Saturday 28 December 2013

Castles and Towers

Last year we made a Gingerbread Rapunzel Tower, and for the last couple of weeks I had been searching for an idea for something different to do with the gingerbread; you can find some pretty impressive constructions when you go googling. Initially it was going to be a proper castle with crenellations and everything, but the plan was getting a bit large and complicated, so the idea was born to make a ruin instead. It is based partly on memories of  Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire which we visited frequently when the children were small.

The find-a-penny collection this year has amounted to a grand total of £46.91, quite an increase on last year's total. It may very well go into something much more sensible this year, like the Premium Bonds, because we are saving up for Creature to do a drama foundation course.

Friday 27 December 2013

The People of Forever are not Afraid

'The People of Forever are Not Afraid' by Shani Boianjiu was long listed for the Women's Prize for Fiction this year (since renamed the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction) which is probably how I came across it. It is the story of Lea, Yael and Avishag, their childhood friendship and their baptism of fire into adulthood via their stint in the Israeli army. It is told pretty much stream-of-consciousness from each of their different perspectives. The whole book has a somewhat surreal quality to it, both in their childhood and their time in the army. They all live in this town that seems to exist solely for workers at a factory that makes parts for another factory that makes planes, and the whole of their teenage years are coloured by the anticipation of having to go into the army. And once they are in the army the overriding experience is one of utter tedium and meaninglessness. It's another of those stories that gives you an experience so alien that it is hard to take it in or make any sense of it. I let it wash over me and tried just to listen to the voices of the three girls. It is to a certain extent about how they try to cling on to some sense of themselves as human beings in an environment that is specifically designed to destroy their humanity. They come out the other end of the experience, but they are not the same. 

Here Lea, I think, is stationed at a checkpoint at a border with one of the occupied territories:

"I also had to make sure they weren't carrying weapons or about to explode their bodies. We were there to notice what the government wanted us to, dangers, but I would still only notice what I happened to notice. This was because I couldn't realise I was a soldier. I thought I was still a person." (p. 56)

I think it helped that I studied the Middle East as part of my degree so the historical background to the political situation was not totally unfamiliar; although it is obviously set quite recently there is no attempt to explain what is going on at any point, so some understanding of the history of the state of Israel might be a useful starting point if you want to make any sense of this tale. Certainly quite a challenging read and not for the faint hearted.

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Christmas 2013 - Reading Roundup

Wishing a Happy Christmas to all my followers and random visitors. This has been a rubbish year craft-wise but I seem to have had several books on the go at any one time, but then Coursera has eaten into my time as well, so that's my excuse for what seems like a reduced total this year. Four are books of poetry; ten are non-fiction with seven of those being biographical-ish; only nine are audiobooks (compared with thirteen last year); twenty by men, leaving thirty seven by women. I have not included my April A to Z Challenge that was reviews of children's books but you can check them out with this link. I think there has been some good reading though and the favourites this year would definitely be Care of Wooden Floors and The Tiger's Wife. 
  1. Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
  2. A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon
  3. When I am playing with my cat ... by Saul Frampton
  4. Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
  5. A Widow's Story by Joyce Carol Oates
  6. District and Circle by Seamus Heaney
  7. A Scattering by Christopher Reid
  8. Howard's End by E.M. Forster
  9. Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
  10. Lost and Found by Tom Winter
  11. Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto
  12. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  13. Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville
  14. The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht
  15. Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
  16. Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles
  17. Still Alice by Lisa Genova
  18. Nemesis by Philip Roth
  19. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
  20. The Hours by Michael Cunningham
  21. The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski
  22. Y by Marjorie Celona
  23. If I told You Once by Judy Budnitz
  24. This isn't the sort of thing that happens to someone like you by Jon McGregor
  25. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  26. The Touchstone by Edith Wharton
  27. The Swimmer by Roma Tearne
  28. The Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy
  29. Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
  30. The Father by Sharon Olds
  31. Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende
  32. Wise Children by Angela Carter
  33. Austerlitz by W.G. Seabald
  34. The man who mistook his wife for a hat by Oliver Sacks
  35. After the Fire, a still small voice by Evie Wyld
  36. The Book of Lost Things by John Connolley
  37. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
  38. New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
  39. When We Were Bad by Charlotte Mendelson
  40. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
  41. A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didon
  42. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
  43. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  44. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronté
  45. A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
  46. My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
  47. I Feel Bad About my Neck by Nora Ephron
  48. The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
  49. Kissing The Witch by Emma Donoghue
  50. Unless by Carol Sheilds
  51. Mr Lynch's Holiday by Catherine O'Flynn
  52. Sartre's Sink by Mark Crick
  53. Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov
  54. The News Where You Are by Catherine O'Flynn
  55. Serious Concerns by Wendy Cope
  56. Sick Notes by Gwendoline Riley
  57. The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud

Friday 20 December 2013

Bookish Christmas tree and all that

I have spent yet another day delivering Christmas cards to the 'wrong' address, or I should say the 'right' address, but not the one on the front of the envelope. It never ceases to amaze me how many people don't know where their friends live. But this evening we are finally getting festive and our Christmas tree this year has been made of books, this way we save a tree being pointlessly chopped down and can spend the £30 on more books instead.
Tish has been making this most fabulous santa sleigh with a knitted santa and three reindeer and a pile of tiny presents.

I have been knitting too; I started this sweater back in the summer when there was the offer of a move to management and I needed some 'smart' clothes. Since the Royal Mail selloff fiasco however that's all gone down the toilet been put on indefinite hold so there was no urgency to finish it. The pattern is called Corrina and it has been done with some more lovely wool silk from Kingcraig Fabrics
These are the Squirrel mitts from Fair Isle Style by Mary Jane Mucklestone that Julie and I invested in together. They are so lovely and snug but now I am just going to be too worried about loosing them to wear them out. 

Wednesday 18 December 2013

The Emperor's Children

Claire Messud's book 'The Emperor's Children' was long listed for the Booker back whenever and it certainly tackles many issues surrounding social whatnots in modern affluent America. The twists and turns of the plot kept me listening through the 16 tapes (the library still has some books on tape though I believe they are being phased out) almost because rather than in spite of the fact none of the characters are very likeable. Marina, Danielle and Julius, despite their expensive education and their privileged backgrounds are struggling to make their mark on the world. Danielle is briefly smitten by Ludovick Seeley, a magazine editor, but he is naturally more taken with her beautiful friend Marina. Julius falls for his handsome (and rich) boss and they seem to quickly form an intense though somewhat superficial relationship, that just as rapidly unravels when Julius' proclivity for casual sex gets the better of him. Danielle is then seduced by Murray, Marina's father, a much respected writer and intellectual; apparently a regular occurrence for him, giving in to self indulgence and self-gratification that his wife turns a blind eye to, while she thinks she has found her soul mate. Crashing into their lives comes firstly cousin Booty, escaping shallow formal education for the inspiration of his idol Uncle Murray, an idealism that is soon to be shattered, and secondly the events of September 11th 2001. While not specifically, I felt, a novel about the effects of the attacks it is obviously something that has impacted greatly on the way American's view themselves and their society, but I don't really feel qualified to comment on what that impact is. I felt that for the characters in the story it was all still very personal, rather than political, how it affected their individual lives, it didn't seem to cause any of them to look or think outside their own narrow concerns. That's all really, she seems to be much admired for her astute social observations and analysis but I found the people shallow and on occasion their behaviour was a trifle clichéd. While I found the story engaging and the characters believable I don't think I cared enough about any of them. Shrug and move on to better things.

Saturday 14 December 2013

Sick Notes

'Sick Notes' by Gwendoline Riley was picked up in a charity shop, probably simply because she is a local writer. It is the story of Esther who has come back, we know not where from, to a flat in Manchester that she shares with her friend Donna. Pretty much she mooches around for a few months, sleeps with a few people, gets drunk a lot, stares at the ceiling, hides under the grubby duvet and doesn't really know what to do with the rest of her life. And then it ends. She does mention having a bath at one point but the book left me with an urgent need to wash my hands, which is possibly the most unusual reaction I have had to a piece of literature. 

