Sunday 31 January 2010

The Believers

The Believers by Zoe Heller. We are reading this one for my next book group meeting, which is probably the only reason I might have to pick it up. While some titles, like 'Howards End is on the Landing', might get talked up in 'bookish' circles, I tend to avoid things that have the words 'The Top Ten Best Seller' scrawled across the top of the cover. I know, I'm sorry, that makes me a terrible book snob, but to be honest I don't care. I read it, and it was a pleasant enough read, but really, really nothing special. It was not "Beautifully, stunningly written" as The Guardian claimed, nor was the Times Literary Supplement more accurate with; "Hilarious, touching, unexpected, moving".

We start out with Audrey, a rather boring, unassuming young woman, trying to fade into the background at a party, encountering a self-consciously forthright American, and she decides to sleep with him. And then we abruptly jump forward 40 years to their married existence, Joel is a successful left-wing lawyer and Audrey ... well, she is now a rather boring, unassuming middled age woman, living vicariously off her husband's notoriety. They have two daughters; Karla, the unloved, neglected, now self-loathing and overweight older daughter, and Rosa, the flag waving socialist, but somewhat disillusioned, younger daughter, just returned from several years living in Cuba. Then there's Lenny, their adopted son. And this is what puts Joel into perspective I feel. Lenny's mother is a political activist/criminal who ends up with a long sentence and in a spirit of social experiment Joel decides they will adopt him and thereby transform his life. When things don't turn out quite as he planned his interest wanes and he appears to go back to his self-absorbtion. So the main part of the book begins with Joel going off to court, only to collapse having had a minor stroke, which is followed by another stroke when he gets to hospital, leaving him in a coma for the remainder of the book. It feels a bit unfair on a character, the only impression you can have of him is via other people, but I am not sure I would have liked him much better whatever happened.

The chapters hop between characters telling their separate stories. Karla is a hospital social worker, married to Mike, unhappily, as it turns out, and unsuccessfully trying to conceive. The only really moving moment in the book for me was a description of their rather stilted love making, and it left me so sad for two people so incapable of sharing ...well anything really:

"At the beginning of their marriage, Karla had found this hesitancy charming. She had attributed it to a kind of gallantry in Mike's part - a reluctance to trouble her with his base, male needs. But then one night, a few years ago, when she had turned to receive Mike's advances a little more readily than usual, she had caught him off guard, wearing a look of such intense unhappiness that she had almost cried out in sympathy. The expression has been equal parts repulsion and resignation - a sort of stoic anguish, like a child squaring up to the task of eating his spinach." (p.72)

Their efforts to adopt, after failing to conceive, become more of a barrier between them rather than something bringing them together, and she finds herself drawn into a relationship with a man at the hospital, who appears to offer her some sense of real caring and affection. Her subsequent self-denial and rejection of him, followed by the eventual abandonment of her marriage and running away into his waiting arms was just the worst of the many tedious cliches that make up the story.

Rosa meanwhile is quietly rejecting everything her parents have bought her up to believe in and is seeking some kind of meaning in her jewish heritage, but in the most extreme form of orthodoxy available. The scorn that her parents seem to heap upon her for the interest she is showing in religion is part and parcel of their general parenting technique. Rosa is thoughtful, intelligent and very politically aware, and I found her being drawn to this kind of dogmatic belief system somewhat unbelievable. The need she plainly has for some sense of 'belonging' reflects very badly on her upbringing. She was the only character that I really found even partly sympathetic.

Lenny is a stereotype drug addict, sucking life out of his family, lying to people, going through endless recovery and relapses. Towards the end of the book he goes out of the city to live for a while with Audrey's friend Jean, and appears to finally begin to pull himself together. He gets a decent sponsor through the local NA, who offers him the chance to learn carpentry and he really seems to be taking his own recovery seriously. Audrey's reaction to this is the same scorn that she heaped on Rosa, dismissing his efforts out of hand and accusing Jean of implicitly criticising her parenting by being apparently so successful at helping Lenny. It speaks volumes about her as both a parent and a person. She loved keeping Lenny dependent on her, doling out money indulgently and relishing his infantile neediness, and she just hates the idea of his putting his life back together. She gets her wish in the end though, when at Joel's funeral he is seen communing with his former girlfriend Tanya and decides to move back to the city and abandon his carpentry plans.

