Sunday 30 September 2012

Banned Books and Poetry

We are back to that time of year, Banned Books Week (there is also a UK Banned Books Site), when we celebrate the right to read whatever we goddam please. 'Midnight's Children' by Salman Rushdie remains one of my all time favourite books and it is a long time since I read anything by him so I decided to read 'The Satanic Verses'; according to the Wikipedia page it is banned in Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Iran, Kenya, Kuwait, Liberia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, Senegal, Singapore Sri, Lanka, Tanzania and Thailand. I recall the furore at the time this was published but for some reason got the impression that it was not a novel, which it is. I just want to put in a little taster, which reminded me of why I like his writing so much: Saladin, one of our heroes has been forced to eat a kipper for breakfast at his private English boarding school,

"By that time he was shaking, and if he had been able to cry he would have done so. Then the thought occurred to him that he had been taught an important lesson. England was a peculiar-tasting smoked fish full of spikes and bones, and nobody would ever tell him how to eat it. He discovered that he was a bloody-minded person. 'I'll show them all,' he swore. 'You see if i don't.' The eaten kipper was his first victory, the first step in his conquest of England." (p.44)

It is also, on Thursday this week, National Poetry Day. I have been reading recently this book, 'Poems Before and After' by Miroslav Holub, a collection divided in half by the events of the Prague Spring in 1968. He is another poet I discovered in my well thumbed copy of 'The Rattle Bag'. I thought I might share a few this week, maybe from some other places too. 

A boy's head

In it there is a space-ship
and a project
for doing away with piano lessons.

And there is
Noah's ark,
which shall be first.

And there is
an entirely new bird,
an entirely new hare,
an entirely new bumble-bee.

There is a river
that flows upwards.

There is a multiplication table.

There is anti-matter.

And it just cannot be trimmed.

I believe
that only what cannot be trimmed
is a head.

There is much promise
in the circumstances
that so many people have heads.

Thursday 27 September 2012

A Pale View of the Hills

At the suggestion of Julie I have been reading 'A Pale View of the Hills' by Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the Booker Prize in 1989 for his novel 'Remains of the Day'. 

I was left sad and a little disconcerted by this book. All the conversations and the relationships seemed rather stilted and awkward, even between Etsuko and her daughter Niki. The story is simply the thoughts of a woman, Etsuko, following the suicide of her older daughter Keiko, thinking back on a brief period in her life, when she was pregnant with her daughter and was living in post-war Nagasaki, and the friendship she formed with a strange woman who lived nearby. 

"I had never been inside the cottage prior to that afternoon, and I had been rather surprised when Sachiko had asked me in. In fact, I had sensed immediately that she had done so with something in mind, and as it turned out, I was not mistaken.
The cottage was tidy, but I remember a kind of stark shabbiness about the place; the wooden beams that crossed the ceiling looked old and insecure, and a faint odour of dampness lingered everywhere. At the front of the cottage, the main partition had been left wide open to allow the sunlight in across the veranda. For all that, much of the place remained in shadow." (p.17-8)

The dark and slightly forbidding atmosphere in the little cottage seem to mirror the woman herself and sense that she is both hiding things, and hiding from things. It is as if they are both lonely and recognise that in each other; Sachiko seems to deliberately isolate herself, shunning people, perhaps because she fears censure for having a relationship with an American man and Etsuko is married to a man who barely seems to acknowledge her, though she seems to have a close and friendly relationship with her father-in-law. Although they spend time together there is a formality and vague sense of discomfort when they talk. But then I found references to marriage and the changing relationships between couples quite interesting, probably telling you much about Japanese culture, before and after. Sachiko discussing her husband:

"My husband was like that, Etsuko. Very strict and very patriotic. He was never the most considerate of men. But he came from a highly distinguished family and my parents considered it a good match. I didn't protest when he forbade me to study English. After all, there seemed little point any more." (p.110)

