Saturday 31 December 2011

Happy 2012

It seems silly to kid myself that I'm going to do anything particularly different in 2012. I already tend to do the things that I think are important, I don't have any unhealthy habits, at least not so bad I'm prepared to give up the doughnuts (I have some irritating ones but where's the fun in giving up those), so the only real resolution for this year is to help get Creature through some exams and into college.

On the book front I have decided to partake in a couple of challenges. Firstly the Orange January challenge 2012, reading some books from the Orange Prize, which I have been doing on and off anyway. I have picked out The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville (2001 winner), Home by Marilynne Robinson (2009 winner), A Short history of Tractors in Ukranian by Marina Lewycka (shortlisted in 2005) and 26a by Diana Evans (winner of the New Writers prize in 2005). And this links nicely with the TBR dare, to read things only from your 'To Be Read' pile, as these are all from my shelves. It is supposed to run until April but I think that I have so many unread purchases from last year I could probably keep going until next Christmas (or until I get fed up).

I found this fun 'resolution suggester' for those of you who are lacking challenges for the new year. Seeing as I already bake cookies from scratch, know how to tie a tie, say hello to strangers and have no desire to wake up any earlier, I thought I would probably take to wearing sunglasses and be a rock star. Or you can pop over to the Skepchick guide to new year resolutions, from where I borrowed the Neil Gaiman quotation.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

So Many Ways to Begin

So Many Ways To Begin by Jon McGregor
When I was first living really alone post divorce I was living in Chesterfield. To fill my non-working hours I was re-immersing into reading; because I had practically no money and was feeling very financially vulnerable I would sit in the library reading then I would pick out a handful of books, take them home and begin each in turn until something really caught me. One day I was browsing a bookshop and picked up a book called 'If nobody speaks of remarkable things'. This book was new, in hardback, so although the first few pages spoke to me I put it back on the shelf thinking I would look out for it later. The title however vanished from my brain and it was nearly a year later when I found mention of it in a newspaper and was able to seek it out. It lived up to my first impressions and was worth the wait. So many ways to begin is Jon McGregor's second book and is equally lovely.

It is the story of David, who finds his provenance is not quite as he had understood and spends far too much energy seeking something he imagines will be more real, and of Eleanor, who has run away from her origins and seems to be equally affected by the grief of lost roots. It is a quiet story about the unfolding of life, the small things, how things often do not turn out the way we planned, and how it might take a lifetime to appreciate things they way they are. David is a museum curator and the story chapters are headed as if they are descriptions of the listed artefact, each item a means to tell a small part of the story:

"Examination results, Scottish Highers, July 1967
A single sheet of paper, slightly larger than letter-sized, an expensive-looking rough-grained texture with a circular watermark just visible about halfway down the page. The name of the examinations board at the top, an address, a reference number. An official seal at the bottom, lipstick red and frilled at the edges. A ruled table with columns for subject, paper, date, and grade. The thick black type that can change a life. The paper held delicately, at arm's length, as though creasing it or tearing it would invalidate what it said. As though the ink were still wet and could be smudged or removed." (p.136)

It is also a book about history and about memories and how significant small things can become. Everything about the book is slightly delicate, the writing is only just there, completely understated, the characters hint at themselves, revealing little bits in brief moments of conversation or thoughts. Such books are a stark contrast to reads like War and Peace, that encompass huge swathes of people and history, they are just a tiny corner of existence, but it tells you far more about the human experience than Tolstoy does. It's hard to describe the story because it is just their life. It left me with just a sense of plus ça change.

At Paradise Gate

At Paradise Gate by Jane Smiley was one of the novels that I bought at the charity shop months ago and has been waiting patiently in the pile. I read A Thousand Acres many years ago and loved it but have never read anything else by her until this. This was written ten years earlier and there are interesting similarities, most notably the three sisters in conflict, and it is again a story at least in part about family relationships.

I find that I like books that are set over a very short space of time, they have to be very concentrated in their effect, every conversation tends to be loaded with meaning because the characters are put in what tends to be a quite claustrophobic situation. Ike Robinson is dying, though you get the impression he may have been dying for quite some time as his wife Anna seems to be worn out by the whole process. Their three daughters, Helen, Claire and Susanna all live nearby and do make some contribution to the care of their ailing father, but he seems to prefer the burden to fall on his wife. The story is told mainly from the perspective of Anna, reflecting on her long marriage and the changes that have come about during her lifetime and her view of life in general. It is a portrait of their marriage and the complex interdependence that has built up between them. Ike has obviously not been a nice man but she has a solid loyalty to him because of their shared vulnerabilities. They are fiercely independent and resist acknowledging how much they rely on their daughters.

