Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Nearly the end of the year

and it seems there's a lot to be done in these final few days.

Of course I had a bit of reading time over Christmas, so I managed 60 Comet in Moominland, and 61 Daddy-long-legs, both wonderful occasions of revisiting childhood with stories I've loved for years, and I've read one of my new books, Kate Atkinson's latest, 62 Started early, took my dog which was everything there is to be loved about Kate Atkinson, I mean, none of them can live up to Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but her name on the cover guarantees you some absorbing hours.
I also finished Destiny Obscure and while it was great, I don't think I loved it quite as much as its companion - when people write about their childhoods, there's more risk of it tipping into a kind of sentimentality that I don't have a lot of time for. I think my next non-fiction read is going to be some more Tony Parker, and perhaps I should get on amazon to stock up on a few more, but for now I'm going to brace myself to dive back into the accountants' digest. I've got 11,250 words on there so all I'd need today would be 3,750 then tomorrow could be editing day and I would still have FridaySaturdaySundayMonday to clean my house write my resolutions bake a lot of wonderful bread buy a maternity wardrobe and generally become a better person before going back to work on Tuesday.
Should be easy.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Must not read must write

Just an update from the tough world of the writer, almost half of my word count is behind me and though I've not managed to keep to my original 5,000 words a day plan, I'm going to tackle the difficult creative bit this morning and then it should be downhill through the rest of the mechanical stuff. I'll not be done by Christmas, but I'm not yet feeling I have to phone and beg for an extension.

All this means I've not been able to devote the attention I want to 59 Destiny Obscure, a companion piece to Useful Toil which I might have read this year, or it might have been earlier. This one is a collection of autobiographical accounts of childhood and family life in the nineteenth century, and I expect it's clear from that description how much I'm loving it. Under the current regime there's no reading till evening, though. Bit of discipline makes you a better person.

Sunday, 19 December 2010


Well, obviously not, but lookit what I found in my garden last weekend: evidence of both snowdrops and daffodils.
(The correct response, if you're in any doubt, is "I'm lookiting!").

I know that everything is now snow-laden and definitively wintery, but I really do get great gusts of joy and hope from seeing evidence in my garden that things will recover some time.

As for reading, I need to tell you about a hop into fiction with 56 Adam Thorpe's Ulverton, which was pretty great, but for now I'd just like a brief ramble about my new hero, Tony Parker. I raced through 57 The People of Providence and am now doing the same with 58 The violence of our lives. Parker was a sociologist who specialised in interviewing people in a very neutral way, allowing them plenty of space for their own reflections and printing the results with no narrative and minimal (as I understand it) editing. The people of providence, then, was around 40-ish interviews with people living on a south London housing estate, and the violence of our lives talks to life sentence prisoners in the US. It seems he wrote a pile of these books (I really should get an Amazon marketplace loyalty card) and really, for me, the themes aren't the interesting bit: what's endlesssly fascinating (and I honestly could read this stuff solid for weeks on end) is hearing how people talk about themselves when given the space, and how solemn and reflective and optimistic and full of resolve and oh, I don't know, all those other marvellous qualities, so many people can be when given the space and opportunity.
A dear friend asked me whether my love of this kind of book was voyeurism, and I've been searching my soul about this, but I don't think it is. I think it's just interest in people and their coping mechanisms and how they rationalise their situations and just get on with their lives, regardless of their situation. I'm groping away for a Woolf quote on this, probably from The Hours, about its being the small things that grind away at you not the big ones, but until I can mentally capture some of the actual words she uses I'll struggle to pin it down.
In other news, I am very excited to have my first ever opportunity to earn money from writing: not loads of money, and not very interesting writing (as in, large volume of technical accounting content) but still, it feels like something of a watershed, and almost certainly the beginning of a new career where I get paid to write instead of to trudge into an office in the dark. Let's hope.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

BAD blogger!

What sort of person starts a blog, tails off posting, resumes with one slushy post and a promise to stop being slushy, and then just disappears?
I'm feeling particularly distressed by how few books I've logged recently, for which I think there are two reasons: I've not been reading that much, with the wedding and other things, and I seem to have a number of pretty chunky books on the go, meaning that I'm not doing much completer-finishing.
I could tell you about
52 Confessions of a conjuror, Derren Brown's latest, or 53 Making babies: stumbling towards motherhood, Anne Enright writing autobiography much better than she writes fiction (in my view), or I could carry on with War and Peace, which already has a number but isn't going to be finished any time soon, or I could get down to it and finish 54 The Assassin's Cloak which is a glorious, and huge, anthology of diary extracts, and 55 Mothers alone, another 60s pelican on social policy which is just the right combination of sobering and absorbing.
So, I promise I will, when I have, and in the mean time let me point out that now my numbers are over 52 I have at least managed an average of a book a week for the year, even if I've failed to live up to my early potential, and let me confess that in Edinburgh last week I bought another big stack of pelicans even though my summer reading project shelf is still looking full and I even have an untouched Sebald crying out for me.
Anyone want to borrow my job for a couple of days a week, free me up some time?

Friday, 12 November 2010

One little word

How the world can change
It can change like that-
Due to one little word:"married".
See a palace rise
From a two room flat
Due to one little word:"Married".

And the old despair
That was often there
Suddenly ceases to be
For you wake one day,
Look around and say:
Somebody wonderful married me.

(normal unsentimental service will be resumed shortly)
(Kander and Ebb, if you're wondering)

Saturday, 30 October 2010

I'm not sulking, honest

I really didn't mean to stop posting once they announced the wrong Booker prize winner.
Perhaps it's more
1. a slowing down of reading, mainly into War & Peace, which I'll not be finishing for a while, therefore not much new to write about that I've written;
2. the reasonably time-consuming work project I've been quite absorbed with (the happening phrase is "FRSME", pronounced to almost-rhyme with "frisbee", and often coming along with FRED);
3. my disastrous attempts at knitting which mean I don't even have anything to show you there; and
4. the fact that A WEEK TODAY I'll be getting married. Or, acknowledging the existence of the DF, we'll be getting married.

