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 :)