Monday, 4 September 2017

Down Among the Sticks and Bones

This book, on the other hand, I finished the other day. I must try and keep up to date with the reviews or the system falls apart (system??? what system?). Somebody recommended it, and there it was in the library catalogue. 'Down Among the Sticks and Bones' by Seanan McGuire is a prequel to 'Every Heart a Doorway', which I might or might not get around to reading. She writes a lot of fantasy series and if you're into that kind of thing then you will probably enjoy her writing. While I did eventually get engaged in the narrative the story spent the first forty pages or so making a very laboured point about enforced gender roles and parental expectations, a theme which persisted through the story. Jack and Jill escape the confines of their stifling parents through a trapdoor in their grandmother's trunk, that takes them down to a surreal underworld populated by vampires and mad scientists. Instead of sticking together in this alien environment they are driven apart by conflicting desires and find themselves on opposite sides of a longstanding feud. The two girls eventually develop some personality of their own, but are still confined by the expectations of their new protectors. 

"The man smiled. His teeth were as white as his lips were red, and for the first time, the contrast seemed to put some color into his skin. 'Oh, this will be fun,' he said, and opened the iron door.
On the other side was a hall. It was a perfectly normal hall, as subterranean castle halls went: the walls were stone, the floor was carpeted in faded red and black filigree, and the chandeliers that hung from the ceiling were rich with spider webs, tangled perilously close to the burning candles. The man stepped through. Jack and Jill, lacking any better options, followed him.
See them now as there were then, two golden-haired little girls in torn and muddy clothes, following a spotless stranger through a castle. See how he moves, as fluid as a hunting cat, his feet barely seeming to brush the ground, and how the children hurry to keep up with him, almost tripping over themselves in their eagerness to not be left behind! They are still holding each others's hands, our lost little girls, but already Jack is beginning to lag a little, suspicious of their host, wary of what happens when the three days are done.
They are not twins who have been taught the importance of cleaving to each other, and the cracks between them are already beginning to show. It will not be long before they are separated." (p.70-1)

So, in the new world the 'girly' one gets to toughen up and get dirty, and the 'tomboy' gets to dress pretty, so they don't really escape anything. It all felt a bit lame and added nothing to what could have been a good story about the bonds of sisterhood. I think I will probably stick to writing for grown ups.

Look at me

'Look at me' by Jennifer Egan came from a charity shop in Golders Green several years ago, conclusive proof that buying books and just putting them on the shelf for later is perfectly fine.

I enjoyed this book, she is a very clever writer, taking the most unlikely of characters and situations and making them engaging. 'Look at me' follows two different, though not unrelated Charlottes as they make sense of what life has dealt them.
My favourite character has to be Moose, one Charlotte's uncle, who's life has taken some interesting, often surreal, turns and as such leaves him with a very particular take on things:

"No. It wasn't fresh air that impelled Moose's walks to work; it was the fact that in an era characterised by, among other ominous developments, the disappearance of the sidewalk, he offered up as a gesture of insurrection his own persistence in walking where the sidewalk should have been. I may look silly, his thinking went, as he rappelled over wedge-shaped hedges between parking lots and sashayed aside for heavy-breathing Chevy Suburbans, but not nearly as silly as a world without sidewalks - indeed, my apparent silliness is merely a fractional measure of an incalculable larger silliness whose foil I am." (p.130)

I read this book a month ago, started writing this and then got distracted, and now barely recall it. I like to keep the reading record straight so I will leave you with the only other quote I noted down. Egan is writing mostly about American society, so I often found people's concerns a little bemusing, but despite the picture she paints she is plainly fond of the place:

"At last Irene's pen was moving. Pool-O-Rama, Tumbleweed, Stash O'Neill's, Happy Wok ... I felt proud! Proud of my hometown! Of its hokey ethnic restaurants, of its meticulous obliteration of the natural world. Of the vertiginous sense that we could be anywhere in America and find these same franchises in this exact order. Of Rockford's scrupulous effacement of any lingering spoor of individuality, uniqueness!" (p.395-6)

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

History of Wolves

I seem to be reading my way through the Booker longlist, purely by coincidence, so the next book the library bought me was 'History of Wolves' by Emily Fridlund. I was disappointed that there were no wolves. It is the story of Linda who lives with her parents in a remote lakeside cabin. Members of a former commune they tend to keep to themselves and she is something of an outsider. A young family acquire the cabin opposite and Linda is gradually drawn in by the mother and son who take up residence while the father works elsewhere. Alongside runs the story of her school life, a girl called Lily and the history teacher Mr Grierson.

It is a very intense and claustrophobic book. Linda's world is very small and she is lonely in ways I don't think even she understands, so when Patra offers her a token of friendship she grasps it with both hands. Over the months they settle into a comfortable routine, though Patra often takes her presence for granted and there remains something of a parent/babysitter relationship between them. So the story meanders between various quite discrete part of Linda's life: home life, taking care of their four dogs and preparing the fish her father catches; school life of eating her lunch in the toilet and surreptitiously following Lily around; life at the Gardners, exploring the woods with Paul and eating pancakes. It is punctuated with brief asides, references to 'the trial' and her future life that contains a housemate and a boyfriend. 

