Thursday 27 January 2011

Recorders at Manchester Art Gallery

Today we have been real home educators and been on an educational outing to the Manchester Art Gallery, mainly to experience the exhibition by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, which consisted of a series of installations designed to interact with the visitors, so that the people become part of the work of art. This one below records people' heart rate and then puts the pulse into one of the lightbulbs suspended from the ceiling, so you have a room full of hanging bulbs all pulsating at a slightly different rate. The bulb that is 'you' moves across the room each time a new person records their heart rate until it is gradually removed from the exhibit by new participants.
This next photo is in a room with bright projection lights that cast huge shadows on the wall; or huge if you stood near, small if you stood further away. Here are Julie and I holding hands with a giant baby Althea. Julie took some much better photos of giant people squashing little people, and everyone had fun in moving about in front of the lights.
p.s. (Friday 28th)
If you pop over to Dunk's Blog he has posted the short video he took of the lightbulb exhibit and a video of the artist himself discussing his work.

In other family news my cousin Saul recently published a very intellectual sounding book about Michel de Montaigne, a 16th century philosophical essay writer influential during the Renaissance. I get to feel clever just by dint of being related to such highfalutin pursuits. It does sound an interesting read, and there is also an article he wrote for The Guardian if you would like just a little taste of the ideas in the book.

Sunday 23 January 2011

Dunky Jumpy

So the jumper is all done. I found this lovely series of videos on Youtube that goes through the entire process of constructing a raglan sweater, very helpful and some good advice for next time, since I only watched them to check about making the yoke section and had already knitted the main pieces. Here are the body and sleeves prior to joining together. I think it may be a feature of being left handed but my knitting in the round always comes out inside-out.
I do not own any stitch markers and since you need to mark the point between the body and the sleeves for the decreases I had to improvise some; these are made out of plastic bag ties:
Here is the jumper pieces together on the circular needles.
And here it is all finished and tidied up. It was a bit worrying that when I did the decreases I found that, even though I had been counting rows very carefully, by the time I reached the neckline I had the wrong number of stitches, but I carried on regardless and hoped it would come out ok.
And it fits.

Italian Fever

Italian Fever by Valerie Martin was a peculiar book, a bit too chick-lit for me. It was as if she wasn't sure what kind of book she wanted to write; it started off with hints of ghost story, then a possible wartime mystery and then it veered off into this romantic interlude, sorted out the supposed mystery and darted back to the ghost story on the last page.

Lucy, an ordinary young woman, goes to Italy to sort out the affairs of her employer, a popular writer, who has died under not really very mysterious circumstances. She falls ill, makes a fool of herself, falls for the brooding macho italian bloke, makes a fool of herself again, admires some art and then goes home. I didn't like her much, she seemed slightly irrelevant to the story as she was just a victim of the circumstances and made stupid choices and behaved stupidly. It annoys me in films where they make people drive off down dark country lanes when you know their car is going to break down and then walk though the woods looking for assistance, you know what I mean, when people don't make sensible logical decisions, they do stupid things just because it will drive the story in a particular direction, and it feels like bad writing. Well this is just how this story seems to go. It was like she was just naive and out of her depth, and then she gets swept away by the strong silent man who arrives to take care of her. I just didn't care that much about any of it, the story or the people in the story, which was a disappointment. I left the tape running because I was knitting and it was keeping me company, so at least I didn't feel as if I had wasted the time reading it.

On the plus side the 'dunky jumpy' is coming along well, I have the week off work to get some decorating done, Tish is coming for dinner today and Angharad and Haydn (Dunk's offspring) are coming up to visit.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

2nd Anniversary Post

Well I have made it through another bloggy year. I recently discovered the 'stats' page that tells me how many visitors I get. I have had a total of 7,786 visitors since I started. The most popular post is the Lizard Cake, searched mainly via google nearly 400 times, followed by Margaret Atwood poetry with a mere 250 views. Having the year listed like this feels like I have done very little and I should resolve to learn something new this year:

147 posts
60 something books read
some bad poetry written (but not posted here)
4 hats and 3 scarves knitted
rather more unfinished knitting projects (including one from the previous year)
three pairs of felted slippers, but not much else
practically no spinning
cakes ... mainly chocolate
much less visiting
one young adult left home
two rats deceased (Hazel and Scarlett, not ones caught by the cat)
one house move
one new job (but very much like the old job)
zero new babies (phew!) (though last year's is getting cuter every day)

Monday 17 January 2011

Knitting in the round

The circular needles finally arrived ... at lunchtime on Sunday, good old Royal Mail, they must have as much backlog in the Chorlton office as we have. Here is the ribbing for Dunk's jumper, it looks pretty small but it is stretching out as I go. It is a lovely chunky 100% wool yarn by Drops (all sorts of lovely free patterns on their website) and it is growing nice and quickly, I am already 10" up. I have never knitted a raglan sleeve before so this is going to be an interesting experiment.

