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Review: The Humans by Matt Haig

humansThe Humans by Matt Haig is one of those books that gets bracketed in with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and The Rosie Project, all being told from the point of view of an outsider who doesn’t quite “get” society.  In The Curious Incident and The Rosie Project, outsider status is bestowed by Asperger’s.

The Humans, follows an alien who has journeyed to Earth from a far off, mathematically advanced world, who has been sent to Earth on a mission.  His first task is to killing and impersonate Cambridge Professor of Mathematics, Andrew Martin.  But by becoming “Andrew”, our alien (the book is told from the first person, so he has no name) becomes gradually more and more affected by his life on earth among humans, especially now that he he has acquired a sweet wife and a troubled but well intentioned son, causing him to question the emotional detachment he has been brought up with.

I had a similar reaction to this book as I did with the Rosie project – I found the alien/autistic viewpoint a little slow to get into, as it’s necessarily distancing, but I subsequently found the gradual acclimatisation of the protagonist to his new life both amusing and touching.

It’s not a deep or a serious read in either a mathematical or a literary sense, but is very enjoyable in both.  I was very taken by the mathematical jokes and had to read them out to the other two mathematicians in our data crunching office.  And I was going to offer it round, but one of our exam invigilators got there first – we all stick pictures of the cover and the blurb from the book we are reading on our doors, and this has a very appealing cover and blurb.

As well as enjoying the maths, I have to say that I also identify with the idea of being an alien, of not understanding what people desire from life.   Although it makes for a funny read, I also felt for “Andrew” as he went around saying and doing the wrong thing and unintentionally hurting people :-/

Thanks to Eva for the recommendation!

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Review: Made in India, Cooked in Britain by Meera Sodha

Much as I love exercise, one time when I really don’t fancy is the cold air rasping against my windpipe and into my lungs when I’m not feeling well.

I’ve been nursing one of those colds that hovers just below the surface, not quite coming out into the open.  Last week, the week just before half term, was phenomenally busy, with a Full Governors, meeting, two Meet the Parents evenings, and a County Governors get together.  So you can imagine how ill-disposed towards the world it made me feel that my sister had organised a “let’s go to Mum and Dad’s cook for all the family” on Saturday.

To be fair, it was a nice idea, as it was my parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary.  It is just neither of us have ever cooked for 12 people with varying dietary tastes before, so we had to work out what to do.

Luckily, I had heard about this book

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on the radio a few months ago, Meera Sodha’s Made in India, Cooked in Britain.  It contains recipes for a whole variety of Gujarati dishes, which are all eminently cookable, healthy and tasty.  In particular, it covers starters, mains, desserts and drinks.

I have to say that I was too tired to learn how to make samosas for starters, but I figured that spring rolls were similar enough:

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I’ve never made this many spring rolls before!  LD#2 helped by rolling them all up for me, otherwise I don’t think I could have done it.

One of the amazing things that the book has taught me is how to make rice!  Chinese people use a rice cooker, so it’s automatic… there’s also a bit of a Chinese attitude that plain white rice is the “carrier” for the food, and any sort of fancy rice is to make it a bit more palatable to Westerners.  Whereas I’ve realised that there are lots of different spices you can add to rice to make it more interesting, and the key to getting the softness/wetness right is a pot with a clear lid.

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Everyone I’ve given Meera Sodha’s fennel seed shortbread says it’s the best they’ve ever tasted.  Also there’s a recipe for spiced chai which is very special to me now – it calls for one tea bag between two mugs.  And when you have a daughter like mine who often says No to what’s on offer, it’s really nice to say, “I’m making a chai… do you want one too?” and be able to give her something without making her worry that I am going out of my way for her.

The only thing that didn’t work out with the meal was my sister’s lamb curry, the recipe for which didn’t transfer well between her slow cooker and my parents’.  (Why she didn’t turn it up to “High” when it was clear that it wasn’t softening, I don’t know.)  Anyway, after she’d gone home on Sunday morning, we ended up with a lot of undercooked lamb leftovers for lunch.  “All it needs is more cooking,” I said.  So my dad said he would sort it out.  Now, my dad is a good cook, but he is not that experienced with a microwave.  Still, I assumed that he knew what he was doing when he put it in on low heat for 60 minutes and then went out to buy a paper.

About 45 minutes later, I smelled something strange, and went into the kitchen, where there were a lot of fumes and something on fire inside the microwave!!  I turned the power off and watched the flames dying down while we decided what to do.  We all found it quite funny, apart from my mum, who rushed around berating everyone.  In the end, when the flames were at a minimum, my dad threw the stew and cracked pyrex out into the garden.  The stew must have dried out and overheated, melting the plastic cover my dad had placed over the top of it.

I have to admit, it was a pretty good weekend, despite all my grumblings in the run up.

When I got home I downloaded St Vincent’s current album.  The tracks available on Soundcloud make it seem like it’s going to be a lot more hyperactive than it actually is.  It ranges from the beautiful:

all about the powerlessness of standing by and watching someone go into self destruct,

through to this kind of intensely searing commentary

on our emotional reliance on social and other media.

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Falling in love all over again…

This morning I woke up and I was so reluctant to get up that my body hurt.

