Wednesday 27 April 2011

The Thing Around Your Neck

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a collection of short stories that I have been listening to on audiobook over the weekend while doing crafty stuff. I picked it out because she was winner of the Orange Prize back in 2007 and I have her book lurking in the TBR pile.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is Nigerian, and these stories cover a broad spectrum of life as experienced both within Africa and for those who transplant themselves into western culture. The themes running through them all are about the need for a cultural identity and ties of history that bind people. All of the stories are narrated by women, but a variety of ages and from a variety of backgrounds. Some of them had quite universal story lines; parents concern over a son who gets arrested, and the sibling rivalry that is sparks, a young woman coming to terms with the end of a relationship finds a shoulder to lean on and is so wrapped up in her own concerns she does not even notice the much bigger problems in her new friend's life. Others were much more specific to her own background: one tale takes us into the life of a young mother, who has been moved by her rich husband to America to raise her children, almost as if she has become merely some kind of status symbol for him, and who comes to feel herself excluded from his real life and yearns to return to Nigeria. The ones I really liked were: 'A private experience', in which two women from very different backgrounds find themselves trapped together during a riot. A very claustrophobic atmosphere, quite frightening but a real bond of trust is built up between them as they share tales and wait for calm to return. The other was the final story, 'The headstrong historian', following the life of a woman as she struggles against family and cultural pressures. I liked her resilience and determination in dealing with her husband's family's 'curse' of infertility, the superstitious rituals pay off and she has a child. She tries to get her son an education but instead loses him to the catholic missionaries. She stubbornly resists her son's attempts to 'convert' her and succeeds in implanting in her granddaughter the roots of her real identity and the girl eventually finds her own path back to her origins.

I had to skip a couple of stories because one of the discs was damaged but it was definitely an interesting collection, and I always enjoy books that take me into a totally different world, something outside my own life and experience. It feels very worthy to say that I learned something from these stories about other people's lives, but I don't think that's a bad thing.

Monday 25 April 2011

Bank Holiday Felting (and knitting)

This has become my very traditional bank holiday pastime (you can pop back to 2009 and 2010 to see what I was getting up to, although breaking with tradition it is only easter, I may be going up to Newcastle on the May bank holiday).

The first project started yesterday was inspired by dad's jumper (still a secret jumper) which has cables, and wanting to try something a bit more 3D. So I made some purple dreadlocks, surprisingly quick and easy with the assistance of the bamboo mats, though carefully still only part felted:
and laid them out as if they were, admittedly very random, knitted cables, on to a piece of white pre-felt. This was then re-wetted and rolled for quite some time to ensure that they felted in place to the background.
You don't get a very good impression from the picture but I did end up with quite a nice effect, though then I wished I had made the layout more regular.
Then I made a piece of black pre-felt that I left to dry overnight. This morning I sat and embroidered it with wool yarn, some bits of left over homespun and some bits of sock yarn, then rewet and rolled it very vigorously around the rolling pin and then in the bamboo mat (when it had shrunk down some).
Again it was just a bit of experimentation and the yarns did not blend as well as I hoped, considering I was sure the homespun would felt, and the red one, which I have used for a hat which I knitted and then machine felted when it turned out too loose. A pleasing overall effect though, and I liked the way that the tassels on the bottom edge felted up all crinkly.
And this is my current knitting project. It is called 'Rainbow' from the Kasbah Collection (pictured on the front of the book here) by Rowan (linking to the Rowan website, which does have some lovely free patterns, but not this one). It is knit in Summer Tweed which is a silk and cotton mix, terrible to knit with because it has quite a rough texture, but the colours are wonderfully vibrant. I am knitting it in one piece on the circular needles to save the sewing up so am having to adapt the pattern as I go along.

Thursday 21 April 2011

Will I be pretty?

I followed a link today from Skepchick to something called 'The Society Pages' and found this wonderful piece of performance poetry, and I just wanted to share it here. That's all. It's a lot better than Kerouac's 'On the road', which I am seriously considering abandoning.

