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You are Changing Forever Anyway

I was 12 and a bookish girl who was curiously prone to catching fevers, colds, and coughs. I spent days reading in bed or curled up in the big cream chair at the far end of the living room. My dog would snore at my feet as I got lost in yet another book. I came across one of Margaret Mahy’s books during one of these spells – The Tricksters. I think it was one of the very first supernatural YA books I ever came across. I lived in Nowheresville, Denmark and I had almost run out of books to read from the local library.

Margaret Mahy – I kept that name in my head.

Then my local library bought Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover. My life would never be the same – it was one of those books that changed you. At the very least it changed me.

The synopsis sounds fairly mundane: a teenage girl discovers her young brother is possessed by a demon and she enlists the local school prefect to help her battle the demon. Okay, the synopsis sounds pretty terrible – but the book was terrific. It was well-written (and later I’d discover the literary allusions one by one) and the real dangers lurked in every-day life beyond the surface drama of soul-stealing demons and witchcraft.

What changed me? I think I caught a glimpse of myself in the book.

I have never been good at identifying with characters in books and much of my reading pleasure derives from well-turned prose, intelligent plots and clever structures – but I think my 12-year-old self saw something of herself in Laura Chant, Mahy’s teenage protagonist. Laura Chant was realistically drawn: a strong and independent girl but with a complex family life which renders her more than a bit vulnerable. Mahy also captures Laura on the cusp of becoming something more than just a daughter, a sister, and a girl. There is a strong streak of yearning throughout “The Changeover” – characters yearn to make sense of the world and move beyond petty squabbling in the school ground and the tiny shopping centre. “There is a world out there,” the book whispered, “and it is yours to explore!”

I read and re-read “The Changeover” getting it out of my local library again and again. I bought the novel in English when I first set foot in Foyles some six years later. It was one of the first books I ever read in English, let alone owned. I still re-read my copy every couple of years or so. Time has not lessened my love.

And Margaret Mahy was instrumental in kick-starting my love for New Zealand. I was 24 when I travelled through New Zealand for a month and I hung out the bus window desperate to get a photo of the sign saying “Welcome to Paraparaumu” – a town mentioned in “The Changeover” as a mundane place. The mundane place seemed magical to me. I still have that photo too.

Rest in Peace, Margaret Mahy. And thank you for making a lonely teenage girl much less lonely and far bolder.

“I like to swim in deep water. I like to be where I can’t feel the bottom and I have always liked that from the time I was very small, but there is always the fear of the shark sneaking up from the darkness below, and grabbing your foot. After you’ve been frightened of the shark for a while, you begin to tell stories about it, to take it over … and in odd moments of life, when you have a little go at being the shark yourself, you recognise an old truth in what you are doing.”

Enter Here

This has stayed with me for a very long time.

It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence—
Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy
Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,
Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.
The moments of happiness—not the sense of well-being,
Fruition, fulfilment, security or affection,
Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination—
We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness. I have said before
That the past experience revived in the meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations—not forgetting
Something that is probably quite ineffable:
The backward look behind the assurance
Of recorded history, the backward half-look
Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror.

Today works by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Henri Bergson and James Frazer all enter the public domain. All eminent modernists or people whose work influenced High Modernism a great deal.

I am perusing The Dalkey Archive Press – that great publisher and re-issuer of modernist works (among other things) – whilst pondering what to pick up. I have pledged to read a modest twenty books this year – a modest amount as I want to read better books, not more books. I have begun by finally reading Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevinwhich is hopefully a step in the right direction? I am 150 pages into it and it reads like, well, a coiled-up snake waiting to strike (what an unsuccessful simile!). I have several books lined up: The Picture of Dorian Gray(in a beautiful edition given to me by D.), Jamaica Inn, and James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Stillare the first three.

2012 is off to a quiet, thoughtful start. This is good.

A Year in Books: 2011

2011 was the year when my boyfriend read more than 110 books. I am not sure if that number includes re-reads, but it might tell you a bit about our household. I read 45 books, up from 21 in 2010 and 38 in 2009. That tells me two things: 1) I read more crap this year which means 2) I was more stressed this year. I am nowhere near the 110+ books read by my Other Half – then again, he does not knit!

2011 was also the year I finally signed up for GoodReads which influenced my reading a great deal. As my profile shows, I found adding books somewhat addictive. I began reading more and – crucially – I began reading better books. I began using my local library a lot more and I kept track of my to-read list via GR too. Huzzah for getting organised!