I was discomfited by the relationship between Patra and Paul, it seemed strained and slightly unnatural. It was the thing that I liked about the book that she achieved this very subtly, nothing was said, nothing very particular happened, it was just there. Linda seems to like taking on a big sister role with him, sharing her love of the wildness, though sometimes awkward and unable to engage with him at his own level. You get little hints of an oppressive atmosphere in the family, but again it is not explicit. As soon as Leo arrives home though the atmosphere changes and Linda is as discomfited as I was, but she just does not know what to do about it. The references to religion and god only slip in very late in the day and it is not entirely clear what is going on, though the repeated assertion that Paul is 'fine' quickly begins to make it obvious that he isn't. She lets you know at the beginning of the story that Paul is dead, but I had initially anticipated something much more sinister. The effect of this information is also to make you want (inside your head) for things to turn out differently, you find yourself willing Linda to do something. It's like when you watch a film you have seen many times, in which something tragic happens, and you yearn each time for something to happen to save the day. Linda gives a long convoluted description of what she actually does when she walks into town to buy medicine for Paul; she knows somewhere in her mind that he is seriously ill but there is no urgency in her behaviour, as if she is desperate for someone else to take the responsibility away from her, she does not have the strength to challenge the internal dynamics of Leo and Patra's relationship. 

I have a nice long quote just to give you a taste. Here Linda and Paul have been camping in the living room while Patra drove to the airport to meet Leo. It is an incident in which Linda seems more sure of herself than she does at any other point in the book, yet it is not out of character:

"Later when I woke up, I found Patra had curled up around Paul. Back to me. But I could feel her curved spine through her jacket when I pushed in closer, all those littler vertebrae linked up, all those bones laid out, like a secret. The night had come down hard, finally. Thunder was rumbling far away. Wind had kicked up waves, and they were loud enough now that I could hear them on the shore of the lake, shoving pebbles forward and back. I could hear pine needles whipping the roof of the house. I could hear Paul and Patra breathing in syncopation.
Happy, I was happy.
I barely recognised the feeling.
So who could blame me for wishing that the husband's rescheduled plane would drift into a low-lying thunderhead? That it would shunt into sudden turbulence, lose elevation fast? Who could blame me for hoping his pilot would be young and scared, that he'd turn around and fly back over the ocean? The husband had his own baby stars to watch over and his own mountains to do it from, in Hawaii. I longed for straight line winds between him and me, for hurricanes off the California coast. Downpours and lightening. The thunder was getting louder now. I felt the tent I'd built gather us in, Paul and Patra. Patra and me.
I slept and woke. I dreamed of the dogs. I dreamed of taking Patra and Paul out on the canoe, currents like underwater hands thrusting the boat around, so we had to fight to go forward. My paddle guiding us towards the shore. Or maybe guiding us away from it, maybe we were leaving after all. I slept and woke. Slept.

Eventually, just after dawn, I heard a scuffling outside. It sounded like a slow-moving mammal, a possum or raccoon, unsettling the driveway stones. ThenI heard a car door thump. Very gently I sat up and pulled the hatchet from under Paul's pillow. I unzipped the tent, tiptoed across the braided rugs, crept to the front window. There, in the driveway, in the early morning light, stood a man in a blue slicker next to a rental car. He held a brown sack of groceries, a duffel bag. He looked bland and harmless - so when he opened the door I let the hatchet hang in my hand where he could see it. And Patra was right: I could hear him think. I could hear him taking in the dark room and the tent on the floor and the tall, scrawny kid coming out from the shadows, with a good-sized weapon." (p.87-8)

So, a story that takes a sidelong look at the issue of religious based medical neglect, without somehow passing judgement on it. It was certainly an engaging and well written novel, though not I think Booker material. 

And just because I wanted wolves:

What is the acceptable amount of blood for good literature?

Arundhati Roy's new book 'The Ministry of Utmost Happiness' is on the Booker Prize longlist, not surprising for a book that has been anticipated for twenty years. It is now overdue at the library so I will probably fail to do it justice. It's hard to know where to start because it is a book about so many things, but, primarily, as with my vague memories of 'God of Small Things', it is a story about people. So many people. And somehow she manages to get you attached to all of them.

It begins with the life of Anjum, who is a hijra, who is making her life in an abandoned graveyard after years of random confusion and disappointment. The community of people she builds up around her populates the book, coming and going about their own lives, which she details along with the lives of the central characters. I enjoyed the backstories of these minor players, it creates depth and colour. The first part of the book covers Anjum's world, it has its troubles but it is relatively calm and stable. It is not a social critique or a demand for a change to the caste system, it is simply a portrayal of the way things are. The picture she paints of this world is both sordid and divided. Poverty is endemic but the people are accepting of the status quo and seem to find comfort in their own little niches. 

"Right next to  the waste-recyclers and the sewage workers was the plushest part of the pavement, a glittering public toilet with floating glass mirrors and a shiny granite floor. The toilet lights stayed on, night and day. It cost one rupee for a piss, two for a shit and three for a shower. Not many on the pavement would afford these rates, Many pissed outside the toilet, against the wall. So, though the toilet was spotlessly clean inside, from the outside it gave off the sharp smoky smell of stale urine. It didn't matter very much to the management; the toilet's revenue came from elsewhere. The exterior wall doubled up as a billboard that advertised something new every week." (p.112)

While it is a political book it is also a literary book, and she always gets her point across in elegant ways:

"The horse's hooves echoed on an empty street.
Payal the thin day-mare clop-clipped through a part of the city she oughtn't to be in.
On her back, astride a red cloth saddle edged with gold tassels, two riders: Saddam Hussain and Ishrat-the-Beautiful. In a part of the city they oughtn't to be in. No signs said so, because everything was a sign that any fool could read: the silence, the width of the roads, the height of the trees, the unpeopled pavements, the clipped hedges, the low white bungalows in which the Rulers lived. Even the yellow light that poured from the tall street lights looked encashable - columns of liquid gold." (p.135)

The second part of the book is narrated by Biplab Dasgupta, one of a group of friends who's bond is formed during play rehearsals, from where he gets his nickname, Garson Hobart. Their India is a much more volatile place. The book from here on is peppered with violence, some of it quite extreme, that often left me shaken. The religious divide she portrays is something it is hard to understand for someone looking in from the outside. This, the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi, an event I recall vividly:

"For a few days after the assassination, mobs led by her supports and acolytes killed thousands of Sikhs in Delhi. Homes, shops, taxi stands with Sikh  drivers, whole localities where Sikhs lives were burned to the ground. Plumes of black smoke climbed into the sky from the fires all over the city. From my window seat in a bus on a bright beautiful day, I saw a mob lynch an old Sikh gentleman. they pulled off his turban, tore out his beard and necklaced him South African-style with a burning tyre while people stood around baying their encouragement. I hurried home and waited for the shock of what I had witnessed to hit me. Oddly it never did. The only shock I felt was the shock at my own equanimity. I was disgusted by the stupidity, the futility of it all, but somehow, I was not shocked. It could be that my familiarity with the gory history of the city I had grown up in had something to do with it. It was as though the Apparition whose presence we in India are all constantly and acutely aware of had suddenly surfaced, snarling, from the deep, and had behaved exactly as we expected it to. Once its appetite was sated it sank back into its subterranean lair and normality closed over. Maddened killers retracted their fangs and returned to their daily chores - as clerks, tailors, plumbers, carpenters, shopkeepers - life went on as before." (p.150)

Tilo is the character who dominates much of the rest of the story;

"She smoked Ganesh beedis that she kept in a scarlet Dunhill cigarette packet. She would look right through the disappointment on the faces of those who had tried to scam what they thought was an imported filter cigarette off her, and ended up instead with a beedi that they were too embarrassed not to smoke, especially when she was offering to light it for them. I saw this happen a number of times, but her expression always remained impassive - there was never a smile or the exchange of an amused glance with a friend, so I could never tell whether she was playing a practical joke or whether this was just the way she did things. The complete absence of a desire to please, or to put someone at their ease, could, in a less vulnerable person, have been construed as arrogance. In her it came across as a kind of reckless aloneness. Behind her plain, unfashionable spectacles, her slightly slanting cat-eyes had the insouciant secretiveness of a pyromaniac. She gave the impression that she had somehow slipped off her leash. As thought she was taking herself for a walk while the rest of us were being walked - like pets. As though she was watching considerately, somewhat absent-mindedly, from a  distance, while we minced along, grateful to our owners, happy to perpetuate our bondage." (p.153-4)

She is idolised by Biplab, he remains at a distance never admitting his feelings for her, but, like a true love never abandons her, ensuring her rescue (spoiler) from her darkest moment.

"I asked her - it was a stupid question - what precautions she took to make sure she stayed safe. She said she didn't dispute the rumour in the neighbourhood that she worked for a well-known drug dealer. That way, she said, people assumed she had protection.
I decided to brazen it out and ask about Musa, where he was, whether they were still together, whether they planned to get married. She said, 'I'm not marrying anybody.' When I asked her why she felt that way, she said she wanted to be free to die irresponsibly, without notice and for no reason." (p.159)

By the time you have staggered through the 400 pages you almost become immune to the random killing, though you feel as if this is deliberate on the authors part. I felt there was an element of cynicism and fatalism to people's attitude to the violence.

"The post-massacre protocol was quick and efficient - perfected by practice. Within an hour the dead bodies had been removed to the morgue in the Police Control Room, and the wounded to hospital. The street was hosed down, the blood directed into the open drains. Shops reopened. Normalcy was declared. (Normalcy was always a declaration.)
Later it was established that the explosion had been caused by a car driving over an empty carton of Mango Frooti on the next street. Who was to blame? Who had left the packet of Mango Frooti (Fresh'n'Juicy) on the street? India or Kashmir? Or Pakistan? Who had driven over it? A tribunal was instituted to inquire into the causes of the massacre. The facts were never established. Nobody was blamed. This was Kashmir. It was Kashmir's fault." (p.324)

How does a society continue to function when so many of its people have been so traumatised? You get some of the answer in the closing pages when the characters create memorials to their loved ones within the graveyard. The bonds of friendship are the driving force of this novel and it is the thing that leaves the book feeling hopeful. It is quite a hard book to read but also an important one. The world so often forgets about people who's trauma becomes old news. Arundhati Roy's writing and activism over the last twenty years has been focussed on political change, and in this story you can sense her passionate commitment to the fate of Kashmir. While she is not necessarily making a case here for separation, she is telling the world about this tiny corner of humanity, trying to shine a light on the injustices of the current situation.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