"Ike had never touched her like that, had almost ignored the details of her appearance, but had never let her ignore a single detail of his. She had admired him, washed for him, bought for him, made for him, inspected the bald spot he couldn't see, judged the growth of his belly, the atrophy of his muscles, and the tone of his skin until she felt that his body was her primary activity. Not to mention feeding it." (p.132)

Here she is making the bed, it is a nice mix of domesticity, intimacy and the image of her being both practical and very practiced. I particularly like the idea of a benign promise:

"Ike nodded. She set him gently in his chair and turned to the bed, which was quite disarranged. It was terrible in a way, as if he had been thrashing about in pain. She smoothed the bottom sheet and tucked it in, then flipped the top sheet with a practiced snap of the wrists, the blankets, one by one. She made hospital corners and tucked everything in, then arranged the mound of pillows. Ike hadn't slept flat in two years, almost. She loved a newly made bed in the middle of the night. It so benignly promised a fresh start." (p.82)

Anna talks to her daughters very much about their own concerns and current life, but what is going on in her mind and in her dreams is her history, her family and childhood, early married life and her own children:

"And the baby would, of course, know someone who would then live until 2067, or perhaps the baby herself would live until then, drawing Social Security, being photographed in her bed, recalling that great-grandmother, whom she remembered very well, thank you, herself remembered people who were born in 1837, less than a lifetime after the Declaration of Independence. Anna shivered, and her life seemed dwarfed by memory.
With the shiver her body began to revive. She grew sensible of her robe and nightgown twisted around her waist, of one of her slippers half off. It seemed that if she thought another thought, then she would think only of dead people, and even to think why that would be frightening was frightening." (p.73)

The group of women, joined by the granddaughter Christine, fuss and fret over Ike as he huff and puffs his way through the day, they dance on his every need, and he takes them totally for granted. It is as if his intense vulnerability has wiped out the domineering and violent man he was. In spite of obvious conflicts between the daughters there is a sense of a strong bond between them as a family. They work together to prepare and eat quite an elaborate meal. It seems to show how important the togetherness is in spite of any history. Christine drops the bombshell that she wants to divorce her recently acquired husband and it stirs up all manner of mixed feelings and attitudes about marriage and the varied relationships that the women have experienced. I enjoyed this book so much because it was about the history of women's lives, just ordinary and everyday and about ageing and how even though things change the essential stuff is kind of the same. Some kind of paradise perhaps.

"Beyond the pleasure of hot bath or a good meal, beyond the pleasure of church with the windows open in May, beyond even the pleasure of a good mystery story late at night, was the pleasure of a lot of work on a nice day: troweling holes for the pepper plants, weeding, drawing mulch over warm soil, snipping off old flower heads, raking up prunings and grass cuttings, hosing down the steps and scrubbing the porch, throwing away old bottles and magazines, kneading some sweet rolls, half to send to Christine, half for the freezer, letting one long intended task drift into another, such as sorting old clothes, that might have been so long intended as to be almost forgotten, then resting with some knitting or crochet, not idling, never idling, going outside and in, letting doors swing, pausing in the sunlight with your hands on your hips, as if there were too much to do, but really only sniffing the air for that first aroma of heat on turf." (p.198)

Epic book review

When I joined the read along of War and Peace back in September 2010 it didn't seem such a tall order, I mean it is a mere 4 pages a day if you take a year over it, but it became a bit of an endurance test for me. I got left behind so stopped visiting the posts about the book, because I did not want to have the plot spoiled, and slogged on alone, reading with my breakfast most mornings. I'm going to be blunt here, I only stuck with it because I had already invested so much energy it seemed a waste not to complete the challenge. I find Russian books hard because of the names being so complicated and unpronounceable, and this one being exacerbated by the fact that there are three people called Nikolay, that was just irritating.

It was long, so very long, and yet relatively little seemed to happen in it. To a certain extent it is a history, and on that front I felt I did learn something from it, assuming that the history is accurate. There is a great deal of discussion about the war, but also about war in general, politics, history and what role war has and if it is a good way to conduct politics. Tolstoy also examines the course of history and the way decisions were made and how the events unfolded. I liked the way he shows that of course history is a reinterpretation of the events in light of the outcome and that often things turned out well (i.e. for Russia that is) in spite of decisions rather than because of them. His closing concluding chapters about the war were not part of the story but were more academic and very interesting. All through the book he makes interesting observations about the politics of favour and how it influences military decisions and actions. I liked this one, a clever analogy:

"All members of this party were fishing after roubles, decorations and promotions, and in their chase simply kept their eyes on the weathercock of Imperial favour: directly they noticed it shifting to one quarter the whole drone-population of the army began buzzing away in that direction, making it all the harder for the Emperor to change course elsewhere. amid the uncertainties of the position, with the menace of serious danger which gave a peculiarly feverish intensity to everything, amid this vortex of intrigue, self ambition, conflicting views and feelings, and different nationalities, this eighth and largest party of men preoccupied with personal interests imparted great confusion and obscurity to the common task. Whatever question arose, a swarm of these drones, before they had done with their buzzing over the previous theme, would fly off to the new one, to smother and drown by their humming of the voices of those who were prepared to examine it fully and honestly." (p.754)

