Thursday, 28 June 2012

Orange books and hexipuffs

 The Orange July Challenge is upon us in a few days but I had been thinking so much about what I was going to take to read at HESFES that I almost forgot it starts on the 1st. I guess that since Orange announced they are withdrawing from sponsorship someone will have to come up with an alternative title for next year. So I have picked out a stack from which to select my reading: one winner, Home by Marilynn Robinson (which didn't get read during the January challenge); 26a by Diana Evans that won the first new writers prize (now defunct) in 2005; and three longlisters, The Help by Kathryn Stockett (2010), The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (2004) and Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch (2011). I have also requested The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard from the 2012 longlist from the library. I am unlikely to get through this many, what with the knitting and the painting, and boring stuff like work to go to (though I have a whole fortnight off coming up) but it's nice to set your sights high.

I popped down to Didsbury yesterday afternoon as I was running out of suitable yarn for hexipuffs. I called in at just one charity shop and came away with three novels, so decided not to go in any of the others, we will save that for a proper afternoon trawl some time. The main purpose of the trip was to call at Sew In, where I picked up some multicoloured Creative Poems aran, Sublime luxury woolly merino (which made this fabulous curly hexipuff but is a bugger to knit with) and a random ball of deep purple Noro Cash Iroha, which might get used for something else because it's too lovely.

This is really just an excuse to post more hexipuff pictures as they are getting me extra visitors ... but also because I am racing towards my 500th post.

Sushi making: a tutorial

We love sushi. I am not sure where this came from. It is expensive to eat at a sushi restaurant, especially when you have two girls who can eat their own weight in sushi. But ... it is really easy to make at home, not as complicated as it is made out, so having made our own several times I thought I would do a tutorial.  Most big supermarkets these days do 'world food' so it is not hard to get hold of the ingredients, but we popped out to Out of the Blue, the fishmonger in Chorlton, to get some tuna and they stock all the bits and pieces. Considering that a single plate of salmon or tuna maki will set you back £3 in Yo Sushi I am going to add a breakdown of how much this cost.

Start with a big bowl of sushi rice. You do need proper sushi rice as it has this particular sticky quality. Tish had got hers from a chinese supermarket where it was probably way cheaper and came in big bags. This was two and a half cups, cooked in about three and a half cups of water, 10 to 15 minutes. Allow to cool for a while then you stir in this mixture: 1 level tablespoon of salt (yes, I know it sounds a lot, trust me, I had to trust Tish) 2 tablespoons of sugar, 3 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar. This gives flavour and adds to the stickiness. This amount covered 12 sheets of nori. Cost: not sure as Tish bought the rice and vinegar with her when she moved in but probably less that £2.
Now you need stuff to put inside. 
We like a bit of crunchy so I had some finely slice cucumber, some red pepper and an avocado. Cost: about £1.50
Smoked salmon, cut into thin strips, about half a packet. Cost: £1.40
Fresh tuna, bought a tiny piece and used about half of it. Cost: £1.30
You can put in whatever you like really. Fresh salmon is also good or you can use fish sticks to make it very cheap, or just use smaller amounts of fish and more veggies. 
Nori, or seaweed. It's a bit like edible green paper. I bought three packets but only used just over one. Cost £1.50
Wherever you get the food will also be able to supply you with a bamboo rolling mat. While this is not absolutely essential it does make it easier. They are a big pain to clean afterwards as the rice gets stuck between the bars. So, take a piece of nori and dollop on a big serving spoon of rice and with the back of a smaller spoon spread it out over the nori. Leave a gap at the far end for where it will close up. I try not to spread it too thick as when it is rolled and cut you need to be able to get the roll into your mouth in one go.
Next add a line of whatever you are putting in. I make some with just fish for Creature then a mixture of things for the rest of us. It's ok to be quite generous.
Then lift the rolling mat and fold the end of the nori over and start rolling away from you:
Gently roll all the way to the end using the mat to pull the roll along. Moisten the end strip of the nori with water and roll it back and forth a bit in the mat the make sure it is stuck down.
Roll of  sushi:

Move the mat out of the way while you chop. Make sure your knife is nice and sharp as the nori can be a bit stubborn. You will also need to wash the knife after each roll as it gets very sticky from the rice and this inhibits the chopping as well. Make them maybe about an inch thick; as I said you want them to be bite sized, but if you try to make them too thin they will probably disintegrate. If you want them to look all nice and neat and perfect you can chop the ends off very small and just eat them as you go along, but I don't tend to worry, they still taste good.
Put on a plate and keep them in the fridge while you make the rest. It probably took me about an hour to prepare the stuff and roll them all up.
This is our dinner table, adorned with the soy sauce and pickled ginger. I am not convinced about the wasabi but you can either use as a condiment or put some inside the sushi rolls. Tish, Creature and myself tackled this lot until we were stuffed and there were maybe ten left. Total cost (if you include the jar of ginger): less than £10

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Poor Yorrick

So, on the subject of fantasy writing lets go back to a bit of Jasper Fforde. I reviewed The Eyre Affair nearly three years ago and then Creature and I started on 'Lost in a Good Book' but it has lain unfinished all this time. I have been very absorbed in my audiobooks recently while painting, I had promises and offers of assistance but am mostly doing it by myself (ok, will get around to some pictures of that too). I requested 'Something Rotten' from the library, and it did not disappoint. Although you are on familiar territory, same characters, same themes, he still manages to surprise and delight. At the end it felt like the whole book was one very long telegraphed joke when the fate of Yorrick Kaine is the source of some pity from the gathered characters and Hamlet (yes, that Hamlet) declaims 'Alas!'

The Goliath Corporation is still going strong and Yorrick is waiting for President George Formby to die so he can take over and bring about the end of the world as they know it. Only our hero Thursday Next can save the day, via a motorway service station that serves as a gateway to the afterlife and a violent and much disputed game of competitive croquet, all the while dodging a very determined assassin, juggling the care of her two year old son, Friday, and trying to get back her eradicated husband, Landen  (which is tough because technically he never existed, so even her mother thinks she's making him up). 

All in all very satisfying and clever writing, laugh-out-loud funny. It is all well thought out and must be meticulously annotated as he writes since he has created so much detail within the world he has created. There are seven books in this series. While reading them in order makes more sense this is the fourth book and it was complete in itself and didn't leave you feeling like there was anything missing (but was not repetitive, unlike Harry Potter, which irritated me with repeated information.) Perfect holiday reading.

" 'There are three types of dead,' said Spike, counting on his fingers. 'Dead, undead and semi-dead. Dead is what we call in the trade spiritually bereft, the life force is extinct. These are the lucky ones. Undead are the spiritually challenged that I seem to spend most of my time dealing with; vampires, zombies, bogies and what-have-yous.'
'And the semi-dead?'
'Spiritually ambiguous. Those that are going from one state to another or in a spiritual limbo. What you or I generally refer to as ghosts.' " 

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Dark Materials (at last)

I have been waiting to write this review for what seems like years. I was pointed to these books by a friend, back before the third book was published in 2000, and we read them aloud as a family (I say 'we' and for a change this did include my ex in the experience, I remember having to hand over the book when I was crying too much at the end to carry on reading). The books have been an ongoing passion for Creature, read and re-read to the point of memorisation, listening to the tapes on long journeys and then several years ago we went to Oxford and spent four hours queueing in the rain for an open casting for the part of Lyra when the films were planned. I sat in horror as we watched the closing scene of The Golden Compass as I realised to what extent they were going to butcher the story, so lets not go there (though to give due credit most of the actors were well chosen for the parts and the characters, if not the plot, were excellently executed). Over the last couple of weeks I have been listening to the tapes again while painting in my bedroom so have come back to a review I started a couple of years ago and decided to finish it.

Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy consists of Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. The first, Northern Lights, tells the tale of Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon, who live in a world like this one but different, their life at Jordan College and how political changes come to their world and take them away from everything they know. She is an ignorant wild child with a mysterious background who by simple childish curiosity finds herself caught up in monumental changes. Learning to use the alethiometer, which communicates with Dust, she travels with the gyptians to the far north, the land of the northern lights, and armoured bears and witches. And her father Lord Asriel, who blasts an opening into another world and leads Lyra into the second book. The Subtle Knife introduces Will, who lives in 'our world', but who's search for his missing father leads him quite by chance to find a window through which he enters another, where he encounters Lyra. Although they think they have their own tasks to pursue they find themselves inexplicably bound together. Will unintentionally finds himself in possession of the Subtle Knife, which cuts openings between worlds, and with the help of the witches they set off in search of his father. In the third book the story diverges on many paths: in one Lyra has been taken by Mrs Coulter and hidden in a far distant mountain cave, to protect her from the evil intentions of the church; in another we follow Will as he travels in search of her; in a third there is Mary Mallone, a research scientist from Will's world who learned from Lyra how to communicate with dark matter, and who travels to the world of the Mulefa and who has a vital role to play in the unfolding events; and finally we have the republic established by Lord Asriel in yet another world, from where a great army is gathering to fight the might of the established church. Oh yes, and then there's Mrs Coulter and her golden monkey, beautiful and wicked, a threatening presence throughout the story, until she redeems herself at the end.

Now that is a really brief summary of the story, go to Wiki if you want more details, and a full rundown of the cast of characters, because there is so much more to it than a fantasy story about two children. It is an exploration of philosophical, metaphysical and religious ideas. It is a challenge to the whole idea of religion, and the effect that it has had on humanity. And yet at the same time it creates the idea that religion is real, we meet 'God' and the angels and go to the land of the dead. He embraces the idea that there is more to life than we can know or understand, but seems to conclude with the idea that it is our responsibilities towards our fellow human beings that should be the defining feature of what makes life good and worthwhile. 

I think that what marks out good fantasy writing (if this can strictly be called fantasy, I am not so sure) is that the world that is created and the ideas within it are complete, logical and coherent. It is what is so good about the Discworld, and what is weak about the Harry Potter books. Things that happen have to be credible within the confines of the imaginary creation. This is something that Philip Pullman achieves spectacularly and on an impressive scale. Sometimes he waffles a bit and occasionally the story moves too slowly, but you can forgive him those things. He never talks down to his readers and does not shy away from being demanding or intellectual. Having said that two things remain unanswered questions for me: firstly the idea of daemons, and the nature of their physical presence. They seem to be real solid creatures, but how do they come into being, are they born with the person and yet on death they vanish into nothingness. And secondly I was left very disquieted by his idea of death, of the idea of a consciousness left trapped in the world of the dead. And his solution was the one thing that, when I thought about it further, was unsatisfying: if there are an infinite number of universes and thus an infinite number of dead souls, and only one exit, you could still wait an infinite time in the land of the dead. Or does the soul not have a sense of time passing. I am not sure, but it still sounds unbearable. It is essentially what makes me an atheist, that the concept of eternity is non sensical to a human being, and non existence is preferable to an eternity of anything, even paradise. This is what I like about the books, that they cause you to think about such big questions. But also it's not just to be clever; it is such a great story and appeals to the child in you that wants there to be more to life, for there to be adventure and discoveries, for there to be a purpose to life and a heroic task to undertake, for there to be magic.

I could quote all sorts of things, we must have a hundred favourite moments from the story but I will give you this as a taster, from The Subtle Knife, Will finding the window:

"The cat stepped forward, and vanished.
Will blinked. Then he stood still, close to the trunk of the nearest tree, as a truck came round the circle and swept it's lights over him. When it had gone passed he crossed the road, keeping his eyes on the spot where the cat had been investigating. It wasn't easy, because there was nothing to fix on, but when he came to the place and cast about to look closely, he saw it.
At least, he saw it from some angles. It looked as if someone had cut a patch out of the air, about two metres from the edge of the road, a patch roughly square in shape and less than a metre across. If you were level with the patch so that it was edge-on, it was nearly invisible, and it was completely invisible from behind. You could only see it from the side nearest the road, and you couldn't see it easily even from there, because all you could see through it was exactly the same kind of thing that lay in front of it on this side: a patch of grass lit by a street light.
But Will knew without the slightest doubt that the patch of grass on the other side was in a different world.
He couldn't have said why. He knew it at once, as strongly that he knew fire burned and kindness was good. He was looking at something profoundly alien.
And for that reason alone, it enticed him to stoop and look further. What he saw made his head swim and his heart thump harder, but he didn't hesitate: he pushed his shopping bag through, and then scrambled through himself, through the hole in the fabric of this world and into another." (p14-15)

