Sunday 30 June 2013

A Tropical Garden in Chorlton

So there is this course on Coursera called Introduction to Art that I have been doing for the last few weeks. This week's project was to make a 'site specific installation', and I decided to inflict my creative juices on the Ridley Birks family. The primary aim was to create a surprise and brighten everyone's day, and make up for the miserable damp grey June we have had.
So here is how their front garden looked at 4.30am today:
and this is how it looked at 5.30am:
Adorned with 158 meticulously created tissue paper flowers, and some felted butterflies. 

The Babe enjoying the flowers

With grateful thanks for the assistance of Creature who went to Fred Aldous to buy the first batch of paper (since I was housebound on Thursday), Dunk who went out late yesterday to get a second batch, and to Tish who sat with me for several hours yesterday afternoon and evening and helped make flowers.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

The Swimmer

'The Swimmer' by Roma Tearne has been on my mental TBR list since I heard her talk at the literature festival back on 2011 though the listening to has taken a back seat over the last few weeks to all the other stuff. I have to start with a thumbs up to Patience Tomlinson who does an excellent job of the narration in this production, articulating the different characters beautifully.

Spoiler Alert (some disclosure of the plot events.)
Although the story is centred around the killing by mistaken identity of a young illegal immigrant, Ben, and there is quite some discussion about the issue of immigration and the perpetuation of distrust and dislike of immigrants, the book is really focussed on three women. Rea is a middle aged poet living in a house that had belonged to her aunt and uncle, having returned there after the breakup of a long term relationship. We are given her background story of the loss of her beloved father and the neglect of her mother. In her adult life she has a strong bond of friendship with Eric, an older neighbour, but is politely tolerant of her bigoted and arrogant brother. Into her very quiet life comes Ben, a qualified doctor who has escaped the violent regime and war in his homeland of Sri Lanka and is trying to stay out of trouble while he waits for the immigration people to grant him permission to stay. The first third of the book follows their gradually developing friendship that turns unexpectedly into a love affair and sweeps away all the preconceptions Rea has about herself. Just as she is beginning to think he will be part of her life Ben is snatched away when he is shot by police, having been mistaken for a terrorist, a group of whom are coincidentally holed up in a neighbouring house. The second part shifts narrator and we meet Anula, Ben's mother, who arrives from Sri Lanka for his funeral. She relates her tale while on a coach journey back to the airport and it shifts in time, telling of her life back home and then segments of her time in England and then back to her feelings as she is leaving. Both women keep up a front of stoicism, neither allowing the other to share what they feel is a private grief; I kept expecting them to break down and bond over their love for Ben but it never happens. At the same time Anula allows herself to be swept up by the caring tenderness of Eric, an experience that both shocks and delights her in the face of her grief. The third part introduces Lydia, Rea's daughter, a young teenager trying to come to terms with the loss of her mother and her sense of lack of identity. With Eric's help the story and the women are drawn back together to find some kind of solace and resolution. (Her existence did not come as a shock to me as the lingering reference at the beginning to Rea's childlessness and then her feeling unwell seemed obvious clues to where the story was headed.)

The whole story is about the different ways that people grieve; all the characters have lost someone, mostly in traumatic ways. It is about how people isolate themselves, or how grief isolates you. It is quite an emotionally charged story, lurching between love and death. Roma Tearne's homeland is obviously very important to her and she gets across the damage that the political strife has inflicted on the people, the sense of uncertainty and vulnerability that is experienced when a regime tries to suppress a population. It is contrasted quite starkly with the quiet unruffled life of rural East Anglia. The two women's reactions to the encounter with the lawyer is very telling; Rea is determined that the police will be called to account for their actions, Anula is resigned to the absolute power of anonymous authorities and wants only to be left with her private experience of having lost her son. Although the story opens with some animal murders that were designed to implicate the immigrant community (perpetrated it turns out by right wing extremists) I felt that the politics of the situation was very secondary to the human story. All the characters are well drawn, complex and sympathetic in their own ways, particularly Eric who takes on this wonderful, sightly counter-intuitive nurturing role for the three women. There is also the lovely contrast of atmosphere, from the summer of Rea and Ben's blossoming relationship to the depths of winter for the funeral; there are lots of wonderful descriptions of the countryside and seascapes. This is a lovely intense story, quite dark and serious; in some ways the anger expressed by Lydia in the final few chapters is almost refreshing after so much suppressed sorrow. Certainly a very emotional read (or listen in my case), highly recommended.

