Wednesday 31 October 2012

Pre-NaNo post

NaNoWriMo is upon us again tomorrow so I will be reading less, knitting less, and (fortunately) working less, and hopefully writing much more over the next 30 days, but not so much here. Creature and I shared the Macbook last year, and though it was ok as she often wrote at night I decided it was time to invest in another laptop. Apple no longer do the Macbook so I got myself a reconditioned Macbook Air; it is very shiny and very silver and very lightweight, and has a keyboard that glows in the dark. Here they are talking to each other and making sure the new one is up to date on all of my fastidious little preferences:

I dashed off to Sussex at the weekend at the secret instigation of my niece Natalie, who planned a family get-together for my sister Claire's 50th birthday. She was quietly enjoying a crappy film on Saturday afternoon when mum and dad knocked on the door. Then as they debated dinner plans I arrived. Sunday morning Auntie Ann arrived and, as Nat got on with cooking a massive dinner in their tiny kitchen, our brothers Bart and Giles arrived; the whole thing reduced her to tears (good ones). A lovely dinner was had by all, including also Bart's partner Vieanne and Giles' two girls Aisha and Miranda.

One of the rare occasions when we are all six together has to be captured for posterity:

The last two days have been spent fixing Creature's duvet cover ... you can see how it used to be back here in March 2009. I bought her a new mattress and new bedding but she wanted to keep her old cover. I added another strip of stripes down each side and a border of black velvet and voila!

Thursday 25 October 2012

The Almost Moon

Having read both 'Lucky' and 'The Lovely Bones' I have had 'The Almost Moon' on the TBR list for quite some time now. Alice Sebold really does not shy away from writing about the difficult parts of life, so to say that you 'like' her writing seems the wrong word. Where Lovely Bones is about a family torn apart Almost Moon is more about a woman far too bound up and unable to break away.

So Helen kills her mother; that's not a spoiler, by the way. The story tells us why. And what happened afterwards. I liked this quote from near the end, it kind of sums up the book:

"I saw the teapot on the stove and decided I would make a cup of tea. A stalling tactic, no doubt, but what was and wasn't reasonable had left me. Everything was reasonable if killing your mother was." (p.282)

Although there are obviously deep seated problems already the family is ostracised by their community after a strange incident where Helen's mother fails to help a young boy who is a victim of a hit-and-run. As a result they become very insular and the mother's agoraphobia and self-obsession becomes more extreme. Helen does manage to create a life for herself, marrying and having daughters, but then after her father's death returns to the family enclave to care for her ailing mother. There was nothing special about the day she kills her mother, no build up or advance planning, it almost happens by accident. As if started on a trail of self-destruction she then proceeds to have sex with her best friend's son and then call her ex-husband for help. Even more bizarrely, when the police begin to look more closely, she runs away, but it is just an avoidance tactic, as part of her brain seems to continue to think sensibly and she knows that eventually she will have to face the music. 
It is the story of a mother/daughter relationship, one that is very complex, the daughter needing things and not having them, the mother becoming reliant on the daughter but unable to acknowledge her. I think it is the strength of the book that at no time did I not sympathise with Helen, even when she was at her most bizarre and irrational I understood what she felt and why it seemed logical to behave as she does. As an examination of a relationship the book is very astute, as is her understanding of how a child takes on responsibility for things when their parents let them down. There are only really snippets of the past within the story, but they are enough to give us a picture of her growing up and how her relationship with her parents developed. Firstly her mother:

"When I had tried once to explain what was wrong with my mother, it felt hopeless.
'She doesn't do much,' I'd said.
'It may seem like that to you, Helen,' Miss Taft had said. She was my second-grade teacher, and my class was her first.
'She doesn't drive,' I tried.
'Not everyone does.'
'My father does. Mr Forrest does.'
'That's two,' she said, and held up two fingers. She smiled as me, as if supplying me with whole numbers would solve everything.
'She used to go for walks,' I said, 'but she doesn't do that anymore.'
'Raising a child takes all of one's energy,' Miss Taft said.
I stared past her to the map of the world that hung over the blackboard. I knew when to shut up. My mother's problem was my fault." (p. 94-5)

and her father:

" 'What hospital?' I asked.
My father looked at me, considering.
'Why don't we go on our picnic and I'll tell you about it.'
For the remainder of that afternoon, my father showed me the still-visible parts of the town where he'd grown up. We had a picnic of egg-salad sandwiches with cucumber, and chocolate chip cookies he'd made himself. There was a thermos of milk for me, and he drank two Coca-Colas end to end and burped as loud as I'd ever heard anyone. I laughed so hard I ended up coughing, like a bark, over and over again.
'Why don't we wait for the darkness here,' he said.
It was a gift, and I did not have the heart to ask again about the hospital. Part of me was happy with the fib. It made him seem normal, even if it was just pretend. Where is your father? In Ohio, visiting friends and family. I decided that day that I would never blame my father for anything - his absence, his weakness, or his lies." (p.202-3)

