Monday 31 March 2014

The man who disappeared

I have been listening to 'The man who disappeared' by Clare Morrall while knitting, cooking, painting and sitting around with Dunk. There was a rather lovely interview with her here in the Guardian just recently. It was engaging enough that when I got back from work today Dunk demanded that we have the last CD because it had been too late to finish listening last night. 
It is the story of Felix's unexpected disappearance, and his family's reaction to and recovery from their abrupt change of fortunes. Learning that he is wanted by the police for money laundering his wife Kate and the children are forced to rebuild their life from scratch over the months with no explanation for what has happened and assuming he may even be dead. Meanwhile Felix creates a fake life and hides there and muses on what he has been forced to give up. I didn't really feel sorry for him. I didn't really feel sorry for the family either, a bunch of upper middle class twits who have wanted for nothing and suddenly had to live like the rest of us. The characters behave in slightly peculiar ways and I often was left bemused by their decisions. Why would a person of strict integrity behave as Felix did, the grounds are just too flimsy. His weird aunts were a bit of a bad cliché. I was not sure about the daughter and her stalking of an older girl, and she was a spoilt brat. The young son was not very convincing and Kate herself was just a bit ineffectual. The reaction of her parents was strangely awful and unsympathetic. But the story grew on me because it is about family bonds and resilience and once you have spent a few hours you can't help but start wondering if they are going to manage to pull themselves back together, though the ending as it approached was very predictable.
It was an amusing distraction while decorating in the bedroom but I can't say it was a great book; if I had been reading I would probably have abandoned it. Her book 'Astonishing Splashes of Colour' was shortlisted for the Booker, so she must be capable of decent writing, perhaps this was just not a very good example. 

It's going to be a busy April

This will be my third year with the Blogging From A to Z Challenge. Last year I wrote children's book reviews and in 2012 I wrote 100 word flash fiction pieces based on words chosen with great care. I dithered rather badly about participating this year because we have so much other stuff going on but Monkey insisted, so her participation is going to be vital. I am going back to the flash fiction (without the specific word limit) but instead of pouring over the dictionary Monkey is going to give me the first word that pops into her head for each letter, with no preamble or changing of mind and I have to just go with it. It is a bit scary and my brain seizes up just contemplating it but what's the use of a 'challenge' if it's not hard. Good luck to everyone participating and I look forward to visiting loads of interesting new blogs.
Then on the 26th of April Monkey and we will participate in our third Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-thon. We have had a great time in the past and it's brilliant to have an excuse to do nothing but read for a whole day ... why I think I need an excuse I'm not sure. I have had a rather sluggish start to the reading year, quite a few audiobooks but not really many novels so I may do what I did in October and pick a pile from my extensive library wish list.

Friday 28 March 2014

Hexi-halves for Fibre Arts Friday

Our Beekeeper Quilt is on the final push, Monkey has been working on them and the total is down to 80 hexipuffs left to make. With this in mind I started making some 'hexi-halves' to fit along the edge of the quilt, to give a nice neat straight edge, I estimate we will need 30 or 40 :
Tish has been needle felting and has made some beautiful beaded flower brooches but my favourites are these two adorable little bees. 
We are planning another Etsy shop to list them all, so watch this space.
Lots of crafty stuff going on this week I'm sure, pop over to Fibre Arts Friday to visit some of the other fibre creations.

Thursday 20 March 2014

Getting up early

Getting up, though not as early as usual, and a bare tree in one of the neighbour's gardens was outlined against a pink tinged cloud. Just pretty.
Also pretty is this new knitting project bag that I have been making, one of three that I sewed yesterday and put up on my Etsy shop. Busy, busy, busy.

Wednesday 19 March 2014


During the recent wind storms the strange straggly tree-like thing outside the kitchen window slumped ungracefully towards the house, it's branches grazing the roof tiles. This morning I took advantage of the spring sunshine to hang the washing outside, but was obliged to drastically prune the tree first. So we have a jar of catkins cut from the tree, the fresh basil that seems to survive for weeks if I remember to water it, and sheets blowing in the breeze in the garden beyond. Life is good.

