Sunday, 1 October 2023

A Guest is a Gift from God

Is a month long enough to have a half written blog post waiting around? Probably. So I will also tag on the end a list of the others that have also been read in the last month since I went to Devon.

'Elena Knows' by Claudia Piñeiro is not a detective novel. I keep reading that she is known for this genre, and while a death occurs and police are involved that is not what this book is about at all. Unless, I suppose, it is an investigation into a mother/daughter relationship. It was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize last year, probably how it appeared on my radar. Elena and her daughter Rita seem to have developed ones of those bickery but can't imagine life without you kind of relationships. We jump into their lives in the moments after Rita is found hanging in the church belfry and Elena insists that she did not commit suicide. She can't get the police to take her seriously, despite her repeated pestering, though the local detective placates the grieving mother by continuing to meet her and listen to her growing list of suspects. The main problem is that Elena has Parkinson's disease, and is incapacitated to a significant extent, and so realises she is going to need help with her investigation. There is only one person she can ask, who she feels owes Rita something, and the book follows her struggle to get to this person.

"Mum, enough, she said and she stood up, walked over to the stove, turned the flame to maximum, and set the pamphlets on fire. When the flame was about to burn her hand she let them fall, the charred pages fluttered to the green tile floor, landing beside the uncooked pieces of pasta that her mother had spilled.
Rita stood motionless watching the paper as it blazed, cracked, and danced until it changed colour, melted away, turned to ashes, and finally, went to the place that fire goes when it burns out." 

She despises Roberto, Rita's boyfriend, and his mother Mimi; here she is, under protest, having some beauty treatment, because Rita is disgusted by her hairy chin.

"Mimi said, your feet are a disaster, how do you even wear sandals with those heels? I just put them on, she answered, or Rita does it for me when I can't. At least put some lotion on them at night, Elena, that helps with the roughness. And even though Elena showed no concern for the roughness of her heels, Mimi said, I'm going to send you some calendula cream with Roberto. It'll just go to waste, Elena thought, because she wasn't willing to add any more chores to the unending list of daily challenges: walking, eating, going to the bathroom, lying down, standing up, sitting in a chair, getting up from a chair, taking a pill that won't go down her throat because her head can't tip back, drinking from a straw, breathing. No, she definitely wasn't going to put calendula cream on her heels." (p.98-99)

The pain and struggle she goes through to find out what really happened tells you more about her relationship with Rita than all the bickering. I liked her, she was so lacking in self-pity.

'Resistance' by Anita Shreve was a typical Anita Shreve picked up at Claire's house. I went through a bit of an Anita Shreve phase some years ago and loved her small town america stories. This one is set during World War Two however and concerns a shot down airman rescued by the French resistance. Lovely, atmospheric, and without the predictable ending, which was nice.

'Hard by a Great Forest' by Leo Vardiashvili, was won in a Caboodle competition and is not actually published until next year. Written by a Georgian writer about the war that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union and the subsequent exodus of the family concerned. It is a part of the world that I know little about and it was a real eye-opener. Forced to make hard choices and haunted by the people they left behind, many years after their departure Irakli returns to Tbilisi on unfinished business. When he vanishes both his sons follow in a desperate search to find the truth. Well worth looking out for.

Quote from near the end:
"But then I remember one night from my childhood. I was in a bed, all alone in an unfamiliar bedroom. We must have been visiting someone. Pools of darkness filled the corners of the room - perfect hiding places for some other family's monsters. I kept my eyes open owl-wide. There was no way I'd sleep.
Irakli appeared in the doorway, haloed by cigarette smoke and lamplight from the other room. He came and sat down, shifting the bed with his weight. He didn't say much, and what he did say I can't recall. Vague words of comfort. Faint smell of tobacco and wine on his breath.
He put a hand on my chest. And finally, I slept.
Laid out on the lumpy wet forest floor, I try to feel the weight of my father's hand on my chest." (p.216)

'Lonely Castle in the Mirror' by Mizuki Tsujimura, translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel, was pressed on my by Monkey because she wanted someone to discuss it with. I was confused, because I thought it was going to have more fantasy element, but it turned out to be a bunch of lonely teenagers learning about real friendship via a magical mirror world. Not my usual kind of thing but we had some interesting chats about it anyway.