Knitting for little people

Just an excuse really to prove I haven't been totally slacking on the knitting front. I ordered a small stash of stuff from Wool Warehouse and we have been doing more hexipuffs, another dozen or so, but also to knit things for some of my favourite little people. I got this book from the library, Adorable Knits for Tiny Tots by Zoe Mellor:
I did two of the patterns, both were simple and well written, in fact the whole book is lovely with great unfussy designs for babies and toddlers, sizes going up to about 4 years. This Lacy Sweater was done in Drops Cotton Light for Sasha. The yarn was a bugger to work with and kept splitting but I was really pleased with how it came out. I liked the flower design but missed out the weird edging as it seemed very fiddly; it was meant to be knit separate and then stitches picked up along the edge to form the bottom edge of the front and back sections. I just made it a bit longer to compensate. I really liked the lacy sleeves, they were an unusual design feature.
This Daisy Dress was made for the Babe. This was done in Drops Safran which was a much nicer yarn, it is 4 ply and gave a lovely fine soft fabric. I was so pleased, she insisted on putting it straight on when I presented it to her (hope to update later with a photo of her wearing it).
Finally a tiny baby cardigan done with the two balls left over from Sasha's jumper (the colour looks all wrong here, must be the light). My niece Carly had a set of twins four years ago and she just announced she is expecting again, so we are all excited for her. Monday at work I sprained my ankle so, having been bought home in a van I was resting on the sofa with my foot up on cushions and Tish arrived with a baby pattern she had used last year. Since I couldn't go anywhere or do anything but sit, I knitted most of this Monday evening and finished it off Tuesday morning. I didn't have enough of the white to do the little collar it was supposed to have so I just did a border and it came out just fine. So hopefully a baby photo quite soon.
I finished my audiobook yesterday so will do a quickie about that. Am now spending my second day incapacitated so hope to finish my book, 'The Fruit of the Lemon', but have got the last week of the psychology lectures to do and we also have to do peer assessments of our assignment, that should be interesting. Have a great day wherever you are.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

the noiseless subsidence of opening pages

I think this may be my longest blogging lull since I started ... sorry. I have started two new Coursera courses and they are taking up rather too much of my free time and the reading has taken a bit of a back seat. 'The Touchstone' by Edith Wharton has been a slow starter at the breakfast table but it is a very brief novella and once I got used to the style it was very engaging.

I actually bothered to read the foreword by Salley Vickers and was glad I did because it gave much food for thought. Knowing what happens in the story is not really that important because it's all about the reactions and emotions of the characters. It reminded me a little of Howards End and the notion of propriety that I wrote about when I reviewed it; they were written during the same period so the social attitudes were very similar even though Wharton is american. What was acceptable behaviour in polite society, and the relationship between husband and wife are scrutinised and unpicked.

The story is of a young man, Glennard, and the unrequited love of a woman called Margaret Aubyn. This unrequited love caused her to continue to correspond with Glennard even after her rise to fame as an author takes her from America to London, where she quietly dies. The book begins some years later when Glennard sees an advertisement by a publisher seeking any unknown writing by Mrs Aubyn. He is currently living in somewhat reduced circumstances (not poverty, just that when he is at 'the club' he scouts around for dinner invitations so he doesn't have to pay for himself) and he is unable to marry the woman of his affections because of this financial situation. After discovering by a roundabout conversation the potential value of the letters he has in his possession he decides to sell them to improve his own fortunes. The ladies of his social circle are both scandalised and unable to resist, they censure the man who offered them for publication but read them voraciously (Mrs Touchett: "I'm positively sick of the book and I can't put it down."); we know nothing of the content of the letters but it is obvious they are emotionally intense and revealing. What follows is a very circuitous process by which he deals with the guilt he feels, and eventually becomes a better person. 

Pretentious is the only suitable word for describing Wharton's writing style; why use a nice simple word if there is a more ostentatious one available. To begin with it enchanted me, it felt clever and intelligent, but towards the end the use of long words became almost predictable, not to mention annoying when I didn't know what they meant. I think maybe it is a sign of the times and the kind of writing that was looked up to a hundred years ago. Having said that it was all part of what gave the book it's particular atmosphere and it adds an intensity that is necessary to the emotional impact that is packed in to less than 100 pages.
I loved firstly this description of Mrs Aubyn:

"Her dress never seemed a part of her; all her clothes had an impersonal air, as though they had belonged to someone else and been borrowed in an emergency that had somehow become chronic. She was conscious enough of her deficiencies to try to amend them by rash imitation of the most approved models; but no woman who does not dress well intuitively will ever do so by the light of reason, and Mrs Aubyn's plagiarisms, to borrow a metaphor of her trade, somehow never seemed to be incorporated with the text." (p.13)