You can pop back to Midsummers Day 2009 when we took a visit to Will and Lyra's bench in the Botanical Gardens in Oxford, which is another of my most visited posts. I am guessing that, even though it is 12 years since the final book was published, there were a few people gathering the other day to sit on the bench, just as we did.

interpreter of maladies

The second of my forgotten reviews. I remembered about this one because I have a copy of The Namesake sitting by the bed in my TBR pile.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri was her first book and it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is a beautifully written collection of short stories, they tell the reader something about the experience of India, of being Indian in America and the nature of cultural identity.

I liked all the stories, and they are all so different, little snippets of people's lives, caught at a particular time, not momentous or eventful, just people learning something about themselves. The first story, 'A temporary matter' tells of a young couple sitting in the dark together while their electricity is fixed, the darkness symbolic of their avoidance of the issue that haunts them. It is a universal tale of loss but with the added twist of their personal and cultural expectations that make it poignant. I really liked 'Mrs Sen's', about the relationship between a young boy and his babysitter, how she confides in him about her new life in America as he watches her chop vegetables for the evening meal:

"She had bought the blade from India, where apparently there was at least one in every household. "Whenever there is a wedding in the family," she told Eliot one day, "or a large celebration of any kind, my mothers sends out word in the evening for all the neighbourhood women to bring blades just like this one, and then they sit in an enormous circle on the roof of our building, laughing and gossiping and slicing fifty kilos of vegetables through the night." Her profile hovered protectively over her work, a confetti of cucumber, eggplant, and onion skins heaped around her.  "It is impossible to fall asleep on those nights, listening to their chatter." She paused to look at a pine tree framed by the living room window. "Here, in this place where Mr Sen has brought me, I cannot sometimes sleep in so much silence." (p.115)

In 'A Real Durwan' we return to India and meet Boori Ma, who loyally looks after an apartment building in exchange for a spot to sleep. When one more affluent couple fit a sink in the hallway for the use of all, there is a rush of 'gentrification', and following the theft of the sink the poor woman is ejected in pursuit of a real durwan to provide proper protection for their new status.

"No one in this particular flat-building owned much worth stealing. The second-floor widow, Mrs Misra, was the only one with a telephone. Still, the residents were thankful that Boori Ma patrolled activities in the alley, screened the itinerant pedlars who came to sell combs and shawls from door to door, was able to summon a rickshaw at a moment's calling, and could, with a few slaps of her broom, rout any suspicious character who strayed into the area in order to spit, urinate, or cause some other trouble.
In short, over the years, Boori Ma's services came to resemble those of a real durwan. Though under normal circumstances this was no job for a woman, she honoured the responsibility, and maintained a vigil no less punctilious that if she were the gatekeeper of a house on Lower Circular Road, or Jodhpur Park, or any other fancy neighbourhood." (p.73)

All in all a wonderful collection, full of atmosphere and details and engaging characters. It is a proper collection because together they are more than the sum of the individual tales, each adds to the last, the themes of belonging and identity being shown from different perspectives.

Laughter and forgetting

Am just tidying up my posting list and decided to finish off some of the reviews that I started and then lost interest in, or just found I was not sure what to say. This was from about a year ago.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
I suppose that in some ways this book feels a little dated, having been written over thirty years ago and so much having changed within eastern Europe in that time, and yet it remains of historical interest because it traces for those of us outside the sense of loss of identity that a whole nation can suffer when under totalitarian rule. The book is not so much a novel as a collection of writing about the experience of that loss, some of it personal, some of it written as short stories. There is this sense within his country, Czechoslovakia, that history is racing away, out of control, and mostly nobody even knows what is happening:

"The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai Desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai, and so on and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten." (p.7)

In some ways this little quote is quite prophetic, in the internet age the 'forgetting' seems to happen at an even more accelerated rate as our attention is distracted by an exponentially expanding number of new events and experiences. Many years ago I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being and have been tempted to revisit it; we have the film somewhere as well, I recall it as equally unfathomable. Sometimes you just have to be in the mood for slightly surreal writing. As with things like holocaust memoirs I think books like this are important to read from time to time, just to remind ourselves what happens when things go seriously wrong with human society. I have a brief review of The Cap by Roman Frister on the More Reviews page which I consider to be a book that had a lasting impact on my view of history and humanity. 