Sunday 16 March 2014

How to talk to your mother and how to die

'Self-Help' by Lorrie Moore came from my library list; I think I went searching for 'Who will run the frog hospital' but this was what they had. Then just the other day I read someone reviewing something by her and realised that it was what I was reading.

These stories are probably the most unusual I have read. The most striking thing about the first is that it is written in second person, addressing 'you' in the story, as if she is telling a story about the reader, or answering a request for advice. It is slightly disconcerting, and titled 'How to be an Other Woman' it is almost instructional. A couple of the others do the same thing and it gives a vague sense of continuity that it probably not intentional. The book's title is quite apposite, many of the stories have characters who are coping with life's difficulties, though the advice offered is definitely a little tongue-in-cheek. 

I liked 'How to talk to your mother' which is a relationship related in reverse, from 1982 back to 1939, and takes us through grief to ageing and forgetfulness, through attempts at independence, back to the teenage years and finally the intensity of early childhood and infancy:

"1968. Do not resent her. Think about the situation, for instance, when you take the last trash bag from its box: you must throw out the box by putting it in that very trash bag. What was once contained, now must contain. The container, then, becomes the contained, the enveloped, the held. Find more and more that you like to muse over things like this." (p.90)

In 'Go Like This' a woman plans her suicide to escape the inevitable death from cancer. It dances cleverly around the idea that these 'educated' people do manage to talk about it, but still somehow don't manage to communicate. This metaphor is striking:

"It is already July. The fireflies will soon be out. My death flashes across my afternoon like a nun in white, hurrying, evanescing, apparitional as the rise of heat off boulevards, the parched white of sails across cement, around the corner, fleeing the sun." (p.77)

One of several stories that feature a needy elderly mother, 'To Fill' has another young woman who is trying to distract herself from the fact of her husband's unfaithfulness and to sustain her relationship with her son in the face of what can only be a descent into total breakdown:

"I grow so incomprehensible.
I am stealing more and more money. I keep it in my top drawer beneath my underwear, along with my diaphragm and my lipstick and my switchblade these are things a woman needs." (p.140)

Then at the end of this story she finds herself in the same institution, a couple of floors below her elderly mother. This is a very evocative image, quite scary even:

"Orderlies roll the days by me like carts.
Mr Fernandez visits, but only him. My husband and son are off someplace, walking and trying not to cry. 
Ageing flowers, daisies when they die look like hopeful hags, their sunny, hatless faces, their shrivelled limp hair. Tulips wither into birdcages, six black stamens inside, each dried to a dim chirp." (p.161)

I was left a little disturbed, that the title is almost prophetic, that you must help yourself, in fact that is likely to be the only help you get.

Big Brother

It's hard when you have a strong reaction to a book to move on to something else by the same writer. I have not tried anything Lionel Shriver wrote before Kevin (which won the Orange Prize in 2005) though I did read 'The Post-Birthday World' and did not like it so much. 'Big Brother' is her most recent book published last year and I have been listening to it on audiobook this week.

On the surface it is a story about Pandora, who is horrified (and that's not putting it too strongly) when she discovers her brother Edison has become morbidly obese. Taking a break from his hip jazz piano-player lifestyle he comes for an extended visit and his weight gain becomes, as she says, the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. For the first half of the book she becomes his enabler, allowing him to indulge his every want, to the frustration and disgust of her slightly control-freak husband. As the end of his stay approaches she learns that there is nothing for him to go back to. Work had dried up and he had sold his beloved piano and eaten away the proceeds. In fact there is no home nor anything else to go back to since the storage company sold off his entire possessions to cover unpaid bills. In the second part of the book she decides to save him from himself and together they move into an apartment and embark on a crash diet that has interesting consequences for them both.