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Tree of life

I have not done any felting for nearly a year! I bought a batch of new roving in some lovely dark jewel colours from Forest Fibres quite some time ago (well before the house move) and have had vague plans but no specific inspiration. I found my inspiration at RavenWood Forest who has some lovely tree images that she draws displayed on her blog. And so I decided to do a Tree of Life design, it is a traditional image that symbolises the interconnectedness of life on earth.
The background is made with two shades of purple merino, the tree in black and the leaves cut from the pre-felt that I made last year. It was at least 1m long laid out on the living room floor. It is a bit wonky shaped in the end but the whole 'organic' thing that home made felt has is part of it's charm for me. I am planning to find a nice small branch to mount it on

Sunday 17 April 2011

Cooking and Sewing Post

Starting today with some cookies that M and I made the other day:
4 1/2oz butter or marg, melted together with 3 1/2oz granulated and 2 1/2oz dark soft brown sugars (I use the microwave but in a pan is fine, do not boil, just melt gently).
Beat in 1 egg and 2 tsp vanilla.
Beat in 5 1/2oz plain flour 1/2tsp baking powder and pinch salt.
Mix in a bar of whatever chocolate takes your fancy chopped into chunks.
The second time around, at Dunk's suggestion, the dough was refrigerated overnight (or just for an hour or so) and they did spread a bit less vigorously. Recipe saved from the BBC website but it is no longer available there.
Ten minutes in a hot oven, 180o, they will be still a bit soft, be careful not to overcook and leave to cool for a few minutes before removing from the baking tray. Here they are, crisp around the edges and slightly soft and chewy in the middle.

Second recipe is for Potato Latkes, something I have not made for several years but have an intermittent craving for. I made a huge pan of Baked Beans the other evening (see further down) and was walking around at work thinking how well they would go with some latkes.
To serve two (just multiply up for more people)
Three medium potatoes, don't bother peeling, grated, then wrap the gratings in a clean tea towel or muslin cloth and squeeze the juice out into the sink. You should end up with a pile of quite dry looking potato.Put in a large bowl and add a small grated onion (you want the flavour but not lumps of onion, so finely chopped is not the same), one egg, about 2-3 tablespoons of wholemeal flour, some salt and pepper and mix well.Heat the pan nice and hot with plenty of oil and use large spoonfuls of mixture squashed flat with the spatula, fry until golden on both sides. Keep warm and cook the rest. They are particularly good with spicy apple sauce.

The Baked Beans were inspired by Julie who was making some a few weeks ago. I had never tried making my own home made baked beans so I went searching and came across this lovely recipe over at Tall Kate's Kitchen that I adapted somewhat. This panful looks a little sorry for itself as we had eaten half of them:-) (this recipe makes enough to feed the five thousand, or maybe 8 people.)
1lb haricot beans, soaked overnight in lots of water and then boiled for about 45 minutes.
Drain and put to one side.
In a big heavy ovenproof pan cook 2-3 chopped onions and lots of garlic (to your taste) until well caramelised.
I then added a liquidized can of tomatoes plus a can full of water
2tbs of soya sauce
2tbs of molasses
1tbs dark brown sugar
3tbs wine/cider vinegar
1tbs worcestershire sauce
1tbs tomato puree
1tsp of ginger
1tsp of ground coriander
if you like it a bit spicy add chilli sauce or something like that to give it a bit of a kick.
salt and pepper
This gives a slightly sweet and sour tangy flavour, if you want it more tomatoey Kate suggests ketchup, and maybe miss out the vinegar. It is one of those very experimental things. Don't worry too much, this mixture does smell quite strong but it toned down as it baked.
Add the beans and bring to the boil and then transfer to a low oven, about 150o, for 3 to 4 hours. check from time to time to stir and maybe add some more liquid. The beans should be thickly coated not sitting in a pool of runny sauce. Enjoy.

And finally this morning to some sewing. The machine had been sitting out since I repaired M's patchwork hoodie and my blue skirt the other week, but sitting for a purpose as I had come across this lovely purple faux suede in my stash a while back and have been planning these cushions to add to the sofa. The sofa covers are coincidentally made of the same fabric, so you have the same texture but the lovely contrast of colours. I had the usual fight with the machine but all in all I am very pleased with the result.

Sunday 10 April 2011

Bikes and yarn

I came home from work yesterday to find a hole in the side of my bike tyre so this morning Dunk and I popped round to the bike shop. As we stood for a moment in the shop a man with two children asked about getting his son's puncture mended, the shop man told them it would be Wednesday before it could be done, so then they left and I was a little bemused that no one suggested to them they could buy a puncture repair kit and do the job themselves perfectly easily and then the boy could go out biking the same day. Now I realise the shop wants to make money but surely getting someone interested in using their bike and being able to do basic maintenance could mean more for them in terms of long term customers. What is the world coming to, why are people so unable to imagine doing something as everyday as mending a puncture ... why when we were kids we spent many a happy afternoon bending all mum's best spoons getting tyres off our bikes:-) Anyhow we went home and I spent an hour or two messing about with spanners (and tyre levers, to save the cutlery) and getting dirty, and now I have a nice shiny bike with new tyres.
In between the knitting I picked up some shetland roving from BabyLongLegs called 'summer berries' that Tish bought at Ravday. It had been part used, to make dreadlocks I think, but I found it in my stash and I have spun the rest, about 75g into a lovely multi-shaded yarn in deep reds and purples.

Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin won the Orange Prize back in 2003 with 'Property' and I bought 'Mary Reilly' on the strength of how much I enjoyed that book. It was mentioned in passing on Park Benches and Bookends recently which was why I pulled from the TBR pile. I started reading and then realised that serendipitously it was linked to other reading (I like it when that happens).

This is the story of one Mary Reilly, who, it transpires, is housemaid to Dr Jekyll. M and I had picked out stories by Robert Louis Stevenson on CD at the library a few weeks ago and spent an afternoon listening to the tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I actually found this story to be more disturbing that the original because the malevolent presence of Mr Hyde in the house is far more vividly portrayed from the point of view of Mary who has no understanding of what was going on. The book opens with a description that Mary has written for Jekyll of abuse that she suffered as a child at the hands of her father; she is locked in a cupboard and he puts a rat in with her that mauls her horrifically leaving her badly scarred. Jekyll's observation of her scars and interest in her story marks the start of a subtle alteration in the master/servant relationship, where through intermittent conversations they come to both see each other as real people; he to understand that she is an articulate intelligent young woman with a yearning to learn and understand the world, and she, though she never loses her sense of her subordinate position, to develop a devotion to him beyond her domestic role. His attention to her makes her life feel more important, not 'ideas above her station' but simply the sense of being respected as a human being:

"When Master is gay and kind to me, as he was today, asking my opinion and listening to me as no one has ever listened to me, then all the sadness I feel lifts as suddenly as a bird, leaves me entirely, and I know such a soaring of spirits as I think mun come to few in this life. Though I tell myself this is only a gentleman having idle conversation with his housemaid for want of a better pastime, I don't believe it, have no will to believe it, but respond, no, he wants my company and not another's." (p.72-3)

The book is about Mary though, not Jekyll, so it is a domestic story, victorian household chores abound, step scrubbing and fire laying, and about the below stairs relationships between the hierarchy of servants, and the life on the London streets as Mary encounters it. It is never dull because the dark atmosphere created by Mr Hyde keeps upsetting the contentment of the house. They have no reason at first to think anything of him but his unattractive appearance, coupled with the aura of menace soon created a feeling hostility towards him, particularly when it becomes apparent that his actions and behaviour are the cause of stress and anxiety for Dr Jekyll. Mary's encounter with him confirms her suspicions:

" 'Then you know who I am,' he said, very cool and seeming pleased to have been discovered.
'You are Master's assistant,' I said, for I could not bring myself to say his name.
This made him smile and I wished it had not, for there was that in his smile no woman must care to meet, nor man neither, and I felt myself shrink inside my cloak. His cold eyes was all over me as well. He leaned back against the writing table and gestured to the book behind him. 'I was just taking notes for your master,' he said, 'upon a little project we have underway together.' " (p.133-4)

Valerie Martin is at pains to emphasise the contrast between the behaviour of Dr Jekyll towards Mary and her growing fear of Mr Hyde, and having read the other story, and knowing the progress of Jekyll's loss of control over the transformations into Hyde, you are constantly fearing that he has evil intent towards her as a kind of punishment of Jekyll for trying to keep this alternate side of his nature under control. As you would expect from Martin the writing is wonderful, Mary has some education but she maintains a very authentic working class voice throughout, her opinions and thoughts and her expectations of her friendship with her employer are all subdued by her social status, of which she is conscious and unquestioningly accepting. It is similarly a morality tale of the tussle between good and evil. A clever book that integrates the original story well; Poole, the butler for example is significant in both stories and come across as well researched and true to the original. At the same time as adding to the original it stands solidly on its own merits, though I am sure it would inspire any reader to go and seek out Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Engleby by Sebastian Faulks

Engleby by Sebastian Faulks came from the library on CD and I have been listening to it while knitting my secret jumper (for dad, mentioned just to prove he never visits my blog). I have had Birdsong in my TBR pile for ages but this was picked up somewhat at random (I seem to be making a habit of this at the moment). I picked out American Psycho for M as she is interested in 'disturbing' reads, and I was thinking of joining her instead after a couple of cd's of Engleby as it was decidedly dull, however I stuck with it and am glad I did.