Another nice analogy on the downfall of Napoleon:
"The Russians at Borodino won - not the sort of victory which is specified by the capture of scraps of material on the end of sticks, called standards, or of the ground on which the troops had stood and were standing - but a moral victory, the kind of victory compels the enemy to recognise the moral superiority of his opponent and his own impotence. The French invaders, like a maddened wild beast that in its onslaught receives a mortal wound, became conscious that it was doomed, but could not call a halt, any more than the Russian army, of half its strength, could help giving way. By the impetus it has been given the French army was still able to roll forward to Moscow; but there, without further effort on the part of the Russians, it was bound to perish, bleeding to death from the wound received at Borodino. The direct consequence of the battle of Borodino was Napoleon's causeless flight from Moscow, his return along the old Smolensk road by which he had come, the destruction of the invading army of five hundred thousand men and the downfall of Napoleonic France, on which at Borodino for the first time the hand of an adversary of stronger spirit had been laid." (p.973)

It is a bit of an impossible task to review such a long book. Apart from the war, the book makes me think of Pride and Prejudice, and I was irritated by it in the same way. The bits that are not about battles are solely about the concerns of the upper classes, their lives, their comings and goings, their money troubles. I had trouble making myself care too much about them because it all felt so removed from real life (see quote here from last year). The women have such narrow concerns, the death and destruction of the battles is unreal to them and the shallow round of balls and parties seems to continue unabated. The upper classes don't do that badly even when they are in the war, someone still seems to bring them dinner and see to their horses for them. The only episode I found interesting was when Natalya, Nikolay and Petya went hunting with their uncle and then return to his house and join in with the entertainment that the servants are enjoying. It was the only time in the entire book where we had any view of what life was really like for ordinary people. The main character in the story is Pierre, he is weak and ineffectual, easily manipulated, but who I did eventually come to like after he is captured by the french in Moscow and spends quite a time imprisoned and finally learns the life lessons he has been struggling with for the entire story, mainly to stop being so concerned with himself.

I recorded several dozen quotes but most of them are about the war and now it is so long ago I am not so sure why I liked any of them. Here is an example of why the book is so long:

"Prince Bagration screwed up his eyes, glanced back over his shoulder and seeing the cause of the confusion turned his head again with indifference, as much as to say: 'Is it worth while bothering with trifles?' He reined in his horse with the ease of a good rider, and slightly bending over disengaged his sabre which had caught in his cloak. it was an old-fashioned one, of a kind no longer in general use." (p.206)

Tolstoy has a tendency to like describing people's movements in minute detail, and always uses at least two adjectives where one would be just fine. In the space of a single page we have smiles described thus: "firm and contemptuous smile", "the smile of a doctor to whom an old wife tries to explain how to treat a patient", "subtly ironical smile", "that smile which said it was absurd and strange for him to meet with objections from Russian generals" and "smiled sardonically". He can take a whole page just to have someone to get up and walk across a room. Although it is not in any way a funny book there are brief moments of humour that lighten the atmosphere: when Prince Kuragin is expecting Pierre to propose to Heléne he just walks into the room and congratulates them as if he has proposed, sweeping the whole moment along to his wishes, and Pierre is so pathetic he daren't contradict him and ends up married. Then, at the end, after his prison ordeal is over, Pierre again:
"he fell ill and was laid up for three months. He had what the doctors termed 'bilious fever'. But in spite of the fact that they treated him, bled him and made him swallow drugs - he recovered."

I have read it admitted elsewhere that Tolstoy did not honestly know how to end the story. It felt more like he wanted to write a history of the period and felt that it would be more interesting and readable if he made it into a story, introduced characters and romance, but then when the fighting stopped he couldn't really be bothered. There is a little bit of suggestion of social reform, with Nickolay Rostov freeing his serfs but really life is just going to carry on as normal, the rich rebuilding their estates and fortunes, the poor getting back to the fields (having been slaughtered in their countless thousands). The whole tale is wrapped up very neatly in the last few dozen pages, erasing all possible complications and marrying off the appropriate people and giving them neat happy families by the end of the book. It was politically and historically an interesting read, but if you want the human interest I would suggest you stick with Miss Austen.

Sunday 25 December 2011

Annual reading list

It's been a funny old year, I don't feel like I've read as much as in previous years, and have abandoned several books in disgust or boredom. I feel like I have been trying to find interesting books but failed, it is quite a while since I found something totally engaging, or maybe I have not been giving things my full attention. I have been knitting a sweater for Tish and made no progress in two months. I have lost all my oomph. So maybe a list will help, and remind me of the things I have enjoyed.

So that is only 49 books, and 15 of them were audiobooks, plus some listed are children's books so not serious reading.
Books I have read and not reviewed:
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill

Best books of the year: Wolf Hall and The Wasp Factory.

Bugger Christmas cake

After letting the turkey go down for a while I spent my Christmas afternoon making a Hazelnut Chocolate Meringue cake (it was supposed to get done yesterday but never mind), which was more yummy and much less filling than a slab of fruit cake.

