Thursday 29 April 2010

Quantum entanglement

'Random Acts of Heroic Love' by Danny Scheinmann
This was a lovely book, following what appears at first to be two stories, but that turn out to be two parts of the same story. In one Leo and Eleni have been travelling in South America but the book opens in the hospital where Leo awakes to find Eleni has been killed in a bus crash. The story then trails back and forth in the consequences, their relationship and their journey as Leo tries to recall the events and come to terms with his loss.
In the second story Moritz has been snatched from his beloved Lotte by the advent of the First World War. His story is being told by a dying man to his son Fischel, recounted as an inheritance to his children and grandchildren, the story of how his fledgeling love for Lotte sustained him through the horrors of war and imprisonment and the suffering of a four year trek across Russia to be reunited with her.

The two tales are about two different aspects of love and its impact. The first is grief and the slow inexorable break down of Leo as he tries to make sense of life without Eleni, and the other is hope, how if you love someone you are capable of incredible things in order to fulfil your dream. The book has an interesting structure but I found myself mainly wanting to get to the point where I knew why the two stories were connected, they seemed to be so far apart. The tale of Moritz was the difficult part to read. It was quite harrowing in places and did not stint on the details of his experiences. The research and understanding of people's experience of the war was very well done, and also the complexities of the post war situation, with the revolution in Russia and the political breakdown across eastern europe. The author plainly knew a great deal about the history of the period and the subtleties of the ethnic groups and allegiances across the whole area. Whenever I read anything about ordinary people's lives during war time I am left bewildered by their apparent ability to cope with massive trauma and deprivation and still hold on to some sense of humanity and continuity of life. When I read at the end that the book is based on the true story of the author's grandfather you cannot help but feel quite humbled by his suffering and endurance.

The other track of the story is Leo trying to hang on to his love for Eleni, going through a series of strange obsessions. He is studying ant behaviour for a PHD but finds himself distracted and begins researching animal mating rituals, seeking to find examples of true bonding between individuals, to find a kind of pattern in nature that makes love a real thing. He then finds himself drawn to quantum physics through meeting a new professor and the idea that at a 'particle' level bonds can be created between electrons that endure across time and space, providing him with the nearest you could hope to get to a 'scientific' explanation for love.

All in all a very clever interesting way to embellish a quite simple tale of love lost and found. Although a little like last time (with the Philip Roth) I found the book to be only about the two men, their women being merely idealised symbols on which to focus their affection. But a good read nonetheless.

Tuesday 27 April 2010

Work Perk of the week ... and wool winge

How sad am I ... what small things make me happy ... I found this elastic band at work the other day, and it is like two bands in one and will wrap a bundle of post in both directions at once. Now really elastic bands should be the subject of a 'work winge' post as they are the cause of much pain and suffering (regularly snapping viciously against your fingers unexpectedly) but this one bought a smile instead.

Sunday I had a most unsatisfactory afternoon. I bought some cheap 'Welsh Wool' to make soles for felted slippers, hoping that something a bit coarser would be more hard wearing, however things did not work out as planned. I spent quite some time turning this tatty pile of cleaned wool:
... into a slightly softer pile of fluff (and leaving plenty of bits floating round the garden for the birds to gather). Unfortunately bits of the fibre were so coarse that they would not felt and simply moulted back out of the felt, so the whole thing turned out to be a waste of time, who wants slippers that shed white fibres everywhere.
But I did also spend some time the other week making blended batts from what was left of my coloured roving collection, there were only a few colours left but by combining them in different ways I have ended up with a lovely selection ... and might even get around to doing something with them.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Giving up - not really a book review

The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy
"Feckless, unwashed, charming, penurious" is what it says on the back cover, and I should have heeded the warning. Dorothy Parker apparently loved it, calling it "lusty, violent, wildly funny" but I fear I must part company with her.
I read 50 pages and having flicked forward and read a few more snippets I find that it is going to continue in the same vein for the rest of the book so I am loath to waste any more reading time on it. I *cannot bear* Sebastian Dangerfield. Feckless is the perfect word to describe him, he really is without redeeming quality; selfish, lying, cheating, manipulative, thoughtless, inconsiderate, irresponsible ... I could go on, but even to do that would be to give him too much of my time. I can see that some readers might find his antics amusing, but not me. It doesn't happen often but I am officially giving up.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Work Winge of the Week 2 - rental firms, breakdown services ...

.... and Kwik-Fit.
I nearly wrote a winge yesterday after having a bad day, and am now glad I saved it, because today was worse .... well really just an extension of yesterday.

Yesterday I started the day in Northleach, but ended up back in Moreton again, starting from scratch again. So three quarters of the way round my delievery I notice the back tyre has gone soft, so I struggled for some time to get the spare off from underneath the van, only to find it is flat too! This is a rental we are using while ours is having repairs, so I was pretty p***** I can tell you. The breakdown service was most unhelpful, wanting the rental account number and the base where the vehicle had come from (neither of which I knew) before they would send anyone out to me. So I said not to bother and phoned the office instead. James came out with what we hoped might be a new tyre, but despite it being for a Citroen van it was non standard and did not fit. Then he was followed by both Brian and Simon, I went off in James' van to finish my delivery and they pumped up the tyre with a portable inflator and took it back to the office. On my return I spent quite some time negotiating with the breakdown service and then Kwik-Fit (who they insisted on transferring me to) and it was resolved that they would come out in the morning with two tyres and fit them.

