Tuesday 30 March 2021

Mrs Death


'Mrs Death Misses Death' by Selena Godden is another book that is hard to pin down, but then Death is quite hard to pin down. Wolf meets Mrs Death in the traumatic moment when his mother is killed in a fire, and then again years later he buys an old desk, that turns out to be a link to her. Through their connection Mrs Death shares her life and her experiences. So the book is a hotchpotch of narratives, conversations, poems and dreams. It is quite emotionally intense at times, the whole style reminded me very much of her performance we went to at the literature festival some years ago. 

"Last breaths and last moments smash into my brain, death traffic colliding second by second. Death comes, she is seeping through into my mind. Random deaths and sudden deaths, deliberate deaths and violent deaths, images of the end of life and life endings. These dreadful scenes and horrific feeling crawl like ivy through The Desk and through my fingertips, into my veins, my emotions and into my thoughts. Cannot breathe. I cannot breathe. My father is walking into the sea. He cannot breathe. My mother is trapped in a burning building. She cannot breathe. Oh no. I cannot breathe. I have stopped breathing. Breathe, breathe, damn it, breathe. I jolt and I am back in the room. A million coloured spots before my eyes. I'm exhausted. I am weeping. I am gasping for air. Breathe slowly, slower, slow down. I hold myself steady and place my face flat against the cool wood. I slow down my breathing and stroke the desk top. My heart is slowing down again. Breathe. Just breathe. I have been somewhere else, everywhere else, but I am here again. Oh, I have been travelling. I time travel. I am a death tourist. I am witness. I am permitted. I can see every end. I go everywhere that Mrs Death goes and the places only Mrs Death can go when I am here and when I listen to The Desk." (p.73)

It is however just as much a book about the human condition, about life. It's not a story, but it is many stories. It is the story of Wolf, but only partly. His history keeps recurring, and there is a link through history between the stories that Mrs Death tells him. 

"Her grandchild Wolf grows impatient and yanks on Rose's apron and Wolf asks again: What are the three most important things in life? Grandmother Rose shakes her head slowly, noticing her hands are cold and numb in the dirty potato water. One raindrop spits onto the kitchen window, followed by five more, spit spit spit says the old rain, spit spit. The washing will get wet unless Rose is quick, the sky is a dark violet colour. 

Hey, Wolf tries, one more time, what are the three most important things in life? The potatoes are peeled and bald in a bowl of salt water. Rose wipes her hands and darts out of the kitchen door to gather the washing from the line. The rain falls sudden, in sloops, rainwater runs and slurps from the gutter; the clean sheets are soaked through.

Wolf stands by the door for a time, watching the rain batter the laundry, old Rose standing in the old roses growing in the garden. Wolf takes it all in: the apple tree, the long green grass, the purplish sky. Mrs Rose Willeford all white-haired. The white bedsheets, her mouth full of clothes pegs, her apron pocket bulging with more wooden clothes pegs. Wet apples, wet grass and the wet old lady. Wolf leaves the empty jam jar on the step to fill with raindrops." (p,195-6)

In the last part of the book Wolf goes to Ireland to a remote tower to write and a series of poems completes the book, I particularly liked this one:

The weather
is mad 
blue sky rain
grey sky sunshine
the sea is
razors and

Stay safe. Be kind. Stay human. Enjoy the sunshine.

Monday 29 March 2021

Talking to Strangers


This books starts with the story of Sandra Bland. A young Black woman is stopped by a policeman, an altercation ensues and she is arrested. Three days later she killed herself in the police cell. This book goes beyond the endemic racism of the police to look more widely at the way human beings fail to understand each other in all sorts of important ways.

The book takes us through some historical examples, Chamberlain's 'getting to know' Hitler, and the CIA's work in East Germany, to show that human beings, despite their best efforts, fail to understand others or see the truth. There is a long section on intelligence work against Castro's Cuba and how the CIA's top Cuban advisor was a Cuban agent for decades. Then he moves on to the rapes and the child abuse cases. It makes your blood boil and I found it quite a hard read, the descriptions of how people (men) got away for decades with systematic abuse, all because of the way that people 'default to truth', assume that whoever they are talking to is truthful. He describes at length the Amanda Knox case; a young woman who didn't act the way people thought she should and ended up in prison because of it. The examples are interspersed with descriptions of psychological experiments that examined the situations being described.

"But the harder we work at getting strangers to reveal themselves, the more elusive they become. Chamberlain would have been better off never meeting Hitler at all. He should have stayed home and read Mein Kampf. The police in the Sandusky case searched high and low for his victims for two years. What did their efforts yield? Not clarity, but confusion: stories that changed; allegations that surfaced and then disappeared; victims who were bringing their own children to meet Sandusky one minute, then accusing him of terrible crimes the next.

James Mitchell was in the same position. The CIA had reason to believe that Al Qaeda was planning a second round of attacks after 9/11, possibly involving nuclear weapons. He had to get KSM to talk. But the harder he worked to get KSM to talk, the more he compromised the quality of their communication. He could deprive KSM for sleep for a week, at the end of which KSM was confessing to every crime under the sun. But did KSM really want to blow up the Panama Canal?

Whatever it is we are trying to find out about the strangers in our midst is not robust. The 'truth' about Amanda Knox or Jerry Sandusky or KSM is not some hard shiny object that can be extracted if only we dig deep enough and look hard enough. The thing we want to learn about a stranger is fragile. If we tread carelessly, it will crumple under our feet. And from that follows a secondary cautionary note: we need to accept that the search to understand a stranger has real limits. We will never know the whole truth. We have to be satisfied with something short of that. The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility. How many of the crises and controversies I have described would have been prevented had we taken those lessons to heart?" (p.261)

The second part of the book looks at the Kansas City experiment, an experiment in policing style to prevent crime by visible police presence. This led to a policing practice that allowed police to stop people on the mere suspicion that they were doing something wrong, and then search the person or the vehicle for weapons. When confined to specific areas of high crime the practice appeared to have a dramatic impact, but what ended up happening was that it was taken up and applied across the board, and this brings the book back around to Sandra Bland. She was stopped precisely because of an over-enthusiastic application this policy. It was the opposite of the 'default to truth' problem in the first half of the book, a 'default to guilt', a policy that assumed everyone you might encounter was up to no good. This was a fascinating book that gives much pause for thought and reflection on how humans communicate and understand each other.

"This book is about a conundrum. We have no choice but to talk to strangers, especially in our modern, borderless world. We aren't living in villages any more. Police officers have to stop people they don't know. Intelligence officers have to deal with deception and uncertainty. Young people want to go to parties explicitly to meet strangers: that's part of the thrill of romantic discovery. Yet at this most necessary of tasks we are inept. We think we can transform the stranger, without cost or sacrifice, into the familiar and the known, and we can't." (p.342)

I know that I have a strong tendency to trust people and take them at face value, then a little incident happened a few weeks ago at work. A young man came in to collect his parcel. He had come on his bike and his P739 card had dropped from his pocket. I am usually most helpful in these circumstances (other of my colleagues are more sticklers for the rules) and I found the packet and checked his ID. Later in the day a man came in with a card, and when I asked him for ID he said he had lost it all in a house fire. I said I could send the packet back out to his house for him, but when I searched the packet I found it was the one that the young man has collected that morning. The man mumbled something and exited very promptly and as he left I realised he had probably found the card on the road and decided to try and steal it. It disrupts my sense of humans as mostly good people, and I then try and be more strict, and then will feel mean for not being helpful, and then I remind myself not to beat myself up about stuff and go back to trusting.

Stay safe. Be kind. Stay human.

Friday 26 March 2021

Old ladies and all that

(Repeat under breath: I will not beat myself up about pile of unreviewed books). I finished Leonora Carrington's book 'The Hearing Trumpet back in January, and what a fabulous surreal experience it was. Back before crimbo Monkey and I had watched this video attached to a Guardian article (that you find when you randomly browse the book pages) and she sounded such an amazing person her name was immediately added to the 'must read' list. I naturally mostly forgot about it, and then Monkey bought me The Hearing Trumpet. 
There is an elderly lady called Marion Leatherby, and she has a friend called Carmella, and some cats. Carmella buys her an antique hearing trumpet, because she suffers from declining hearing, and, using it, she discovers that her son is planning on putting her in a home. The home however, when she gets there, is not all she anticipated. Lots of weird shit happens, someone dies (kind of by accident), management are in denial, Carmella arrives with a plan that involves a hunger strike by residents:

" 'This is a kind of mutiny, and if you are discovered by the authorities they might turn machine guns on you. An armoured car would be most adequate, or even a small tank, although there may be some difficulties in getting these. You would be obliged to ask the collaboration of the army. I am not sure if they lend out tanks, although they might have an old one. In any case the meeting should take place with the greatest secrecy. If you can get people to come hooded it would be better, because then they would not be recognised unless captured and tortured.'
Carmella went through this advice several times, then took her leave with a few final instructions, such as putting snipers in the trees around the bee pond, installing secret radio stations and a series of outposts with tom-toms which would relay coded messages.
After Carmella's stimulating visit I was feeling quite excited and happy. It was not long before I met Georgina, to whom I immediately communicated our plans, omitting some of the less practical ones such as the tanks, the snake oil, the secret radio stations and the snipers. I emphasised the hunger strike as not only desirable but urgently necessary." (p.114)

I think this gives you an accurate view of the style of the book. I was enjoying it and anticipating some kind of fairly straightforward but essentially cathartic denouement, however it went down an even more utterly surreal track that involved some strange rituals and the end of the world as we know it. I am not sure even how to classify this book, but who doesn't enjoy a story of a bunch of elderly ladies coming into their rightful power and place in the world. 