I'm going to try and get myself back in the habit, though. In particular, if you are a very very lucky blog audience then after today I'll have some lovely glazed pots to show you, assuming that I suddenly develop more skill with the bucket than I've shown before.

PS they really did choose the wrong winner, if this is what's valued in contemporary fiction then I give up, etc...

Monday, 11 October 2010

2010 Booker prize winner

Obviously I don't know yet...but I feel it important to put my heart on the line and commit to my certainty that it should be the McCarthy. Of all the six, it's the one that I least wanted to put down, and the one that captured my imagination most.

I haven't really explained my views on the final two, though.
Number, what, 50?, was The Finkler Question (Jacobson) and I've been stewing about what to write about it because it seems like a touchy subject. Having stewed, though, I can't say much better than that I'm not comfortable with anti-semitism, no matter who it comes from, and nor do I have a lot of time for cliche and lazy stereotyping.
To finish the six, and it did turn out to be a bit of a race, I had the longest, 51 Parrot and Olivier in America. I'm so recently finished that I might have to give a more reflective comment in a few days, but for now I should say:
1. It would be a worthy second choice for the prize, if C can't have it.
2. It has much of what I admired in the McCarthy - the ambition, scope, muscularity and so on, as well as a good weight, and
3. it's very clever, and carries off the two narrative voices very convincingly, but
4. this is sometimes too clever. Perhaps it was cleverer than the McCarthy, but it certainly wore it less lightly, and
5. Emotionally, it didn't engage me like the McCarthy. I don't feel bereft at having finished it, and I can't quite imagine reading it again.

So, to be clear, first choice by miles, the McCarthy, second choice the Carey, anything else a travesty.

Feel free to taunt me if I turn out to have been wrong.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Mercifully short

What can I tell you about 49 In a strange room?

I had to read it, because it was number 4 on the shortlist, and I admit I posted a week or two back complaining about some of the books being short, with this one in mind (it's about 150 pages). Now, though, it really does feel like a mercy, because I only had to wade through a short amount of sub-creative-writing-class codswallop.

I mean, who above the age of 14 thinks it's stylistically clever to describe your main character as "he" for part of a paragraph and "I" for the rest? I guess it was done to show something very deep about detachment from your own actions and the ability to observe self from the outside - but done with this heavy-handedness it looks much more like the editor was off sick that day so they just bound up the first draft of the manuscript into a book.

Really, I can't think of a redeeming feature, except that it was short.
(Puts me in mind in a different way of an old joke used by Woody Allen in Annie Hall (and I mention Woody Allen with purpose, gearing up for my next post which will also be a rant); "the food's terrible, and such small portions". Here, I'm profoundly grateful for the small portion).

Monday, 27 September 2010

Reason not to give up the day job

I don't think I'm quite ready yet for a career as a master craftsperson.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Booker shortlist - the semi-final

Obviously I'm cheating a little here. I meant to write about each of the shortlist as I read them, so that I could keep up, but I've been too occupied reading them, so have decided to tell you my preferred of the first three, then maybe of the second three, then perhaps the winner. My system may, to be fair, change again without warning.

So, we have
46 The Long Song (Levy)
47 C (McCarthy)
48 Room (Donoghue)

and actually there are some interesting things I can observe about what it seems I enjoy in books.

The Long Song  was definitely readable, and it feels cruel to write critically about something that is treating an important and serious subject, and doing it sympathetically. Broadly, without spoiling it for you, the story's told from the perspective of Miss July, a former slave in Jamaica who now, as an old woman, is living with her son. Actually, though, I think this has told you what's in the book. Slave has child by overseer? yes (twice). Child is taken away by slave-owning family? Yes (twice). General mistreatment described quite graphically? yes (several times). Various revolts and rebellions punished very heavily? Yes. Next generation works hard to better themselves despite deep suspicion held by white people? Yes.

Now, I know that if you do this subject, these are the things you have to talk about, and in general she does it perfectly well. She's obviously researched hard (her credits include a dictionary of Jamaican English so there's plenty of dialect in there) and makes a good stab at telling the story sympathetically, but it's just so unambitious. There's nothing surprising, and if you do that then, like on Masterchef, you have to prepare your simple dish absolutely perfectly. Somehow this doesn't manage it - particularly with the horrendously clumsy ending (spoiler alert - Miss July has had two children, she's living with one of them now, we don't get told about the other, and then the end of the book has a plea to the reader along the lines of "if you've seen her, can you let us know? Primary school!!! And stolen from the Bluebird!!)

So, basically the Levy was sort of fine, but unambitious, which takes us nicely to 47 C which left me breathless with admiration for how opposite it was, how broad in scope and risk-taking and full of information and different. It tells the story of Serge Carrefax, who grew up experimenting with wireless (in a world with a father who ran a school for deaf children where he insisted they learn to talk, and a mother who kept silkworms), developed an uncomfortable medical condition which required a spell in an Eastern European spa town, went flying in the war and picked up a cocaine habit, returned to England and practised his habit some more, then went to do research on communications networks in Egypt. This was summarised (better) on the inside of the dustjacket and it made me sigh and roll my eyes, but actually it is done so convincingly and so sweepingly that I believed this is how Serge would behave and where he would go. Each piece of it was so full of interest - again, obviously meticulously researched but in a good way, a way that made you want to know more about silkworms, or codes, or spa towns.
There were clumsy bits even to this (I could have done without the loud actresses in the London section - as characters they seemed pre-written and just slotted in) and it's not the kind of book I think of myself as enjoying, but I thought it brilliant. It made me wonder whether I have more admiration for "men's books" than "women's books", and I know the classic criticism of women's books is that they're too parochial, and only look at the everyday. In the past I've dismissed that as a criticism - I could reread The Stone Diaries until my copy fell apart, and not much really happens in anything by George Eliot apart from perfection - but I wonder whether my tastes are changing - the thing I loved most about C was the scope/ambition.
Interesting contrast, then, with 48 Room where the first part is set in one room. You may be familiar with the premise of the novel - it was "inspired" (if that's appropriate for something so grim) by the Fritzl case, the guy who kidnapped a girl and kept her and the children he fathered with her in a cellar for years. In this version there is a young woman and her now five-year-old son, from whose perspective the story is told. In the first part they're just in "Room" (there is an incredibly affected use of nouns with capital letters and no definite articles, so they're always doing things like using Bath and getting in Wardrobe and so on), then they get out (sorry, didn't warn you about the spoiler there) and the later two thirds of the book is about the process of getting used to being outside again, for the boy who had only just found out that "Outside" existed at all, and has never seen it, and viewing through his eyes how his mother sees it - she was kidnapped at 19 and is, I think, 27 on her release.
I do find it a slightly, I don't know, distasteful subject matter - not that I think books should only tackle "nice" subjects but when here it's used to practise a certain kind of whimsical writing, without displaying any purpose of bringing difficult subjects to a reader's attention (so, I suppose, it's simply a plot device - a "how can I get them stuck in this room for a few years?") it again, like the Levy, demands to be done very skilfully indeed to make up for the unambition (is that a word?) of the premise.
anyone's feeling) and I remained irritated with the quirky language (Jack always says that someone "hots" not "heats" the room. Elsewhere, everyone comments on how literate  and articulate he is because all he's done for five years is talk to his mother - so why doesn't he know the difference between "hotting" and "heating" something?), but I did keep reading, and it wasn't just because I felt I had to for the shortlist's sake. Afterwards, though, I felt a bit soiled (a bit like I did after The Lovely Bones) - it seems ultimately like a manipulative book, one designed for TV Book Clubs  and earnest discussions on sofas.

