, that some loonies camp outside her house putting their own interpretation on her actions and trying to make it into something else. Nobody's behaviour in this story is in any way rational and the whole thing just felt contrived. And a dreadfully unsatisfying ending.

'Overheard' edited by Jonathan Taylor is a wonderful collection of short stories that really runs the gamut of styles and voices. I didn't try reading any of them out loud, but there wasn't really anyone there to read them to. I like reading aloud, and being read to, it is a whole different experience from reading. It's hard to write about a short story collection, particularly one that is an anthology rather than by one author, but certainly this would be a great introduction to the world of short stories for people who usually read novels, and a good way to uncover new writers. Two I particularly liked were adjacent to each other, and reflecting the same problem: 'Estranged and unanticipated' by Kate Pullinger and 'What's the weather like?' by Ailsa Cox (who's neglected blog I find I am already a follower of), both discuss the thorny issue of telephoning your parents and in a few brief pages give some subtle insights into the parent child relationship. I got this from the library but it is probably more one to keep on the bedside table for a few years to enjoy it properly.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Hair Dye for HesFes

My daughters have been dyeing their hair for years, Tish mostly red and Monkey mostly bright multicolours. In fact at one stage I think even Lewis dyed his black. I am very conservative about my hair, having worn it long most of my life and never done anything radical to it. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have been to the hairdresser in my entire life.
But in the spirit of wild and recklessness I decided to take the plunge for HesFes.
This is my normal mid-brown, nondescript colour:
 I allowed the Meister (who is fourteen going on twenty five) to put some peroxide on my hair, (we did her hair turquoise after it was bleached). This was just so the colour would show up a bit more but I didn't want to lighten the whole lot:
 And then Monkey did the deed, no turning back now:
Voila:
 
I had to go to work like this and was subjected to a few curious looks and sarcastic comments. It looked completely fabulous for about four or five days but has now faded to a soft blue. I made the mistake of sitting in the sun and actually washing my hair a couple of times. I think however that I have caught the bug and will be picking a different shade when this one washes out.


Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Work Whinge of the Week - electoral register

We have had a busy time at work recently; the long awaited revision (in the pipeline since I arrived over three and a half years ago) has finally been implemented so some of us are struggling to learn yet more new duties and we are all struggling with the IPS because about half of the roads have been moved to a different walk. Added to that this week they sent out individual letters telling everyone about the new voter registration system, something which always brightens our morning. However what is really irking is the advert. What is it with advertisers who still live in the 1950's and whenever they use images of post arriving through letterboxes it is gathered up by people in their pyjamas. It is this kind of thing that makes people think that their post is late; people see this and think that there are other people  out there who get their post at breakfast time and wonder why they don't. *Nobody* gets their post at breakfast time any more. We don't leave the office til *9.30*. I wish the advertising industry would give us a break.

Not a half-arsed book review

I have three book reviews sitting half done in the draft folder and not much inspiration to finish them (not that they were bad books, I've just been feeling a bit meh), and then we are off to HESFES on Saturday, so this is just a quick hi and bye post. We have spent most of my spare time in the last couple of weeks getting stuff sorted out for Monkey's grand adventure in the real world (Year of the Monkey) in less than two months. She went to a getting-to-know-you party in London at the weekends to meet some of the other Monkeys, and might even have some housemates organised. She now has lots of plain t-shirts, a dish for macaroni cheese, a wok (£3 bargain charity shop find), a cheese grater, wooden spoons, her own nail scissors and tweezers, the very important notebook that we are going to make a felted cover for, and, most excitingly, nude coloured underwear! 
One issue that did remain was the safe transportation of the Monkey Quilt:
 So this morning I have made it a bag:
 and she is all set to leave home.

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