All the shows we did not see

Dunk and I ventured back to Edinburgh yesterday, to see if it was as good as we remembered. It was. The streets teemed, the flyers flew, lines, jokes, poems and tunes tumbled in abundance, much tea was drunk, some good (at the Bedlam Theatre), some not so good (St Giles Café again). We took an early train, via Wigan, and arrived just as the Mile was waking up. Much loitering and dithering ensued, during which I wished we had planned more in advance and not gone with the 'lets just do stuff on the spur of the moment' thing. We saw a sketch show at the Underbelly then had a mediocre sandwich. More dithering then we went back to Underbelly and saw 'The Man on the Moor' written and performed by Max Dickins, based around the story of an unidentified man found dead on Saddleworth Moor at the end of 2015. An excellent show, brilliantly performed, it certainly made my visit worthwhile. We took a more leisurely stroll down South Bridge and on to the Meadows to pass the time until we wandered back to St George's Square to see Wereldband: Slapstick, a riotous blend of musical virtuosity and slapstick comedy. After dinner at Café Turquaz we hot-footed it back for the 8.14 train that got us home just after midnight. Long day. Not sure I would recommend it was a way to experience the Fringe but we were glad we went in the end.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

There and back again

The second stretch of the Pennine Way has been planned since the first one two months ago, so yesterday Monkey and I took the train to Glossop and retraced our steps across the troll bridge and up the boggy valley to what is known as Doctor's Gate and rejoined the Pennine Way to cross Devil's Dyke and Shelf Moor towards Bleaklow Head. From there we followed the precipitous Clough Edge and descended to the chain of reservoirs that led us, via the Trans Pennine Trail, (finally) to Hadfield. On the map it is big loop, but we didn't quite go in a complete circle as the train home bypassed Glossop.
This time we were armed with a newly acquired map cover so there would be no struggling to check the route:
and we paid close attention to the stone arrows, though they are not necessarily as frequent as you need and you still have to sometimes just follow your nose.
The previous walk's cottongrass had been superseded by the heather:
and instead of the carcass of the aeroplane we discovered this skeleton; at first glance I thought was a rabbit, but on closer inspection it appears to be a large bird of prey, the flesh rotted away but clumps of feathers still obvious in the mud:

The handy Pennine Way distance calculator tells me we walked over twelve miles, and climbed again to nearly 2,000 feet.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Pipe Dream

Building my own home is my pipe dream. I have had a crush on Kevin McCloud ever since Grand Designs started eighteen years ago, that's a lot of years of watching other people build their own houses. Though in fact mostly builders build them, and the people just swan around in hard hats. I don't want to swan around in a hard hat, I want to create a place to live by my own effort, I figure it will be the only way I will ever afford to do it. I have no money, but I have to start somewhere so I decided to start learning more systematically about eco design and house construction. Will Anderson's 'Diary of an Eco-Builder' started as a series of articles in The Independent, and it tells of the trials and tribulations of building a timber framed house on a tiny plot in Clapham. This is not what I have in mind but there is always plenty to learn from other's experiences and he gives lots of advice and links to suppliers and so on. He is a real purist and works very hard to build the most ecological home he can. I liked what he says at the end, because I very much agree:

"Very occasionally, when the accumulating evidence of global climate breakdown saps my optimism, I wonder what difference our radical eco-specifications will actually make. But I have no such doubts about acts and works of beauty. After all, if we cannot sustain a delight in life itself, whatever future we face, what is it we are fighting to preserve?" 

This book is also available as a PDF download
I have been doing much more reading here, The Mud Home. My parents used to live in a house made of cob, and it was four hundred years old, so it seems like a reliable material. All I need now is a plot of land ...

Black Dogs

I picked 'Black Dogs' by Ian McEwan off the shelf because I knew that judging from his other books I have read (that apparently all predate the blog) I would love it, and I have.

Black Dogs is narrated by Jeremy and tells the story of his parents-in-law, Bernard and June; their marriage, their political and philosophical beliefs and the gulf that separates them despite a passionate love. He explains in the preface his own situation and his unusual habit of adopting other people's parents, which explains the close relationship he has with his wife's. The story hops around a bit from the immediate post-war era when Bernard and June married and their enthusiastic adoption of communism, to June's later life, dying very slowly in a nursing home, and later still to the dying days of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The incident with the black dogs is referred to repeatedly, and you sense that the book is leading you to this significant moment in June's life, but he keeps backtracking and deviating, giving what feels like extraneous details about their lives. But maybe they are not. What I like about Ian McEwan is that his books are small, at least the ones I have read are; about very small incidents, and the impact that they have on people's lives. The stories about about the stones, but also the ripples. I keep coming back to the sense that you do not notice good writing; characters become real and individual by osmosis as you read, you cannot put your finger on what the writer is doing to achieve this. I liked and identified with Jeremy, and you feel you get to know him well, even though the story is not about him, he reveals himself as he describes his parents-in-law and their lives. 

This is June's life, reduced from the (to me) idyll that she inhabited in the bergerie to the drawn out end in a remote nursing home:

"When she was satisfied that I had brought exactly what she ordered, I stowed the goods, except for the ink which she kept on the locker. The heavy fountain pen, the greyish-white cartridge paper and the black ink were the only visible reminders of her former daily life. Everything else, her delicatessen luxuries, her clothes, had their special places, out of sight. Her study at the bergerie, with its views westward down the valley towards St Privat, was five times the size of this room and could barely accommodate her books and papers; beyond, the huge kitchen with its jambons de montagne hung from beams, demijohns of olive oil on the stone floor, and scorpions sometimes nesting in the cupboards; in the living room which took up all of the old barn where a hundred locals once gathered at the end of a boar hunt; her bedroom with the four-poster bed and french windows of stained glass, and the guest bedrooms through all of which, over the years, her possessions flowed and spread; the room where she pressed her flowers; the hut with gardening tools in the orchard of almonds and olives, and near that, the henhouse that looked like a miniature dovecote - all this boiled down, stripped away, to one free-standing bookcase, a tallboy of clothes she never wore, a steamer trunk no one was allowed to look inside, and a tiny fridge." (p.36)

