Thursday 30 July 2009

Kate Atkinson and Carol Shields

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson. I was somewhat disappointed with this book, having had it in the pile for a while and was so looking forward to reading it. I read 'Behind the Scenes at the Museum' when it first came out and there was a lot of interest in her as a new writer, and I would probably count it in my top 20 favourite books. For me the whole book was one huge nostalgia trip, the setting and the things she describes evoked such strong memories of my own childhood. Then I read 'Emotionally Weird' and 'Human Croquet' which I also enjoyed, though they had less of an impact and I don't have a particular recollection of either of them. But 'One Good Turn' is just a murder mystery. Very well written and well thought out and so on, but not anything very interesting in the end. I found it very confusing to begin with as she jumped from character to character trying to flesh out the story line with different people's point of view, and they all had such mundane names I couldn't remember who was who. Some aspects of the plot were rather underdeveloped and I often felt that there were too many convenient devices rather than any real behaviour. The main character, Jackson, does something which seems illogical and way out of character which I found very annoying. I found the characters a bit shallow and I did not feel sympathetic to any of them enough to care what might happen next. As a book, okay for what it is I suppose, but if you like a good murder mystery I think Ellis Peters' 'Brother Cadfael' novels are hard to beat.

'Larry's Party' by Carol Shields on the other hand was just wonderful. Another winner of the Orange Prize and a very worthy winner. You know when you read something that you will tell other people to read. I couldn't find a photo of the actual cover that my book has, which is a pity because it shows a small baby clutching at his high chair table with a disconcerted look on his face, and it was well chosen because she describes this exact photo in the story, and you feel like it really could be a picture of Larry.
So the book is essentially his life story. I suppose many novels are 'merely' life stories, and it's how you tell it that differentiates a good story from a mediocre one. I frequently find it hard to put my finger on quite what makes good writing, it's mostly the case that you just know it when you read it. Larry is quite an ordinary chap, struggling with the ordinary things in life and trying to find some meaning. The story follows him from his early twenties through to his forties. Some things happen to him rather by chance, like the way he falls into being a florist, but at other times he carves out a path for himself of his own choosing. It is very much a story about Larry's relationships; with his parents, his wives, his son, his co-workers and his long standing friends. You watch how people come in and out of his life and how each of them changes him. Maybe the art of writing well is to make the ordinary feel remarkable. Nothing dramatic happens to him, beyond some kind of non-specific middle aged 'attack' which leaves him in hospital for some weeks, and yet his life contains all human experience, examined under the microscope of a very astute observer.

Friday 24 July 2009

All the Pretty Horses

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.
Reading this book was like reading a foreign language, and not only because there were lots of passages in Spanish. It really is a story about a world that is totally unknown to me, the American West. You might think you know something about 'cowboys' from watching old films (and I was quite a John Wayne fan as a child), but I get an inkling that this book gets a little closer to the real thing. The writing is just very evocative and McCarthy creates intense images of both the natural environment they live in and the life that people lead there. Within a couple of pages you feel as if you are drawn right into a world that is vast, empty and untameable, where all the rules and expectations of modern life just don't exist. There is a whole different set of values at play here. I felt like I had no point of contact with it at all, it really was completely alien. So you just have to allow yourself to go along for the ride.
Two friends, John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, head off from Texas to Mexico to find work, and to a certain extent, adventure. They meet a young lad who calls himself Blevins, who's companionship drags them into a whole mess of trouble. There are horses, lots of them, and of course a strikingly beautiful girl, but that is the only extent to which you might say that the story is a cliché. The world they live in is a 'man's world', and the men are very tough, and that is the only thing that is valued. They almost relish how tough life is, as if it proves that toughness is important. They encounter extreme poverty, but people who always offer hospitality. The people seem to have a deep sense of connection with the land and their country. The two friends are intensely loyal, they rely on and look out for each other. They meet some men who are rounding up wild horses and end up working at the ranch with them. Grady proves to have quite a talent with the horses which earns him much respect and he quickly becomes a favoured employee, which is how he encounters the young girl, Alejandra. They spend some time just being cowboys, doing what cowboys do, then, just when you think things are going well for them, they find themselves arrested and implicated in horse stealing with their former travelling companion Blevins. The camaraderie of the people they have worked with is contrasted sharply with the extreme brutality of the prison environment, where they are locked up and expected to fend for themselves. It is quite shocking, and even frightening, made more so by their extremely fatalistic attitude to life. This is not just the boys themselves but all the people they encounter. They accept everything that happens, almost passively it feels, as if from birth they have never expected much from life, except that it will be 'nasty, brutish and short'. In a world where money is everything the poor have no power over their lives, no expectation of being able to control what happens, and I guess that this is accepted and then passed on from generation to generation.
While I did enjoy the writing the descriptions did get somewhat laboured in places, for example, a lengthy explanation of what he did to break the wild horses and the graphic description of the prison fight, and the images of the desert and the wild landscape in all it's forms became a little repetitive. The lecture on Mexican history from Alejandra's aunt seemed somewhat contrived, to add background to the book without adding anything much to the story. I was very irritated by a lack of a translation of the Spanish passages. While some of it was obviously exchange of greetings and everyday conversation which I have enough French to guess at, there were parts where real important, plot-relevant conversation was happening in Spanish with no translation, it would have been easy enough to put it in a footnote.
Anyway, their somewhat desperate situation is resolved by the intervention of the Alejandra's great aunt, who buys their freedom, with the inevitable proviso that Grady does not see her again. Rawlins decides to return home but Grady goes off inexplicably in search of their horses and the police captain who arrested them. I was left completely bemused by this part of the story, it seemed a strange reaction to having got out of one bad situation to put yourself deliberately into another. It all gets very messy and you fear for a while that there cannot possibly be any kind of positive outcome. All the Pretty Horses was not a very 'nice' book and although I enjoyed it I was left mainly with the feeling that I was glad it was all over.
So how might you end a story about cowboys ... well he rides off into the sunset obviously.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Aesthetic cleansing