It is almost the mere fact of how ordinary it all seems that makes this book interesting. It is not a case for euthanasia or anything like that, though the woman is incapacitated and unhappy. It is not as if Helen has some overwhelming hatred for her mother. It is more about a basic human need for love and affirmation and how it's denial crushes something subtle in a person. 

Catch up post - Manchester Literature Festival

Well, it's all over, and it has been a hectic fortnight, especially for Cathy and Jon; I ended up doing nine events but between them they were at everything. I was going to be really organised and write about each one but I have been too tired the last week to settle down to it and now they are a bit of a blur. 

Jamaican poet Kai Miller at the Whitworth was a disappointment to me, I'm sure he was great but the acoustics in the vast gallery were so bad I could not hear him (admittedly we were sitting by the entrance not in the audience). 
'The Conductor' at the RNCM was wonderful. Author Sarah Quigley read two sections from her novel, which is about the composer Shostakovich and the siege of Leningrad during World War Two. It was followed by a performance of his Eighth String Quartet. I have very rarely been to hear classical music and it was just beautiful. 
I jumped in at the last minute to go to the 'Manchester Sermon' (someone had cancelled on the volunteer website) which is a specially commissioned piece in it's third year, this year given by Ali Smith. You can read previous year's sermons on the commissions page of the website and the text of Ali's should be up sometime soon. She was absolutely fantastic but spoke so fast with so many ideas tumbling over each other that I could barely keep up, I am planning to go back and read it because it had some interesting ideas for NaNoWriMo writing. Although technically the remit was that it only had to be based upon a biblical passage she seems to be a lapsed catholic and I liked the fact that when the interviewer, Edward Stourton, tried to pin her down about her religious beliefs she just said no. 
Sunday was the big day for me, the Family Reading Day, a mammoth session from 10am til 6pm (no wonder there were not many volunteers for this one, and Jon admitted that someone had dropped out at the last minute so we were rather short handed). The town hall is the most unwelcoming of buildings, with 'no public access' signs at all of the entrances, not helped by the fact that the front door was blocked by the Sea Cadets parade. Once people made it inside it was no better, with most of the stairs blocked by 'no public access' signs, so it was with some perseverance that the audience managed to find us at all. But the draw of real telly people meant that the main event, an appearance by the lovely Alex and Cerrie from CBeebies, was a rousing success. But we had a busy day all day, story readers and drama aimed at variety of ages, with crafty activities going on all day for before and after the events and drinks supplied. I sat in on a couple in the afternoon: Sita Brahmachari and V Campbell both reading and talking to a small but select audience about their respective stories and the process of writing, and then a slightly bizarre avant-garde performance by a group of drama students of their adaptation of the story of Stanley's Stick, which left me confused so I'm not sure what the collection of young children at the front made of it.
The last night saw us at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation (where I spent most of my time last year) to hear Jonathan Harvey read quite a chunk from his first novel 'All She Wants'. Some of his friends in the audience gave him a hard time over whether it was based on people they all knew but he denied it vehemently. Who would have thought there was such a things as the Manchester Gay and Lesbian Chorus, but their rendition of 'Perfect Day' was just perfect and it rounded off a rather raucous evening. 
Me, well I'm already looking forward to next year, and maybe I'll even try and get an official blogging spot.

The Greatcoat

Having rediscovered the pleasures of the pre-loaded audiobook I borrowed a couple more and have been listening recently to 'The Greatcoat' by Helen Dunmore. I reviewed her book 'A Spell of Winter' (the first Orange Prize winner) last year and really loved it. I picked this up after seeing the novel on the shelf when I was in Waterstones for the Literature Festival the other week. I was struck by a memory of the previous book which ends with the returning of Rob's army greatcoat and the lovely description of Cathy's reaction to it, it reminded me of how much I loved her writing.

