Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Appearance and disappearance

'The Sudden Appearance of Hope' by Claire North was a weird book. I think that is its defining quality. Hope has this quality of 'being forgotten', not just 'not memorable' but that, moments after leaving her presence, people have no recollection of ever meeting her. It makes life quite hard, as you might imagine, so her life has become a little unconventional. Living by stealing and gambling means she has become part of a subculture that includes the criminal underworld. When a young woman she considers a 'friend' commits suicide she blames it on the insidious 'Perfection' app that is taking over people's lives, and she becomes involved in a plot to destroy the app. I think Claire North is trying to write a book for the iPhone age, and as someone who doesn't own a smartphone I found it hard to care that much. It was a really long book that went round in circles, with the recurring fact of Hope being forgotten by everyone she meets as a tediously repetitive feature of the narrative. I persevered with it because ... well to be honest I just stared at the pages for a bit then turned them. Are we really all being programmed by phone apps to be and buy what is fed to us? I don't know anyone like that. I liked this bit about Manchester:

"I took the train to Manchester. Straight streets between stiff, industrial architecture. Short cathedral tucked in between shopping mall and roaring traffic. Museum dedicated to football, galleries from warehouses, town hall snaked around with trams, stone columns, red brick, not enough trees, crossing the canals at the lock gates, clinging to the black iron handles as you edge, one foot at a time to the other side. The screech of the railway lines, the cyclists ready to pedal through the Pennines, is this home?" (p.326)

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Books of 2016 (because the rest was too awful)

It's been a bad year; politically, socially, economically, environmentally, and pretty much all the other allys. The kind of year when you just want to crawl under a rock and hide. I have tried not to hide from it, to, at the very least, know a little about what has been happening around the world even though the sense of being unable to affect it can be overwhelming. To all my regular and random visitors, Happy Christmas and I hope wherever you are that life is treating you kindly.

I feel a little lacklustre about the reading I have done this year so I hope my annual review of books is going to remind me that it has not been a total dead loss. 

Night Waking by Sarah Moss
Lives like Loaded Guns by Lyndall Gordon
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
Emma by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Ausen and Seth Graeme Smith
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds
The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
The Bluebird Cafe by Rebecca Smith
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
How to be Both by Ali Smith
Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
Camila by Chingiz Atimatov
The Boy who Kicked Pigs by Tom Baker
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Letters of Note by Shaun Usher
Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume
The Fault in our Stars by John Green
Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World by Donald Antrim
Boneland by Alan Garner
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
may we be forgiven by A.M. Holmes
The Illusion of Separateness by Simon van Booy
Alone in Berlin by Hans Falada
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
The Offering Grace McCleen
Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
My Antonia by Willa Cather
A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale
A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving
This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Holmes
Without a Map by Meredith Hall
The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia
The Boat by Nam Le
The Buried Giant Kazuo Ishiguro
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
The Sneetches and other stories by Dr Seuss
The Crow Road by Iain Banks
The Many by Wyl Menmuir
Tony Hogan bought me an ice-cream float by Kerry Hudson
The Motorcycle Diaries by Erneso Guevara
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
How to be Wild by Simon Barnes
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood
Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century by Neil Postman
Foxlowe by Eleanor Wasserberg
The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
Children at the Gate by Lynn Reid Banks

54 books, which is about average for me, though sometimes reading has felt like wading through treacle and I have made myself finish a couple of books even when I wondered why I was bothering. Recommendations from the year: unexpectedly fascinating, Lives Like Loaded Guns, about Emily Dickinson and her legacy; for a totally absorbing story, A Prayer for Owen Meany; for lovely understated writing, Grief is the Thing with Feathers; to understand another's experience Yellow Birds. The best, best thing I have read this year however is Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake that Monkey and I have been reading aloud together. We are only about half way through, and she has been away a lot recently so little progress is being made but do watch out for a coming review of this, it is a classic and a book unlike anything else you will have read.

I have done little knitting, more crochet and quite a bit of sewing, though my Turkish coat project has been sorely neglected, finishing it may be my new year resolution. Dunk has a new job, which seems to be less depressing than the old one, as least he feels appreciated. All other things are pretty much the same. In case you are wondering the Christmas tree was inspired by this video, and what with having to buy a glue gun it cost as much as a real tree.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Children at the Gate

Lynn Reid Banks is a writer who has been part of my life for a very long time. I read the 'L-Shaped Room' trilogy when I was a teenager and it had quite an influence on me. I picked up 'Children at the Gate' in Hay a couple of weeks ago because I have not read anything else by her since. 
Ostensibly about a woman recovering from the death of her young son and the subsequent breakdown of her marriage it is a very atmospheric book that captures Israel of the 1960s, painting us pictures of the Arab quarter in Acco, the Kibbutz and then the port of Jaffa. Gerda lives on the seedy side of town in a run down house, befriended only by Kofi who wants to save her from her self-destructive behaviour. When she finally confides her history to him he arranges for her to adopt two supposed Arab orphans. To avoid the attentions of the authorities she takes them to live at a nearby Kibbutz. Though they all settle into the life there the children's past catches up with them and they are forced to move on.