So this morning I anticipated having to wait a while but things did not work out as planned. I chased up Kwik-Fit around 9am to find out when they were coming. I was told they had attempted to come the previous day and had been unable to access the vehicle and I was not scheduled for any assistance today, and suggested I contact the rental supplier. I finally left it in the hands of the boss, and went off and delivered the first part of the duty by bike. Around 10am the boss called to say the rental company were sending a replacement van from Gloucester, and it would be there in about half an hour. An hour later I texted to say I was still waiting and he called back to say it would be another hour. Finally at 11.45 the first of my colleagues returned from their delivery, so I got to go out and do mine. Tim did turn up and give me a hand later and the replacement van apparently finally arrived around 12.30. And by this time I was wishing I had not volunteered to work my day off.

Friday 16 April 2010

Margaret Atwood poetry

April 2011: Welcome to all the students of Margaret Atwood to one of my most visited posts. I would have written a whole lot more if I had anticipated so many people would be interested in her poems.

I went to pick up a couple of things at the library (I know, I know, don't tell me off, the TBR 'pile' is now two piles and a few stray ones loitering under the bed) and had the very briefest of brief browses at the poetry shelf, and came away with 'The Journals of Susanna Moodie' by Margaret Atwood. The back cover describes this as "haunting meditations on an English gentlewoman's confrontation with the wilderness", and I certainly could not have put it better. I was drawn to the book by the description on the back, that these poems are based around the life and experiences of Susanna Moodie, who emigrated with her husband to Canada in 1832, and wrote her own account of her experiences in a book entitled 'Roughing it in the Bush'. While Atwood has obviously drawn on her writings the poems themselves are her own extrapolation of Susanna's account, including reflections from beyond the grave on the progress of 'civilization'.

While I have read many of Margaret Atwood's novels I have not read any of her poetry before, and I really loved it. While I must confess to having a somewhat sanitised and naive view of frontier life, based mostly on watching 'Little House on the Prairie', I can appreciate that this was going to be very much life in the raw, and the poems do not pull their punches, the harsh realities are all there, very evocatively drawn. I think that although I have not read Susanna's books I found that the poems drew me right in to her life, the sense of how hard it was and her mixed emotions about being in such an unfamiliar environment. Atwood write a neat little 'afterword' that gives some interesting background to Susanna's story. (I find myself writing 'she' but what I mean is these are the words/thoughts/emotions that Atwood has attributed to Susanna.)

The first few poems are about their arrival and a total sense of alienation. The first (Disembarking at Quebec) ends with the words, "I am a word in a foreign language." and the second (Further Arrivals) says, "We left behind one by one/ the cities rotting with cholera/ one by one our civilized / distinctions/ and entered a large darkness./ It was our own/ ignorance we entered." In 'First Neighbours' she describes the difficulties of being accepted by the locals (even though most of them would have been immigrants too), how she says and does stupid things, but my favourite line is, "Finally I grew a chapped tarpaulin skin". I loved the image of her body physically 'toughening up', even though emotionally she was still so scared by it all. In 'The Two Fires' she describes a forest fire and a fire that destroys their home, you get a real sense of their vulnerability, but then also her determination not to be beaten, "Two fires informed me/ (each refuge fails/ us; each danger/ becomes a haven)/ left charred marks/ now around which I/ try to grow."

In the second section of the book the family have moved to Belville (where her husband is sheriff) and they live in relative comfort and safety. In 'The Immigrants' she witnesses the arrival of more immigrants and seems to feel rather ambivalent towards them, both scorn and pity:
"They carry their carpetbags and trunks
with clothes, dishes, and family pictures;
they think they will make an order
like the old one, sow miniature orchards,
carve children and flocks out of wood
but always they are too poor"

Death was more immediate and more commonplace, and the poem 'Death of a young son by drowning' is almost cold, as if she is too weary to grieve. "They retrieved the swamped body,/ cairn of my plans and future charts,/ with poles and hooks/ from among the nudging logs." And it ends, "I planted him in this country like a flag." Ageing and death are ongoing themes in many of the poems, particularly in the final section. It is obviously something that preoccupied Susanna, in several of them she observes regretfully her ageing body.
She also has ambivalent feelings about their life in the bush, feeling as if she has not adapted to it, feeling angry about the hardship she endured. In 'Thoughts from Underground' (reflections from the grave here) she says:
"In winter our teeth were brittle
with cold. We fed on squirrels.
at night the house cracked.
In the mornings, we thawed
the bad bread over the stove.
Then we were made successful
and I felt I ought to love
this country.
I said I loved it
and my mind was double."
While she is bitter about their tough life she is at the same time scornful of the privilege that she lived with in later life, seeming angry at the juxtaposition of the two halves. In 'Later in Belleville: Career' she says:
"Now every day
I sit on a stuffed sofa
in my own fringed parlour, have
uncracked plates (from which I eat
at intervals)
and a china teaset."

