Sunday, 29 July 2012

HESFES - long self-indulgent holiday post

Being at home with your children can be a difficult choice, it is easy to feel isolated, not so much physically isolated but more mentally, because you hold these weird opinions that are not shared by others around you, or society in general. When you tell people you home educate they treat you as if you are crazy, so home educators have always needed a way to get together for mutual support and information. Nowadays they gather at campsites all over the country, but in the past there very few, mostly small, local gatherings ... but then in 1998 came HESFES. It is ten years since the last time I went with my kids. 
It is run by Andy ... and here he is:
I won't embarrass him by making this a post to sing his praises but will just try and give you a flavour of why people want to go and spend a week sitting in a field with a bunch of wild children. We were saved this year by the sunshine. There had been a river running through the site the previous day, but by the end of the week even the largest of the muddy patches was completely dried. About 1500 or so people descended on the Mid Suffolk Showground to spend the week chatting about home education, their kids, the evils of school, how to deal with the LEA and to debate serious stuff ... but also to sing and dance, to make crafty things, to learn something new, to play games, to listen to poetry and write poetry, to listen to music and make music, to sit around the fire, to have mass water-gun fights, to make new friends and chill with old ones, to watch films in a solar powered cinema (Groovy Movie) ... and generally pretend the outside world doesn't exist for a while.

Firstly you need a tent and a little patch of grass to pitch it on ...
then you need some means of brewing your tea ...
and a fearlessness in the face of arachnid invaders (this is close up, the spiders were *really* tiny) ...
it's more fun if you have a toddler to chase round the field ...
and a teenager in a cool hat ...
much of the time can be spent just walking up and down the field to get fresh milk or going for a shower or to sit at the cafe and watch the world go by or just for the hell of it...
but sometimes people will gather in one of the marquees...
and dress up in silly clothes (this is Andy again, being the compere)... perform in the now legendary HESFES Children's Cabaret.
This is Bea doing jazz tap-dance:
This is Oliver and Casey doing Hallelujah:
This is Charlie and Georgie doing the Monty Python Dead Parrot sketch:
This is Harrison playing some weird japanese music on a weird japanese instrument:
This is Mags singing Pink:
and this is the appreciative and enthusiastic audience:
Thursday night we had the most excellent performance from John Hegley and Diego Brown and the Good Fairy ...
then as we wandered back towards the tent we stopped off instead in the Groovy Movie tent to watch Hettie Hatstar, here she is singing a song about giving birth to a clanger:-) ...
then on the last night (after the obligatory and awesome performance by the HESFES band of Another Brick in the Wall, will link to a video when someone puts one up on Youtube) we sat around the fire until the wee small hours and tried to outdo the teenagers but failed again ...
but even the most determined partiers flake out in the end ...
Within ten minutes of leaving the kids were all asleep in the back of the car. I arrived home with my hesfes shawl completed, one book read, a new friendship bracelet, a tiny wire-and-bead basket and a blister on my foot from Zumba class ... and having had a wonderful holiday. Can't wait for next year.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Fourth Orange book: 26a

26a by Diana Evans won the first Orange Prize for New Writers back in 2005.  I have reviewed a couple of others from the New Writers lists: The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam from 2008 and The Personal History of Rachel Dupree from 2009. I also have it in mind to reread How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (also from 2005) since she reports on her blog that they have just begun filming in deepest Wales and it is a film that the girls and I will definitely be going to see.

26a has been a curious read since I have also been listening on CD to 'Half a Yellow Sun' by Chimamamda Ngozi Adichie, and a chunk of 26a is set in Nigeria so there was an interesting juxtaposition of cultural images and experiences. While I really enjoyed this book I kept feeling that I was not sure what kind of book the writer intended it to be. Is it a coming of age/loss of innocence story; there is an element of childlike naivety in Georgia and Bessi, the main protagonists, that persists throughout the book as we follow them in their growing up. It had the whole family saga thing going on, with the back story of Ida and how she ended up in Neasden, and the reassuring presence of their home at number 26 that they keep coming back to. And then there is this magical realist thing going on, with the rich imaginary life that the girls live, and share, dreams being significant and often foreboding, but this seems to lurch later in the book into an examination of mental illness. When they go off to live in Nigeria the book turns into a bit of a culture clash tale, examining where the children feel they belong. Yet in some ways it manages to successfully be all of these things without feeling too cluttered. While there are extended family and friends and so on the story keeps it's focus on the twins and it is their progress that you are engaged with.

