Tuesday 21 February 2012

More knitting and the digital revolution

Dunk got his second pair of socks. They were going to be for Lewis (sorry Lewis) but I discovered too late that I had made them far too long, nothing worse than baggy toes on your socks. They are made to the Hug Me pattern the same as Jacobs.

Mum gave me some Christmas money so I decided to do something more complicated for myself and have actually paid for a pattern from the Interweave Knits website called Celtic Dreams (am hoping that just wearing it will turn me into the lovely looking granny in the picture:-). I am using the same lovely lambswool and silk that I have bought before from Kingcraig Fabrics, it is ridiculously cheap for an all natural yarn. The jumper is constructed a bit unusually, with saddle shoulders knitted first, then back and front panels, then sleeves picked up, then the rest of the body is knit in the round. So far, so good.
Here is a closeup of the lovely complicated central cable:
While knitting I have been listening to 'Things I Want My Daughters to Know' by Elizabeth Noble, which was ok, bit sentimental really (and predictable), nothing to write home about, so I won't waste words on it now.
This was my first foray into pre-loaded digital audio books. I did struggle with the advanced technology for a moment. The instructions said 'press power and off you go', no mention of putting a battery in the thing, there was no obvious opening and I was afraid of pulling the small plastic box to pieces, so I phoned the library. It all worked out ok in the end and the small plastic box very efficiently saved my place every time I turned it off. I have 'The Whole Day Through' by Patrick Gale for the train today ... am off to my sister's in Haywards Heath for a couple of days.

Sunday 12 February 2012

Cinnamon emergency

Having a quiet weekend and doing my usual Sunday morning blog browsing I called over at One Perfect Bite enticed by the picture of these Cinnamon Love Knots. And they are as delicious as they look:
In spite of the americanisms in the recipe I think I did them pretty well. I make a similar recipe of enriched bread dough with dried fruit to make little fruity buns but have never made a dough in this direction: the recipe mixes all the wet ingredients and then adds the flour. I think it works quite well and the dough came out lovely and soft. I was about to roll it out when I discovered that I had run out of cinnamon and so had to jump on my bike to Morrisons to get some tout suite . All in all well worth the effort.

Thursday 9 February 2012

purses and all that

My old velvet hippy purse has been gradually giving up the ghost for months now. I knit and felted a replacement ages ago. Then it sat under the bed because I sewed the zip on and it was all wonky. I finally got around to finishing it off. The fabric is nice and robust so it should last me for another ten years.
Dunk is getting a second pair of socks because I started these for my son Lewis, but failed to check his shoe size and I have done them far too big ... oh well, just an excuse to buy some more yarn.

Sunday 5 February 2012

Even the dogs

I so much enjoyed 'So many ways to begin' that when I was browsing for an audiobook (to accompany the knitting) I picked up 'Even the Dogs' by Jon McGregor without hesitation, and I spent yesterday listening to it.
(Friday lunchtime I miss-stepped on someone's path and turned my ankle. After hobbling around the rest of my duty and cycling the two miles back to the office I took an executive decision not to go to work on Saturday.)

Here is another book I might not have stuck with if I had read it but the voice reading gave it something that really drew me in. It begins with the description of a dead body in a neglected flat, but the narrator is using 'we', as if there is a whole group of them watching what is happening. The 'we' became important as you follow the story because it really is about a group of people bound together by necessity. It was a slightly shocking diversion from his other books as it takes you down into the world of drug addiction. A couple of times I thought there was something wrong with the CD, then I realised that the sentences that ended abruptly without finishing was deliberate, a trailing off of thoughts, as if it didn't really matter or the narrator forgot what he was saying. In fact that happened a lot, ideas drifting one into another, things only half said. So the story moved backwards and forwards, recounting, from various perspectives, the lives of a group of drug addicts who gather in this flat, belonging to Robert, the dead guy. As we see their history, both ancient and recent, we get a picture of a complex relationship of interdependence and unreliability.