To finish here is my favourite poem of the collection. I like it because it is all about her sense of belonging and her relationship with the environment, how it tried to force her to be part of it, to absorb her. The language is so subtle, much is left unsaid, there is a real feeling of her consciousness being crept up on, but that whatever 'genteel' background she may have come from resisted this assimilation. (It is laid out slightly differently in the book that I cannot reproduce accurately, I am not sure how this impacts on the reading or meaning of the words.) I certainly came away having learnt something from this book.

Departure from the Bush
I, who had been erased
by fire, was crept in
upon by green
lucid the season)
In time the animals
arrived to inhabit me,

first one
by one, stealthily
(their habitual traces
burnt); then
having marked new boundaries
returning, more
confident, year
by year, two
by two

but restless: I was not ready
altogether to be moved into

They could tell I was
too heavy: I might
I was frightened
by their eyes (green or
amber) glowing out from inside me

I was not completed; at night
I could not see without lanterns.

He wrote, We are leaving. I said
I have no clothes
left I can wear

The snow came. The sleigh was a relief;
its track lengthened behind,
pushing me towards the city

and rounding the first hill, I was
unlived in: they had gone.

There was something they almost taught me
I came away not having learned.

Wednesday 14 April 2010

200th Post - a post script

So I lay awake last night, as is often the case when I sit up thinking, and it took till after 11 to finish my review of 'American Pastoral', and getting more and more annoyed at Philip Roth. And annoyed at myself for being so deferential. So he's considered a great and influential writer, why does that mean I don't feel it is okay to say critical things. And it made me feel dishonest. It was a good book, a very clever book, a very challenging book, but it reminded me of why I read more women writers.

Firstly there is the whole Dawn thing. He creates this man, makes him a prime physical specimen, now, according to the American Dream, he has to marry an equally perfect physical specimen, so what better than to make her a beauty queen. But then he doesn't want to be accused of giving him an 'airhead' wife, a trophy wife, so he pretends to make her a 'real' character. She is an ordinary girl, who just wants to look after her family (her father has a heart attack and cannot support them, so she is only doing the pageant to win the scholarship for her brother ... for her brother you note, would he have done the same for her had the situation been reversed?) He allows her to stand up for herself when Lou Levov, Seymour's father, is all up in arms about her Catholicism, and the Swede admires her strength of spirit, but instantly compares it to her physical frailty, the thing that really inspires his protective instincts. She does not win Miss America and returns home, marries the Swede and decides to raise cows (leaving behind her dream of being a music teacher.) Then regularly through the book he comes back to, and reiterates forcefully, how she rejects the whole 'former Miss New Jersey' label and refuses to be defined by that part of her life. But it just feels like he is labouring the point too hard, as if to prove that he takes her seriously. After Merry's disappearance she basically has a break down and only recovers after a face lift and building a new home for them (or as it turns out for herself and the architect). To sum up, the final description of her, "Pretty, petite, unpolitical Dawn".

The other women are all terrible clichés: Levov's mother is a long suffering wife of a belligerent, opinionated, domineering man, she has no role in the tale other than to bear his children and listen to his diatribes. Dawn's mother is just a shadow who talks about church all the time, causing friction by trying to influence Merry as a child, totally one dimensional. Marcia, the wife of his best friend, only appears briefly, mainly to be a contrast to Dawn. She is forthright and vociferous, "an oddball from another world, the academic world, the intellectual world, where always to be antagonising people and challenging whatever they said was apparently look on with admiration." (p.341) The author pits the women against each other, with Marcia scorning Dawn for her beauty, belittling her, refusing to hear Dawn's protestations that it does not define her. She is just a caricature of a feminist, unattractive and loud. And finally Sheila Salzman, Merry's speech therapist, who returns to the denouement of the story as having been briefly the Swede's lover after his wife's breakdown. She is just this nice, well-meaning, bland woman, devoid of personality.

Then there is Merry. She never got to be a woman at all. She remains a little girl to her father all through the story. But she is really just part of his fantasy life, the one who is supposed to jump off the swing and run into his arms at the end of the day. He can't imagine another dimension to her existence, which is why he can never understand what brings her to the point where she bombs the post office. He experiences her stuttering as a kind of affront to his perfect life, so much of her life becomes focussed on trying to fix it rather than just allowing her to be. She moved from being an adoring little daughter into a hostile teenager, he never really tried to understand her, he just kept thinking that if only he talked to her, and said just the right thing, she would turn back into the daughter he wanted, and expected, and deserved. He viewed her only as an extension of his own life, no wonder she rejected him and his values so forcefully.

