Saturday, 28 December 2013

Castles and Towers

Last year we made a Gingerbread Rapunzel Tower, and for the last couple of weeks I had been searching for an idea for something different to do with the gingerbread; you can find some pretty impressive constructions when you go googling. Initially it was going to be a proper castle with crenellations and everything, but the plan was getting a bit large and complicated, so the idea was born to make a ruin instead. It is based partly on memories of  Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire which we visited frequently when the children were small.



The find-a-penny collection this year has amounted to a grand total of £46.91, quite an increase on last year's total. It may very well go into something much more sensible this year, like the Premium Bonds, because we are saving up for Creature to do a drama foundation course.

Friday, 27 December 2013

The People of Forever are not Afraid

'The People of Forever are Not Afraid' by Shani Boianjiu was long listed for the Women's Prize for Fiction this year (since renamed the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction) which is probably how I came across it. It is the story of Lea, Yael and Avishag, their childhood friendship and their baptism of fire into adulthood via their stint in the Israeli army. It is told pretty much stream-of-consciousness from each of their different perspectives. The whole book has a somewhat surreal quality to it, both in their childhood and their time in the army. They all live in this town that seems to exist solely for workers at a factory that makes parts for another factory that makes planes, and the whole of their teenage years are coloured by the anticipation of having to go into the army. And once they are in the army the overriding experience is one of utter tedium and meaninglessness. It's another of those stories that gives you an experience so alien that it is hard to take it in or make any sense of it. I let it wash over me and tried just to listen to the voices of the three girls. It is to a certain extent about how they try to cling on to some sense of themselves as human beings in an environment that is specifically designed to destroy their humanity. They come out the other end of the experience, but they are not the same. 

Here Lea, I think, is stationed at a checkpoint at a border with one of the occupied territories:

"I also had to make sure they weren't carrying weapons or about to explode their bodies. We were there to notice what the government wanted us to, dangers, but I would still only notice what I happened to notice. This was because I couldn't realise I was a soldier. I thought I was still a person." (p. 56)

I think it helped that I studied the Middle East as part of my degree so the historical background to the political situation was not totally unfamiliar; although it is obviously set quite recently there is no attempt to explain what is going on at any point, so some understanding of the history of the state of Israel might be a useful starting point if you want to make any sense of this tale. Certainly quite a challenging read and not for the faint hearted.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Christmas 2013 - Reading Roundup


Wishing a Happy Christmas to all my followers and random visitors. This has been a rubbish year craft-wise but I seem to have had several books on the go at any one time, but then Coursera has eaten into my time as well, so that's my excuse for what seems like a reduced total this year. Four are books of poetry; ten are non-fiction with seven of those being biographical-ish; only nine are audiobooks (compared with thirteen last year); twenty by men, leaving thirty seven by women. I have not included my April A to Z Challenge that was reviews of children's books but you can check them out with this link. I think there has been some good reading though and the favourites this year would definitely be Care of Wooden Floors and The Tiger's Wife. 
  1. Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
  2. A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon
  3. When I am playing with my cat ... by Saul Frampton
  4. Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
  5. A Widow's Story by Joyce Carol Oates
  6. District and Circle by Seamus Heaney
  7. A Scattering by Christopher Reid
  8. Howard's End by E.M. Forster
  9. Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
  10. Lost and Found by Tom Winter
  11. Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto
  12. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  13. Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville
  14. The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht
  15. Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
  16. Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles
  17. Still Alice by Lisa Genova
  18. Nemesis by Philip Roth
  19. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
  20. The Hours by Michael Cunningham
  21. The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski
  22. Y by Marjorie Celona
  23. If I told You Once by Judy Budnitz
  24. This isn't the sort of thing that happens to someone like you by Jon McGregor
  25. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  26. The Touchstone by Edith Wharton
  27. The Swimmer by Roma Tearne
  28. The Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy
  29. Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
  30. The Father by Sharon Olds
  31. Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende
  32. Wise Children by Angela Carter
  33. Austerlitz by W.G. Seabald
  34. The man who mistook his wife for a hat by Oliver Sacks
  35. After the Fire, a still small voice by Evie Wyld
  36. The Book of Lost Things by John Connolley
  37. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
  38. New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
  39. When We Were Bad by Charlotte Mendelson
  40. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
  41. A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didon
  42. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
  43. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  44. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronté
  45. A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
  46. My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
  47. I Feel Bad About my Neck by Nora Ephron
  48. The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
  49. Kissing The Witch by Emma Donoghue
  50. Unless by Carol Sheilds
  51. Mr Lynch's Holiday by Catherine O'Flynn
  52. Sartre's Sink by Mark Crick
  53. Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov
  54. The News Where You Are by Catherine O'Flynn
  55. Serious Concerns by Wendy Cope
  56. Sick Notes by Gwendoline Riley
  57. The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud

Friday, 20 December 2013

Bookish Christmas tree and all that

I have spent yet another day delivering Christmas cards to the 'wrong' address, or I should say the 'right' address, but not the one on the front of the envelope. It never ceases to amaze me how many people don't know where their friends live. But this evening we are finally getting festive and our Christmas tree this year has been made of books, this way we save a tree being pointlessly chopped down and can spend the £30 on more books instead.
Tish has been making this most fabulous santa sleigh with a knitted santa and three reindeer and a pile of tiny presents.

I have been knitting too; I started this sweater back in the summer when there was the offer of a move to management and I needed some 'smart' clothes. Since the Royal Mail selloff fiasco however that's all gone down the toilet been put on indefinite hold so there was no urgency to finish it. The pattern is called Corrina and it has been done with some more lovely wool silk from Kingcraig Fabrics
These are the Squirrel mitts from Fair Isle Style by Mary Jane Mucklestone that Julie and I invested in together. They are so lovely and snug but now I am just going to be too worried about loosing them to wear them out. 