"The square outside was pitch dark except for a paraffin lamp hissing high up on one of the arched galleries opposite. Our house has iron balconies but the rest of the square was built much earlier and has a kind of cloister with beautiful arches at first-floor level which goes round three sides of the square. I say 'beautiful' because at night they are - this is Acco's second self, her night-self, when all the day-smells are lifted from her and replaced by cool sea-winds drifting through her narrow alleys and flooding softly into the open squares; when darkness covers the dirt and squalor like snow, leaving only the shapes, the smooth outlines of domes and minarets against the stars, the perfectly balanced archways, the mysterious broken flights of stairs and half-open doorways, the cold but not unkind flare of a paraffin lamp showing a brief interior, its walls painted in grotto shades of blue and green and hung with prints whose cheap tastelessness a passing glimpse does not show." (p.28)

"I hardly slept at all, and only a great mug of black coffee in the grey damp early morning cleared my head sufficiently so I could stumble through the empty streets to Kofi's house. Only when I got there did I realise it was far too early to burst in upon him. I wandered about in a fever of impatience; the rain began to fall again in sheets and I took shelter in a tunnel-like archway. I could see the minaret of the big mosque from there, and soon the muezzin came out on the circular balcony, a small, oddly heroic figure, and gave his call to the wet empty morning like some lonely bird crying for company. The minor-key notes burst from his throat like a series of underwater bubbles and streamed through the rain almost visibly, splashing open on closed wooden doors and bruised yellow walls and the eardrums of faithful and unbelieving alike." (p.98)

Since I was a child I have been fascinated with the idea of Kibbutz, I am not sure where I learned about them but the notion of living communally was something that drew me. So although the story is about mothering and it's impact I was almost more interested in the picture it drew of life in this most unusual of organisations. The book is told first person by Gerda and is full of self hatred and exquisite examination of all her inadequacies. It takes her several years, but the story charts her struggle to learn to value herself again as she learns to take care of the needs of the children and build a relationship with them. However, when her new life crumbles around her she falls back into her old habits of thought very easily. I found her a not very likeable character, desperately needy and selfish; she wants to be a better person than she is but struggles so hard to believe herself capable of it. I enjoyed it for the honesty of how Gerda tells her story, the contrast between her self-doubt and the growing confidence in her role as mother to Ella and Peretz, she is a very real human being. Lynne Reid Banks spend time living on a kibbutz and her experiences found their way into several of her novels. Politically the story is very neutral, not presenting Israel in either a positive or negative light; the difficulties of the children being illegal immigrants is very matter of fact, and though the 'war' starts at the end of the book the story manages to stay away from the fraught political situation of the time.  

Friday, 16 December 2016

The Well of Loneliness

'The Well of Loneliness' by Radclyffe Hall.
This fascinating Brainpickings article outlines the ins and outs of the obscenity trials, both here and in the US, that made this book and its author cultural icons of the 20th century. I nearly gave up on it during the early chapters as it is deathly dull, as a young child she is just confused and made bereft by the loss of her beloved father, but once Stephen begins to confront rather than hide from the difference she knows marks her out it became more interesting. The book charts the life of a young woman as she comes to understand her sexuality and gender identity, from her childhood crush on a young housemaid, through an intense friendship with a married woman, to an enduring love affair with a young woman she meets during the First World War. Her unease with all things female is evident from a young age and her inability to conform the social expectations weighs heavily on her as the years pass. Born into the wealth she is somewhat protected from the consequences of what would have been a catastrophic ostracising by her social class; her inheritance provides for her and when events takes her to Paris she has the means to establish a new life for herself. I expected the move to Paris to provide her with a bohemian enclave of support and friendship but it is a rather small and sorry little group that she becomes part of, all of them equally on the run from disapproval. She longs wistfully for home and her childhood throughout the book and never confronts her mother over her cruel rejection. She looks at herself and sees only oddness, never learning to relish and celebrate her unconventionality, constantly, it seems, wishing she were more normal and acceptable. 

I think that what I liked about the book is that it is just the story of a woman trying to make her way in the world, trying to make her mark and trying to protect the person she loves. The style is very dated and somewhat repetitive, long descriptions of Stephen's inner thoughts that go over the same subjects time and again. She is a very strong and likeable character, and in fact most of the other people in the story are somewhat shallow and underdeveloped; the book is about Stephen, the other players just people the background of her life. I think the book of course is very much of its time and the gender roles (and social class divides) that it describes are so much more rigid than nowadays. Here are two contrasting quotes on how Stephen relates to women and men:

"There she would stand with her strong arms folded, and her face somewhat strained in an effort of attention. While despising these girls, she yet longed to be like them - yes, indeed, at such moments she longed to be like them. It would suddenly strike her that they seemed very happy, very secure of themselves as they gossiped together. There was something so secure in their feminine conclaves, a secure sense of oneness, of mutual understanding; each in turn understood the other's ambitions. They might have their jealousies, their quarrels even, but always she discerned underneath, that sense of oneness." (p.74)

"Could Stephen have met men on equal terms, she would always have chosen them as her companions; she preferred them because of their blunt, one outlook, and with men she had much in common - sport for instance. But men found her too clever if she ventured to expand, and too dull if she suddenly subsided into shyness. In addition to this there was something about her that antagonised slightly, an unconscious presumption. shy though she might be, they sensed this presumption; it annoyed them, it made them feel on the defensive. she was handsome but much too large and unyielding both in body and mind, and they liked clinging women. They were oak-trees, preferring the feminine ivy. It might cling rather close, it might finally strangle, it frequently did, and yet they preferred it, and this being so, they resented Stephen, suspecting something of an acorn about her." (p.74-5)

It is very much a cry for tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality and gender fluidity, and the thing that the book does well is to allow the reader to feel the depth of her sorrow and vulnerability over being shunned by society. I am not sure I would recommend it other than for its curiosity value, but it began a conversation that continues to this day and the story has an enduring relevance simply because there is still so far to go towards the tolerance she yearned for.