'Wild Things' by Laura Kay was a lovely comfort read for me. El decides to have a year of doing scary things. But then suddenly she and a bunch of friends buy a house together when one of them breaks up with a girlfriend and is going to abandon their plans. It's all very cosy about them getting to know the locals and making their house and garden into a home. The main character faces her fears and has some personal growth, that kind of sentimental stuff. Sappy and heartfelt. I like one of these occasionally.

Currently reading 'A Widow for a Year' by John Irving, and not sure how I feel about it. Life a little in flux at the moment and struggling to hold it together. Stay safe. Be kind.

Post script: 
'A Lost Lady' by Willa Cather, picked up in the charity shop on the basis of having enjoyed My Antonia, was a small story of a woman's vulnerability. A young boy watches and idolises a local beauty, watching as her life's fortunes change, feeling both protective and often angry at her poor choices. While it was interesting it was mostly as a study of patronising misogyny: Marian fails to live up to to Niel's idea of what a woman should be and how she should behave.

Monday, 25 September 2023

Mantis Shrimp


We have found a new puzzle game to add to the daily list, called Metazooa. You have to try and figure out the animal, based on some pretty obscure clues with lots of long latin words. It's fun anyway.
The other day the answer was the Mantis Shrimp.
What's not to love.

Tuesday, 29 August 2023


'My Friend Anne Frank' by Hannah Pick-Goslar is the story of Hannah, childhood friend of Anne Frank, and the story of her war, a completely different one than Anne experienced. But before that it is the story of their friendship, having met at the age of 5, both German immigrants to Amsterdam, thrown together by circumstances but forming a bond that outlived Anne, and that meant Hannah spent much of her adult life educating children across the world about the Holocaust. It is both harrowing, for she experienced suffering that in some ways Anne was shielded from in hiding, but also heroic. Not only did she survive but she saved her young sister Gabi who was only a toddler when they were incarcerated; one by one the rest of her family died and they were left, and she devoted herself body and soul to caring for her sister. They spent nearly a year at Westerbork in the Netherlands and then over a year in Begen-Belsen, ending up on the lost train as the Germans tried to move prisoners as the allies advanced. She was a child, one of so many millions, forced to grow up too quickly, who experienced things that nobody ever should. This is from 1943, just after her mother has died in childbirth, one of so many losses she barely had time to grieve:

"My mother was my confident, my cheerer-on, she who knew me best. She had loved me and spoiled me in the small ways she could. I would have done almost anything for one more Wednesday afternoon crossing Dam Square to reach De Bijenkorf, our hands gliding over the silks and satins of dresses made in Paris, sipping our cups of warm hot cocoa for me, coffee for her. I missed her devotion to me, the intimacy we built over those years when I was the only child, fortunate in my devoted, doting parents. Where was I in this world that kept getting darker if she was not there to help me find my way? I'd sometimes creep into the bedroom she had shared with my father and open her wardrobe to hold her dresses to my face, eyes closed, imagining I could still feel her here with me. On my fourteenth birthday, one week after she died, I thought of the word 'motherless' and realised that's what I'd be for the rest of my life. People I knew - meaning the best but breaking my heart - said that I was 'quite the little mother' for Gabi. But I didn't want to be her mother. I wanted our mother back.
Papa told me that the lessons Mama had taught me through the way she lived her life were now part of me too, woven into my heart and there to tap, even if I did not understand that now." (p.108)

After liberation she went to Palestine, became a nurse and married, living to the ripe old age of 93. Surviving and thriving seems to me to be the only way to deal with such inhuman treatment and horrifying experiences, and I was very much left with the feeling that her childhood full of family love and friendship fortified her, gave her resources to draw on and she was certainly an amazing woman.