In between the knitting M and I popped to the library to pick up a copy of The Crucible. She is looking for an audition piece for her application to Manchester College drama diploma course, though she's most likely to end up doing some Shakespeare. She also came back with some William Blake and the plays of Tennessee Williams. I picked out Helen Dunmore's 'A Spell of Winter' which is on my Orange Prize list and Valerie Martin's 'Italian Fever' on tape (to accompany the knitting), chosen because I have already read and enjoyed her books. I am currently reading John Berger 'Here is where we meet' ... very strange.

Sunday 16 January 2011

The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson has been my first foray into using Manchester's Audiobook Library. The trouble with wanting to get back into doing some knitting is that I can only watch mindless telly while I knit, even watching films can be distracting, I just keep missing bits because I look away at the vital moment or need to count stitches. We do have quite a collection of books on tape but I have heard them all countless times on long car journeys, so this could become my new source of entertainment, though their collection is currently quite limited.

I read 'We have always lived in the castle' back in 2009 after reading an article about Jackson and although this book has apparently been made into quite a notorious horror film I thought I would give it a try. It is a very different experience listening to a story read for you and I confess I often failed to pause it when I left the room for a moment so I did miss brief parts but it was a very haunting book. It reminded me of the technique I noticed in 'Woman in Black' where the tension is build up and then withdrawn and then built up again, allowing you to pause, recover and catch your breath in between the scary bits.

This story follows a group of disparate people who have been gathered together for the specific purpose of understanding the nature of this supposedly 'haunted' house, almost like a pseudo-scientific experiment, by Dr Montague. Although it is told from an outside point of view it focusses on Eleanor and we get to hear her thoughts about and reactions to the events and the other characters in a much more intimate way than any of the other participants. The dark, brooding atmosphere is beautifully drawn, both in the description of the house and in the relationships between the characters. A kind of nervous excitement seems to dominate the gathering, their fear often tempered by a mild kind of hysteria. The sullen and monosyllabic Mrs Dudley is their housekeeper, and she often seems more malevolent than the house itself, with her strictly timed meal routines and her insistence on closing doors and curtains and the efficient replacement of the crockery, and yet near the end we have this brief scene where Mrs Montague is helping her wash up and they are having a friendly chat followed by a cup of tea, it made it feel like she was putting on an act for effect. But the story is dominated by Eleanor, a young woman who has run away from her sister, having only recently been freed from the chore of caring for an elderly and demanding mother. She forms a bond of trust and friendship with Theadora, who is beautiful and vibrant, and then a very short-lived romantic attachment to Luke, the only young man in the group. But as the house works its evil she becomes more and more paranoid and preoccupied, we hear her thoughts saying one thing while she says something completely different to the people around her, and she appears to be the focus of the paranormal events that are happening. I found myself becoming more suspicious along with her of the motives and behaviour of the others. In a way that was what felt clever about the way it was written, knowing only what she was thinking made you take her side and not trust the others. The whole group becomes subject to a series of night-time disturbances but for Eleanor they seem to be taking place both inside her head as well as out in the real world. The tension builds to a very dramatic climax, which there is no way I am going to give away.

I listened to it sitting in my bright cosy bedroom with my knitting in progress, I'm sure a late night, dimly lit session would be a whole different experience. There is nothing gory or even physically threatening in the story, it is very much a psychological thriller that says as much about people's fears and insecurities as it does about ghosts. An excellent story, slightly dated at some moments by the social attitudes expressed but not anything that detracts from the subtleties of the writing. Still no desire to see the film however:-)

Saturday 15 January 2011

The House at Riverton

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton. This book is a charity shop find that has been lurking in the TBR pile for ages. I have been plodding through it over the last couple of weeks, only persevering because I dislike putting in this much effort and not getting to find out what happens in the end. It seems to be a much admired books and I have read reviews of it several times, which would have been why I picked it up at all. At nearly 600 pages I had some expectations, but I confess that I was not that impressed and it will not be earning a permanent place on the shelves.

