Thursday, 28 September 2017

Dead Hare for National Poetry Day

Today is National Poetry Day so I thought I would share one from a collection I have been reading recently. John Burnside's 'Still Life with Feeding Snake' has been my breakfast book for a couple of weeks now, I am reading through it for the second time. This poem appealed to me because I encountered a dead fox on Fog Lane a few weeks ago and it was similarly perfect, undamaged despite obviously having been struck by a car on a busy, narrow road. It is rare to get so close, so I bent down to stroke its ear.


I got home late that night, so I didn't see
the body, till the headlamps picked it out,
almost unscathed, so it seemed,
in the hover of light, the taxi-driver
stepping out to look, as I stooped down
and ran my fingers through the empty pelt.

No marks that I could see, no wounds
to tell how it had died, the driver
stepping out to look, unless he'd thought
to see me to the door,
sensing the blur in my hands, the house key
spilling from my fingers in the dark, the smell
of vodka on my breath.

By morning, the fur had creased
and shriveled, and the outcurve of the eye
was nothing but a smudge
of glaze and pulp, the limbs
extended, still, as if they could recall
the joy of bounding through the summer grass,
still formal, while its substance leached away
and left behind a corpse, abridged, unspooled,
all tenderness surrendered to the rain

so quietly, it made me want to stop
and let the spell come over me, a brief
rehearsal of the self shrugged off or pared
away, another body shining though
as skin and bone, perhaps, but with its light
intact, the tawny camber of the soul
protracted, till the chance of something new
seemed possible, if only for an hour.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

All the yarn

Today we took a trip to Yarndale and looked at, and stroked, all the yarn. It took us many, many hours. We admired the needle felting, cooed over the angora bunny, sniffed the unwashed fleece and were complemented on our knitted garments. Then we had some tea. Then we stroked more yarn. There was much debate over whether baby yak or baby alpaca is softer. Opinion remains divided on the subject. We tried to keep track of the stands we planned to return to after our perusal of the entire show, but things never work out as planned. 

I bought some Angus gradient yarn from WooSheeps, to make a Nori dress:
And some Silk Cloud recycled sari silk yarn from La La With Love:
Many, many fabulous yarn shops are out there, and this was a wonderful way to find some new ones, often people spinning and dying their own, here are some that we visited: midwinter yarns, FeltStudioUK, Cat and Sparrow, Pook GB, Tall Yarns (who also do wonderful linen clothing), Blacker Yarns, Fig Tree Yarns, EasyknitsWhistlebare, Injabulo (handwoven baskets and bowls from recycled wire).

Meanwhile back at home projects have been coming along, some more speedily than others.
My Lost in Time shawl is finally making progress, having stalled due to bad stitch counting:
I knit a 'Five Hour Baby Cardigan' in about five hours, and a little hat in about two. These are for a colleague at work who is expecting a baby later this year:
And Claire's grannie square blanket has been completed and dispatched. I was completely thrilled with how beautiful it is; it was meant to be a birthday present but I couldn't wait to give it to her. 

Monday, 4 September 2017

Down Among the Sticks and Bones

This book, on the other hand, I finished the other day. I must try and keep up to date with the reviews or the system falls apart (system??? what system?). Somebody recommended it, and there it was in the library catalogue. 'Down Among the Sticks and Bones' by Seanan McGuire is a prequel to 'Every Heart a Doorway', which I might or might not get around to reading. She writes a lot of fantasy series and if you're into that kind of thing then you will probably enjoy her writing. While I did eventually get engaged in the narrative the story spent the first forty pages or so making a very laboured point about enforced gender roles and parental expectations, a theme which persisted through the story. Jack and Jill escape the confines of their stifling parents through a trapdoor in their grandmother's trunk, that takes them down to a surreal underworld populated by vampires and mad scientists. Instead of sticking together in this alien environment they are driven apart by conflicting desires and find themselves on opposite sides of a longstanding feud. The two girls eventually develop some personality of their own, but are still confined by the expectations of their new protectors. 