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Emperor's Children

Claire Messud's book 'The Emperor's Children' was long listed for the Booker back whenever and it certainly tackles many issues surrounding social whatnots in modern affluent America. The twists and turns of the plot kept me listening through the 16 tapes (the library still has some books on tape though I believe they are being phased out) almost because rather than in spite of the fact none of the characters are very likeable. Marina, Danielle and Julius, despite their expensive education and their privileged backgrounds are struggling to make their mark on the world. Danielle is briefly smitten by Ludovick Seeley, a magazine editor, but he is naturally more taken with her beautiful friend Marina. Julius falls for his handsome (and rich) boss and they seem to quickly form an intense though somewhat superficial relationship, that just as rapidly unravels when Julius' proclivity for casual sex gets the better of him. Danielle is then seduced by Murray, Marina's father, a much respected writer and intellectual; apparently a regular occurrence for him, giving in to self indulgence and self-gratification that his wife turns a blind eye to, while she thinks she has found her soul mate. Crashing into their lives comes firstly cousin Booty, escaping shallow formal education for the inspiration of his idol Uncle Murray, an idealism that is soon to be shattered, and secondly the events of September 11th 2001. While not specifically, I felt, a novel about the effects of the attacks it is obviously something that has impacted greatly on the way American's view themselves and their society, but I don't really feel qualified to comment on what that impact is. I felt that for the characters in the story it was all still very personal, rather than political, how it affected their individual lives, it didn't seem to cause any of them to look or think outside their own narrow concerns. That's all really, she seems to be much admired for her astute social observations and analysis but I found the people shallow and on occasion their behaviour was a trifle clichéd. While I found the story engaging and the characters believable I don't think I cared enough about any of them. Shrug and move on to better things.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Sick Notes

'Sick Notes' by Gwendoline Riley was picked up in a charity shop, probably simply because she is a local writer. It is the story of Esther who has come back, we know not where from, to a flat in Manchester that she shares with her friend Donna. Pretty much she mooches around for a few months, sleeps with a few people, gets drunk a lot, stares at the ceiling, hides under the grubby duvet and doesn't really know what to do with the rest of her life. And then it ends. She does mention having a bath at one point but the book left me with an urgent need to wash my hands, which is possibly the most unusual reaction I have had to a piece of literature. 

This description from a brief stint at a boarding school where she meets Donna sets the tone somehow:
"At mealtimes we carried our food in moulded trays to large round tables. We poured glasses of squash from a huge jug. It was unwieldy, loosing its centre of gravity in those small hands and short arms, so the drinks as always sloshing out, sticking the paper cloth to the Formica then dripping over the table lip onto our laps. Whenever I spilt I heard my mum saying, 'You've never understood liquids, have you?' " (p.25) 

And from there we move to a description of her mother's hoarding habit, her obsessive inability to throw anything away:
"One afternoon when I was skipping school I was making myself a cup of tea and I threw out a carton of sour milk. While the fridge door was open I found myself going though all the shelves in there, dropping jars of furry jam, a cracked block of cheese, my brother's half-finished turkey steak (that she'd put in a jiffy bag a week ago) into the bin too. I emptied the rotting contents of a stack of plastic tubs, and then from one cupboard I threw out a dozen empty jam jars, a box of pellet-dry raisins and a bag of grub infested flour." (p.34)

Everywhere just has this feeling of neglect, even squalor, as if people are only passing through, not stopping long, so it's not worth their trouble to take any care. This is the bar, where Donna works (and this seems to be describing the scene shown in the front cover image):
"I take my drink to one of the empty tables near the back of the room; lean back then lay back on it. I feel its viscid surface velcroing my coat. I lie completely still, with my mug on my chest, listening to my breathing and staring up at a tight tangle of wires falling through a hole in the patchy plaster. A sickly yellow glows in two enormous, leaded glass light shades which hang askew on gold chains." (p.43-4)

And the room she lives in:
"My room is a barren tip. The boxes are still stacked in the corners, the bare duvet is on the floor by the record player and there are half-full mugs and scraps of scrawled-on paper everywhere.
'As you can see: I'm currently - riding the crest of a slump,' I say. 'Excuse the ...'
I sweep a hand around the carnage, but he isn't looking anywhere except at me. There are unfinished books everywhere: resting open on my bed like pitched roofs, like dead birds. He picks one up as he sits down next to me." (p.93)

And then on the bus:
"Upstairs on the bus I sit in the last empty double seat. The thin air is dank and there's a breathy grey film on the windows. There's the smell of worn-out mint gum and of sweet shampoo, from the girl in front of me who is combing her wet blonde hair out over and over. I watch her and I don't think of anything. Then I watch a puddle of spilt drink in the aisle elongating with the acceleration, licking at a screwed-up sweet wrapper as the bus heaves itself away from a stop." (p.117)

I partly enjoyed the book because as she wanders she recites places and streets that are so familiar so I can visualise her environment: Market Street, Oldham Street, Hulme Asda, Central Library, the Arndale, Victoria Station, Piccadilly Gardens. It wasn't until I was browsing for quotes when I came across the reason why it is entitled Sick Notes; she refers to writing sick notes for herself for the last two years of school, and it occurred to me that the story of this interlude in her life is a kind of sick note, a made up excuse to avoid getting on with the serious business of living. I think this is why there is such a thing as Young Adult fiction, because, although I liked the book, it is such a long time since I have had things and people to be responsible for that I cannot recall what it is like to have *nothing* to do, no demands on your time and no one to consider but yourself. It was as if I was reading the thoughts of another species. 

The book is wonderfully astute and full of little details of observation that make it very immediate. I'll give you two tiny sentences that counteract the grubbiness of all the other quotes:
"When I crouch down to tie a lace that's trailing through old puddles I see how the setting sun is making sparks of the hairs on my ankles." (p.139)
"I'm reading the graffiti on the bench, fitting my thumbnail in the lines of the runic romances." (p.169)

So, what is it all about? I'm not really sure, but it did inspire me to take maybe a 'sick day' sometime, to do nothing, to wander aimlessly and see where it takes me. But the middle aged me needs a day without rain.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Homage to Wendy Cope

Some poets are pretentious
but Wendy's not one to drone
she likes to keep us entertained
with insights all her own.