Sunday, 27 November 2016


I waited in the library queue for many months for 'Foxlowe' by Eleanor Wasserberg. Simon Savage reviewed it back in the summer and I regularly trust his recommendations. The book is about a community of people who share a mouldering old house and appear on the surface to share a philosophy about life, but in fact are controlled quite blatantly by Freya, who has created a mythology around the 'Bad' outside and the protective qualities of the local stone circle and its magical solstice sunset. The story is told by Green and focusses on the lives of the three children, herself, Toby and her little sister Blue, and their growing up, isolated from, suspicious of, but also curious about, the outside world. You can see immediately that what you are reading about is a cult; the inward looking community is dominated by Freya who's whims and peculiarities are the guiding light of everyone's behaviour, and Leavers are only mentioned in hushed whispers. While it was an engaging story I found myself on the outside looking in, somehow finding it far fetched and a little predictable. There was no depth to any of the other adult characters, they just seemed to people the background. The passage of time is very vague, years seem to go by with no change, except that instead of thriving you have the sense that they are going downhill, there are no resources to pay the water or electricity bill and food often seems scarce. But then the arrival of two women from Social Services sparks a crisis. The rest of the tale is told partly in retrospect by Green, now called Jess, after the breakup of the Family. Her inability to make a new life and a yearning to recreate what has become, for her, an idyllic childhood is something that preoccupies her. 

While I think the insidious nature of Freya's control is very well portrayed I felt that the lack in the other adult characters was just a weak way of never having any of them challenge what was going on. It was believable for the children to grow up in this way, but adults with other life experience and their own moral code would not have stayed quiet. I guess I also find gullible and superstitious people a bit annoying and cannot credit why any intelligent person would believe that a circle of salt will protect you from bad stuff. Rejecting society to grow your own food, raise your children in a natural environment and make art is one thing, believing in some weird myths about 'Bad' just left me cold. Having read several of the 'How to spot a psychopath' type articles on the interweb it was patently obvious that Freya is not a well woman and the lasting impact of her behaviour on Green is well telegraphed.

"Of course I knew it would be the Spike Walk straight away, but Freya liked to tease it out. When it was me, she'd come and sit on the bed and ask me how I thought I should be punished, and I'd suggest ways, but it was always the Spike Walk in the end. Somehow it was worse to play the same game for Blue. It was her first time." (p.55)

"She glanced round at everyone, and I followed where she looked, a trick I'd learned. It avoided her gaze, but also made her happy with me, as though I was with her. Dylan was pale and miserable. He looked between Kai, still slumped against the stone, and Freya. Ellen and Pet were biting their nails, their eyes damp. Egg was staring at his feet, his hands in his pockets. Toby knew my trick and stared right back at me, blinking slowly. Blue rocked from foot to foot and ran her thumbnail over her top lip, calming herself." (p.96)

"Freya brought her arm around me, and held up the mirror, just as I had done with Blue. Split by the cracks, our eyes and brows and lips came back to us disassembled, and I saw how much my eyes were Freya's eyes, how they narrowed at the ends, how the lashes didn't curl like Blue's but stuck out long and startling.
- What a beauty you're growing up to be, Freya said.
I smiled and one of the broken lips curled up, showing straight stained teeth.
Freya laughed again, holding her nose, like she was underwater.
- Oh! Poor Green. I don't mean it. You can't see, you're a skinny rag, no flesh on you, your arse is flat and you've no boobs at all, and your hips jut out like knives. But don't worry - she pulled my hair - You're a good girl. Want to keep it? Finders keepers?
I knew the answer to this one.
- No, it's everyone's. I'll put it in Jumble to share, I said." (p.137-8)

"The Family took up this thread guiltily, steering us away to a kinder place, away from the sharp drop of the question of our baby, our youngest sister, becoming a Leaver. We were more indulgent of Blue than was normal, and spoke about how different it was for her, because she didn't know about the world, and we should only try and make her understand, so that she didn't misstep again, and when Freya pointed out that I, Green, was even more of a born Foxlowe girl, but I was good, and I knew how to behave, I could only say, - Blue doesn't have the Bad, she just doesn't. And then the group began to grumble about hunger, and talk turned to food. Freya stepped over Blue and gave her a look that said she hadn't done with her yet, and there would be a Spike Walk for her later, and then gave her a nod to dismiss her." (p.182-3)

So, an interesting and somewhat disturbing coming-of-age tale, a young girl yearning for unconditional love; I was going to say a salutary lesson in the power of nurture over nature, and then I realised that Freya is her mother, so maybe, in this case, it's both.

Did you mean the Cinema Bookshop or the bookshop cinema?