Is this not the best idea ever thought up? I just wish we had something suitably grotesque to take and smash.

Taking place at New Brewery Arts in Cirencester in September.

"You have heard of Feng Shui and Life Laundering and all those services that claim to help you declutter your life. Well, for just one day, New Brewery Arts offers Aesthetic Cleansing, a unique service that goes one step further than all the others. We offer the cathartic destruction of your most hideous ornaments. We are experts. You can trust us - we know what we are doing. We invite you, if you dare, to bring those porcelain knick-knacks that your relatives give you every Christmas, or those heirlooms that have cluttered the back of the cupboard for years. We can promise you a ‘smashing time’."

Thursday 16 July 2009

Spot the Difference

So here are two nearly identical photographs ... the question is, can you spot the difference? They both look quite smart presentable uniforms, just the way most young people are obliged to dress these days while they attend school. In spite of the fact that the rest of Europe and the United States don't seem to think that young people need to wear identical clothing in order to learn efficiently, our country seems to have made quite an issue of the whole uniform thing with younger and younger children being obliged to dress like their peers when they pop along to playgroup. Many positive claims are made about the wearing of school uniform, such as creating a feeling of being part of a community and avoiding the perils of being marked out as a 'loser' if you wear the wrong clothes ... so I was not really surprised when we find the claims becoming more and more outrageous.

Believe it or not it seems that the girl in this second photograph is definitely going to be a better learner .... all because of those few extra inches of fabric in her skirt. Oh yes, the Head Teacher and Board of Governors decided in their wisdom that from September all skirts must be knee length. We all know how hard it is to learn properly with a bit of your thighs showing.

But we are celebrating in our house because it was not an hour after we went to the new uniform event at school and purchased this skirt (and paid for the blazer that they are also re-introducing) when M's dad phoned to say he will agree to her leaving school and return to being "educated otherwise than by schooling". So now she can learn in her jeans and in her pyjamas and in her short skirts and in her long skirts and in her bikini and in her shorts and in her hoodies and in her hats (of which she is very fond) and with nail varnish on and with electric blue hair and at midnight and 6am and in the garden and up a tree and anywhere and anyhow she choses.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Cuddly Bat Cave

Ok, now this is not quite a finished project but I am putting it up because I am enjoying working on it and thought I could let people see the process. To see the photo that Tish took that is the original inspiration for this project pop back here.
This project is done in needle felting which is a totally different process from wet felting that I have mostly been experimenting with. Basically instead of soap and water you use a barbed needle to stab the wool fibres and this process tangles the fibres and allows you to form them into whatever shape you might imagine. This first picture shows the front view. I have been having a lot of trouble getting it to stand up properly but the nice people at Working with Felt were helpful and encouraging. I have spent that last few days just doing lots of stabbing to get the whole thing to firm up and stand better. I have also been adding vines around the entrance, since it is supposed to have a rainforest feel to it.
This one shows a close up of the vines around the entrance. I have also been adding bits to make the entrance smaller so it feels a bit more enclosed as I felt it was too open.
This picture is of the hole at the top that lets some light shine down into the inside, it has also been embellished with some vines.
The last one shows the inside with light shining down through the hole creating this little oasis of greenery at the back of the cave. If you flick back to the photo you can see the effect I am trying to achieve ... and all in all I am pretty pleased with how it is coming along. I have avoided putting any supporting wires in it because I am thinking that when we get bored with looking at it we will just be able to use it as a pillow, it is a very cuddly bat cave:-)