This description from a brief stint at a boarding school where she meets Donna sets the tone somehow:
"At mealtimes we carried our food in moulded trays to large round tables. We poured glasses of squash from a huge jug. It was unwieldy, loosing its centre of gravity in those small hands and short arms, so the drinks as always sloshing out, sticking the paper cloth to the Formica then dripping over the table lip onto our laps. Whenever I spilt I heard my mum saying, 'You've never understood liquids, have you?' " (p.25) 

And from there we move to a description of her mother's hoarding habit, her obsessive inability to throw anything away:
"One afternoon when I was skipping school I was making myself a cup of tea and I threw out a carton of sour milk. While the fridge door was open I found myself going though all the shelves in there, dropping jars of furry jam, a cracked block of cheese, my brother's half-finished turkey steak (that she'd put in a jiffy bag a week ago) into the bin too. I emptied the rotting contents of a stack of plastic tubs, and then from one cupboard I threw out a dozen empty jam jars, a box of pellet-dry raisins and a bag of grub infested flour." (p.34)

Everywhere just has this feeling of neglect, even squalor, as if people are only passing through, not stopping long, so it's not worth their trouble to take any care. This is the bar, where Donna works (and this seems to be describing the scene shown in the front cover image):
"I take my drink to one of the empty tables near the back of the room; lean back then lay back on it. I feel its viscid surface velcroing my coat. I lie completely still, with my mug on my chest, listening to my breathing and staring up at a tight tangle of wires falling through a hole in the patchy plaster. A sickly yellow glows in two enormous, leaded glass light shades which hang askew on gold chains." (p.43-4)

And the room she lives in:
"My room is a barren tip. The boxes are still stacked in the corners, the bare duvet is on the floor by the record player and there are half-full mugs and scraps of scrawled-on paper everywhere.
'As you can see: I'm currently - riding the crest of a slump,' I say. 'Excuse the ...'
I sweep a hand around the carnage, but he isn't looking anywhere except at me. There are unfinished books everywhere: resting open on my bed like pitched roofs, like dead birds. He picks one up as he sits down next to me." (p.93)

And then on the bus:
"Upstairs on the bus I sit in the last empty double seat. The thin air is dank and there's a breathy grey film on the windows. There's the smell of worn-out mint gum and of sweet shampoo, from the girl in front of me who is combing her wet blonde hair out over and over. I watch her and I don't think of anything. Then I watch a puddle of spilt drink in the aisle elongating with the acceleration, licking at a screwed-up sweet wrapper as the bus heaves itself away from a stop." (p.117)

I partly enjoyed the book because as she wanders she recites places and streets that are so familiar so I can visualise her environment: Market Street, Oldham Street, Hulme Asda, Central Library, the Arndale, Victoria Station, Piccadilly Gardens. It wasn't until I was browsing for quotes when I came across the reason why it is entitled Sick Notes; she refers to writing sick notes for herself for the last two years of school, and it occurred to me that the story of this interlude in her life is a kind of sick note, a made up excuse to avoid getting on with the serious business of living. I think this is why there is such a thing as Young Adult fiction, because, although I liked the book, it is such a long time since I have had things and people to be responsible for that I cannot recall what it is like to have *nothing* to do, no demands on your time and no one to consider but yourself. It was as if I was reading the thoughts of another species. 

The book is wonderfully astute and full of little details of observation that make it very immediate. I'll give you two tiny sentences that counteract the grubbiness of all the other quotes:
"When I crouch down to tie a lace that's trailing through old puddles I see how the setting sun is making sparks of the hairs on my ankles." (p.139)
"I'm reading the graffiti on the bench, fitting my thumbnail in the lines of the runic romances." (p.169)

So, what is it all about? I'm not really sure, but it did inspire me to take maybe a 'sick day' sometime, to do nothing, to wander aimlessly and see where it takes me. But the middle aged me needs a day without rain.

Monday 9 December 2013

Homage to Wendy Cope

Some poets are pretentious
but Wendy's not one to drone
she likes to keep us entertained
with insights all her own.

One man failed to bring her flowers
and took the corkscrew from her flat
but she doesn't really mourn him
at least no more than she does the cat

She knows she needs to sober up
she tries with good intent
but yoga and the swimming pool
lead only to lament.

There's the snoring and the arguing
but as a man he's barely to blame
and he is her favourite poet
so she loves him all the same.

She likes to widen her appeal
with cricket and football
but returns almost inevitably 
to complaints about the rain fall.

Then she can be much more lyrical
with chestnut trees and cold bus stops,
Houseman, Eliot and Wordsworth,
and Nanna's wooly socks.

A poet's life is pretty rough
both in the country and in town
they don't get paid much money
and their poems often get turned down.