Alternatively titled 'A random hour in Hay on Wye'. Monkey's best friend lives in the middle of the magical bookshop town of Hay. This is the second time I have dropped her off there, but the first time any of the bookshops were open, so despite the fact that I was heading off to my mum's birthday party I could not avoid taking an hour to do a tiny bit of browsing. Bookshops are everywhere, but also just random books are everywhere in Hay. This is one of many 'honesty' shops, in the grounds of Hay Castle; have a browse and put your money in the box, however it could take a long time to find a gem in amongst the rubbish. We only went in a few places, and unfortunately the Poetry Bookshop didn't open till 11. I had a list of some of the books from the 101 Books list that I was hoping to come across but I think that I would need much, much longer.
Some shops have space and order:
Some shops run on pure quirkiness:
This is Addyman Books, where you will find a bat cave, engine parts adorning the stairwells and, as you reach the summit of the building, a bed to rest on in the mountaineering section.
I have long yearned to visit Hay and this was too brief a stopover, I foresee a return trip very soon.
I bought 'Children at the Gate' by Lynne Reid Banks and 'Expensive People' by Joyce Carol Oates.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Bridge Building

Neil Postman wrote a book called 'Teaching as a Subversive Activity' that was a significant influence on me when my children were home educated. I bought 'Building a Bridge to the 18th Century' several years ago and it has been waiting patiently on the list. The book is about the ideas of the 18th century and how they laid the foundation for the modern world and 20th century thinking, and what they still have to offer us in terms of the future: "I do not mean - mind you- technological ideas, like going to the moon, airplanes and antibiotics. We have no shortage of those ideas. I am referring to the ideas of which we can say they have advanced our understanding of ourselves, enlarged our definition of humanness." (p.13-14)

"The eighteenth century is the century of Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Kant, Hume, Gibbon, Pestalozzi, and Adam Smith. It is the century of Thomas Paine, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin. In the eighteenth century we developed our ideas of inductive science, about religious and political freedom, about popular education, about rational commerce, and about the nation-state. In the eighteenth century, we also invented the idea of progress, and, you may be surprised to know, our modern idea of happiness. It was in the eighteenth century that reason began to triumph over superstition. And, inspired by Newton, who was elected president of the Royal Society at the beginning of the century, writers, musicians, and artists conceived of the universe as orderly, rational, and comprehensible." (p.17-18)

I read it over several months so have not ended up with a coherent picture of his message, so am going to give you a selection of quotes that I noted as I read. He examines ideas surrounding progress, the use of language to understand ideas:

"We struggle as best we can to connect our words with the world of non-words. Or, at least, to use words that will resonate with the experiences of those whom we address. But one worries, nonetheless, that a generation of young people may become entangled in an academic fashion that will increase their difficulties in solving real problems - indeed, in facing them. Which is why, rather than reading Derrida, they ought to read Diderot, or Voltaire, Rousseau, Swift, Madison, Condorcet, or many of the writers of the Enlightenment period who believed that, for all of the difficulties in mastering language, it is possible to say what you mean, to mean what you say, and to be silent when you have nothing to say. They believed that it is possible to use language to say things about the world that are true - true, meaning they are testable and verifiable, that there is evidence for believing. Their belief in truth included statements about history and about social life, although they knew that such statements were less authoritative than those of a scientific nature. They believed in the capacity of lucid language to help them know when they had spoken truly or falsely. Above all, they believed that the purpose of language is to communicate ideas to oneself and to others. Why, at this point in history, so many Western philosophers are teaching that language is nothing but a snare and a delusion, that it serves only to falsify and obscure, is mysterious to me." (p.80-81)

the place of information and narrative within our culture:

"The problem addressed in the nineteenth century was how to get more information to more people, faster, and in more diverse forms. For 150 years, humanity has worked with stunning ingenuity to solve this problem. The good news is we have. The bad news is that, in solving it, we have created another problem, never before experienced: information glut, information as garbage, information divorced from purpose and even meaning. As a consequence, there prevails amongst us what Langdon Winner calls 'mythinformation' - no lisp intended. It is an almost religious conviction that at the roots of our difficulties - social, political, ecological, psychological - is the fact that we do not have enough information." (p.89)

"Those who speak enthusiastically about the great volume of statements about the world available on the Internet do not usually address how we may distinguish the true from the false. By it's nature, the Internet can have no interest in such a distinction. It is not a 'truth' medium; it is an information medium." (p.92)

"I define knowledge as organised information - information that is embedded in some context; information that has a purpose, that leads one to seek further information in order to understand something about the world. Without organised information, we may know something of the world, but very little about it. When one has knowledge, one knows how to make sense of information, know how to relate information to one's life, and, especially, knows when information is irrelevant.
It is fairly obvious that some newspaper editors are aware of the distinction between information and knowledge, but not nearly enough of them. There are newspapers whose editors do not yet grasp that in a technological world, information is a problems, not a solution. They will tell us things we already know about and will give little or no space to providing a sense of context or coherence." (p.93)

and the role of education and childhood:

"In the Protestant view, the child is an unformed person who, through literacy, education, reason, self-control and shame, may be made into a civilised adult. In the Romantic view, it is not the unformed child but the deformed adult who is the problem. The child possesses as his or her birthright capacities for candour, understanding, curiosity, and spontaneity that are deadened by literacy, education, reason, self-control, and shame." (p.121)

"The whole idea of schooling, now, is to prepare the young for competent entry into the economic life of the community so that they well continue to be devoted consumers." (p.126)

Including an interesting suggestion for the improvement of scientific education:

"The story told by creationists is also a theory. That a theory has its origins in a religious metaphor or belief is irrelevant. Not only was Newton a religious mystic but his conception of the universe as a kind of mechanical clock constructed and set in motion by God us about as religious an idea as you can find. What is relevant is the question, To what extent does a theory meet scientific criteria of validity? The dispute between evolutionists and creation scientists offers textbook writers and teachers a wonderful opportunity to provide students with insights into the philosophy and methods of science. After all, what students really need to know is not whether this or that theory is to be believed, but how scientists judge the merit of a theory. Suppose students were taught the criteria of scientific theory evaluation and then were asked to apply these criteria to the two theories in question. Wouldn't such a task qualify as authentic science education?" (p.168)

It is a hard book to pin down because he covers so many ideas, and often assumes rather a lot of knowledge on the part of his readers, though the book is all the better for that, there is nothing worse than academics dumbing down their thinking. I think it lacked some kind of conclusion, just ending with several appendices of quotations from a wide variety of writers from Lord Byron to George Orwell, and an essay on why television is ruining childhood. This book, reflecting on the impact the current technological revolution is having on our society, was published in 1999 and was Postman's final book, and I can't help but wonder what he might have made of where we are now.

Wild Flower Jacket and other crochet

After my foray into crochet a couple of months ago I wanted to progress my skills, so with some wonderful vibrant cotton yarn I made an Augusta shawl as a birthday present for my sister Claire. I learned how to do shaping and a couple of new stitches. 
In browsing Ravelry I had come across numerous patterns for circular cardigans and the Wild Flower Jacket became my next project. I managed to order some Drops Alpaca which was completely the wrong weight of yarn for the pattern and so ended up using the yarn doubled, and mixing the shades up so in the end it was perfect because it gave me a bigger variety of colours. It was a very steep learning curve, going from a simple double crochet to “7 ch, then work 4 triple tr tog as follows: Work 2 triple tr in same ch as last triple tr but wait with last YO and pull through on both triple tr, skip 1 dc + 1 ch + 1 dc, work 1 triple tr in next ch but wait with last YO and pull through, then work last triple tr in same ch and pull last YO through all 5 sts on hook”!
The jacket is made all in one piece with holes left to attach the sleeves. I came to very much appreciate the joys of crochet, it grows so much quicker than knitting; it took about a month to make. I felt quite pleased with my new skills as I adapted the pattern by attaching and shaping the sleeves from the top rather than crocheting them separately and sewing them in place. I did not plan the colours, just changing randomly. I used a total of 12 50g balls that cost just under £36, with only a few scraps left that are already being turned into hexipuffs.

I can definitely see a granny square blanket somewhere in my future.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016


Monkey insisted I read 'Maddaddam' (that I have only just realised is a palindrome) by Margaret Atwood so she could talk about it with me. She has read the trilogy in fairly quick succession whereas it is five years since I read 'The Year of the Flood' and my memory of it was a bit hazy. Where Year of the Flood and Oryx and Crake are set roughly simultaneously 'Maddaddam' follows on pretty much immediately where Year of the Flood leaves off with Toby and Zeb and some of the Gardeners and Maddaddamites trying to build a new community with the Crakers while being threatened variously by some crazed Painballers and the quasi intelligent Pigoons. I love what Margaret Atwood is trying to achieve with this series of books, to imagine the end of civilization and what it would take to start again. The Crakers are Crake's created race of people, supposedly with none of the nasty urges that made human beings such a disaster, but what is really interesting is that despite his best interests the Crakers have, in trying to understand the world better, have build for themselves a mythology around Crake and Orxy as their creators. 

Within this book, alongside the ongoing struggle for survival, what we learn is the backstory of Zeb and Adam, who might, or might not be brothers. Zeb relates to Toby and she then becomes the story teller to the Crakers, since Snowman-the-Jimmy is indisposed. So we get the sad tale of their crappy childhood and escape into the underworld and gradually emergence with the support of various agents of resistance. 
Here is a description of the Rev, their father, and it sounds freakily familiar:

"The Rev had his very own cult. That was the way to go in those days if you wanted to coin the megabucks and you had a facility for ranting and bullying, plus golden-tongues whip'em-up preaching, and you lacked some other grey-area but highly marketable skills, such a derivative trading. Tell people what they want to hear, call yourself a religion, put the squeeze on for contributions, run your own media outlets and use them for robocalls and slick online campaigns, befriend or threaten politicians, evade taxes. You had to give the guy some credit. He was twisted as a pretzel, he was a tinfoil-halo shit-nosed frogstomping king rat asshole, but he wasn't stupid.
As witness his success. By the time Zeb came along, the Rev had a megachurch, all glass slabbery and pretend oak pews and faux granite, out on the rolling plains. The church of PetrOleum, affiliated with the somewhat more mainstream Petrobaptists. They were riding high for a while, about the time accessible oil became scarce and the price shot up and desperation among the pleebs set in. A lot of top Corps guys would turn up at the church as guest speakers. They'd thank the Almighty for blessing the world with fumes and toxins, cast their eyes upwards as if gasoline came from heaven, look pious as hell." (p.136-7)

The new community, and especially Zeb, somehow keep hoping for the return of Adam, he seemed to be the person with ideas about what should happen next. We just watch the people as they go about rebuilding, while dealing with the normal life things of eating, sleeping and falling in love. They do scavenging runs into the city to get supplies and keep a watch out for the Painballers. In a strange turn of events the Pigoons come to them for help and with the translation assistance of Blackbeard (one of the Craker children) they set up an ambush to deal with their mutual existential threat and reach a mutually beneficial agreement. But there remains the unexplained smoke on the horizon, does it mean there are other humans still out there.

