Monday, 29 August 2016


The Star-Bellied Sneetches had bellies with stars, 
the Plain-Bellied Sneetches had none upon thars
Those stars weren't so big. They were really so small
You'd think such a thing wouldn't matter at all.

The story of the Sneetches is so simple, but like many Dr Seuss books has more subtle layers of meaning and message. On one level you see fashion and capitalist exploitation of insecurities, at another you can see racial and cultural tension and prejudice. The Star-Bellies think they are so much better, the Plain-Belies are excluded from all the privileges of Star-Bellied life. Then along comes Sylvester McMonkey McBean, with his amazing Star machine and suddenly no-one can tell the difference. 
"Through the machine they raced round and about again,
Changing their stars every minute or two.
They kept paying money. They kept running through
Until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew
Whether this one was that one ... or that one was this one
Or which one was what one ... or what one was who."

I don't think it's meant to imply that solutions are simple, maybe just that they are possible.
And here is my Sneetch. 
This is my first attempt to crochet something from a pattern and it is designed by the lovely Nicole at Nicole's Nerdy Knots. She publishes lots of free patterns on Ravelry so do check her out (particularly if you have a child into Pokemon). It was very fiddly in places and I think my tension leaves a little to be desired but I am so chuffed that he looks like a Sneetch and not just a yellow blob. 


Monkey and I bought a few books in Waterstones the other day. 'Ella Minnow Pea' by Mark Dunn is on my 101 Books list and it was on one of their display tables, so I picked it up. As usual it is so long ago that I read about it, but it was worth the wait. Such a clever, original and entertaining book, described in the inside as "a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable".

When I left Poly I taught myself to type on my mum's manual typewriter by typing the phrase 'The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog' over and over. While I never got very good at using more than four or five fingers it did teach me the position of all the letters so I can type fairly rapidly without having to search. This story gives us Nevin Nollop, the imagined creator of this magical sentence, and a small independent island community (also called Nollop) off the coast of America that has come to venerate his memory. When one day one of the letters falls from the monument that bears the sentence the local council decide that it is Nevin himself speaking to them from beyond the grave and that this letter (Z) must be expunged from the lexicon (both oral and written) of the community. To begin with the reaction is almost bemusement, but the punishments are harsh and swift and the Law Enforcement Brigade ensures that the population are quickly cowed into submission. The description of the events takes the form of letters between Ella and Tassie, cousins trapped by poor road conditions on opposite sides of the island. As time passes the correspondence increases to include a wider variety of the island's occupants. In line with the gradually tumbling letters the correspondence also begins to take on a peculiar quality. You hardly notice the absence of the Z, and even the Q and the J, but when the D goes everyone begins to struggle. The protests are few and short-lived. People are exiled in ever increasing numbers as a small resistance movement struggles to contrive a 32 letter sentence of the 26 letters, to disprove the divinity of Nollop.

Thurby, September 21
Throbbing Sister Mittie,
Still you are luckier to be in the village. Eighteen families were sent away this morning. Many of the members I knew. Losing the first three letters was relatively easy in comparison to this most recent banishment.
Slips of the tongue. Slips of the pen. All over town people hesitate, stammer, fumble for ways to express themselves, grip-grasping about for linguistic concoctions to serve the simplest of purposes. Receiving no easy purchase.
I go to the baker's. I point. We all point. We collapse upon our mattresses at the close of each evening, there to feel ... feel ... utterly, wholly diminished.
There. Now I happily enlist in the 'first offence club.' It feels exhilarating! You know I cannot allow you to be a member of any club to which I cannot belong. I will show a copy of this letter to one of our local authorities.
I will receive my official censure.
We shall be sister-true as always.