"The man smiled. His teeth were as white as his lips were red, and for the first time, the contrast seemed to put some color into his skin. 'Oh, this will be fun,' he said, and opened the iron door.
On the other side was a hall. It was a perfectly normal hall, as subterranean castle halls went: the walls were stone, the floor was carpeted in faded red and black filigree, and the chandeliers that hung from the ceiling were rich with spider webs, tangled perilously close to the burning candles. The man stepped through. Jack and Jill, lacking any better options, followed him.
See them now as there were then, two golden-haired little girls in torn and muddy clothes, following a spotless stranger through a castle. See how he moves, as fluid as a hunting cat, his feet barely seeming to brush the ground, and how the children hurry to keep up with him, almost tripping over themselves in their eagerness to not be left behind! They are still holding each others's hands, our lost little girls, but already Jack is beginning to lag a little, suspicious of their host, wary of what happens when the three days are done.
They are not twins who have been taught the importance of cleaving to each other, and the cracks between them are already beginning to show. It will not be long before they are separated." (p.70-1)

So, in the new world the 'girly' one gets to toughen up and get dirty, and the 'tomboy' gets to dress pretty, so they don't really escape anything. It all felt a bit lame and added nothing to what could have been a good story about the bonds of sisterhood. I think I will probably stick to writing for grown ups.

Look at me

'Look at me' by Jennifer Egan came from a charity shop in Golders Green several years ago, conclusive proof that buying books and just putting them on the shelf for later is perfectly fine.

I enjoyed this book, she is a very clever writer, taking the most unlikely of characters and situations and making them engaging. 'Look at me' follows two different, though not unrelated Charlottes as they make sense of what life has dealt them.
My favourite character has to be Moose, one Charlotte's uncle, who's life has taken some interesting, often surreal, turns and as such leaves him with a very particular take on things:

"No. It wasn't fresh air that impelled Moose's walks to work; it was the fact that in an era characterised by, among other ominous developments, the disappearance of the sidewalk, he offered up as a gesture of insurrection his own persistence in walking where the sidewalk should have been. I may look silly, his thinking went, as he rappelled over wedge-shaped hedges between parking lots and sashayed aside for heavy-breathing Chevy Suburbans, but not nearly as silly as a world without sidewalks - indeed, my apparent silliness is merely a fractional measure of an incalculable larger silliness whose foil I am." (p.130)

I read this book a month ago, started writing this and then got distracted, and now barely recall it. I like to keep the reading record straight so I will leave you with the only other quote I noted down. Egan is writing mostly about American society, so I often found people's concerns a little bemusing, but despite the picture she paints she is plainly fond of the place:

"At last Irene's pen was moving. Pool-O-Rama, Tumbleweed, Stash O'Neill's, Happy Wok ... I felt proud! Proud of my hometown! Of its hokey ethnic restaurants, of its meticulous obliteration of the natural world. Of the vertiginous sense that we could be anywhere in America and find these same franchises in this exact order. Of Rockford's scrupulous effacement of any lingering spoor of individuality, uniqueness!" (p.395-6)

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

History of Wolves

I seem to be reading my way through the Booker longlist, purely by coincidence, so the next book the library bought me was 'History of Wolves' by Emily Fridlund. I was disappointed that there were no wolves. It is the story of Linda who lives with her parents in a remote lakeside cabin. Members of a former commune they tend to keep to themselves and she is something of an outsider. A young family acquire the cabin opposite and Linda is gradually drawn in by the mother and son who take up residence while the father works elsewhere. Alongside runs the story of her school life, a girl called Lily and the history teacher Mr Grierson.

It is a very intense and claustrophobic book. Linda's world is very small and she is lonely in ways I don't think even she understands, so when Patra offers her a token of friendship she grasps it with both hands. Over the months they settle into a comfortable routine, though Patra often takes her presence for granted and there remains something of a parent/babysitter relationship between them. So the story meanders between various quite discrete part of Linda's life: home life, taking care of their four dogs and preparing the fish her father catches; school life of eating her lunch in the toilet and surreptitiously following Lily around; life at the Gardners, exploring the woods with Paul and eating pancakes. It is punctuated with brief asides, references to 'the trial' and her future life that contains a housemate and a boyfriend. 