The other tedious cliché revolves around the appearance of a woman who claims to have had a long term relationship with Joel and has a son by him. Audrey has lived for forty years with Joel's indiscreet affairs, why would she react so violently to such an announcement. There is this strange implication that *this* affair has in some way undermined the truth of her relationship with Joel, where all the other ones didn't. What kind of strange logic is that. She was not living under any illusion that she had a devoted husband, and she can at least acknowledge that she is full of bottled up resentment over the life she has led with him. In fact her disdain and anger has become an essential part of her public persona:

"But somewhere along the way, when she hadn't been paying attention, her temper had ceased to be a beguiling party act that could be switched on and off at will. It has begun to express authentic resentments, boredom with motherhood, fury at her husband's philandering, despair at the pettiness of her domestic fate. She hadn't noticed the change at first. Like as old lady who persists in wearing the Jungle Red lipstick of her glory days, she had gone on for a long time fondly believing that the stratagems of her youth were just as appealing as they had ever been. By the time she woke up and discovered that people had taken to making faces at her behind her back - that she was no longer a sexy young woman with a charmingly short fuse but a middle-aged termagant - it was too late. Her anger had become a part of her. It was a knotted thicket in her gut, too dense to be cut down and too deeply entrenched in the loamy soil of her disappointments to be uprooted." (p.173)

I hated her through the whole book. I had no sympathy for anything about her life or the choices she had made. Her behaviour, and the way she treated her children and her friend, left me wanting to slap her (metaphorically speaking). She lurched between hysterical anger and tedious self pity. Selfish and self-absorbed hardly begin to describe the depth of her insensitivity to other people's needs and feelings. I have rarely come across a less sympathetic character.

The title is telling you this book is all about belief; be it religious, political or personal, where it comes from, how easily it can be undermined, how people create their own myths and build their lives around them. I am mainly left feeling that she didn't have anything that original to say on the subject.

Friday 29 January 2010

To The Lighthouse

So I have fallen at the second hurdle and totally failed to read 'To The Lighthouse' for the 'Woolf in Winter' challenge. I have been so taken up with the pile of books from the library (like waiting for a bus, you wait for weeks and then four arrive at the same time); 'Howards End is on the Landing' was gobbled up in a few days and am now working on Zoe Heller's 'The Believers' as we are reading it for my next book club meeting. Added to that I started 'Pride and Prejudice' at the hospital last week and have been reading it over breakfast to try and make a bit of progress (this is a bit of a 'duty' read, to try and support my daughter doing it for her IGCSE). Then M and I started on 'Lost in a Good Book' by Jasper Fforde, a follow up to 'The Eyre Affair', which has us laughing out loud with every page. Then there is the poetry that has been very interesting in the last couple of weeks. I went to the local bookshop, that does have a decent cheap classics selection, but they only had 'Mrs Dalloway'. Dunk thought is daughter might have a copy but it turned out not. So I'm sorry, though I still plan to get around to reading it, but for anyone interested please visit over on on Emily's Blog, as she is hosting the discussion and has listed all the other participants who have reviewed the book today.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Wednesday poem

Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a colour slide

or press an ear against it's hive

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out

or walk inside a poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the authors name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin by beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

I found this poem whilst blog browsing (it may be a waste of many hours, but there are occasional gems to be found). I had never heard of Billy Collins, I find that he is amongst the most well loved of modern American poets, but I have requested something from the library to become better acquainted. I loved what this poem says about the way poetry is taught. I really loved the line about 'feel the walls for a light switch', it captures so wonderfully the subtleties of understanding.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

'Stop that! Books are dangerous.'

I seem to have been reading about 'Howards End is on the Landing' by Susan Hill all over the place, and when I picked it up from the library I was told I would not be able to renew it as there was a waiting list. I was not entirely sure what to expect but I was not disappointed. I love the way that the cover image is self-referential, being a picture of the spine of the book itself, as if it were sitting on someone's bookshelf.

The book is subtitled 'a year of reading from home', and it is a book about books, but also a very personal memoir, about how Susan Hill fell in love with literature and all the people she met along the way. She gives the reader a tour around her house, a place that sounds like the best of second hand bookshops, as she goes in search of the books she has both loved and neglected. Some authors appear to be so important to her that they get a chapter all to themselves, and at other times whole genres are covered in a couple of pages. She sets herself a challenge to finding 40 books she could not live without and ends the book with her list (which I can see becoming a blog challenge somewhere sometime soon, except it includes the Bible, which would be quite a reading challenge by itself.) I found myself wanting to go wandering round her house, to spend a few hours browsing her bookshelves and sit in one of her comfy corners with a well thumbed copy of some classic.