Wendy Cope's 'Serious Concerns' has been the final book in my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, which I mostly read aloud in bed. I get the impression that rhyme is not as popular as it once was amongst poets but it certainly is her forte, and she has pithy insights on many aspects of the human condition. Her love poems lurch between chilly indifference and joyful obsession, as if there is no happy medium. I guess I like her partly because she is obviously a pragmatist, and failing that a stiff drink will deal with most of life's difficulties. 

All that is left on my challenge pile is Margaret Atwood's 'The Blind Assassin', which I may still get around to. The only one I ditched was 'The Slap' by Christos Tsiolkas. I was so overwhelmed by the vast number of characters he introduced in the first few pages that I couldn't recall who was who, and there were some really awful parents who I just knew were going to irritate me. I was disappointed as I had been looking forward to the story. Already itching to get started on next year's pile, but will probably also be joining in again with the TBR Triple Dog Dare, which runs from January to April and also restricts reading to books you already have in your stack.

Thursday 5 December 2013

The news where you are

I reviewed 'Mr Lynch's Holiday' only last week but I felt bad that I had managed to completely miss Catherine O'Flynn's second book, 'The news where you are', and so I procured it from the library. Like 'What Was Lost' this book is set in Birmingham and has other little touches in common: Mo, Frank's daughter, provides us with a child's view of the situation, and the impact of the built environment figures significantly, from the landmark buildings that are Frank's father's legacy to the city, to the impersonal and lifeless housing estate that they come across by the canal, and is home to Phil's widow Michelle. This book is also similarly a mystery; why is Phil out jogging in the dark, where is Mikey and who is driving the car that comes out of the darkness?

Our Frank is an unassuming man who just wants to be good at his job and a good husband and a good dad and a good son. He sometimes feels like he struggles to be any of these. After, Phil, his predecessor as anchorman at the local TV station, moves on to bigger and better things Frank finds himself inheriting not only a job but a Cyril, the enigmatic little man who writes Phil's gags. While Frank struggles to deal with his mother, Maureen, who is determined to live a miserable old age, and discovering that one of the last buildings his father designed is about to be demolished, he has also been pursuing a morbid fascination with some forgotten deaths. It began with a woman who dies and who's death is not discovered for some time, and Frank begins to take on a personal interest in those unloved and unnoticed souls who's departure goes unremarked. This is what leads him to find Mike, and to start drawing together the threads of a long neglected friendship. 

It is what I like about Catherine O'Flynn that her characters are all so very ordinary, and with normal human weaknesses; they are annoying, they get bored or irritated with each other, they are vain, they fail to communicate, they are lonely. They are nothing special, just like people you might come across in everyday life, and she makes you care about what happens to them, because she takes the little trials of people's lives, which are important only to them, and makes us care, and thus makes our own trials seem somehow more important. The stories are also peopled with such a lovely variety of small characters, from Julia, Franks' co-worker, who really wants to be considered a serious journalist, to Irene, Phil's first wife who turns out to be living along the hall from Frank's mum at 'Evergreen'. Somewhat like 'What Was Lost' the people are often broken or lonely or insecure; Frank's father is too wrapped up in his work to worry or care much about his family, Mikey had recently lost his wife, Phil is obsessively anxious about becoming old and irrelevant. Although there is a little glimmer of hope in the end, when Maureen finds a little light in her life at the seaside, it is quite a sad book, not tragic, just quietly sad about people's inability to connect with each other:

"After she'd gone he drank the coffee and thought about what she'd said. He looked at the face in the photo. Had Michael really hoped for the gentle fall of other deaths and other stories to cover his quickly and soundlessly, to be lost forever in that endless layering of beginnings and ends? Every day at work Frank added more news, more facts, more faces to the vast multi-layered mosaic of the city and amidst all this Michel was an empty space. It was always the gaps that drew Frank's attention. They seemed to matter more than the other pieces." (p.112)

Lies, damn lies and Lolita

I ordered Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov from the library for Banned Books Week and it has taken me this long to listen to it. I am having a hard time getting my head around this because I felt subverted by it. I felt like I was listening to a love story, and had to keep reminding myself that it wasn't, the voice is so persuasive. It reminded me somewhat of Engleby by Sebastian Faulks, that I also listened to on audiobook, two years ago. Engleby is another character who tells a tale full of self-justification and you are similarly lulled by his story and constantly having to remember that you are only getting one side. Books with only one character are unusual, and it feels like Lolita has only one character, because we learn nothing that can be relied upon about anyone else. Humbert Humbert paints the portrait of himself as the devoted admirer, he puts Lolita up on a pedestal and worships her, and yet at the same time he is lying to himself as much as he is lying to us, which is why the lies are so convincing. He presents the story a little like Bonnie and Clyde, as if they are outlaws on the run from a society that disapproves of their love affair, so you feel from the beginning that things are unlikely to end well for him. He tries to give the impression of a power relationship between the two of them; he holds her captive with the threat of being taken in to care if she reveals the truth of their relationship to anyone, but at the same time implies that she can give or withhold favours to extract from him whatever she wants, he often finds himself prostrate before her contempt. He both loves indulging her and then at times resents what he perceives as her manipulation of him. He lives in fear that she will somehow escape him, and as time passes his neuroses and paranoia become almost as consuming than his passion for her. He loves her, wants only her, he compares other 'nymphettes' to her and finds them lacking, and yet the things that he wants about her are transient. It is the ultimate objectification, he desires the thing that is Lolita, not the person. He avoids pretty much talking about sex, because he wants the reader to believe it is a story of love and not mere lust. He focusses instead on her dewey eyelashes and her golden midriff, the soles of her feet and her delicate fingers. He chops her up into little pieces and loves each of them, as if he cannot see her as a complete person. He admits towards the end that he does not know her, has never bothered to know her, in all the time they spend together they do not talk about anything meaningful. And as the listener I found I was so wrapped up in his emotions and reactions to events that there was no space to think about what Dolores might have been feeling. I came to the conclusion that this is the power of the story, that you cannot escape his head, and as such you understand and almost sympathise with his final act, why he has to take his revenge on the person who destroyed his idyll. But the mere fact of almost sympathising makes me feel disturbed, you feel pity for him, but I am not sure he deserves it.

Sunday 1 December 2013

To Be Read Pile Challenge 2014

I am down to my final book for the TBR Pile Challenge 2013 but already we are signing up for next year, pop over to Roof Beam Reader for rules and regulations and the signup linky. The format is: pick a dozen books, or fourteen because you are allowed a couple of substitutes in case you regret your choices, that have been waiting in the wings for over a year, and the aim is to read them all over the next twelve months. That's it really, you don't have to do one a month or anything like that, just read them as and when you like, mixed up with whatever new books come your way. 
Here is my list for 2014:

  1. Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft - because we like to mix it up with a bit of non-fiction.
  2. The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro - to celebrate her becoming the thirteenth woman to win the Nobel Literature prize.
  3. Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro - passed on to me by mum.
  4. The First Century After Beatrice by Amin Maalouf - bought after reading a review.
  5. Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood - of the two of hers I have waiting I picked this one, partly because her book on last year year's list is one left unread.
  6. The Last Nude by Ellis Avery - won in a giveaway about two years ago.
  7. The Schopenhauer Cure by Irvin D. Yalom - philosophy, psychology and literature combined (apparently).
  8. To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf - I started a Woolf challenge a couple of years ago and only managed Mrs Dalloway so this is my 'serious' reading for this year.
  9. Hunting Unicorns by Bella Pollen - picked up at random in a charity shop.
  10. Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai -  I realised I have read both her daughter Kiran's books but never one of hers.
  11. Perfume by Patrick Süskind - I read The Pigeon several years ago and loved it, definitely a writer to read again.
  12. Death at Intervals by José Saramago -  I read Blindness many years ago, before bloggy days so no review, so he is another on the long list of people to read again. A second Nobel Prize winner.
  13. Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields - of the two books waiting by Carol I picked this one.
  14. The Bride's Farewell by Meg Rosoff - for the fun of it, a bit of YA fiction, because we love Meg Rosoff and I picked this up at a charity shop.
Here was me thinking that there were a lot of male writers, and I find there are only five, compared with seven last year, but on the other hand I am pleased with the more international flavour of the list: one Portugese, one Indian, one German, two Canadians, five Americans, one Lebanese born and one Japanese born writer, leaving only two who are British. As with last year the author link goes to the author web page or Wiki page, and then completed the title will link to my review of the book.