One man failed to bring her flowers
and took the corkscrew from her flat
but she doesn't really mourn him
at least no more than she does the cat

She knows she needs to sober up
she tries with good intent
but yoga and the swimming pool
lead only to lament.

There's the snoring and the arguing
but as a man he's barely to blame
and he is her favourite poet
so she loves him all the same.

She likes to widen her appeal
with cricket and football
but returns almost inevitably 
to complaints about the rain fall.

Then she can be much more lyrical
with chestnut trees and cold bus stops,
Houseman, Eliot and Wordsworth,
and Nanna's wooly socks.

A poet's life is pretty rough
both in the country and in town
they don't get paid much money
and their poems often get turned down.

Wendy Cope's 'Serious Concerns' has been the final book in my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, which I mostly read aloud in bed. I get the impression that rhyme is not as popular as it once was amongst poets but it certainly is her forte, and she has pithy insights on many aspects of the human condition. Her love poems lurch between chilly indifference and joyful obsession, as if there is no happy medium. I guess I like her partly because she is obviously a pragmatist, and failing that a stiff drink will deal with most of life's difficulties. 

All that is left on my challenge pile is Margaret Atwood's 'The Blind Assassin', which I may still get around to. The only one I ditched was 'The Slap' by Christos Tsiolkas. I was so overwhelmed by the vast number of characters he introduced in the first few pages that I couldn't recall who was who, and there were some really awful parents who I just knew were going to irritate me. I was disappointed as I had been looking forward to the story. Already itching to get started on next year's pile, but will probably also be joining in again with the TBR Triple Dog Dare, which runs from January to April and also restricts reading to books you already have in your stack.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

The news where you are

I reviewed 'Mr Lynch's Holiday' only last week but I felt bad that I had managed to completely miss Catherine O'Flynn's second book, 'The news where you are', and so I procured it from the library. Like 'What Was Lost' this book is set in Birmingham and has other little touches in common: Mo, Frank's daughter, provides us with a child's view of the situation, and the impact of the built environment figures significantly, from the landmark buildings that are Frank's father's legacy to the city, to the impersonal and lifeless housing estate that they come across by the canal, and is home to Phil's widow Michelle. This book is also similarly a mystery; why is Phil out jogging in the dark, where is Mikey and who is driving the car that comes out of the darkness?

Our Frank is an unassuming man who just wants to be good at his job and a good husband and a good dad and a good son. He sometimes feels like he struggles to be any of these. After, Phil, his predecessor as anchorman at the local TV station, moves on to bigger and better things Frank finds himself inheriting not only a job but a Cyril, the enigmatic little man who writes Phil's gags. While Frank struggles to deal with his mother, Maureen, who is determined to live a miserable old age, and discovering that one of the last buildings his father designed is about to be demolished, he has also been pursuing a morbid fascination with some forgotten deaths. It began with a woman who dies and who's death is not discovered for some time, and Frank begins to take on a personal interest in those unloved and unnoticed souls who's departure goes unremarked. This is what leads him to find Mike, and to start drawing together the threads of a long neglected friendship. 

It is what I like about Catherine O'Flynn that her characters are all so very ordinary, and with normal human weaknesses; they are annoying, they get bored or irritated with each other, they are vain, they fail to communicate, they are lonely. They are nothing special, just like people you might come across in everyday life, and she makes you care about what happens to them, because she takes the little trials of people's lives, which are important only to them, and makes us care, and thus makes our own trials seem somehow more important. The stories are also peopled with such a lovely variety of small characters, from Julia, Franks' co-worker, who really wants to be considered a serious journalist, to Irene, Phil's first wife who turns out to be living along the hall from Frank's mum at 'Evergreen'. Somewhat like 'What Was Lost' the people are often broken or lonely or insecure; Frank's father is too wrapped up in his work to worry or care much about his family, Mikey had recently lost his wife, Phil is obsessively anxious about becoming old and irrelevant. Although there is a little glimmer of hope in the end, when Maureen finds a little light in her life at the seaside, it is quite a sad book, not tragic, just quietly sad about people's inability to connect with each other:

"After she'd gone he drank the coffee and thought about what she'd said. He looked at the face in the photo. Had Michael really hoped for the gentle fall of other deaths and other stories to cover his quickly and soundlessly, to be lost forever in that endless layering of beginnings and ends? Every day at work Frank added more news, more facts, more faces to the vast multi-layered mosaic of the city and amidst all this Michel was an empty space. It was always the gaps that drew Frank's attention. They seemed to matter more than the other pieces." (p.112)

Lies, damn lies and Lolita

I ordered Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov from the library for Banned Books Week and it has taken me this long to listen to it. I am having a hard time getting my head around this because I felt subverted by it. I felt like I was listening to a love story, and had to keep reminding myself that it wasn't, the voice is so persuasive. It reminded me somewhat of Engleby by Sebastian Faulks, that I also listened to on audiobook, two years ago. Engleby is another character who tells a tale full of self-justification and you are similarly lulled by his story and constantly having to remember that you are only getting one side. Books with only one character are unusual, and it feels like Lolita has only one character, because we learn nothing that can be relied upon about anyone else. Humbert Humbert paints the portrait of himself as the devoted admirer, he puts Lolita up on a pedestal and worships her, and yet at the same time he is lying to himself as much as he is lying to us, which is why the lies are so convincing. He presents the story a little like Bonnie and Clyde, as if they are outlaws on the run from a society that disapproves of their love affair, so you feel from the beginning that things are unlikely to end well for him. He tries to give the impression of a power relationship between the two of them; he holds her captive with the threat of being taken in to care if she reveals the truth of their relationship to anyone, but at the same time implies that she can give or withhold favours to extract from him whatever she wants, he often finds himself prostrate before her contempt. He both loves indulging her and then at times resents what he perceives as her manipulation of him. He lives in fear that she will somehow escape him, and as time passes his neuroses and paranoia become almost as consuming than his passion for her. He loves her, wants only her, he compares other 'nymphettes' to her and finds them lacking, and yet the things that he wants about her are transient. It is the ultimate objectification, he desires the thing that is Lolita, not the person. He avoids pretty much talking about sex, because he wants the reader to believe it is a story of love and not mere lust. He focusses instead on her dewey eyelashes and her golden midriff, the soles of her feet and her delicate fingers. He chops her up into little pieces and loves each of them, as if he cannot see her as a complete person. He admits towards the end that he does not know her, has never bothered to know her, in all the time they spend together they do not talk about anything meaningful. And as the listener I found I was so wrapped up in his emotions and reactions to events that there was no space to think about what Dolores might have been feeling. I came to the conclusion that this is the power of the story, that you cannot escape his head, and as such you understand and almost sympathise with his final act, why he has to take his revenge on the person who destroyed his idyll. But the mere fact of almost sympathising makes me feel disturbed, you feel pity for him, but I am not sure he deserves it.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

