Saturday 31 March 2012

Blog Stuff going on in April

Have done really well on the Orange January Challenge (reading, I think, 4 books) and not-so-well on the TBR Double Dare challenge (reading hardly any from my TBR pile between January and March) I have decided on a few new challenges.
Firstly is the Muriel Spark Reading Week, 23rd to 29th April, hosted by Stuck-in-a-book and Harriet. Having read a couple of her books since I started this blog I thought it would be an excuse to try another, or two.
The other challenge is nothing (or not necessarily) to do with reading. Dunk sent me in the direction of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. I have felt a bit uninspired recently so I thought it might give me a bit of encouragement to write about something different. So, in theory, there is going to be a daily post (with Sundays off for good behaviour) for the whole of April, based around the letters of the alphabet.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Work Whinge of the Week: Council Tax Bill Day

Fortunately 'Council Tax Bill Day' has become Council Tax Bill three days, since we have been allowed to spread out the delivery, but we are still talking a nice fat letter to every address that is in addition to the normal workload (that's six to eight extra boxes of letters). The first ones began arriving last Friday but most have come over the weekend so my trolley has been loaded to the max the last two days (when on a tuesday it is usually only half full.)
I guess I should be grateful for small mercies; since the move to Manchester I have avoided the dreaded 'National Trust Day'. This is the day, some time mid January when the National Trust sends out it's annual members handbook. In an area where in some villages every other person in a member this used to triple our workload on the day they arrived. I know I shouldn't complain since if there were no letters I would be out of a job ... but why do they have to all arrive on the same day!

Sunday 25 March 2012

Book Reviews and all that

I am sitting today printing off past papers from the Edexcel site for Creature to practice on so you are getting a bit of a catchup post about recent reading.

I had to rush 'There but for the' by Ali Smith back to the library last week before I had the chance to review it. Like 'The Accidental' which I reviewed almost exactly a year ago, it has been longlisted for the Orange Prize, and it was a similarly weird book. For all the other apparently intellectual quirks and references that were lost on me it was enamoured to me by the information that the young girl Brooke was named for Louise Brooks, because my daughter Tish (real name Thymian) is named after the character that Louise Brooks plays in 'Diary of a lost Girl'. It seems silly but such small incidental information can frequently give me a bond with a story that might otherwise have passed into obscurity. On the surface this is a tale about Miles, who shuts himself into a stranger's spare room during dinner and stays there, and all sorts of stuff starts happening around him, people are drawn in and the whole event takes on a life of it's own, until it almost becomes irrelevant whether he is still in the room or not. It is a clever book, about words and language as much as it is about people, and about society as much as about personal relationships. I liked all the references to Greenwich and the meridian and Brooke's obsession with it. In fact she rapidly became my favourite person. It kind of drifted inconclusively to the end in the same way 'The Accidental' did, which I liked, as if things aren't really as important as all that.

'The End of Mr Y' by Scarlett Thomas was also long listed for the Orange Prize, back in 2008. This book was on audiobook and it seemed to go on and on interminably, or maybe it was just really slow to get in to. I am not sure if I liked it. It was almost trying to be too clever, not 'literary' clever but the premise for the story is clever, but then it mixed up science and superstition and religion and it became a bit too much for me. Our protagonist Ariel discovers a copy of a rare book, 'The End of Mr Y' and it contains instructions for reaching the 'Troposphere', a kind of mind space, where you can enter other's consciousness and move through time and space by jumping between people or even animals. It is all very surreal and the ideas about existence outside your physical body tend to leave me a bit cold. It got a bit carried away with it's own cleverness and I was bored and in the end took it to work to listen to just to get it finished as I wanted to find out how it all ended... and it was a bit predictable. Sorry.

Have also listened to 'The London Train' by Tessa Hadley and 'The Whole Day through' by Patrick Gale, neither of which made a big enough impact for me to was to write anything about them. Or maybe I just can't be bothered much at the moment, am very much lacking any inspiration from anything I have read, certainly not enough to want to jump up and down and tell people to go read it themselves.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Cable Jumper and all that

I have been working on this cable jumper for over a month and finally finished this afternoon. It is done in a lovely lambswool and silk yarn, which is quite heavy and warm. It is knitted to this pattern from Interweave Press called Celtic Dreams. I have concentrated pretty hard but there still a couple of minor mistakes in the cabling ... but I won't mention it again if you don't:-)
Tish came over to hang out and have dinner and having seen the three little pigs and the big bad wolf ...

that Creature (who still doesn't want her picture taken but wants recognition for her talents) made the other week (to accompany the story on the iPad), she pulled out the felt bag and made ... rabbit, fox and tiger.

