Sunday 28 September 2014


You begin to sense a bit of a theme in Kurt Vonnegut books, or rather a selection of themes, that are mixed and matched. In 'Slapstick' we return to the idea of the human population being wiped out, leaving a few random characters eking out an existence in the remains of a broken culture. He claims in the prologue that it is a sort-of autobiography, if so you really are left wondering about what went on in this man's head. 

Wilbur Daffodil-II Swain is the former President, a huge ugly man who now lives in the ruined Empire State Building with his granddaughter and her lover. He recounts for us his strange secluded upbringing with his twin Eliza and their ultimate separation. At the behest of a child psychologist she is sent off to an institution for the feeble minded and he is nurtured by his parents and then goes off to Harvard. Stuff happens and then the world falls apart.

Like all Vonnegut stories it is packed with surreal invention: the gravity varies from day to day, so sometimes people are pinned to the floor unable to move; the Chinese invent a way to make themselves smaller until they are microscopic and (apparently) are the virus that kills everyone; the Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped, where members must go around searching for him in the most unlikely of places; and as President Wilbur allocates everyone new middle names in an attempt to alleviate social isolation and to provide them with a new family:

"Yes, after the government provided the directories, Free Enterprise producted family newspapers. Mine was The Daffy-nition. Sophie's, which continued to arrive at the White House long after she had left me, was The Goober Gossip. Vera told me the other day that the Chipmunk paper used to be The Woodpile.
Relatives asked for work or investment capital, or offered things for sale in the classified ads. The new columns told of triumphs by various relatives, and warned against others who were child molesters or swindlers and so on. There were lists of relatives who could be visited in various hospitals and jails.
There were editorials calling for family health insurance programmes and sports teams and so on. There was one interesting essay, I remember, either in The Daffy-nition or The Goober Gossip, which said that families with high moral standards were the best maintainers of law and order, and that police departments could be expected to fade away.
'If you know of a relative who is engaging in criminal acts,' it concluded, 'don't call the police. Call ten more relatives.'
And so on." (p.125)

Reviews describe his writing as funny, but I don't laugh. It leaves me bemused by the way he ridicules everything about society. What I find interesting is that in creating these weird scenarios and having people enact strange new rituals he is mocking our everyday activities that we take so seriously and think so important. Nothing that we do in life is either normal or logical, it is just the way we have come to do things. I am always left with the message that he considered life to be ridiculous, and why pretend otherwise. It is only by accepting this idea that life begins to make a strange sort of sense.

Monday 22 September 2014

existence is catastrophe

'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt has been the subject of a great deal of attention, including this article in Vanity Fair  on whether it is really the great novel that everyone is claiming. I have admitted before to being a bit of a literature snob, to not reading much 'popular' fiction and to not really being in the 'any kind of reading is good reading' camp: life is too short to read bad books in my opinion. This was a very good book. There is something different about a good short book, and a good long book; when a book is, say, less than 200 pages, it has to manage the story and the characters differently from one, like this, that is well in excess of 800. Not, however, that it felt (unlike the last four Harry Potter books) like it needed a bit of radical editing, the sometimes meandering and often boring detail all added to your sense of following someone real, because life often is meandering and boring. I felt that it was a good book because by the end I cared about everyone in it, I cared about what happened to all of them, and boy did I care about the painting. It was lovely to discover that it is a real painting and not something of the author's invention.

The Goldfinch
(Possible spoilers but it's a bit unavoidable I'm afraid) The story is told first-hand by Theo and relates the years of his life following the death of his mother in a terrorist bomb attack on a museum. As a bewildered young boy he is taken in for a few months by a friend's family but then his estranged father and his girlfriend turn up and he is shipped off to Vegas. Here he is left pretty much to fend for himself and he survives due mainly to the friendship of Boris, with whom he consumes vast amounts of alcohol and recreational drugs and they appear to live almost entirely on snack food. A subsequent tragedy necessitates a hasty return to New York, where he finds a foster home with Hobie, a furniture dealer and restorer. In the years that follow old friends reappear in his life bringing with them a variety of unforseen consequences.