What I really liked about it was the relationship between all four of the girls, the cohesion and loyalty between them in the face of a mother who withdraws and a father who becomes an alcoholic. The writing has a very chatty style, somewhat reminiscent of the way pre-teen girls talk to each other. It is very in the moment, from the perspective of youth, not of adults looking back to their childhood, and held in place historically by the parallel story of the marriage of Charles and Diana (there is a failed attempt to reignite the love between their parents by insisting they all watch the ceremony together). 

"Late in the summer of 1980, Kemy knocked on the door (that was the rule) when the twins were tring to decide whether Ida and Aubrey should get a divorce or not. Georgia had put a jar of roses on the windowsill so that she could picture them while she was deciding, and sliced a nectarine for them to share afterwards - the nectarine was their favourite fruit, because it's flesh was the colour of sunset. Bessi had wrapped her special duvet round her because she couldn't think when she was cold. Sky-blue slippers on their feet, they sat down in the strawberry corner and shut their eyes. They thought long and hard about it, drifting through possibilities. Five minutes past and ten minutes. Then into the silence, Georgia said, 'Mummy can't drive.' Bessi had not thought of this. It was definitely important because they needed a car for shopping and getting Ham to the vet next week to see to his cold. A cold could kill a hamster." (p.6)

It is just a wonderful portrait of family dynamics and the special relationship between twins, that is both a blessing and a burden. Am just going to put this other quote in because it made me smile, because Creature is the only baby I know who never ate bananas, and still hates them. Bessi has left home and gone to do voluntary work in the Carribean, this is in a letter to Georgia:

"Mrs John thinks I'm a rhinoceros. She gives me tons of rice and peas, and chicken, she even tried to give me the bum but i wasn't having that. I've told her I can't eat eggs or spinach and I don't like bananas. She's fine with the eggs and spinach, but she doesn't get the bananas bit. Her son Mervin is a banana farmer. In fact, most of the men in Trinity are banana farmers because it's a banana village. There's a plantation not far away up the mountain where they all go in the mornings with their knives. Mrs John keeps putting sliced bananas on the table at breakfast. She sits down and watched me not eat them, then she says to me, 'Why not try the banana, it's good for you?' She's arranged for Mervin to take me up to the plantation because she thinks it will cure me. I don't want to go, I don't want to go, if I must go I'll have to hold my breath to hide from the smell." (p.137)

Anyway, we're off in the morning (that me and Julie and some of our offspring) so I hope everyone has a great week and that the sun arrives for you too wherever you might be, since it seems that it is going to be shining down on us in deepest Suffolk.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

What is wrong with the world: part 1

I haven't had a new camera in about 17 years. The last one had real film in it and the pictures from it are housed in a box of photo albums that come to an abrupt halt some time around 2000. Since I am about to go away on a real holiday for the first time since we went to Menton with Claire and Nat back in 2008 I decided to invest in one of these newfangled digital things. (Yes, I know I take pictures of stuff all the time but the camera belongs to Dunk and I am barely trusted after the time I dropped a previous camera and broke it.) 
So this is what is wrong with the world (and this may very well become a new theme in my blogging, having reflected a little the other day): the item itself is a mere 4 inches by about 2 and a half, and this is the packaging that accompanied it on it's journey to my house from wherever it was before. It is one of the things I watch out for more than anything else when I shop and the thing that irritates me most when I can't avoid it. While recycling is all very well, and at least it is all cardboard, it is better not to have used all those boxes in the first place, the camera is not so fragile that it needs three layers of protection. 

We are off the Hesfes first thing on Saturday, for a week of guaranteed sunshine, but I have a review of 26a to write before then ... and I have to master the intricacies of all the buttons on the camera as well. 

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Not Orange but Orringer

'How to breathe under water' by Julie Orringer
This is an excellent collection of short stories, and as usual it has been on the library request list so long I can't remember where I read about it. Having said that it has not interrupted my Orange reading much as I only started it on Friday and finished it Sunday afternoon (I stayed in bed until mid afternoon to get myself into holiday mode.) 

