Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Crafty hen

Since I became a fully fledged layabout... I mean, self-employed writer and proofreader (reasonable rates! Quality work! Hardly any crying!), I have developed some terrible habits, including playing Bejeweled Blitz till I have a cramp in my arm and watching Eggheads.
In order to rid myself of at least one of these habits, I started knitting. Well, technically I restarted knitting, because obviously, like all Irish women my age, I actually learned to knit when I was a child. I just didn't keep it up because it was girly and a thing nuns liked you to do, and because my mother was so very good at it, there seemed little point.
I've been really enjoying it since I took it up again, even though I'm not very good at it. Reading patterns is a struggle, and Fair Isle with two hands still eludes me, largely because my left hand is rubbish, and since I stopped wearing a watch regularly, it's become nothing more than a glorified cupholder and wedding-ring display unit.
What amazes me, though, having been drawn into this world of selvage stitches and thumb casting, is how other people (so far only women, but you never know. After all, there was a boy in my ballet class for a while) are able to tell you exactly what you need. I want to knit a hat for a man, I say. You will need this much wool, they say. Start with this much for the rib, then switch to this and knit this stitch. Start to decrease it after this many rows. What do you mean, you need a row counting app to help you count your rows? Can't you just eyeball it?
Well no, I can't. I was complaining about just this thing to my mother the other day, over my knitting. Other people have special skills, where they can use their years of experience to eyeball things and know what's right and wrong. When we were kids, my older brother could do this with the BASIC computer programs in magazines. If there was a line wrong, he could find it and correct it. My mam can do it with knitting and sewing (and linear accelerators as well, for what that's worth). I watched Mary Berry do it time after time on the Great British Bake Off: "I knew that cake would be huge when you said you were putting six eggs in," or "yes, this is too dense because you overworked the pastry."
"I don't have any of these skills," I said to Mam. "I am nearly 43 and I have no useful skills."
"Yes you do," my aunt said, "you have skills with words. You can look at things and see if they're written well or spelled correctly."
"Oh great," I said. "So everyone else gets things like 'you need to put more flour in if you want that to turn out right' or 'here's how you fix a dropped stitch'. I get 'it's fewer not less' and everyone tells me to fuck off."
Well, I can knit a bobble hat now, so it is you who can fuck off.

Friday, February 22, 2013

History! (6: Sian Rees - The Floating Brothel & 7: Barbara W. Tuchman - A Distant Mirror)

In the last week I finished reading not one, but two history books. One of these was a long, broad book taking in the whole sweep of 14th-century Europe and concentrating quite hard on the Hundred Years War, the Avignon papacy, and a lot of minor French nobles. The other was a short book about the first group of female convicts to be sent to Australia, which featured the sea, transportation, ships, and world travel.
One of these books had such a boring first thirty pages that I struggled to get through them and ended up taking weeks and weeks to finish the book. Can you guess which one?
Yes, it was The Floating Brothel, by Sian Rees. I spent weeks trying to get through the painfully dull descriptions of court proceedings and petty crimes, only to find that many of the women mentioned in these early pages don't even end up on the transportation ship the Lady Julian, leaving me wondering quite what the point of it all was. (I suppose the point of it was to explain something of how the justice system worked, but god, couldn't someone have told her?)
Once the Lady Julian leaves London, the story gets more interesting and you learn all sorts of things about 18th century sanitary arrangements (not good), attitudes towards women's sexuality (not good), the state of the early colonists in Sydney Cove (not good), and the sanctity of shipboard marriages (not good). Despite the surprisingly affecting narrative of ship's cooper Jon Nicol to help her, though, Rees never really manages to maintain a good balance between the context and the detail, the backdrop and the specific story. Disappointing.
The same could certainly not be said about A Distant Mirror, by Barbara W. Tuchman. After reading this book I felt a little dizzy from the sheer amount of information in it, but also genuinely educated, as though I understood something fundamental about the way the world (or, at least, western Europe) is organised that I had hadn't understood before. I normally have tremendous difficulty with broad-stroke histories, especially ones that feature a lot of campaigning and land battles (I mean, really, land battles? How tedious!) and similarly-named kings and popes following on from one another and more or less doing the same thing over and over again, but Tuchman's ability to leaven this relentless march of the gowned and bearded with exciting incidental stories about bizarre religious sects, people being set on fire, the horrors of the Black Death, and knights, knights, and more knights gave my brain a break whenever I needed it.
Unlike Rees, Tuchman makes her focus clear from the very start: she uses the noble French noble de Coucy family as the backbone of her narrative, and her choice is a wise one. Enguerrand de Coucy was a prominent landowner in both France and England, was an important military leader who was centre-stage for key military and political developments, and was married to Edward III's daughter Isabella (a woman who, let's say, knew her own mind). He might not seem a particularly heroic figure by today's standards, Tuchman admits, but he exhibited genuinely noble attributes and did his duty as best he could despite his divided allegiance. He also stayed alive for quite a long time, which important for the central figure of a book about a whole century, and more than many of his contemporaries managed.
Everything from clothes to tax systems to religious observances is covered here. The Peasants' Revolt, flagellantism, the oppression of the Jews, art, literature, the beginnings of the age of exploration, the end of the Crusading spirit, the hypocrisy of the chivalric ideal, and proof that just about everything that happens in A Knight's Tale is historically accurate, yes, even the Queen songs. What more do you want?
Alright, maybe not the Queen songs.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