Canal Dreams

I discovered Iain Banks about a year ago (I mean I had heard of him I had just never tried reading any of his books) and reviewed The Wasp Factory. I picked up 'Canal Dreams' in the charity shop a while ago.

When I started reading it I was reminded of Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, but I could not have been more wrong. Like Bel Canto it is the story of a hostage situation. Where Bel Canto has a famous opera singer trapped by the situation Canal Dreams has Hisako, a famous japanese cello player with a fear of flying, who is taking a sea journey to Europe via the Panama Canal, when the ship becomes caught up in a blockade and in the tense political situation they are taken over by terrorists who plan to use the ship as a base to shoot down a plane.

The story is told from the perspective of Hisako, the current situation being interspersed with details about her childhood, how she came to be a cello player and how her life up until then had led her to this situation. The story is also interspersed with dream sequences of a slightly disturbing kind ... at least I'd be pretty disturbed if they were my dreams.

"The sun came out flooding everything with light. She looked at the blood dripping from her hand, wondering how she'd cut herself.
The blood dribbled down her arm to her elbow and dripped from there and from her blood-glued fingers, falling in slow, ruby droplets down into the lake. But it was blood too. The whole lake. She lifted her gaze, from the red lapping tide at her feet, out across the calm, smooth surface, to the islands and the black boats. In the distance, a woman came up through the red surface, making a strange plaintive hooting noise, and holding something tiny but bright between thumb and forefinger of one hand. Hisako felt her vision zooming in: the pearl was the colour of the fog and cloud.
The stench of blood overpowered her and she fell." (p.66-67)

I was left with the impression that Hisako had lived her entire life in a slightly dreamlike state, that her absorption into music was so deep that the outside world was not really relevant. As the story reaches a crescendo with scenes of graphic violence the images from the dreams seem to merge with what is happening in real life, and I was left thinking that maybe the whole thing was just happening inside her mind. Or maybe it was her emotional detachment from reality that enabled her to deal with the situation. I am not quite sure why I am trying to avoid spoilers since I am sure that no one is going to rush off and find this book based on this vague and evasive review. The hostages are slaughtered and then the terrorists are slaughtered. I read the last part of the book in mainly horrified fascination as she enacts her revenge. I loved Wasp Factory so much, it is such a unique and inventive book, I think I could not help but seek a similar experience when reading more from Iain Banks, and inevitably be disappointed. Hisako herself is rather too vague a character, hints that she is hiding things, from her mother and her lovers, and from the reader. I did not feel much empathy with her, because she did not seem to care that much; I was detached because of her sense of detachment. Yes, I think vague and evasive as just the right words, for the review and the book.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Work Whinge of the Week: injuries

I am trying to ignore the rain and focus on the positive, so decided to have a moan instead about the state of my hands. The injuries that this job gives me are usually very tiny (ignoring the dog bites and the sprained ankles) but all the worse for that. Letter box injuries are commonplace, torn knuckles and ripped fingernails caused by trying to force post through letterboxes that the general public seem to have found it necessary to block by a variety of means. I keep plasters in my pocket at all times to prevent spreading blood over people's letters. But paper cuts are the worst, and occur on pretty much a daily basis. This morning I was the victim (yet again) of the vicious and razor sharp Virgin Media 'door-to-door' advertising. 
On the plus side I did stay relatively dry today.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

What's an elephant?

 " 'It's a kind of badger.'
She hadn't maintained forest credibility for forty years by ever admitting ignorance."

Granny Weatherwax knows what's what on the Discworld, when it comes to magic as well as elephants, and in Equal Rites she tangles with the wizard elite at Unseen University to get a place for her protégé Esk. In this story Terry Pratchett turns his attention to gender inequality in the magical sphere and tackles it with his inimitable sense of humour. We emptied the car of it's vast collection of audiobooks in anticipation of getting rid of it and I have been listening while painting.