Here Toby is, at the insistence of the Crakers, telling the story:

"The light if fading now, the moths are flying, dusky pink, dusky grey, dusky blue. The Crakers have gathered around Jimmy's hammock. This is where they want Toby to tell the story about Crake and how they came out of the Egg.
Snowman-Ht-Jimmy wants to listen to the story to, they say. Never mind that he's unconscious: they're convinced he can hear it.
They already know the story, but the important thing seems to be that Toby must tell it. She must make a show of eating the fish they've brought, charred on the outside and wrapped in leaves. She must put on Jimmy's ratty red baseball cap and his faceless watch and raise the watch to her hear. She must begin at the beginning, she must preside over the creation, she must lead them out of the Egg and shepherd them down to the seashore.
At the end, they want to hear about the two bad men, and the campfire in the forest, and the soup with the smelly bone in it: they're obsessed with that bone. Then she must tell about how they themselves untied the men, and how the two bad men ran away into the forest, and how they may come back at any time and do more bad things. That part makes them sad, but they insist on hearing it anyway.
Once Toby has made her way through the story, they urge her to tell it again, than again. They prompt, they interrupt, they fill in the parts she's missed. What they want from her is a seamless performance, as well as more information that she either knows or can invent. She's a poor substitute for Snowman-the-Jimmy, but they're doing what they can to polish her up." (p.59-60)

Margaret Atwood's world is wild and creative, it is like ours, at least in the sinister direction ours appears to be heading, though more extreme, with all these surreal creations, but at the same time she provokes you to think about what may become of the world, and if the Crakers are really an 'improvement' on human beings; if you could create a better species, what might it be like?

The Lesser Bohemians

I am not sure how to react to Eimear McBride's 'The Lesser Bohemians'. ... This post has been sitting as a draft for a fortnight now and I just want to get the backlog of reviews done... 
I was disappointed with this book, and that's a sad thing to say, because it was a lovely book. I did 'enjoy' it more than Girl (this is how Eimear referred to her first book) because it was a warm, mostly positive story, but it lacked something. It did not have the immediacy of Girl, it felt more like the character was relating something that had happened rather than the reader experiencing things in the moment that she managed to achieve so viscerally first time around. It was also the fact that where Girl was about one person, Lesser Bohemians was about two, and I felt the long section in the middle where the man describes his traumatic childhood distracted very much from the reader's experience of what the girl was thinking and feeling. It felt in someways to me, I'm sure others will disagree, that it could have been an alternative future for the girl in the first story. Eimear did talk about how she tried to link the two stories together, with dream elements (though I only noticed this occurring once, maybe I missed it). I found that I bonded much more with the male character (she did give them names but I forget now) over his loss of his daughter, and maybe he almost became a male version of the girl in Girl, falling into this terrible self-destructive behaviour to cope with the desolation he feels. She describes it as a love story, and at its very essence it is the ultimate love story, about no matter where your life has taken you love can redeem all you positive qualities and give you reasons to live. 

Here he has snuck into her flat against the orders of a disapproving landlady:

"In the after, I listen to the rain. His breath on my shoulder That was great. And the is how I'd like the night to be - hours of lying here with him - but Don't sleep, I say You have to leave. don't send me back out there. Consider it a punishment for you sins! Bit I'll get up so early. No. An hour? No. Half? No. Five minutes more? Those five he get but after them Up. You're a hard woman, he says getting off, all reluctant. And so I am, watching hinders now in the dark. We kiss a good while though before my door shuts and I listen to no sound on the stairs. Practice makes perfect. But I go to my window. Heavy rain beyond and him coming out into it. Tugging up his collar. Lighting a cigarette. Look up look up. He looks up. I show a hand. In turn, he bows then goes out to the footpath. I follow him to the end of the street where he disappears round Our Lady Help of Christians. Then slip back into the smell of him on my sheets. Search out the last of his taste on my lips. Imagine that I'd kept him here. Then think of him, in the rain, out there. That could - if I wanted - make my heart a little break. but I don't want it to, so it does not." (p.80) 

Sunday, 30 October 2016

How to be Wild

Crafty Green Poet recommended 'How to be Wild' by Simon Barnes a few weeks ago and on the spur of the moment I requested it from the library, and it has been an absolute delight. I needed something uplifting and positive and this book certainly is. It is packed with enthusiasm for the natural world and Simon shares the many and varied experiences he has had just being outside; some of his 'outsides' are slightly more exotic than others, but the simple process of walking the dog has as much interest for him as trailing lions in Africa.