Hazelnut Chocolate Meringue cake:
6 egg whites, whipped until peaky.
6 oz caster sugar, whipped in to the egg whites
+1 tsp of cream of tartar
+1 tbsp white vinegar
Toast in the oven 4oz of hazelnuts, rub off the skins and then finely grind (or buy pre-ground, whatever). Fold this into the meringue mixture.
I divided this mixture into three circles on to three pieces of baking parchment on baking trays (it needs to peel off easily afterwards, this is the best stuff.)

Bake in a cool oven, 130 degrees, up to 2 hours until golden and crisp. You could easily up the quantity of eggs and sugar and make them a bit thicker, these were quite thin, or make more layers, or whatever you fancy really. Turn off and leave to cool in to oven.

Whip 1/2 pint double cream and 2 tsp of caster sugar. Sandwich the meringues together. I put grated chocolate into each layer with the cream and then added a small handful of finely chopped hazelnuts on the top with more chocolate.

And now we have Independence Day on the telly, what more could we ask for.

Friday 23 December 2011

Having this Christmas off

Christmas this year is going to be even more low key than usual as I have opted out almost completely. The weeks crept up and I kept putting things off and in the end there were no cards sent and very limited presents bought. I realised that I do most of my preparations out of habit, as an atheist have no particular affinity with the celebration and decided it was time to step back from the cultural pressures to participate. Creature has already left the house to go and stay with a friend so it will be Dunk, Tish and myself gathered around the free range turkey (I happen to like turkey). I have however made a cake (something else I like) and when I put the marzipan on the other day decided to make some of our traditional favourites.
Coconut Ice:
1 tin of sweetened condensed milk (avoid Nestlés if you can)
12oz desiccated coconut
1lb icing sugar
few drops of red colour
Mix the whole lot in a big bowl. Divide the mixture in half and colour half pink. Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, sprinkle with icing sugar and press the white mixture in with your fingers spreading it thinly, cover with a layer on pink. Leave to dry for a day and then chop into small chunks. Will keep for up to about a week if you keep it in a sealed box.
Peppermint Creams:
1 egg white
1lb icing sugar
food colour
peppermint essence
Lightly whip the egg white and beat in some of the icing sugar. Keep beating in the sugar until it is a thick dough. Knead in more sugar until it is no longer sticky. Sprinkle a tray with lots of icing sugar, roll the dough into small balls and flatten. Leave to dry overnight, turning occasionally to ensure they do not stick to the tray. Store in a box, will keep quite a long time, except they are less sickly than the coconut ice and so get eaten very fast. The green ones are peppermint, the yellow ones are flavoured with orange essence, I did a batch of each. You can also use lemon or some other to your taste. Can also be dipped in melted chocolate.

Monday 19 December 2011

have not felted in a long time

I haven't done any felting in months but when my dad e-mailed to say that mum needed a cover for her birthday Kindle I offered to make her one. I was surprised to discover how small they are, smaller than a book, a mere 19cm by 12. Felting something down to a precise size is no mean feat. I allowed nearly 50% shrinkage and then made a cardboard cutout to judge when it reached the right size. I hope it fits.

Sunday 11 December 2011

Her Fearful Symmetry

'Her Fearful Symmetry' by Audrey Niffenegger.
This book was always going to be a disappointment to me considering how much I loved 'The Time Travellers Wife'. It is described as a ghost story, but I think it is just a story with ghosts in it, because the ghost is neither particularly sad nor malevolent. It would have been a better story of she had been. Coming from a family with lots of twins I might have found it interesting but the whole identical twin thing was overdone and vaguely annoying. I am not sure that that level of intensity between two people would be real, and certainly not healthy, so using the device at the centre of the story made it feel rather contrived.