I reached a couple of milestones yesterday, passing 40,000 page views on this blog and finishing the first 100 hexipuffs.  I have been waiting several years to make a return trip to HES FES next month so my other project yesterday was to make a camp blanket for our holiday. A few weeks ago Creature's dad sent her several boxes of cuddly toys, random junk, rubbish and outgrown clothing; one box went straight in the bin and two others went to the charity shop. I did however salvage these two pairs of fleece pyjamas:

 ... and turned them into this lovely patchwork blanket, just perfect for cuddling up outside the tent to watch the sunset.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Twice the madness

The Hexipuffs are multiplying. Laying them out on the carpet gives a small idea of how the completed quilt will look. Based on the size of this I think that our target of 400 will probably be enough to cover a double bed. These are being done in aran weight yarn and are about 4 inches across each.
 However, as with any good addiction, one is never enough. So these baby ones are made, as per the instructions, with sock weight (4 ply) yarn and are about 3 inches across. They are ever cuter and squishier than the big ones. These ones are being done in the background of the main project to make a tiny quilt for an imaginary baby, just because they are irresistible not because I really want to put ideas in the head of any of my offspring (or their loved ones ... that means you Rachel!)

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The Sealed Letter

'The Sealed Letter' by Emma Donoghue
Having read and reviewed 'Room' just over a year ago my sister sent me a copy of Emma Donoghue's latest book and I have been reading it over the last few weeks (interrupted by the arrival of library requests.) It is a testament to a good writer that she can move from 'Room' to this, they could not be more different in style or content. Not until I read the author's notes at the end did I realise it was based on real life events and real historical characters, with added poetic licence.

It is the story of a marriage and a divorce, the story of the suffragette movement, the story of Victorian society, but mostly the story of friendship and an unspoken love. Emily Faithfull, also known as Fido, is a leading light in the burgeoning women's movement, an independent woman running her own printing business, challenging social norms and employing women in skilled jobs, but her long standing and abruptly rekindled friendship with Helen Codrington is about to bring the censure of society down on her. She becomes unwittingly embroiled in events that lead to the Codrington's divorce and is forced to appear in what seemed to me like a travesty of a trial.
I could not help but dislike Helen Codrington. I felt not one ounce of pity for her. You start off thinking she is merely shallow and self-centred. Having been abroad for some years with her husband she apparently bumps into Fido in the street where she works, and proceeds to involve her former friend in her sordid affair. How naive am I that I didn't see until the end that of course Fido is totally besotted with Helen, and that is why she allows herself to be duped into thinking that she is needed as a friend rather than merely being taken advantage of. Helen is just the kind of character that you love to hate, self-seeking and manipulative, utterly immoral and uncaring of the consequences of her actions on others. Fido I felt pity for, even though she was naive and stupid, striving to believe the best of Helen despite evidence to the contrary. But I disliked her husband Henry just as much, they deserved each other, and if I had been the judge I would have left them to stew in their own juices. The hypocrisy of Victorian England is superbly portrayed; morally censorious in one breath and then lapping up the salacious details of the case at the same time. It is a drama in the true sense of the word and once the wheels of the court are set in motion all the players are victims, as the lawyers trade insults and counter accusations; no one comes out of the situation with their dignity intact.

Your whole sense of what is right just rises up against the attitudes expressed and accepted as the norm in this story, and you can appreciate the efforts made by the women's movement that grew up at that time, and what an uphill struggle they must have endured. Anyway, a great story, mainly it leaves you glad that we have moved on from the confining double standard of victorian morality and attitudes towards women.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Noisy eaters

'The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating' by Elizabeth Tova Bailey
Who would have thought that a book about a snail could be so fascinating. It's not an allegory; it really is the story of a woman and a snail. It is much more a natural history than a story about Elizabeth herself, concentrating far more on 'snailness' than an indulgent pondering on her desperate situation. The author contracted some kind of unbelievably debilitating viral infection that left her bedridden for years at a time. At the time of her first relapse into illness a friend brought her a snail that she picked up from the woods and so began a relationship that gave her a whole new perspective on life and her experience. 