The book is about lots of things. It is about weight, and society's prejudice against and judgement of overweight people. It is about food and people's often very complex, often very twisted relationships to eating. It is also about fame. Their father is a famous sitcom star, having for years appeared in a show about a divorced family, and they both spent their childhoods obliged to live up to the fictional children in his onscreen family. Edison has his own measure of fame within the jazz world, and has not handled it well. And Pandora has found herself recently famous because her successful doll company has attracted the attention of the media. They have all handled their own and each other's fame in different ways. But mostly the book is about siblings. I have always felt that sibling relationships are unlike any other. They are part of your growing up and the childhood that has made you the way you are. You are separate but you have so much in common. Siblings are not like friends, you don't choose them, they are just there. There is a sense of obligation and responsibility that can be both a burden and a reassurance. It is also about how siblings lives grow apart and you cannot hang on to the intensity that is there in childhood. 

Zoe Williams at the Guardian didn't like it much, and I have to kind of agree with her. None of the characters are very likeable and the whole scenario is so incredible. I had to work hard at suspending my disbelief, rather as if reading fantasy. I kept wanting to say 'but what about...' or 'that just would not happen'. Their weight-loss programme is unhealthy and positively dangerous and no one in their right mind would inflict it on a grossly overweight person. But the transformation is brings is equally unbelievable; Edison just would not magically turn back physically into the young man he once was, and the weird personality changes were even more strange. Pandora's relationship with her husband is just bizarre, the only nice one being with her two step-children. Shriver tries to fix the whole thing with an afterword at the end of the book, retelling the story as it really happened, as if the tale was Pandora's fantasy of how she might have helped her big brother, to salve her conscience, to stop herself feeling she had let him down, but I am not sure it works. While I enjoyed the book and it had lots of ideas, it was very flawed, and maybe it is a warning about writing something that is too close to home. 

Friday 14 March 2014

Monkey Jumper for Fibre Arts Friday

The Monkey jumper is finally finished, and looks fabulous. The pattern is called Elfe (link there for Ravelry peeps.) She wants a pair of orange and green socks to match (to wear on the opposite feet of course). I am not usually home on Fridays, and have not had much to share, so have not linked to Fibre Arts Friday for a long long time. Pop over to Wisdom Begins in Wonder and check out what other crafty people have been making.
 My week off has also entailed a visit to Gateshead to check up on the boys. Getting all four of them in one place is a rare occurrence and demands a permanent record.
A year ago I invested in a Rowan subscription; you only get two magazines, I loved everything in this one and nothing at all in the second one they sent. 
I finally settled on which pattern to knit. 
So I started knitting my Bute Sweater, and love the way it is coming out but really don't like the silver/grey edging, it just doesn't go with the other colours so will have to unravel and go hunting for something more suitable.

Thursday 13 March 2014

Launching on Etsy

Having made about £150 on Ebay selling mostly Sylvanians and Playmobil I have taken the long anticipated step of opening a shop on Etsy. To avoid confusion and to keep the 'brand' image (cos we're so professional here) I have called it 'Silencing the Bell'. It is going to be a steep learning curve since Etsy is now quite a massive organisation and, while I would personally regret their decision to allow 'manufactured' goods to be sold through their shops, I hope that it will become a good outlet for my crafty activities. I don't anticipate quitting the day job any time soon but I hope in the short term that it will at least contribute to the Monkey Fund. Now I think I have spent enough time crouched over the computer today and need to go put the kettle on. Do please pop over and at least give me some visitor stats to encourage me.

The Rest is Silence

It's already March and this is the first book from my TBR Pile Challenge : The Schopenhauer Cure by Irvin D. Yalom. So, this is a novel about group therapy and a mini biography of Schopenhauer, in alternating chapters. Julius, the therapist, find he has an invasive form of skin cancer and on a whim seeks out a former patient, in an effort to establish if his life's work has had any meaning. This patient, Philip, it turn asks Julius to supervise his own therapist training and so he joins the therapy group, with all sorts of complicated consequences. As you might imagine, there is no action in this story, it's all talk; it's all about the characters and the dynamics between them. I thought that the story was going to be about Julius, but he fades into the background whilst his patients talk, which I suppose is the way a good therapist works. While it was quite an interesting book, and taught me a great deal about Schopenhauer, I found I was more interested in those chapters than the ones focussing on the group therapy. There is also an element of the book being about death and the meaning of life, since the members of the group are all struggling to understand some aspect of their life, and Julius's newfound mortality is putting the rest of his life sharply in relief.