Anyway, the story: Elspeth and Edie are twins who have been separated by a rift over a man (who is utterly irrelevant to the story), and Elspeth dies and leaves her estate to Edie's twin girls, Valentina and Julia. Julia is domineering and Valentina is just weak and this is the basis for their relationship. They come to London to live in Elspeth's flat and spend their time mindlessly pottering around shops and tourist sites and eating convenience food. They are not really interesting, they are there to be a set of slightly creepy twins. Then we have the ghost of Elspeth who is floating round the flat trying to get their attention, which she eventually does. At the moment where she and Valentina are playing with the kitten and she accidentally snatches it's soul I knew exactly where the story was headed. On reflection maybe it is a ghost story, because it is her presence that directs the course of the plot and bring the tragedy. Without the ghost of Elspeth the girls cold have developed their new life into something else. Valentina could have broken away from her sister, Julia could have fallen for Theo, Robert could have actually got over his mourning and moved on.
Then there is the whole Highgate Cemetery thing, which mainly just screams 'oh, look I've done a lot of research for this book' and was not at all creepy or atmospheric. I liked Martin, the guy upstairs with really bad OCD, he was real and believable and very sympathetic, though, again, his recovery was a little too dramatic to be credible. I liked Robert, Elspeth's lover and downstairs neighbour, who volunteers at the cemetery doing tours and is writing a thesis on the history of the place. The whole book was set up to be very claustrophobic, all taking place inside this block of three flats, that overlook the cemetery, and all of the people have not much reason to go anywhere: Martin works from home and can't go out anyway, Robert has a private extorted income from being the unacknowledged child of a senior politician, and the twins have money from Elspeth and can please themselves, so no one has to go out to work and they all spend far too much time concerned with themselves.
The writing was lovely, settings and people well drawn, everything about it well executed, but the story was full of holes. The level of dependancy between the twins was just plain weird, and you were left wanting to know far more about Edie than we ever got. The details that finally emerged about the rift were startling but then not believable, why would the husband have gone along with the switch when he was aware of it, and why would Elspeth have gone along with it and then given up her children to her sister? Why would Valentina have wanted to kill herself to escape? The holes in the 'resurrection' plan were just a step too far, a few ice cubes in the coffin were not going to do anything to delay the decay process. I actually thought that Elspeth was planning to steal Valentina's body for her own purposes and live a lie all over again to be back with Robert, in fact I think that would have made a better story, instead she takes it almost by accident. The scene where Robert steals the body from the mausoleum was the creepiest bit of the book, and utterly out of character, his participation in the whole thing, when he was plainly falling in love with Valentina, was unbelievable. So we end up with everything in a huge mess and no one getting what they wanted ... Robert is creeped out by his guilt at having Elspeth back and they have to run away for fear of being discovered, Valentina is stuck haunting the flat where Julia now lives alone, only Martin is happy, he goes off to be reunited with his wife in Amsterdam. I think the whole book was a bit of a warning to be careful what you wish for.

I have been struggling over the last few weeks to enjoy my reading. We had the whole intense few weeks of NaNoWriMo when I didn't read much and now am struggling to find where to go next. I read 'The Bell Jar', but it was depressing, maybe I'll get around to writing about it sometime. I started on 'The Heart is a Lonely Hunter' by Carson McCullers, and it was really really dull. I get the impression that although I thought I had read it before in my 20's I think I may have abandoned it last time too. I started reading 'The Children's Book' by AS Byatt but that was so so slow and failed to grab me, I was disappointed having read such good things about it and I had been saving it to read and looking forward to it. I read a few chapters of something by Josephine Cox and was relieved to find I write better than her and it's not just the literary snob in me that makes me avoid pulp fiction, it was **really** bad. I read 'The Book of Laughter and Forgetting' by Milan Kundera, but it was such a period piece and so specific to the experience of his country that I am not sure I could say anything meaningful about it. Creature and I read 'The Man in the Picture' by Susan Hill together since we had both enjoyed 'The Woman in Black', but I did not think it was such a good story.
So, I think I should go back to the knitting, get Tish's sweater finished and get on with the blanket, and I promised to do a felted Kindle cover for my mum, so that is the project for this week.

Thursday 1 December 2011

the winners together

Having abandoned her writing part way through the month Creature decided in the final days of NaNo that she would really *really* like a winners t-shirt and so set herself a mammoth task of over 4,000 words a day to finish .... and she made it, with a grand total of just over the 50,000. I had to make her 20,000, 30,000 and 40,000 word cakes in quick succession over a few days (well, the 40,000 cake was a lemon meringue pie). Here we are with our 'winner's' cake yesterday.
And here we are verifying our novels on the NaNoWriMo site and collecting certificates and all that jazz (that's my sister Claire, who I don't think has featured on the blog before):

Well done to all the other people who took part, whether or not you got to 50,000 it is still a great challenge and we are already looking forward and planning for next year. And here is the little winners badge that I can put proudly in my sidebar for all to see:

Saturday 19 November 2011

in the winner's enclosure ...

Well ... it has no title so don't bother asking, it has not much of a plot so don't bother asking ... but I passed the 50,000 word mark this morning at about eleven o'clock. It has lots of lovely happy people living quite contented ordinary lives, there was very little conflict or upset. I said to Dunk that you would only really like to read it if they were your best friends, but otherwise it's very dull. Creature insisted I had to make something bad happen or kill someone. So I did. It made the last few of thousand words fly by, so it was worth the sacrifice.

Creature and I went to the library a couple of nights ago and she picked up a book that was in the wrong place and went to put it back. I opened it at random and began reading, and to my delight/horror I find that I write just like Josephine Cox, so I plan on taking it up professionally since according to her (very brief) wikipedia page she sells a million books a year.
I ended up working in the bedroom and the desk looks very sparse as the treats have been thin on the ground, apart from the endless supply of tea that Dunk has bought me over the last fortnight. The story is not done, in fact I am resisting writing the closing scene and am currently going back to fill in a few of the gaps. The story is all over the place and my biggest task is to make a timeline and ensure that everyone ages at the same rate and people don't talk about stuff that hasn't happened yet. But over at NaNoWriMo they don't mind if it's rubbish, I still get to order my t-shirt.

