Saturday 28 February 2009

A Crime in the Neighbourhood.

I picked up 'A Crime in the Neighbourhood' by Suzanne Berne in a charity shop a while ago. It had a little note in the front that says "Another book for your holiday - it's v. good. Have a great time. Rachel". I like buying second hand stuff and knowing that it has been owned and used by someone else before you. It feels ecologically sound to have 'stuff' moving round the economy and being used many times over. The fact that it won the Orange Prize was probably what made me pick it out, and on checking out the Wikipedia page I find I have already read several of the 13 winners (and read other novels by a couple of the other prize-winning authors), and maybe it would make an interesting project to read the rest during this year of 52 books.
So I find myself following a bit of a theme here as this is another book about loss. And another book about a girl with a notebook. In 'What was lost', after her dad dies, Kate becomes a 'detective' and goes around observing and making notes on everything and everyone in a notebook. In this book it is Marsha who takes to watching her neighbours' every coming and going. Her quiet 1970's suburban American childhood is disrupted by firstly the departure of her father, and secondly the murder of a young boy. It is told by Marsha herself, but writing as an adult, who, on finding her notebook, is looking back and reflecting on the impact of the events of the summer in question. Her family history is one peppered with unreliable men and as such the story is based around some wonderful, strong female characters; the clutch of aunts and the neighbourhood housewives, whose men are merely homogenous 'Mr so-and-so'. The murder causes an atmosphere of paranoia in what had been a peaceful and relatively close-knit community, but Marsha has her own problems; her newly absent father, pubescent twin siblings who ignore and exclude her, a somewhat distant and distracted mother and a distinct lack of friends. She becomes obsessed with observing their recently arrived neighbour, Mr Green, with what turns out to be quite devastating consequences. Her sense of loss at her father's departure sits in the background as the weeks go by, she comments several times when the phone rings that she is sure it is him, giving an impression of the longing she feels for him to return. The children see him a few times during the immediate aftermath of the breakup before he moves entirely out of their lives. The teenager twins put on a front of disinterest and then anger towards him but it is plain that they all feel utterly abandoned. But it is not until right at the end, nearly at the end of his life, when Marsha finally blurts out the appeal "Why did you leave me?" that you realise quite how deeply the abandonment was felt.
The title of the book becomes a little ambiguous, what really is the crime, and who was the perpetrator? A boy is murdered, but we learn nothing of his family's reactions, other than the information that they move away soon afterwards, and the murderer is never found. Marsha's father leaves, and we do see quite vividly the pain it causes, to all concerned, including himself when he feels the impact of his decisions. And Marsha herself casts suspicion upon an innocent man, in what is plainly self-consciously attention-seeking behaviour, and then spends the years after tormented by the guilt of the impact her words have. Before he leaves Mr Green approaches her and just says 'why' and, young as she is, she truly knows what she has done is wrong and knows what damage she has done to his life by her false accusations. The combination of events that occur at what becomes a precarious moment in Marsha's life leave her, as she says at the end, with the sense that "nothing in my life would ever feel safe". It is quite a bleak feeling, that one's sense of security can be so vulnerable, and that the impact of such a loss can be so long lasting.
So, a good book, a very good book. Thought provoking and well written. Very much inside the mind of the 10 year old Marsha, with her adult self never making excuses for her own behaviour or trying to rationalise, just honestly telling it like it was. And despite my childhood being very English I found it very nostalgic.

Thursday 26 February 2009

Spinning experiment

I can see myself wanting to buy a spinning wheel at some point but the simple spindle (which has apparently been around for more than 10,000 years) is a lot of fun. Maybe when I have someone to help we can make a film of the spindle in action. This first picture shows the rovings, which are merino wool (though I didn't use any of the purple stuff) and the spindle. You need a small length of wool to act as a leader, just to get it started. You can simply tease the fibres out as the spindle spins, but after doing some with M on Tuesday we found it was better to separate out fine lengths of roving and allow them to twist gently together to join them.

This photo shows the yarn on the spindle, it is partly being wound into a hank around a little folding table. After you wind the hank you tie it up in a few places and then soak it in hot water for a while to 'set the twist'. Then you rinse it out in cold water and squeeze well inside a towel. Then you 'shock' the hank by thwacking it off something hard (I used a kitchen chair). Then hang up to dry with a small weight, like a coat hanger, to stretch it out.

This photo shows the finished item. It is only about 20 metres long or so.

This photo shows my second attempt. This effect was created by laying out very fine lengths of white and red roving together and then spinning them together.

This photo shows the knitting partly completed. I just wanted to make a little something with the first batch so chose a pattern for a small drawstring pouch.

And here is the finished pouch.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

Couscous and spinning.