So, a very long post and you may have guessed my initial conclusion - McCarthy is definitely my winner from the first three, on the grounds of proper ambition, highly skilled execution, and trying to write something different without carelessly using topics that shouldn't be used carefully.

Today, in my breaks from pottery, I'm going to read the Galgut (that's the very short one) and may not be able to resist providing an update before I get into the final two.

Congratulations for surviving this far down....

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Dear Booker Prize judges

You may think it's a tremendous wheeze to put on the shortlist books that are more short story than novel (I mean, really, 150 pages? Where's the rest of it?) but it's a right b for those of us who had been looking forward to reading six proper books.
I'll say more about the Levy, which was enjoyable but not memorable, and plenty more about the McCarthy which is truly, life-damagingly, absorbing. When I come to the Galgut novella it will get only a proportionate number of words (so, five or six). It had better squash a lot of brilliance into that space!

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Ways to spend saturday night

1. Out dancing
2. Romantic city-break with a loved one
3. Cosy weekend away in remote cottage with close friends
4. Dragging and wrestling an unwilling and unwieldy economics project over the finish line.

Hmm, choices, choices.
(It reminds me of the James Herriot books. I loved those so much when I was young, and one of the scenes he seemed to go back to often was trying to get a prolapsed uterus back into a cow. There always seemed to be more innards than space, and the shape was all wrong. My project's just like that, only at least I'm not in a freezing barn).

Thursday, 16 September 2010

New task

I AM going to learn to roll my r's. I have found several pieces of internet guidance, and will be making funny zzzhhhhh sounds all over the place until I nail it. Then I will be able to do cat impressions, and my place in the home will be safe.

(2 of my Booker books arrived. I'm onto it).

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

chilli, chilly

My chillies are ripening, finally, even as everything else passes into winter.
They're no longer lush and green but we will be able to have as much thai food as we want for the foreseeable future.

In other news, I am enjoying war and peace more than I thought anyone could enjoy war and peace, and I cracked and ordered the whole booker shortlist so that I can get on with reading them.

Anyone know where I can get a time-turner from?

Monday, 13 September 2010

Her fearful ghost story

I've plenty to tell you about patterns, but I'm on the sofa and my camera isn't.

Instead, a warning: if you loved The Time Traveler's Wife and have been saving up the treat of Niffenegger's latest, Her Fearful Symmetry (number 45), then just walk away. Pick up TTTW again and once more sob yourself silly; go for a walk; try some Russians instead - just don't commit several hours of your life to HFS because you'll find it gripping, you'll see faint shadows of the sort of insight into people that you know she's capable of, but then you'll be smothered by the heavily worn research, the creaking explanations of funny English things, and the far-fetched, un-thought-through plot. Yes, I know TTTW had as its central premise a man who accidentally travelled in time, and I know that it was so riddled with inconsistencies that you'd think it hadn't even occurred to her to look at the logic of it...but it was original, it was a vehicle for a love story, and it worked. HFS would be a hundred times better if it:
1. skipped the second twin plot;
2. got rid of the ghosts; and
3. stopped lecturing about Highgate cemetery
 - but it would leave it more pamphlet than book.
I was honestly a bit gutted because I'd been so sure that I'd love it like I loved the last one, but really, I can't  believe that even Audrey herself loves it.
Now, War and Peace, on the other hand....

Saturday, 11 September 2010


Things I have done since last week:

1. Seen patterns everywhere that I'd like to make patchworks from;
2. Revelled in how easy it is to take pictures on my new phone, and how well they turn out;
3. Read numbers 47 (Frankstein) and 48 (Her fearful symmetry) and made a brave start on 49 (War and Peace) so that I can join in with dovegreyreader's Team Tolstoy.

Things I woefully have not done:

1. Got hold of the Booker shortlist, even though it was announced on Tuesday. I haven't even ordered any of them. With each further day that passes, my chances of getting them all read before the announcement diminish some more:
2. Finished my economics project. It's fine, it's fine, I still have a month. It's just less *interesting* than most of my other projects...

Sunday, 5 September 2010

You'd think I did nothing but read

Seems that quite often I end up putting off writing an update because I'm behind, or because there's a book I really want to write about but I haven't yet mentioned the one before.
So, to catch up with a list:
42 Work 2: twenty personal accounts (Fraser)
43 Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
44 What the Dog Saw (Malcolm Gladwell)
45 Testimony (Anita Shreve)
46 The Rings of Saturn (WG Sebald)

I don't want to say much about Testimony mainly because I didn't really enjoy it that much, and that disappointed me because when Shreve is good, she's great. This one, though, while it was very readable, just didn't ring even slightly true. Plenty of bad stuff happened, but there was no sense that these truly were characters who would have behaved that way. Writing by numbers, but slightly misprinted ones.
There's also not much to say about what the dog saw which is probably why I've not said much about it before now - it was probably a month ago that I took this and Testimony out of the library (technically, not a breach of the summer reading project, because I didn't *buy* them). If you liked Blink, you'll like this - it's a collection of previously published journalism about, not sure what to call it, 'interesting stuff'. I read it, thought "ooo" a few times, noted to myself the range of things that I could well be interested in if I only gave time to exploring them, and then took it back to the library. It's not changed my life.