Most of the stories in the book are about young or teenage girls, not all the same girl though you get the feeling it could be. There is a similiar environment and setting and threads of similar themes that run through them. Jewishness is one; in 'The smoothest way is full of stones' a young girl is staying with relatives who have newly rediscovered orthodoxy and she and her cousin are both engaged by and rebel against the rules. Several have mothers with cancer, causing an extended withdrawal from parenting responsibilities so children are forced back onto their own resources; children watching from the sidelines at part of life that they do not really understand and which the adults fail to notice. In 'Stars of Motown shining bright' it is friendships between girls, or the lack of it; it turns out the two girls have a thing for the same boy, but instead of turning on each other Lucy decides to save her friend from herself:

"Then she thought of the girl who'd crashed into her at the skating rink, the girl in the pink tank top who might or might not have been Connie. How Lucy had tried to let the girl know it was okay. How the girl had glared at her and said fuck you. That was what happened when girls treated each other the way those girls had treated Connie. They got to the point where they couldn't recognise help, where every other girl seemed like an enemy." (p.166)

They are all very well paced, giving you just enough background to get you sucked in, tantalising you with dangling details to keep you reading, and leaving you wondering what the consequences might have been when you get to the end. I think I liked 'Care' the best, about a young woman taking her niece out for the day and the spiral of anxiety caused when having some idea of what the right thing is when looking after a small child conflicts with her own addiction to mood altering chemicals:

"Tessa know how to cross the street with a six-year-old: you take her hand, look both ways, and wait until it's safe. Then you stay within the crosswalk as you cross. She does all these things as she guides Olivia, her niece, across the street towards the cable-car stop. There's a right way to take care of a child, she knows, and a wrong way. Many wrong ways. What you do not do: Take the drugs that are in your pocket, the Devvies and Sallies in their silver pillbox. She can make it through the day without them. Even bringing them was wrong -  another wrong thing. But it makes her feel better to have them close by." (p.123)

Although only one is written first person they were all very intense and intimate, giving you the perspective of a single protagonist, very much about the people, their relationships and their moral dilemmas. A most enjoyable read.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Third Orange Book: Home

Home by Marilynne Robinson won the Orange Prize back in 2009. I have read 'Housekeeping', her first novel from 1980, twice and love it. By coincidence the film adaptation was on the other night and I watched it, but it was sorely disappointing, not really capturing anything for the true atmosphere of the book or even the characters. I started reading 'Home', and in the first few pages it mentions Gilead (the place) so I looked it up to check it wasn't a sequel to 'Gilead' the novel, but found that it is set in the same place, the stories running concurrently. 'Home' follows the Boughton family, and the return of the prodigal son, Jack. It is about the troubled relationship between Jack and his father, though it is narrated from the point of view of Glory, the youngest daughter, also returned home to care for her dying father.

Set in very small town America, in the 1950's, with it's very small town attitudes mixed with a religious and social conservatism that is very confining Jack seems to have lived his whole life somewhat on the outside of everything, even his own family, never quite feeling like he belonged. After an absence of twenty years he seems to have come home to try and make peace with his father. Glory has returned following a lengthy failed engagement, during which it appears she has been swindled out of quite a bit of money, and a marriage that never happened, but which she keeps secret from her father and the local community. Jack has hit rock bottom, having been an alcoholic for many years and then in prison, but he too is hiding from a collapsed relationship, hoping the woman in question might forgive whatever depths he has fallen to. Her writing is just wonderful, so good that it allows me to skate over the continuous references to god, faith, souls, prayer, heaven and belief on general. It allows me too to skate over the imponderables of a morality and values that I find meaningless. They spend so much time and effort being concerned about things that don't really matter, mainly what other people think of them. And they all seem so desperate for the approval of the Reverend Ames (the subject of 'Gilead') but who I came to dislike intensely for his moral judgments on them. Don't read the book expecting anything dramatic to happen. Their days unfold quietly, between eating and sleeping and caring for their father and domestic chores they talk a little bit, but rarely about the important things. They both are determined to shoulder their separate burdens alone and not share them with their sibling. 