5: Virginia Woolf - Orlando

I'm not sure I can add an awful lot to the millions of words that have been written about Virginia Woolf and about Orlando--about its playful, affectionate look at 300 years in the life of a colorful character who is first a man and then a woman but always someone aware of his/her place in history. It's full of lovely observations about the differences between the sexes and how many of these differences are imposed from without in such subtle ways that they appear to be coming from within. For instance, Orlando observes that women can't carry swords because in order to use a sword, you need to have a hand free, and how can you have a hand free if you need your spare hand to fix your wrap when it slips from your shoulders? And now, because you don't have a hand free because of your wrap, you need a man to help and protect you with his free hand.
It's also a book chock-full of beautiful prose, from the gorgeous winter skating party to my very favourite passage, the couple of pages where Woolf describes the passing of the 18th into the 19th century, and how everything just becomes damp, and as a result of the damp all the men grow huge beards and everything gets covered in ivy and the clothes become sombre, and books become massive and self-important and unncessarily long, and all, apparently, to keep out the damp. I read this four times because it was just that lovely.
Because Orlando's long life is never explained, I suggested during book club that maybe the whole thing had been part of a fugue state or a dream, of someone wandering in a museum and imagining him or herself to be the people in the paintings. Eoghan pointed out that that couldn't be the case in a book of this period (1928), but would almost certainly be the answer if the book was written today. Mark, though, came up with the most plausible explanation, which is that Vita Sackville-West (and probably many other people in Woolf's circle), would have lived in places that were basically private museums, so they would have been constantly aware of their own places in history and the idea of themselves as just another iteration of the same familial material.
Much has been made of the fact that this is a love letter from Woolf to Sackville-West (the nature of whose relationship seems to have been as hard to pin down as Orlando's sex), but to me it read like a whimsical children's book a lot of the time. It would look great with Pauline Baynes illustrations.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

4: Gillian Flynn - Gone Girl

It's ages since I read one of the books everyone is talking about. In fact, I don't think I've done it since I stopped working in Oxfambooks, when I read several Dan Brown books, one after the other, standing behind the counter during slack periods in the shop.
This is far, far better than any Dan Brown book, but it did have a couple of similarities. I ate it up over the course of a weekend, not wanting to put it down, just wanting to keep those pages turning. But when I'd finished it, I felt... not cheated, but slightly grubby. The people in this book are either amazingly unpleasant or else they feel like they've been deliberately toned down to ensure there are one or two genuine humans in the mix. Not that there's anything wrong with unpleasantness, per se. God knows I've read enough horror books where people are unpleasant and find themselves in rotten situtations, but there's usually someone to root for. Usually at least one of the protagonists is good, sympathetic, semi-normal. Not here. These people are all awful.
Not only that, but I felt uncomfortable with the characters' gender roles and the whole issue of men versus women that I felt was a thread throughout. You will just have to take my word for this, though, because I no longer have the book to hand. I mostly read it on a plane, and now I've loaned it on to someone else to read on a plane, because it's that kind of book.
Much of this criticism stems from the fact that Gone Girl, despite being good, is not perfect, and I feel like it could have been. Certainly there's a whole heap of excellent writing in here. The story--in which two married writers of useless fripperies are crushed by the recession and the death of print and must return to his home town to help take care of his dying mother and try to make some kind of normal life and instead end up playing the most monstrous mind games with each other to the bewilderment of all around them--is very clever. The way it ties in the recession, the extreme poverty of much of middle America, and even the selfishness of people in propagating the species even when there's no apparent future for the offspring, is deftly done and makes some serious social points pretty lightly. The way the story of their relationship is woven into the book's main action is skilful and adds to the book's page-turning power. I even liked the ending, which has apparently divided readers and made the book quite the talking point. And what author doesn't want that?
But I couldn't love it. Because I didn't like the characters, I couldn't care about their fates that much, and even though I know it was meant to be funny in a way, I just found it overwhelmingly bleak.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Wow, brilliant, amazing, wow!