The worst reads: Alan Hollinghurst disappointed me big time with the Man Booker long-listed The Stranger’s Child. Hollinghurst is one of the finest writers of his generation, but TSC just did not deliver. It read like a reiteration of everything he has ever written filled with token, tired literary allusions. Emma  Donoghue’s 2010 short-listed Room made me angry. The Testament of Jessie Lamb was long-listed for the Man Booker prize this year. The first chapter was spectacular: a dystopian novel with a feminist bent. Oh yes! Unfortunately life is cruel and the rest of the book was a poorly-constructed and badly-written teen novel. I felt like giving up reading after Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. And don’t get me started on Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. I really read far too many bad books this year.

The honourable mentions: Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imaginationwas uneven but well worth my time. While Atwood writing about other authors is not her at her most interesting, I really enjoyed the section dealing with her childhood and the general overview of genre.  Jasper Fforde redeemed himself with both the delightfully metafictional and whimsical One of Our Thursdays is Missing and the far more sinister Shades of Grey. Jonathan Stroud’s The Ring of Solomon was good – Stroud is quietly turning himself into a very reliable source of entertaining YA fantasy novels – and actually the book rekindled my desire to read. Isherwood’s Goodbye To Berlin and Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time were both unsurprisingly solid. Finally, Susanna Jones’ The Earthquake Birdwas a quirky, psychologically interesting read which reminded me of Murakami mixed with early Iain Banks.

The very good reads: After a year of mostly disappointing books, I re-read a few of my favourite novels.

AS Byatt’s Possession: A Romance was one of those re-reads. I love it with quiet intensity as only a lonely girl who grew up surrounded by books could love a book about lonely people surrounded by books who in turn love reading about lonely people surrounded by books. Another re-read was Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It floored me.

My best new read of the year was China Miéville’s Embassytown. How interesting that in a year when mainstream literary fiction faltered so spectacularly a so-called genre novel took on all the hard questions and pulled it off flawlessly. Embassytown is not only incredibly well-written and tightly-plotted – it is also a challenging, sophisticated read that delves into the philosophy of language and notions of identity. It is absolutely splendid and deserves as much praise as possible. How very silly that some people will not give it a try because it is speculative fiction, gasp.

Moving Forward: I am not such a fool that I will announce how many books I will read next year. I will crash and burn out if I make any such pledges. However, I do hope that I will read far better books next year. This year was a real downer in terms of quality – even the books I thought would be decent reads turned out to be on the dubious side of things (HOLLINGHURST!)

Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds mentioned the concept of ‘slipstream’ books which can be ‘defined‘ as “the fiction of strangeness”. I looked into what kind of book that may be and the loosely-defined canon include so many of my  favourite books and authors that I will probably use the ‘canon’ as a source of inspiration (sans John Barth). I have never been able to pinpoint what type of books I enjoy but I might have a new vocabulary. We shall see.

(2009 entry; 2010 entry)

Reader, I Knitted The Cardigan

There is a lovely bit in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre where the housekeeper, Mrs Fairfax, says something in the vein of, “Oh, hang on a sec. Must. Finish. This. Row.” I smiled in recognition when I came across it during my recent re-read of the book.

I first read Jane Eyre when I was fourteen. I had this mad, mad notion of ‘reading all the classics’ before I turned fifteen. My school library had the Danish equivalent of Everyman’s Library, and so I just started with the first book in the series. I did not get far, of course, because I read indiscriminately and without any real understanding of what I read. Jane Eyre was one of the books I did read (alongside Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights) and I remember thinking it was ‘okay but a bit dull’.

Then I decided to revisit Eyre a few weeks ago and I am so very glad that I did. It took my breath away. What an intelligent, passionate, fierce book it is. Then I took it upon myself to watch a few adaptations of Eyre: the recent Wasikowska/Fassbender film was difficult to pin down (this is a compliment of sorts) whilst the 2006 BBC mini-series was atrocious and hammy. Eyre is an oddball of a novel – it is easy to describe it as an exterior novel because so much happens on the surface with storms raging and mad women running around, but I actually read it as an extremely interior novel with so much thinking going on. No wonder it is difficult to adapt satisfyingly. I won’t leave it another twenty years between reads.

I finished my Red Cardigan of Doom during my Eyre marathon. Want to see?