And then how he comes to view her (and her continuing correspondence) after she has left for England and become famous:

"The door was never to reopen; but through its narrow crack Glennard, as the years went on, became more and more conscious of an inextinguishable light directing its small ray towards the past which consumed so little of his own commemorative oil. The reproach was taken from this thought by Mrs Aubyn's gradual translation into terms of universality. In becoming a personage she so naturally ceased to be a person that Glennard could almost look back to his explorations of her spirit as on a visit to some famous shrine, immortalised, but in a sense desecrated, by popular veneration." (p.16)

I am not sure where she stood on the subject of women, and on the whole she is a little dismissive of them (not that she is admiring of the men, in fact the whole book has a feeling of a social dissection) but there was this lovely little snip, from a social gathering on Flamel's yacht:

"As for the other ladies of the party, they were simply the wives of some of the men - the kind of women who expect to be talked to collectively and to have their questions left unanswered." (p.39)

and then this, rather scathing comment:

"Alexa was a woman of few requirements; but her wishes, even in trifles, had a definiteness that distinguished them from the fluid impulses of her kind." (p.45)

Having agonised over whether his wife knows the truth (the above mentioned Alexa), if she knows why hasn't she reacted, and whether he should confess all, Glennard then takes himself off to Mrs Aubyn's grave, as if seeking some kind of forgiveness, but it seems he is not going to find a solution that easily; lovely atmosphere in this description (having gone empty handed he goes to the greenhouses to find some flowers):

"The hot air was choked with the scent of white azaleas, while lilies, white lilacs; all the flowers were white; they were like a prolongation, a mystical efflorescence, of the long rows of marble tombstones, and their perfume seemed to cover an odour of decay. The rich atmosphere made Glennard dizzy. As he leaned in the doorway, waiting for the flowers, he had a penetrating sense of Margaret Aubyn's nearness - not the imponderable presence of his inner vision, but a life that beat warm in his arms...
The sharp air caught him as he stepped out into it again. He walked back and scattered the flowers over the grave. the edges of the white petals shrivelled like burnt paper in the cold; and as he watched them, the illusion of her nearness faded, shrank back, frozen." (p.72)

A lovely book, even if stylistically a little old fashioned, it will definitely improve your vocabulary. I was left not sure what he felt or what he wanted, nor what his wife Alexa felt. For some pages they skirt around the issue, talk in vague terms without saying much. It is a game of cat and mouse as he accuses her of having an affair and she tries to explain that she only tried to like Flamel because she thought he wanted her to, it is all very convoluted. It is as if he wanted her to know by osmosis, by reading his mind, and wanted to understand what she thought by reading her mind, there was not a great deal of real communication between them. The final quote kind of sums up the whole of the human condition:

" 'I've imagined that you had reasons for still wishing me to be civil to him, as you call it.'
'Ah,' said Glennard, with an effort at lightness; but his irony dropped, for something in her voice made him feel that he and she stood at last in that naked desert of apprehension where meaning skulks vainly behind speech."

Saturday 1 June 2013

Reading about Crazy People

As soon as I finished 'Gone Girl' by Gillian Flynn I gave the book to Creature, cos she loves books about crazy people, and so I had to snaffle a picture from the interweb. This is a book about crazy people. So we have Nick and we have Amy, and that's pretty much all I can tell you about the book. This will have to be the shortest review ever because I cannot risk giving stuff away and if I start writing about it I might just do so. 
There might be spoilers here, sorry.
Ok, I can tell you that Amy is the girl who is gone, but where she has gone and why she has gone there you will just have to read and find out. I have been in a bit of a funk reading-wise recently. I mean I have enjoyed things but not in a I-have-to-get-home-now-and-get-back-to-my-book way. What I needed to get out of my funk was a *really good* story. This is a really good story. She gives us the set-up, she gives us the disappearance, she gives us the back story, we think we know where it might be headed, we think we might be figuring out what's what ... and then all hell breaks loose. These are two very twisted people and in a lot of ways I think maybe they deserve each other. Part of me wanted it to all end in a magnificent fireball, but it is much more subtle and unsettling than that. It is very clever writing, very clever plotting, you get to think that Gillian Flynn is just as clever and manipulative as Amy. And then you turn and look over at your significant other and quietly ask for some reassurance that normal people don't think or act like this. Read, enjoy, and be glad that you live an ordinary life with an ordinary human being.