Sunday 18 March 2012

Work Whinge of the Week: the hours

Although the week has been quite nice and springlike, it is light enough and warm enough to leave both the wooly hat and the bike lights at home, there was a reminder of the downside this morning .....
the damn cat doesn't know it's Sunday and doesn't like to break her routine, even when I want a lie in she still insists she needs to leave the house at 5.30am!

Monday 12 March 2012

Secret Pooh Project

For the last couple of weeks I have been working on a little something for my favourite two-year-old, who has become enamoured of Winnie the Pooh. This is really just a quickie to show them off as Creature and I took them round for her this afternoon (it being many months 'til her birthday and there was no way we could hide them for that long.)
Many many years ago now, probably at least 15 or 16, I found this book, The Pooh Craft Book by Carol S. Friedrichsen:
in our local library in Belmont. I made a set of the Pooh characters for Lucy, the then very little daughter of my good friend Michelle, who is a huge fan of the Winnie the Pooh books. I had not thought of them in years but the Babe's newfound addiction to Pooh reminded me and I sought out a copy on Amazon. I invested a small amount of money on some felt from The Felt Fairy on eBay and dug out the remains of what used to be a vast collection of embroidery silks.

So here they are:
Winnie the Pooh (with movable arms and legs and jacket that comes off too)

Piglet (also movable arms, and hippy rainbow t-shirt)

Kanga and baby Roo, who comes in and out of her pouch.

Pooh and Piget together

Tigger (I'm the only one)

Wol, or Owl

Rabbit (who, the Babe spotted, is lacking a tail, will have to fix that asap)


Friday 9 March 2012

Dancing is life or 11/22/63 by Stephen King

On Friday Reads on Facebook many many people had been mentioning this book 11/22/63 by Stephen King. Now I had given Stephen King a try some time ago and read his short story The Body so I looked up this book and was intrigued. For americans the title is probably instantaneously recognisable, whereas it didn't mean anything to me: it is of course the date of the Kennedy assassination. The premise on the front cover describes it as a day that changed the world and asks the question, "What if you could change it back?" And that's the book in a nutshell.

Our hero Jake gets a strange call from his friend Al, who runs his favourite diner. It turns out that at the back of his store room there is a 'rabbit hole' that opens into 1958. Al has been using the rabbit hole and had come up with a grand plan to prevent the assassination of JFK, but as he lived through the years between '58 and November 1963 he developed cancer and has been forced to return to 2011, hoping to persuade Jake to take over the mission. As Jake reminds us, history does not want to be changed and the obstacles come thick and fast, getting more surreal as the event gets closer. It has something of 'Back to the Future' about it, raising all the same questions around the idea of time travel, how someone coming back influences future events.
I am not going to say anything else about the plot because it is the crux of the book. This is an excellent book and it is beautifully fast paced. I was totally sucked into the story. It is the kind of story where you will have to make yourself put the book down and go to sleep when you have to get up for work in the morning. Although it is not a great piece of literature and some of the characters are a bit 'stock' it is well researched historically and has enough strands to the plot to keep the reader occupied. It is packed with nostalgia and creates a wonderful 1950's atmosphere, drawing contrasts throughout between then and now, and you can really understand why Jake is tempted to stay on. At 740 pages it is a mammoth read but you hardly notice the pages going by. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Lizard Cake Tutorial

Back in May 2009 I made a Lizard Cake for Lewis' birthday, and it has become my most visited post with over 1,000 visits. Many of the visitors have been searching for instructions and so I decided to do a tutorial on how I went about making him. The same basic method can be used to make any kind of animal or whatever really. Ready roll icing can be coloured and flavoured any way you like, but beware of over working it as it can dry out.

So, you start with a slab of basic sponge cake. This is made with 8oz margarine, 8oz sugar, 4 eggs, vanilla, 8oz SR flour and baked in a 7" by 12" tray. Line it with greaseproof paper to ensure you can get it out easily.
When I made the first one I did do some research looking at pictures of lizards, though he is based partly on the shape of Lewis' Blue Tongued Skink. Rather than try and make it look like a specific type I just made him 'lizardish'.