Perhaps you can see I'm building up to something here. I LOVED LOVED LOVED The Rings of Saturn but it's a Sunday morning, I'm not feeling very alert yet, and so I can't quite do it justice. Another post will follow.

(I can tell you in the mean time, though, that Little Women is just as good as it always was, only that every time I read it more of it makes me cry, not just the obviously sad bits but all the bits where they try hard at something and it goes wrong and they learn from it and resolve to be better, nicer people. Sometimes I resolve this as little as three or four times a day.)

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

test from gmail

just wanted to see if it really is this easy

New starts

More than almost anything, I love the autumn term feeling. Yesterday and today have been just as this time should be: sunny as you like but with a bite in the air in the mornings. It makes me want to rush out and buy a new pencil case, and check my shoes still fit.
Unfortunately, having a grown up job, the new term's only in my head, but you know what? It doesn't matter. I can have a pile of new resolutions, and a clean start, and if I make turkey lasagne once and it's horrible, then I never have to make it again.
(The backlog of un-written-about books is building, and I'll do some catch-up posts soon, but mainly I wanted right now to share my wonderful autumn feeling).

The only cloud is that cat has vanished, only since last night so far too soon to worry about her, but still, I'd like to have her gathered in by dark. Time to go and stand at the back door rattling the biscuits and making kissy noises, I think....

ETA: the cat came back :)

Monday, 30 August 2010

Life and craft

It's been a basically horrible week, with lots of difficult things to process and more adjusting to do than I have easy resource for. So this weekend's been one for recuperation, recharging, and nurturing my sense of perspective, and to help I picked up 41 Beth Gutcheon's Perfect Patchwork Primer. It's apparently a classic in the world of quilting, and tells you all you need to get started (this according to dovegreyreader, who I think used to run a quilting shop, so should probably know). Of course, since it was printed in the early 70s, it's all black and white and a bit light on pictures, not like the sort of how-to manual that you find now, but absolutely compelling in making you want to try it. I have to quote from the introduction:
"People are seeking activities that offer a direct, sinple relaionship between what they put in and what they get out, and are hunting for projects with a definite beginning and a definite ending, since so much of modern life seems merely a holding action - a set of routines which never began and never will end and at bottom don't seem to matter to anybody. In a world screaming from incurable pains and insoluble problems people are seeking problems they can solve, problems which will truly challenge but not defeat them. On every hand one sees evidence of an enormous need to master something...And for any of us, when we want something pure and simple in our lives, the answer is to make things with our hands".
It seems to me that there's a parallel to be drawn between certain kinds of endeavours and certain kinds of crafts. Knitting a pair of socks, quite a lot of it is about grind and persistence, with just a bit in the middle that needs super-concentration - but it's mainly about sustained effort.

Lace knitting, ah, lace knitting, concentration, high likelihood of making mistakes, requirement for resilience and resignation to ripping back again and again because there's no point doing it unless it's perfect, and that will almost certainly mean restarting a number of times (I would love to have illustrated this with a picture of my doily only last weekend, at round 30, something went horribly awry and, not having put any lifelines in, I had to tear it down to nothing).
Perhaps patchwork/quilts are appealing to me just now because what I feel like I need to do is acknowledge that there's so much I'm trying to do, so many different endeavours and interests and types of striving, and that they somehow need to be made to fit together, because they'll be brilliant if they do. I suppose the other side of this is the "scrap" part, though - I'd probably "do better" at any of my interests if I dropped some of them, but I quite like the patchwork effect.

(And do I want to work in an environment where having outside interests is interpreted as not taking your job seriously enough? I do not.)

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Finished! Free!

Things I enjoyed about the Brothers Karamazov
1. I liked the bit with the dog
2. At points it reminded me of Crime and Punishment (albeit a sort of low rent version)
3. Lise sort of interested me as a character, and her mother.

Things I didn't enjoy about the Brothers Karamazov
1. At least three times as long as it needed to be
2. Put me in mind of Crime and Punishment often enough to have me continuing to feel frustrated that it was nowhere near as good
3. All the pages and pages going on about god.

Perhaps it's my own fault for having enjoyed C&P too much, so BK was always going to be a disappointment, and I did try, I promise, and I soldiered absolutely all the way through, but now that I know I can do a Russian one so it's not the names that are the problem any more, for me with this one it was just the book that was the problem.
In C&P I believed in the hero, I believed in the way he changed over it and his internal agonisings and his unravelling and so on, and I believed in the tart with a heart, and I believed in the possibility of redemption. With BK I didn't really mind whether he did it or not, I didn't get why anyone would be so bothered about Grushenka, and I wasn't even slightly troubled about whether anyone was redeemed (apart from Kolya).
I think I'm going to refresh myself with a bit of Austen revision before diving into anything Russian again - probably Pride & Prejudice unless I get a better recommendation. But before even that, I think only finishing Little Women is going to work for me.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Books about infants