Lovely quotes, to show you that the book is worth reading after making it sound very dull:

"Not that they had been especially presentable even while the house was in its prime. Hide-and-seek had seen to that, and croquet and badminton and baseball. "Such times you had!" her father said, as if the present slight desolation were confetti and candy wrappers left after the passing of some glorious parade." (p.4)

"Again the starter and the engine, and after a minute or two the rattle and pop of gravel as the DeSoto eased backwards out of the barn. It gleamed darkly and demurely, like a ripe plum." (p.168)

"Glory went to look in on her father. He lay on his right side, his face composed, intent on sleep. His hair had been brushed into a soft white cloud, like harmless aspiration, like a mist given off by the endless work of dreaming. (p.317)

I like this about Jack; it sums up quite why he didn't fit in. He didn't share the sense that the family had of being a unit, of thinking and believing the same thing, of a sight sense of moral superiority:

"He was himself. That is what their father had always said, and by it he had meant that Jack was jostled along in the stream of their vigour and purpose and their good intentions, their habits and certitudes, and was never really a part of any of it. He had eaten their food and slept beneath their roof, wearing their clothes and speaking the dialect of their slightly self-enamoured and distinctly clerical family and, for all they knew, intending no parody even when he was old enough to have been capable of it, and to have been suspected of it. (p.259)

Jack alienates himself completely when he has a child with a local girl, who he then abandons. What I found alienated me from the Boughtons was that their attempts to help the girl and her baby were not inspired by anything genuine but by a sense of moral duty and  being seen to be 'doing the right thing', of trying to make amends, and their attempts were duly rejected by the girl and her family as patronising and morally judgemental. Jack's return is sparked partly by a need for forgiveness and redemption, but that is just never going to happen. Part of his nature rejects his family and community and their values, but part is still desperate to be accepted and acknowledged, so he feels he is a bad person and then has lived his life according to their expectations. He rejects them but can't help but define himself in their terms. It is all very twisted in my opinion.

And then there is sad little Glory, another one living out her life for other people, dreaming, but trying not to, of what her life might have been. Her own definition of what home is:

"She had dreamed of a real home for herself and the babies, and the fiancé, a home very different from this good and blessed and fustian and oppressive tabernacle of Boughton probity and good intent. She knew, she had known for years, that she would never open a door on that home, never cross the threshold, never scoop up a pretty child and set it on her hip and feel it lean into her breast and eye the world from her arms with the complacency of utter trust. Ah well." (p.107)

Just reading that bit  - "fustian and oppressive tabernacle of Boughton probity"- I like to think tells you what she really thinks. She is the good dutiful daughter, still getting down on her knees to pray, but deep down is desperate to escape everything that her upbringing was, but resigned to her fate of living in the house that her father announces he is leaving to her, and maintaining it as 'Home', as an unchanging symbol for her siblings to come back to, of their upbringing and where they really belong.

I liked the book because of it's conflating to the two notions of home; on the one hand that it is a place that you belong, can always come back to for sanctuary, but on the other it can be a malign influence, creating something that dominates how you view your future life and how you are supposed to live it. When the book started I thought it was going to be the first idea, with the group of siblings coming together, to appreciate and celebrate their shared childhood, but it turned out to be the other, with Jack still on the outside and Glory trapped in Gilead hell. It is one of those want-what-you-haven't-got moments for me. My family moved house a lot when I was a child. My parents live now in a house that was never my home. I always wished that we had a family home that was 'where I grew up', a place to go back to. I have wished I could have created just that for my own children. Instead I have lived my entire adult life in private rentals and will never own my own home. Mostly I have come to feel that it is not so much the place that matters but the people you are with. So spending time with my family feels like home and I hope it is the same for them. So, a subtle clever book, much thought provoking, if you don't mind the claustrophobia and can let the characters do their thing without getting too frustrated. 

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Five hundredth post

When I  started here on Blogger back in January 2009 I did not have any particular intention in mind, it was just something to occupy myself with. I have intermittently felt that the blog should have some kind of 'mission statement', something that tells visitors what it's all about and who I am, but whatever I tried writing tended to sound either too mundane or way too pretentious. Even writing a blog feels vaguely pretentious; why would anyone want to come here and read what I write. I guess mainly they don't. They come and look at pictures of lizard cakes and then go away again. But I have vaguely wanted it to be something other than a waffly perambulation through my life. 