Some visitors from Jiro's (Etsuko's husband) office call one evening:
"Jiro went back to his newspapers. He continued to eat the cake and I watched several crumbs drop on to the tatami. Ogata-San continued to gaze at the chess-board for some time.
'Quite extraordinary.' he said, eventually, 'what your friend was saying.'
'Oh? What was that?' Jiro did not look up from his newspaper.
'About him and his wife voting for different parties. A few years ago that would have been unthinkable.'
'No doubt'
'Quite extraordinary the things that happen now. But that's what's meant by democracy, I suppose.' Ogata-San gave a sigh. 'These things we've learnt so eagerly from the Americans, they aren't always so good.'
'No, indeed they're not.'
'Look what happens. Husband and wife voting for different parties. It's a sad state of affairs when a wife can't be relied on in such matters any more.' " (p.64-5)

Hanging over the story is the shadow of the war, and the sense of people not wanting to dwell on the past, that it is too terrible to look back. Also a sense of not knowing anything any more. The idea that before the war there was a sense of certainty, about life and the way it should be lived, and that was somehow disrupted. Sachiko has this sense that she should go back and live a quiet unassuming life with her uncle, but in the end announces she will be going off to America with 'Frank'. Etsuko similarly ends up leaving, and married to an Englishman, a story that we never hear. It's as if the changes brought about by the war are too profound to articulate. The two women on a day out together, with Sachiko's daughter Mariko:

"I had a rather precarious feeling, perched on the edge of that mountain looking out over such a view; a long way down below us, we could see the harbour looking like a dense piece of machinery left in the water. Across the harbour, on the opposite bank, rose the series of hills that led to Nagasaki. The land at the foot of the hills was busy with houses and buildings. Far over to our right, and harbour opened out on to the sea.
We sat there for a while, recovering our breath and enjoying the breeze. Then I said:
'You wouldn't think anything had ever happened here, would you? Everything looks so full of life. But all that area down there' - I waved my hand at the view below us -  'all that area was so badly hit when the bomb fell. But look at it now.'
Sachiko nodded, then turned to me with a smile. 'How cheerful you are today, Etsuko,' she said.
'But it's so good to come out here. Today I've decided I'm going to be optimistic. I'm determined to have a happy future. Mrs Fujiwara always tells me how important it is to keep looking forward. And she's right. If people didn't do that, then all this' - I pointed again at the view - 'all this would still be rubble.' " (p.110-11)

There is an attempt at hopefulness but I didn't feel it. Although Etsuko is relating her memories she is reserved and distant and I didn't feel I got to know her at all. There is nothing neat and tidy about this book. There is no ending or conclusion, it drifts to a close. Such is life.

Sunday 23 September 2012

Rather sensible mother

I have been listening today to 'The Bridges of Madison County' by Robert James Waller, it is a film that I love but a book I have never read. It was wonderful to discover that the film captures so beautifully the essence of the story. While it has been criticised as being a sentimental love story I find it poignant and heartbreaking. Written partly as if by a journalist documenting a real life story it is told mostly from the point of view of Francesca, a middle aged farmer's wife, who falls in love with Robert Kincaid, a photographer visiting the area to take pictures of traditional local bridges. It is a story about two people finding each other in the unlikeliest of situations, and finding there the thing that their life had been missing. It is about a 'rather sensible mother' who sacrifices her own desires for the life with her family. It is a very sensuous book, much of the story being taken up with each observing the other and the description of the minutiae of their behaviour when together. It captures the contrast between their life experiences and then draws them together in this undisturbed and isolated rural setting. I find it poignant because of the way that their feelings for each other continue to affect them throughout their lives, but not in a devastating way, but in way that gave them some indefinable quality; the ultimate example of 'tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all'. 
It was the perfect accompaniment to brewing up a concoction of apples and blackberries:
giving me 17 and a half pots of luscious jam:
I am not much of a shoe buyer, and when I do they are eminently sensible. After over 12 years with my last pair of DMs (a pair that were originally white nubuck but have long since been indescribable) I went out with Creature to the DM shop on Market Street and invested in a new pair. While they do all sorts of lovely flowery or embroidered designs they are only in what is called 'women's' style, which were unfortunately too narrow, so I ended up going back to some unisex purple ones. I thought I might document how long this pair lasts me.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Out of Breath