Like the Rachel DuPree book it is not a world that the author is familiar with and so is based on extensive research (he talks about it here in an interview with DGR). I found it convincing because it neither glamourises nor moralises about the life of the protagonists. It does not make excuses or explanations, it just describes what is. And it is thoroughly depressing. It reminded me of Trainspotting. And should be recommended reading for teenagers. Because it is so depressing. I have found this same thing in other references to addiction in novels, that the addict does not strictly have a personality, the addiction takes over their personality, it becomes so all consuming and dominating that there is nothing else left in their life. They have different backgrounds, influences and experiences but all those become submerged under the addiction. This is the story that the book tells. It is the story of what it means to be an addict. It became most vivid when describing two of them begging; their need is so intense that one is repeatedly counting the money so that the very instant they have enough cash to score they up and leave. It describes them waiting by the phone box for their delivery, always having to wait longer than they can bear, but how they must bear it anyway. The desperation and the intensity are both very vivid. The other passage I found most engaging was the description of the heroine being processed in Afghanistan and then the long and torturous journey it takes to the streets of Britain. Sometimes my mind is boggled by the waste of human ingenuity. As one part of the story describes what happens to Robert's body we also watch what becomes of the other members of the group. There are a lot of conflicting emotions, the desire for real human contact but so often a rejection and scorn for anyone trying to help them. They are people who only cooperate when they will gain something, people who trust no one and are utterly untrustworthy, people with a peculiar sense of loyalty but who abandon others in need when there are better offers. I found the contempt for other human beings quite gut wrenching at times, sometimes you can be glad that you can't really see the contents of other people's thoughts.

A world I know nothing of, and am so grateful for the ignorance. Don't risk this book if the word fuck offends, it is most liberally scattered throughout. A really powerful book, and exquisitely written, never puts a foot wrong, the voices all feel genuine and believable.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Three Post Day

I am trying to catch up on my book reviews so will get on and do this so I can go back to knitting. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka has also been part of the Orange January Challenge, it having been on the shortlist in 2005 (and was also long-listed for the Booker) (that's a good way to spend an hour or two, checking back over old book review posts to see if they are on any of the various prize lists and labelling them accordingly).

I know nothing about the Ukraine specifically but am guessing that the experience of being part of an immigrant community is commonly a mixture of integration and continuing to identify with their former homeland. The book is written from the point of view of Nadezhada, who's parents arrived in Britain after the war, and while partly the story is about the experience of being an immigrant it is also dealing with universal truths about family relationships. Nadezhada and her sister Vera are not speaking after a dispute over their mother's will but they are thrown back together by a family crisis. Their father plans to remarry, to a voluptuous young Ukrainian woman called Valentina. They are convinced he is being taken advantage of and become determined to put a stop to the whole thing. And so ensues a complex wrangle that leads the participants through a maze of heated emotions and fierce confrontation. Threaded through the modern day drama is the story of her parent's backgrounds, how they came to be together and their sometimes life threatening wartime experience, and her father's preoccupation with tractors and the book he is writing.

What I liked particularly was getting a very strong sense of their cultural identity, and how their experience of being incomers, and their wartime privations, continued to affect everything about how they lived. The reader gets an understanding of a whole different set of assumptions and priorities. This is a description of her grandparent's wedding:

"The Ocheretko men strode into the church in their riding-boots, embroidered shirts and outlandish baggy trousers. The women wore wide swinging skirts and boots with little heels and coloured ribbons in their hair. They stood together in a fierce bunch at the back of the church and left abruptly at the end without tipping the priest.
The Blazhkos looked down on the groom's family, whom they thought uncouth, little more than brigands, who drank too much and never combed their hair. The Ocheretkos thought the Blazhkos were prissy urbanites and traitors to the land. Sonia and Mitrofan didn't care what their parents thought. They had already consummated their love, and its fruit was on her way." (p.63)