Thursday 17 November 2011

Fridge Neglect

We now have an empty corner to our kitchen, all this wondrous empty space in which to rearrange the furniture. All because .... after a year of neglect, we have our proper fridge back in working order. Here it is humming quietly to itself in all it's fridgely glory:
It stopped working when we moved house, some little bit of the motor had blown and the refrigerant did not circulate and cool it down, so we used the tatty old one that the previous tenant had so kindly left behind (along with most of his possessions, a washing machine full of washing and a sink full of greasy grill pan!!) It was annoying, and too small and it was silly having a fridge sat uselessly in the corner of the kitchen taking up precious space. It was top of the 'to do' list. One year later it is sorted.
We will however be still using the only decent thing the previous tenant left ... this very cool Abbey Road fridge magnet:-) It has pride of place next to the chocolately butt fridge poetry, and I'm planning to get the rest of the words out and put them up tomorrow.
The space has reminded me of the next item on the 'to do' list ... draught excluders for the front and back doors. I am determined it is not going to be another winter of howling gales in our house.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

In praise of the iPad

I have been sharing the computer with Creature over the last nine days as we both tussle with the NaNoWriMo situation. When she is writing I have been using Writer on her iPad and am now an utter convert. The damn thing had annoyed me after I bought it because it didn't like Facebook much and that's what she wanted and so she still kept wanting to use my laptop, in fact it had been pretty much relegated to a games machine, plus the Babe has some lovely interactive story books that she really enjoys.
But this week it has really come into it's own. I signed up for Dropbox which is a freebie (for the minimum storage) where you can send your files up into 'the cloud' and they will be safe there until you want to access them. So I type on the iPad after Creature had taken the laptop off to her room, then I upload them to the Dropbox, and then in the morning, while it's still dark, I sneak in and pinch the laptop back and download from Dropbox and put what I have written into my Scrivener NaNo novel file (and then I update my word count total just to annoy her because I am now at over 23,000!)

I was describing to Dunk this morning how much I was enjoying typing on it, and he described how if you take one to pieces you find that the internal components are so carefully arranged to ensure perfect balance of the iPad while you are using it. It just seems so wonderful that the designers have taken so much care and thought. As a user you would only notice such a thing if they had got it wrong, you just take it totally for granted and it is so essential to how it feels when you hold it in your hand. I use so many things in everyday life that are badly designed that I am truly astonished how much I am enjoying it (and I think Dunk liked it that I was finally appreciating the finer qualities of an Apple product.)

(Very very brief excerpt from the first draft over on the other blog.)

Monday 31 October 2011


NaNoWriMo starts in a couple of hours.
Not sure what's going to happen but it will certainly be an experience.
As the days have crept past I have become more convinced that I can't write anything, let alone a book. Have struggled to even do my 100 words.
My mind is totally blank.
Devoid of inspiration.
I spent the evening a few days ago learning how to use the Scrivener programme, so at least I have achieved something.

Friday 28 October 2011

Anno's Journey

Anno's Journey by Mitsumasa Anno is one of my most favourite wordless books. It is a series of pictures that follows the journey of our hero Anno (on his horse) as he travels across Europe:
The book is just for looking at and talking about, the pictures are full of detail, characters and activity that appear from one picture to the next, mini stories going on for you to follow, some quirky optical curiosities. The images are just so beautiful, soft delicate colours, nothing garish or cartoonish, so clever and well thought out. You could (and we have) pour over it all day, and come back the next day and find things you missed.
This picture shows the detail from The Enormous Turnip (which just reminded me of a whole load more stories I want to find):
Here we have a detail from Bathers by Georges Seurat (and there are apparently several other paintings that we have not spotted yet.)
I love the way the shops have big signs outside so you know what they sell ... here is the toothpaste shop:-)
Little things to look out for ... like the escaping prisoner:
but my new favourites are now, the spinning lady:
and the postman:
Available second hand from Amazon for mere pounds (get hardback, it will need to last.)

Pie and Cake

Creature and I went out to a local NaNoWriMo gathering last night and met some lovely people, and were most reassured to find that hardly anyone had done much novel planning. Sitting on the tram I bet her there would be hardly anyone there ... and I lost, and so had to come home from work and make lemon cake.
Dunk and I are coming to the end of a month without meat, inspired by Vegetarian Awareness Month. It was partly an attempt to get us out of a food rut (you know what it's like, making the same dozen dinners over and over), though mostly I have found myself returning to old favourites from when I was a vegetarian for a few years during my 20's.
Just to prove that sometimes I don't throw things out I have a 25 year old recipe leaflet from 'Maggie's Farm', a wholefood cooperative in Durham, they produced it one Christmas and charged 5p, with recipes contributed by the staff. This is 'Wilf's Raised Pie':
The crust is a pork pie type pastry:
4oz water
4oz margarine
bring to the boil in a saucepan
Add to 12oz wholemeal flour + salt and mix quickly to a warm dough. Roll out and line a 7" pie or cake tin (line the bottom with greaseproof to make getting it out easier). Keep 1/4 of the dough for the lid.

Filling, you can use variations on the theme really, fried together in a pan:
garlic (plenty), red pepper (or any colour really), chopped brussel sprouts, sunflower seeds, pine nuts, seasame seeds, pumpkin seeds.