This morning, Mary Anne Hobbs played "Windowlicker" on her 6 Music show and I decided that it was time to not listen to Mary Anne Hobbs anymore. Not because she played "Windowlicker", but because she introduced it by saying that the great thing about 6 Music is that it's so brilliant because you can play "Windowlicker" at ten to nine on a Saturday morning, and where else could you do that (I don't know, Mary Anne. Power FM, maybe? Or 2XM? Or any one of a number of Internet radio stations, I'm guessing)? And that's what's so brilliant about 6 Music. Then she actually played "Windowlicker". Then she came back on, laughing about how transgressive and brilliant it was to play such a thing at ten to nine on a Saturday morning, and said, again, how amazing it was to have played it, and how brilliant it was to work for 6 Music. I swear, I am only very slightly paraphrasing.
"Shut up, you tedious bloody woman," I said, and turned off the radio.
Later in the day, I found myself turning off Gilles Peterson for much the same reason. I'm getting tired of people on the BBC telling me how great the BBC is. I know how great the BBC is, I don't need you to keep telling me. I'm listening, aren't I (well, except that I've turned you off)? Why don't you take out some advertising space on ITV to tell people over there how brilliant the BBC is? Isn't that how advertising works?
Then later, after my nap, when you would think I would be feeling less grumpy about people talking, I saw this article in the Independent about how David Attenborough has, to everyone's massive and lasting shock, endorsed Brian Cox as his successor. I'm not convinced.
Don't get me wrong, I love Coxy. I want to lie beside him on a hill and have him tell me about the heat death of the universe, over and over again, until I get dizzy and stop caring about the fact that I will never amount to anything because, you know, fucking entropy, man. But I don't want him to be the new presenter of natural history programmes. For one thing, doesn't he really just see animals as arrangements of particles, really? And for another, he's not Mister Telly.
You can see it in his presenting style. Either he's given too many lectures where eyes have glazed over and students have slumped onto the desk to truly believe that what he's saying is interesting to you, or the criticisms about the cost of his shows ("I'm here in Malaysia to show you how water behaves when it falls out of the sky") have got to his producers, and he has to keep telling you how brilliant it all is. Isn't it brilliant? Look at this thing, isn't it amazing?
It is amazing, is the thing. And we get that it's amazing. We don't need you to keep telling us. It's annoying.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

3: Harriet Steel - Becoming Lola

Lola Montez was a 19th-century dancer, courtesan, free spirit, and, if Harriet Steel's novelised version of her early life is to be believed, not remotely afraid to fight her corner. Her real name wasn't Lola Montez. She wasn't Spanish. She wasn't even much of a dancer, it seems. But she had a determination to live a certain kind of life and the beauty, charisma, and slapdash attitude to monogamy to make sure that was what happened. During her lifetime, she was one of the most famous women in the world, and a truly modern celebrity, in that she was famous mostly for her relationships and her fame, rather than for anything more concrete.
I'm surprised Madonna hasn't made a film of her life at any stage, but I suppose Madge wouldn't like to be reminded of the fact that, unlike her, when Montez turned to acting, she turned out to be good at it.
The problem with novels about real people is that real people sometimes do things without the kind of rock-solid motivation you would give a fictional person, which can sometimes make for a frustrating read. This is especially true if, like me, you're a pretty contented person by nature. The idea of being so restless, so jealous, so frustrated with the way the world works (especially as a Victorian woman), that you assault your lovers when they fail to provide for you, push people into impossible positions, compromise them and yourself in the eyes of society, and eventually end up being almost killed by a mob of disgruntled citizens because you're having a highly unpopular affair with their king, is somewhat alien to me. Maybe that's the fault of the story, but maybe it's a fault of the writing. The upshot is that I'm not sure I ever understood or got to like Montez, even though the story is told well enough that I always wanted her to succeed.