I don't know much about birds, British or otherwise, though have always enjoyed their presence. I recall watching swifts gathering to leave at the end of the summer when we first moved to Yorkshire and the way it made me feel as if I had arrived in the real countryside: the magpies and rooks dominate here in south Manchester. Birds are obviously his thing, and Simon Barnes waxes lyrical about the pleasures of recognising birdsong:

"It really was a garden warbler. Not a blackcap. These two are species that are notoriously confused, but I get it right every time. My method is simple: I listen to the song, make my diagnosis and walk on. I never look for the bird. That simplifies things enormously." (p.105)

His admiration for nature brings him back time and again to the damage that humans are doing, but for everything that loses there are also new opportunities, he manages to be perpetually upbeat:

"Global warming giveth and global warming taketh away. The cuckoos and the willow warblers are struggling under the stress of climate change: the little egrets and the Cetti's warblers are thriving. Does that make everything all right then?
Well, I;ll tell you the first thing that the egrets and the Cetti's show: and that us the extreme resilience and opportunism of life. If conditions change, there will always be creatures that find that the new way suits them down to the ground. If the world floods tomorrow, most of us will drown, but it will provide a wonderful opportunity for ducks and turtles. That is probably not, on the whole, a sound argument for flooding the earth overnight. The same argument hold for a nuclear winter." (p.128)

He shares his delight in the quirks of nature, pointing out both the mundane and the exotic. I found myself swept up by his enthusiasm for everything, just enjoying listening to his reminiscences and reflections. The writing is so engaging and easy, though you envy him the opportunities that his journalism careers has provided to travel the world. Here he is talking about swifts:

"A friend of mine told me one of the great memories of his childhood was the young swifts' annual emergence from their nesting darkness into the world of flight: and how some of them failed to negotiate the tricky bit between dropping from the nest exit and rising to the skies. They found themselves belly-down on the ground: legs too short and wings too long to get a decent flap going and get airborne. He remembered picking them up and throwing them skywards: launching then into their life in the skies, sometimes racing the cats to set the wild wings free." (p.153)

Here he is talking about flying squirrels:

"Are they an evolutionary mistake? No, certainly not: there are 43 species of the worldwide, including one in Siberia. There are fourteen in Borneo alone: from the pygmy flying squirrel at eight centimetres in length, to the giants, five times as big. They are a successful little group.
Are they then improving? Are the forces of evolution trying to make them more sophisticated, less funny? Again; certainly not. Why should they improve? They work perfectly well as they re. The blind forces of evolution are not seeking to create perfection: they are seeking something that works well enough: well enough to permit the creature to survive, breed, become an ancestor.
The flying squirrels are gorgeous proof that evolution is not perfection. This is an absurd and glorious jerry-rigged creature: a living breathing, thriving Heath Robinson device." (p.163)

Part of the point of the book however is to point out where it has all gone wrong for human being. He sees how we are part of the wild world, but that our progress has taken us out of it, and what we need is to get back: thus the title, How to be Wild. He reflects thus, in between stories of Germany and Africa, about what we have done to evolution:

"This is something takes place over the course of generations: if a change is good, the being that inherited the change is more likely to survive, breed, and pass on that change, and so on, and so on, until, in the classic example, a species of sky-reaching mammals becomes giraffes. There is no evidence to suggest the process went too fast for giraffes: that they are sad alienated creates who live with a perpetual nostalgia for the low and the short. Evolution goes at a natural pace: one that the hearts and minds of the evolving creatures can, it seems, readily deal with.
But humans have found an additional way of changing. What one generation acquires, the next generation can take on right away. There is no need for the prolonged, generation-after-generation process of testing. Humans can acquire changes within their own lifetime, implement them and then pass them on. as a result, the human way of life has changed as a speed no other creature has ever experienced.
We are city-slickers with hunter-gatherer souls: we have evolved for the wild and we have created a world of oppressive tameness. We are out of step with ourselves and the society we have built with such reckless brilliance. We need wildness in our lives: and the more wildness we destroy, the more clear it becomes: we need it more than ever." (p.190-192)

He then talks variously about the process of what is being done to mitigate the damage that we have dome, specifically the idea of 'rewilding', to replace animals in areas where human destruction has wiped them out. He goes out looking for dormice that have been rewilded in Bradfield Wood, and does not see any:

"That begs the question: why bother to put them back? This has two answers. They're completely contradictory, and they're both right. The first is that conservation is not about human gratification. It's about doing the right thing by life, by biodiversity, by the requirements of the wild world. The second is that al conservation is gratifying to humans: that Bradfield Wood feels the better, the richer, for knowing that us has dormice in it. The world itself  seems slightly better for knowing that dormice have been put back into it." (p.208-9)

It's not just that he makes you feel that the wild is important because it provides something important for people, but that it is vital for it's own sake. He never says it explicitly be he recognises that humans are just one part of the ecosystem and to a certain extent it is our destruction of it that has landed us with the responsibility for it. He comes back to the swifts, and how their coming and going symbolise the turning of the year and whether the world is "still somehow unfucked":

" When you see the last swift of the year, you feel a pleasant frisson at the year's turning. But you also cannot help but wonder: so much for the last swift of the year: and will there be a first swift next year? In eight months time, will they be arriving to show us that the globe's still working? Or not? To every sight in the natural world, the ancient haze of permanence is gone. We see things clearer now, clearer than ever our ancestors did. We see the world in all its hideously fragile perfection. In every revelation of beauty, those with ears can hear the faint ticking of the time bomb, the faint whisper of the voice that says: enjoy it while you can. The high summer is the season of ease and plenty for humankind: and all the better, it seems to me, for that faint touch of melancholy: for that subtle sense of disquiet." (p.225-6)

The book is so positive though, encouraging the reader to notice what was there all the time but so easily ignored. I liked particularly where he talked about the wildlife that is around you and the ability to tune yourself into it rather than tune it out, being 'nature-deaf' as he calls it:

"I am incomparably richer for having found my hearing, and for having developed my sight. Not in terms of expertise, but in terms of noticing. It's not that I am a better scientist or a more useful recorder. It is rather that I am that little bit wilder. As a result, that little bit richer, that little bit happier. Joe found frogspawn in his own small pond, and a goldcrest sang, high and thin from the top of the pines. I looked, listened, wildly." (p.41)

I found myself standing on Fog Lane the other day listening to a chattering of birds in a tree opposite and trying to pick out how many different ones there were, not recognising them of course, but enjoying listening carefully. And here, to finish, is 'our hedgehog', visiting the cat food in the garage, and hopefully hibernating somewhere snug in our scruffy garden.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Anne and Hollie and Salena and Eimear

Oh what a wonderful but exhausting couple of weeks it has been. The 2016 Manchester Literature Festival is finally over. Last week was full of literary delights for me, starting on Monday with Anne Enright, who's book 'The Gathering' won the Booker Prize back in 2007. She looks a little austere in the photographs but was a wonderful speaker and read a lengthy piece from her new book 'The Green Road', complete with the huffs, sighs and tears of her characters, making it a definite addition to the list.
I have been quite a long time fan of Hollie McNish and saw her last year in Edinburgh with the Loud Poets. Monkey, Julie and I went to see her at Gorilla on Wednesday. She read from her new book 'Nobody Told Me' about her experiences of pregnancy, breastfeeding and new parenting. It was very entertaining in a nostalgic kind of way, though there is a lot of personal/political stuff going on in her writing too.
Hollie was joined by the equally fantastic Salena Godden. I did not know her and quite deliberately did not seek her out on Youtube, and was glad I had not because her performance style is quite outrageous. She was very loud, energetic, in-you-face confrontational (in a good way) and uproariously funny. Her new poem 'You're a Citizen of Nowhere', written for Teresa May, is up there on her blog. As well as her own work she has contributed recently to a book called 'The Good Immigrant', a collection of essays that explores the issues of race and immigration in the UK today.
And Thursday I volunteered at the Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama for Eimear McBride. She was so completely engaging and talked about both 'Girl is a Half Formed Thing', and her new book 'The Lesser Bohemians'. She was very inspiring in terms of writing what you want and stepping so far outside the box that your book is impossible to describe. 
I waited to the end of the signing queue and had a lovely chat with her.

Monday, 10 October 2016

10 X 10 X 10 Giveaway post

It has been creeping up slowly over the last couple of months, but finally I have reached my 1000th post! It feels like a huge milestone, who knew I had so much to say. I decided to celebrate the things that I have enjoyed about blogging with a 10 x 10 x 10 post. 
Up first are my ten most visited posts:

10: Cool Aid Dying with 1031 visits

9: Cooking and Sewing Post with 1114 visits
8: Carol Ann Duffy with 1124 visits
7: for the home educators HESFES : long self-indulgent holiday post with 1216 visits
6: for the reptile fans Tegu Walking with 1123 visits
5: for the Philip Pullman fans Midsummer's day with Will and Lyra with 1496 visits
4: Engelby by Sebastian Faulks with 1158 visits
3: Luscious Lemon Cake with 1565 visits
2: an early poetry post, visited by many students I think Margaret Atwood Poetry with 3247 visits
1: (not quite fair on Margaret Atwood but combining two as they go together) Lizard Cake and Lizard Cake Tutorial with a total of 4985 visits

Next I give you, with much torturous decision making, my ten favourite books of the 462 that are labelled at book reviews (alphabetical for I could never rank them one to ten):

Any Human Heart by William Boyd

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
Words from a Glass Bubble by Vanessa Gebbie

And the final ten posts are the ten that I love, either because they mark significant things that have happened over the last few years or just times when I wrote something important to me or that I was particularly pleased with:

Don't Apologise speaks for itself, I was angry, I should write like that more often.

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be is a brief post that celebrates 15 years of friendship with the Ridley Birks family. 
Two Deaths, Three Kisses and a Punchup was written in 2011 when I blogged for the Library Theatre's production of Hard Times
Monkey Quilt the Final Chapter is the result of over two years working on our beekeeper's quilt.
Favourite Moments gives the best bits from my visit to Costa Rica with my mum in 2014.
Dead Dog Poems is one of many many post written during my longstanding involvement with the Manchester Literature Festival, it was one of my favourite events.
What I Think is a course review of 'A Brief History of Humankind', of the many courses I have done with Coursera since 2013 it was the most interesting and engaging.
Night of Writing Dangerously: Monkey and I have participated in NaNoWriMo several times, and are planning to again this year.
Luggage: I have taken part in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge every year since 2012, several years I have done flash fictions, and this is one I particularly liked.
Blogger (a poem) that I wrote back in 2010

I hummed and hawed about what to do to celebrate, and thought that of course there should be a give-away. I know people visit when I post stuff and I hope you get some interest or enjoyment out of reading but I thought it might be nice to know who you all are. So here are three outrageously unique tote bags that I made for my short-lived Etsy shop, so maybe if people just say hi and leave their email contact/blog link and I will pick three people at random to send them to.
Red and Black flocked satin lined with white cotton.
Brown satin with gold spirals lined with pale pink satin.
Pink paisley satin lined with pale pink satin.


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