I thought I would write out our recipe for Pesto Couscous which we adapted from a couple that we found online. Occasionally I get bored of cooking the same old stuff and decide to add to my repertoire and this has become a new favourite, especially with Tish, and it's cheap and good for you and quick to make. And I know my niece Nat is fond of pesto and thought she might like it too. (Sorry, no photos, we've eaten it all.)
To serve 4:
Take 1 onion, chopped fine, and fry in oil slowly until very soft, 5 minutes or so. Add 3 handfuls (or is that hands-full) of pine nuts and continue to fry for a few minutes. Then add a big blob of butter in the middle and add 8oz of couscous and stir and fry for a couple more minutes (pay attention to it so it doesn't stick or burn). Meanwhile make 1 pint of hot chicken stock (or veggie, or even just hot water would do, but stock is nicer). Take the pan off the heat and allow to cool for a minute or two (this is to prevent the stock super-boiling and spitting everywhere when you pour it in), and then pour in the stock, stir well, put the lid on and leave it. Put the timer on 10 minutes (trust me, this will be just right for it to absorb all the stock).
I serve this with bite sized chunks of fried chicken on the top, so this is when I chop and cook the chicken.
When the beeper goes off you will find the pine nuts have all risen to the top of the couscous. Do not panic. Now add 3/4 heaped desert spoonfuls of pesto, or to taste, (it could be varied interestingly with red pesto or something like that) and stir thoroughly. Serve and enjoy. Add green veg or salad if you want to make it more in line with current government nutritional guidelines:-).
Also my spindle arrived today and I spent the afternoon watching spinning videos on Youtube. Then M arrived home as I was starting, wanted a go and then didn't give me it back for ages. So the first little hank of homespun is hers. I did some more myself this evening, and it is all now soaking, to 'set the twist', so I post photos tomorrow.
Also we finally managed to have our January book club meeting last night, to discuss The History Man. We had a really good evening in The Talbot in Stow (the coffee shop man didn't want us any more as we didn't spend enough money on coffee). As usual we didn't talk for long about the book but I like just having the chance to talk to an interesting group of people. We are reading 'Dear Fatty' by Dawn French for next time, as there was a desire to try something funny for a change.

Friday 20 February 2009

Two Books.

The Story of You by Julie Myerson. The lady in the library will usually tell me if I pick up something I have had before, but I think it must have been someone new so maybe she felt it was rude to point it out. Anyway, I have read this before. I started by thinking I had just read the first chapter and then taken it back (I sometimes do that if a book gets very overdue and I know I am not going to find the time to finish it), but then as I read little things reminded me I had read it all. It is a very sad book. It is the story of a woman falling apart. Her child has died, and in trying to cope with her grief she gets absorbed into an intense memory of an incident from her student days and the sense of connection it gave her with the young man involved. And strangely, just when she really needs him, he comes crashing back into her life. But the atmosphere is totally surreal and you have the impression that things are not really as they appear, and in fact they are not. It is almost as if she has to disintegrate in order to pull her life back in to some sense of reality. When she cannot cope with what is happening it is as if her mind creates something to help her understand what she needs and recover. There is a lovely scene towards the end where the kittens are born and they talk for the first time it seems about Mary, her daughter, without trying to hide from the fact that she is no longer there. It feels hopeful, that they will be able to recreate the bonds that held their family together. It is very intense in places. Rosy, or Nicole as her 'husband' calls her, is the only focus of the story, other people are overwhelmed into insignificance by the intensity of everything that is happening to her. The 'You' of the title is unnamed and slightly anonymous even though he figures so significantly in her disintegration.
I have read other things by Julie Myerson and have really liked her writing. I am not sure of the protocol in review writing. I don't want to spoil the story but want to write about the whole book. I think this is why book groups are good because everyone has read it together. Maybe I shouldn't worry too much, but I know it would annoy me to know the outcome before I read a book. It's not as if it is a mystery, and I had already anticipated the twist to the story, but I will leave it unsaid.