So here I am 500 posts later and still rambling about books and knitting and wondering if my visitors would think they were in the wrong place if I dropped in a political treatise, an exhortation to 'improve' your lifestyle or a detailed analysis of what's wrong with the world. I used to have a little box by my profile picture that said some kind of nonsense about doing things quietly. It tends to give my title (silencing the bell that is) a bit of a double entendre. The original meaning was a reference to school bells, that tell children when to start and stop 'learning', and by extension how life is so often controlled by external forces, or social constraints, that tell you when it is time to do this or that, but also that in the post-small-child part of my life it has become metaphorically and literally quiet. Even though the nest is not quite empty I find myself at something of a loose end and I have all this spare time which I fill with books and fluffy stuff. Anyway, thanks for visiting, this blog has become quite important to me, in spite of the vague sense of dissatisfaction, so I'll stick with it a bit longer and see where the next 500 posts might go.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Second Orange book: The Pink Hotel

The library came up with The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard quicker than I anticipated so I sat down on Tuesday evening and started to read it, and sat up late last night to finish it (why is there a difference between sitting up and sitting down?) While not a great book it was thoroughly engaging. I think the person who wrote the blurb had not actually read the book as it was a distinctly inaccurate summary of the story. It tells of a young girl going to America when her estranged mother dies, and stealing a suitcase of her possessions through which she struggles to make some sense of her mother's life and her feelings about her.

Ok, am going to pick fault with it before I start. I'm sorry but these small things occur to me when I read a book and I *hate* logical inconsistencies in plots. You are presented with the home life of this girl ... it is not affluent, quite the opposite. Ok, stealing her step-mother's credit card was fine ... but she had never been abroad, stated quite clearly ... why would she have owned a passport! She could not have flown to america, full stop. So the story had this credibility problem for me when it had barely begun. However I didn't dwell on it too long as you are drawn right in to this strange new environment and the girl's rather peculiar behaviour. It was not what I expected at all. I only just realised that the narrating character does not have a name. I think that was kind of symbolic. That she didn't really know who she was. I thought, and she did for some of the time (as it says in the blurb), that she was going to try and find out about her mother. But mainly she needed the space, away from her life, to find out about herself. Lily, the mother, had given birth at just 14 and then three years later abandoned her daughter, leaving her with her father. Running away to America she got married twice, trained as a nurse and then inherited the Pink Hotel from a patient, where she appeared to live a somewhat hedonistic lifestyle throwing drug-fuelled parties. The daughter just hangs around, and ends up living with David, someone who she meets after the wake, and thinks is a former boyfriend of her mother's. She doesn't tell him who she is. And there are things, it turns out, that he is not telling her. To begin with she comes across as really young, immature, but she has this cocky self-confidence, the term street-wise would certainly apply, and she seems to slip easily into the slightly sleazy world her mother lived in. There are regular strange dream sequences that seemed a little out of place, I think trying to impress upon the reader how messed up this girl is, but you really didn't need it after all the discussion of her scars. 

The book is a rite of passage story. It is about a girl who slips out of her scuffed trainers and sweaty t-shirt and into her mother's fuscia silk dress, trying it on for size, but in the end finding she does not need to dress up. A girl who was essentially dislocated from people and places, but who finds a place to be. Even though she shared her mother's streak of dishonesty I couldn't help but like her, because she was truthful about the things that mattered.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

This is Paradise

This is Paradise by Will Eaves was recommended on Dove Grey Reader but I am not sure I paid enough attention to it, or maybe I read it in too small bedtime bursts to really appreciate the writing. 

It is the story of the Allden family, from the dangerous birth of baby Benjamin to the death of Emily and the quiet after the storm that her family manage to reach. It is all beautifully written, understated, but even though I identified quite closely watching the relationships between the siblings I felt somewhat detached and uninvolved with them. I didn't feel as if I really got to know anyone, there were too many perspective competing for attention. I am always quite drawn to stories of 'ordinary' families, because it's interesting to compare what you have experienced, both as a child and as a parent, with other people's ideas of what 'ordinary' is. 