I don't know, pictures of sunflowers do bring to mind small children - that seems a good enough reason.
(As an aside, my sunflowers have been hugely disappointing, or more accurately dwarfishly disappointing. Only two made it to adult size, and this one was about 18 inches high, with the other not much better. Pretty, but tiny - do you think it's catching?)
So, I've now read all four of John and Elizabeth Newson's books following the progress of children in late seventies Nottingham. To recap, they began with Patterns of infant care in an urban community, went through Four years old in an urban community, and then did parallel studies Seven years old in the home environment and Perspectives on school at seven years old (number 40). The books followed (as far as possible) the same group of children across these stages (the intention was to follow them to adulthood but I can't find any evidence that they got past 7), documenting their parents' approach to child-rearing and trying to describe trends and patterns.
It's perhaps not the type of book that would appeal to everyone - certainly you'd need to be interested in child development, for a start, and in the 7-year-old ones in particular it helps if you're interested in numerical as well as narrative analysis. But I say this to be deliberately balanced: in fact, I can't imagine how anyone could fail to be mesmerised by pages and pages of quotes on attitudes to (say) smacking, bedtimes, freedom, imaginative play - and then how these affect the child's attitudes and behaviour as he becomes older. While there is a certain amount of, not snobbery, but gentle explanation of ways in which one might find the middle classes better, it's definitely not written with an agenda of rich=good or anything close. In fact, after four volumes in which they are scrupulously inconclusive, it's really surprising when at the end of the fourth they become quite definitive. It appears that taking generally accepted measures of "success" for a seven year old (based on things like school tests at the time, which I don't think have much in common with current day SATs) and also teacher descriptions of children's apparent well being and happiness, the piece of parental behaviour that most strongly correlates with the child's "success" is simply, when the child asks a question that the parent doesn't know the answer to, the parent's working with the child to find out the answer, either by looking it up together, or asking a neighbour, or reasoning it out. The authors contrast this with other approaches like "bamboozlement", or changing the subject, or making something up, and look at a pile of other aspects of upbringing, but it's this one that it seems everything's tied to.
I would pay good money to see a comparable set of studies done today (and I wish they'd been able to follow up these particular children for longer). If I ever have children of my own, I will be going back to all of these.

A mixed bag

I'm not yet managing a habit here, and again it means I'll end up rushing through writing up what I've been reading, just because I'd like this to be as up to date as possible, and if it was then perhaps I'd do better at keeping it that way.
First, my tomatoes.
What you can see there is my main tomato trough: the picture was taken around ten days ago, and it's all a bit bedraggled and sorry-looking. Since then I've had about 60 ripe tomatoes from it and there are more again still unripe, and of course several other plants scattered around the garden. I am rich with lycopene.
I alluded in my last post to book 38, The Second Shift, again by Hochschild, and in a way there's not much more to say about it than there was about The Time Bind. But then, it still seems worth saying again. She looks very carefully at time management and household resource decisions, particularly when it comes to which partner works and for how long, and then who takes care of the "second shift" of housework and childcare (with the basic contention that it is still (or was, when she was writing) the woman in a partnership who does most of this shift, regardless of how many hours each partner works in the "first shift"). Somehow it doesn't come across as raving irrational feminism, and in fact doesn't really make recommendations at all, but simply by observation and copious quotes makes a telling, and worrying, point.
I also mentioned RD Laing - 39 Sanity, madness and the family turned out to be a truly fascinating account of Laing's views about medical diagnoses of schizophrenia. It relates a little to the last book because it achieves so much of its power through direct quotes without all that much narrative or commentary from the authors. This technique might be seen as a little sneaky here because he has a reasonably controversial view - that "schizophrenia", while being a convenient term for a set of symptoms or behaviours, does not have causes typically identified by the medical profession, but instead describes thought patterns and "mystification" caused, or at least amplified to the point of distress, by family members and the way they relate to the sufferer. He uses examples of parents who have devised complex systems of communication to each other about the patient and conspicuously use these in front of her (including some really obvious nodding and winking) while at the same time insisting repeatedly that she is unfoundedly paranoid and has delusions that they are conspiring against her. Each chapter looks at a different patient, and several are followed with appendices of tables which contrast a patient's self-description, her parent's view in the same area, and the interviewer's observation.

As I say, fascinating, if not in itself convincing (it seems to need a companion volume with some real theory in it) and again quite troubling.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Final one for today

Bearing in mind it was about three weeks ago that I sorted out the books for the project, I'm making progress, and certainly haven't broken the no-buying rule (the new Italian grammar that's on the way definitely doesn't count, as it's reference).
So, in fiction I had a pretty enjoyable couple of hours on a Saturday morning with 34 The Alchemist which I think is technically Ruairi's copy, and I've put off reading it for years now because of the hype but it's actually quite simple and enjoyable, and I'm a sucker for a bit of homespun philosophy, really. I mean, it's not life-changing, and it's not as deep as it pretends to be, but it did what I ask of fiction, removed me for a while, and I'm not sorry I read it.
On a pattern of getting no real chance to get stuck into fiction except at weekends, I didn't even manage that last weekend because of hen-jollities, but yesterday afternoon was passed with Margaret Atwood, 35 Bodily Harm. It's some way off her best: I think it was quite an early one and in those young days she hadn't quite mastered plots, but the writing is so clean and convincing that you forgive the plots. Unlike the Blind Assassin, though, it's not one I'll be rushing back to.

In non-fiction, I had mixed feelings about 36 The Time Being. It was more auto-ethnography like the Ellis above, by Quinney this time, and I'd read such a lovely piece by him in the Berger and Quinney anthology also above, that I leapt at the idea of a whole book of it. The good bits were perfect and wonderful and inspiring and thought-provoking and sent me off my bench with a light step and a belief in the boundless possibilities of the universe; the bad bits were self indulgent, like being trapped next to an old drunk who wants to tell you all about how his first wife didn't understand him, his second (much younger) wife does, and he really has a, like, mystical sense of the universe.

So a bit mixed there, but a more resounding hit from the unlikely 37 The Empty Hours, a Pelican by Oswin, about the weekend life of children in institutions. It was written in the mid-sixties, I think (perhaps early seventies, but thereabouts) and again is in case study form, visiting a range of institutions/ residential schools/ hospitals for children with both mental and physical handicaps and looking at where they did and didn't work. I've no idea why I had a copy of this on the shelf but it was fascinating, and sort of appalling, and you hope that a lot of the observations wouldn't hold true so much nowadays, and fear that they might.

On the go, as my morning benchbook I have the prequel to the time bind, as my carryabout Pelican I have RD Laing on schizophrenia, I'm still soldiering through the brothers karamazov as bedtime reading, and I'mdaytime fictionless. I think today could be another good one for a novel in the deckchair - sometimes you have to fortify yourself for a difficult week.