"It was code for potential melanoma, and now, in retrospect, Julius identified that phrase, that singular moment, as the point when carefree life ended and death, his heretofore invisible enemy, materialised in all its awful reality." (p.2-3)

I just love the word 'heretofore', it says something so neatly and yet sounds slightly old fashioned, like 'notwithstanding' and other such words that are obviously an agglomeration. It is funny how such small things will make me decide a book is worth reading, because the use of the right word is what marks out good writing.

"Julius nodded his head sadly. It was true he had never savoured the moment, never grasped the present, never said to himself, 'This is it, this time, this day - this is what I want! These are the good old days, right now. Let me remain in this moment, let me take root in this place for all time.' No, he had always coveted the future - the time of being older, smarter, bigger, richer. And then came the upheaval, the time of the great reversal, the sudden and cataclysmic deidealisation of the future, and the beginning of the aching yearning for what used to be." (p.92)

While I found many of the group members a bit difficult I persevered with the book because of the ideas. I get the impression that Yalom is to some extent using fiction as a way to teach about philosophy, putting the words and ideas of Schopenhauer into the mouth of Philip, and relating those ideas to the problems of modern life. It is hard to recommend the book as a good story but if you think of it more as introductory philosophy you would get more from it. It is quite a unique way of getting the ideas across and I am certainly going to put 'When Nietzche Wept' on my list.

Friday 7 March 2014


A year ago I promised myself I should do something 'wild and reckless' before I was fifty. Last night I realised I had singularly failed to do so, and have come to the conclusion that I am just not a naturally reckless person. I also wrote a bucket-type list of things that I would like to do, that were much more low key than the 'wild and reckless' ambition, and I didn't manage many of those either, so I think that this year I will remain bucket-less and just see what happens.  
I did apply for several jobs, some even that I wanted, and have had two interviews. My move to management fell through completely with the privatisation but I may end up with a new role in the office when the revision finally happens (they have been promising this for nearly three years now.) I have kept up the Zumba classes for over a year now and still really enjoy them. I did find this copy of 'Felting Fashion' by Lizzie Houghton in the Oxfam bookshop for £4, and it had been on my Amazon wish list for ages, so maybe it will inspire me to do some more felting.

For my birthday Mum and Dad sent me a box containing sunglasses, a luggage lock and insect repellant, all in anticipation of our trip in May to Costa Rica. We will be staying the first week in an ecolodge on the Osa Peninsula, that looks very posh, but we are also going to travel around on the local buses and stay in hostels the rest of the time and the second week are going to the Monteverde Cloud forest and the Arenal VolcanoIt feels like it will be a grand adventure, so maybe a little bit of wild and recklessness will be happening this year after all.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Beta Testing the Central Library

I have been to town this morning to help beta test the facilities at the about-to-be-reopened Manchester Central Library. The official opening day is Saturday 22nd March 2014, and we were specifically asked not to "spoil the surprise", so this will be the most unrevealing post I could possibly manage. 
On the top floor there are lots of books on shelves:
Then there is another floor with even more books on shelves:
There are lots of computers:
While there are lots a lovely new plush 'designer' chairs I loved the fact that they still had these old ones in the reading room, these are definitely more conducive to serious study:
and the computer terminals have not completely replaced the old filing system:
I explored each floor, played with the moving bookshelves, tested the toilets, tinkered with the archive displays, logged on to a computer and dutifully asked the librarians some questions to check their helpfulness. I was disappointed to find that the 'lending library' section was not open yet and will be housed in the Town Hall Extension. 
Then I sat on one of the plush new chairs and did the Guardian Sudoku.
Many years ago when the children were young we took a trip to the Central Library, but I confess it was not for the books. The legendary reading room has an interesting acoustic quality that causes sounds to reverberate in a particular way, so we went in to experience the phenomenon: if you drop a book the sound travels around the room and back very dramatically. I experienced another aspect of this today: a group of people were listening to a man talking when I went in, even standing quite close I could not make out what he was saying, but as I walked around to the opposite side of the circle I heard his voice coming from the dome above me, as clear as if I was standing next to him, and even the whispered conversation of two women was bounced to the ceiling and back down to me. So, a word of warning, be careful what you say in the reading room, you never know who might be listening.

