Friday 31 October 2014

NaNoWriMo and all that

Savage Chickens
Well it amused me anyway.

I am not ready for NaNoWriMo. I am exhausted before I even get started having worked without a day off for three weeks (and anticipate probably doing so again next week). It is going to be a difficult month without Monkey here to keep me on track. As agreed at the end of NaNo last year I am planning a rambling fantasy story that will allow anything and everything to happen, fuelled by random suggestions from the adoption forums on the NaNo website. A starting point might be a decent title but Dunk's automated title generating website was rubbish.

I was hoping to have a photo to share of Monkey in her monkey gear (hoodies and stuff with the theatre logo) but it has not been forthcoming. We have exchanged texts and real letters but I have not got much information about what they do; she says it's too hard to explain and would just be meaningless anyway. They do sessions that are entitled things like 'Voice' and 'Mask' and 'Clown' (Clown is a favourite apparently). Next term they go full time and rehearsals start. She was only there two days and she got herself a job, in a call centre of all places, and it is enough to pay the rent. The second week she texted asking how to cook rice but apart from that she has not needed me at all ... I should be pleased that she has been so independent but I am feeling pathetically redundant and having to fight the urge to offer unsolicited advice.

 This is my Nano writing space, cluttered up with junk and not looking very welcoming at all. I think I am going to be able to procrastinate very effectively on Sunday by spending half the day sorting stuff out. 
Having worked on my fair-isle sweater quite a bit recently I have gone back to knitting hexipuffs. I started a second beekeeper project back in summer 2012 shortly after the first one but is has hibernated all this time. I keep looking at the photographs of the Monkey quilt and thinking how much I really want one of my own, so I have been knitting one every day while we watch Deal  and a couple more at knitting club ... at this rate it will take me about another four years. I am estimating at least 600 because they are smaller puffs. The current total has just reached 100.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Three books

'The First Century After Beatrice' by Amin Maalouf was one from my TBR Pile Challenge. I bought it on the spur of the moment quite a long time ago after reading a glowing review, but I was not as absorbed by it as I had anticipated. It charts the story of a man and his daughter against the background of the emergence of a 'substance' that promotes the conception of boys and its impact on the planet, so there is a lot of politics and social commentary. I found its dividing of the world into the affluent developed 'North' and poverty stricken underdeveloped 'South' a little dated, as if they are homogenous blocks with no differentiation of societies, economies, cultures and environments. This was such a big stumbling block for me that I found myself criticising everything about the way that he described the crisis and its consequences and aftermath. I'm kind of sorry because I think the idea had potential but he ended up trying to do too much with the story. I enjoyed it more for the relationships between the members of the family and how it played out over time. The character of the 'wife' Clarence interested me the most but her journalism took her away from the story so much I did not get to see enough of her and she played second place in his life to Beatrice.

One brief quote, nothing to do with style, just one that I thought made the point well:
" You sometimes imagine that with so many newspapers, radios, TV channels, you're going to hear an infinite number of different opinions. Then you discover that it's just the opposite: the power of these means of communication only amplifies the dominant opinions of the time, to the point when it becomes impossible to hear any other bell ringing." (p.104)

'The Secret of Lost Things' by Sheridan Hay was another that I read about and bought, but much more recently. In this book a young girl called Rosemary, upon the untimely death of her mother, finds herself thrust into the surreal world of an obscure New York second hand bookshop called the Arcade. It is populated by the most incredible cast of misfits and oddballs, united I felt by the fact that they are all rather self-absorbed. Alone in the world she befriends Lillian, the concierge at the crappy hotel she lives in, and the glamorous Pearl, the transsexual who works the cash register. She becomes obsessed with the elusive (and unobtainable) Oscar and forms a bond with him as they begin researching the possibility of a lost Herman Melville manuscript. Meanwhile the weird shop manager Walter Geist has developed an obsession with Rosemary, and seeks to involve her in his plans to obtain the manuscript. It is as if the whole book takes place in some kind of alternate universe or time warp; everyone is obsessed with books, either reading, or collecting, or, in the case of Arthur, looking at the pictures (mainly of naked men). I am not sure that as a group they are very good role models for literary involvement as it has become a rather unhealthy habit all round. But I still wanted Rosemary's life; it is romantic and bohemian, and nothing at all like working in a real bookshop I'm sure. 