And finally...

After all the pre-publicity, this is it, my summer reading project.

I need a bit of discipline, and I need to stop having my book-buying rate being quicker than my book-reading rate, because I don't have the space to keep increasing my collection indefinitely, and I don't need more books than I can read - it's just greedy.
So, in the afternoon after my exam, I went round all the shelves (and there are many) and collected all the books that I hadn't read into one place - the two complete shelves you can see above. The rule was that reference books and pure textbooks didn't count, nor did things like cookery or knitting books, but in general anthologies or collections were in, and things I'd got quite a long way through but not finished were in, and I wasn't allowed to exclude things because I'd only borrowed them, or because I didn't like the look of them, because in that case I should either be getting rid of them or giving them back.
I then did some preliminary sorting - from top right to bottom left boustrophedonically it's non-fiction (all the pelicans together) - old fiction - modern fiction.
Now, anything I choose to read must be from those shelves (or the library) (or rereads from elsewhere in the house) and I'm not permitted to buy any more books until Booker-time in October. This isn't meant to be imposing a great hardship, more acknowledging that if I bought the books in the first place it's because I thought I'd like them, and that some of them nonetheless look a bit difficult, and that sometimes you enjoy difficult books even when you'd feared them a little bit at the start.
I'm doing well (albeit cheating slightly by starting with some little ones) - post number 3 of today will tell you more...


Several weeks into my Summer Reading Project and I've not written anything about it. One of my other resolutions for the summer is to keep this blog up to date as I'm desperate to be able to look back and see what I was reading/making/ doing but I do forget pretty fast.
The exam was survivable, and I got myself through the last-thing nerves with 32 The Secret Garden, recommended as a reread by my wise mother and perfect if you need something to take you out of mundane concerns and into thinking about how magical gardens are. Hysterics make lumps!
Also pre-exam, I had as my morning benchbook the brilliant, fascinating, soul-destroying 33 The Time Bind: when work becomes home and home becomes work. It's by Hochschild, a US sociologist who specialises in this sort of thing, and was actually a follow up to another book on a similar theme (of which more below) but I think I got its name from one of my sociology textbooks and sensed I'd enjoy it. It's just case studies and analysis of a group of employees in a large midwest (I think) organisation and their attitudes to managing family life and the home. Gorgeously written, perceptive without being judgemental, thought-provoking both personally and in terms of trying to plan an economics judgement, and basically something I want to throw a copy of at all my female friends. You can tell that I loved it because it's basically wrecked, from a couple of days sitting outside reading it in the rain.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Exam time - talk among yourselves, would you?

I'll be a fully fledged sociology bore for just a few more days, after which I'll be launching my Grand Summer Reading Project.

But for now, isn't my clematis beautiful?

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Forgot one

I got a new deckchair.
So, a couple of weekends ago, I thought I should honour it by sitting <----- just there and reading 31 A room of one's own, Virginia Woolf at her finest, making you want to go off and write and do fine things and think great thoughts.
My numbering's going all to pot here, and it's such a little book you might argue it should only get a half, but it's so full of so very much to think about that I'm almost inclined to put it down as two.
Again, a reread from years ago but I don't think I understood it before: I think perhaps you need to be a grownup (or at least, closer to being one than you were before).

Saturday, 5 June 2010

It's been a while

I think the existence of all this daylight is keeping me away from my computer, a bit, plus I took some photos to put on here but my camera's never by my chair, and, you know, reasons and reasons.
I'm also not reading as much as I'd like to be (I may have said this before). In the last few weeks, there's been a bit more sociology, starting with 26 Storytelling Sociology, edited by Quinney and Berger, I believe, which was a gorgeous anthology of ethnographic writing, of sociology-as-narrative, so mainly autobiographical accounts of personal experiences and how they are created by and respond to the communities around them, this kind of thing. It's made me realise how much I'm enjoying this side of things, so next I read 27 Revision: autoethnographic reflections on life and work, Carolyn Ellis writing up various life experiences and then doing what she calls "meta-autoethnography", writing about the reactions to her work by those described in it. Yes, I suppose in one sense it sounds a bit pretentious but mainly was very readable and has given me a good deal of material for reflection: I've been reading it for 15 minutes with coffee in the mornings just before going in to work, and it's set off some excellent daydreams.
Finally on sociology, I'm on 28 Seven years old in the home environment, which follows on from 21 above, but now I've acquired number four in the series too, so I really will talk about them all when I'm done.
To keep me going on fiction, I had a nostalgic couple of hours with 29 Heidi - yes, I asked myself whether it was right for this to get a number but, you know, it's a book, it's been years since I've read it, and it made me cry, so I thought it would be wrong if it went unmentioned. To make me a more serious person, I now have 30 The Brothers Karamazov on the go. At the moment I'm feeling distressed not to be loving it like I loved Crime and Punishment. Whenever there's a really good passage, or even line, I get all excited and think yay, it's going to be just as good, and then you get several pages of religious or political monologue and I zone out again. This is more like what I thought Russian literature was going to be like, and like I let C&P persuade me it wasn't.

More soon, I need to go on about my lovely garden and my planned (for after exam) Grand Reading Project, which is going to take me all the way through to Booker season.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Some of the promised back-filling

So, I loved The turn of the screw, much more than I expected to, and it frightened me a little bit, but in a good way. I suppose my previous HJ experience was a bit bleak because I read Portrait of a Lady which isn't, by any stretch, an uplifting book but now, having read T of the S as well, I may have to admit that he might just be quite talented at conjuring up mood, whatever mood that is.
The AS Neill book just appealed because I loved his straight book on Summerhill. This, on the other hand, was good only in parts. The more thoughtful sections on growing up, deciding how to direct your life, making mistakes and learning from them, and so on, were pretty interesting but the book did descend into pomp and windbaggery. I persisted, but if you pick it up I'd stop when he reaches middle age.
I need to be alert for the next one...

Monday, 3 May 2010

something lovely...