But what about the painting, I hear you cry. Well, Theo steals the painting in the aftermath of the bomb, to save it for his mother, he convinces himself. But once it is in his possession it becomes a tangible link to her, something she loved, and the longer he has it the more he finds himself unable to let go of it. Though most the book does not revolve around what happens to the painting it remains this vital part of the story, a reminder for Theo of what has gone before but also something strangely permanent in the often unpredictable world. 

The book is a weird contradiction. Lengthy passages detailing the dissolute and chaotic life of neglected teenage boys manage to make you think very hard about the nature of adolescence and how they make sense of life. The endless drug taking would have depressed me except it seemed to depress him more. His determination not to create any expectations for either himself or others about his life paints a vivid picture of a person adrift in his own life; he doesn't know how to ask for help because he has no notion of what is missing. He is so isolated that he cannot trust even Hobie with knowledge of the painting. He shares with Pippa that fate of being haunted by the bombing, something that, in his favourite moments, bonds them together, but they are both too lost to be able to help each other. I wished she had been more significant to the story, but she becomes another shadow figure who cannot help him. Summed up in this lovely quote:

"Worse: my love for Pippa was muddied-up below the waterline with my mother, with my mother's death, with losing my mother and not being able to get her back. All that blind, infantile hunger to save and be saved, to repeat the past and make it different, had somehow attached itself, ravenously, to her. There was an instability in it, a sickness. I was seeing things that weren't there. I was only one step away from some trailer park loner stalking a girl he'd spotted at the mall. For the truth of it was: Pippa and I saw each other maybe twice a year; we e-mailed and texted, though with no great regularity; when she was in town we loaned each other books and went to the movies; we were friends; nothing more. My hopes for a relationship with her were wholly unreal, whereas my ongoing misery, and frustration, were an all-too-horrible reality. Was groundless, hopeless, unrequited obsession any way to waste the rest of my life?" (p.570)

Despite being 864 pages it seems to race along, though I did read a large chunk of it very fast yesterday because it was overdue at the library. I'm not sure I appreciated everything about it. Quotes I found and like, capturing certain aspects of the story and what it is trying to say. This one when he is sitting with Welty in the wreckage of the museum; it's as if part of him has realised instantaneously how his life has changed, while the rest of his mind pretends he has to go and meet his mother:

"But his hand in mine was limp. I sat there and looked at him, not knowing what to do. It was time to go, well past time - my mother had made that perfectly clear - and yet I could see no path out of the space where I was and in fact in some ways it was hard to imagine being anywhere else in the world - that there was another world, outside that one. It was like I'd never had another life at all." (p.45)

This one just amused me, and there were not many laughs in the book:

"Christ, I thought, turning from the mirror to sneeze. I hadn't been around a mirror in a while and I barely recognised myself: bruised jaw, spattering of chin acne, face blotched and swollen from my cold - eyes swollen too, lidded and sleepy, giving me a sort of dumb, shifty, homeschooled look. I looked like some cult-raised kid just rescued by local law enforcement, brought blinking from some basement stocked with firearms and powdered milk." (p.421)

I tried very hard not to be irritated by the affluent people (books about rich people are so irritating and literary fiction abounds with them), and the claim that his mother was having 'financial problems' but she still manages to leave him all this money and he goes to school with people who are incredibly wealthy. However I liked this. At one point he is horrified to find his old building has been gutted for renovation, the need to have things stay the same becomes very important. Here he is reassured by the permanence of the doorman at the Barbour's building and this is his imagining:

"Even in some smoky post-catastrophe Manhattan you could imagine him swaying genially at the door in the rags of his uniform, the Barbours up in the apartment burning old National Geographic for warmth, living off gin and tinned crabmeat." (P.527)

These two, touching on the same idea really, the last one comes from the final pages. What is life really all about, and why do we bother with it? 