The story concerns the memories of Grace, a former housemaid at Riverton and focusses on a period from 1914 when she arrives as a young girl to 1924 when a suicide at the house has severe repercussions and changes everything. We follow the fortunes of the family through the First World War, to the daughter, Hannah's marriage when Grace accompanies her as her lady's maid to her new life in London. Events and circumstances bring them back to the house in 1924 and the fateful day in question. Prompted into reminiscing by the arrival of a film director who is making a film of the 'romantic' tale of the tragic death of a young poet, the elderly Grace starts recording her story for her grandson, who has disappeared, mourning the loss of his wife. I'll resist the temptation to give too much away, though much of it felt a little predictable, the twist in the tale at the end was not totally convincing as I was not sure that people would necessarily have behaved the way they did.

(Some minor spoiling ahead) Ok, for a start it was far too long and waffly. I was bored much of the way waiting for something more momentous to happen. It is full of all these little devices and incidents that, looking back, are supposed to explain why certain things happened. By the shakespearian definition it is not a tragedy, merely tragic; the events are bought about by force of circumstance not a sympathetic but deeply flawed character. Grace is the only person we get to know, since it is her thoughts we hear and her decisions we understand. She is the product of her era, her class and her upbringing. After lying and covering for the children who are hiding from their tutor, and then sharing a secret with her she creates in her own head some romantic notion of a 'bond' between herself and Hannah, a feeling enhanced by her 'discovery' (how predictable was that) that she is her illegitimate half-sister. She sacrifices her own happiness after having promised enduring loyalty to this rather spoilt, self-centred young woman, who of course has no notion of her as anything other than a servant, and who plans to abandon her anyway. To be fair it is well researched and the period detailing is lovely. The social expectations on women of both upper and lower classes is highlighted by passing references to the burgeoning feminist ideas, though you can see that very little has changed in the 100 years since Jane Austen was writing Pride and Prejudice. There is education for upper class women but still they are expected to marry and then do nothing but take tea with each other. Working class women just do all the work (plus ca change ...). There was far too much description of upper class society and the servants all knowing their place and getting on with everything, all so very grateful for the opportunity. The political attitudes expressed by the men in the family, and even by the supposedly more progressive american family Hannah marries in to are very much of the period too. You really can see where socialism sprang from.

I sometimes think I like books where I can identify strongly with a character, now this one had all that potential, Grace was just the kind of person I would go for, but she was such a doormat, far too self-sacrificing, so little real oomph, and the misplaced loyalty was just frustrating. On the other hand there was no-one in 'The body' to identify with but I just loved it, so there's a theory out the window. So, not a good sign when you are just glad to get to the end of a book.
Am still plodding through War and Peace. Laughing over it at breakfast this morning Dunk said he wasn't sure it was supposed to be funny; Prince Vassili got so bored waiting for Pierre to propose to Helene (his daughter) that he just walks in and pretends that he has and congratulates them and announces it to everyone, but mostly it has been dull upper class twits having parties too, but I am determined to stick it out.

Sunday 9 January 2011

Rite of Passage

The other week M and I had a bit of a film day after we had been talking about The Green Mile, which is one of her favourites that I had not seen, and boy did that film turn out to be not at all what I expected. Anyway we noticed that it was based on a story by Stephen King and so, since we like having themes to our watching, we decided to watch Stand By Me. I have seen this film so many times it is like an old friend. Every time I watch it I enjoy again the gentle unfolding of the story and the relationships within it. It contains all those romantic notions about childhood that adults hold so dear, but that are not so far from the truth, except you only appreciate them with hindsight, never while they are happening. I hold an ongoing fondness for Wil Wheaton whatever he appears in because of this film.

Ever since the last time we watched it I have been thinking about reading the Stephen King story 'The Body' on which it is based, so I ordered the book 'Different Seasons' from the library which contains four novellas, including this story, and the story on which The Shawshank Redemption is based. I am not sure quite what I expected but it was really excellent and I have had to rethink everything I ever thought about writers like Stephen King (not that I am tempted to rush out and read 'Carrie' or anything, ghost stories is one thing, horror quite another). The story is exactly like the film, in that you have a narrator's voice talking as the film does, so you are very conscious of the fact that someone is looking back and telling the story of the past; he keeps making little asides about his current life to remind you this is also his adult's perspective on the events in question. I found myself anticipating scenes from the film and noticing little details where they had used the exact words that are in the story. I liked it partly because it did not spoil my appreciation for the film because it is so faithful to the story.