Monday 13 July 2009

Benny and Joon

M and I sat and watched Benny and Joon last night. It is such a lovely film and one of the few that I will watch again and again. I like it because it is a quiet film about people, and there is such a neat interrelationship between the four central characters. Joon is so enchanting but awkwardly introverted, she observes others but doesn't seem to know how to reach out to them. She lives in this safe little cocoon that her brother Benny has created for her, but that also seems to confine her. Benny has made it his life's work to protect her, but has come to be almost dependent on her need for his protection. Then along comes Sam and he upsets their security and creates minor mayhem. In my opinion this is Johnny Depp at his best. He was 30 when it was filmed but comes across much younger, and it is the kind of offbeat character that he seems to play so well. What is so good about the film is that it is not trying to create a fake drama/crisis between the characters; what happens to them is a believable extension of who they are, where they are in their lives and the interaction between them. Too many films merely take characters and make something happen to them to manufacture a storyline, all of which is lazy and makes for singularly unsatisfying films. Because the characters here have real caring relationships the drama is overcome by genuine reactions to the new situation. Benny cares enough about Joon to know he can't hold her hostage to his view of her needs, she must move on and make her own life. It also makes you think that quirky people probably do need other quirky people, that they are more understanding of unconventional behaviours and reactions and would work harder to really understand the other person. I like films that have an insight into human nature in all it's weird incarnations. No-one ever says that either Joon or Sam should try and be more 'normal', the film accepts them as they are and seems to be saying that life should be able to accommodate people however they might chose to be.

Tuesday 7 July 2009

Living the Creative Life

Living the Creative Life by Rice Freeman-Zachary

I found this book by a very roundabout route. Rice, the woman who wrote it, has a few films on Youtube and one that I watched was of her demonstrating needle felting, and she was such an engaging person to watch, kind of spontaneous, that I liked her right away. From there I linked back to her blog and so to her books. I don't think this was the one I was particularly interested in but it was the one that the library had so I ordered it.
Now I don't really aspire to being an artist, and in a way the book is pitched at people who are, or want to be, full time artists, though you can tell by this blog that I do want to find creative outlets. It's all about creativity and talking to different artists about what inspires them and how they work and how it fits in with their life and all sorts of stuff like that. I wasn't really taken with any of the art work in the book, just not my taste at all but what struck a chord with me is the fact that when you feel dissatisfied with your life and want to make changes it is very inspirational to read people talking about living in a way that is fulfilling. It is about taking chances, leaving behind the security of paid employment for something more vital. The artists in the book live to work, and do so with passion and energy. To quote John Holt, it is about finding "a life worth living and work worth doing". I keep feeling that there should be more to life. I walk around at work thinking of all the things I would rather be doing. I have been living a very safe existence for a few years now and recently the need to change it has become more preoccupying.
Family changes are afoot, the girls are going to be heading in new directions in the next few months, and I am feeling as if the world could be my oyster (not a very appropriate expression since Tish and I were laid up with food poisoning when we had oysters). I am anxious of letting go of all that I have worked at but maybe it is time to take a risk?

Sunday 5 July 2009

Belas Knap

My dear friends Julie and Al and their kids have been staying for a few days (their bathroom is being done up) and for some time now Al has been wanting to go and visit Belas Knap, a neolithic burial site, which is a few miles from where we live. So Saturday evening we set out rather late on a magical mystery tour. We had a map but the arrow was pointing to some other field, but we found it in the end.
(Tish, Al, little M, Julie and C)
This is the 'false' entrance at one end, designed to deter grave robbers, it leads nowhere. The site was used over several centuries and has been partially excavated.
There are several chambers that have been restored to show visitors how it was used, strangely they feel kind of 'homey'.
Though of course C insists on being an escaping zombie:-)
And little M is happily buried:-)
The chamber on this side had the sun shining in and you can see the huge slabs of stone that we assumed were part of the original structure.
You can see why people would have chosen such a spot for their burials, the view shows the layers of hills going off into the distance, with a soft sunset light.
Here is a view showing the shape of the structure as we walked back across the fields. In spite of the fact that a couple of hundred runners on some kind of night-time event trailed through while we were there, it was a strikingly atmospheric place and well worth the trip. We went out this morning to another long barrow at Notgrove but it was very neglected and overgrown, so instead we drove over to the Rollright Stones which are between Moreton and Chipping Norton.