Monday, January 14, 2013

2: Scott Lynch - The Lies of Locke Lamora

In one of those worlds where everything is made of obsidian* and everything is slightly magical, a conman, thief, and gang member in good standing called Locke Lamora* hatches a plan to relieve some wealthy people of their money, while at the same time, unbeknownst to him, he has become a key component of someone else's plan to do Very Bad Things to a great many people within the city state of Camorr. Sounds very exciting, doesn't it? And it probably would be if was a 300-page caper full of cut and dash.
But it isn't. Instead it's a 500-page slog where every single clever idea that pops into the author's head gets spun out into a lengthy description, and every detail of clothing, furnishing, and location is laid out in forensic detail (stop telling me that the buildings were made by a giant race who were there before people. You've told me five times now, and believe it or not, I can remember it from the first time you told me). Some of these ideas are pretty clever, but others just don't work, and the ones that don't work grew to annoy me pretty quickly.
(For example, the world Lynch has built has 12 gods, or 13 if you're one of the Right People. So instead of saying "oh my god," people swear by saying, "gods!" Which is fine. But they also say "gods-damned" a lot, where Earth people would say "goddamn." Now, I don't know if you've tried saying "gods-damned" out loud, but it doesn't work as an exclamation. It's too hard to say. But there it is, scattered throughout the book, annoying me.)
Locke Lamora's plan is also pretty dull, as is a lot of the talk about guilds and pacts between various lawless or religious factions within the city state. The annoying thing about this is that you can't really skim it because some of it turns out to be important later on.
However, if you're prepared to wade through the setup stuff in order to get to the far more exciting second half, you're richly rewarded with dastardly baddies, a confused and imperilled protagonist (the best kind), some serious revenge motivation, a couple of exciting fight sequences, and a sickeningly vertiginous escape before everything gets wrapped up in a highly satisfactory manner. Oh, if only the whole thing could have been like this. I get the awful feeling it was written backwards, with things happening in the exciting second half that then needed to be tediously set up in the first, like Bill and Ted's escape from jail.

* "Why do people in these books make everything out of obsidian? What's wrong with steel? Steel's much stronger." - Husband's response to my observation about the language in the book.

* Whenever I say The Lies of Locke Lamora out loud, I always have to do it in an Oirish accent.

Friday, January 04, 2013

1: Patrick O'Brian - Treason's Harbour (or, the one with the diving bell)

Sometimes people ask me what would be a good starter Aubrey/Maturin novel, so that a person could just see if they liked them without having to commit to anything very serious. (I think people really only do this to shut me up, to be honest, but sometimes it's just nice to chat.)
If you don't mind jumping in almost exactly at the middle of a series, thereby spoiling some earlier storylines for yourself, you could do worse than starting with Treason's Harbour, I think. It's got a lot of the elements that make the series great, it's pretty easy to follow the action without a lot of prior knowledge, and it's not overburdened with nautical talk.
Just for the record, some of the elements that make the series great are:

  • Intrigue!
  • Spying!
  • Daring escapes from the French (boo, the French)!
  • Illicit liaisons with ladies!
  • Stephen looking and smelling like some kind of mythical hermit (an honest-to-god plot point)!
  • Prizes!
  • Sea battles (although there aren't the lengthy and detailed descriptions of nail-biting close actions in this one, but there's enough to let you know if it's your thing or not)!
  • That scrub Harte showing away!
  • Jack being an excellent commander, a discreet and loyal friend, and freakishly strong!
  • Killick complaining!
  • The Surprise!

I could go on. And no doubt I will, the next time I see you.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

New Year's Resolutions: quitting a thing, reading some things

For 2013, I decided to quit the third worst habit I've ever had.
To celebrate this decision, I gorged myself on my third worst habit for hours last night. In fact, I stayed up doing it till two in the morning, and then woke up with a sore arm because of it. I'd like to tell you this had never happened to me before, that it was a goodbye binge, but that would be a lie. I've often given myself a cramp in my right hand in the service of my third-worst habit.
Well, never again. I have played you for the last time, Bejeweled Blitz.*
Oh, also I have decided to read fifty books, because this worked out great for me the last time I tried it. So, watch this space for amazing insights about books everyone else was reading and talking about five to ten years ago, and for books with pictures of ships on the covers. I think that's a good mix.
(*I am by no means certain I can keep this resolution. This is about the fifth time I have deleted everything to do with this awful game from my Facebook account only to come crawling back when I get bored. But I suppose the first step is admitting I have a problem.)