The story is something of a ghost story; set in the 1950s it follows the newly married Isabel, struggling to get used to her new life as a doctor's wife, she discovers an old army greatcoat hidden in a cupboard and it brings forth the young airman who wore it. Alone for much of the time due to the demands of her husband's job Isabel finds herself drawn into Alec's life and affections as he appears randomly in her life whenever she wraps herself in the coat. Their relationship becomes an obsession for her, shadowed by the presence of her landlady tramping the floors of the flat upstairs. It is only after she discovers the landlady's history that she realises that it is not her who brings Alec to life but the landlady; she has trapped him in her memories of his final days and her anguish over what became of him. Isabel gets rid of the coat in an attempt to distance herself from Alec but some time later he creeps back into her life. Even understanding she cannot change his real fate Isabel determines she will release him from the spell that his ghost appears to be under.  

Written with her usual very intense atmosphere and wonderful attention to detail the story immerses you in both the drama and excitement of the war and the austerity of the 50's. In essence it has a touch of magical realism about it, with Isabel's life moving seamlessly back and forth in time, but with references to her childhood experiences living near an active RAF base, combined with her preoccupied and somewhat formal husband, just maybe there is an element of wishful fantasy about the dashing young airman. Quite a difference in story style from her other books it was hugely clever and satisfying. Highly recommended. I have 'The Siege' on the TBR pile and will tackle it in the near future, coincidentally it was recommended by someone I spoke to at another lit festival event.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Star Trekking

My amazing daughter has taken herself off to Star Trek London. And here she is on the Daily Mail Online site. The ticket was an 18th birthday present from her dad, a weekend of hanging out in a crazy costume and delighting in all things trekky. We will get around to doing a post about how she (and me and her sister Tish) created this fab Borg outfit. The face paint really completes the look, she had not tried it out before she left. Watching a video on the Telegraph site I was surprised how few people were in costume, and most of those are Star Fleet uniforms; I think she may be standing out from the crowd. I am guessing she is having a good time.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Saturday night at Madlab

I was curious to go and check out Madlab because they are going to be hosting a 'write-in' for NaNoWriMo at the beginning of November. The place had its street art painted shutters closed but the bell was answered promptly.  Inside a motley collection of chairs and an ancient leather sofa provided seating for the select audience. Up the bare wooden stairs are two more floors of workshop space, mainly dedicated to community projects, computing education and creative pursuits. Last night it hosted an interesting discussion on forging links between science and writing. Last night was the launch of BioPunk, a new collection of short stories from Comma Press (based at Madlab and they specialise in short story collections). This collection has been specially commissioned to examine the impact of biomedical research. Writers had each picked from a selection of topics and gone out to visit scientists working in the field to learn about their work and it's potential impact. Being writers what emerged was not just stories about how things are but examinations of what might be. Two of the authors read from their stories; Jane Feaver wrote an investigation into the world of volunteer human guinea pigs and Gregory Norminton some kind of futuristic ideas about body modification (the part he read only hinted and wasn't long enough to get to the part where we learn what exactly was involved). This was followed by some of the scientists involved in the project talking about their work, not only in terms of what they actually do but in terms of what progress might be possible in future. Since the book had only just been released and had not been read by the audience most of the questions were then pitched at the ethics of scientific research. One young man in particular had come to quiz them about animal experimentation, and, judging by what he was saying to his friend as I happened to be following them down the street afterwards, he was not particularly satisfied with the responses. The thing that came up that was of more concern to the scientists is the issue of patenting of genes that was severely restricting research. In some ways it was interesting how scientific interest mirrors the ideas of writers (and the general public to some extent). Everyone has ideas about what they would like to see science achieving, the progress in terms of cures for diseases and ways to make life better. The aim of the story collection, and speculative fiction in general, is to be an outlet for these ideas, ideas that are not futuristic or far-fetched, but grounded to a certain extent in scientific realities; where might our current fascinations and intentions lead us in the near future. Several of the scientists talked about recent progress and how things that once seemed unimaginable, like organ transplants for example, have become commonplace and normal. It makes the fantastical idea that writers summon from their imagination somehow a real possibility, something that can be both inspiring and frightening. The collection sounds intriguing and I may well invest in a copy.

Thursday 11 October 2012

Manchester Literature Festival

The Manchester Literature Festival has got off to an excellent start this year and I am in the thick of things, having volunteered at three events already this week. Monday evening I went to Waterstones to listen to Patrick Gale and Catherine Hall (review of the event over at the Lit Fes Blog). They were linked together by the fact that they both write (particularly) about gay characters; Catherine Hall won the Green Carnation Prize last year for her book 'The Proof of Love' (interestingly a prize initially created for gay men and then opened up to LGBT writers worldwide). Patrick's new novel 'A Perfectly Good Man' is longlisted this year.  I read Notes From an Exhibition nearly two years ago and really enjoyed it and Patrick was interesting and engaging in person. They both read, discussed their writing lives with Simon Savage and then answered questions from the audience, a standard format for this kind of event. 