I was discomfited by the relationship between Patra and Paul, it seemed strained and slightly unnatural. It was the thing that I liked about the book that she achieved this very subtly, nothing was said, nothing very particular happened, it was just there. Linda seems to like taking on a big sister role with him, sharing her love of the wildness, though sometimes awkward and unable to engage with him at his own level. You get little hints of an oppressive atmosphere in the family, but again it is not explicit. As soon as Leo arrives home though the atmosphere changes and Linda is as discomfited as I was, but she just does not know what to do about it. The references to religion and god only slip in very late in the day and it is not entirely clear what is going on, though the repeated assertion that Paul is 'fine' quickly begins to make it obvious that he isn't. She lets you know at the beginning of the story that Paul is dead, but I had initially anticipated something much more sinister. The effect of this information is also to make you want (inside your head) for things to turn out differently, you find yourself willing Linda to do something. It's like when you watch a film you have seen many times, in which something tragic happens, and you yearn each time for something to happen to save the day. Linda gives a long convoluted description of what she actually does when she walks into town to buy medicine for Paul; she knows somewhere in her mind that he is seriously ill but there is no urgency in her behaviour, as if she is desperate for someone else to take the responsibility away from her, she does not have the strength to challenge the internal dynamics of Leo and Patra's relationship. 

I have a nice long quote just to give you a taste. Here Linda and Paul have been camping in the living room while Patra drove to the airport to meet Leo. It is an incident in which Linda seems more sure of herself than she does at any other point in the book, yet it is not out of character:

"Later when I woke up, I found Patra had curled up around Paul. Back to me. But I could feel her curved spine through her jacket when I pushed in closer, all those littler vertebrae linked up, all those bones laid out, like a secret. The night had come down hard, finally. Thunder was rumbling far away. Wind had kicked up waves, and they were loud enough now that I could hear them on the shore of the lake, shoving pebbles forward and back. I could hear pine needles whipping the roof of the house. I could hear Paul and Patra breathing in syncopation.
Happy, I was happy.
I barely recognised the feeling.
So who could blame me for wishing that the husband's rescheduled plane would drift into a low-lying thunderhead? That it would shunt into sudden turbulence, lose elevation fast? Who could blame me for hoping his pilot would be young and scared, that he'd turn around and fly back over the ocean? The husband had his own baby stars to watch over and his own mountains to do it from, in Hawaii. I longed for straight line winds between him and me, for hurricanes off the California coast. Downpours and lightening. The thunder was getting louder now. I felt the tent I'd built gather us in, Paul and Patra. Patra and me.
I slept and woke. I dreamed of the dogs. I dreamed of taking Patra and Paul out on the canoe, currents like underwater hands thrusting the boat around, so we had to fight to go forward. My paddle guiding us towards the shore. Or maybe guiding us away from it, maybe we were leaving after all. I slept and woke. Slept.

Eventually, just after dawn, I heard a scuffling outside. It sounded like a slow-moving mammal, a possum or raccoon, unsettling the driveway stones. ThenI heard a car door thump. Very gently I sat up and pulled the hatchet from under Paul's pillow. I unzipped the tent, tiptoed across the braided rugs, crept to the front window. There, in the driveway, in the early morning light, stood a man in a blue slicker next to a rental car. He held a brown sack of groceries, a duffel bag. He looked bland and harmless - so when he opened the door I let the hatchet hang in my hand where he could see it. And Patra was right: I could hear him think. I could hear him taking in the dark room and the tent on the floor and the tall, scrawny kid coming out from the shadows, with a good-sized weapon." (p.87-8)

So, a story that takes a sidelong look at the issue of religious based medical neglect, without somehow passing judgement on it. It was certainly an engaging and well written novel, though not I think Booker material. 

And just because I wanted wolves:

What is the acceptable amount of blood for good literature?