The book is described as a political allegory, charting the rise of a totalitarian state, but I found it to be much more about religious orthodoxy (and really the whole notion that if you give people arbitrary authority it is likely to get easily out of hand). The council claim an omniscient god-like status for their Nollop, they are like a priesthood, interpreting the signs and making these rules for the good of his followers. In a pronouncement issues by the High Council:

"7.The falling tiles can represent only one thing: a challenge - a summons to bettering out lot in the face of such deleterious complacency, and in the concomitant presence of false contentment and rank self-indulgence.
8. There is no room for alternative interpretations.
9. Interpretation of events in any other way represents heresy.
10. Heretics will be punished, as was, for example, Mr Nollop's saucy stenographer, who was cashiered for flippantly announcing to her employer the ease with which she could, herself, create such a sentence as his." (p.53)

Some people take the path of least resistance by ceasing to communicate and with desperation some of the remaining residents try to support and encourage each other. I had to partly just go with the slightly surreal and absurd scenario because my enjoyment in reading the book was the playing with language and words and the way the letter writers get around using the forbidden letters. New words are invented to represent the days of the week after the D falls, but these words themselves mutate over time as other letters become verboten. The odd foreign word sneaks in and then a vaguely twisted phonetic writing system emerges:

Montae, Nophemger 12
To the Towgate Phamilee:
Please aspect my hartphelt simpathee at this time. Georgeanne past awae last night phrom let poisoning. She paintet her whole selph phrom het to toe with manee prettee, ornamental hews. She was so resplentent, almost ratiant in repose - the happee, appealing pigments an aesthetit reminter of her lophlee warm spirit.
She shoot loog smashing 4 the phooneral.
Her remains shoot arriph shortlee.
With all regrets,
Ella Minnow Pea"

I assume that, like myself, many readers spot the answer to the community's conundrum when it appears in one of the letters, and I laughed out loud as if the whole book had been one very long shaggy dog story; Mark Dunn manages to integrate into the story, in such a wonderfully convoluted way, the ability of one of the characters to write the sentence without it seeming out of place. The book made an interesting contrast to 'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society' which I also loved but which focussed much more on the community of people being repressed and how they supported each other. So enjoyable, but then at the end I felt so thick for not spotting the obvious in the title. Now have to go and see if he has written anything else.

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Buried Giant

'The Buried Giant' by Kazuo Ishiguro. I pinched this book from mum when I visited a while ago, she had not really liked it at all. I am not sure what I thought. It is set vaguely in the Dark Ages after the time of the mythical King Arthur, when Britons and Saxons are experiencing an uneasy peace. An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, set off on a journey to visit a long lost son, unsure not only of his whereabout, but if he even exists. They are joined on their journey by a Warrior who saves a village where they are staying from ogres and a young boy who has been a victim of the ogres. Their journey is punctuated by meetings with an elderly Sir Gawain, still on a mission for the long dead Arthur, and a succession of elderly women with strange tales to relate. They are diverted from their course, first to seek medical advice for Beatrice from a monk, and then by the desire to seek out the she-dragon Querig, who's breath is causing a mist of forgetfulness to envelop the land. 

The slow meandering nature of the story, and their journey is both enjoyable and boring. Part of the time I felt like I spent the whole book waiting for them to arrive at their destination, to understand the mystery surrounding their son, and the dragon. But the journey is the story and the people within it often seem as vague as the memories they struggle to find. Many of them are also hiding the true nature of their journey and their history, from each other are well as themselves. The whole books feels like one big fat metaphor; darkness and monsters and struggling and forgetting and remembering, and at the end a boat that will take you away to an island of peace. The giant himself gets only a passing mention. Axl and Beatrice agree on one thing, that despite everything, they want their memories back, even though they know that bad ones will return along with the good.