So, in a nutshell, four boys set out on an 'adventure' to find the body of a young boy who has gone missing and who they learn has been killed by a train. They walk, they talk, they run away from a dog, nearly get hit by a train, sleep in the woods, get sucked by leeches and generally face their fears and learn all you need to get by in life. You like them all for their honesty and their loyalty to each other. The main character is Chris Chambers (played in the film by River Phoenix) and his story of one of struggle and endurance, against a world that has already branded him a failure, a no-hoper, but he has this spark in him, fighting against a family, a school system and a society that wants to keep him in his place. Gordie (the narrator) comes from a nice middle class family, but is ignored and neglected in favour of an older brother, unfortunately recently deceased, so he can do no wrong. The relationship between the two of them is respectful and mutually supportive, Chris encouraging Gordie to pursue his story writing in spite of parental disinterest, Gordie determined not to let Chris be dragged down by everyone. I liked the fact that where the film leaves off the story gives some of the future to their relationship, so you see the bond between them as ongoing, important in shaping both their lives.

The line that ends the film, about the friends you have when you are twelve, is in there, but not at the end, and it is scattered through with the most colourful of insults and abusive language. All the atmosphere is there, from the jokey banter of pre-pubescent boys to the beautiful descriptions of the environment they pass though, and the adults voiceover reflecting on the meaning of it all. It is a story about a rite of passage, about childhood and growing up. The scene where they find the body is graphic, not because of the description of decay but because of the description of Gordie's loss of innocence, his realisation of what death really means (the middle of this quote went on for another half page about all the things he would never do):

"He had been knocked spang out of his Keds. The train had knocked him out of his Keds just as it had knocked the life out of his body.
That finally rammed it all the way home for me. The kid was dead. The kids wasn't sick, the kid wasn't sleeping. The kid wasn't going to get up in the morning anymore or get the runs from eating too many apples or catch poison ivy or wear out the eraser on the end of his Ticonderoga No 2 during a hard maths test .... The kids was dead, mister, ma'am, young sir, little miss. I could go on all day and never get it right about the distance between his bare feet on the ground and his dirty Keds hanging in the bushes. It was thirty-plus inches, it was a googol of light-years. The kid was disconnected from his Keds beyond all hope of reconciliation." (p.543-4)

Then there is this lovely scene in the film where Gordie wakes early and sitting on the train rails alone has an encounter with a deer. It typifies why the film is so good... because the story is so good:

"I don't know how long I sat there on that rail, watching the purple steal out of the sky as noiselessly as it had stolen in the evening before. Long enough for my butt to start complaining, anyway. I was about to get up when I looked to my right and saw a deer standing in the railroad bed not ten yards from me.
My heart went up into my throat so high that I think I could have put my hand in my mouth and touched it. My stomach and genitals filled with hot, dry excitement. I didn't move. I couldn't have moved if I wanted to. Her eyes weren't brown by a dark, dusty black - the kind of velvet you see backgrounding jewellery displays. Her small ears were scuffed suede. She looked serenely at me, head slightly lowered in what I took for curiosity, seeing a kid with his hair in a sleep-scarecrow of whirls and many-tined cowlicks, wearing jeans with cuffs and a brown khaki shirt with the elbows mended and the collar turned up in the hoody tradition of the day. What I was seeing was some sort of a gift, something given with a carelessness that was appalling." (p521-2)

I think this book has been an object lesson in overcoming your prejudices. I will read the other stories too now and let you know.

Friday 7 January 2011

What we keep

I have been knitting bags. I started one over Christmas that will actually be big enough to put stuff in but my DPNs (double pointed needles) are too small and I am waiting for a set of circular needles to arrive so I can continue with it. In the meantime I got out some yarn that I spun and dyed last year some time in an attempt to do some 'stash busting' (which really means using stuff you have had for ages so you can justify going out and buying some new yarn:-). So the multicoloured larger pouch is done in homespun with an i-cord drawstring and the tiny one (just for the hell of it) was done with some left over sock yarn (for scale the big one is about 7" deep, the tiny one about 3"). I have done another larger one the same with the plan to felt it in the washing machine; I haven't done any felted knitting since my first adventure into felting nearly two years ago. Plans for the jumper for Dunk are finally taking shape, the pattern and wool are selected, the needles are on order, all I need to do now is get to Purl City Yarns.

'What we keep' by Elizabeth Berg has come from the library, thanks to Dunk who went to retrieve it after I booked it out and then put it down on the knitting shelf and forgot it. It was another one of those books where I ended up wanting to know the point of view of a different character.