To Be Read Pile Challenge 2014


I am down to my final book for the TBR Pile Challenge 2013 but already we are signing up for next year, pop over to Roof Beam Reader for rules and regulations and the signup linky. The format is: pick a dozen books, or fourteen because you are allowed a couple of substitutes in case you regret your choices, that have been waiting in the wings for over a year, and the aim is to read them all over the next twelve months. That's it really, you don't have to do one a month or anything like that, just read them as and when you like, mixed up with whatever new books come your way. 
Here is my list for 2014:

  1. Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft - because we like to mix it up with a bit of non-fiction.
  2. The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro - to celebrate her becoming the thirteenth woman to win the Nobel Literature prize.
  3. Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro - passed on to me by mum.
  4. The First Century After Beatrice by Amin Maalouf - bought after reading a review.
  5. Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood - of the two of hers I have waiting I picked this one, partly because her book on last year year's list is one left unread.
  6. The Last Nude by Ellis Avery - won in a giveaway about two years ago.
  7. The Schopenhauer Cure by Irvin D. Yalom - philosophy, psychology and literature combined (apparently).
  8. To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf - I started a Woolf challenge a couple of years ago and only managed Mrs Dalloway so this is my 'serious' reading for this year.
  9. Hunting Unicorns by Bella Pollen - picked up at random in a charity shop.
  10. Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai -  I realised I have read both her daughter Kiran's books but never one of hers.
  11. Perfume by Patrick Süskind - I read The Pigeon several years ago and loved it, definitely a writer to read again.
  12. Death at Intervals by José Saramago -  I read Blindness many years ago, before bloggy days so no review, so he is another on the long list of people to read again. A second Nobel Prize winner.
  13. Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields - of the two books waiting by Carol I picked this one.
  14. The Bride's Farewell by Meg Rosoff - for the fun of it, a bit of YA fiction, because we love Meg Rosoff and I picked this up at a charity shop.
Here was me thinking that there were a lot of male writers, and I find there are only five, compared with seven last year, but on the other hand I am pleased with the more international flavour of the list: one Portugese, one Indian, one German, two Canadians, five Americans, one Lebanese born and one Japanese born writer, leaving only two who are British. As with last year the author link goes to the author web page or Wiki page, and then completed the title will link to my review of the book.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Literary DIY

Here I am in avoidance mode again, five and a bit thousand words to write before Saturday and I just *have* to get this random blog post written.

Mark Crick has the cheek to list himself inside the back cover as a photographer ... I mean he's not even a bloody writer for heaven's sake. I think it is an injustice to refer to these stories as 'parodies', I think 'homage' is much more appropriate, because although each take a mundane task and elevates it to literary significance, and many are very amusing, it shows a deep respect for the strengths of each writer's style. Apparently there is another book called 'Kafka's Soup' in which he writes recipes from significant literary greats, but in this one he tackles the difficulties of those little DIY jobs that everyone neglects. In addition to the stories he does pictures to illustrate each one, in the style of famous artists. (Here is 'The Wallpaperers' after Picasso, illustrating 'Hanging Wallpaper with Ernest Hemmingway')
I have not read all the authors, but having recently read Wuthering Heights I did enjoy 'Bleeding a Radiator with Emily Brontë'. I am not that tempted after all now to try Haruki Murakami but am very curious about Elfriede Jelinek

Going to just have to give you a couple of little tasters because there's not much else to say about the book.
Here from 'Unblocking a Sink with Jean-Paul Sartre':

"Like a throat in paralysis, the sink will not swallow, it will not take any more of the filth that it has been forced to drink for so long. I look into the dark vent, straining my eyes to see what has fouled the pipe. Something glistens in the dark; the filmy surface of an eye, round and wet, is looking back at me. A foul smell emanates from the throat, a odour of sickness, nausea. I won't stand for it. I won't. The glistening surface disappears and the eye closes. There, in the filth it has come, the Blockage." (p.124)

Never read Hunter S. Thompson either, and this is a little scary (from 'Putting Up a Garden Fence with Hunter S. Thompson'):

"At some point after removing the top from the bottle I must have passed out. When I came round I could hear the dry thud of spade on earth and the rattle of pebbles against steel. My attorney was still digging. I looked out into the garden but he was nowhere to be seen. Holy shit, I thought, the sound of digging had burnt itself onto the retina of my ear. I'm cursed to hear it for ever, like the rhythm section of ... Then I saw a flurry of dust fly up from the ground and the sound stopped.
'Help. Somebody fucking get me out of here!'
Either the mescaline had worn off or my attorney had reached a tricky point of law. I staggered out into the garden; as I reached the site of the first post, the empty bottle fell from my hand. The hole was now seven feet deep and the eminent Samoan, still in his business suit, was thrashing on the ground and dancing, like his feet were on fire.
'Snakes, they're coming up out of the ground. As soon as I cut the head off one, another one appears. Get me out of here!' " (p.94)

And more subtle, from 'Reglazing a Window with Milan Kundera':

"All governments oppose transparency. They oppose it because they know that with transparency come fragility. Such is the nature of glass. Windows can certainly be made from material more flexible or less brittle than glass, but what is required more than anything of a window is that it is transparent. All other qualities become secondary, from which Tomas deduced that transparency creates fragility.
The crack in the pane seemed to Tomas the first sign that the fortress he had so lovingly constructed was no longer impregnable. All his adult life he had maintained between himself and the outside world an invisible barrier through which no one was allowed to pass. When he believed that he could keep her at a distance like all the others, Odile had found a way through, and the broken window proved finally that Tomas had been deceiving himself." (p.25-6)

It occurred to me as I read that it would make a brilliant writing exercise, since in many ways writing is about making the mundane fascinating.