Not sure any quote will really capture the story, but here they are at the Saxon village when Wistan, the warrior, has returned with the rescued  boy Edwin:

"Almost beyond the light of the fire a small group of women had huddled around a thin, dark-haired youth seated on a stone. He was already close to a man's height, but one sensed that beneath the blanket now wrapped around him, he still had the gangly frame of a boy. One woman had brought out a bucket and was washing off the grime from his face and neck, but he seemed oblivious. His eyes were fixed on the warrior's back just in front of him, though intermittently he would try angle his head to one side as though trying to peer around the warrior's legs at the thing on the ground.
Al was surprised that the sight of the rescued child, alive and evidently without serious injury, provoked in him neither relief nor joy, but a vague unease. He supposed at first this was to do with the odd manner of the boy himself, but then it occurred to him what was really wrong: there was something amiss in the way this boy, whose safety had until so recently been at the centre of the community's concerns, was now being received. There was a reserve, almost a coldness, that reminded Axl of that incident involving the girl Marta in his own village, and he wondered if this boy, like her, was in the process of being forgotten. But surely this could not be the case here. People were even now pointing at the boy, and the women attending him were staring back defensively." (p.77)

The whole book is written with this sense of unease; nowhere feels safe for them, kind people turn out to be unreliable and even the trust between the couple has undercurrents of negative feelings that are hidden and smoothed over by kind words. What gradually emerges is the story of a great and terrible battle and the doomed attempt to put an end to the cycle of war and killing and vengeance. It has all the hallmarks of traditional oral storytelling; a quest to learn the truth, evil forces, a struggle against nature, heroism and the triumph of enduring love, but is also a warning against complaisance. A strange book that has something of the feel of an Arthurian legend, but much darker, though the darkness comes not from magic or external forces, but from the people themselves. I was left feeling somewhat discombobulated.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

The Boat

'The Boat' by Nam Le was recommended in many places and was certainly a brilliant collection of stories. It's always difficult to review a short story collection, this one particularly because of the range of subjects that he has written about, there does not seem to be any overarching theme or link between them. Le is Vietnamese by birth so the last story in the book, 'The Boat', almost seems obligatory; it is a claustrophobic tale of a refugee boat journey, though not told from personal experience since he was a baby when making the voyage himself. I thought it was interesting however because in the first story 'Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice' he has the characters discuss the idea of 'ethnic lit':

"'It's hot,' a writing instructor told me at a bar. 'Ethnic literature's hot. And important too.'
A couple of visiting literary agents took a similar view: 'There's a lot of polished writing around,' one of them said. 'You have to ask yourself, what makes me stand out?' She tag-teamed to her colleague, who answered as though intoning a mantra, 'Your background and life experience.'
Other friends were more forthright: 'I'm sick of ethnic lit,' one said. 'It's full of descriptions of exotic food.' Or: 'You can't tell if the language is spare because the author intended it that way, or if he didn't have the vocab.'
I was told about a friend of a friend, a Harvard graduate from Washington D.C., who had posed in traditional Nigerian garb for his book-jacket photo. I pictured myself standing in a rice paddy, wearing a conical straw hat. Then I pictured my father in the same field, wearing his threadbare fatigues, young and hard-eyed." (p.9)

While this first one is narrated by a character named Nam Le he moves quickly away from any sense of the autobiographical with stories that go off in a wide variety of directions: an elderly man hoping to reconnect with his long-estranged daughter; a teenager struggling with his mother's illness and being threatened by a 'love rival'; a naive young woman travelling to Iran in search of a friend with political ambitions. Such excellent writing, with voices so distinct and authentic. Short stories are at their best I always feel when they immerse you in an unfamiliar time and place and allow you to connect with other human experience. In 'Hiroshima' a young girl tells us of life as an evacuee, longing to be back with her family, in the days and hours before the bomb falls:

"Do without until victory! I am under a ginkgo tree and behind it the sky is darker, the colour of dry dirt. I will walk and dry in the wind. The watercolours are gone. Taker's friend tried to eat the watercolours and was punished by Mrs Sasaki. I imagine the smell of potatoes, with spices. Butterburs and horsetails. It has been so long since the last Visiting Day. Yukio and Tomiko were angry because Mother did not follow the rules and brought me luxurious food: two pears, and rice with red beans, and sesame seeds with salt. Their mothers did not bring so much. i gave them sesame seeds to chew. Where is Big Sister? I ask. Sum could not get a travel certificate, says Mother, even though she is eligible for evacuation. She tells you to work hard on the farms to help with the food shortage. Yes, I will. Sumi is a loyal subject, says Mother. In the day she is mobilised and at night she works at the munitions factory. I see her in the rain with her face shining. Father does not look at her. She tells you to remember the way of Bushido. Mother sleeps with her head on the summer clothes she brought for me. Now they are wet, and cold against my skin. The wind is loud. That night the room is full of darkness and whispering. Her hair smells of chrysanthemum and pine oil and as I sleep I try to keep the smell in my nose." (p.173-4)

So good, get a copy.

The People of Paper

'The People of Paper' by Salvador Plascencia is probably something I came across during the 'Weirdathon' as it is distinctly weird. It has a most unusual structure with several characters telling their side of the story simultaneously, sometimes in separate paragraphs, sometimes in columns across the page. I am wondering if it is an extended allegory, though I am not sure. A revolutionary movement is struggling to resist the malevolent influence of the planet Saturn, and most of the characters are involved in this mostly silent struggle. No explanations are given. 
It reminded me partly of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it certainly has a magical realist quality to it, with characters made from paper, mechanical tortoises and prophetic babies mixed in with the normal difficulties of life. Saturn is also a character, though also, it emerges, representative of the author, and this begins to make sense. The characters are trying to resist his control, lining their homes with lead and thinking of nothing (since he can read their thoughts), so maybe it is a revolution of characters against their creator. I am not sure. I did not try to think too hard, or analyse it as I read, just allowing the story to unfold. It is very multi-sensory, with lots of descriptions of sights and sounds and tastes and smells and sensations, which made it very absorbing to read. I am not sure I wanted, or needed, to know what it was all about.

The was no Saturn or school, nobody to beware of but my father. I spent the afternoon shaded under an outgrowth of carnation plants, using the switchblade Froggy had given me to cut the whole limes into rinds. I did not have to be locked in my room chewing the bitter meat of seeds and the waxed skin; instead I spit the seeds into the air and let the peels fall on the ground.
This is what emancipation allowed, what it was like to live outside the casing of lead.
I ate my limes and returned to Apolonio's with my sack empty, my tongue burnt by the citrus juices, and my lap and hands stained and sticky.
'My father will know,' I said, showing him my fingers and then sticking out my tongue.
He was calm, squeezing soap lard into my hands, and then sprinkling pumice sand.
'Lather. That will take care of your hands. And there's a sponge for your dress. You can chew flower petals for your breath.'
I stuck out my tongue again so he would see the peeling skin, but he just shook his head. There was nothing he could do for my tongue." (p151)

Saturn's pages become blank as the characters fight against his influence, and Little Merced learns to block her thoughts and so her columns become patched with black blocks and circles that obscure the text. Then gradually he regains control and his strength pushes back the accounts of the other characters until they are forced to quit the story. A most unusual book with much to offer readers who seek out experimental fiction.

Without a map

According to the amazon seller receipt I bought 'Without a Map' by Meredith Hall three years ago. I read it and felt sad. Sad for her, sad for her family, sad for her son and sad for a community that condemns and controls people's behaviour.  She has a baby at 16 and is shunned by her parents, ostracised by her community. She has no control or say; the baby is taken for adoption. In the book she tells us how she tries to make sense of all this, to find some meaning, to pull herself back together. It is heartbreaking. I just wanted to wrap her up and take care of her. She skates over a brief marriage that gives her two sons and then ends; she does not even give her husband's name or anything about their relationship. Considering how the rest of the book is so candid it left me feeling that there was something even worse about that period in her life, muted only by her love for her children. Maybe I am reading too much into it. 