Tuesday 4 March 2014

Guest Post Number 2: How to make marshmallows

Today's guest post is written and performed by Tish and Monkey.

We have recently discovered just how fabulous home made marshmallows are. Plus how incredibly easy they are.
The first thing I will tell you is that if you don't have an electric whisk you will need a second person. The second thing is you will definitely need is a sugar thermometer.
So here are your general ingredients:
12 oz of caster sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
2 egg whites
6 leaves of leaf gelatine (do not substitute with powdered)
1 tablespoon of liquid glucose or golden syrup
2 tablespoons of icing sugar
2 tablespoons of corn flour
150ml of water
pinch of salt
your choice of colour and flavouring (today we are using vanilla essence and blue food dye but rose water is also really nice)

This recipe is from of this book, which has lots of lovely things in it:
Sweet Things by Annie Rigg.
The first thing I reccommend you do is prepare the tin to put the marshmallows in. Use a 9inch square tin. Take a piece of baking parchment or grease proof paper and grease with sunflower or vegetable oil. Next stick your paper into the tin, I use a couple of bits of sellotape but you can do it however you like. Now mix the corn flour and icing sugar together, sprinkle some into the pan and shake around so that all of the paper is covered (the oil will stick it on), and pour out an excess into a bowl and set aside for later. it should end up looking something like this:
Next we will prepare the gelatine (you can use leaf pectin but good luck finding it because I can't). Take all 6 of your leaves and place in a big jug of cold water and leave to soak for 10 mins. Then take it out and pat dry, it will look a bit like plastic (as you can see below), set this aside.
Now place the egg whites, 1 tablespoon of caster sugar and pinch of salt in a large glass mixing bowl (I don't recommend a plastic mixing bowl as I'm not sure how they would react to boiling sugar being poured into it, might melt). 
Set this aside for later, DO NOT WHISK YET!!!
Now put the rest of the caster sugar, water, and golden syrup into a small pan and turn to a medium heat until the sugar is all dissolved.
Once the sugar is all dissolved turn the heat up to full and put your sugar thermometer in. Keep stirring so it doesn't burn. You are aiming for 120˚c, when it gets to 90˚c you should get your second person to start whisking your egg whites as you have about 4 mins to go. It will go very quickly from 100˚ to 120˚, inside about 2 mins. As soon as you reach 120˚c you need to take it off the heat and take out the thermometer.
Now straight away put your gelatine into the hot syrup, it will bubble up and go crazy, keep stirring. It will settle down in a couple of seconds, keep stirring as you carry it over to the egg whites.
Hopefully your assistant should have whisked your egg whites to stiff peak point (meringue style). If not just keeping stirring so it doesn't set and tell them to hurry the hell up. You want the syrup to go in hot.
Now pour the syrup directly into the whisked egg whites, as you do have your assistant keep whisking.
At this point you can add your flavouring and colouring (about a cap full will do). Keep whisking for about 3 mins until it is glossy and holding the shape from the whisk. Make sure you scrape the bottom as the syrup can settle a bit.
Now pour your mixture into your prepared tin. Leave for about 2 hours, then cover with cling film and leave for another 4 hours to set. Don't put it in the fridge, just somewhere cool.
Once it is set you need to find the bowl of corn flour and icing sugar. Sprinkle the mixture over a large tray or chopping board, then turn out the marshmallow onto the tray. If you did the first bit right the paper should peel of perfectly. Now take a big sharp knife and cut the marshmallow into cubes. After the first cut the knife will get a bit sticky so I recommend putting some of the corn flour/icing sugar mix onto the sticky blade. After you have cut it into cubes role them in the mixture so they're coated and not sticky. Then just tap off the excess.
And voila, you have marshmallows! Ours turned out green and very soft this time. Their consistency can vary but they're always lovely.
Now you will also find yourself with left over egg yokes, which you need to use; we prefer to make cheese straws but you can make whatever you like.