Yesterday lunchtime it was back to Waterstones for the Carcanet Poets. The events room was unavailable to they had the chairs set up next to the poetry section and it was rather an unforgiving environment. There was ambient noise from the cafe, escalators, lift and general customer browsing which meant the voices were sometimes a little lost I felt, but they soldiered on regardless. Evan Jones I missed most of as I stood downstairs to direct any latecomers to the right place, but he reminded me of Garrison Keillor, he had a lovely soft spoken mid-atlantic accent (though he is Canadian). Judith Jedamus left me with one beautiful image from a poem about a fire destroyed house, that of love stored up in mason jars for leaner times. William Letford was much more of a performance poet (some people just read, there is quite a difference). He spoke his poems from memory for a start and his voice, a broad scottish accent, and with extensive use of dialect, meant that his own reading was what gave the poems much of their impact and intensity. Very enjoyable but maybe the finer points might have been lost on me, but it is lovely to have such contrasts of style, with two two poets for whom it is very much about the language and another for whom it is so much more about a life experience that he is trying to convey.

Then last night I went to the Whitworth Art Gallery (linking to Wiki here as their own website appears to be offline for some reason) to hear Penelope Lively. I read her book 'How it all began' earlier this year and gave it a somewhat lukewarm review, but she was wonderful to listen to. She talked about reading and writing and the way each impacts on the other, and made the same point as Susan Hill does in 'Howards End is on the Landing', that all the things you read over your lifetime (your literary DNA) have an impact on the person that you are and the way you think about things. She talked about being home educated as a child in Egypt until being sent to boarding school at 12, where reading was seen as a punishment rather than a source of education, it was nice to see she survived the experience relatively unscathed. The talk was an interesting mixture of personal reminiscences and reflections on the writing process, all very helpful in advance of NaNoWriMo.

Am going next to a short story event at Madlab on Saturday which sounds fascinating. You can download a festival brochure and check out the event coming over the next fortnight, plenty of free things as well, and many will still have tickets available at the door.

Saturday 6 October 2012

Secret Intensity of Everyday Life

I popped up to Newcastle to see my boys on Wednesday and Thursday and took with me a pre-loaded audiobook to keep me company on the train: 'The Secret Intensity of Ordinary Life' by William Nicholson. When I picked it up the name was familiar and looking on his page I discovered that of course he wrote the Wind on Fire series that we have enjoyed so much over the years. 

This book is one of those random stories about a selection of characters, loosely connected by proximity and superficial associations. Laura receives a letter from a former boyfriend, a potential meeting that might have profound consequences. Her husband and children, their teacher, his neighbour, the vicar, the local farmer, Uncle Tom Cobley and all, they seem to have something preoccupying them and making them re-examine their lives. It jumps from person to person over the course of about a week; some people have a minor crisis, some just talk things out, some make new friends, until it all works out quite tidily at the end. Some people I liked, the airing of the problems of the privileged classes sometimes irritates me, I was also a little irritated by the accents that the reader did and it was a touch predictable, but it passed the time pleasantly enough. There were a lot of internal monologues, tracking people's thoughts about their situation, some were more convincing than others. The one thing that really left an impression was the arrival of the post; the book opens with the letter and I am sitting listening feeling my usual irritation with writers. Why, when they go to so much bother to research things in their books, adding real events to place it in context,  do they include postmen who live some time in the 1950's. People do not get their post by breakfast time any more, not in the ten years I have been doing the job.  Oh well.

Thursday 4 October 2012

National Poetry Day

I was planning to post some poetry every day this week, but never mind. Today being National Poetry Day I decided I would share my favourite poem. This just means my favourite out of the poems that I happen to have come across, which in the grand scale of poetry is not really very many. It is by Natalie Clifford Barney, an American who lived her life in Paris and seems to be most famous for a literary salon that she hosted there through a large chunk of the 20th century. Until recently I knew nothing about her until I came across her wiki page, which is most enlightening. The poem is short and sweet and I love it mostly because of all that is unsaid. And because it is about the significance of sharing tea.

If you want me to stay with you
Lower your voice,
Pitch it
To the intimate moments
And let us have a  large pot
Of hot water with the tea.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

A bit more poetry

When the bees fell silent

An old man
suddenly died
alone in his garden under an elderberry bush.
He lay there till dark,
when the bees
fell silent.

A lovely way to die, wasn't it,
doctor, says
the woman in black
who comes to the garden
as before,
every Saturday,

in her bag always
lunch for two.

Miroslav Holub