I was reminded very strongly of the film Running On Empty (made more poignant by the presence of River Phoenix), which concerns a family who's parents had been politically active, involved in a protest bombing that caused someone's death unintentionally, who are then forced to live their lives in the political underground. I wanted that part of the story. I wanted to know what happened to Merry, to see the other side of the American Dream, the underbelly of society, what happens when you reject the accepted values of society. So although I admired the book, it did one thing very effectively, but left me feeling distinctly dissatisfied.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Johnny Appleseed

This is coincidentally the second Pulitzer Prize winner that I have read recently (though looking down the list I have previously read quite a few others, but then never even heard of many of the authors .... now there would be an interesting challenge.) Initially it was called the 'Pulitzer Prize for the Novel' until 1947, then renamed the 'Pulitzer Prize for Fiction'. American Pastoral by Philip Roth has been quite a challenging read. I have not quite finished it and decided to review it now mainly to stop myself focussing on the 'story', to allow myself to just read the writing, to get the essence of what he is trying to say. In fact I find myself hoping desperately that there is not a nice neat ending, but something suitably inconclusive.

This book is one of the group known as the 'Zuckerman' novels, which contain the character Nathan Zuckerman. Well, he's not exactly a character, more the narrator of the tale, except in the first part, where he establishes the background to the story, how he is connected to the protagonist, the Swede, how he came to be telling his story, and then he takes up that story leaving his own small part in it far behind.

I have not read anything else by Philip Roth but the Wiki page (the integrity of which is much respected but cannot be taken to be without flaws) informs me that the dissection of the 'American Dream' is an ongoing theme in much of his writing. It is certainly what is going on in this book. Seymour Levov, or the Swede, is an all-american boy, sports hero (idealised to the point of worship by his whole community), marine and married to a former beauty queen. Coming from jewish immigrant background, his family established a glove manufacturing business that he enters after leaving the army, and takes over subsequently from his father. The other recurrent theme in his writing is his (the author's, but also many of his characters') Judaism and the shared experience of immigration, prejudice and their cultural heritage. The Swede's only rebellion is to marry a gentile (in fact a catholic), though the family appear to be secular, not religious, Jews their identity and membership of the jewish community is central to their lives. It is not that he rejects anything about his heritage, it is just that it is less important to him than this overarching idea that he has of being 'american'. His relationship with his father is an ongoing theme through the book. He is a forceful and domineering influence on his life.

"Conflicting Jewish desires awakened at the sight of him were simultaneously becalmed by him; the contradiction in Jews who want to fit in and want to stand out, who insist they are different and insist they are no different, resolved itself in the triumphant spectacle of this Swede who was actually only another of our neighbourhood Seymours whose forebears had been Solomons and Sauls and who would themselves beget Stephens who would in turn beget Shawns. Where was the Jew in him? You couldn't find it yet you knew it was there." (p.20)

Since his teenage years all he has yearned for is an idyllic life, that he sets out to create for himself. He knows the house he wants to buy, the girl he wants to marry, and the child, swinging on the swing he will hang from the maple tree, who will run to greet him on his return at the end of the day. He is partly a product of the naive post-war optimism, and a political and social system that told people they lived in the best of all possible worlds. He lives his life exactly according to other people's expectations, utterly selfless, but at the same time self-indulgent and utterly without imagination (that sounds contradictory, but he does seem to manage to be both).

"The responsibility of the school hero follows him through life. Noblesse oblige. You're the hero, so then you have to behave in a certain way. - there is a prescription for it. You have to be modest, you have to be forbearing, you have to be deferential, you have to be understanding. And it all began - this heroically idealistic manoeuvre, this strategic, strange spiritual desire to be a bulwark of duty and ethical obligation" (p.79)

It's as if he views the world through rose coloured spectacles, sees only what he wants to see, determined that he is in control of life, shaping it to his own design. I titled the post 'Johnny Appleseed' because he is kind of symbolic of the Swede's idea about his life, and his naivety, and because it reminded me that we used to sing the song as a grace when I was in the Guides:

"Wasn't a Jew, wasn't an Irish Catholic, wasn't a Protestant Christian - nope, Johnny Appleseed was just a happy American. Big. Ruddy. Happy. No brains probably, but didn't need 'em - a great walker was all Johnny Appleseed needed to be. All physical joy." (p.316)

This first part of the book is entitled 'Paradise Remembered' and it tells of life as the Swede wants it to be, his childhood and family history. As his daughter Merry grows up, a childhood marred only by her stuttering, she moves further and further from the confines of their family unit, developing a political viewpoint born of her earlier single-mindedness. Strangely I had not read the 'blurb' on the back cover telling me that she would be the cause of all the trouble but by the time I got to the end of the first part I could see it coming, and my main reaction was 'be careful what you wish for':

"And that was the last conversation they ever had about New York. It worked. Interminable, but he was patient and reasonable and firm and it worked. As far as he knew, she did not go to New York agin. She took his advice and stayed home, and, after turning their living room into a battlefield, after turning Morristown High into a battlefield, she went out one day and blew up the post office" (p.113)

The second part of the book is 'The Fall' and it recounts the destruction that was meted out on the Swede's carefully constructed image of his life. Merry disappears from their lives and everything he thought he had built is gone. His life is meaningless, and he cannot understand, because he was so convinced by his own version of reality. So he makes a new reality, a story that explains her behaviour, that acts as a comfort, that she was used and misled and exploited by others, that this was not really her actions at all. I was left as confused as the Swede by Rita, a 'co-conspirator', who tells him all sorts of things about Merry, her actions and her whereabouts, that make no sense. She destroys in turn all his memories of Merry's childhood by claiming to know Merry's true feelings about her family. And then finally, after several years of suspense, he finds Merry again, and she tells a wholly different story, one that disrupts his life all over again, by totally undermining the safe little explanation he had built up for himself and his family, their belief in Merry's essential innocence. You are left unsure, not knowing what the real story is, but I think this is all part of the essence of the book, that so much is unknowable.