The book consists in places of long lists of titles or authors that she has loved. She frequently talks about having read something or other over and over, and I was left wondering how she found the time to write all the things she has written, as I am sure it would take an entire lifetime to be as well read as she appears to be. I discovered huge holes in my own reading, people I had never heard of (which I suppose is part of the point of it all) and, much to my enjoyment, several moments of 'oh yes, I so agree' when she described her reactions to or feelings about a book. I'm kind of glad that she admitted to not 'getting' Jane Austin;

"If every other book in the house was stolen and I had to spend my year reading Jane Austin only, I would either become an ardent fan, after suddenly getting the point, or I would be the one to go mad." (p.97)

... but then I was scolded for being a snob about Enid Blyton, which I did love as a child but would never have inflicted on my own children. I think she was so right to say that developing a love of reading has to start with reading what you love, no matter if it is 'pulp' fiction, only then can you become a more discerning reader. She does love books for being wonderful objects in themselves, and relishes beautifully bound and printed works, but hates the idea of 'collectors' for whom it is ownership of the item that matters, rather than ownership of the content.

"Some people who have row upon row of leather-bound books are owners of ancestral libraries in stately homes, but, although they can be very impressive to look at, these rooms of towering shelves always seem dead. Nobody would dare turn down a corner of a page or make a mark in any margin.
The Folio Society's raison d'etre is fine binding, though of a more mass produced kind .... They look good on the shelves, and the older ones are covered in real cloth which is more pleasing to handle that the synthetic of more recent titles. Yet there is something dead about them too, something too perfect, produced for display rather than use." (p.161)

And she is unrepentant in her dismissal of 'e-books':

"No one will sign an electronic book, no one can annotate in the margin, no one can leave a love letter casually between the leaves. It is true that if I had no books but only a small, flat, grey hand-held electronic device, I would only needs a very small house and how tidy that would be with just the small, flat, grey ....." (p. 77)

She passes over young children's writing rather swiftly. I could have written a whole book just like this one when my children were young; 'Six Dinner Sid is in the sandpit: a year of reading to my children'. Browsing the library or in bookshops (when I had any money that is) for new books for them was my greatest pleasure for many years. We had a set of Beatrix Potter but I *really* hated them, I found them trite and patronising, and the main pleasure the children derived was carrying them around in the little box they came in. I guess it is just the generation gap, I think maybe the 90's was a good time for young children's publishing. I think that now the market may have become a little complacent with the early literacy obsession and when I went browsing for my brother's kids for Christmas I was sorely disappointed with what I found, and ended up buying a couple of our old favourites.

Susan goes on to muse over whether books mind who they stand next to on the shelf, but I think it's just an excuse to list even more of the books she owns. What comes across is her immense passion for literature, and it is really catching when you read her. She drops names all through the books, of famous writers, poets or publishers, some she has merely encountered, others who have become lifelong friends. It reminded me of 'Any Human Heart', in which a fictional writer lives on the fringe of 'literary society' and frequently recounts his meetings with the likes of Ernest Hemmingway. But this is not an annoying trait, in fact it makes you see how much she values being part of that world. She encountered E.M. Forster in the London Library and baby-sat for Arnold Wesker's children. She meets Ian Flemming at a party and also encounters someone who used to work for the Hogarth Press with Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and has a photograph taken of them with her daughters, so that one day they can look at it, and know that it is their connection with literary history.

It is an unashamedly self-indulgent book. You really sense her pleasure in being able to share all these books with people, never in a hectoring kind of way, never making you feel like you 'ought' to have read something, always just passing on her enthusiasm, and in truth, sparking my curiosity and making me want to seek out some of the more obscure books she talks about. Books have been not only central to, but vital to, her life, what more is there to say. I was going to list her 40 books, but I think people would have more fun trying to write their own lists. You are left with the question, what books could you not live without?

"But if the books I have read have helped to form me, then probably nobody else who ever lived has read exactly the same books, all the same books and only the same books, as me. So just as my genes and the soul within me make me uniquely me, so I am the unique sum of the books I have read. I am my literary DNA." (p.202)

Sunday 24 January 2010

Beautiful Singing

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett is another book from the 'Orange Prize' winners list (2002). I have come to the conclusion that slow books tend to have to be read slowly. It has taken me several weeks to read this book and when I finally closed it last night I had tears in my eyes.