So first I cut a basic body shape ...
... using some of the cut away cake I added a chunk for the tail. It doesn't matter that they are separate because the icing holds it all together. I tend to brush some melted jam over the top to help the icing stick in place.
Next I got a whole packet of ready roll icing and coloured it grey. This is achieved by about half a teaspoon of black food colour and a drop of red and a drop of blue, it was just trial and error. I think the original one was a bit more purpley than this. Knead it well to get a nice smooth colour, or is you want a more mottled effect leave it partly mixed:
Reserve a chunk (about 1/4 of it) for the legs and roll out the rest to a long shape that will cover the entire body, you don't have to be too precise as it is very easy to fix mistakes, though better to make it longer than you need:
Lift it carefully and cover the cake. Don't worry if it looks all messy or if there are gaps. Fold it around the cake and tuck the edges underneath so the cake is covered entirely. Trim excess icing and use it to patch any gaps.
Now get a glass of water and a butter knife and gently rub over any joins and folds with the dampened knife to make the surface smooth. try not to wet it too much or it can become sticky or tear, but don't worry about it looking damp as it will dry off. This will take some time and perseverance, don't be impatient:
Next add the legs, I consulted lizard pictures to get the position, the feet were just flattened and toes cut into the ends:
Next take some more ready roll icing. I coloured this green but you can do whatever you like with it, or even follow the colour scheme and patterning of your favourite lizard (this is a lot, really you only need a small amount for the markings):
I then made spots in a variety of sizes and using the damp knife again flattened them onto the surface and blended them in slightly, be careful not to press to hard and damage the surface. Eyes were made with raisins and the mouth just marked with the knife:

Creature named him Humperdink, in celebration of the announcement of Engelbert's participation in Eurovision this year (who's auntie, I was told, lives just off the High Street in Bourton on the Water).

Saturday 3 March 2012

Films and all that

In no particular order, some films I have actually paid attention to recently (as opposed to the ones on Movies 24, which are laughably bad and not to be confused with the real thing.)

Me and You and Everyone We Know by Miranda July, requested from the library because I had heard of her (reviewed here two years ago) and was reminded recently about her most recent book called 'It Choses You'. This is a rather self indulgent and esoteric film (she's the one in the stripy top in the picture), weird little vignettes of characters who are loosely connected. Peculiar, would be the word that comes to mind most. I might watch it again just because of the lovely little boy who reminded me so much of Jacob.

I went with Claire and Nat (sister and niece) the other week to see George Clooney in 'The Descendants'. If you're thinking of a trip to the cinema this is definitely the one to go for. Part of it's charm is that Clooney is allowed to be middle aged, not a glamourous film star. Two stories run alongside each other: the nuclear family, watching and waiting for their mother (Clooney's wife) to come out of a coma, and the vast extended family who own a vast tract of virgin land in Hawaii just ripe for tourist development. Nice also because, although set on Hawaii, the weather looks somewhat stormy and overcast much of the time and there is a complete lack of shots of scantily clad young women on the beach. Definitely see it again when the DVD comes out.

Treacle Jr we got from Lovefilm, probably after seeing it previewed on another of their films. Tom runs away from his ordinary life (only really explained by one of the out-takes that we watched), and he ends up in hospital where he meets Aiden (me and Creature both enamoured of Aiden Gillen, me for Queer as Folk and she because he is in Game of Thrones) a slightly odd young man who seems to be bumbling through life with a wonderfully naive optimistic world view. A nice little film about friendship and the redemptive power of caring about someone else's problems. Oh, it's named after the cat by the way.

Skeletons was another from Lovefilm. This is so brilliant, the ultimate quirky cult film. Simon and Bennett are psychics, who go around sorting out the metaphorical skeletons in people's wardrobes (I know, but it did seem to be mostly wardrobes). The film gradually draws you to their weird world, though there is little explanation about their mysterious business. They come across a family where the father has disappeared and the daughter has not spoken for three years. Convinced he is dead the mother has been digging random holes in the woods in search of her husband. There ensues a crisis all round, and everyone is forced to confront their hidden history and make some life changing decisions. Just a wonderful collection of characters, brilliantly put together and acted. See it if you get the chance.

The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes won the Booker Prize last year, so as you might anticipate there was a bit of a waiting list at the library. At almost exactly 150 pages the judges definitely plumped for quality over quantity; I could not fault it, there is hardly a word out of place.