Pattern: Patsy by Kim Hargreaves
Yarn: Rowan Baby Alpaca DK
Verdict: Mneh.

I started this cardigan last summer and finished knitting it around Christmas 2010. I did some provisional seaming just to see how it looked, and it was Not Good. The sleeves were particularly problematic because I have quite long arms and there was some weird chicken-fillet-dangling-in-the-wind action going on somewhere south of my elbows. Don’t ask. It wasn’t good, mkay? So this cardigan languished and languished until I finally decided to perform some sweater surgery (complete with scissors and assorted weirdness). I finished the cardigan on Wednesday and wore it to my meeting on Thursday. I still haven’t found the buttons I bought for it last year, so I’m just wearing it with a shawl pin.

And I’m really unsure about it. The yarn is heavenly soft, drapes so beautifully and is wonderfully warm – I’d use it again in a heartbeat – but I’m really not sure if the cardigan suits me. I do like Kim Hargreaves’ patterns but this one was perhaps not the right choice for me.. or maybe my body shape just doesn’t work with Kim Hargreaves patterns which is also a point worth remembering.

I have another Finished Object to blog but that is for another day..

Right Here Right Now Is No Other Place I’d Rather Be

This month my Karise shawl has been the subject of a knit-along on the Old Maiden Aunt group on Ravelry. The response has been absolutely overwhelming and I love seeing what people are doing with my pattern. It is amazing to watch how something I sketched on paper has sprung to life and – get this – people like it. Yikes.

You still have time to participate in the knit-along – and my Karise shawl pattern is actually available with a 20% discount code until end of the knitalong (end of November)! To purchase the pattern go here and use the code OMAKAL – of course you don’t need to participate in the knit-along, but I have really enjoyed following the group throughout these last few weeks.

On this side of the table, I am working on a few new things. Most of these things are still in the sketchbook stage, but I have started one new proper project. A couple of years ago I had a misguided attempt at designing a jumper on the fly before I understood things like “fibre-properties” and “planning” and “fit”. The result was a hideous jumper I have worn twice. I stuck it in the washing machine the other night and felted the bejeebus out of it. It came out beautifully felted and just the right size for a tea pot cosy. I’m now playing around with sewing it together and decorating it. Pictures will be up on Monday, but I really like it so far and I love being able to get some proper use out of some very lovely yarn. If the tea cosy works out really well, I will put together a tutorial. Gosh.

And this is pretty much what life is like nowadays. My crafting is automatically translated in my head as “how can I communicate this to other people” and “how can this become accessible to others”. These days crafting is more about you than me. I am not sure when the shift happened but it has happened in a very definite way. I love creating, making, and crafting but I love it best when I can get other people on-board.

Apropos of nothing: writers and their libraries. Everything is as you would expect – Philip Pullman is thoughtful and lovely (and I’m delighted to see he adores Fernando Pessoa and poetry anthologies too) and Junot Diaz is a hipster who mixes post-colonial literature with geek classics – but books do furnish a room.

Survival of the Knitter

We went on a much-needed mini-break this week.

(And by ‘much-needed’ I really mean ‘if I don’t get out of this place for more than one day, I will start shouting at strangers on the street and actually bitchslap them if they keep stopping right in front of me.’ Have I ever mention that I am a city girl who’s not a huge fan of crowds or human beings?)

Anyway. Mini-break.

I brought some knitting and made headway into a project I shouldn’t really have cast on (I have too much work knitting to do, but these past few days were me-time). D. brought some books and finished two. I only checked mail twice (good girl) and I lived on a carefully balanced diet of cheese, wine, coffee, and cheesecake. It was lovely.

One afternoon we walked from one small finishing fishing village to another. A scrambling, rambling walk of some 6 miles. Fresh air, plenty of wildlife, and beautiful scenery. Another night we had dinner at Lairhillock Inn which was spectacularly charming: it is a 200-year-old coaching inn set in the countryside about 15 minutes from Aberdeen by car. The inn had a lovely, cosy feel with its dark wooden beams and log fires – and the food was surprisingly excellent in the gastro-pub vein. Locally sourced and freshly prepared food, yum. I succumbed to slow-cooked lamb shank with rosemary mash while my serving of cranachan was so generous, I had to leave half of it.

Do I feel refreshed and ready for another stab at Glasgow life? Uhmm.. er.. we have some very important visitors heading our way next week so hopefully that’ll register on the internal energy & joy metre. I just wish I could have enjoyed this view a bit longer this week –>

While I have been away, the Man Booker Prize was announced which went to that jolly good egg known as Julian Barnes (also known as the man who wrote one of the most awful books I have ever read). I have not read his book but I suspect it was the least objectionable and most save-our-face book on the shortlist. I look forward to the Man Booker 2012 long list already. To celebrate I have begun re-reading the 1990 Booker winner. It’ll be my .. seventh? .. time reading AS Byatt’s Possession: A Romance and like all (good) books it is able to change and grow just as I am changing and growing.

Between Byatt, visitors, cranachan and The Daily Puppy, I may just yet survive.

Thoughts on the Man Booker

I have a love-hate relationship with the Man Booker literary prize. Admittedly the emphasis is mainly on the hate but I always care. In my former life as a literary blogger, I spent many paragraphs explaining why I am both fascinated and repelled by this literary prize. I shall try to keep it succinct this time.

The Man Booker prize has come to symbolise an awfully conservative view of what constitutes ‘good literary fiction’: realist novels, novels set in the past, middle-class novels.. It was not always so, actually. In the mid-90s Scottish novelist James Kelman won with his “How Late It Was, How Late” which was written in a Scottish working-class dialect using a stream-of-consciousness mode. It promptly became The Worst Selling Booker Winner Ever and bookshops complained loudly. The Man Booker has been reliably “safe” since the Kelman win: Graham Swift, Ian McEwan, Peter Carey, Alan Hollinghurst and John Banville. They are all reliable, steady writers who will not cause a revolution in your head and will all make great dinner party fodder.  Sure, there is always a talking point to all the books which is handy for the book group discussions, but the books are never scarily different. I am clearly not the only one who worries about what the Man Booker has become.

I actually really enjoy some of the winners and sometimes the short list throws up some interesting books: Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, AS Byatt’s Possession and The Children’s Book, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Colm Toibin’s The Master, and Tom McCarthy’s C
among others. But for every one of those books you also get Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam
(which blooming won) and Atonement, Julian Barnes’ England, England, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Ali Smith’s The Accidental, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and Emma Donoghue’s Room. Bland literary chamber music in a world that could do with a symphony with blatant nerve.

Andrew Crumey, James Robertson, Alasdair Gray, China Mieville and Jonathan Coe have never been short-listed: too Scottish? too genre? too weird? too .. I don’t know why Coe wasn’t short-listed for his mainstream (and very wonderful) What a Carve Up!
or The House of Sleep except maybe the novels were too angry? Too impolite?

But as you may have gathered, I read quite a few of the nominated books and this year I have read two of the long-listed books, Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child and Jane Roberts’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb. Hollinghurst was curiously bland, stifled and aimless underneath the well-crafted prose. Roberts’ book started out wonderfully defiant but quickly shrivelled into inconsistent, shrill nonsense. I think the failure of Roberts’ book upset me more because I became genuinely interested  by its first two chapters.

Something is adrift in contemporary British literature. I think there are genuinely talented authors writing wonderful, complex, daring works of fiction. Most of them work under the radar whilst the holy 1980s trinity of Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis continue to gather newspaper inches. A lot of dross have come out of Creative writing programmes too (University of East Anglia, I am looking at you) and I often wonder whether British literature is slowly turning into English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh literature? Regardless, we live in interesting literary times. Too bad the most high-profile literary prize doesn’t really seem to be interested.

Ah, I always miss my literary blog this time of year..

Reading 2011: Emma Donoghue – Room

For years I used to live inside my head. I think it is an occupational hazard if you are within academia: you get used to silently arguing with yourself; to constantly question and explore your own thoughts. My head was (and is) the biggest place I have ever lived. I do not think of myself as an author, but I do think of myself as a writer. My words and thoughts are the most tangible things I possess. Words matter.

And I think that is why Emma Donoghue’s Room makes me so damn angry.

A brief synopsis: Room is the story of a young girl who is kidnapped by a loner and kept in a tiny room in his back-garden. She gives birth to a boy and raises him within the small room where they are at the mercy of the loner. The story echoes recent real-life crime cases – Josef Fritzl and his daughter, Natascha Kampusch, and Jaycee Lee Dugard – but is a work of fiction detailing life within confinement and subsequent events. Room has been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and has won many major literary awards.