I like this front cover image as this captures exactly the house where I imagined the story taking place; colonial, elegant and it's affluence in stark contrast to the poverty and deprivation surrounding it. A group of foreign dignitaries and businessmen are gathered in an unnamed central/south american country at a party for Mr Hosokawa, a Japanese businessman whom the government hopes to entice to invest. Mr Hosokawa however never had any intention of investing and has been tempted to attend only by the presence at the party of Roxane Coss, a famous opera singer. As the book opens she is ending her performance for the guests, and the lights go out, and when they come back on the party guests find themselves taken hostage by a group of terrorists, who themselves were merely hoping to kidnap the president. The president however had made his excuses earlier in the evening, or rather they had been made on his behalf, by aides who don't want it generally known that the president would rather watch his favourite soap opera than attend a state function. So the terrorists are left with something of a quandary, their intended target is absent, their plan, right from the start, has gone wrong. I guess the reader should anticipate right from the start that this is not going to end well for them. Within hours they are surrounded by government soldiers and a stalemate is established. The terrorists issue demands, that get more outrageous as time passes, and the government just refuses to negotiate. They release all the women and children, excepting Roxane, who one of the generals recognise as being important and therefore perhaps having more influence. Their needs are provided for by Messner, a Red Cross negotiator who happened to be on holiday locally, and who becomes their only contact with the outside world.

The situation quickly becomes both totally surreal and yet totally normal. The only initial drama is provided by the death of Roxane's accompanist, who is diabetic and falls quickly into a coma without his medication, and the striking of the vice-president Ruben Iglesias by one of the generals, who's healing wound leaves the only outward scar from the entire incident. The rather disparate group of hostages are held together by Gen, who is Mr Hosokawa's translator, and who becomes the official translator for the entire group, including the terrorists, and he also becomes, in my view, the book's central character. And yet you learn very little about him, because most of the words he speaks are for other people. But it is Roxane who saves them really. It is her music that entrances every person in the story. The party guests were already a little in love with the woman who can create such beauty with her voice, and the terrorists waiting in the ventilation ducts whilst she sings, waiting for their moment to attack, cannot help but be draw under her spell. And then they make the worst of their many mistakes. The priest, Father Arguedas, gets permission to phone his friend who can provide her with music so that she can practice her singing. In this quote the friend has asked if she will speak to him, just to hear the sound of her voice:

"He was paralysed by the sound of her voice, the music of speaking, the rhythmic loops of the names that passed through her lips, into the phone, and then into Miguel's ear some two miles away. The priest knew then for sure that he would survive this. That there would come a day when he would sit at Miguel's kitchen table in his small apartment cluttered with music and they would shamelessly recount the pleasure of this exact moment. He would have to live if only to have that cup of coffee with his friend. And while they would remember, try to place in order the names that she spoke, Father Arguedas would know that he had been the more fortunate of the two because it was he whom she had looked at when she spoke." (p.144)

This quote really captures the hypnotising effect Roxane seems to have over people, not just when she sings, but something very powerfully attractive about her whole personality. With the music then available she find, from amongst the other hostages, Mr Kato (another for the Japanese guests) who plays the piano, and who's quiet talent blossoms under her influence. Her singing then becomes the thing that punctuates their day and provides hope and consolation for their situation. But it also ensures that the terrorists now have no intention of killing anybody. As time passes it is as if the whole group has slipped into some kind of dream world, where they exist apart from reality, the practicalities of life barely concerning them. Most of the hostages sit anonymously in the background with only a few playing any part. The story focusses on the developing relationships between Mr Hosokawa and Roxane, and between Gen and Carmen, one of two young girls amongst the group of teenage terrorists.

"On the morning the rains ended, Gen waited until the last note had been sung and then went to stand beside Carmen. It was a particularly good time to talk without being noticed as everyone wandered around in a state of stunned confusion after Roxane let go of her final note. If anyone had thought to simply walk out the door, they might not have been stopped, but no one was thinking about leaving. When Mr Hosokawa went to get her water, Roxane stood up and followed him and then looped her arm through his arm." (p.201)

The story is about beauty, and how it can change lives. It is about how circumstances can transform your life, how something happens and you have to look again at what is really important. It is about potential unfulfilled or lost. It is about what binds human beings together and what keeps them apart. It reminded me of 'The Plague' by Albert Camus (we did 'L'Etranger' for A level and I read this one as well, but in English), in which a town is in quarantine because of the presence of a plague, and the people just have to sit and wait. A man is writing a book, and spends the whole of the story writing the first sentence, trying to get it just perfect, and he says how since you don't know how long your situation may continue there is not urgency to move on, you just live each day and focus on it entirely. This story was like that. Bel Canto lacked any atmosphere of fear, which partly seemed a bit strange given the circumstance but then as the time passed it seemed right, because then the denouement was all the more shocking.
I did not like the epilogue at all. It seemed wrong and unnecessary, I won't elaborate so as not to spoil the story. But nevertheless a beautifully written book, totally captivating, please read it.