"Most people seemed satisfied with the thin decorative gaze and the artful stage lighting that, sometimes, made the bedrock atrocity of the human predicament look somewhat more mysterious and less abhorrent. People gambled and gloved and planted gardens and traded stocks and had sex and bought new cars and practiced yoga and worked and prayed and redecorated their homes and got worked up over the news and fussed over their children and gossiped about their neighbours and poured over restaurant reviews and founded charitable organisations and supported political candidates and attended the U.S. Open and dined and travelled and distracted themselves with all kinds of gadgets and devices, flooding themselves incessantly with information and texts and communication and entertainment from every direction to try and make themselves forget it: where we were, what we were. But in strong light there was no good spin you could put on it. It was rotten top to bottom." (p.535)

"Is Kitsey right? If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight towards the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop you ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement, the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or - like Boris - is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?" (p.853)

Such a cast of characters: the wild and reckless Boris; wonderful intuitive, reliable Hobie; Mrs Barbour, reserved and in control of everything, but then so crushed and vulnerable when Theo comes back; the enigmatic Pippa; Kitsey and Platt each coping with their family trauma in their own ways; the unpleasant and insidious Lucius Reeve. And then, having had bouts of relative stability punctuated by sudden trauma, and then pottered along harmlessly for several hundred pages, it turns into something of a tense thriller that had me racing through the pages saying aloud 'but where's the bloody painting!' All in all a wonderful book.

Saturday 20 September 2014

a small, hesitant thing

About this time two years ago I commented what a strange coincidence it was that I read two books in succession that mentioned the Nags Head in Edale. And now I have just read the second book in a month narrated by a librarian. I applied for a job before the summer in the library at Salford University, I think I would have suited me down to the ground and was very disappointed not to get an interview, such things come up so rarely.

"The Giant's House' by Elizabeth McCracken was bought on the strength of the lovely 'Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination' that I read last month. It lived up to the glowing review, quiet and unassuming and exquisite. It tells the tale of Peggy, a young woman growing old in a small town library, who falls in love with a tall young boy. James Sweatt grows, both older and taller, under her watchful gaze. She sees in him a kindred spirit and takes pleasure in seeking out books for him but remains for many years on the periphery of his life. Gradually a friendship grows up with his aunt and uncle, and her life becomes more and more entangled with his. It is a slightly one sided love story because we get to know Peggy so much better than James. Others see him as a curiosity, the locals as well as the tourists, it is as if she is the only person who truly sees past his giant size to the person underneath. There is not much to say about the story, the book is really just about the two of them. They are bonded I felt partly by their quiet acquiescence to their situations in life; James does not yearn to be a normal kid, and she does not aspire the escape her 'librarian' life. While she fights to make a life for him that fits his size he changes hers in much more subtle ways. 

She doesn't like people much, she confesses that straight off, what she has passion for is knowledge:

"People think librarians are unromantic, unimaginative. This is not true. We are people whose dreams run in peculiar ways. Ask a mountain climber what he feels when he sees a mountain; a lion tamer what goes through his mind when he meets a new lion; a doctor confronted with a beautiful malfunctioning body. The idea of a library full of books, the books full of knowledge, fills me with fear and love and courage and endless wonder. I knew I would be a librarian in college as a student assistant at a reference desk, watching those lovely people at work. 'I don't think there's such a book ...' a patron would begin, and then the librarian would hand it to them, that very book." (p.8)

Then this unusually tall boy arrives with a group from school and asks for a book about magic, and things will never be the same again.

"He became a regular after that first school visit, took four books out at a time, returned them, took another four. I let him renew the magic book again and again, even though the rules said one renewal only. Librarians lose reason when it comes to regulars, the good people, the readers. Especially when they were like James: it wasn't that he was lonely or bored; he wasn't dragged into the library by a parent. He didn't have the strange desperate look that some librarygoers develop, even children, the one that says: this is the only place I'm welcome anymore." (p.8-9)

I loved her attitude to her charges, the books, this is a wonderful analogy:

"Books are a bad family - there are those you love, and those you are indifferent to; idiots and mad cousins who you would banish except others enjoy their company; wrongheaded but fascinating eccentrics and dreamy geniuses; orphaned grandchildren; and endless brothers-in-law simply taking up space who you wish you could send straight to hell. Except you can't, for the most part. You must house them and make them comfortable and worry about them when they go on trips and there is never enough room." (p.21)