I have been listening to 'Out of Breath' by Julie Myerson. Some years ago I read 'Something Might Happen' and really enjoyed it and then I reviewed another of her books, The Story of You, back in 2009. Out of Breath has something in common with it because in both there is a slightly surreal situation, even though it is apparently in the real world, and then you realise it is unreal and events are the imaginary creation of the protagonists needs and desires. In Story of You it was a grieving mother, in Out of Breath it is a young girl, Flynn, who meets Alex at the bottom of her garden. In a moment of crisis she and her brother Sam leave home and find themselves caught up in the fate of a little gang of runaways, Alex, Mouse, Diana and the newborn baby Joey. And so Flynn's wild imagination creates a safe haven for them to live in while they hide from the threats of the real world, complete with fresh bread and milk, a waterfall, nappies for the baby and knickers for Mouse. But it turns out she cannot really escape her fears and vulnerability and gradually the real world works its way back in. 

I liked the audiobook very much because the reader's voice was so well chosen. She sounds young, as if she really is a teenager confiding her strange adventure to you. The story is written in the present tense so you live the events and get caught up with her feelings, about the situation, about her absent father and about Alex. It is a very multi-sensory story, often focussing on scents, smells and tastes, and very absorbed into the immediacy of events. And it is a very adolescent story, the need to be in a situation that is free from adult/parental authority or interference is important. Young people need a chance to fall back on their own resources and from that situation are forced to gain some new perspective. It had some rather overly neat resolutions but I don't think that that was really important, it was about the process of being inside the mind of Flynn and watching her thought processes unfold. As I listened I quickly realised that I have also read this book years ago, but I enjoyed the process of listening to it, quite a different experience.

green box poetry

One IKEA wooden storage box
rubbed down and undercoated and rubbed down again (twice)
painted dark green
after much debate I decided on a spiderweb design
after I came across this lovely spiderweb poem by Shel Silverstein

I was reading somewhere about his classic children's book The Giving Tree and then came across the poem and decided to incorporate it into the pattern. The box had been sitting around the garage for several years ... no particular use in mind, just for the hell of it.

Friday 14 September 2012

More Hexipuffs - Fibre Arts Friday

I have been neglecting the Hexipuffs recently so after finishing the recent projects I thought I would go back and do a few more. I did buy some new yarn at Purl City a few weeks ago, three hanks of Mirasol Akapana, and have used the blue here. It is a baby lama/merino blend and is wonderfully soft. The baby sized ones are mainly from leftover sock yarn that I bought for the Sasha Cardigan. Hexipuffs are nice because I can leave them lying around the sofa and they just mingle in with the other cushions. There was a vague plan to try and do the Beekeeper Quilt by Christmas but I don't think that is going to happen at the current rate. 
Linking back to the Fibre Arts Friday, pop over and see some other creations.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

A Long Long Way

'A Long Long Way' by Sebastian Barry
I listened to Secret Scripture about 18 months ago and really loved it and decided to read something else by Sebastian Barry. I have not read many war novels, and none that I can think of about the First World War. It is a sad book not just because of the catalogue of human loss but because of the apparent disregard with which those humans were lost.

Our hero is Willie Dunne. But he is not really a hero nor is he presented as one; he does nothing to make himself stand out, makes no sacrifices for his comrades, he is cannon fodder who pisses himself with terror every time they are obliged to engage the enemy. I kind of liked that about him, he did not become acclimatised to the inhumanity of the situation he found himself in, he did not get used to it and accept it, his psyche and his body rejected it as an aberration right up to the end. He spends long years fighting in the trenches in Belgium, the horror of their situation being highlighted by the comradeship he find amongst the men he fights alongside and the bonds of friendship that are created there. The book is unstinting in it's description of the conditions but also presents the men as really believing that the war they are waging is a just one and that they are fighting for their country and their freedom. It's not that they are naive but that patriotism is a worthy cause and they accepted the social order that dictated that their role in the situation was to offer up their lives. In the background is the story of Ireland and the republican uprising in 1916 which articulated the demands for Home Rule, and the conflicts that then existed within the army in their attitudes towards the irish soldiers. 