Friday 22 January 2010

You know it's a bad day at work ....

.... when you have 'bath wrinkles' on the tips of your fingers. In my seven years in the job I have only experienced a few days as thoroughly, disgustingly wet as today.

But last night was so lovely I would rather write about that. I went with my book group to Chipping Norton Theatre to see 'Bright Star', the story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne.
Now I am not particularly fond of romantic poetry, at least I have never read much, but the whole film was just so beautiful. It was pure atmosphere, because in reality very little happens in the story. The two of them get to know each other, then over time fall in love, events and illness conspire against them. All you have in the film is the passing of time, marked by the seasons changing outside the house that Fanny's family shares with Keats and his best friend Charles Armitage Brown. Fanny's mother and Mr Brown try to thwart their developing relationship; she by constantly reminding Fanny that Keats has no income and cannot marry, and he by blatant disapproval and attempts to keep them apart. But eventually they both have to admit defeat. The romance is quite chaste but there are some wonderfully sensual scenes, my favourite was where they have both pushed their beds against the wall of their adjoining rooms and they lie and press their hands against the wooden panelling, the shots passes back and forth between the two of them, just lying, thinking of each other.
So the two hours were punctuated by his poems, providing the auditory atmosphere, and her fabulous dresses, providing the visual one. She sews. There is the wonderful opening show of her needle and thread, blown up to full screen, going back and forth through the fabric, and her first meeting with him is marked by her assertion that poetry is a bit pointless and at least she can make money with her skill. She then comments that he needs a new jacket, and I was thoroughly disappointed that, in spite of her remarkable talent, she does not make him a new jacket. And she referrs to him as 'Mr Keats' through the entire film, it felt kind of important, as if it says something about them, until the final moment when she learns he has died and she calls him 'John'.
It was probably the only time I have seen the entire audience sit through the credits, a poem was being read as they rolled up the screen and we all wanted to hear to the end. A deeply romantic and heartbreaking tragic tale, though I was left wanting to know more about Fanny and how she passed the rest of her life.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Free Verse (again)

It has been an interesting week poetry-wise. Firstly I found a small volume on the 'for sale' shelf at the library, entitled 'Heaven on Earth: 101 Happy Poems' edited by Wendy Cope, which I have enjoyed browsing. Then M and I shopped for boots on Monday and then, having bought the first thing we saw, (both of us being very strange women and hating the process of shoe shopping), we finally popped in to the second hand book shop that is right opposite the car park, where I acquired a copy of 'The Ghost at the Table' by Suzanne Berne and 'The Funny Side: 101 humorous poems' also edited by Wendy Cope (am hoping and assuming that as a poet she defines 'happy' very differently from 'humorous'.)
The one I have picked would more accurately (in my opinion) be defined as a 'contented poem':

Intimacy by Nina Cassian
I can be alone,
I know how to be alone.

There is a tacit understanding
between my pencils
and the trees outside;
between the rain
and my luminous hair.

The tea is boiling:
my golden zone,
my pure burning amber.

I can be alone,
I know how to be alone.
By tea-light
I write

(translated from the Romanian by Eva Feller and Nina Cassian.)

But then I have to go off at a completely different tangent. Another blog I follow (there are far too many of them I know) is called The Daily Beat, which is mostly about Jack Kerouac and other aspect of 'beat' culture. Anyway he mentioned a new biopic about Allan Ginsberg and the Guardian article he linked to mentioned Lawrence Ferlinghetti and I was reminded of a poem of his that I just love, so I'm going to post that too:

Don't let that horse
eat that violin
cried Chagall's mother

But he
kept right on

And became famous

And kept on painting
The Horse With Violin In Mouth
And when he finally finished it
he jumped up upon the horse
and rode away
waving the violin

And then with a low bow gave it
to the first naked nude he ran across

And there were no strings attached

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Happy Blogiversary

Here we are, one year on from my first post and I am still blogging. I couldn't think of anything startling to write when I arrived at my 100th post ... and I am similarly at a loss today ... it has been a singularly ordinary day; work followed swiftly by shopping, followed by an afternoon nap, followed by 'Deal or No Deal' and then dinner. In some ways browsing the blog world what you find is that mostly people do lead very ordinary lives, and it is perfectly okay to lead an ordinary life. I am looking forward to another year of blogging about stuff that interests me and hoping a few people might enjoy reading it.