Monday 3 March 2014

Sewing, Knitting, Spanish and Morality - a catchup post

I feel like I have not posted much recently. Life has escaped me, mainly, if I am honest, because of too much Words With Friends. But on the plus side my brain has still been working hard. I have been doing another Coursera course on 'The Moralities of Everyday Life' with Paul Bloom (see an interesting Ted talk by him here). It has looked at the hows and whys of the moral choices and decisions that human beings make, whether there is such a thing as moral absolutes, the impact of different cultures on morality. It has all been very interesting. A few choice articles that we were sent to read:

I have also been learning Spanish with Duolingo in preparation for a grand adventure that I am taking with my mum in a couple of months; 'Yo no como queso' being my most useful phrase so far, but I am hoping to master more important stuff by the time we are due to head off into the rainforest.

This lovely jumper for the Monkey has been taking a while, it was started just after Christmas. The pattern is called Elfe, though it will be adapted to have long sleeves and it is knitted in green Admiral and variegated orange/red Zauberball both from Schoppel
I got a nice lump sum in my wages the other week after Royal Mail and the CWU finally agreed last year's pay deal and we got our back dated pay increase, so I treated myself to a selection of Rowan Colourspun, Sublime Tussah Silk and Luxurious Tweed:
which will hopefully become something like this (Bute from Rowan 52 magazine), though I am going to make it a sweater not a cardigan. Having enjoyed my forays into cabling I thought a bit of fairisle would be a good challenge:
In other news we have started a 'Monkey Fund' to raise money for the Monkey's fees for next year (Year of the Monkey). I have already made nearly £100 selling Sylvanians, Playmobil and clothing on Ebay. My collection of duvet covers, which will go up in an Etsy shop as soon as I get organised, have been listed as well but not sold yet. You can see the entire selection here

I also made a couple of batiked cotton shopping bags that will also go up on Etsy and have plans for all sorts of other crafty stuff. Add to that we now have a deadline for finishing the Beekeeper Quilt, it's about 97 hexipuffs and counting. It's going to be a busy few months.

Sunday 2 March 2014

Fair Trade Fortnight

It is currently Fair Trade Fortnight, from 24th February to 9th March, aimed at encouraging people to think about their shopping choices and the consequences of artificially cheap food prices. This year the campaign is focussing on the banana trade where large scale producers paying low wages are driving smaller farmers out of business. They point out that the price of bananas has halved in real terms over the last ten years, pressure from large supermarkets for cheaper supplies means poverty level wages for the workers on the plantations. It is an issue that affects many 'cash crops'; where land in developing countries is transferred from producing food for locals to growing crops to be sold to western markets, making people very dependent on the vagaries of the market and putting the power and control of prices in the hands of the buyers. Buying goods that are fair trade guarantees that the producers are paid a fair living wage for their products. The structures set up by fair trade organisations and cooperatives give the growers a guaranteed market and more long term security for their livelihoods. Many supermarkets do stock these products nowadays, from fresh food like bananas, to tea and coffee, chocolate and sugar, and even cotton clothing. Alternatively you can shop online at the Traidcraft website, for foods, housewares, clothing and jewellery. People Tree do a lovely range of clothing, for people concerned that all fair trade stuff is for hippies. Fair Corp sells fairtrade trainers, clothing and underwear. For chocolate you can't beat Green and Black's; Maya Gold has always been my favourite, it's so dark you can't eat much so it lasts ages, though I was a little disappointed with the  new lemon, which was not lemony enough for me. The Traidcraft website has a pretty comprehensive list of places that sell a variety of fair trade products

The Guardian yesterday ran this article  that adds emphasis to the issue by highlighting the very real consequences of poverty wages in developing countries. I buy my tea by the case every couple of months, it costs me £16 with postage and a small 'round up' donation, and I just worked out that it comes to about 18p for my (average) four/five cups per day, it's a small price to pay.