Also this, the moment she and Anne become friends:

"We went into a classroom where there were lots of children looking extremely busy. Some sat at small desks, playing with wooden blocks; others traced letters or sat on mats working on their writing. I spotted a girl with glossy dark hair that was almost black. I couldn't see her face as her back was turned to me. She was playing on a set of silver bells. In that moment, she turned around and looked at me. In a flash, we recognised one another. It was the girl from the corner grocery store? We instantly rushed into each other's arms as if we were long-separated sisters, sentences in German flowing between us like a volcano of connection. My clenched stomach released; my anxiety vanished and I smiled.
'My name is Annelies. You can call me Anne,' said the girl."

Monday, 21 August 2023

Butt-faced Miscreant


I have started a new rota and feel discombobulated by having days off.
Algorithms can sometimes be handy and Netflix sent me back to Gilmore Girls the other week. When you are in a funk what you need most is to sit and watch something that is so familiar you barely need to pay attention and definitely not bother to pause when you pop to the loo. So Rory calling Logan a butt-faced miscreant has been the best moment of today.
The cucamelon in the kitchen has died from neglect, and the lovely batch of basil plants that I put on my bedroom windowsill for the best sunshine became completely infested with whitefly and utterly inedible ... I never even got the chance to have a chicken and basil bagel. 

Stay safe. Be kind. Tidy up your dead plants.

Saturday, 19 August 2023

Weddings and all that

We should have been at Horton Grange three years ago, but you know ... covid. It was worth the wait. Lewis and Rachel have been a couple for about 15 years now and finally last Saturday they got married. The day was perfect. The food was lovely, the place was lovely, and the threatened thunderstorms did not materialise. 
This moment as the boys stood waiting for Rachel to arrive was what set me off first. 
Hopefully we will get more photos at some point but a few people shared ones they took. I love photos of my children together ... they are so few and far between these days. I wanted to take one with my two daughters-in-law but somehow it didn't happen.
Much fun was had by everyone. Lewis split his trousers on the bouncy castle and Mindy's shoe fell to pieces, and you can call it a success if that's the worst that happened. And I did have the most lovely lunch with Ady.
Stay safe. Be kind. Relish the special time.

We're all related to Charlemagne

Yet another book that has to go back to the library ... why are there people out there wanting to read the same books I am reading. I mean it's not new out or anything, look at it, it's really battered. 'A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived' by Adam Rutherford is utterly fascinating and I am just going to have to re-reserve it to read the other half. This is just going to be a quickie as I have other more important things to write about than the history of the entire human race. While he tries very hard to make it accessible to the lay reader I did flounder a bit in places with the vocabulary but I liked him because he is brutally honest about the fact that the subject is so complex that we are barely scraping the surface of genetics:

"Even when we know the genome intimately, and the pattern of inheritance, and the history of the DNA, and the migration patterns of the people who carried it, and the evolutionary pressures that led to the perpetuation of the genes and phenotypes - even when we know all that, how it manifests can still be mysterious and surprising. Anyone who says differently is selling something." (p.104)

And then it got even more brutal about the random people who make grandiose claims about their ancestors ... because when it comes down to it, you don't have to go back very far before everyone is related to everyone else:

"You are of royal descent, because everyone is. You are of Viking descent, because everyone is. You are of Saracen, Roman, Goth, Hun, Jewish descent, because, well you get the idea. All Europeans are descended from exactly the same people, and not that long ago. Everyone alive in the tenth century who left descendants is the ancestor of every living European today, including Charlemagne, and his children, Drago, Pippin and, of course, not forgetting Hugh. If you're broadly eastern Asian, you're almost certain to have Genghis Kahn sitting atop your tree somewhere in the same manner, as if often claimed. If you're a human being on Earth, you almost certainly have Nefertiti, Confucious or anyone we can actually name from ancient history in your tree, if they left children. The further back you go, the more the certainty of ancestry increases, though the knowledge of our ancestors decreases. It is simultaneously wonderful, trivial, meaningless and fun." (p.152)

Because the study of DNA is mostly interesting and useful on a grand scale, because it is teaching us about the history of the human species rather than the history of any particular person. Because genes are not deterministic, they indicate that something might be the case, or is likely over a population holding a particular gene, not that you will definitely have blue eyes, or die of cancer.