...happened today, which I'll write about properly just as soon as I've digested it, but for now I must brush the cat and sort myself to go back to work. Watch this space.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

I seem to have fallen horribly behind myself, despite a week off. It's struck me a few times recently that I'm not necessarily getting the balance absolutely right, although perhaps it's something more subtle than that: the balance is fine, it's just that the volume's, on occasion, unmanageable.
Since one of my aims here was to write properly about what I've been reading, but I also don't want to lose track, here's a list, and I'll backfill with comments shortly. Not quite in order:
18 The Turn of the Screw - Henry James having a good go at being brief and readable;
19 Neill, Neill, Orange Peel, an autobiography by AS Neill, the founder of Summerhill;
20 Telling about society, Howard S Becker, ooo, I enjoyed this;
21 Patterns of Infant Care in an Urban Community - I'll delay saying much on this until I've read the third of the trio, which I'm saving for a treat;
22 When will there be good news? - Kate Atkinson, meeting my need for ongoing feeding with modern fiction;
23 Darrell Huff's How to lie with statistics - an important book everyone should have read;
24 The seminal work, Young and Willmott's Family and Kinship in East London ;
25 Hard Times - maybe should have been earlier on the list but I only finished it this morning.

Oh Helen, Helen, are you becoming a dull person who only reads sociology? No, apart from in the sense that it's all sociology, really, everything is (as Becker puts, more eloquently than this).

Monday, 5 April 2010

I have seen flowers come in stony places

There are advantages to being a slummy gardener, such as when your sunflower heads that you'd carefully been preserving for the birds collapse with the growhouse, and you don't properly clear up either them or all the soil that came out of the pots that also came down with the growhouse, then one day in nearly-spring you go outside and find sunflower seeds valiantly sprouting in the spray of soil on your back yard, and it brings almost untellable joy to the heart.
Treasure Island was pretty good though it could only be described as a boy's book.
Last night I was feeling slightly Sunday night-ish and in need of some fiction that wasn't going to tax me too much to read, so I picked up 18 Anne Enright's The Gathering, which I found won a Booker prize a couple of years back (so helps in my quest to read them all).
I don't know what to say about it, quite - I mean, it did the job of removing me from the world a bit, and kept me interested enough that I didn't want to do anything else this morning until I'd finished it, but perhaps I'm losing my appetite for modern novels a bit, just because they're just too dam' short - you've not started before you've finished. And all the trend for a really short timespan - this one covers current events of about a fortnight, though with plenty of flashbacks - means you don't quite get to develop into being interested in the characters since you're not seeing them change, only getting additional revelations from the narrator. When this works, it works gorgeously and captivatingly (should I start on again about Gilead and Home?) but when it's not quite successful it can mean the book doesn't really haul you in, and this one didn't. OK, so I cried a little at the end, but already I am over them - there's no part of me wanting to carry on thinking about any of the characters. I don't want to spoil any plot for anyone, but it's set in rural Ireland in the mid-twentieth century, and there are darkly buried secrets, so you might not find it too hard to guess what it's about.
I will spare the feelings of the reader, by the way, by promising not to write about the economics textbook that I'm wading my way through today.

Monday, 29 March 2010

We need to talk about Gilead

Anonymous asked me what to do if you started Home and didn't like it.
Of course, I don't really know how to answer that because I can't imagine how you could start it and not like, but then, Gilead was written first so I suppose you should read it first, really.

The thing is that I loved it even more than Home, but so much of that was because Home is told from what turns out to be such an incomplete perspective. Home is all hints at the past and part-stories and implication that terrible things have happened, so reading Gilead after it is like shining lights into all of the corners, only that's wrong, because it's still only glowing, not really lit.
The voice in Gilead is more real, and John Ames becomes a character that you have to care so deeply about and, through him, you care about Jack too, in a way that you can't so much in Home. The reverend's internal wrestlings, his tortured attempts at honesty with himself, and the piles of regret about how and why things have happened in his life and that of others - they all pulled me in, in a way that made the behinds of my eyes hurt. If you didn't like Home, I'd say you should try again, because I think this was a fortunate and lovely way round to read the two, but if you can't, then I implore you to try Gilead.

I think I've reached 15, which was Verne's Around the world in eighty days. I did enjoy it, though not in an eye-hurty way, and of course I was a little let down by the fact that there wasn't a lion in a top hat dancing round a lamp post.

Still on what you might call the classics, and making good use of my ebook reader, I went straight on to the very very quick read of 16 The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - atmospheric and fun and actually with plenty of food for thought, and since I'm ashamed to say I've never read Treasure Island it's moved me on to starting that, number 17 and promising to be another speedy read, but no less good for that.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Completer-finisher weekend - part 2

By dint of barely leaving my chair other than for domestic necessities, I've managed my goal of finishing number 11, Crime and Punishment, this weekend. I always get to a point of wanting to finish something even when I'm loving it, and this one has kept me engaged and troubled for weeks at about 5 pages a night, but I was ready for a bit of immersion and have finally had it.
I wasn't expecting a happy ending! (Though you must admit he's no Agatha Christie - I mean, I'd worked out who did it almost straight away....)
The welshman has done his part by completer-finishing some shelves, so all's good and organised and I get to start thinking about new things. Knitting-wise, it's a sock, I suppose I should say a pair of socks, though one seems hard enough; on the reading front I'll be choosing something else from the ebook reader, though I don't yet know what, but perhaps I'll take a day or two away from fiction and start 14 Galbraith's The Affluent Society which I found in a pelican the other day and is calling to me.
Why have I skipped 13? Not superstition: I just haven't talked yet about Gilead, which is essentially a sequel to Home but left me so bereft that I've not yet geared up the strength to write about it. I will.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Completer-finisher weekend

The cardigan is finished!
(Well, not technically absolutely finished, it's just on top of the wardrobe blocking (being blocked?), but the ends are all sown in, and the button's on, so as soon as it's dry it's good to go).
Please send me wishes that baby Caitlin isn't going to have, while waiting for it, grown too big to fit in it. I can't bear to find out in person: I'm going to stick it through the letterbox in an envelope tomorrow morning.