Emily seemed a little devoid of personality, and the father, Don, was mostly downright unpleasant. Liz is the self-sufficient, reliable older daughter, Lotte the uninteresting middle one and Benjamin neatly fills the niche of baby-of-the-family. The only really interesting one is Clive, who seems to want all sorts of things he is unable to articulate. His interactions with the world are most peculiar as if it is all nonsensical to him and he just goes about his own life not expecting it to make sense. Here he goes to get a passport photograph taken at a machine that appears to be out of order:

"The machine gave a chemical grunt as four images arranged two by two dropped unexpectedly into the delivery tray. Clive took them quickly, deaf to the expostulations of Ted Pascoe and the walrus in uniform.
He had no quarrel with the photos' snowy brightness, no interest in their presentability at Customs. It was the element of make-believe he could not stand to see in them. The fists - anyone would notice - were raised too high, making it harder for the fighter to see his opponent, while inside the matchwood cage of his forearms an unprotected chest edged down into ribs as sharp and thin as the tines of a dinner fork. The hair lay upon there neck and wept.
Apart from that, things were shaping up nicely." (p.29-30)

And here he finally makes it to a dentist appointment:

"The following Saturday Clive caught the more reliable 113 to Mr Naish's practice and presented himself at reception. One of the spinning assistants asked him to go through: Jeremy wouldn't keep him waiting. After about half an hour, the dentist appeared, apologising. Clive listened in respectful silence, his head on one side. The he rose from the green chair and said brightly, 'I'm sorry, Mr Naish, but you're late. You can't treat me.' And walked out." (p.51)

The most interesting part of the book really is where they are sitting around at the nursing home in anticipation of their mother's death. When people have nothing much to do but have be around people with whom they don't usually spend much time it brings out all sorts of stuff:

" 'That's enough from you, bossy-boots,' he snapped, the childish reprimand a galvanising mishit. 'Who made you chief carer? Who appointed you?' An alarm went off in another part of the building. Voices called and laughed and buzzers buzzed. 'You. You fucking - ' The spare room rang with obscenities.
Liz appeared in the corridor and gazed along it, at Benjamin. They were mirror images, each standing trying to work out what to do. The miracle of it was that Lotte didn't run as soon as Clive started, and that neither Liz nor Benjamin felt able to intervene. The outstretched hand is helpless, Benjamin thought belatedly. The truth was that they were both afraid. Clive came at you in waves. They stood like passengers on a boat watching someone in the water." (p.234-5)

All in all it was an interesting read, but I think I have had a bit of trouble settling to things and was thinking more about my planned Orange reading. I have started and abandoned Charlotte Grey and Ordinary Thunderstorms in the last few weeks so at least I did get this one finished. So, somewhat ambivalent really, try it if you like that kind of thing.

First Orange book: State of Wonder

Orange July has got off to a very good start with State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (from the 2012 shortlist.) I read and reviewed her Orange winner Bel Canto in 2010, and it was one of my favourite books of the year. I have listened to this one on audiobook, trying to avoid getting drips and painty fingerprints on the CD player.

Marina works in a pharmaceutical lab and is confronted one morning with the news that her colleague, Anders Eckman, has died during a trip to the Amazon. He was there to check up on the progress of a field team led by the elusive Dr Swenson. At the behest of her boss, Mr Fox, and  Anders' distraught wife Karen, Marina sets out to discover the details of the tale. The whereabouts of Dr Swenson's research station is a closely guarded secret and before she can even venture into the jungle Marina must get past the Bovenders,  a young australian couple who occupy the flat that is her only point of contact. There is obviously some very significant work going on as there seems to be an open cheque book for the project. Eventually Dr Swenson turns up and Marina goes with her to live with the tribe who's incredible fertility is being studied. Things turn out to be much more complicated than it first appears, and the tribal women's much more significant resistance to malaria is curiously linked to their fertility. Marina rapidly becomes absorbed into the new life she finds herself living and a young deaf boy called Easter, adopted by Dr Swenson from a neighbouring tribe, somehow becomes the linchpin of the entire story. It is Mr Fox's abrupt arrival in search of Marina towards the end of the story that brings about a dramatic denouement.