Arundhati Roy's new book 'The Ministry of Utmost Happiness' is on the Booker Prize longlist, not surprising for a book that has been anticipated for twenty years. It is now overdue at the library so I will probably fail to do it justice. It's hard to know where to start because it is a book about so many things, but, primarily, as with my vague memories of 'God of Small Things', it is a story about people. So many people. And somehow she manages to get you attached to all of them.

It begins with the life of Anjum, who is a hijra, who is making her life in an abandoned graveyard after years of random confusion and disappointment. The community of people she builds up around her populates the book, coming and going about their own lives, which she details along with the lives of the central characters. I enjoyed the backstories of these minor players, it creates depth and colour. The first part of the book covers Anjum's world, it has its troubles but it is relatively calm and stable. It is not a social critique or a demand for a change to the caste system, it is simply a portrayal of the way things are. The picture she paints of this world is both sordid and divided. Poverty is endemic but the people are accepting of the status quo and seem to find comfort in their own little niches. 

"Right next to  the waste-recyclers and the sewage workers was the plushest part of the pavement, a glittering public toilet with floating glass mirrors and a shiny granite floor. The toilet lights stayed on, night and day. It cost one rupee for a piss, two for a shit and three for a shower. Not many on the pavement would afford these rates, Many pissed outside the toilet, against the wall. So, though the toilet was spotlessly clean inside, from the outside it gave off the sharp smoky smell of stale urine. It didn't matter very much to the management; the toilet's revenue came from elsewhere. The exterior wall doubled up as a billboard that advertised something new every week." (p.112)

While it is a political book it is also a literary book, and she always gets her point across in elegant ways:

"The horse's hooves echoed on an empty street.
Payal the thin day-mare clop-clipped through a part of the city she oughtn't to be in.
On her back, astride a red cloth saddle edged with gold tassels, two riders: Saddam Hussain and Ishrat-the-Beautiful. In a part of the city they oughtn't to be in. No signs said so, because everything was a sign that any fool could read: the silence, the width of the roads, the height of the trees, the unpeopled pavements, the clipped hedges, the low white bungalows in which the Rulers lived. Even the yellow light that poured from the tall street lights looked encashable - columns of liquid gold." (p.135)

The second part of the book is narrated by Biplab Dasgupta, one of a group of friends who's bond is formed during play rehearsals, from where he gets his nickname, Garson Hobart. Their India is a much more volatile place. The book from here on is peppered with violence, some of it quite extreme, that often left me shaken. The religious divide she portrays is something it is hard to understand for someone looking in from the outside. This, the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi, an event I recall vividly:

"For a few days after the assassination, mobs led by her supports and acolytes killed thousands of Sikhs in Delhi. Homes, shops, taxi stands with Sikh  drivers, whole localities where Sikhs lives were burned to the ground. Plumes of black smoke climbed into the sky from the fires all over the city. From my window seat in a bus on a bright beautiful day, I saw a mob lynch an old Sikh gentleman. they pulled off his turban, tore out his beard and necklaced him South African-style with a burning tyre while people stood around baying their encouragement. I hurried home and waited for the shock of what I had witnessed to hit me. Oddly it never did. The only shock I felt was the shock at my own equanimity. I was disgusted by the stupidity, the futility of it all, but somehow, I was not shocked. It could be that my familiarity with the gory history of the city I had grown up in had something to do with it. It was as though the Apparition whose presence we in India are all constantly and acutely aware of had suddenly surfaced, snarling, from the deep, and had behaved exactly as we expected it to. Once its appetite was sated it sank back into its subterranean lair and normality closed over. Maddened killers retracted their fangs and returned to their daily chores - as clerks, tailors, plumbers, carpenters, shopkeepers - life went on as before." (p.150)

Tilo is the character who dominates much of the rest of the story;