Lots of quotes, because I loved this book, and it is all about the characters, with the Arcade a character in its own right:
"As well, a number of the Arcade's employees had rather dramatic aspirations. They were variously failed writers, poets, musicians, singers, and were marked with the clerkish frustration of the unacknowledged, the unpublished. The Arcade's thousands of volumes mocked, in particular, literary aspirations. The out-of-print status of most of the stock was further proof of the futile dream of publication. As a monument to literature, the Arcade had an air of the tombstone about it." (p.37)

This second one reminded me of the Susan Hill quote about literary DNA, I like quotes about reading:
"The books housed on one's first adult bookshelf are the geological bed of who we wish to become. And when I think of my few acquisitions, I have to admit how fiercely the autodidact struggles for her education, and how incomplete the education remains. How illusory is any accumulation of knowledge!" (p.106)

" 'Well, a bookstore, but also a reliquary for the bones of strange creatures. Mermaids' tails, unicorn heads ... that sort of thing. You're looking at natural history in this place.'
He swivelled his big head around.
'The books act to filter out the normal. The real. And we've changed shape in the isolation, like specimens from the Galapagos. We're isolates ... islands in an island, like the island you came from ...'
'Stop Arthur, you are peculiar,' I told him, impatient with not following his point, with his rambling.
'Exactly so. You've concluded my argument for me. I've no choice but to be peculiar.' " (p.117)

Lovely contrast between two of the characters:
"Metcalf was probably close in age to Geist, but preserved to a kind of specimen-like perfection. The cashmere turtleneck clung to his trim form, which was dressed completely in black: it would have been easy to confuse his shadow with his actual self.
A more striking contrast in figures could not be imagined, unless it was Geist's and mine. Metcalf appeared a man at once attenuated and condensed; Walter Geist, simply the spectre of one." (p.158)

Last one, again a nice contrast, but here in places not people:
"It was clean and orderly. The architecture - concrete, glass and steel - was aloof and spacious. The interior lights were bright; every aspect the antithesis of the Arcade. I knew books to be objects that loved to cluster and form disordered piles, but here books seemed robbed of their zany capacity to fall about, to conspire. In the library, books behaved themselves." (p.183)

A wonderful book, not much action but plenty of literary intrigue and references. I have shied away from the idea that a whole story can be peopled by outrageous characters, but why not?

'Everything I Found on the Beach' by Cynan Jones. One of the events I volunteered at for the Manchester Literature Festival this year was an evening with Evie Wyld and Cynan Jones. I have reviewed both of Evie's books (here and here ) and requested this from the library on the strength of the reading. He read a long passage from his novel The Dig, which is about a badger baiter. It was graphic and profoundly disturbing and I have no desire to read the book, but the intensity of the writing made quite an impact. This book has some harsh moments in it, it is very dark, but I could not look away. It follows two men, Grzegorz, a polish immigrant working in a slaughter house and struggling to make a new life for himself and his family, and Holden, a young fisherman, dealing with the death of a friend and the responsibilities it has laid upon him. It is a short book, only 200 or so pages, and the tale all takes place within a very short space of time, and we follow in detail the thoughts, decisions and actions of the two as they react to an unexpected opportunity. Then we are introduced to a third man, part of the criminal underclass, and watch as he coldly plans the consequences of their choices. The story was very much outside my usual reading matter but it was completely absorbing. The writing takes you right inside the heads of all three men, understanding their intentions and motivations, even when the choices they make are alien. I anticipated the outcome somewhat but it did not take away from my involvement because by that time I was so emotionally engaged with Holden. The atmosphere of the book is quite bleak and even hopeless. The men are quite powerless to control their own lives, and you sense their intense frustration; they can feel themselves drowning and the events are a last ditch fight for their lives before they go under. 

Two quotes, taken almost at random because so much of the book would be worth quoting. They contrast the two men; Grzegorz with his sense of dislocation, trying to make a new life but missing the old, and Holden with his strong sense of belonging where he is:

"The boy stared. Grzegorz thought his son must have some faint memory of the big farm table, the low ceiling. Of the warm milky smell of the soft old woman that was being blurred in his mind amongst the matrons of this house, was turning into nothing more than a suspicion that he once know someone special. Poland would be a strange thing to him, a distant awareness that would perhaps fade and become nothing more than a historical fact as he grew. With all the Polish around him, nothing had really changed. But there was no place of focus for the boy now, and, looking at him, Grzegorz felt the boy would always carry this sense of having been removed from something and that he would never understand it." (p.18)

"A few fields over he could hear the bleats of the newly turned out lambs, calling for their mothers in the night, and the maternal patience in the answering mearghhs. The bad rain had kept off and it had been a good year for the lambs so far as the wet on their backs could bring them down very quickly. Somewhere, the plaintive call of a fox.
He knew this place well now. The field he was in was not farmed hard and it was scattered with stands of blackthorn and gorse, and sprawling piles of brambles. Everything had a bonsai quality to it, a denseness brought on by the constant, stunting grazing, the tough salt wind." (p.71)

A small book, but very densely written, even when 'nothing' is happening there is a lot going on; you certainly get your money's worth.