As with Bel Canto this book is very much about atmosphere. It is about a sense of dislocation, little devices like her lost luggage serve to cut Marina off from the world she knows and force her to simply wait and see what happens next. It was very, very slow to get going and it took me a long time to understand the point of it all. Although written in the third person it focusses so heavily on the thoughts and actions of Marina that it feels more like she is writing about herself, but almost watching herself from the outside. She is a very passive person; that is her defining characteristic. But not thoughtlessly so. She is also quite naive so I found myself identifying with her. Dr Swenson, on the other hand, is forceful to the point of domineering. She made me think of Lord Asriel in Dark Materials, who makes things happen by sheer force of will. She is totally dedicated, obsessed with the importance of the work she is conducting, considering only the basic practical things in life that allow the work to continue uninterrupted. She has isolated the research station from their corporate sponsors, keeping them away from the research and even denying them information about the progress towards a usable drug. We discover there are ulterior motives for this behaviour. I only wrote down one quote as I listened. It made me laugh out loud and summed up her attitude towards all intrusions on her work. She and Marina are at the store ordering supplies, and she assesses the significance of Marina's character and presence in the party thus:

"It was impossible to know how many apricots a person would eat once they had been removed from civilisation."

What I admired about Bel Canto is the same with State of Wonder. The situation is morally ambiguous, and the story raises all sorts of questions, but does not even pretend to answer them for you. Leaving aside the slightly strange situation where she has lived with the tribe for ten years and failed to learn how to talk their language you are left with very big questions about the place of scientific research, the use of natural resources, the destruction of indigenous cultures. Then there are all the questions about extended fertility, the impact of having babies on women's lives. Can unethical behaviour be justified if you are acting for the greater good? Why does Dr Swenson think she can make moral choices on behalf of others? The two women are such polar opposites, and the relationship between them is very interesting. I guess it is part of why I like women literary fiction writers, precisely because they are interested in the relationships between their women characters. This book was hard to get in to, but I think the rewards for perseverance were definitely worth it. The Orange Prize never lets me down.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Something to scream about

 On reflection his expression is less a scream of existential angst and more one of "oh, my god, what have you done!" We had been told by the estate agent when we took the place that it was fine to decorate and I said to the landlord the first time he came around that I would not do anything outlandish ... so I guess he's not going to be inspecting the whole house again until we are ready to move out and I have meticulously and regretfully painted over the whole thing.

So our bedroom had these very tedious and nondescript built-in cupboards, with false panels created by some cheap wooden battens. They are pretty good storage allowing me to hide all the crap that used to be in the loft in the old house. I had been mulling over some kind of decoration for a while. Then I saw some pictures online of bookcase murals (for people who don't have enough real books) and rather took to the idea.

So here they are in their original incarnation:
 I painted an undercoat of white over the battening (They are in the wrong position to use as a framework. I debated removing it but it would have made a mess of the surface and made more work, so I am ignoring them):
 Then added a framework of shelving (the broken one was Creature's idea) The section where the drawers are may become an aquarium or some such:
 The first shelf looked a bit like this. Books would float at random because it was hard to paint ones next to each other without touching and smudging:
 It is going to be a long term project but after several weeks of work (not constant, just Sundays and a few days off and odd afternoons) there has been considerable progress:
Today I have been working on this section. Tish did the wine bottle weeks ago; I added the clock, ink pot and random books. The Mondrian was done earlier this week. Don't look too closely or you will see how amateurish and wobbly my painting is. I am sticking to simple ideas that can be copied from pictures:
 Skull and suitcase:
 The broken shelf, and, amusingly, if it was not broken there would not be space for the things on it to stand upright. I didn't think of that until after I painted the vase but now I quite like the idea:
 Potion bottles on the top shelf painted by Creature:
 And the globe, that I am most proud of:
So, as you can see there is still quite a way to go. Sometimes if I don't have any particular inspiration I just come and do some touching up of all the smudgy, wobbly bits (I did get a bit better when I bought some decent brushes.) If anyone has any suggestions for oddities to add to a shelf please feel free ... just painting books is very uninteresting so I am trying to mix it up. The books will all have titles in the end though at the moment those kind of details are being neglected. 


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