The story hops backwards and forwards in time, mixing up their life 'post bomb' with telling the background of Merry's childhood, but not sequentially, just random memories, things that seemed significant, often with the Swede reflecting on them, trying to find some reason or explanation for this new reality. It was an interesting writing technique, describing in detail some current event and then suddenly flashing back to a memory. It gave you a real sense of how wholly preoccupied the Swede is with Merry, as if we are following the meanderings of his thoughts, and then just as suddenly coming back to the ongoing story. At one point he is remembering a school incident, where the teacher branded Merry as 'stubborn' because she refused to conform to what the teacher thought was an appropriate response to an assignment. The question to the class was "What is life?" (this is in a Montessori school):

"According to Merry, while the other students laboured busily away with their phony deep thoughts, she - after an hour of thinking at her desk - wrote single unplatitudinous declarative sentence: 'Life is just a short period of time in which we are alive.' "You know," said the Swede, "it's smarter than it sounds. She's a kid - how has she figured out that life is short? She is somethin', our precocious daughter. This girl is going to Harvard." But once again the teacher didn't agree, and she wrote beside Merry's answer "Is that all?" Yes, the Swede thought now, that is all. Thank God, that is all; even that is unendurable." (p.248)

It is quite poignant, one of many moments when the Swede realises and abandons himself to his own powerlessness, and yet he constantly struggles to try and regain the control that he thought he had at the beginning. You just know he is fighting a loosing battle. Reflecting at one point on a time early in their marriage about his 'dream':

"Why shouldn't I be where I want to be? Why shouldn't I be with who I want to be? Isn't that what this country is all about? I want to be where I want to be and I don't want to be where I don't want to be. That's what being an American is - isn't it? I'm with you, I'm with the baby, I'm at the factory during the day, the rest of the time I'm out here, and that's everywhere in the world I ever want to be. We own a piece of America, Dawn. I couldn't be happier if I tried. I did it, darling, I did it - I did what I set out to do!" (p. 315)

If there was ever a person heading for a fall it was this man. And it's not as if Roth sets him up to knock him down. He is just the figurehead for the 'dream', this absolute certainty that this life he had created was his right, almost an inevitable, undeniable right, but what he couldn't see was that it was never real, because life cannot be that certain. It is as close as a book has ever come to saying outright, 'this is the meaning of life'. The final part is called 'Paradise Lost', and it tells it like it is, how Roth viewed the inevitable loss of the dream. This earlier quote sums up very neatly the way that their lives were destroyed, how events take over, out of your control, that so much of the shape of your life is determined from outside:

"History, which had made not dramatic impingement on the daily life of the local populace since the Revolutionary War, wended its way back out to these cloistered hills and, improbably, with all its predictable unforeseenness, broke helter-skelter into the orderly household of the Seymour Levovs and left the place in a shambles. People think of history in the long term, but history, in fact, is a very sudden thing." (p.87)

Then your mind goes back to the beginning of the story. Zuckerman is having dinner with the Swede, and he has to sit through the tedious spiel of the proud parent, the minutiae of the lives and achievements of his three sons, and it is only later, when he meets the brother at a class reunion and learns about the existence of Merry that it becomes clear that all he was trying to do was convince himself, and Zuckerman, that he was still in control, that life was not just crazy and unpredictable. The narrator comments at one point that the structure of his life was dictated by one "circumstantial absurdity" (his physical prowess) and was ended by another, a bomb.

There is so much going on in this book it is impossible to do justice to it. It is a very challenging social commentary, but then at the same time is making a lot of political observations too. It is also, in my view, a book about being a parent, and had some parallels with 'We Need to talk about Kevin', which is narrated by the mother of a boy who has committed mass murder (which I hope to re-read and review for you some time). Alongside trying to make sense of the destruction of his life the Swede is also trying to fathom out his own failure as a parent, how Merry could become someone who acts the way she does. He searches through his memories and her childhood desperately trying to understand what went wrong. Then there is Dawn, his wife and Merry's mother; a woman who spends her life trying not to be defined by her experience of being Miss New Jersey. I was disappointed that I never got inside her head more. In spite of Dawn's efforts to be a more rounded ordinary woman, her husband continues to be spellbound in a rather clichéd way by her physical beauty. Equally I wanted to know Merry, but we only ever know her through he father's thoughts and observations. I wanted to follow her story, to know what had happened to her years in hiding, to know where her life went after her reappearance, but was in the end denied. In fact, looking back, all of the female characters in the book are rather shadowed by events, not significant as individuals to the Swede's life, only important in their 'role'.