During the same visit, revealing himself as he watches another resident. A beautiful subtle moment, he does not say what he is thinking, only leaves you with the impression of thought:

"I offer to make her tea and she assents by lifting a finger off the sheet. I crossed to the handbasin to fill the kettle. Outside, the rain had stopped but the wind still blew, and a tiny woman in a pale blue cardigan was making her way across the lawn with the aid of a walking frame. A strong gust could have carried her away. She arrived at a flower bed against the wall and knelt down before her frame, as though at a portable altar. When she was down on the grass on her knees, she manoeuvred the frame to one side, and took from one pocket of her cardigan a tea spoon, and from the other a handful of bulbs. She set about digging holes and pressing the bulbs into them. A few years ago I would have seen no point at all in planting at her age, I would have watched the scene and read it as an illustration of futility. Now, I could only watch." (p.44)

This book was published in 1992 but I came across this next quote, where Jeremy first meets his wife, and in it he manages to encapsulate the casual and everyday misogyny that is finally being acknowledged and (occasionally) challenged:

"In October 1981 I was in Poland as a member of an amorphous cultural delegation invited by the Polish government. I was then the administrator of a moderately successful provincial theatre company. Among the group were a novelist, an arts journalist, a translator and two or three cultural bureaucrats. The only woman was Jenny Tremaine, who represented an institution based in Paris and funded from Brussels. Because she was both beautiful and rather brisk in her manner, she drew hostility from some of the others. The novelist in particular, aroused by the paradox of an attractive woman unimpressed by his reputation, had a racing bet with the journalist and one of the bureaucrats to see who could 'all' her first. The general idea was that Miss Tremiane, with her white freckled skin and green eyes, her head of thick red hair, her efficient way with her appointment book and perfect French, had to be put in her place. In the inevitable boredom of an official visit there was a good deal of muttering over late-night drinks in the hotel bar. The effect was souring. It was impossible to exchange word or two with this woman, whose sharp style, I soon discovered, merely concealed her nervousness, without some of the others nudging and winking in the background, and asking me later if I was 'in the race'." (p.105-6)

The incident with the dogs happens when June and Bernard are on honeymoon. Already pregnant and already feeling ambivalent to her commitment to the communist party, June walks ahead of Bernard and finds herself confronted with two large feral dogs. For June it becomes a defining moment in her life, one that alters everything, and one that you feel Bernard never understands. The tension of the situation is drawn out and visceral, but without being overly dramatic, another example of engaging writing. But it is Bernard's moment that I want to quote last. There is an undercurrent in the book of references to the war, and its lasting impact on both individuals and the world itself. Here the political idealist Bernard is suddenly struck by an aspect he had not appreciated previously, after an encounter with a woman watching a stonemason working on a war memorial:

"This sombre incident remained with them as they struggled up the hill in the heat, heavy with lunch, towards the Bergerie de Tédenat. They stopped half way up in the shade of a stand of pines before a long stretch of open road. Bernard was to remember this moment for the rest of his life. As they drank from their water bottles he was struck by the recently concluded war not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near-infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust, like spores whose separate identities would remain unknown, and whose totality showed more sadness than anyone could ever begin to comprehend; a weight borne in silence by hundreds of thousands, millions, like the woman in black for a husband and two brothers, each grief a particular, intricate, keening love story that might have been otherwise. It seemed as though he had never thought about the war before, not about its cost. He had been so busy with the details of his work, of doing it well, and his widest view had been of war aims, of winning, of statistical death, statistical destruction, and of post-war reconstruction. For the first time he sensed the scale of the catastrophe in terms of feeling; all those unique and solitary deaths, all that consequent sorrow, unique and solitary too, which had no place in conferences, headlines, history, and which had quietly retired to houses, kitchens, unshared beds, and anguished memories. This came upon Bernard by a pine tree in the Languedoc in 1946 not as an observation he could share with June but as a deep apprehension, a recognition of a truth that dismayed him into silence and, later, a question: what possible good could come of a Europe covered in this dust, these spores, when forgetting would be inhuman and dangerous, and remembering a constant torture?" (p.165)

I will leave it there, because what more is there to add.

Sunday, 13 August 2017


A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. This is even more of a quickie than the other two today. Jill Fisher started reading this book aloud at an EO gathering years ago and I have been curious about it ever since, so I put it on my 101 books list. I was somewhat disappointed by it. Maybe if I had been reading it to the kids I would have enjoyed it more but although it was quite well written it lacked any subtlety in the story and the references to god put me off. I feel disappointed by my disappointment, because I wanted to like it, she is  much admired children's author. I think Philip Pullman has spoiled me.

Puzzles and Profiteroles

After about two months we are finally getting a regular supply of tomatoes ... when I say regular I mean I am eating one every time I pass through the porch, sometimes we have as many as four or five ripe at the same time. But they are delicious, you can taste that they are home grown.
While Dunk is away the mice will play, and we really know how to live it up in our house; the girls and I have passed the week living on takeaway food and doing a puzzle while watching a marathon of all eight Harry Potter films. 
There have been some minor indulgences, yesterday I conjured up some profiteroles. I used the choux pastry recipe in my very ancient Marks and Spencer cookery book, but Delia's instructions are pretty much identical. 
And we also took a much anticipated trip to Countess Ablaze, a new yarn shop and dye studio that opened a while ago in the Northern Quarter. They dye all their own yarn and fibre for spinning. This one is for a scarf/cowl to go with my turkish coat:
This one is for Monkey, possibly socks, and Tish has plans, and yarn, for an octopus hat.