So here are the year's statistics:
151 posts
177 comments (yeah!)
56 books read (52 books challenge actually started about this time last year)
several miles of yarn knitted
several hundred yards of yarn spun
large amounts of felt made
1 rug ragged
2 unfinished knitting projects
4 cakes, 1 batch of doughnuts and 1 lemon meringue pie
1 month on sick leave
2 snow days off work
13 (I think) visits with the Ridley Birks family
1 magical mystery tour
2 new hair colours (M, not me!)
3 new babies (again not mine:-)
1 young adult left home

I like to have a photo every post, so here is a different anniversary photo. My parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on 31st May 2008 and we had a big family gathering. Here we are in the garden of their lovely house in Newton Abbott:
(left to right: me, Bart, Mum, Giles with Jay, Claire and Dad). We don't all get together very often so it was lovely to have an excuse.

Sunday 17 January 2010

Virginia Woolf

Just a reminder that the first part of the read-along in the Woolf in Winter challenge happened yesterday. You can visit Sarah's Blog and read a wide selection of opinions on Mrs Dalloway. My review is here.

Sunday Felting

Long time no felt ... so I thought I might do something new today. I have been following this lovely lovely blog called Bure-Bure, | cannot understand a word of it because the lovely lady is Lithuanian, but she makes the most beautiful felt slippers. I don't know if she understands english but I keep leaving comments telling her how beautiful they are. I wanted to try making some slippers, even though I also have no idea how she goes about getting the shape. I made some plastic resists based vaguely on the shape of my foot, but much bigger ... as it turned out much much too much bigger:-) I was so worried about them turning out too small. Here is how they looked after laying out and wetting and rolling for a bit. You can see how stupidly large they are.
I took the whole lot to the kitchen table and wondered what else to do with them. Dunk suggested I finish them and put them on freecycle. M and I found it all very amusing thinking up good uses for them. I came up with the idea of using them as covers for welly boots... or as a little papoose for a teddy bear. I used Corriedale and found it was less enthusiastic about felting than the Merino, it is a coarser and slightly crimped fibre. In the end I cut one in half and plumped for making another baby hat, since the baby will have grow out of the first one quite soon:
We used Dunk's new floodlights to take the photos and I think it has worked out really well, the subtle pastel colours have come out beautifully. I lined the inside with a darker pink which shows here on the hat brim. Then I chopped part of one side from the other slipper leaving a flap and made it into a little bag. The flap was very resistant to my efforts to tidy the edging so I have left it very 'organic'. I think I will have another go at the slippers with a more sensible sized pattern.

Saturday 16 January 2010

new coat

We have lost Tish for the week as she has gone to visit the babies so M and I are left to keep each other company. We walked out to the sweet shop this afternoon and came back with a new coat! Tish and I saw this in the window of one of the very few clothing shops in Moreton before Christmas and I just knew it was way better than the boring (though beautifully fitting) black one M had tried on in Marks and Spencer. We dithered over it for quite a while and she knocked another £9 off the price:-)

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Green Hair

Hardly needs a comment really. She is kind of green all over from the dye as well:-)

Free Verse

I found this today on Find Your Next Book Here (linking back originally to Ooh ... Books), and it's just a 'because it's Wednesday share a poem you like' kind of idea and it appealed to me. Anyway my mum bought me a lovely book for Christmas, entitled 'Rain' by Don Paterson and I read some of it the other night and was really struck with the first poem in the book, Two Trees. It is so wonderfully subversive, leading you to expect one thing and then undermining all your expectations at the end:

One morning, Don Miguel got out of bed
with one idea rooted in his head:
to graft his orange to his lemon tree.
It took him the whole day to work them free,
lay open their sides, and lash them tight.
For twelve months, from the shame or from the fright
they put forth nothing; but one day there appeared
two lights in the dark leaves. Over the years
the limbs would get themselves so tangled up
each bough looked like it gave a double crop,
and not one kid in the village didn't know
the magic tree in Miguel's patio.