The book is told by a middle aged Ginny, as she takes a plane journey to meet the mother she has not seen in 35 years, and during the flight she reminisces about the events when she was twelve that led to their estrangement. It is one hot summer in the lives of two ordinary sisters and how their apparently secure and predictable lives are disrupted forever by the arrival of Jasmine, the new and bewitching neighbour. The focus of the story is the close relationship between Ginny and her older sister Sharla, their mother is just this person in the background of their lives, the organiser, the breakfast maker, the conscientious shopper. There are moments when Ginny seems to understand that her mother has thoughts and feelings of her own but most of the time they both live in their own little world.

Anyway, stuff happens, and their mother ups and leaves the family and the girls reactions are angry and unforgiving. The father pulls himself back together quite quickly and remarries, someone who seems to be a clone of the woman who left him, perfect housewife and then caring stepmom, and the girls accept her because she restores the 'normality' they had lost. Their mother returns to live locally and tries to reestablish contact with her daughters, but they unaccountably reject her, are cold and uncomfortable around her, something they admit they can't readily explain themselves. Time passes and basically the mother admits defeat and withdraws from the girls' lives. Ginny recognises that her ongoing anger at her mother is based on her childhood resentment but it is only her sister's threatened illness that forces her to confront her loss. It all ended far too neatly and easily for my liking, lots of crying and everyone talking it out like sensible grown-ups.

It is a story about the mother/daughter relationship, really about how one sided it is. Also a bit of a period piece; set in the 1950s, the role that the mother has is very confined and socially dictated, and therefore the children's expectations (and the husband's of course) of their mother as being a 'constant' in their lives is what is destroyed by her departure. I was left feeling that I wanted to know what the mother was thinking, and why she behaved they way she did. I felt annoyed by the girls and by the general attitude of the time that adults did not discuss anything important with their children, that you had to protect them from the difficult bit of life, especially when that involves their parents relationship. It was a nice read but nothing special. I guess maybe it touched a chord with me a little, because when you are divorced you do spend sleepless nights mulling over the effect your choices have had on your children's lives, blaming yourself for every little unhappiness they might have suffered, wondering endlessly if they harbour resentment against you, whether they blame you for what happened ... very easy to tie yourself in knots .. so lets not go there.

Listen if you dare

So I had this song going round my head all morning ... who knows why ... it just popped up and I couldn't get rid of it, but it did keep me going though a very cold and damp morning.

I think Christmas is finally over, I hope I delivered my last card this morning ... dated 13th of December so it had taken a mere 26 days to travel from Ireland to Manchester ... who knows where it has been in the meantime ... the inner workings of the Royal Mail system sometimes astound me. The parcel backlog is still arriving in the office and may take weeks to sort out.

We have had a busy time with first Dunk's daughter Angharad here for New Year and then Lewis and Rachel came down for a few days this week. We hung out and watched a lot of bad films, ate comfort food and chatted reptiles (and failed to take any photos). It was all nice, family are easy to have around because you don't have to entertain them.
I have been reading and knitting but both will have to wait for another post as I have to pop to the library now.

Saturday 1 January 2011

New Year revolutions

So we stayed up and played charades and toasted the new year (this is me deliberating my selection of book not playing zombie). I am not sentimental about this time of year but I like the fact that life is broken into convenient chunks to enable reflection and planning. Last year was a pretty good one as years go; in spite of the huge upheaval I inflicted on my family and we are now in a different world, life goes on.
I did not specifically make it as a New Year Resolution but I have now gone an **entire year** without buying a single piece of clothing (some underwear and one pair of shoes notwithstanding). I confess this was not much of a hardship since it is not something to which I allocate many of my scarce resources anyway, there have been few enough instances where I had to actually resist temptation, nonetheless it feels worth recording.

I have read occasionally about people having book buying bans and I have been giving this some consideration. I already use the library a lot and have found the Manchester library service to be quite efficient and so have decided to try and have a bit of a 'year of reading from home'. I have a stack of things that are waiting to be read and I will try and add anything I read about amongst the book bloggers to my library 'wish list' (this is a really handy tool, you can store them for future 'requesting' rather than make a whole list of requests that invariably turn up all at once.) I do tend to scour the charity shops for books rather than buy new so when all else fails that will be my first port of call (since the purpose of the challenge is more to save precious resources that can then go on yarn instead than to inflict reading hardship).

So Happy New Year to both regular visitors and random browsers, here's hoping this year will be uneventful ... with a special Hi to AquaMarina who I bumped into in Morrisons yesterday, so we are now neighbours as well as bloggie friends.