Buxton and Blackberries

Buxton is an unassuming little town, its main claim to fame is the Buxton water, that you can still drink for free from St Anne's Well, but it was to Poole's Cavern that Dunk and I ventured for our annual day out. It has been a tourist attraction for many centuries, visited, it is claimed, by Mary, Queen of Scots during her imprisonment by Elizabeth I. Dissolved limestone from the rocks above has dripped down into the cavern for a few hundred thousand years and you can go down in the cold and admire the stalagmites (on the floor) and stalactites (on the ceiling).

We had some lovely lunch courtesy of the food festival and then popped along to Scriveners, that claims to be the largest second hand bookshop in Derbyshire: 
and the Green Man Gallery that had this wonderful staircase waterfall among its exhibits:
A lovely low key excursion; there and back on the train for the princely sum of £15.30.

Blackberry season has started early this year, and the berries are in abundance. 
Not just abundant, the bubbling berries were pretty enthusiastic too... here is the floor:
and the ceiling:
Today Monkey and I picked and bottled. Ten pounds of fruit picked, just four of which became twelve pots of jam. I am out of empty jars so the rest are in the freezer for now.
More catch up posts to follow.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Sorry Doris

On my parents bookshelf when I was a teenager was the book 'The Four-Gated City: Book Five of Children of Violence' by Doris Lessing. I was curious about this book title for years, but they didn't seem to own parts one to four, so in the end I bought them myself when I was a student. I had a bit of a Doris Lessing phase for some years and consider myself a great admirer. Mum said I could keep her copy of 'The Golden Notebook' because she didn't care for Doris much any more. I have started to read it twice, I'm sorry but this one is not for me.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Stay with me

'Stay With Me' by Ayòbámi Adébáyò was a lovely book. I picked it from the shortlist for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, a place that has supplied me with many of my favourite reads. Yejide and Akin tell their story in alternating chapters, of their struggle to make their marriage work in a world that expects so much of them. Their idyllic life is marred by the intrusion of their extended families, who have become more and more concerned over the lack of children. Yejide had a lonely, motherless childhood, surrounded by siblings and four step-mothers in her father's huge household. She has determined from early on that she will be an only wife, and so is shocked and horrified to discover that her husband has bowed to pressure and secretly married a second wife. Things go from bad to worse as in her desperation to conceive Yejide undertakes a strange pilgrimage and subsequently believes herself pregnant to the extent that she has the physical symptoms, and refuses to believe the scans that show no baby. 
When Yejide finally has a daughter it is as if all is suddenly right with the world, but their happiness is short-lived. A second child is born swiftly after but his life is tainted by sickle-cell disease. Their struggles to raise a family are however overshadowed by a secret that Akin has shared with no one but his brother Dotun, a secret that undermines the foundations of their relationship. As Yejide faces losing yet another child she begins to withdraw from her family and her marriage. From a distance of many miles and 15 years she receives an invitation to the funeral of Akin's father and finds herself contemplating a return. The story focusses on the pressures on both men and women within Nigerian society to live up to certain expectations, to prove their masculinity and femininity with offspring. It is a love story, both of the couple, but also of parental love, the utter desolation of a child's death and how hard it is to recover from. I found the social mores difficult; the close familial and social bonds should feel like a good thing, supportive and loving, but they were instead so often restrictive and prescriptive, telling the couple how they should feel and what they should do rather than helping them cope with their losses. 

Here at Olamide's funeral:

"It was as if nobody would miss her. No one was sorry that Olamide had died. They were sorry that I had lost a child, not that she had died. It was as though, because she had spent so little time in the world, it did not really matter that she was gone - she did not really matter. One would think we had lost a dog that was dear to our hearts. It squeezed me deep inside so see people so calm, as if nothing much had been lost. And when voices from the too-calm stream of consolers told me to imagine how terrible it would have been for this to happen at a later date, on the eve of her graduation or the eve of her wedding, I wished I could will, scream, roll on the ground and give her the mourning she deserved. But I could not. The part of me that could do that had gone into the morgue's freezer with Olamide to keep her company and to beg her forgiveness for all the signs I had missed.
the funeral took place within five days. Akin and I were not allowed to attend and we would never know the burial spot. My mother-in-law kept reminding me that I should not pester anyone about the spot that had been chosen. She whispered into my ears that I must never see her grave because then my eyes would have seen evil, and then I would have experienced the worst thing that could happen to a parent, which was to know a child's burial place. I did not respond to my mother-in-law's words. I lay on the sitting-room couch through the morning, holding myself perfectly still, waiting for the moment they would place her little coffin in the ground. I was sure that if I lay still enough, I would know." (p.146-7)

What I enjoyed was the portrayal of the relationships between the women, the ones she works with, her customers at the salon and her various maternal figures. Yejide does not seem to have friends or sisters, which feels sad, no one to confide her secrets to, and so has to live with her sadnesses and insecurities. And much as Akin's secret tears them apart I felt for him too, and the solution he chose from their situation was born out of his love for Yejide. The story certainly runs the gamut of extreme emotions and wrings you out at the end. 