This was a hard book to get in to. The writing is very dense; long descriptions that are scene setting and important background atmosphere, but somewhat dull to read (all the stuff about the glove manufacturing industry bored me). There was something of Virginia Woolf about his writing, very long convoluted sentences, with endless sub-clauses that sometimes make you lose track of where the sentence is going, so you have to concentrate pretty hard. But the more I read the more I became used to his style, but still often only read a few pages at a time. All in all an excellent book and I am sure I will read something else by Philip Roth at some point, definitely a writer to get the brain cells working hard.

Work Winge of the Week 1

The other purpose of a blog has got to be to allow you to let of a little steam every now and then, so I thought I would initiate a new series of posts, and if I give them a title like this visitors can see straight away that I am going to have a moan, and thus can easily avoid it if they can't be bothered.
Today's moan is the bin men. Now really I love them, I mean we keep each other in business; I bring the crap that they then take away to (hopefully) recycle and they keep me in work with people writing to the council to complain about the terrible refuse service. But not today.
If you arrive in a small village at the wrong moment it can turn you job into a nightmare. So I played leapfrog with the bin men all round Little Compton this morning, getting in each other's way, them stopping in the middle of the road with no place for me to get past, changing my route to avoid them, only to turn another corner and find them in the way again. Add to that the EON man sitting in the way at the bottom of a long drive (with his engine running too!) and the men resurfacing a patch at the bottom of Barton Road that meant another diversion, all in all a very frustrating morning.
Thanks for listening, I feel so much better now.

Rooks on the radio

Listening to the radio in the car yesterday and they were talking about rooks and some bird expert came on and gave this piece of advice on telling the difference between rooks and crows:
"A rook on his own be a crow, and a group of crows be rooks"
I had a bit of a nostalgia moment, and if a blog is for nothing else it is for personal recollection. When my older son Lewis was a toddler we lived in the village of High Pittington in County Durham (not linking to Wiki for a change as they had nothing), and if you asked him what noise a bird made (this is the kind of conversation you have with children just learning to talk) he would not say 'tweet tweet' or 'cheep cheep', he said 'Aaaak', because the only birds we had in that village were rooks. They inhabited the roof ridge of the shop across the road, occasionally circling the village and aaaak-ing. I think maybe there were so many of them that they just intimidated all the smaller birds. That's all really. It just made me smile. And don't get me started on jackdaws, they walk sideways, and M used to do the most excellent impression of them when she was little.

Saturday 10 April 2010

W.B. Yeats

W.B. Yeats
I like this photograph, he looks such a serious, intense young man. I have always been very fond of a quotation commonly attributed to Yeats; "Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire", it encapsulates quite neatly a completely alternative view of what real learning is, and something central to the way I raised my children.
Looking at the site Poem Du Jour and clicking on the 'random' button, it gave me this one, entitled 'He wishes for the cloth of heaven':

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with gold and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths,
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.

Being Guy (more work winge)

This week I have mostly been being Guy (he was on holiday but I had to use his ID on the PDA as the technology didn't like me logging on in the wrong office). I say 'mostly' because Thursday I was just about to pack up and leave the office when the boss turned up and informed me that someone had gone sick in Moreton and I ended up sorting and delivering a second duty, then going back to do Clapton on the Hill, and not getting home until 5pm.
All week I failed to remember the camera and so failed to get a nice shot of the peacocks at Notgrove Manor:
Or the fabulous avenue of 'knotted limes' that line the entrance to the manor, a feature created by pruning back the new growth each year achieving this strange sculptural effect of 'fists' at the end of each branch.
Or of the toad that I rescued from someone's doorstep
Or of the people 'Sphereing' at Sweetslade Farm, which looks brilliant.
Anyway, will be back to normal next week.
I am racing towards my 200th post, and was supposed to do a post every day this week to reach it, but have failed to finish my book (American Pastoral by Philip Roth) or knit anything or felt anything or have any profound thought of any kind. Maybe next week:-)

Monday 5 April 2010

Away We Go

I have been wanting to see Away We Go ever since we first saw a trailer months ago. It came via Lovefilm over a week ago and I finally sat the family down last night to watch. And I was pleasantly satisfied. Dunk's reaction was that it was 'episodic' and somewhat clichéd, which was true up to a point, but I loved the central characters, Bert and Verona, they were very real and very warm, there was lovely chemistry between the actors.