The man who bought the house had had no dream
so who can say what dark malicious whim
led him to take his axe and split the bole
along its fused seam, then dig two holes.
And no, they did not die from solitude;
nor did their branches bear a sterile fruit;
nor did their unhealed flanks weep every spring
for those four yards that lost them everything,
as each strained on its shackled roots to face
the other's empty, intricate embrace.
They were trees, and trees don't weep or ache or shout.
And trees are all this poem is about.

(Two Trees, from Rain by Don Paterson, published by Faber and Faber ISBN 978-0-571-24957-2)

have I done a desk tidy post before?

I was about to entitle this post 'Tidying the Desk' when I had a bit of a deja vu moment, because of course the desk drawers do get out of hand on a regular basis. It has been on my 'jobs to do' list for some months now, and since the fresh layer of snow prevented us from going out as planned today it actually got done. I tend to like to have a nice sense of achievement from my tidying so decided to record the 'before':
and 'after' phases of the operation:
The other two drawers were a less dramatic transformation. We (by that I mean Dunk) have a very old, very large (4 foot by 6 foot) former 'executive' leather topped desk that fills one end of the bedroom. I use the drawers on one side and his junk fills the other side (and his junk fills the top surface too), it feels like a reasonable arrangement most of the time. On the up side I did find the spare power wire for the laptops, one died (it started smoking!) and the other one is just about holding together and we have been passing it back and forth for weeks.
So I have achieved something on my day off and now I can do something more enjoyable Oh yes, and M now has green hair. Will add a photo later when they have finished and all the green on her face has washed off a bit:-)

Sunday 10 January 2010


Sirius by Olaf Stapledon
I bought this book second hand after reading about it in the back of Cats Cradle and was quite intrigued, but in the end disappointed. I am really only writing about it to keep a record of everything I have read, and I wouldn't dismiss it so completely as to forget I read it.

The premise is so interesting, the idea of an animal with a human consciousness, but the more I read the less convinced I was. So this scientist is trying to create super-sub-human intelligent creature. For a start there is a lot of very objectionable vivisection going on here, merely to satisfy one man's curiosity. Eventually he achieves the desired result of a dog with a human sized brain, who is brought up alongside his own daughter, Plaxy. Why he should have arrested physical development was not adequately explained, because he grows up at the same rate as the human baby, with whom he develops a very close bond. The story is related by the future husband of Plaxy, who seeks out the mysterious girlfriend who has deserted him, and finds a very strange family history and even stranger friendship with the dog Sirius.

The book is supposed to be about the nature of animals and the nature of human beings, and what makes the difference. But in the end I found the whole story to be just mistaken. Why would having a bigger brain cause him to learn speech ... not logical since he has not the capacity to form words. Why would it make him think like a human. It makes all the wrong assumptions about the nature of intelligence. Then why would Trelone, the scientist, treat him like a human being, an individual, like a member of the family, and then send him off to train to be a sheepdog as soon as he was mature. The experiment has the logical outcome that of course the creature is not sure if he is a dog or something more, which means he is fighting a constant battle between his wild, animal nature and his intelligence. In the end Sirius is not a very good dog and not a very good human being. And you have the fairly predictable tragic ending, with ordinary people being afraid of something they do not understand. A story of science gone mad, saying far more about humans than about dogs, and very little about intelligence. The book predates wide knowledge about DNA and so Trelone uses hormones to manipulate the subjects of his experiments, but I think the lesson is the same ... beware of playing god.

Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut
I am thinking of adding another ongoing ad hoc challenge to read the works of Kurt Vonnegut. There are only 14 novels and then 10 collections of stories and essays. No time-scale involved, just because I have so much enjoyed the two recent ones, which seems as good a reason as any.
So I picked Galapagos up from Julie's shelf and it was my New Year reading.

The first thing I noticed was that the voice was the same, and coincidentally this book has a very similar theme to Cat's Cradle, the end of the world as we know it. The story of Galapagos is narrated by the ghost of Leon Trotsky Trout (the son of Kilgore Trout, a recurring Vonnegut character). He is reflecting on a million years of human evolution, that has taken place solely on the fictional Galapagos island of Santa Rosalia, all current homo sapiens being descended from a motley group of castaways who landed there in 1986. I was anticipating the story being about the Galapagos and what became of the castaways, but I guess that he used this location for it's symbolic value, it being the place that gave rise to the ideas about evolution. The story is really about the complex background history of each of the characters and how they all make their way to Guayaquil (the main sea port of Ecuador)and then on to the cruise ship the 'Bahia de Darwin', which was supposed to be making a maiden voyage to explore the Galapagos Islands, and ends up saving the human race.