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Growing and Making things post

I planted the tomatoes about eight weeks ago now; they have reached the ceiling of the porch (well the big one has):
There are lots of flowers ... and lots of fruits:
They have been joined by a courgette plant and a squash plant; lots of flowers, no fruits yet:
The basil on the kitchen window sill has been joined by a chilli plant, that has sprouted these lovely delicate white flowers:
The avocado pit is coming along well. I have managed to sprout these before but they have usually withered and died once the plant was six inches or so. I have been following these helpful instructions. It did take about six or seven weeks for the root to grow and may take a few more before we get a sprout, the advice is to be patient:
In the garden the apples
and pears are all relishing the sunshine:
I finished my Shalom cardigan in time for Jo and Jan's wedding in May, though it still lacks a button. It is made in Noro Ginga that I bought in the sale from Black Sheep Wools. It is a lovely simple pattern, I have made one previously as a present for mum:
Still working on the grannie squares, more than 100 so far, out of 144:
Still working on the hexipuffs. Monkey has also been making one a day for a while now and I am guessing we are approaching the 400 mark. The pink one with PW on is stuffed with gleaned sheep wool collected on our walk on the Pennine Way. I have a couple of others labelled L and P stuffed with wool collected in the Lake District and Peak District respectively:

Monday, 3 July 2017

Portrait of a Writer as a Young Wife

I read about 'When I Hit You' by Meena Kandasmy, and rather wished I hadn't. It was very hard to read. I was angry the entire time I was reading it. It is the story of an abusive marriage, about how one person breaks down and annihilates another. It is different from other description of abusive relationships because it is based on politics. Or rather the abuse is hidden behind politics. The young woman is enamoured by the radical political ferocity of an older man, and after their marriage he uses politics as a means to criticise and undermine her, to justify what he demands of her. The book is her internal monologue, telling us what he does and what he says, and what she thinks, why she reacts as she does. Her isolation is begun by moving them to a place where she does not speak the local language, and then exacerbated by incrementally removing her links to the outside world. She endures, the societal pressures on her to maintain appearances adding to the burden of her husband's behaviour. You watch him try to crush her, but can see her resistance and the thinking that allows her to imagine the future. In some ways the story also serves to highlight the prison that such a marriage would be for women who have no education or resources to draw on. 

The review I read gave the impression that the story is autobiographical, but it is listed on her website as a novel. Her wiki page does not mention a marriage, but another article I read about her work mentioned a legal battle with her ex-spouse, so it is unclear how much of this tale is related to her own experience, but it feels very visceral. The style has the effect of being very intimate and immediate, as if the reader is a fly on the wall. This, from early on in the marriage, when there is still an element of discussion between them:

"He accuses me of carrying my past into our present , and this treason is evidence enough that there is no hope or space for the future to flourish. At this point I am not listening to him. I have no intention of responding. I am thinking of being at a point in the future when I would be writing about this moment, about this fight, about the stinging slaps that mark my cheeks and only stop when I have deleted what I have written, about how I am forced into arguing about freedom of expression with the man I have married, about the man I have married with whom it has finally come to this, to this argument about the freedom of expression. And I am thinking of how I am someday going to be writing all this out and I am conscious that I am thinking about this and not about the moment, and I know that I have already escaped the present and that gives me hope, I just have to wait for this to end and I can write again, and I know that because I am going to be writing about this, I know that this is going to end." (p.87-8)

Over a very short space of time the situation deteriorates, but she withdraws inside her head, which continues to be a safe place to be. I found her resilience the saving grace against his unremitting physical and psychological aggression. The way the narrator talks about language makes me think that Meena's poetry will certainly be worth reading too.

"The coarseness of my husband's insults makes me cringe. I'm ashamed that language allows a man to insult a woman in an infinite number of ways. Every image conjured up is repellent. Every part of my body is a word spat out in disgust. My cunt, sequestered and quarantined, is nothing but a spittoon for his insults.
Once, this language was something else for me. It was a secret place of pleasure. It was my face in the water, the sudden comfort of far-away laughter, the smell of woodsmoke clinging to my hair, the eager arrival of my breasts - it was all mine to explore. Like a lover's body, there were things about my language that I thought only I knew.
I remember mining my language for words from the deepest, most forgotten seams, words that people no longer wrap around their tongues, words that stay mouldering in lexicons and old works of literature that nobody bothers to read anymore. I found the word for a flirtatious girl who chatters too much, the word for the first meeting of the eyes of two people who will eventually fall in love, the word for an intoxicating drink that induces dance. Keep in mind that this is a language where the word for obstinacy is also the word for intercourse." (p.171)

Meena Kandasmy is a writer and activist who uses her talents to battle on many fronts, certainly someone to look out for both politically and literarily. 
p.s. Interesting review of one of her poems here on the Los Angeles Review

The Rabbit Back Literature Society

'The Rabbit Back Literature Society' by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen is a most peculiar book. It tells the story of a famous writer called Laura White who lives in the town of Rabbit Back, and a group of children who she invites to join a literature society, with the aspiration that she will turn them all into great writers. Fast forward thirty years and Ella submits a story to the local newsletter and is subsequently invited to join the society, that has remained a closed shop with just nine members for all the preceding years. At the glamorous party at Laura White's house Laura White herself mysteriously vanishes in front of her guests, leaving the town, and the literature society itself in something of a limbo. Ella's new status as member of the society however allows her to participate in The Game, and access the innermost thoughts and secrets of the society's members, and so she begins to try and uncover its history. 