Then the strain of all his growing begins to tell on James' health and Peggy decides it is a waste to wait for him to fall in love with her, that she will just love for the two of them:

"I loved him because he was young and dying and needed me. I loved not only his height, but his careful way with any hobby, his earnestness, his strange sense of humour that always surprised me. I loved him because I wanted to save him, and because I could not. I loved him because I wanted to be enough for him, and I was not.
I loved him because I discovered that day, after years of practice, I had a talent for it." (p.78-9)

Although the story is bitter sweet it is perfect because in all good love stories someone walks in and changes a small, hesitant life into something else. It is strange because the fact of his giant-ness is both vital and irrelevant to the tale. It is what makes the telling of it so curious. Sorry, that is a bit cryptic, you'll just have to read it. 

Whiffle and waffle

Two quickies. Many months ago I went over to Ted and watched the much lauded talk by Brené Brown. I got her book 'Daring Greatly' from the library and was somewhat underwhelmed. She says the same thing over and over (and over) again, applying the same idea to a multitude of different situations and human experiences. While her ideas are very interesting I would say go watch the talk and it pretty much encapsulates what she's got to say.
The other quickie is 'On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored' by Adam Philips, which came highly recommended by Brainpickings, but I struggled through it over my breakfast for a couple of months before abandoning it in favour of new reads.
He spends the entire book quoting Freud and Winnicott every other paragraph, and the style is very academic and dull, it was not really written for the casual reader. I am sure psychoanalysis has a great deal that is interesting to say about the human condition but sometimes I think people's motivation is not as deeply sunk in the subconscious as they claim. One little quote I wrote down amused me:
"It is, of course, easy to forget that worries are imaginative creations, small epics of personal failure and anticipated catastrophe. They are, that is to say, made up." (p.49)
Something for us all to bear in mind maybe.

Sunday 14 September 2014

Making things in September

All summer we have been watching the neighbour over the fence get gradually plumper. When we heard that the baby had finally arrived I whipped up a little something for him. This is done to the 'bananahead baby beanie' pattern which I have used once before back in 2009. I bought this yarn to make Hesfes Bunnies but it is even more cute as a baby hat.
I made three batches of preserves with blackberries this year; four jars of blackberry and apple jelly, four jars of blackberry and pear jelly and ten jars of jam. Not bad considering the crop was very early this year and I was a bit late to go picking.
Monkey and I made felt to cover her special monkey notebook, but I only took one photo for some reason. I was going to make a cover that went around the spine but she wanted to be able to fold it back and thought it would get in the way so we made separate pieces and just glued them to the card covers.
And this is 'Toerag the Tubemouse' (pattern here for free at Whodunnknit) that I knit and secreted in the pocket of the Monkey Quilt.
Now back to the reading, I have 'The Goldfinch' which has to go back to the library on the 20th.

Friday 12 September 2014

Welcome to the Monkey House

We have been joking for weeks that it has all been just a game, but the deed is finally done. The last of my offspring has flown the coop. Yesterday I drove Monkey, with most of her worldly goods, down to the wonderful and exotic Golders Green, where she will be sharing a house with four other monkeys. She has a couple of days to herself and then the others will gradually be joining her in the metropolis. 
 She nobly offered to take the tiny bedroom; we have tried to make it feel cosy and personal but there will definitely be no cat swinging:
 After a trip to Tesco, a five minute walk away across the Hendon Way, we toured the delights of Golders Green high street, with its many delicious smelling kosher bakeries, and then came back and ate some tea with an episode of Gilmore Girls. It was very strange to say goodbye on the doorstep and drive away leaving her there. 
There will no doubt be regular updates of goings on in London once the Year of the Monkey gets started in a couple of weeks time. 
Reading etc has all still been happening recently but I have been a bit taken up with preparations for the move. Hopefully I will do a few catchup posts over the weekend.