The fact that she loves her father and mother so much is what makes it hard to read. She wants so much from them that they do not give her. I could not forgive them not matter that she seemed to. This quote is from a time before the baby. She is young and her newly remarried father takes his 'family' on regular visits to his mother, where they are obliged to pretend that nothing has changed:

"My father sits at the head of the table with his children and ex-wife and mother and grandmother all attending him. My mother pretends she is still his wife. We children pretend that we are still his children, that my father, their beloved Leslie, still comes home to us, that his new wife and stepchild so not exist. It is an audacious act for my father. I don't know why my mother goes along with it; she is in love with my father, and may find a strange comfort in being allowed to play wife again for an afternoon.
During these charades, I feel deep confusion. Whatever griefs and fears I am experiencing about my father's leaving do not seem to occur to him. He asks me, at ten or eleven years old, to put on an act for him, to pretend that I am still the happy girl from our earlier life. He tells us that he just wants his mother and grandmother to be happy. I know, though, even as a child, that my father will ask the unthinkable of me in order to smooth the way for himself. I learn in those tenuous afternoons, with the old mantel clock ticking, that my father is a weak man, and he will not protect me." (p.69-70)

And later, years later, this lingering feeling that she should have known what would happen, almost a sense of responsibility for her mother's rejection of her:

"Well, she can't live here. So abrupt, the end of having a mother. Within a few years, my mother and I will seem close again. I love her. But she will never again be my mother. Love and its failure.
My sister will say later, 'It was just the times.' But that is not true. There was something more, a secret, something I was missing, something I should have known, a capacity for this betrayal I should have sensed was coming. I could have prepared myself, kept my feet under me better, not spent a lifetime wondering how this could happen, and, always, wondering at my own lack of worth. I wish I had been able to see my mother - my two mothers - more clearly, to predict her capacity to judge so fiercely, to withdraw so abruptly her love and protection of me." (p.138)

What is most heartbreaking is that she never confronts them about it. She waits, patiently, for her mother to bring up what happened, to ask for forgiveness, to say she was wrong, but she never does and the relationship ends unresolved. Slowly and painfully Meredith builds something new for herself, a new family to love. She redeems her relationship with her adopted son and draws him in to her new family, but there is bitterness in the sweetness. A story that raised a lot of deeply submerged feelings for me, I almost wish I had not read it, but you cannot help by admire how hard it must have been to write. 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Holiday nonsense

I am not one of those people who jumps on bandwagons; I see stuff on Facebook and think 'that looks interesting', but then I move on. But I was intrigued by the green smoothie thing; I do eat green stuff, but at the same time have had low level anaemia on and off over the years. I like smoothies, and during the strawberry season Monkey and I have made loads, but they tend to be pink. It being holiday, and not having to get up early for work, I decided to have a go at the Green Smoothie Challenge. Ok, they are trying to sell you their recipe book and probably have affiliate links to the very expensive smoothie machines they tout, but they do send you recipes and offer some inspiration and encouragement. I planned to shop in advance and have lots of interesting stuff to put in them, but the first morning I just went with what I had. This one has frozen spinach, one apple, two satsumas and some pumpkin seeds. It was ok. Tasty enough to decide I could stick it out.
This morning's offering is a not-so-green-smoothie. The shopping arrived, so this one has chard (something I have not bought before), banana and frozen blackberries. I decided I had better eat last year's blackberries before the new season arrives with a vengeance. It is a sad fact that I have not made very many blackberry crumbles so there is a huge bag still sitting at the back of the drawer. The seeds in the blackberries make it a little gritty but no unpleasantly so.
Oh whoops! This one has no green stuff in it at all: an Eton Mess Ice-cream Sundae at Fortes.
Dunk and I went for our annual date
to Llandudno on the North Wales coast, home to the Gwynt y Môr offshore wind farm, the second largest in the world.
 Several books have been read in the last week ... reviews to follow I promise; we are resting today after shunning both the tram and the cablecar to climb the Great Orme.
I have not posted any knitting in a long time. The yarn I had to knit a second Bressay Dress is instead being made into a Still Light Tunic (Ravelry link) that Julie bought the pattern for and we have been knitting together. I used this photo because it shows the colours properly, it won't be finished for another week.


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