While I enjoyed the book and it was clever and engaging I felt that the strange supernatural elements never really went anywhere. In the opening scenes we are presented with the idea of books that have 're-written' themselves, some kind of virus that the local librarian (also a Society member) is trying to control by burning the affected books. I liked this, it was curious, but the idea never went anywhere and was then only mentioned in passing later on. The mystery of Laura White's disappearance in a puff of snow is never resolved. And the thing with all the dogs was just weird; was he trying to create an atmosphere of menace, I was not sure and that was certainly not the effect I felt. There were many moments where surreal incidents occurred, randomly and without further context, but within a story that was so much based around the relationships between the Society members. So in the end I felt that the book was trying to do a lot more than it managed and as such was vaguely unsatisfying. Still, it is always interesting to read books from unusual countries and it has intrigued me about the world of Finnish literature.

"Ella took Martti Winter's novel Hidden Agendas down from the shelf and opened it. There was the photo on the inside cover - a soft-focussed studio portrait, sensitively lit and no doubt retouched. The picture let you know that the author wasn't an ordinary person, he was some kind of literary god made flesh, an enlightened, more evolved being. Ella remembered how Silja Saaristo had greeted her at the party: Ella! Welcome to the demigod gang!
Ella's finger ran down the list of names. All of them had spoken to her at the party. She must have made a clumsy, childish impression. She wasn't used to that kind of attention.
She thought about how Arne C. Ahlqvist had greeted her. Something about it has bothered her at the time. Because of her schooling, something had caught her attention, something that other people wouldn't have taken any notice of. She had almost started a discussion with her about comma placement, because Ahlqvist had said to her: It's so nice to meet the new tenth member of the Society.
As a language and literature expert, Ella, of course, would have put a comma between new and tenth. Without a pause there, or some kind of emphasis, indicated in writing by a comma, the sentence seemed to mean that it was nice to meet a new tenth member who had replaced the old tenth member." (p.126-7)

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Vinegar Girl

I like Anne Tyler; I read 'A Spool of Blue Thread' last year but most other of her books predate my blogging years. This is the second from the Hogarth Shakespeare series; mum sent it to me the other day, she had been reading it when we were away for a family wedding and I asked for it. This story is a retelling of 'The Taming of the Shrew', which is Monkey's most hated Shakespeare play. 

It tells the story of Kate (obviously) Battista, who's eccentric scientist father takes her for granted as chief cook and bottle washer, and supervisor of her somewhat wayward younger sister Bunny. When the father's lab assistant Pyotr's visa expires and he is threatened with deportation, Dr Battista cooks up a plan that will enable him to remain; it involves an arranged marriage to Kate. Between them they then set about winning her over to the idea. This Kate is by no means a shrew, a little abrasive maybe but that's only to be expected in someone who's life hasn't panned out as she hoped. She feels trapped in the life that has developed since quitting college some years previously and she gradually comes to think that maybe marriage to Pyotr might be a way out of her rut. Her father finds the new turn of events a bit unsettling, as he had hoped to retain his domestic servant as well as his assistant by the new arrangement. While people around Kate, at work and in the family, try to make an occasion out of the marriage she is desperately trying to keep it on a 'purely business' footing. However Pyotr is quite an endearing chap and his efforts to woo her begin to wear down her resistance. 

I don't feel that Anne Tyler did such a good job as Margaret Atwood at retelling the story faithfully. There is no attempt to break Kate as a woman and subdue her to her new husband's will. She is not presented as an unpleasant person, the kids at school like her, just someone disappointed in life. The fact that her father seems to view her as a 'thing' to be used for his own purposes is just symptomatic of his general disregard for anyone outside his singleminded scientific pursuits. The other side of the story with the sister's suitors conspiring to get Kate married off is entirely missing, so it becomes a somewhat flat story of an unwilling girl being won over by quite a nice bloke. 

Here, Pyotr pops round while Kate is gardening:

"She turned back to find him smiling down at her, rocking from heel to toe with his hands in his pockets. Apparently he imagined that they were on good terms now. She picked up her sandwich and took a large, defiant bite and started chewing. He just went on smiling at her. He seemed to have all the time in the world.
'You realise you could be arrested,' she told him once she'd swallowed. 'It's a criminal offence to marry somebody for a green card.'
He didn't look very concerned.
'But I accept your apology,' she said. 'So. See you around.'
Not that she had any intention of seeing him ever again.
He let out a long breath and took his hands from his pockets and stepped over to sit beside her on the bench. This was unexpected. Her plate sat between then and she feared for its safety, but if she picked it up he might feel encouraged to move closer. She let it be.
'Was a foolish notion anyhow,' he said, speaking to the lawn in general. 'It is evident you could choose and husband you want. You are very independent girl.'
'You are very independent woman and you have the hair that avoids beauty parlours and you resemble dancer.'
'Lets not go overboard,' Kate said.
'Resemble flamingo dancer,' he said.
'Oh,' she said. 'Flamenco.'
Stomping the floorboards. Made sense.
'Okay, Pyotr, she said. 'Thanks for stopping by.'
'You are only person I know who pronounces my name right,' he said sadly.
She took another bite from her sandwich and chewed it, staring straight out across the lawn now the same way he was doing. But she couldn't help feeling a little stab of sympathy.' " (p.99-100)


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