What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn. Book number two was read in about 24 hours. That is a good sign. I read a review of this in the paper and requested it from the library. I was hooked yesterday evening and stayed up rather late ignoring the telly and reading, and came home from work today and just sat with my cuppa and finished it. This is very much a story driven book. The characters in it are all small and broken. The title tells it all really, everyone has lost something, and the losing has had a huge impact and caused lasting damage to their lives. The little girl Kate loses her dad, and then Kate herself is lost and her loss creates the ripples that overtake the other lives. Lisa loses her brother and Kurt his partner. Even the minor players are all suffering from these losses. They are all just very sad people. And they don't really get fixed in the end, but they do seem to learn something in the process of the story and find some comfort and benefit from it. But alongside the mystery of Kate's disappearance is this terrible shadow of 'Green Oaks', the shopping centre. It is like some gross parody of capitalism, soulless and shallow, where people wander mindlessly, not seeing each other, not caring, not connecting. It becomes the thing that is crushing their lives, even more so than the losses that they have suffered. It is almost as if Kate becomes their saviour, because she brings the other characters together and their need to find out what became of her causes them to find out what should become of their own lives. A lovely book, and a strong engaging story. A debut novel the cover says, so I will have to watch and see what else she might write.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

More felting and dyeing

I bought some undyed roving with plans to try spinning but instead decided to do a bit of felting. I helped at a workshop at my daughter's school several years ago and have a grasp of the basic process of felting. You start by making some fine layers of fibre. The stuff underneath is bubble wrap, this is designed to provide some friction when you agitate the felt.

Next you use some warm water and soap and gently rub the fabric, then you roll it up in the bubble wrap and roll it backwards and forwards for a bit, then turn it 90 degrees and rewrap and roll again (basically till you get bored). The fibres should all hold together by this time. Then you 'shock' the felt by screwing it up and throwing it hard on the table, again until you get bored.

Finally you rinse the soap out. You can shape the edges while you felt it if you like, to make it tidier and pull it into shape. The finished size on my piece is about 6" square-ish.

We also did some more dyeing this week. I used some yarn that had already been dyed pale pink and just added stripes of red and purple with spaces so it could leech into the paler areas.

Over all it came out shades of pink with a few little patches of purple.

I recently learnt that my brother's step-daughter is going to join the family twins club, so I have more little people to knit for. I knitted a baby hat out of the other home dyed yarn and I am so pleased with it so I will probably do another one to match.

Thursday 12 February 2009

Dyeing experiment 2

So having found some advice online here on the subject of dyeing (in fact the website is a great source of info on everything yarnish) we had a much more successful experiment.
So we started with soaking the yarn in the fixative solution, this was made with 1 gallon hot water, one cup of washing soda and 8oz salt (we do have very hard water here but this was a guess).

Then I mixed up some fresh dye, 2 teaspoons to about 250ml of warm water:

Then after soaking the yarn for about 20 minutes we squeezed the excess liquid out (you can reuse this solution indefinitely, so we have kept the bucketful in the garage) we laid it out on plastic sheeting (cut open bin liner) ready for the dye.

Then we applied the dye, this first one is mine, which is 100g of 100% wool yarn, then the one below is Tish's which is 100g of banana yarn.

When the dyeing is all done you wrap it up in plastic to keep it moist. We used cling film to keep the different coloured bits separate but you can just pop it in a plastic bag.

It sat in the hot cupboard (this is where the hot water tank is) for 24 hours (or whatever, it was a bit more than that. It can be less if you want paler colours). Then you rinse in cold water until it loses no more colour. You need to be thorough to get rid of all the fixative solution which will degrade the fibre. Then we washed through gently with some 'delicates' washing liquid.
And we are pretty pleased with the result. Having both used the same colours (except the turquoise which I did not use) it shows what different effects you can get. (If you click on the photo you can see the lovely colours a bit better.)

Tuesday 10 February 2009

The Newton Letter

The first time I went to the book group in Stow we discussed 'A month in the country' by J. L. Carr. I loved the book (I will perhaps write about it when I have a quiet day), and it was again something I would never have picked up in a bookshop and bought. 'The Newton Letter' has something similar about it, the setting is the same, though the atmosphere is distinctly different. A middle aged academic has retreated to the country to try and finish a book about Issac Newton that he has been working on for several years. He takes up residence in the lodge of a dilapidated country house and we watch the peculiar stilted relationships that develop between him and the residents of the big house up the drive. It is quite claustrophobic. He doesn't go anywhere during the entire book, just pretends to work, and then abandons all pretence of working in favour of observing, and then obsessing about, the family.
It is quite different from the other books I have read recently. I mean I really enjoyed Lollipop Shoes but it is pretty undemanding reading, not chick-lit level but it is not trying to delve very deep and the language is straightforward. 'The Newton Letter' is on another level altogether. I sat and read for about half an hour and had to use the dictionary three times (lapidescence, gombeen and something else I don't recall), so after that I kept it close at hand. I do like to find myself reading something that is challenging, but not unfathomable. If the vocabulary were to get too obscure I would probably end up skating over things I did not understand in order to get on with the story, but i allowed myself to take my time with this book and understand and enjoy his use of language. Two little quotes that I made note of because I really liked them: from p.16 "Here was a pond, the water an evil green, overhung by a sadness of willows" (such an evocative collective noun) and from p.64 "It was an eighteenth century day".
Our protagonist describes his 'month in the country' as being somehow separated from the real world, he almost deliberately cuts himself off from the outside, but on returning he finds it has changed everything about how he thinks of things, and he is no longer sure what his life means. The parallel with Newton is drawn by the narrator as he begins to see his life in a new light. Apparently over the year of 1693 Newton abandoned science in favour of various 'superstitious' pursuits. The letter of the title being one written to John Locke in that year. He lost much of his work in a fire and seemed to have some kind of breakdown, Banville describes the letter as expressing Newton's "anguished bafflement". Having been acclaimed all over Europe for his work he now claimed he wanted nothing more to do with physics. I understood the description of his reaction to his lost work as him trying to get to grips with the enormity of the impact that his discoveries had on the entire world but that he himself was left with a kind of existential angst.
It is a very thought provoking book. This quote from Newton himself appears at the beginning, and I think it reminds us all quietly not to take ourselves too seriously:
"I seem to have been only as a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me."