I think Willie becomes a hero because he maintains his humanity in the face of the war. This quote is after Captain Pasley is killed by the first gas attack:

"They stood there two feet apart in all that vale of tears, one man asking another how he was, the other asking how the other was, the one not knowing truly what the world was, the other not knowing either. One nodded now to the other in an expression of understanding without understanding, of saying without breathing a word. And the other nodded back to the other, knowing nothing. Not this new world of terminality and astonishing dismay, of extremity of ruin and exaggeration of misery. And Father Buckley did not know anything but grief, and Willie Dunne on that black day likewise.
Five hundred men and more of Willie's regiment dead.
As they stood there a strange teem of rain fell down from the heavens. It rattled, veritably rattled on their human shoulders." (p. 52-3)

It is as if the war is another world all to itself and the real world struggles to go on regardless:

"The field flowers were just appearing; light rains washed and washed again the pleasing fields. In those parts the farmers seemed to have decided that they might prepare to sow a harvest. The little villages seemed queerly optimistic; perhaps the human hearts were infected with whatever infects the very birds of Belgium. The sun lay along objects with indifferent and democratic grace, gun-barrel or ploughshare." (p.101)

After a battle:

"There were no white picket fences, headstones, or the like. Just row after row of irregular beds, like a poor man's vegetable plot, and into these loamy beds were lain the vanished soldiers. If they were stiff, the living men broke a limb here and a limb there, with muttered apologies to the slain. They were clothed in dark army sacks, all stray things, wallets, pictures, letters carefully extracted from dusty pockets and bloodied places, and the commanding officers of all the units kept these scraps and flotsams with identifying discs and soldier's small-books and the like, eventually to be sent back to the mourning mothers and fathers in their countries." (p.122)

During the advance:

"But to get across the the first line of trenches they had to cross a field of some twenty acres. This looked to Willie like it had been the very heart of the battle, either this battle or some other battle. The warriors were still there, all killed, every one. It was like a giant quilt of grey and khaki, like the acres had been ploughed vigorously but then sown with the giant seeds of corpses. There was a legion of british soldiers there, mingled astonishingly with the Boche. Grey jacket and khaki jacket, a thousand helmets scattered like mushrooms, a thousand packs mostly still attached to backs like horrible humps, and wounds, and wounds ..." (p.177-8)

The sense of the pointlessness of everything they are doing:

"The war would never be over. He had come out for poor Belgium and to protect his sisters. He would always be there. The tally-sticks of death would be cut from the saplings for ever more. The generals would count the dead men and mark their victories and defeats and send out more men, more men. For ever more.
The hedgehogs were hidden in the leaves of the woods. The owls were in the sycamores and the ash-trees. And one more altered soul inside the winter of Flanders." (p.203)

Willie goes to visit Captain Pasley's parents:

" 'You missed him when he was killed.'
Willie Dunne said nothing then; why would he need to? He missed him when he was killed. He missed them all. He missed them when they were killed. He sorrowed to see them killed, he sorrowed to go on without them, he sorrowed to see the new men coming in, and to be killed themselves, and himself going on, and not a mark on him, and Christy Moran, not a mark, and all their friends and mates removed. Some still stuck in the muck, or in ruined yards, or blowing in the blessed air of Belgium in blasted smithereens.
He had come, he had thought, to comfort the captain's parents. How could there be comfort in a fool sitting in the kitchen with his tongue tied and his heart scalded.
'Do you know,' said Mrs Pasley, 'it means the earth to me to see what he meant to you. It does.' " (p.259)

And again, in fact it seems the message of the story, the interminable war; it is unreal, and removed from real life, but it becomes the only life they will ever have:

"Perhaps they would all dig in again, and be at this for another thousand years. This would be their country forever more, these hills, this bridge, these autumn-tormented trees. He would ever look out on here from a neat trench that he would make with his entrenching tool, and they would fashion, him and Christy Moran and the other lads, some nice revetments from the hazels in the wood, and keep everything as trim as they could, and pray for good weather. And those Germans in the distance would become a rumour, the ghosts of a rumour, another world but a close world, the dark moon to their bright sun. And so it would be for ever and ever more." (p. 288)

It is a truly wonderful book, if a book about war can be. It is beautifully written. It is poignant and poetic, but never romanticises their experiences. It makes you wonder how after this war men were ever persuaded to fight again. How can such a lesson be so apparently forgotten. It did touch on the irony of the gulf between the orders coming from the generals and the reality in the trenches, 'advance! advance!' into the sea of mud that turned the men into sitting ducks for the german machine gunners, and to that extent it has an element of polemic, but it is as much about how humanity is sustained in the face of war as it is destroyed. It is about a young man struggling to be what is expected of him, to forge an understanding of the world when the world he finds is itself meaningless. A young man who only wants to build things but is forced to partake in wanton destruction. I liked him and I admired him and I was left mourning everything he lost. 

Friday 7 September 2012

Cosy slippers for Fibre Arts Friday

It's not every week that I manage to finish another project so here I am joining in with Fibre Arts Friday again. This week I have mostly been playing with the second of two hanks of Rowan Colourscape Chunky which I bought on ebay several years ago. I felted my mum some slippers ages ago and they have worn out so I promised to make her something new. These are knitted to a very simple pattern called Toasty Toes Slippers.
 Like my homespun socks they are a pair but not strictly matching. Knitted up they measured 12 inches:
When put through the wash they shrank down to a nice neat 9 inches and they fit me snugly so they should be just right for mum. I might think about adding some soles to make them more hardwearing:

Thursday 6 September 2012

Half of a Yellow Sun

I am getting to the end of the back catalogue of Orange Prize winners. I felt a little like I cheated with 'Half of a Yellow Sun' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as I have not read it but have been listening to it on audiobook for a couple of months now. In my defence I am not sure I would have stuck it out in print as it was long and took quite some time to get into the story. It is the story of post-colonial Nigeria and the ensuing civil war and the creation and reabsorption of the state of Biafra.

If you look at a map of Africa, and compare it to a map of Europe, the first thing you should notice are all the straight lines. This is because the countries in Africa are a creation of the Scramble for Africa that occurred across the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, and have very little to do with political or tribal divisions of land that might have existed prior to that time. Right up to the present day the impact of imperialism continues to be felt throughout the continent, and the conflict in Nigeria is only the first of many that have blighted Africa's modern history. In addition of course the situation was all wrapped up with the power of oil and the fear of the spread of the Cold War. While the history of colonialism was something I studied at Polytechnic the internal history of Nigeria is something only vaguely aware of. In fact it is the ensuing famine rather than the war that I recall dominating the news at the time, images of starving children graphically portrayed to shame the world. 