The subject matter is not the problem. Although it would be easy to step into “misery literature” territory, Room sidesteps this neatly by leaving out most of the actual abuse. Indeed, Donoghue is not preoccupied by the grisly details (which may disappoint some readers, I am sure) but instead she wants to explore how human beings respond to extraordinary situations and to each other. She employs the five-year-old boy, Jack, as the narrator of the story – undoubtedly to defamiliarise to an already unreal scenario.

And Jack as the narrator is the problem with Room.

I can understand the lure of using Jack as the narrator as it avoids a lot of sticky situations for Donoghue as a writer (as discussed above) but Jack the five-year-old narrator is wildly inconsistent. He uses abstract concepts like “sarcasm” in context and says “hippopotami” with correct declension – but Donoghue also has him saying “I finded him” and “I knowed.” So, the five year old kid can wield correct Greek grammar, but not use standard English strong verbs?

Russian literary critics used to differ between fabula and syuzhet: fabula is what happens; syuzhet is how it is told. Emma Donoghue has a firm grasp on the fabula part of her story, but Jack-as-narrator is a structural (syuzhet) problem that messes up Room in a very big way. It is not just that his language usage is woefully all-over-the-place but the pacing is off, any characterisation is by necessity very flat, and the internal logic has extremely big flaws.

And, so yes, reading Room made me angry.

I thought it was awful.

I have been reading a lot lately, but I don’t write much about the books I read for some reason. As always, feel free to catch up with my reads on GoodReads – the widget is to the right.

Balance

Many of my regular blog reads are participating in Self-Stitched September. I  did think about it, honestly. I love how people show off their handmade goods looking incredibly stylish and proud in the process. Maybe I will do it next year when I have more self-sewn items in my wardrobe and a few more essential knits under my belt.

I really need a black cardigan in my wardrobe, for instance. Every winter I wear a £10 cardigan from H&M I bought eleven(!) years ago. It is black with a high ribbed neck, trinity-stitch fronts and big buttons. It should have been retired several years ago, but I’m still holding on to it because I have been unable to find a suitable replacement in the shops. I should just buckle down and knit its replacement.

Right now I am putting the final touches to my green corduroy skirt. I just need to insert the zip, put in the lining and hem it. A couple hours, max? I do not know why I am dragging my feet so. Maybe it is because my next project will be a pair of utilitarian grey trousers for work. Do you sense a recurrent theme?

I think my state of mind is all about trying to delay the inevitable and trying to dodge doing the sensible thing. I’d much rather do the fun, creative, colourful projects than the things that’ll see me through another chilly autumn day. I’m sure I am not the only one.

A few links:
+ Modern personal styles – more thoughts on building a wardrobe and defining what works for you.
+ A short’n’sweet tutorial for 15th century braiding
+ Bowie’s Space Oddity is turned into a children’s book.
+ Goodreads is really having an impact on my reading habits.

Why the Overlap?

A good friend of mine, Emme, went to her knitting group the other day and noticed something (link in Danish): there is a huge overlap between knitters & people who read scifi/fantasy. She notes that Ravelry has at least 65 groups dedicated to fantasy but has just two groups for Copenhagen knitters. And Emme is really surprised by this overlap between scifi/fantasy-reading and knitting: “I don’t get it”.

My first thought? “It’s a geek thing.” Emme responded to say that my response was a cop-out, it had to be something a bit more profound.  And so I’d like to ask you, dear readers, why this overlap between scifi & fantasy geeks and knitters?

(From my own observations, there are also huge overlaps called “librarians & knitting” and “GLBT-orientation & knitting”, but we’ll have those discussions another day..)

I like reading books, full stop. I like imagination. I like books that take our mundane lives and turn them inside out; books that take our world and expand upon it. Many of my favourite books tend towards the speculative end of the spectrum with a healthy dollop of misanthropy and dystopia. And I’m horrifyingly entertained by dragons, airships, and ray guns (not necessarily in the same book).

And I knit.

And I think it has to do with imagination and creative space. Knitting is just a ball of string which you loop together in a manner which you find pleasing. You can have an entire jumper in a ball of wool: it’s bigger on the inside, if you like. You can knit optical illusions, crochet ray guns and buy steampunk-themed patterns. And make your own chainmail, of course. All these things that you can create yourself whilst playing with numbers and watching Game of Thrones – what’s not to like?

(Or could it just be that fantasy/scifi happen to be very, very popular genres?)