So, this expectant couple are wondering what to do with their life, where to live to raise their child, and so they travel the country, visiting friends and family, trying to find a spot that suits them. What they experience along the way gives them much food for thought as they discover the upsides and downsides of family life. The people they visit are the 'clichés', each a representative of a different attitude and approach to parenting: the jaded mum of tweenagers, thoroughly disconnected from the lives of her children, mostly concerned with her own life. Then the 'continuum' crazy distant 'cousin', who is so swept up with the correctness if her own beliefs that she became excessively judgemental of anything outside. (Though I do love Maggie Gyllenhaal and her performance was brilliant.) This bit did annoy me because I read The Continuum Concept when I was pregnant with the twins and what was presented in the film was a westernised perversion of the ideas, turning them into something that confined and controlled children rather than freeing them. I also hate the way that any kind of 'alternative' ideas about parenting are presented as extremist and kooky by the media. I commented on a blog the other day that was arguing for more 'mean' parenting, that it was the only way to keep your children safe from harm and make them responsible contributing members of society, and I really got someone riled up. Anyway, then we had the lovely college friends with a huge adopted family, whose happiness is blighted by their inability to have their own child, and Bert's brother, who's wife has abandoned him to raise his daughter, and he is left overwhelmed and frightened by the prospect.

In the end of course Bert and Verona find their own path, and a place that is right for them, and you have no doubt that they will make wonderful parents. It was just a warm and content film, safe, about dealing with the uncertainties of life, and how important it is to work at it together. I regret the lack of baby at the end, but perhaps that would have tipped over into the sentimentality which it successfully avoided.

Silly questions

I keep seeing these silly question lists, how to sum up your existence in single words, so I did this one, to see if I felt it said anything about me (my thoughts were that they are superficial and tell you nothing), and it kind of does, but in ways so subtle that you would have to know me to understand.

Where is your cell phone?
Favorite Food?
Your dream last night?
Your favorite drink?
Your dream / goal?
What room are you in?
Your hobby?
Your fear?
Where do you want to be in 6 years?
Where were you last night?
Something that you aren't?
Wish List Item?
Where did you grow up?
Last thing you did?
What are you wearing?
Your TV?
Your pets?
Your Life?
Your Mood?
Missing Someone?
Something you're not wearing?
Your favorite store?
Favorite color?
When was the last time you laughed?
When was the last time you cried?
Best Friend?
Place you go over and over?
One person who emails you regularly?
Favorite place to eat?
yo sushi

And then M took the computer off me, so I insisted she write a blog post and when she couldn't think of anything I gave her these questions, so pop over to her blog and fail to get to know anything about her too.

Saturday 3 April 2010

Saturday haul

We had our habitual trawl of the charity shops over in Evesham this afternoon, and certainly had a very successful trip. M found a copy of 'Chocolat' (on good old fashioned video for 20p) that we have been searching for for several months now, and Tish blew some more dosh in La Senza, on pretty but totally superfluous items of underwear. I came home with a few books:
  • 'Notes from an Exhibition' by Patrick Gale, a title I have read about in several places, enough for it to stick in my mind.
  • 'A Quiet Belief in Angels' by R.J. Ellory, on my 'to find at the library' list, but I had failed to write down the author so could not find it, and there it was for a mere £2.
  • 'Mary Reilly' by Valerie Martin, picked out because of 'Property', that I read and reviewed back in February
  • 'The Clothes of their Backs' by Linda Grant, picked out because of 'When I lived in Modern Times', that I also read and reviewed back in February.
  • Finally, 'Uncommon Reader' by Alan Bennett, because I have nearly bought it on numerous occasions, I like the idea of someone writing a story about the queen, making her more real, and it was only one pound.
  • The other book in the stack is 'The Rehearsal' by Eleanor Catton that arrived by post this morning from my mum, for me and M to read together.
Apart from 'The Rehearsal' these will all be going to the bottom of the TBR pile as I am working on some blokes at the moment. I confess to tending rather heavily towards women writers, so when Gerry (at book club) suggested Philip Roth I was definitely up for the challenge, and we are reading 'American Pastoral' (currently very slow going). I also have J.P. Donleavy's 'The Ginger Man' next in the heap.

Then this evening M and I had a nostalgia evening and watched 'The Breakfast Club'. Well nostalgia for me anyway, since it is a very 1980's film. For those of you unfortunate enough to have never seen this film it follows one Saturday in the lives of five disparate young people, obliged to attend a tedious school detention, for disparate reasons that are revealed as the day progresses. From their scattered corners of the adolescent universe they find themselves colliding with each other as they share thoughts, change attitudes and discover new experiences. There are some wonderfully funny moments, and the resident teacher is as foul and objectionable as they are permitted to portray, and apart from the terrible makeover Molly Ringwald gives to Ally Sheedy, you get a very satisfying ending. (DVD available from any decent charity shop near you.)

And finally I have to just send you over to The Felting Needle, where my blog title has inspired some wonderful creativity .... it's nice to think that people get their food for thought in all sorts of different ways.

Friday 2 April 2010

Friday Felt

Having a nice quiet day at home for the bank holiday so decided to do a bit of felting. I realised the blog has been dominated by book reviews for quite a while now so wanted to have some pretty pictures instead. I have been planning another go at the nuno felt since I made the lovely baby blanket back in October. Unfortunately much of my bubble wrap is rather worn out (been popped by bored teenagers) so had to limit the size of the project. Also colours are limited as my stash of roving is running low. This project has a layer of undyed merino underneath, then the layer of muslin fabric, then this design laid out on the top. I think it started out about 150cm by 50cm (as usual forgot to measure it to check the shrinkage).