"She smoked Ganesh beedis that she kept in a scarlet Dunhill cigarette packet. She would look right through the disappointment on the faces of those who had tried to scam what they thought was an imported filter cigarette off her, and ended up instead with a beedi that they were too embarrassed not to smoke, especially when she was offering to light it for them. I saw this happen a number of times, but her expression always remained impassive - there was never a smile or the exchange of an amused glance with a friend, so I could never tell whether she was playing a practical joke or whether this was just the way she did things. The complete absence of a desire to please, or to put someone at their ease, could, in a less vulnerable person, have been construed as arrogance. In her it came across as a kind of reckless aloneness. Behind her plain, unfashionable spectacles, her slightly slanting cat-eyes had the insouciant secretiveness of a pyromaniac. She gave the impression that she had somehow slipped off her leash. As thought she was taking herself for a walk while the rest of us were being walked - like pets. As though she was watching considerately, somewhat absent-mindedly, from a  distance, while we minced along, grateful to our owners, happy to perpetuate our bondage." (p.153-4)

She is idolised by Biplab, he remains at a distance never admitting his feelings for her, but, like a true love never abandons her, ensuring her rescue (spoiler) from her darkest moment.

"I asked her - it was a stupid question - what precautions she took to make sure she stayed safe. She said she didn't dispute the rumour in the neighbourhood that she worked for a well-known drug dealer. That way, she said, people assumed she had protection.
I decided to brazen it out and ask about Musa, where he was, whether they were still together, whether they planned to get married. She said, 'I'm not marrying anybody.' When I asked her why she felt that way, she said she wanted to be free to die irresponsibly, without notice and for no reason." (p.159)

By the time you have staggered through the 400 pages you almost become immune to the random killing, though you feel as if this is deliberate on the authors part. I felt there was an element of cynicism and fatalism to people's attitude to the violence.

"The post-massacre protocol was quick and efficient - perfected by practice. Within an hour the dead bodies had been removed to the morgue in the Police Control Room, and the wounded to hospital. The street was hosed down, the blood directed into the open drains. Shops reopened. Normalcy was declared. (Normalcy was always a declaration.)
Later it was established that the explosion had been caused by a car driving over an empty carton of Mango Frooti on the next street. Who was to blame? Who had left the packet of Mango Frooti (Fresh'n'Juicy) on the street? India or Kashmir? Or Pakistan? Who had driven over it? A tribunal was instituted to inquire into the causes of the massacre. The facts were never established. Nobody was blamed. This was Kashmir. It was Kashmir's fault." (p.324)

How does a society continue to function when so many of its people have been so traumatised? You get some of the answer in the closing pages when the characters create memorials to their loved ones within the graveyard. The bonds of friendship are the driving force of this novel and it is the thing that leaves the book feeling hopeful. It is quite a hard book to read but also an important one. The world so often forgets about people who's trauma becomes old news. Arundhati Roy's writing and activism over the last twenty years has been focussed on political change, and in this story you can sense her passionate commitment to the fate of Kashmir. While she is not necessarily making a case here for separation, she is telling the world about this tiny corner of humanity, trying to shine a light on the injustices of the current situation.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

All the shows we did not see

Dunk and I ventured back to Edinburgh yesterday, to see if it was as good as we remembered. It was. The streets teemed, the flyers flew, lines, jokes, poems and tunes tumbled in abundance, much tea was drunk, some good (at the Bedlam Theatre), some not so good (St Giles Café again). We took an early train, via Wigan, and arrived just as the Mile was waking up. Much loitering and dithering ensued, during which I wished we had planned more in advance and not gone with the 'lets just do stuff on the spur of the moment' thing. We saw a sketch show at the Underbelly then had a mediocre sandwich. More dithering then we went back to Underbelly and saw 'The Man on the Moor' written and performed by Max Dickins, based around the story of an unidentified man found dead on Saddleworth Moor at the end of 2015. An excellent show, brilliantly performed, it certainly made my visit worthwhile. We took a more leisurely stroll down South Bridge and on to the Meadows to pass the time until we wandered back to St George's Square to see Wereldband: Slapstick, a riotous blend of musical virtuosity and slapstick comedy. After dinner at Café Turquaz we hot-footed it back for the 8.14 train that got us home just after midnight. Long day. Not sure I would recommend it was a way to experience the Fringe but we were glad we went in the end.


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