So, there's Tony, he was young once, but now he's an old bloke, and events occur that challenge his memory of things that happened. He and Colin and Alex are a trio, joined by the slightly enigmatic Adrian, and he paints for the reader a telling portrait of young men in the prime of egotism. They think they know it all, have all the answers, even when confronted by the suicide of a fellow schoolboy. We follow Tony and his friendships through his university years until he receives some shocking news, and then in a matter of no more than a few sentences we fast forward through his entire life to the moment, at age 60 something, when he receives a solicitor's letter that stirs up all sorts of old memories.

I m going to string some quotes together, because they seem to go together, to say something that the book is trying to say. It is about time, and history and people's lives and how they see them, from the beginning and then again in retrospect.

"It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we were young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others." (p.80)

"The odder part was that it was easy to give this version of my history because that's what I'd been telling myself anyway. I viewed my time with Veronica as a failure - her contempt, my humiliation - and expunged it from the record." (p.69)

"But time ... how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time ... give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical." (p.93)

"How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but - mainly - to ourselves." (p.95)

I think the last of these is most telling, "our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life", and such is the story in this book. Tony thought he knew things about himself and his life, about the people he had known. He admits to himself that he chose to live 'safe' without risks or adventure, but then seems to judge himself very harshly for that. I am not so sure it is such a terrible thing. But then Veronica also seems to accuse him silently (for she never puts it into words), blame him for consequences that he could not have foreseen or understood, nor in reality be held responsible for. It is a good book because it raises all these things, all this thinking, the subtleties of how people view their own lives and the importance we attach to the tiniest of events. It is the more authentic side of the coin that has nostalgia on the reverse, a looking back and a real trying to understand how things turned out, the inevitability of regret and inability to make amends, just having to live with it. And it is the story of the human condition really, we all have things that we wish could have been different.

Thursday 1 March 2012

So he takes the dog

'So he takes the dog' by Jonathan Buckley is another title with a doggy reference that bears little relevance to the book, in this case the dog finds a body on the beach that begins this tale of murder mystery. But it is not so much a mystery about the identity of the killer as the identity of the victim. In a way the style reminded me of Jon Mcgregor, it was so understated, so you were not aware of the subtleties of the writing, it did not intrude on the reading or make you notice that he was being clever. In a quiet little seaside town Henry, the resident vagrant (if that's not a contradiction in terms), is found dead on he beach and as John and Ian the local policemen try to piece together the events they begin to dig themselves into what is obviously a big black hole. Many, many people saw him, or even knew his name, he was such a feature of their local landscape but even Hannah, who thought of herself as his friend, didn't really know anything about him. The story holds you in suspense for chapter after chapter, tiny new snippets of information gradually come to light, until in a moment of inspiration a link is made and the history of Henry falls into place. I won't spoil that part of the story, but what I liked so much about the book is that part of your mind is focussing on Henry and the other half is watching as the people around the story are affected by the enforced contact that the events have caused. I like it because it has the feel of a storm in a teacup. A tiny place and time gets all stirred up, swirls violently around for a while and little ripples radiate from the source of the turbulence. But you are left at the end as mystified about Henry as ever, we only have hearsay, other people's opinions and third hand reports of vague memories. You are tempted to make assumptions about Henry, just as the police and observers are, to think you can guess at what was going on in his life. You are even drawn in by Hannah's slightly naive view of him as being somehow deep and philosophical. I like the fact it is not all drawn neatly to a conclusion at the end, life is messy and why pretend otherwise.

What I sometimes like most about reading is when you just pass over tiny little sentences and they are so beautiful and expressive without being overly clever or pretentious. This is what this book has. Just a couple to tell you what I mean:

"The next day the flyers were issues, using Hannah's photograph instead of he fuzzy beach snap, and stations in London were given the new improved mugshot. The response was silence. It felt as if we were lobbing marbles into a bog." (p.65)

"Leaning against the wall, she gives the impression, as she watches the sea, that this is what she would have been doing anyway, just watching the sea as the sun slides into it. A warm, sweet, saline air is coming into the room. On the houses there's a varnish of buttermilk sunlight." (p.235)

Everything about this book was lovely. I can't recall where I saw it mentioned but thank you as usual to whoever drew my attention to it, I recommend it highly.
(Photo to follow as I am on the iPad and it doesn't do all sorts of stuff properly. I have several other things to write about but will wait til Creature deigns to give me back the laptop. Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending has been a very brief but wonderful read, will get to it later today, plus a couple of films. Knitting is coming along well and have a fabulous secret project that I hope may be done by next week.)