After rolling for about an hour and then rubbing with soap for another 30 minutes or so it has felted quite satisfactorily. I like the way it looks quite widely spaced when you lay out and then the shrinking closes up the spaces and makes the design look much more dense. It is sitting here on top of the new vivarium we acquired for Nix (the carpet python), which has now been placed on the fireplace to cover up the ugly gaping hole. He is not in it yet as it needs light and heating fitted. I guess a vivarium cover is as good a use for it as anything:-)

blogger (a poem)

In the world of blogger
there are
6,270,000 students
who should be concentrating on their studies
227,000 writers
not getting on with their novel
16 wild swimmers
sitting at home warm and dry
31,000 inhabit Dallas Texas
but a mere 10 hail from Sofia City (Bulgaria)
I was surprised that only 34 bored teenagers
declared themselves as inhabiting
'the middle of nowhere'.
Frank Zappa can claim 58,900 fans
where 5,100 love Joan Armatrading
One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest is relatively unknown (153)
but Pride and Prejudice has a huge fan base (623,000)
41,300 appreciate the falling rain
but only 50 will collect those fallen rubber bands.
There are 8,300 vegans and 8,600 vegetarians
but only 1,400 are real garlic aficionados.
44,200 like school, but I think some of them must be lying
(7,000 are adamant unschoolers too)
3,780,000 read the bible
fortunately 6,830,000 read at all,
so there must be plenty who have found other books more valuable.
4 people adore blackberry jam,
but I have to add myself to this figure
so five really.
And add me too
to the list of 3,300 who admire the work of Monty Python
338 have found their salvation in monasticism
so what are they doing on a computer
whilst 4,200,000 still find politics a worthwhile pursuit
some 61 of them are bullshitting
and most worryingly
only 26 people are concerned about keeping sane
Lizz alone is somewhat fond of thistle down.

(All statistics taken from Blogger profile searches and may be subject to alteration without notice. No responsibility will be accepted for the consequences of contacting like minded people via the Blogger network.)

Thursday 1 April 2010

A variety of things saved up over the last few days

This week I have been learning a new duty down in Bourton, covering Clapton on the Hill, Cold Aston and Notgrove. This is a very affluent part of the world, lots of very big houses, lots of scattered farms and of course very strictly cotswold stone. The centre of Cold Aston (also sign posted at the main road as Aston Blank, but apparently it is just two names for the same village) has this most wonderful huge oak tree. I was also once informed by one of our managers that there is such a person as a 'Notgrovian' (his wife was one), someone who was born in and has lived in the village their entire life. In a village of a couple of dozen dwellings there are a surprising number of them apparently. The village is interestingly numbered; 3, 6, 6a, 7, 8, 9, 19, 10, 14, 15, 37, 38, 39 (with other unnumbered houses).
This is the state of our front room, but it's brilliant: we have had a new central heating boiler fitted this week. This is the hole where the previous one was behind the gas fire. Hopefully it will cut our bills, being nice and economical, and we have hot water on demand, replacing the old furred-up hot water tank, though I have lost my 'hot cupboard' which was great for drying washing in the cold weather.
This is my second attempt at felted slippers. The are lined with some alpaca to make the insides soft, but the alpaca migrated through the felt as I made it and I fear they will moult somewhat. I have sent them as a 'un-mother's day' present for my mum. You can pop back and see the previous pair here to see the construction method.
And finally some poetry. Apparently April is National Poetry Month (in America I think) so lots of blogs have been mentioning it. I found this Simon Armitage book in the library (and also found a surprisingly good selection of poetry books that I wll definitely be revisiting regularly). I have not had the chance to read the whole thing but wanted to share one to whet your whistle. I did like the one called 'Learning by Rote' but it is printed in reverse, and very challenging to decipher (I resorted to the mirror in the end), and two extracts, one from 'The Bayeux Tapestry' and the other from 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, made me want to go and seek out these longer works. Another I read to the girls is called 'Horses M62' is about a group of stray horses on a motorway, very spooky and atmospheric, almost a ghost story. But am going to give you this one, entitled simply 'Sloth':

As chance would have it, one has come to rest
in the attic room, right over my desk.
Upside down, he hangs from the curtain pole
like a shot beast carried home from the hunt,

but the light burns in his eyes; he isn't dead.
A contemplative soul, much like I am,
he's thinking things through, atom by atom,
and hasn't touched the dried fruit and mixed nuts

I left on a plate on the windowsill,
although a mountain range of Toblerone
is thus far unaccounted for. My wife,
the three-times Olympian pentathlete,

wants to trigger his brains with smelling salts,
clip jump-leads on to the lobes of his ears,
stick a bomb up his arse. But I'm not sure:
to me the creature looks dazzled or dazed,

like the Big Bang threw him out of his bed,
like evolution took him by surprise.
Those eyes ... He can stay another week,
till the weather turns. But now back to work:

look, a giant tortoise goes past in a blur.