"Each evening the snail awoke, and with astonishing poise it moved gracefully to the rim of the pot and peered over, surveying, once again, the strange country that lay ahead. Pondering its circumstance with a regal air, as if from the turret of a castle, it waved its tentacles first this way and then that, as though responding to a distant melody. As I prepared for the night, the snail moved in its leisurely way down the side of the pot to the dish beneath. It found the flower blossom I had placed there and began its breakfast." (p.15-16)

What is astounding is that her life had become so quiet that she does experience being able to hear the snail eating. We do get some description of her sense of isolation and loneliness brought about by her extreme incapacity but that quickly disappears from the tale as she becomes more and more involved in the life of her companion. It is almost as if observing the snail becomes the point of life, and the thing that makes it worthwhile. She is so lacking in energy that she cannot even sit up and read, and so lying in her bed and simply observing the snail is her sole source of interest. It says something about her that she did not sink into self pity but found this thing that took her outside her own experience and allowed it to be her consolation. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the snail saved her from a situation that would have defeated lesser mortals. 

"Illness isolates; the isolated become invisible, the invisible become forgotten. But the snail ... the snail kept my spirit from evaporating. Between the two of us, we were a society of our own, and that kept isolation at bay. The snail was missing, and as the day waned, I was bereft." (p.132)

It is testament to her skill as a writer that she makes her observations so interesting. Having lived briefly in a flower pot the snail is then moved to a terrarium that they create to mimic as closely as possible his natural environment. The chapters of the book follow his general explorations and then, through research done over a very long period, describe the most intimate details of his biology and his existence. 

"Slime is the sticky essence of a gastropod's soul, the medium for everything in its life: locomotion, defence, healing, courting, mating and egg protection. Nearly one third of my snail's daily energy went into slime production. And rather than making a single batch of 'all-purpose' slime, my snail had a species-specific recipe for each of these needs and for different parts of its body. It could adjust the ingredients, just as a good cook would, to meet a particular occasion. And in a catastrophic accident in which a snail is squashed, it can release a flood of life-saving, medicinal mucus packed with antioxidants and regenerative properties." (p.71)

This is the kind of book that is impossible to categorise; it is a real story of a real person and what she experienced, but it is also an allegory for life, and the exhortation to slow down and 'smell the flowers' (or watch the snail). It is a salutary lesson in the meaning of existence and you will never look at a snail in quite the same way again.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Before I go to sleep

Several years ago we watched the film 50 First Dates. I am not really much of a fan of Adam Sandler and expected it to be a weak rom com, but it turned out to be a touching story about a girl with memory loss and how, to make a life with her, he makes her fall in love with him every day. 'Before I go to Sleep' by SJ Watson is a tale of the other side of the coin. Christine wakes up every morning and has lost years of her life, taken from her by an accident that has damaged her memory and her brain's ability to form new memories. She has a man who tells her he is her husband and another man on the phone who tells her he is her doctor, and then gradually conflicting stories emerge about what happened to her and she becomes more unsure about who she is and who she can trust. It is written in the form of a journal that she keeps to try and make sense of what has happened. 

It is a clever premise for a story, and well told. Despite the inevitable repetition of information you get a good sense of her experience of confusion and discovery, and the build up of tension surrounding her husband is well telegraphed. Having said that there were huge holes in it which irritated me. I am not sure how much he researched the nature of this type of memory loss but you really do not get better from it (slight spoiler but you can kind of see as it goes along where the story is headed). The way she was treated by her family and friends seemed all wrong, and the medical care she received; why no one would have tried to help her previously; years and years seem to have gone past where she was institutionalised and left to stare blankly at a wall without anyone helping her to understand her life and experience, I am not sure that would have happened. Then as a very vulnerable person she is released abruptly into the care of a man without any questions; there is no way a person with such a condition would be able to sign themselves out of the place where they were being cared for. Despite the memory loss she would still have had thoughts and feelings and memories that would assist her to make sense of her experience. She would have a consistent part of her life that she did remember, it is illogical that she would remember her childhood but then struggle to recognise a photograph of her mother. The inconsistencies irritated me and I also felt that she lacked any strong personality traits, she was too much of a blank canvas on which she struggled to write her own history, when she would still have had a personality. I read it to the end because I wanted the explanation, and as it approached it felt predictable; a  dramatic climax and a nice uplifting hopeful close. It will make a great film but am not sure I will bother to go.


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