There is a strong eclectic cast of characters, who all have an opinion about what other people should be doing, except maybe the enigmatic Mike (Nadezhada's husband), who just listens while Nikolai talks about tractors. The two women have such a contrast of experience, Vera having been a war child and Nadezhada being a post-war baby. The story is very fast paced, lurching from one crisis to another, the two sisters lurching between cooperating in the face of a shared enemy and returning to their lifelong animosity. There is a certain element of what feels like self-parody, and the lengths to which Valentina goes to try and get what she wants borders on the farcical. There is a lot of rushing backwards and forwards, and shouting and threatening. The one thing I might have like would be to have more points of view, so that you could get an idea of her motivation. All we have is the two sisters discussing her, and ascribing their own understanding onto the events; is she really as unfeeling and mercenary as they think. In contrast to the previous book Valentina crashes through their family causing all sorts of disruption and you feel at the end as if she has had a long lasting impact on them. I confess I did not read the bits of the tractor book that Nikolai is writing, I get the impression maybe I missed some political depth to the story. While I quite enjoyed the book I found myself irritated by the people and their inconsistent behaviour and inability to deal with the threat of Valentina. Many reviews described the book as very funny, but I did not read it like that at all. There are bits that are quite harrowing and there is quite a strong sense of the ongoing impact of history. I certainly felt that I learned a lot from the book but it's strength is very much in the interplay of the vital characters; it is one crazy story and you can't help but empathise with poor Nikolai and hope that all those people stop interfering in his life.

How it all began - experimental post

Hi from the iPad. Dunk downloaded a Blogger app so I can write posts here and after two lines it is driving me crazy already ... just found the dictionary set to foreign, that would explain it's trying to change every other word.

So I have been reading 'How it all began' by Penelope Lively, a nice quiet undemanding little story, just over 200 pages, partly about the importance of stories. It is a slightly disconcerting style because it self consciously tells you that it is telling you a story, and then at the end recaps the story it has just told and summarises what became of the characters. It's just a device but I'm not sure I like it. She is a Booker prize winner so you tend to expect great things, though I have not read Moon Tiger. The book I really know her for is Astercote, a children's book published in 1970, that I still have on my shelf.

Charlotte, an elderly woman is mugged and the consequences of her injury ripple out via her daughter, her daughter's employer, his niece, her lover and his wife. It is just a gentle tale of people living their lives, and how this little incident kind of changes things, but kind of doesn't, it stirs them up and then the dust settles and life goes on. In fact, yes, the more I contemplate what happens the more I realise it is a story about life staying the same. These are all people who's lives are pretty uneventful. Something, the mugging and it's consequences, disrupt them, but at the end of the book everyone is pretty much settled back into the same little niche in which they started. Unexpected events have an impact, but often much more minimal than you might expect. Except maybe the Polish accountant, I think he changes his life more than the others. It reminded me of a TED lecture I listened to recently, that talked about happiness, and what a small impact even very significant events have on people's lives and how people perceive happiness (always interesting stuff there, but I should try and avoid digression.)

I was trying to pin down in my head who is the main character but it doesn't really have one. It hops from one person to another at random, without focussing on anyone in particular, it is not one story with sub-plots but really lots of sub-plots. The most interesting of them is Lord Henry, a slightly doddering retired professor of history to whom Rose (Charlotte's daughter) acts as personal assistant and general dogsbody. I mean, everyone is self-centred, it's a fact of life, but it's always amusing to read a character like this, it makes you feel smug. He is so stuck in his own version of reality and what is important, and his sense of his own importance, that you kind of enjoy him getting his comeuppance. But of course he creates a new version of reality and settles back down into his life and just tells himself that everyone else is at fault.
It's all very nice and middle class and comfortable. Charlotte is not traumatised by the violence nor afraid to go back to her home, she is just inconvenienced by the injury. Rose will not leave her safe marriage and family. The 'lover' (who's name I forget) wheedles his way back into his nice safe marriage. The niece sorts out her financial problems quite simply.
It was just a nice story but nothing special, no challenge for the characters or the reader. Good books really need to have something more.