So our main contenders are Mary Hepburn, who's husband died some months ago but she comes on the cruise anyway; Zenji Hiroguchi, a computer wizz, and his pregnant wife Hisako; Selina McIntosh (and her seeing-eye dog Kazakh) and her father Andrew McIntosh; Captain Adolf von Kleist, who's brother also appears but he does not make it onto the ship; James Wait, a con man who's real name the others never have occasion to discover. However most of this cast of characters are killed off, but it's okay because you are forewarned which ones not to get attached to by the asterisks that mark them out for an early death. But as it turns out the Captain is the only male who survives to travel on the ship (although he has no idea how to navigate it) and most of the future world population is directly descended from him and a group of Kanka-bono (fictitious indigenous population) girls, whose presence in the hotel is a weird series of coincidences (and whose names are given at one point but I cannot find it).

Our only other main 'character' is Mandarax. Mandarax is a small hand held device, created by Zenji Hiroguchi. In it's initial incarnation it is purely a language translation computer, but this later version is something of an encyclopedia, and is the only possession that they take with them to the island. The knowledge it contains becomes less and less useful to the castaways, as their island is entirely devoid of any trappings of civilization, but their life (and the book) is punctuated by it's ability to provide the perfect quotation for any given situation.

"Doubt of whatever kind, can be ended in Action alone." (Thomas Carlysle) This one I particularly liked and it is the idea that spurs Mary on to tackle the problem of their lack of babies. They have been there ten years and know nothing of the collapse of the world economy and the arrival of a virus that has rendered all human females sterile, and thus ensured the end of the human race. So thanks to her ingenuity we don't die out entirely, but we do go in to different direction. Leon (our narrator) continually insists that the human race's main problem is their huge brains and their insistence on thinking too much and making things too complicated, and that thanks to a million years of evolution (living on the island) humans are much happier and more suited to their environment.

So, an interesting, and very thought provoking book. Like Cats Cradle it is totally surreal and the cast of characters are a real oddball collection, but you come to admire their ingenuity and determination. I am looking forward to reading more of his work.

Saturday 9 January 2010

Work of Genius

If you visit over on Dunk's Blog you can see a film of us making our snow polar bear (have a little patience as it takes a minute to load). He worked on this for two days to get the music to match the few moments of film exactly. The first part is taken by the webcam, taking one photo every 20 seconds, and the piece at the end was taken on the digital camera, and then spliced together. Today the bear looks a little the worse for wear and is listing slightly to one side, though still just about upright.
Then yesterday the girls made this wonderful igloo, by the same hollowing out method.
They can just about lie inside it but not quite sit up. Many years ago we made one in the back field that could fit three children in, though it's roof was supported by branches as it was so wide.

I have been out delivering the last two days. We had three days worth of mail in the office and the bosses finally decided it was okay for us to go out by van. So apologies to anyone who has been without their post this week and please bear with us, your intrepid postie will will get round to you in the end. Confess I am dreading the thought of more snow tonight:-(

Thursday 7 January 2010

Polar Bear

We shunned the traditional where snow construction is concerned and decided on a polar bear this year. It is a bit hard to see it well because of course it is camouflaged in the snow:-) but here is M lying underneath it just to prove that it is actually standing on four separate legs, and it has been pretty cold today as it is still standing. Tish wants to do an igloo in the front garden now.
I spent my entire working day today just sorting as we had both Wednesday's and Thursday's post and three people missing, hopefully a bit more will get delivered tomorrow.
And for the new year I thought I would try a new layout, but am not sure about it, not that keen on any of the ones on Blogger but have not the skill (or inclination) to do my own.

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Happy New Year

Happy New Year to all in Blogland. We celebrated, as is traditional, with the Ridley Birks family in Manchester. Here is a slightly badly framed photo taken with the camera perched on the bookshelf using the timer so we could all be in it together.

After a few days with Lewis, Jacob and Rachel in Newcastle we return home and find ourselves snowed in. I went to work this morning and was back in bed at 7am after we were told the lorry was not even coming up from Gloucester. This is how the garden looked in the dark, we have nearly a foot of snow. We may go out later and build something.