In other news I have reached the end of the hiragana chapters in Human Japanese, and sat this morning, while Monkey was making kanji cards, and made hiragana cards so I can practice and get more confident.

We find that the little flies we have in the kitchen are not fruit flies but fungus gnats. Tish bought some drosera capensis (that will eat the little buggers), while I ordered some sticky fly traps and some diatomaceous earth powder, which is a natural means of killing all sorts of nasties. We are definitely going to have a fly free kitchen this summer.

Stay safe. Be kind. See you tomorrow (or later, I might try and review another one).

Friday 19 March 2021

Seeds and all that

So, we have a covid outbreak in the office so I have not been home much recently, but I did have one day off for what should have been my long weekend and planted some seeds. Some of them came free with my Gardener's World magazine, some that Julie gave me, some that I bought, and some sweet peas left over from last year.
Within three days I had some tiny shoots, and now the sunflowers have shot up and are already two inches tall.
And, even though the mail system is completely stretched to breaking point at the moment I made a couple of impulse purchases; this adorable yellow watering can (from Haws) for sprinkling gently on tiny seedlings:
and some lovely yarn from Totnes Yarns on Etsy after I had a crisis with my project and had to unpick the entire of the pattern I had started and decided the yarn I had chosen was not quite right. Oh well.
Stay safe. Be kind. See you tomorrow.

Friday 12 March 2021

Fourth time lucky


British Gas came back for the fourth time today, to replace the leaky sump. We have certainly got our money's worth from the Homecare, but having only part time heating for two of the coldest months of the year has been not much fun. 
Monkey made me a fab chocolate cake for my birthday scattered with tiny unicorns, though the office is in chaos again so none of the cards arrived on time and since I was on leave I didn't go and pick them up. Last one from mum and dad arrived today, nine days after it was posted:
I had a thoroughly puzzling week off and Tish and I finished 'Unseen University' when I got home from work today:
Life potters on slowly and monotonously. I have been doing my Japanese practice while on my break at work; making good progress and feeling more confident. I dyed my hair again, purple and silver, but only Damson at work noticed. Monkey says I'm not old as she would laugh if I fell over.
Stay safe. Be kind. See you tomorrow.

Monday 8 March 2021

International Women's Day


Stuff the pink hearts, flowers and butterflies lets have some poetry for International Women's Day.


Use the word 'befall.' Take away

this netting, these gardening pots

with the drainage holes, these small square

days the size of calendar boxes; how each

sleep scores a line through the last,

thin and unfrayable as an eyelash. Lets not dodge

the branches as the forest runs towards us,

mark time by the near misses, loves that mend

sure as cuts sliced through shadow 

by the waving hand. i'm done with healing

over like water heals above a sinking body.

(From 'The Air Year' by Caroline Bird)

Saturday 6 March 2021

Think I'm Turning Japanese


I have been feeling sluggish and my leave has not been as productive as I intended, but yesterday Monkey coaxed me into doing the first chapter of Human Japanese, which was a gentle introduction to pronunciation in the Japanese language. Then this morning, while she did her Japanese homework I got on with chapter 2 (introduction to written Japanese) and then chapter 3 ... hiragana. And now I can read this:
It feels like huge progress in a couple of hours. I do read it very (very) slowly and have to visualise each hiragana and remember which group it is in and which vowel it is attached to, but I can do it. I am taking a break to write a blog post and knit a round of my Gaudi jumper and then will go back and try to write out again the 15 that I have learnt without looking at the screen. I am not sure when was the last time I made my brain work this hard.
Outside lovely things are happening. I hung out my bedding (not that it's sunny, but being outside makes it smell nice) and just looked for signs among all the brown, wizened, and twiggy plants. A caterpillar on the top of the plum tree (which does have little buds):
Bulbs that I planted around the plum tree but can't recall what they are , so that will be a nice surprise when they flower:
And buds on the physocarpus opulifolius that I planted back in September:
Stay safe. Be kind. See you tomorrow.
(line 1: a, i, u, e, o. line 2: ka, ki, ku, ke, ko. line 3: ga, gi, gu, ge, go. line 4: sa, shi, su, se, so. line 5: za, ji, zu, ze, zo.)

Friday 5 March 2021

If in doubt it's probably a butt ...


After framing the torture puzzle (which I am loving on the living room wall) we moved on to this lovely 'Dominant Curve' by Kandinsky from Barney's Newsbox, which we completed in two days.
I have all sorts of other stuff I planned to do on my week off but having lost one day to a headache and another to the gas engineer I seem to have drifted to the puzzle board. Next we got an old one back out again, 'The Garden of Earthly Delights' by Hieronymus Bosch. It is an excellent picture for a puzzle, it's so full of activity and details,
but mostly butts:

It keeps us entertained while we puzzle to search for the butts.
This one only took a couple of days too, so Tish went to the Discworld Emporium and bought a puzzle of Unseen University library:
Stay safe. Be kind. See you tomorrow.