Eamonn and Dermot

Way, ways back when I had just started this blog and hadn't really decided what to do with it and I reviewed Catherine O'Flynn's debut novel 'What Was Lost'. It plainly made an impact because her name remained in the forefront of my mind as a writer I wanted to read again. She came to speak at the literature festival this year and was totally enchanting, just such a lovely normal unpretentious person. A hardback copy of her most recent offering, 'Mr Lynch's Holiday' was my one purchase of the festival, which she very kindly signed for me. She made me feel as if I could be capable of writing, that anyone could, that you don't have to have some kind of magical creative quality to write a novel. She wasn't one of those people who had written stories compulsively since early childhood, she had just upped one day when they moved to Spain and decided, since she had time on her hands, that she would write.

Her first book is set in Birmingham and this one, her third, has Eamonn, who has escaped Birmingham for the sunny shores of a modern development in Spain, and his father, Dermot, a retired bus driver comes out for a surprise visit - at least it's a surprise to Eamonn because the letter arrives so late he doesn't get much warning. Besides he's having problems of his own because his girlfriend Laura has 'gone home to think' and his job is going rapidly down the toilet. What we have here is two men who have never really talked to each other at the best of times. Kathleen, the wife and mother, was the person who held the family together, and now she's gone, and their relationship has been left in a kind of limbo. The book hops back and forth between their two perspectives as they wander rather aimlessly around the hot Spanish countryside, and spend some time with the various expat residents of the neglected development. People bought the houses in a rush of enthusiasm for a new life, only to find themselves abandoned and trapped, unable to sell up, the last few houses lie unfinished, the swimming pool had sprung a leak and feral cats are taking over. It doesn't sound a promising story but with flashbacks to childhood (of both characters) and the slow breaking down of barriers between them we are given a lovely portrait of a father/son relationship, with Dermot, finally getting to the bottom of his son's malaise, coming up with a neat solution to the situation. 

I think however that Inga, a divorcee from Sweden, manages to capture rather neatly the atmosphere of Lomaverde. Everyone came, she argues searching for 'happiness', that elusive thing to make life better, here she explains to Dermot why she is glad that the place is not some kind of paradise and why she stays:

" 'The point is, no one would want to admit to their disappointment, it would be something shameful, something hidden. Imagine living in such a place? Where failure or regret or despair are inappropriate, where such feelings are not allowed, don't fit with the blue skies and the sunshine. I would have lasted six weeks.' She exhaled a long plume of smoke. 'But that isn't how it worked out. Instead Lomaverde is a failed dream. Do you know the word for it in Spanish?'
He shook his head.
'Ciudad fantasma - a ghost town. It sounds beautiful, don't you think? It is a melancholy place, crumbling at the edges, and I find that I love it. It's a place where you can admit to mistakes, you have no choice but to. I think the lack of people makes it more human.' She paused. 'Is that mad?' " (p.155)

Dermot has his own little secret too however, regrets about his marriage and how happy he may or may not have made Kathleen. He makes this lovely, poignant little speech that pretty much gets to the core of what happens when people spend a lifetime together:

"You know, you can always tell the married couples on the bus. They're the ones not speaking to each other. Everyone else chats, but the husbands and wives sit in silence. It makes you wonder: are they silent because they know each other's minds and there's no need for words? Or are they silent because they're imagining conversations with other people? Or is one doing one and the other doing the other? Two different silences side by side?" (p.241)

Not a startling or unsettling book, more the kind you close with a satisfied sigh that maybe the world will be okay after all.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Techno-wizard strikes again

Creature's computer returned from the dungeon of despair today when I fitted its new SSD hard drive, in a technically demanding exercise that required a deconstruction of the case, removal of various minute screws and plastic restraining devices and the replacement of a small rectangular metal box with an almost identical small rectangular metal box. We pushed the button and waited with baited breath, only to be told to try again, which Dunk ominously said was not a good sign. Fortunately Dunk's technical wizardry far exceeds my own and we reloaded the operating system from the boot disc he had made. Now we can write at the same time and both our NaNoWrimo totals are looking much more healthy this evening.

Fortunately for Dunk my cheesecake wizardry is unrivalled in the northern hemisphere so a treat was enjoyed by all this evening ... apart from weird people who love cheese but do not like cheesecake. 

Friday, 22 November 2013

TNT arrives in Manchester

We were informed at the beginning of November that TNT, the Dutch postal company, has arrived in Manchester, doing mail delivery in selected areas. There will definitely not be any friendly cooperation. Even in the first few days people reported seeing them around in Rusholme and Fallowfield, with their smart new orange bikes and their slightly dazed expressions. 

Today we came back from the shops (I'm on leave so have been a bit out of the loop) to find this leaflet from Royal Mail outlining the vague nature of the service that TNT is providing, and reminding everyone of the steadfast reliability of the service that they currently offer. You cannot post a TNT letter, they only collect mass mail-outs from businesses, nor can you pop to your local delivery office to collect your undelivered parcel. They are only delivering a couple of days a week, as yet unconfirmed, and you can bet your life they are not going to be driving out to the outlying villages and farms of the Pennines any time soon. 