Sunday 19 October 2014

Listening not reading (much)

I went last night, as a volunteer that is (not that we had much to do), to hear Kate Tempest at the Contact Theatre as one of the last event of the Manchester Literature Festival. I was probably the only person in the audience who had not heard of her. She was this lovely mixture of worldly and naive, looking at first glance so young but with a voice that has quite a gritty quality that usually comes with years of hard living. She recited from memory for over 20 minutes her version of the story of Tiresias, it was utterly spellbinding. This is just a little taster of her style to tempt you, there is lots more on Youtube, and if you ever get the chance, do go and see her.

As a consequence I did not really get going on the Read-a-thon until this morning, and actually we have been planning a trip to the Manchester Art Gallery to see an exhibition about the First World War, so the reading has been quite limited compared to last time. Also there has been no cake this time:-( The Monkey is in London so I have not had company to stay up all night with.
I am really enjoying 'The Secret of Lost Things'  by Sheridan Hay and also 'Notwithstanding' by Louis de Bernieres (that I picked up at random in the library when my reserved books had not arrived, despite being 'in transit' for three days.) I hope everyone else out there has been having a good weekend of slouching on the sofa surrounded by books. 

Thursday 2 October 2014

Writing a Résumé for National Poetry Day

An e-mail arriving from Faber & Faber informed me that today is National Poetry Day and so I went off on a hunt for a poem to post. There is a lot of poetry out there, so it could take a while. Browsing Horoscopes for the Dead by Bill Collins I found a poem that began with a quote from Wislawa Szymborska and I remembered that I had a book of her poetry from long ago. 
So here, from 'View with a Grain of Sand', is the one I chose. Enjoy.

Writing a Résumé

What needs to be done?
Fill out the application
and enclose the résumé.

Regardless of the length of life,
a résumé is best kept short.

Concise, well-chosen facts are de rigueur.
Landscapes are replaced with addresses,
shaky memories give way to unshakeable dates.

Of all your loves, mention only the marriage;
of all your children, only those who were born.

Who knows you matters more than whom you know.
Trips only if taken abroad.
Memberships in what but without why.
Honours, but not how they were earned.

Write as if you'd never talked to yourself
and always kept yourself at arm's length.

Pass over in silence your dogs, cats, birds,
dusty keepsakes, friends, and dreams.

Price, not worth,
and title, not what's inside.
His shoe size, not where he's off to,
that one you pass off as yourself.
In addition, a photograph with one ear showing.
What matters is its shape, not what it hears.
What is there to hear, anyway?
The clatter of paper shredders.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Boys and Bears and Boats

'A Boy and a Bear in a Boat' by Dave Shelton
I ordered this from the library after reading about it somewhere online and thinking it might be a good birthday gift for the Babe (who is rising five so I think due a change of nickname). I have read it with my breakfast for the last week and loved it. 

It is quite simply a story about a boy and a bear in a boat. It starts off rather dull and slow and you wonder where it might be heading, but as the situation becomes more surreal you get caught up in the story. The front cover, in case you're wondering, is meant to have that cup stain: the blue cover is supposed to be the 'map' of the sea (utterly without landmarks) that the bear consults and he makes the ring with his cup of tea. The journey they are taking is unfortunately extended by unforeseen tidal anomalies and they end up battling a sea monster, encountering a ghost ship and having to build a raft. I think the story it unusual for a children's book because it has an inconclusive ending, but it does tread the well worn theme of friendship and learning to value people. It is also about facing up to challenges and taking responsibility; all through the story the boy is a little bit a victim of circumstance and turns to the bear for knowledge and reassurance, but then at the end the bear succumbs to despair and the boy has to take charge and save the day. The practicalities of living out at sea in a rowing boat are sorely neglected, but I guess that's just me be being an adult reader, a child would not be concerned with such tedious details. It is nearly 300 pages, though they are small and many of them are taken up with illustrations, so it does require some sustained attention, and maybe not for children who are easily scared; although the boy is in quite a vulnerable situation the threats are all very short lived and punctuated by stops for tea:

"And he smiled and stared into space, wearing an expression of deep contentment that he retained for the next quarter of an hour as he consumed, one small (and loudly appreciated) sip at a time, the rest of the contents of the cup. When he was done, he used the last drop of water from the kettle to rinse out his cup, emptied out the teapot into the sea, put everything neatly away and took up his oars again, beaming with happiness." (p.55)