The book is written slightly from a distance as the two central women, twins Olanna and Kainene, are from a wealthy, privileged background and, although they are both trying to escape the insidious influence of their parents, the war takes some time to impact on their lives. But the book is told more from the perspective of the two men who idolise them; houseboy Ugwu, who works for Ogdenigbo, Olanna's lover, and Richard, an english writer who falls in love with Kainene. They represent two different aspect of, or ways of viewing the situation; Ugwu arrives at the house of Ogdenigbo, who is a 'revolutionary' thinker, who arranges for him to be educated and inadvertently exposes him to all sorts of new political ideas. Richard on the other hand has a rather romantic idea of Africa and it's culture and ends up caught between, rejecting his britishness, coming to think of himself as african but not really accepted. I think what is interesting about the book is the variety of perspectives that you have, and the way that often the characters continue to be concerned with their personal lives while the political and then military conflict wages around them, until things become too close for comfort. People die 'off screen' as it were, and it is not until Ugwu is conscripted into the Biafran army that we are face to face with the violence. Olanna and Ogdenigbo are forcibly removed from their after dinner political discussions right into the thick of real conflict. The more conservative Kainene abandons her business interests and ends up working in a refugee camp. Chimamanda captures very vividly the fear and distrust that takes over the country as tribal divisions become dominant, how everyone looks at their former neighbours with suspicion, and accusations of disloyalty and subversion abound. The story is about the people, and you become closely attached to their fate, but it is about the country too. The westernised political elite in Nigeria got their political and economic power from the situation that was handed down to them and had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and supported by the western governments they essentially starved the Igbo people into submission. It is a very political book, designed not only to tell a story but to remind the world of the events and what the author feels is their ongoing significance. A very difficult book but important and enlightening. There is a very poignant poem in the book, which I managed to find in full over on a blog entitled Dark Continent:

'Were you silent when we died' 

Did you see photos in sixty-eight 
Of children with their hair becoming rust: 
Sickly patches nestled on those small heads, 
Then falling off, like rotten leaves on dust? 

Imagine children with arms like toothpicks, 
With footballs for bellies and skin stretched thin. 
It was kwashiorkor—difficult word, 
A word that was not quite ugly enough, a sin. 

You needn’t imagine. There were photos 
Displayed in gloss-filled pages of your Life.
Did you see? Did you feel sorry briefly, 
Then turn round to hold your lover or wife? 

Their skin had turned the tawny of weak tea 
And showed cobwebs of vein and brittle bone 
Naked children laughing, as if the man 
Would not take photos and then leave, alone.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Keeping out the draughts

I don't like draughts. They have a tendency to come into your house uninvited and make a nuisance of themselves. Since we moved in nearly two years ago I have been intending to make some draught excluders to protect us from the howling gales that come in under both our doors.
an old pair of leggings:

chopped in half and then sewn into tubes and stuffed with old holey socks:
Job done!
one for the front door:
one for the back door:

Sunday 2 September 2012

Fibre Arts Friday

Yes, I know it's not Friday. I'm guessing that other people browse blogs a little like me, visiting your favourites and then going down their sidebar to their list of favourites and seeing where it takes you. I ended up yesterday at Wisdom Begins in Wonder (here's a hint, I will mostly visit if the blog title is a little ambiguous.) The anonymous owner runs Fibre Arts Friday, a meme-thingy where people share their fibre projects, nice because it is all inclusive and it can be any kind of craft that you like. Do pop over if you like that kind of thing and see the shares. 
So, this week I have mostly been playing with Araucania Azapa, a wonderful blend of merino, alpaca and silk. I like buying both Araucania and Mirasol yarns because the companies are Fair Trade and support the local communities they work within. This bright pink was bought on a whim from Aileeens on Ebay. It is so soft you just want to cuddle it and now I've thought that I want to make a whole blanket from it (I only used two of the three hanks so I need to find a use for the last one.)
I used a pattern called Celtic Vest (this is a link to the PDF which is a freebie from the Fleece Artist website. ) It is most peculiar knitting, something I have never done before, knitting with two balls at the same time, and I don't mean held together. You do this weird cast on; knot them together then making a loop with one ball and knitting the stitch with the other, so at the other end you have two yarns waiting to be knitted with. Then you take one yarn and knit across (I marked the second yarn with a safety pin so I would remember which was which). It didn't say use a circular needle but you have to because you then slide the work back to the beginning and using the second yarn you do K1 P1 across. Then you do the same thing back the other way.
What you end up with is this deeply ridged texture:
It is knit side to side in one piece and then sewn at the shoulder. I fiddled with the pattern a  bit and added some random stripes of Araucania Patagonia, a cotton yarn in pale blue and pink, just for variety.
All in all I am pretty chuffed with it, and it is lovely to wear, which I have done every day. I can see it becoming the new favourite.