So in the run up to Christmas I hope everyone appreciates that we will be around every day, to every house, to deliver your cards and presents, never mind the threat of the worst winter for many years

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Encouragement Pie

Just look at that NaNoWriMo total. That was amazing pie. I had it confirmed by several totally unbiased tasters (Tish and Creature) that it was probably the best lemon meringue pie on the planet. And this little tiny slice offered such profound encouragement that I managed to write over ten thousand (that's a 1 with four noughts after it) words yesterday. And about time too, since I was languishing in the realms of NaNo failure and generally just wishing that November would be over so that I could get on with the rest of life and forget I ever started.
In previous years we have had what we referred to as 'encouragement cakes' every ten thousand words. Creature has been storming ahead this year (already at nigh on 40,000, though she has set herself a target of 60,000 this year) and I have been too depressed to bake. I think we need to get in some serious kitchen time in order to make it to the finish line this year.
I have read Catherine O'Flynn's 'Mr Lynch's Holiday' that I bought at the literature festival, review to follow, perhaps if I get another ten thousand done today, and am now reading 'Sartre's Sink' that I picked up at the library and has been fantastic encouragement too, mind bogglingly clever though I am not sure it has tempted me to read any Haruki Murakami.

Knitting is coming on apace (every time Creature emerges and pinches the computer off me ... did I mention her hard drive died) and then we are moving on to projects from this book (Fair Isle Style by Mary Mucklestone, visit her website for even more lovely patterns) that Julie and I invested in jointly. There are some very adorable mittens featuring a squirrel.
Ok, enough prevaricating... back to the writing, or maybe some breakfast ...

Friday, 15 November 2013

Unless

'Unless' by Carol Shields is the 11th book in my TBR challenge. It is nice to look back and see what a wonderful eclectic mix of books it has been; sometimes I worry that I read the same kind of novel all the time but this challenge has had real variety. Carol Shields seems to have won every prize worth winning on what seems to me to be a very modest output. I sat and read to the end yesterday afternoon in extreme writing avoidance, the further behind I get in NaNoWriMo the more other things I find myself wanting to do ... you see, now I am writing this review instead of getting on ... ok, little self discipline, I'm going to stop now and write at least 500 words.
...
This book reminds me of 'The Lorax' by Dr Seuss. In it there is a small pile of rocks (all that remains of the Onceler's factory) with the one word 'Unless', and as the small boy learns at the end of the story, "Unless someone like you, cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it's not." It feels almost as if Carol Shields could have used this as her inspiration. I recall now how much I loved Larry's Party and I realise in this story too very little happens, Nora goes away and Nora returns, and it feels almost like a 'blip' in Reta's life, nothing, and yet everything, has happened in the meantime. Reta works as a translator for Danielle Westerman, an elderly, well known and respected writer and poet, but on the side has started her own writing and is working on a second novel. She has a 'husband', three daughters, a mother-in-law and a small group of intimate friends. The quiet domestication is thrown into relief by the sudden disappearance of her eldest daughter Nora, who then reappears begging on a street corner in Toronto. She is living at a local shelter and refuses to talk with her family or to come home, but sits with a sign around her neck that says the simple word 'Goodness'. Reta meanders through the ordinariness of her life trying to make sense of what her daughter is doing, searching for an explanations, in her own parenting and their family life and in the outside world. I find myself coming back to the words subtle and understated every time I have really liked a book, and I'm afraid they apply here too, and since it is Nanowrimo I also find myself asking 'how does she do that' and 'what is it that makes this person feel real' and 'why is this seemingly irrelevant digression actually interesting and almost vital to the story'. She tells us the backstory of the house, and it's important because their home is symbolic of the family security and continuity. Even the dog, who features quite prominently, takes on an element of that role; the two younger daughters want to use him to tempt Nora back, one sight of him, they think, will bring her to her senses and remind her of what she has given up. Reta's relationship with Danielle links her to the world of literature and the intellect, the decades of her life that Reta is laboriously translating from the french seem to put in perspective the minutiae of everyday life. And yet nothing is so compartmentalised, everything is drawn together to create the whole:

"Seven o'clock. I reach into the oven and remove the foil from the lasagna, then shut the red kitchen curtains, which is my signal to my mother-in-law next door to out on her coat and walk up the hill and across the leaf-strewn lawn for dinner. She takes her evening meals with us, and we have used the curtain signal for close to twenty years. She'll be watching from her darkened sunroom, waiting patiently, her nose already powdered, a dash of lipstick applied, her bladder emptied, her house keys in her pocket, and it will take her exactly four minutes to travel the hundred yards uphill to our back door, which I leave unlocked. Why do I have red curtains in my kitchen? Because Simone de Beauvoir loved red curtains; because Danielle Westerman loved red curtains out of respect for Beauvoir, and I love them because of Danielle. They serve, when nothing else quite does, as the sign of home and comfort, ease, companionability, food and drink and family." (p.169-170)

Then Reta begins writing letters, to authors and journalists that she reads. To begin with you think she is really sending them, though it transpires that they are not sent, sometimes not even really written, merely composed in her head. She has the need to tell people what is happening to her, what is happening to Nora, and asking them to make sense of it, or sometimes blaming them for being part of the problem. All the letters address the marginalisation of women in our culture's intellectual life. She is not angry, more weary, and even apologetic (which she acknowledges as part of the problem of course) but still feels it is part of her seeking to understand why her daughter seems to be trying to reduce herself down to nothing. (This in response to a magazine article):

"Perhaps you were tired when you ran through your testicular hit list of literary big cats; trying to even out the numbers may have seemed too much of a reach or too obvious in its political correctness. But did you notice something even more significant: that there us not a single woman mentioned in the whole body of your very long article (16 pages, double columns), not in any context, not once? As though these great literary men came into the world through their own efforts. Bean counting is tiring, and tiresome, but your voice, Mr. Valkner, and your platform (Comment) carry great authority. You certainly understand that the women who fall so casually under your influence (mea culpa) are made to serve an apprenticeship of self-denigration." (p. 164-5)