Mike Engleby is a bit of a misfit, he just doesn't seem to know it, he thinks that it is the world that is all wrong, not to mention all the people in it are a bit stupid. This is a book told entirely in one voice, his voice, sometimes written in the present, very immediate, sometimes reflecting on the past, and you feel he is being honest, he never tries to paint himself other than he is, but then you are still not sure how much you trust him. Or like him. But he doesn't care if you like him, which is what makes him so engaging, because even if they deny it most people are concerned in some way with what other people think of them. The present tense in the story begins when he starts university though in the first part of the story he relates his childhood, including an abusive father and sadistic bullying at a minor public school. I was left physically sickened after the lengthy descriptions of this period in his life culminated in him becoming the bully in his turn as he climbs further up the social strata. By this point you recognise that he is utterly amoral and self-centred, but you are not sure if it is directly his experiences that have created this, or if there was something in his nature already that set him apart.

Between bouts of describing his childhood we watch the progress of his university career and his slightly creepy obsession with fellow student Jennifer, who's joie de vivre is such a contrast with his own negative attitude to life and distain for all that it offers. After first taking a letter written to her parents and copying it, he works his way into her social circle then steals her diary from her house and begins following her surreptitiously. When she disappears Engleby comes under suspicion but the case is never solved and his life appears to go on undisturbed. He however remains preoccupied by his memories of her, memorises her diary and uses his recall of it as a kind of therapy, trying to keep her alive in his mind. It was immediately obvious to me that he had killed her, and the more I found him disturbing the more I came to like Jennifer from his recall of her diary entries. Mike falls into journalism and big chunks of the book are a political history of the 1970's and 80's, his solitary life of drink and pill popping continue through the next 15 years or so rather monotonously, with periodic near breakdowns when he gets unpleasant memory flashbacks. I did like reading the passage of time though, it was a bit of a nostalgia trip, recalling the significant people he interviews, the social and political events and his minor participation in them. Then Jennifer's body is found, and the reader knows, and Mike knows (but does't admit to himself) that it is only a matter of time before the police come knocking.

It is at this point that the book takes another turn as it begins to analyse Engleby's actions and life choices. For the court case, and afterwards, we have a psychological analysis of what happened, and why. It was interesting because alongside the doctors reports we have Engleby's reading of them and his intense amusement at the process he is forced to go through to get himself committed to hospital rather than sent to prison. The whole book becomes an in depth look at what a psychopath really is, what makes him, how he thinks, about himself and those around him, and the world in general. In the story, which is almost entirely Engleby's inevitably unreliable retelling of the events, it is the statement to the police by his university friend Stellings that is really the only 'alternative' view. We finally get a visual picture of him, physically solid but unattractive, socially awkward, just plain odd. I liked the two contrasting descriptions of a dinner party that Engleby attends at Stellings' home, Engleby's perception of his own actions and behaviour totally at odds with how he was viewed by the other people there. His one saving grace, and hint at hidden humanity, is his enduring affection and loyalty to his younger sister Julie; she visits him in prison and he tells her to marry, have babies and be happy, it was the only time I felt any pity for him, because it was the only time he felt any pity for himself. It was as if in really considering her life and what it might be like he could see his own and what was missing from it. It lasted a tiny moment and then was gone, and that made it more believable, because he is not a man to linger over self-pity.

I have to put the spoiler warning because of the ending. It was ... perfect, and yet all wrong. He is having what he calls a 'diary session' where he recalls passages from Jen's diary, but then he begins to recall a passage that was never written, as if it is his version of what he wanted her 'final' entry to be, from the night he killed her. And in it he imagines her accepting his friendship, and then his desire and being content to be with him. It is perfect because this is exactly what he does, rationalises his actions by saying they are in the past and who really knows what happened, and maybe also part of his removal from reality, the feeling that he can reshape the past if he wants. And yet it is all wrong because it was too simplistic, to imply that all he really wanted was to be loved and accepted and then everything would have been fine. So my final response remains a quandary.

Sometimes I am sorry I read books like this, they can be very hard to follow because they preoccupy your mind. I remember reading Roddy Doyle's 'Woman who walked into doors' and everything I tried reading for weeks afterwards seemed shallow and crass in comparison. This book is so clever, so beautifully written, so engaging. You do have to give it a chance because to begin with I thought it was going to be some dull middle aged bloke life story kind of book. And you don't spend your time thinking of him as a criminal, but are just drawn in listening to his voice and having to question all the time what might be 'real' as you become more aware that his perception of events and situations is not like other people's. I am sorry again not to be able to quote as I do not have the text in front of me. I think this book really did gain something from being an audiobook, it meant, mainly, that Engleby had a man's voice, rather than my voice in my head, and the performance of the book was just excellent. Again, I feel as if I have not done it justice, that I am not clever enough to articulate the subtleties of the writing and the ideas. I am concerned about reading Birdsong now as this is described as a complete departure from his earlier novels, and am worried I will just be disappointed. Highly recommended.