It's Getting Cold Now

It is premature to write my Reading 2011 entry but I did leave a comment on a newspaper site yesterday about one of my favourite reads so far. I miss keeping a literary blog - but then again my old literary blog was never just about books. I wrote about whatever took my fancy and I like to think I still do that. November 30 2011 has been a day of strikes across the UK as a reaction to the Tory-led coalition's "austerity measures". I have been watching the news unfold from my cosy home, but part of me did wish I could have been out there. Some years ago I would have been. It has been interesting to see how most of them media have been shouting that this one day of strikes could push the UK back into recession .. I seem to remember most of the UK got an extra few days off for the sake of a certain royal wedding earlier this year but that was "a celebration", of course. Interesting, also, that this strike comes the day after the Chancellor's "Autumn statement" which I was following with incredulity yesterday. You can read an acerbic and pointed response here.

Moi? Cynical? I think I am turning into a grumpy old woman (I have the grey hairs to prove it). Maybe just realistic rather than grumpy.

And so with a boot firmly planted in the realistic camp, I was delighted to find other people utterly bemused* by the never-ending editorials about The Party Season. I think I had a party season once when I was 20 and as a skint student, I wore secondhand 1970s silver-lamé frocks accessorised with green Doc Martens. And nobody cared that I wore the same 1970s frock to every single drunken student jig. I do not think I live in the same world as the glossies - who does? And who buys** them?

Let me share something amazing and lovely with you: Someone has been leaving small, intricate paper sculptures all over Edinburgh. Who? No one seems to know. It is a woman who proclaims that she is used to "making things" and that she has left these art objects to voice her support for libraries, books, words, and ideas. I absolutely love these objects - I would call them book art rather than artists' books (there is a distinction, I feel) - and I love the quiet making and placing of them. There is something so utterly wonderful about art objects that do not scream but whisper.

Knitting posts to come soon. Tonight I just wanted to write about slightly more .. cerebral things.

*) Sorry about using italics so much **) Actually I use italics way too often.

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..

Some Thoughts About Yarn

A long time ago I wrote about books. I remember one specific thing I wrote: how I built my library on the ideas of possibility and potential. My books were purchased because I wanted the possibility of spending a heady afternoon with lord Byron or a quiet, thoughtful evening with AS Byatt. Often I wanted the potential read more than I wanted the actual read. I think the same thing goes for yarn. The other evening I saw a moth fly out of the yarn cupboard. A tiny, beige creature of winged doom. I opened a bag and saw another moth perched on a ball of yarn. Gasp, splutter, this-only-happens-to-others, and I flung the offending bag into the freezer. I subsequently started rummaging through my other bags and only spotted one other bag with potential destruction (i.e. one very dead little beige monster). A bit of a wake-up call. This does not just happen to other knitters.

Luckily our local supermarket has a deal on plastic containers with lids. I bought three huge ones and started to re-pack all my yarn. It was time for another wake-up call. Three containers only scratched the surface of my yarn stash. I need eight more containers if I need to keep all of my yarn safe from moths (or the scourge of Glasgow tenements, carpet beetles). Eight. Eight.

I had to sit down on the (yarn-covered) floor for a moment. Deep breath.

The thing is, I have some lovely yarn in my stash that I cannot wait to knit. I have earmarked some of it for projects: Flyte, Shirley, Acer, Snapdragon, Miette, Still, Topstykke, and - oh - those thirty odd shawls I need to design. You know.

But the majority of the yarn is there because of the possible, potential projects. What to make with my three hanks of Noro Cashmere Island? Or the two hanks of Sirritogv Colour? Or the yak laceweight? The mountain of Kidsilk Haze? Often I think I want the potential knit more than I want the actual finished object.

When I moved across the North Sea, I had to get rid of most of my books. I marked them with tiny stickers. Red: We’re through. Yellow: we need to talk. Green: we’ll be together forever. Eventually I got rid of the reds and yellows (freecycle was useful). It felt like such a relief. A millstone removed. But six years later, I can still see the gaps, the ghosts. I still reach for books I no longer own.

I wonder how I will deal with my yarn stash in years to come.

My Big Read

Every so often I come across a list of 100 books - the result of a BBC project called The Big Read in which the British public was asked about their favourite books. The list is being circulated as part of an ongoing internet meme asking people how many of these books they have read. You know, as though this list is an authoritative and complete list of the best and most important books. It is not. It is filled with recent best-sellers, pop culture phenomena and books people vaguely remember from school. If you are searching for a good reading guide, please consider looking at these lists instead. Warning: these lists are purely aspirational and are filled with dead white men.

However, here is my personal list. It consists of 25 books not on the BBC list.  I consider these books the cornerstones of my reading life and I recommend all of them. One book per author. Feel free to share your own recommendations in the comments section.

  1. Tom Kristensen: Havoc
  2. T.S. Eliot: The Waste Land
  3. Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass
  4. Virginia Woolf: A Room of One's Own
  5. Sir Philip Sidney: Astrophel & Stella
  6. Gertrude Stein: Tender Buttons
  7. Hart Crane: The Bridge
  8. Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master & Margarita
  9. Jorge Luis Borges: Ficciones
  10. Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire
  11. Allen Curnow: Early Days Yet (esp. Landfall in Unknown Seas)
  12. John Cheever: Falconer
  13. Alexander Trocchi: Young Adam
  14. Primo Levi: The Periodic Table
  15. Alasdair Gray: Lanark
  16. Jeanette Winterson: Sexing the Cherry
  17. Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale
  18. Keri Hulme: the bone people
  19. Iain Banks: The Bridge
  20. Michel Faber: Under the Skin
  21. Andrew Crumey: Mobius Dick
  22. Jonathan Coe: The House of Sleep
  23. Jan Kjærstad: The Seducer
  24. Cormac McCarthy: The Road
  25. Erna Brodber: Myal

PS. If anybody looking at my list can figure out what to call or how define my taste in books, please let me know. I've tried to come up with a succinct description for years but the closest I have come is "I like small, nasty books".

Damaged Sentences

Tom McCarthy's C is my current commute + night-time reading. Except that I am so scatterbrained at the moment that I only manage a few pages every other day and it is almost due back at the library. Still, I am really enjoying it as I suspected I would. Except it is not the book I thought it was going to be. This is an enjoyable thing too. I have only read the first part - the part which outlines Serge Carrefax' childhood - which is set amongst silk production, deaf children and mad-cap amateur scientists in the early parts of the 20th Century. Interestingly, this first part is strongly, strongly reminiscent of AS Byatt's latest novel, The Children's Book. The plot similarities are there: vague mothers, precocious children hiding in the woods, unsettling amateur theatre productions, bizarre charity work, and unravelling bohemian family life circa 1900. Stylistically the two books are oddly similar too and use many of the same tricks: fragments of verse flowing through the narrative, the dichotomy of muteness/speech, and a certain learnéd verbosity knowingly reined in.

I think the book might be about to change. Serge is heading for a sanatorium in Eastern Europe. I shall expect echoes of Joyce and Mann. So far I like C a lot even if it is not a high-flying avant-garde homage to Modernism but rather a literary book about ideas. I like literary books about ideas.

Incidentally, I googled Byatt + McCarthy and found this lovely review from The London Review of Books. I particularly take great pleasure in this tidbit:

Like McCarthy, I used to get exasperated by the self-impoverished narrowness of mainstream British so-called ‘literary’ literature, its obsession with Amises and McEwans, its deliberate ignorance of so much else; after a while, I realised this was not a literary but a cultic matter, to do with fertility rites and myths of social renewal. I remember that in the early 1980s on Channel 4 there was a chaotic late-night chat show, which my memory frames as having on it Vi Subversa from the Poison Girls, crowning Boy George as the young god of the year just out. As she did so, she warned him that the promise of regeneration embodied by his figure could be made good only with his sacrifice. As with hindsight, it duly was, as for Jesus and Osiris and Gazza and Martin Amis.

Recently I also found Sell the Girls, a blog entry about the old chestnut known as "dead white men and poor suppressed women writers". I happen to like reading books and poetry by Dead White men and I've often had to defend myself against outraged feminist students who thought I was betraying my gender. Seeing as these outraged feminist students frequently did not show up to extracurricular seminars because they had to do the dishes before their boyfriends came home (true story), I rarely paid them much attention.

However, the blogger behind Sell the Girls is vastly more genuine in her outrage and brings her own experience from the publishing world to the table:

I suggest that perhaps what we ought to consider is the presentation and the representation of the female author, because—and I speak from hard experience here—a female author is simply marketed and presented differently. From the color and tone of the cover, to the review coverage, to the placement, to the back cover copy, to the general perceptions of female issues.

Jane Austen was "girlified" a few years back, of course and, famously, Joanne Rowling was advised to call herself JK Rowling or no boys would want to read Harry Potter. Other than that, I struggle to recognise a world where Dead White Men are taught to the exclusion of female writers. I remember being taught Mary Sidney, Lady Mary Wroth, Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft (and her daughter), Fanny Burney, Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot etc and that is even before we get to the 20th C. Maybe I was just lucky with my tutors.

Scatterbrained. I meant to say something profound about Sell the Girls but I lost it.

Turning Pages

James Robertson is a writer whose books I enjoy very much, but I do not see him mentioned much. I was surprised and delighted to see a two-page feature on Robertson in The Guardian this past Saturday; the feature coincides with a new novel, And the Land Lay Still. I could have done without the Guardian proclaiming that Robertson was aiming to write the Great Scottish Novel that this country 'so desperately needs', though, partly because I think the Great Scottish Novel has already been written and partly because I think Robertson is aiming for something else. I picked up Robertson's The Fanatic on a whim some years ago and thought it a great, complex read about Scottish identity, the Scottish psyche and Scottish history. A very clever and entertaining book. I was less enamoured by Joseph Knight which read more .. postcolonial, if you like, and I am mildly allergic to postcolonial novels after certain university courses (long, sad story). The Testament of Gideon Mack was Robertson's big breakthrough novel and I really enjoyed its sinister humour and subversive take on a psychological thriller. It felt more mainstream/accessible than The Fanatic and also reminded me a bit of Mikhail Bulgakov's marvellous The Master & Margarita.  I'm yet to read And the Land Lay Still (I'm still reading Ulysses and then David Mitchell's latest will be next) but, yes, I'm really looking forward to a new James Robertson book.

If you are in the UK, I warmly recommend watching Women's Institute: Girl Talk. A simple premise: visiting the educational HQ of Women's Institute and talking to some of the ladies participating in the courses. And then as you learn a bit about some of the nice ladies, your eyes might just get a bit misty. One of the best hours of television I have watched for quite some time. Yes, I feel profoundly middle class now, thank you.

(I have also just checked out some of the available WI courses and am drawn towards Victorian Corset Making and Copperplate Calligraphy which should surprise absolutely no one)

Finally, my parents recently went to the Czech Republic on holiday and as a souvenir they bought me a book on Czech cooking. I was very amused to find a recipe for "Home Pig Feast" which starts: 'put the pig's head, knee and tongue in a pan..' The entire thing is served with a sauerkraut salad which is basically some sauerkraut mixed with horseradish. I think I'll politely give that one a pass.