So, in a way, Nora becomes symbolic of all women who perceive the pointlessness of their own efforts, who are overwhelmed by the weight of trying to fight against the world that views them as irrelevant. She makes the point more forcefully when Reta's editor dies in a freak accident and is replaced by a young man with wild ideas for her novel; this involves a rewrite that will take the story away from the woman Alicia and will instead make Roman the focus of both the events and the existential crisis. Reta finds herself unable to resist the force of his uninterruptible flow of argument and explanation, she quite literally cannot get a word in edgewise, and she is almost, almost swept away:

" '...I am talking about Roman being the moral centre of the book, and Alicia, for all her charms, is not capable of that role, surely you can see that. She writes fashion articles. She talks to her cat. She does yoga. She makes rice casseroles.'
'It's because she's a woman.'
'That's not the issue at all. Surely you - '
'But it is the issue.'
'She is unable to make a claim to - She is undisciplined in her - She can't focus the way Roman - She changes her mind about  - She lacks - A reader, the serious reader that I have in mind, would never accept her as the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art that acts as a critique of our society while, at the same time, unrolling itself like a carpet of inevitability, narrativistically speaking.'
'Because she's a woman.'
'Not at all, not at all.'
'Because she's a woman.' " (p.285-6)

We have this big theme; women in society, their place, their contribution, and it's lack of acknowledgement, being played out both by Nora and by Reta in the book she is writing, but beside it all is the relationship between mother and daughter. For me the novel is also about separation, as a parent, from your child, and how hard it is to let them go off into the big bad world. It's not that you don't trust them, you hope you have armed them with all the weapons they might need to defend themselves, but you don't trust the world not to have something nasty up its sleeve that will catch them unawares and crush all the spirit out of them. Reta sees Nora being crushed, but is unable to help her, she revolts against the feeling but there is nothing she can do, and it is the powerlessness that is at the centre of the book:

"They are both studying for exams. Just because their older sister is living the life of a derelict doesn't mean there will be no exams. French, history, maths, language arts. This is monstrous: that exams are being scheduled, that George W Bush exists, that Mr Scribano fell downstairs, that people are booking flights for their Christmas holidays, that Danielle Westerman accuses me of insufficient sorrow, that I am calmly wiping down the kitchen counters after a dinner of shepherd's pie and spinach salad, while at the same time plotting what Alicia all say to Roman about the need to cancel the wedding, and observing that outside it is snowing and the drifts are building thickly sculptured walls against the north side of our house, and Tom is settling down in his favourite chair with a new book on trilobites that arrived in today's mail. The wind is blowing and blowing. I am still I, though it's harder and harder to pronounce that simple pronoun and maintain composure." (p.196-7)

I have 'Dressing up for the carnival' and 'Small Ceremonies' both loitering on the shelves. I would probably be safe in saying, pick up anything Carol Shields has written and you would not be disappointed.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

NaNoWriMo and all that

NaNoWriMo started ten days ago now, and as you can see from the word widget in the sidebar I am trailing behind rather miserably. On the plus side I did vast quantities of overtime this week and so will be pretty rich come Friday when I get paid for it all, but I have been too tired to get on with any writing when I finally got home. The other disaster of the week is Creature's computer dying .... with 15,000 words of her novel hidden somewhere on it's corrupted hard drive. Dunk has found a programme that is very torturously trawling through every file on the computer to try and identify anything that we might be able to salvage, so currently all breath is being held and all fingers firmly crossed in hope of a more positive outcome that seemed likely a couple of days ago.

I realised the other day that I was in danger of failing to complete my TBR Pile challenge so I picked up 'Kissing the Witch' by Emma Donoghue and positively whizzed through it over a couple of bedtime reading sessions. In fact the book would make a lovely week or two of bedtime stories even for children as they are a slightly feminist twist on a selection of traditional fairy tales, each linked to the next by means of the characters inviting the next to tell their story. What I really like about it is that the alterations are very subtle, a change of emphasis or perception, that turns the women in these stories from mere victims of circumstance into real protagonists. It is a book full of princesses, witches, early deaths and first bleedings. The landscape is full of light spilling from the great doors of castles, jangling harnesses on hunting horses, candlelight on creaking staircases and round bellied copper pots. So Cinderella, Snow White, Gretel, Beauty and Rapunzel exchange tales of woe and redemption, they live their stories but refuse to be bound to the outcome we have come to expect, they become characters of cunning and resilience, determined to forge a different path for themselves.

"I had barely time to wipe my mouth before the prince came to propose.
Out on the steps he led me, under the half-full moon, all very fairy-tale. His long moustaches were beginning to tremble; he seemed more like an actor on a creaking stage. As soon as the words began to leak out of his mouth, they formed a cloud in which I could see my future.
I could hardly see him. The voices were shrieking yes yes yes say yes before you loose your chance you bag of nothingness.
I opened my teeth but no sound came out. There was no harm in this man: what he proposed was white and soft, comfortable as fog. There was nothing to be afraid of. But just then the midnight bell began to toll out the long procession of years, palatial day by moonless night. And I leaped backwards down the steps, leaving one shoe behind." (p.7)

An excellent read and a very clever story collection, beautifully crafted to usurp and embellish the originals. The language and atmosphere preserves the original feel but the underlying message is utterly transformed. 
I have now moved on to 'Unless' by Carol Shields, which I realised I had started before, probably only the first few pages, but I think I am really going to identify with ... middle aged woman agonising over the intersection of parenting and societal influences on her children.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

All the world's a stage

Creature and I started reading 'The Rehearsal' by Eleanor Catton when mum first sent it for her several years ago, but then it was abandoned on her bookshelf. I picked it out for the Read-a-thon partly because her most recent offering had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (which it has since won). This is such a clever book because it constantly subverts what the reader thinks they know about the story and the people in it. Scenes are played, but then the people in them appear to 'step out of character' and be someone else, who is merely playing the role. We are following one story, but then are following the people who are telling that story, but then even that telling becomes unreliable, and then, because some of the story takes place in a drama school there are all sorts of other performances being rehearsed and acted out. And then there is this enigmatic saxophone teacher (unnamed) who acts a little like god, watching over the whole performance, trying to extract the 'truth' from some of the main players, but also trying to interfere and influence events and characters. Life is all about playing roles, and we all play different parts depending on the situation and the people we are with. People talk about the idea that you can only be 'the real you' with close friends and we tell our children to 'be themselves' when trying to make friends. The language of pretence and acting is all around us in our daily lives. This book really makes you think about how much of human behaviour is just playing a role. I liked it because nothing was straightforward or quite the way it appeared, that it felt like the reader is being taken for a ride, but you don't really mind because the view is fascinating.