I also finally finished The uses of literacy which was the first book that I started this year - I think it will go into the area that I'm glad I've read, but probably wouldn't rush back to. It's just a little too closely of its time and some of the attitudes shown in it are a little bit off-putting to me, now. Having said this, it's definitely enthused me to continue both adding to and reading through my pelican collection.

It would be brilliant and not entirely unachievable to finish Crime and Punishment this weekend, too, and if I do then I'll be going on and on about it.

Monday, 22 February 2010

What are the chances...

...that this will ever turn into a cardigan?

They seem remote. It doesn't help that I'm a week behind on the economics, I have a needy and demanding cat, and am feeling parched from a lack of reading. I think the problem may be this whole full time job thing, which in itself springs from some other stuff, and so on.
These may all just be excuses for not wanting to knit an interminable button band.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

On hope of spring

We all know that TS Eliot had it wrong and that February is, in fact, the cruellest month. There's nothing to be said for it, no light, no warmth, no comfort - the only thing to do is huddle up and wait for spring.
So this morning I went through all of my seed packets writing down the earliest possible dates I could plant them and pulled out, cackling, all that allowed the possibility of February.
39 cells of my propagator are now full of potential and the possibility of redemption. And I think my fingers should recover movement within the next few hours.

Friday, 12 February 2010

I can now offer you an RSS feed!

See the links on the top left for a handy way to monitor the latest posts of youngmiddleage from the comfort of your google homepage or other reader.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Goodness, keep up, wouldn't you?

9 went down very nicely, Night train to Lisbon (Mercier), a modern novel which instead of doing any clever show-off modern novel things, just told a story about someone who you ended up caring about, in a way that makes you (made me) want to go to Lisbon and learn Portugese, immediately. Such was the believability and the desire you were left with for it to go right for him, it was possible almost entirely to suspend disbelief about things like him being able to read a complicated and reflective memoir in portugese having only been learning it for a couple of weeks. Somehow, this doesn't matter. It was one of those read-in-a-day novels that feels like an excellent use of a Sunday.
Then I whipped through 10 John Harvey Jones's Troubleshooter which I'd suddenly had an urge to read having been spending some dry time reading about corporate governance at work. I'd really enjoyed his Making it work so I was fairly sure I'd like this too, and I did, though it was a bit short - not many pages per pound, which doesn't matter so much when you only paid a couple of quid for a beaten up second hand copy.
Finishing number 6 towards the end of the week has made me feel I'm no one without having read the Russians, so somewhat ambitiously I've started both 11 Crime and Punishment and 12 Chekhov, some collection of stories. I think I'll need a bit of leaven too but you've got to have reading ambition.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

The horror, the horror!

I finished Heart of Darkness.

Also this afternoon I raced through 7. William Fiennes's The Music Room which I'd won through dovegreyreader. It's a beautiful-looking book and his writing about physical happenings is gorgeously observed, but I do wish he'd planned it out a bit better first, thought harder about how he was alternating the sections of the book, etc. It sort of reads like a first draft, before you move all the paragraphs around to give it flow, and he also does seem to get a bit confused about tense. I sense that this was to summon various dramatic moods, and I can see what he was trying to do, but again a re-read by him or an editor might have pointed out that it just made it quite hard to place the action. It's not that I didn't enjoy it - I'm just pretty sure that it could quite easily have been a fair bit better.

I started 8. Walden (Thoreau) a couple of days back and it's quite compelling, though not the most cheerful read. The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation - ho hum.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

More reading

I finished 4 and it was something of a disappointment. I can't believe they broke up at the end! But, I reckon I understand a load more Italian than I did before I started, and if I learned all of the new words then I'd be up by some 240.
5. was A Little Princess, yes, a children's book. I'd put it on my e-book reader from the wonderful Gutenberg and it did pretty much make me cry, despite its quite unnecessary sentimentalism and obviously preposterous plot.
6., which I started last night even though I've already got 1-3 on the go, is Reading Like a Writer. I'd never heard of Francine Prose before I bought this book for my big brother having been drawn to it on a pile in Foyles, but it's just gorgeous. I'm reading it more slowly than I ever read anything because I DON'T WANT IT TO BE OVER.

In other news, I managed my 1 Jan stitch-a-day so I'm now less than a week behind.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Early January's reading

At the moment I am reading:
1. The uses of literacy (Hoggart) - it's sort of incidental to the things I'm trying to study, and is a good substitute for "real" work because it's so very readable. I'm a little bit bothered at the moment by some of his tone: while he asserts his working class credentials pretty regularly, he's obviously moved quite a long way from his roots and can seem to have a slight zoo-visitor's curiosity. Still, I can't put it down.
2. Heart of darkness (Conrad) - I really can put it down, and so far seem to have spent more time going backwards than forwards, trying to work out who's meant to be talking, where this boat is meant to be going, etc. Perhaps this is a punishment for choosing it for the wrong reasons. I desperately want to have read all the books on my ebook reader, to give me a justification for having bought it (justification in whose eyes? I LOVE it and bought it with my own honestly earned money, not even all that much of it) and I picked this one because I thought it would be a quick one.
3. Home (Marilynne Robinson) - I'm not actually technically reading this but it's still occupying so much of my mental space that I feel like I am. I certainly can't pick up another modern novel yet, I don't want to forget about the characters in Home or be inhabiting a different house, in fact I fear the answer may be to read it again and try to get it out of my system.
4. Mistero all'Abazzia - well, it's still technically a book. A pair of Italian students are on holiday in the Lombardy countryside and stumble upon a mystery in a nearby monastery. It seems that there may be soldiers, disguised as monks, bringing heavy weaponry into the abbey at nights. Everyone in the town appears to be in on some kind of sinister secret, and only Marco and Anna can get to the truth. We had a false reveal in chapter 8, where M&A learned that they were just being silly, and had been spying on a film set...but in chapter 9 it turned out that the tramp really had vanished (too long to explain) and all of their films containing photos of the abbey had been stolen. Only one chapter remains and I can't imagine how this will resolve itself; moreover, with the book's being written in Italian and my Italian being what it is, I'm not even sure I'll ever know.
5. There are more...I will continue.