The Idea of Perfection

The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville won the Orange Prize in 2001. I love this cover photograph and I was left wondering if it was in fact the initial inspiration for the story, since it shows a bridge exactly as she describes it in the book; you can even see the shifting of the timbers as it has been twisted by the river.

This is the story of Harley and Douglas, both landing up in Karakarook, apparently to end up on opposite sides of an argument within the local community. Douglas is coming to knock down an old bridge, Harley to assist with creating a museum and she gets involved with the campaign to save the bridge. So here are two people, very much outside their comfort zones, struggling with the harsh outback environment, who's chance encounters bring them together. Running alongside we have an alternate story, of Felicity Porcelline and her rather strange obsessive behaviour. The two are separate, though they happen at the same time and in the same place and the people in them interact. Maybe it is partly about the isolating effect of the environment; Felicity is an incomer and doesn't quite fit in, though I think her problems are a bit more deep-seated than that.

The book is full of wonderful quirky characters, people who are almost always created it seems in very challenging environments, life is hard so it tends to toughen up the people. I loved the scene where Harley tries to buy a bucket but the old man in the shop will not sell her one from the window display, an extreme case of being stuck in your ways and resistant to any kind of outside influence. And then there is the oppressive heat, and the impact it has on people's lives. It is as if locals know how to live with it. Their environment dominates their lives, and it is so vast that they have to let it:

"It was another planet out here. The city became merely a dream, or as distant as something you had read about in a book: something you could remember, or not, as you pleased. The country made the city and all its anxieties seem small and silly, and yet when you had been too long in the city you forgot how the sun moving through its path was a long slow drama, and the way the sky was always there, big and easy-going." (p.32)

And being in a strange place makes you perceive things in strange ways:

"She thought they must be frogs because what else could they be? But frogs were supposed to croak. This was not so much a croak as a sound like someone hitting a cardboard box with a stick at irregular intervals. Sometimes several people with several sticks hit different sized cardboard boxes all together. It did not sound like frogs, but it must be, unless there were people out there, hitting sticks against cardboard boxes in the darkness." (p.44)

Harvey seems to have partly chosen her isolation, is running away from closeness after the traumatising suicide of her third husband, though her sense of being 'not right' goes back to not fitting in with her perception of her family:

"Her sister, of the fascinating wide mobile mouth, the far-set cat-like eyes, had always been a proper Appleby Savage. She had had the Appleby Savage gift, as well as long brown legs that looked good in shorts. Celeste had known about things at the back being smaller than things at the front without ever having to be told. She had a way of being dreamy, dishevelled, lovely, even in her old pink flannelette pyjamas, thinking interesting thoughts behind her lovely green eyes. Celeste's birds made Father laugh with surprise and pleasure in a way Pixie's never did." (p.198-9)

Douglas wants to get along, he just struggles with how to manage it. I like this description of him trying to be 'one of the lads':

"It was always like this out on site with the men. He made a point of reading the sports pages just for these moments and tried to memorise a few things so he could say Vaughan's peaked, or They'd be better of sacking Stannard. But when it came to it, the conversation always seemed to go in some other direction and needed information he had not memorised, or when it came to the moment, he could not remember if it was Vaughan or Stannard who had peaked." (p.185)

We only get a small amount of background information, it is mainly a story about Karakarook, and the impact it has on these two strangers who come to town. They both have a crisis of confidence and learn something new about themselves, which is always a satisfying thing in a good story, because the place and the experience has a real impact on them. Though you are not sure if they have so much of an impact on the place, in fact whether people at all do, it has a timeless quality, at least the flies do:

"A fly hovered near her eye and she flapped at it irritably. It circled back and tried the other eye. She flapped it away again. It avoided her hand, but languidly, unconcerned. It could do it all day, circle and land, circle and land. It could go on forever. She could not." (p.345)

A lovely book, wonderful sympathetic characters, highly recommended.