In a bowl (not cooking these first)
8oz of mixed nuts, half chopped half ground
finely chopped leek
herbs (your favourite)
salt and pepper

Mix all together, add 1/4 pint of hot water with 1 teaspoon of yeast extract and 1 tablespoon of tahini blended in (or a bit more liquid if it seems dry, but you do not want a sloppy mixture)
Fill the pie case and put the lid on the pie, then bake hot 200˚ for 20 minutes, reduce heat 160˚ degrees for another 30 minutes. Be warned it is very filling.

Thursday 27 October 2011

Luscious lemon cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.
I started off thinking how lovely this book was and ended up a bit meh. So Spoiler Warning before we start since I have to tell you why.

It is the story of Rose, and her family, and one day she discovers that she can taste what people are feeling in the food they have prepared. So far so good. It is kind of a metaphor for growing up and coming to terms with the difficult things that people experience, except it happens to Rose all at once, which is a bit of a shock. They have this neat self-contained family unit, but a dad who doesn't really know them and a mother who loves them so much she swamps them a little:

"He was cheerful enough when he came home from work but he didn't really know what to do with little kids so he never taught us hoe to ride a bike, or wear a mitt, and our changes in height remained unmarked on the door frames, so we grew tall on our own without proof. He left at the same time each morning and came home at the same time each evening, and my earliest memories of my mother were of her waiting at the door as soon as it was anywhere near time, me on her hip, Joseph at her hand, watching car by car drive by." (p.22)

Since her brother Joseph is as distant (more of this in a minute) as her father she develops a longing for his friend George, who takes her food problem seriously and tries to understand it. I loved this little scene from their trip to the cookie store, all the simplicity and intensity of her feelings (she is obliged by her mother to 'hold hands' whenever she crosses the road):

"...on an impulse, I grabbed George's hand. Right away: fingers holding back. The sun. More clustery vines of bougainvillea draping over windows in bulges of dark pink. His warm palm. An orange tabby lounging on the sidewalk. People in torn black T-shirts sitting and smoking on steps. The city, opening up.
We hit the sidewalk, and dropped hands. How I wished, right then, that the whole world was a street." (p.60)

So Rose learns to adjust her relationship with food, to try not to taste, avoiding eating her mother's meals and surviving on things from packets, that are mostly made by machines. Over time she comes to identify all sorts of subtleties, the ingredients within the food, where it comes from and the feelings of the people who picked it, the disinterest of fast food chefs and the warmth and passion of other cooks. But while still young her feelings are more avoidance and almost blaming the food for it all:

"She set me up with a knife and a cutting board and a pile of green peppers. My mind still clear from the chip bags. I liked this aspect of cooking, being a distant hard-to-identify participant, all so long as I didn't compile or stir anything. Way too scary, to eat a whole meal I'd made myself, but I did enjoy the prep: chopping and dicing, mincing and paring, shredding and slicing, just attacking all these objects that dominated my days even though I knew that nothing would take away the complexity for me, nothing short of not eating them. Still: it gave me such pleasure to grate cheese, like I was killing it." (p.131)

Time passes, their strange grandmother sends them stuff in boxes, the mother starts an affair, the father works and comes home, Joseph withdraws more, Rose makes a friend who just uses her to analyse her feelings. There are a couple of peculiar incidents where the brother 'disappears' but I didn't make much of them, he spends a lot of time alone in the dark in his room anyway. George gets into a good college by Joseph doesn't, he is clever but not an all rounder and has no social skills, so he persuades the parents to rent him an apartment and he pretends to go to a local college. When he fails to call the mother sends Rose to investigate. She finds him in the dark, and on closer inspection he appears to be merging into his chair, she leaves to room to get the phone and when she comes back he has vanished. This was where the book fell down completely for me. It was all too over the top. She tries to argue, through Rose's thoughts, that maybe he was experiencing something like Rose, but on a level from which he could not escape. He reappears briefly and Rose has this conversation with him at the hospital in which we are just supposed to accept that he has been turning into furniture. No. It was all wrong and spoiled a wonderful book. Rose was wonderful and the way she learned about her tasting, how she came to deal with it, she was real and warm and engaging, and then the whole thing with the brother was surreal and unnecessary.

The story pulls itself round and Rose finds new ways to deal with her food problem, coming to meet the food rather than avoiding it. It is a long slow process, just like proper growing up and I was left hoping and caring that she would be ok. So I will avoid all the brother stuff and give you a nice quote about soup, in a restaurant with her father and George after she has discovered Joseph's disappearance:

"My soup arrived. Crusted with cheese, golden at the edges. The waiter placed it carefully in front of me, and I broke through the top layer with my spoon and filled it with warm oniony broth, catching bits of soaked bread. The smell took over the table, a warmingness. And because circumstances rarely match, and one afternoon can be a patchwork of both joy and horror, the taste of the soup washed through me. Warm, kind, focused, whole. It was easily, without question, the best soup I had ever had, made by a chef who found true refuge in cooking. I sank into it." (p.209)

We bought more lemons the other day. It's funny how often there will be no fruit in the house except lemons. I am hoping Creature will get round to doing lemon cake. This is from the original Cranks recipe book, the one they have on the website now is nothing like it:

Luscious Lemon Cake

4oz margerine/butter
4oz sugar
Melt together, in a pan if you like but I use the microwave
Cool a bit then whisk in
1 free range egg
grated rind of 1 lemon
4oz SR wholemeal flour (or plain and some baking powder, I use wholemeal as it gives the cake a nice texture)
The mixture will be more runny than most cake mixtures.
Line and grease the base of a tin, 6-8", and bake 180 degrees for 20 minutes or until golden.
While baking put the juice from the lemon in a small pan with 1oz sugar and make a syrup (but don't reduce it too much, it's okay if you have quite a bit of liquid). When the cake is cooked pierce all over with a knife or toothpick or something and dribble the lemon syrup over, it will soak in and make the cake wonderfully moist. Enjoy.

Saturday 22 October 2011


Last night I went to another poetry reading, this time at The Contact, an event bringing together a writers collective called Speakeasy People, a group of young poets from Manchester called Young Identity and Jean 'Binta' Breeze. Although Jean was the main event (and she had held a writers workshop in the afternoon) the whole evening was just excellent, almost an overdose of ideas and images coming at you in quick succession, and it was nice to get to some real forthright political commentary. The theme, unintentional I imagine, of the first half was a rejection of conformist/consumerist society. It was interesting because it was not loud and angry but quiet and thoughtful, and thought provoking, and all the participants had quite distinct voices and styles.

Jean was obviously a practiced performer and it was completely spellbinding. She started off telling us things about her life, when suddenly you would realise that it was a poem. She moved between stories and poems and songs seamlessly, creating a very intimate atmosphere, like you were chatting round her kitchen table. She was equally convincing in the voice of a young Jamaican child as being a world-weary mother, and she gave such a vivid portrayal of her cultural heritage and history. I was left with the feeling that some poetry needs to be spoken aloud and some works well on the page of a book, and this poetry needed to be performed. Her work seemed so integral to her personality I imagined it feeling a little flat as mere written words, so here she is performing one she did for us:

And just for the fun of it here is Bob Marley, singing the song that she ended with, all the audience joining in:

Her books are available here from Bloodaxe Books.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Poetry in foreign

I have been doing some volunteering for the Manchester Literature Festival over the last week (it ends at the weekend so still plenty of interesting stuff to go and see) and last night I went to a reading of Latvian and Macedonian poetry.

The photo here shows Igor Isakovski, and he was just the most perfect romantic, brooding european poet you could ask for when attending your first poetry reading. He brushed his wild dark hair back from his eyes and held the book balanced casually in his left hand while reading. Listening to him read it made me think that the only other time I have ever heard any language from that region it was in connection with the wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990's, angry men on the news talking about politics and violence. He was followed by Latvian Anna Auzina, a lovely dark haired lady who was frequently amused by her own reading. Also Latvian Karlis Verdins looked like an angry young man from the 50's, serious and stylish, with a smart turtleneck and thick framed glasses. Contrary to my expectations he was the only one with any political theme to his writing, contrasting mundane images of life with what was happening to friends who had travelled to the West. The others were all much more lyrical or personal in their writing (though of course we had only a very small sample of their poetry). Last up was Lidija Dimkovska, another Macedonian, petite and younger, and by far the best reader, much more passion and expression in her voice. I liked her poem about nail clippers very much, a very strange kind of symbolism going on there:-)

Not being able to understand I found myself just concentrating on the sounds and rhythm of the language, listening for word repetitions and picking out the occasional english term. Though the poets could all obviously speak some english they chose to have an earnest elderly couple read the english translations, which I was sorry about because I did not feel either of them read particularly well. What struck me most was nothing to do with the poetry but how different the two languages were. The macedonian soft and lilting, romantic, where the latvian was much harder, like a cross between russian and something scandinavian. I was also sorry that the poets did not introduce themselves or say a little something about their writing or motivations, it would have been interesting, they just came on and read and then said thank you. Having said that it was all most enjoyable and I am looking forward to some more tonight when I will get to hear Mimi Kahlvati and Carola Luther (again at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation) and then Jean 'Binta' Breeze at The Contact on Saturday. An organisation called Literature Across Frontiers sponsored this event and it works to bring writing from across europe to a wider audience. The Latvian and Macedonian poetry books are amongst a selection of poetry anthologies published by Arc Publications and are available through their website.

Last Friday I went to hear Roma Tearne, an author I had not heard of but who's book The Swimmer was on the Orange Prize long-list this year. She read a wonderful heartrending passage where a mother hears over the telephone of the death of her son, talked about her inspiration, and then followed a very interesting discussion about both her writing in general and the political history of and current situation in Sri Lanka. The event was so good I think because there was active and enthusiastic audience participation. She is definitely a writer I will come back to.