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.