Stay safe. Be kind. Respect your genome.

Tuesday, 8 August 2023

Much poetry


Poetry all from the library ... it's been a delight to find so many there when I search someone's name, mostly from reviews in the Grauniad. 'So Many Rooms' by Laura Scott is one I would buy. They are interesting, pithy poems, never wishy-washy. I liked all the first few with references to Russian literature. I like poets unafraid to be clever. A smattering of memories and observations, the little things you mostly pass over. Some are 'descriptive' but mostly they ask you to pause a moment and consider something. It is ok to use the word profound? 

The soft thud of it
as it hit the car,

feathers floating 
up like smoke

rising into the blue
on a packet of gitanes.

I've always thought
too much of death,

let it hang around
my ankles like a child

you drag across the floor.
I never found

the right broom
to shoo it away.

'All the Men I Never Married' by Kim Moore is a fabulous feminist rant of a book, venting the poet's frustration at the state of the world and the complexity of human relationships. They cover uncomfortable moments in taxis, and on trains, unsolicited opinions, ex boyfriends, deepfake porn and rape. Sometimes harrowing, but I don't mind being harrowed by poetry, it doesn't feel manipulative because it is honest.

The night I left home, walked away even though
he told me to come back, I caught the night bus
into the city. Around me were young women
wearing the clothes I used to wear,
bra-straps showing, bare-legged, lounging like cats.
Their laughter washed over me as the bus
staggered and leaved itself around corners.
I didn't move as they swayed and fell into each other.
Through the window I watched a man
skirt a puddle, his briefcase against his chest,
a strange and solitary dancer.
He looked at me, then looked away.
I wish I could say I stayed out all night,
had a life-changing encounter with someone
homeless and lonely and worse off than me,
or even that I'd sat in McDonald's,
drank cup after cup of lukewarm tea,
vowed never to go back home again.
The truth: I was too afraid to stay out all night
because everything wild within me had gone.
I went to my sister's, though I knew
he would find me. The path in darkness
the crunching of snails underfoot.
The many small deaths of that night.
His fist on the door, again and again.
Realising he would not leave, pretending to her
that it would be ok, that this was an ordinary row.
Making myself go downstairs and get into his car.
And what happened next, and what came after,
I do not remember. I see the same things you do now.
Him walking down the path in his leather jacket.
Me following after. The back of my head. His smile
as he opens the car and mock bows me in.
My sister standing in the light of the porch,
her arms crossed, angry and silent.

I love Mary Oliver, I mean what kind of self respecting poetry reader doesn't love Mary Oliver, but I was underwhelmed by 'Why I Wake Early'. They are very descriptive, unprovocative, almost sentimental. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for it. Several religious references put me off. I give you, unseasonably:

The snow
began slowly,
a soft and easy

of flakes, then clouds of flakes
in the baskets of the wind
and the branches
of the trees - 

oh, so pretty.
We walked
through the growing stillness,
as the flakes

pricked the path,
then covered it,
then deepened
as it curds and drifts,

as the wind grew stronger,
shaping its work
less delicately,
taking greater steps

over the hills
and through the trees
until, finally,
we were cold,

and far from home.
We turned
and followed our long shadows back
to the house,

stamping our feet,
went inside, and shut the door.
Through the window
we could see

how far away it was to the gates of April.
Let the fire now
put on its red hat
and sing to us.

Stay safe. Be kind. Take a moment.


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