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: