Saturday, 13 September 2014

How Long is a Good Book? The Year in Books: September


I've been delaying this month's Year in Books post in the hope that I would manage to finish my August read, 'The Goldfinch'.  I'm now admitting defeat - there are still over 300 of the 771 pages to go.  Yes I'm enjoying it and I will finish it: the first section was really good.  Others have said it was unputdownable and at this stage I tended to agree.  It's another book with a young male first person narrator - the fourth of this kind in a row for me, by accident rather than design.  As a 13 year old, the boy's life is shattered when his mother is killed in a terrorist bombing of a New York gallery they are visiting.  Donna Tartt's description of this is really vivid and her characterisation superb - I have a full picture of the world she created in my mind.  He tries to help another injured victim, a character called Welty, who he had noticed with his granddaughter just before the explosion.  He dies but not before telling the boy to take the painting of 'The Goldfinch', which his mother loved, out of the gallery.  This is the central plot device and the reader looks forward to seeing what the boy does with the painting - you suspect that he will hang onto it as the book begins with him hiding from police in Amsterdam for an undisclosed crime.  But then she kind of wraps the painting up for a bit, just like her character does, and digresses: he moves to Las Vegas to live with his father, meets Boris, another fascinating character and they grow up drinking, discovering girls, drugs etc.  All very well written, though rather too much vomiting for my taste,  and again she draws you into this desert and sun and casino world.  But there is, frustratingly, no plot advancement.  Then his father dies in a car accident and he's back in New York, at first as a teenager and then as an adult in the part I'm currently reading I'm starting to lose sympathy with him now, always a problem if you have a first person narrator, and I want the real story to start.  I checked out what others on The Year in Books thought and Lifechimes seems to agree.

Basically this book is just too long.  I caught the end of an interview with Ian McEwan on the radio a week or so ago and he was discussing this   He says that "very few really long novels earn their length", and "my fingers are always twitching for a blue pencil".  I tend to agree.  Yet short books are not to my taste either.  I found McEwan's Booker prize nominated 'novella', 'On Chesil Beach' disappointingly brief.  He says that he likes the idea of a book that you can read at one sitting, like his latest 'The Children Act'. (A man's comment - few women of my acquaintance have the luxury of reading even a 203 page book in one go.)  It sounded good when I caught a bit of it Book At Bedtime but I won't be buying it.  Not enough reader satisfaction for the £6.45 it costs on Kindle.

And so to answer my own question.  For me a good book is usually at least 300 and no more than 500 words long.   Just like my other August book which I did finish: Hardy's 'Far from the Madding Crowd' (469 pages), first read with Mrs Neill at the Rainey Endowed school in 1974/5 for my O Level English Literature.  I haven't read it since and  I really enjoyed it.  Hardy may digress into descriptions of rural Dorset but he never forgets to keep the plot going for the reader.  Like Donna Tartt, he has that skill of drawing you into his world so that you live it for a while. 

I also think everyone should read this book before choosing a life partner. Listen to these wise words at the end of the novel. 
'
They spoke very little of their mutual feeling; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably un- necessary between such tried friends. Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other's character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good-fellowship — CAMARADERIE — usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death — that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.'

 Hoping I can persuade my daughter to read it so that she's not taken in by some Troylike flashy scoundrel in a red jacket showing off his fancy sword work. Or its modern equivalent.

So in September for the Year in Books, I won't be too ambitious. I will finish 'The Goldfinch' along with a couple of non-fiction library loans pictured below. Joining again with Laura at Circle of Pine Trees.




Tuesday, 9 September 2014

End of Summer Outings: Coronation Street Tour and Kate Bush Concert



If I were ever to appear on Mastermind, like Mr Johnson from the Rainey Endowed who reached the final answering on various obscure French writers,  I would choose as my specialism.... 'Coronation Street', 1970- present.  I was the group expert last week when my daughter and I went to Manchester to do the tour of the set at the old Granada Studios, as I knew the answers to the guide's questions on details like the names of Gail's former husbands.

This is not to say I am a huge fan of the original 'soap' - when I'm on my own I don't usually bother to watch. It's just that I always seem to be around when it's on the TV: my grandmother watched it; my dad did in later years and mum when she sat down.  My husband's family watched it - his mother was a huge fan.  And most weekday evenings when it's on, Kate and her dad watch it together while I potter about.  It's one of the few things they do together. The soap is pure escapism and bears no reflection to any kind of working class reality. But she has grown up watching it and sometimes it has been the catalyst for discussions about issues that perhaps would not have arisen naturally.

When the tour was advertised after the show recently, Kate said she wanted to go.  I am forever dragging her round gardens etc. so I agreed to her choice of outing this time and we joined other fans for the tour on Thursday. This set was used until December - now the show has a new home at Media City in Salford.  Backstage on the set was far from glamorous - we had a peek in dressing rooms, the wardrobe and saw the sets for some of the family homes and the Rovers Return.  It was all much smaller than we'd thought.  Then we went outside to see 'the street' itself.  Good fun and out tour guide was very entertaining.



Then at the weekend my husband and I caught the train to London to go the Kate Bush concert at the Hammersmith Apollo.  He's a huge fan - has all the albums and his screen saver on his tablet is a photo of her. That's why he was prepared to fork out a huge amount for the tickets.  She hasn't toured since 1979 so they were much sought after.  I'm not so keen on some of the music but I loved this show - it was more of a theatrical experience than a concert with film and puppetry and acting.  There is a kind of narrative which links some of the songs and this was developed further. I liked the 'Hounds of Love' sequence which shows a woman -a mother whose family are waiting at home - who had fallen from a ship and floats about, hoping to be rescued.   Some of the imagery was quite disturbing - she transforms herself into a bird at the end of Aerial.



These outings mark the end of our long summer holiday.  Now I must move. Because today I have to go to work.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Ice Cold Charity


You are probably aware of the current Ice Bucket challenge craze: a charity fundraising drive for ALS or Motor Neurone disease which has swept the nation this summer.  Nominees film themselves having a bucket of iced water thrown over their heads, post the video on Facebook and then donate to the charity.  Or don't in some cases.  My daughter completed her challenge in Brittany last week, nominated by the friend who went on holiday with us; her cousins in Ireland have done it and various otherwise sane adults of my acquaintance have also posted their videos on my Facebook page.  I haven't bothered to play them.

You may sense my cynicism about all this.  It's not that I object to fundraising, it's just that I dislike the tactics used by some charities.  They are 'competing' for a finite amount of money - the amount of a family's disposable income that they are willing to give to charity  And why should this charity receive a bigger share because they have come up with something which appeals to our 'selfie' obsessed society?   The Cancer Research 'no make-up' Facebook selfie was similar.  No doubt there are charities around the country meeting in attempts to come up with the next craze.  The adult version of 'loom bands' perhaps.

Charity fundraising is an emotive issue and people usually donate or raise funds themselves to charities which mean something to them. A number of my friends raise funds for cancer charities because of their personal experiences.  And when my husband rode from London to Paris he fundraised for the Alzheimer's Society because his mother had suffered dementia in her final years.  There's nothing wrong with this, yet I suppose it highlights the fact that there is a element of charitable giving which is about making ourselves feel better.

When my daughter was younger I worried that she was rather spoilt: as an only child with lots of relatives the stack of toys and presents at Christmas and birthdays was immense.  So I decided to join one of those schemes where you sponsor a child in a developing country- pay an amount every month and you help a named child, getting updates on her progress etc.  Our child was Awa Ba from a rural part of Senegal: we received photographs of her, letters from the person who worked with her and the occasional drawing from Awa herself.  My motivation for doing this was twofold - Kate would learn that not all children were as lucky as her and I would be helping another child rather than spending more of my income on my own.  I succeeded to some extent though, believe it or not, Kate aged 8 actually envied Awa because her ears were pierced, something I had forbidden until secondary school.  But then my working hours were cut and I had less money to spare so when the project in Senegal ended we decided not to sponsor another child, giving a smaller regular amount instead.  I feel a bit guilty about this -  there are plenty of things I could do without and still sponsor a child.  But child sponsorship is, in fact, really another gimmick.  The money given doesn't go directly to the child, but to the project and all the costs admin, photographs and postage associated with the sponsorship programme will reduce the funds available for the community

Kate has not made her Ice Bucket donation yet.  I am insisting that she does.  However I want her to make an informed decision about which charity she wants to support rather than automatically giving to the ALS.




Monday, 1 September 2014

Holiday 2014 Part 2: Home from home in Brittany


Brittany is my favourite part of France - we have been on holiday here many times. I think this is because it reminds me of Ireland - it's very green - it rains quite a lot as we discovered this week - and there's all that Celtic culture.  It is our dream to one day buy a house on the South coast along from La Baule, which is where the weather is best.  So we travelled there again last week - me, husband, daughter and her schoolfriend, carefully vetted by us as being a. a keen reader and b. not a fussy eater.

Allotments seen from the city above - very green as you can see.
This time we stayed in Dinan, just south of St Malo where the ferry comes in from Portsmouth.  We stayed in a gite overlooking the Rance river.  Not the best holiday home we have ever had - uncomfortable bed and the shower could only four dribbly jets of water. But a great location, just after the end of the main road in Dinan port, overlooking the river. It was quiet without being too isolated with a little bar/restaurant between us and the river.  Fifteen minute walk to the town itself, a pleasant stroll along the port, past privately owned boats and quayside restaurants and then a steep climb up the hill, occasionally pausing for breath at little art galleries and craft shops. Dinan is a beautiful preserved medieval town with a long history but, true to form, we didn't really bother finding out anything about this and concentrated on our usual holiday pursuits: eating, lazing around and reading books.  There was also a cycle path running along the river just outside our gite and I went on a couple of bike rides with my husband, a very unusual occurrence as I go much too slowly for him and won't ride far at home because of my fear of traffic.




The girls did their usual stuff - talking till after midnight, sleeping till ten, two hours of 'getting ready', then outside to link up with the bar's free wi-fi so they could catch up with Snapchat and Facebook and 'update their stories' with holiday pictures.  I wasn't terribly pleased to find out about the free wi fi and wanted a total break from the internet.  So I didn't bother. But the girls are lost without it.  One day when it was raining heavily they even stood outside sheltering under the restaurant's canopy so they could connect.  At least they found time for reading - their current favourite being the 'Divergent' series by Veronica Roth. I watched the DVD of the first book with them and quite enjoyed it.  It was better than 'The Hunger Games' anyway.  They also liked eating crepes and exploring the market.  I quite like this necklace and bracelet with the Breton symbol which my daughter bought and might borrow it sometimes.






So a good holiday, even though the weather was a bit mixed. We got to the beach in St Cast one day and sat outside most evenings to eat even if we had to wear jumpers and shelter from light rain under the big umbrella.  And we had some lovely meals out.  My favourite was a little restaurant on the quayside called LesTerre-Neuvas where we sat out side for lunch on our final day when the sun shone.  This meal below cost 16 euros and was absolutely delicious: crevettes roses with mayonnaise; scallops and salmon gratin, and something called Assiette Gourmand (greedy plate?) with cassis sorbet, chocolate mousse and far breton - a kind of egg custard with prunes.












Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Holiday 2014 Part 1: Breezy Ballyronan

Family Portrait by Hannah
I've just returned from a short break in Northern Ireland.  A couple of days for me and teenager in the Lisburn area visiting my sister and her family: the big boy cousins on holiday from university who sleep til lunchtime and then emerge to eat huge bowls of Shreddies on the sofa while skyping or messaging distant friends.  Shreddies are often the only food in the house since this sister is no domestic goddess and rarely shops for food or eats anything more than M&S pre-packed salads. We had a good time though - twin boy nephews aged 5 and their big sister, the portrait artist, were also over from England and the small boys enjoyed torturing the big boy cousins and the cats, Jensen and Rossi.  Their dad and I shopped and cooked spag bol. for everyone while sister was at work. So we ate that and then we played Monopoly, one of our favourite board games when we were children, though this time she didn't rob the bank as she used to.  I was very disappointed as this was a souped up version of the game and instead of building hotels in Pall Mall you had to build things like piers on 'Vista Beach'.  We played in pairs and sister and I did well at first but eventually went bankrupt because of the devious and ruthless actions of the biggest boy cousin: I predict future business success.

All three sisters then went back to Dad's house in Ballyronan which is now empty apart from the spiders. Cobwebs in your face as you open the door for no one has been here since my last visit at the beginning of June.  It was sad at first, but soon the children had created chaos and it felt more like home.  We didn't go far - it was freezing in NI.  We put the heating on and I'd had to purchase a furry hoodie as I hadn't brought enough clothes in my Easyjet permitted hand luggage. So we caught up with extended family - cousins my age visited and we had the old photos out reminiscing.  We pulled weeds in the yard and examined the state of the garden.  The greenhouse is choked with weeds and there are lots of broken panes of glass.  No tomatoes this year - the twins were disappointed.   There were lots of plums though, slightly underripe, but very good in the crumble I made after Sunday's roast dinner.



Our only outing was to the marina down the road with the younger children and my daughter to feed the ducks and play in the playground.  There was a weather warning in place, and it was more like winter so brother-in law was a bit chilly in his shorts.  Good fun for the children as a flock of Canadian geese had taken up residence and the children enjoyed chasing and being chased by them.  Only my teenager showed any fear, even when one of the boys had his finger nipped by a particularly greedy goose.



On my trip I made a rather shocking discovery.  It seems that some people I actually know read this blog. Although I now have had over 10,000 page views according to Blogger stats, I assumed that most were people who came across the blog by accident when looking for something else, not bothering to read.  My all time top post is about Michael Kors handbags, for example.  I suppose if I put Ballyronan in the title, then I'm bound to attract local readers. It's not that I mind people reading really, but I am a little concerned that I may have offended someone with my half-formed views on events in NI etc.  So please forgive me, reader, if that is you.  And if you are an ex-Rainey pupil of my era, yes, I was that slightly mousy one you didn't really talk to much.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Year in Books: July reads and August plans


We are well into August and I still haven't written my Year in Books post.  I love this project started by Laura at Circle of Pine Trees as it has been a good way to find other bloggers who enjoy reading as well as many books to add to my wish list.

This month I read three books, not a lot considering I've not been at work since mid-July.   My chosen book was 'The Goldfinch' but I just didn't get to it.    I did read 'Perfect' by Rachel Joyce which was, like Harold Fry her previous bestseller, a little slow in the middle and perhaps too long but well worth it for the ending.  It has two narrative voices, one in the present and one from a child's perspective in the 1970s.  The period detail was really good as was the portrayal of the narrator's mother.  Like several other books I have read recently, such as 'The Shock of the Fall', it explores mental illness: the central character suffers from OCD.  Although it was sad, it wasn't depressing and I loved the ending.

I also read 'The Wide Sargasso Sea' by Jean Rhys.  This is one of these classic books I've been meaning to get round to for years.  I knew of the connection to 'Jane Eyre' and its status as a kind of feminist response to JE.  So I was expecting something different.  The story of Antoinette before she became Rochester's mad wife Bertha was powerful and evocative.  Rhys drew on her own experience of growing up in Dominica and it's the description of the island and the beauty that has stayed with me.  Again the narration is shared between characters - from Bertha to Rochester and on one occasion to Grace Poole who cares for Bertha in England.  I think I was expecting more reference to 'Jane Eyre' and more focus on Rochester.  Actually I felt a little sorry for him at times and don't think he is portrayed as a total villain.  I'm not that keen on him in 'Jane Eyre' anyway.  Jane herself doesn't appear in the novel, unless I missed something.  A pity as I'd have liked to hear Bertha's opinion of her as she is annoyingly prissy in my view.

I also read 'Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe' by Frannie Flagg, my bookclub read.  It took me a while to get my head round the huge number of characters and narrators but in the end I enjoyed it.   Others have recommended the film which was very popular when it first came out - quite a while ago.

In August I am eventually going away on holiday and have set aside 'The Goldfinch' until then. I have purchased a hardback copy with a birthday voucher and it is as heavy as a brick.  Good job we we are travelling by car and ferry.  I also have to reread 'Far from the Madding Crowd', my own 'O' Level text many years ago, as I am teaching it to an 'A' level group next term.  Don't mind really - I enjoy Hardy as the plots are always strong and at least this one has a happy ending.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Flying the Flags - culture and identity in Northern Ireland



So Northern Ireland, my home nation, has eventually won some gold medals at the Commonwealth Games. Two young boxers were doing the rounds of the post-games chat shows last night clearly delighted with their success, as was the Scottish postie boxer who also won gold and amused everyone with his enthusiastic rendition of 'Flower of Scotland', the chosen anthem for his country, during the medal ceremony.  The two boxers from Northern Ireland may have felt  less enthusiastic when their medal were being awarded.   The radar that all those who grew up in NI acquire tells me that these young men are probably Catholic (the names give it away) and might not have much loyalty to the 'hand of Ulster' flag used to represent Northern Ireland in the games, nor for Northern Ireland's chosen 'anthem' 'The Londonderry Air' or 'Danny Boy' as it is better known.  In fact, Paddy Barnes was heard to say 'that's not my anthem' when it was being played. But he later defused the row by making a comment on Twitter.  He said he 'won the medal for everyone, Catholic and Protestant alike, I don't care what your religion is!  Some clowns out there.'  Good for him.

People in mainland Britain cannot believe what a fuss is made about flying flags in Northern Ireland.  There were violent protests last year about the council's decision to limit the number of days the union flag would be flown over city hall.  Thankfully this has died down, but Paddy Barnes is right. There are still 'clowns' around and a sickening new twist is that some of the loyalist extremists seem to be supporting Israel's horrendous bombing of Gaza. Read more about this here.

In Ballyronan, where I grew up, it became a kind of sport at one stage for the young men in the village to erect either a tricolour (what we called the Irish flag) or a union jack and take down the one erected by the opposition. These days no one bothers.  Most people are ready to live in peace with each other and get on with their lives. My brother in law who lives in NI showed me this clip from a show called 'The Blame Game' which sums up the attitude of most sane people to the flag issue.

Last week I had to complete and sign a form related to our farm in Ballyronan. It had to be returned to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.  I noticed that the address on the form said Derry/Londonderry.  This use of the / alternative is new to me and is I suppose another official attempt at reconciliation since the name of NI's second city is another contentious issue.  When I was young, I always talked of Derry and used Co Derry when writing my address.  It was only later that someone told me that Protestants like me said Londonderry.  Really?

My own cultural identity is a bit mixed.   I don't feel any real connection to what is 'traditional' Irish culture - the language, the dance, the music and I can't even spell ceilidh without looking it up.  Nor do I see parades like the Twelfth, which I blogged about here,  as my cultural heritage: it's time to move on from all that. I never know what to put on those Ethnic Diversity forms you have to fill in at work sometimes.  Am I White Irish or White British?  Sometimes I tick both.