Lots of quotes coming up just to give examples of why it was such an interesting read. Here Isolde and Julia are at a concert with the saxophone teacher, and Isolde is getting a closer look at the girl that the others in her year talk about:

"Her cardigan is buttoned with gold dome buttons and is unravelling slightly at the hem, giving her a careless scholarly look that makes Isolde feel young and clumsy and naive. She is wearing a silver turquoise ring on her ink-stained nail-bitten fingers, and tight-knit fishnet stockings underneath her skirt. Isolde drinks it all in and then feels oddly disappointed, looking at this newer, more complete version of Julia who is a whole person and not just an idea of a person. She feels jealous and excluded and even betrayed, as if Julia has no right to exist beyond Isolde's experience of her." (p.142)

And this one that follows a few pages later, and both of which touch on the idea of self-knowledge, and the individual's perception of reality and how we never know if what we perceive is 'real':

"Isolde thinks how strange it is, that every person in the auditorium is locked in their own private experience of the music, alone with their thoughts, alone with their enjoyment or distaste, and shivering at the vast feeling of intimacy that this solitude affords, already impatient for the interval when they can compare their experience with their neighbour's and discover with relief that they are the same. Am I hearing the same thing they are hearing? Isolde wonders half-heartedly, but she is distracted from pursuing the thought any further, turning her attention instead to watch an elderly woman in the stalls flounder noisily in her handbag for a tissue or mint." (p.144)

The main thrust of the story is about an affair between a male teacher and an older pupil, Isolde's sister Victoria, but partly it uses the idea of sexual experience as some kind of symbolic crossing point from youth into adulthood:

"Isolde hasn't yet learned to drive and Julia's offer makes her feel young and inexperienced and graceless, as if she is being forced to reveal that she can't read or that she is still afraid of the dark. The older girl seems impossibly mature to Isolde, like Victoria's friends always seem impossibly mature, powdered and scented and full of secrets and private laughter, contemptuous of little Issie for all that she does not yet know." (p.150)

There are many conversations between the saxophone teacher and the mother's of her pupils (always the mothers), who want to know something about their daughters that they think she will know, so we have this lovely observation on the nature of how unfathomable teenager are to their parents:

"The saxophone teacher doesn't speak for a moment, just so Mrs De Gregorio feels uncomfortable and wishes she hadn't spoken so freely. Then she says, 'But how can you ever know?' She is more brooding now and less abrupt. 'How can you ever get to the kernel of truth behind it all? You could watch her. But you have to remember there are two kinds of watching: either she will know she is being watched, or she will not. If she knows she is being watched, her behaviour will change under observation until what you are seeing is so utterly transformed it becomes a thing intended only for observation, and all realities are lost. And if she doesn't know she is being watched, what you are seeing is something unprimed, something unfit for performance, something crude and unrefined that you will try and refine yourself: you will try and give it a meaning that it does not inherently possess, and in doing this you will press your daughter into some mould that misunderstands her. So, you see, neither picture is what you might call true. They are distortions.' " (p.153-4)

It is also about the closed world of adolescence, and the power relationships between groups, and the way they all pass judgement on each other's lives and recognise the inequalities between them. I liked this one:

"The repeated validations become their mantra, and soon the richer girls come to believe the things they are compelled by shame to say. They come to believe that their needs are simply keener, more specialised, more urgent than the needs of the girls who queue outside the chippy and tuck the greasy package down their shirt for the walk home. They do not regard themselves as privileged and fortunate. They regard themselves as people whose needs are aptly and deservedly met, and if you were to call them wealthy they would raise their eyebrows and blink, and say, 'Well, it's not like we're starving or anything, but we're definitely not rich.' " (p.233)

Then towards the end the saxophone teacher sums it all up quite neatly for us, after all the trauma and stress and anxiety that the girls and their parents and their teachers go through over the affair and the random death of another girl:

"The saxophone teacher suddenly feels weary. She sits down. 'Mrs Bly,' she says, 'remember that these years of your daughter's life are only the rehearsal for everything that comes after. Remember that it's in her best interests for everything to go wrong. It's in her best interests to slip up now, while she's still safe in the Green Room with the shrouded furniture and the rows of faceless polystyrene heads and the cracked and dusty mirrors and the old newspapers scudding across the floor. Don't wait until she's out in the savage white light of the floods, where everyone can see. Let her practice everything in a safe environment, with a helmet and kneepads and packed lunches, and you at the end of the hall with the door cracked open a dark half-inch in case anyone cries out in the long hours of the night.' " (p.244)

But the last word falls to Julia, who, in an excellent performance, breaks down all the barriers and calls the adults on their small minded hypocrisy. This, I find, has something very theatrical about it, it has the ring of the final speech of Romeo and Juliet where we are warned to learn the lessons of the story; take heed:

" 'We learned that everything in the world divides in two: good and evil, male and female, truth and falsehood, child and adult, pleasure and pain. We learned that the counsellor possessed a map, a map that would make everything make sense. A key. Like in a theatre programme where you have the actors' names on one side and the list of characters on the other - some neat division that divides the illusive from the real. We learned that there is a distinction - between the performance and the performer, the reality and the lie. We learned there is no middle ground.'
Julia surveys her audience.
'Only those who watch,' she says, 'and those who suffer being watched.'
The others don't dare to rustle.
'But the counsellor lied,' Julia says. 'You lied. You lied about the pain of it, the unsimple mess of it, immeasurably more thorny and wrecked and raw than you could ever remember, with the gauze veil of every year that passes settling over your eyes, thicker and thicker until even your own childhood dissolves into the mist.' " (p.309-10)


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