And so to something yummy ... doughnuts.
When someone offers to clean out the deep fat fryer you just don't say no. Tish offered since we had been discussing home made doughnuts for some weeks now. So there followed some dough:

Some deep fat:

Some sugar:

and some contented young people:

Sunday 8 February 2009

Gloves part 2

I am only partly pleased with the finished glove (and I have a second one to struggle through). The whole thing feels like it is sitting slightly twisted on my hand. I had to unpick the first finger as it was too tight then I dropped a stitch and failed to notice (so that is sewn into place) and the holes between the fingers are not very tidily pulled together, but the overall effect is quite pleasing. I really like the cable pattern and plan to tackle something more complicated soon.

It is snowing again here but I think everyone has had enough now, the novelty has worn off. I am aching all over from slipping over on the way to work yesterday and then struggling through the snow for six hours ( we had three days mail piling up in the office). M will probably be glad of another 'snow day' off school but the rest of us want life back to normal. You can visit here and see a short film of the girls building a snow creature (taken on the webcam).

Friday 6 February 2009

Lollipop Shoes

This book was a mad rush to the finish, having been on the go for about a fortnight now. In fact I scoffed my dinner down and said "sorry, I'm off back to my book" and left everyone else sat at the table. I have read several other Joanne Harris but I have not read 'Chocolat', for which this is a sequel. Vianne and Anouk have ended up in Paris (with the addition of little Rosette), leading a new life in another chocolaterie and hiding from the world, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. But a wild woman, in the shape of Zozie, invades their quiet life and brings chaos and disruption to their cosy family unit. We are pretty fond of the film of Chocolat, the presence of Johnny Depp being a deciding factor, but it plainly does not do justice to the book. The magical/occult theme in the background of the film is obviously much more dominant in the book and it continues on through to the Lollipop Shoes. We learn, through Zozie's intrusion, much more about Vianne's history, and watch in fascination as Zozie inveigles herself into everyone's affections, weaving spells over every aspect of their lives and disrupting the ordinariness that Vianne has so carefully cultivated. While Anouk struggles to make friends at school and Vianne gets engaged to a nice solid man, Rosette plays quietly on the floor observing everything while saying nothing. And then Roux turns up again, and the old relationships threaten to upset the new ones. The first two third of the book slowly establish the characters and relationships, then you find yourself sliding headlong into an exhilarating climax. In essence the book is about belonging and fitting in, and being true to yourself. It is heartwarming and life affirming. Sometimes you need to read such a book.

Thursday 5 February 2009

Gloves... or inventing your own pattern.

So I started a pair of gloves today, or rather I started them again. Having tried one pattern that just didn't seem to be coming out right and frogging it after several inches, I tried a second pattern, but it was coming out too small, so I had to re-frog (is that a word I wonder) and start for a third time. I am using the Evenstar Gloves on Ravelry (you can only access if you apply to join), but am adapting it quite extremely.

It is my first attempt at basically creating my own design. I liked the cable pattern so have used it but taken some of the shaping from a different pattern as I wanted to put fingers on the glove rather than leave it as a basic cuff with a thumb. So I increased the number of stitches, extended the cuff, removed the minor cabling that runs down the palm (that seemed a bit annoying to me) and then I had to work out how to add proper thumb and finger shaping without disrupting the rest of the pattern.
Picture shows the work in progress, I will add another when I am finished. I am using Violet Green sock yarn, which is merino, bamboo, silk and nylon.

So it has been a slightly frustrating experience but more fun than being at work; we had a snow day today ... not something that happens in Royal Mail very often. We also built a version of 'The Tower of Orthanc' in the garden (to replace Helms Deep that had melted)