One of the reasons for my increased busy-ness and lack of blogging recently is that I have really got into exercise.  I feel quite cheated and frustrated now if I don’t do yoga, gym, run or dance each day.  This summer I lost a lot of hair :-( It’s just a natural part of getting older, but it has got me thinking that I might not always be young, but I can be strong.

Or as Lana Del Rey puts it:

(Totally perfect song to accompany The Great Gatsby.  I always think that if she has to ask the question, then she knows that the answer’s “No”.)

My favourite exercise is the dance class that I do is every Friday, which is my friend Sophia’s 5RHYTHMs® class.  I always feel a bit self conscious when I walk in, thinking “Am I comfortable identifying as a free-dancing hippy?” but after about 5 minutes, I’m totally into it.  The music is fantastic, and leads you into the movements.  The only thing I find difficult is partner dancing, which is an interesting revelation.  We don’t have to dance together in any formal sense, just respond to the other person’s movement.  The problem is that I am painfully conscious of the question of “what would my partner like me to do?”  It mirrors the fact that I am always conscious of the way I have given way too easily to other people in the past; the only way I have of dealing with this is by turning away and saying No.  Or sometimes I give way anyway and feel bad afterwards, although this is much rarer now.  I haven’t got many ways of responding openly and easily other people’s needs.

It’s a work in progress.

The second reason for being away from my blog is that sometimes the LD#1 and I sit together, share a Malibu and coke (occasionally), and talk!  I love this.  We talk about ways she can cope with situations at school that she doesn’t like.  I’m a firm believer in dealing with these situations by working out what it’s feasible, and not feasible to ask for, and then going for it.  I really think that in most cases, people want to help, and people will respond if you ask for things in a reasonable way.  Our most recent thing is a request for teachers not to ask her to talk in class.  She finds talking so stressful.  Or as I put it in my email to the school:

“Talking should come from being engaged with a subject, not for the sake of making a noise, or to fit in with what someone else wants.”

I got back the most lovely supportive email from R’s English teacher, agreeing that it was best to work around Rhiannon’s reluctance to speak, and describing how she does it.  Apparently, she doesn’t even ask Rhiannon to answer during the register, recognising that it’s not necessary, and that Rhiannon will get there in her own time, when she is ready.

There’s a lot of talk about differentiation in schools these days, of tailoring each lesson to the different needs of your students.  But as Rhiannon put it, differentiation is not about giving people the same work and expecting them to do it differently.  I felt really moved that Rhiannon has teachers who take the time to treat her as a complete person.

The last reason for being busy is only very minor, timewise.  And no, it’s not falling in love in that way, (sometimes I wonder if I ever will again, if I can be bothered) but last Thursday we battled through 45 minutes of accident-stopped traffic to view a three bedroomed flat above a shop on Lewes High Street. Since I can’t sell my house for what the estate agent said I would easily achieve, it doesn’t make sense for us to go ahead with the house we originally wanted to buy, much as we loved its Farrow and Ball colours.  We all really loved that one, so the girls weren’t at all convinced by the idea of a different, cheaper place.  But it had real charm!  Unlike the other one, it has large windows and is full of light.  By the end of the visit, they had started choosing their bedrooms.  Me, I love the big rooms, and the idea that I’ll still have some money left over to do the bathroom and kitchen exactly the way I want them.

I am also changing estate agents, since the one I am currently with hasn’t sent anyway round to view my house for a few weeks.  I phoned them up to cancel my contract (yes, I’m locked into a horrific 20 week contract, which runs out in 3 weeks, and I have to give 28 days’ notice to quit) and the day afterwards they left a message on my phone saying, “Could you phone us back because we’d like to know whether we can still sell you a mortgage?”

The cheek of it!!!

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Review: In a time Lapse by Ludovico Einaudi

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Once upon a time, I used to play the piano, before I realised that my life was better served doing things that I was a) good at and b) enjoyed.

One of the pieces I used to play was this:

I am not really into classical music, but I do like very spare piano music that is based on chords, and is powerful in its simplicity.

Like this Arvo Part:

There’s an arrangement for piano only, which I’ve also played.  Although to be honest, I never had the nerve to string it out to its full 10 mins 36 seconds, and mine would be over in about 2 minutes flat.

Anyway, at work, I have decided that we need a new office soundtrack having played both War of the Worlds and Dire Straits almost to death.  Unlike War of the Worlds and Dire Straits, it was unlikely that we’d be having an office hum along to whichever of the Part and Einaudi I chose.  However, Einaudi is much more dynamic and exciting, and I can’t be doing with anything too soporific while I work.

Next decision was whether I should get 2011′s The Islands, with Le Onde on it, or Einaudi’s most recent, In a Time Lapse.  Much as I love Le Onde, when I heard the track Run from Time Lapse, I knew it was the one.

Of course, it helps that Run has more than an echo of Pachelbel’s Canon about its chord structure.

The more I listen, the more I marvel that this album can go to each extreme of stillness and drama, and be so moving without being sentimental.

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Review: A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic

Last week I took the two LDs to the cinema to see a broadcast of Gillian Anderson in A Streetcar Named Desire, from the Young Vic. Apparently, this is a hot ticket, the fastest selling Young Vic production ever.

We studied Streetcar for our GCSE English at school.  I was lucky enough to have done my GCSE English in the last year where we were allowed to do 100% coursework, which meant that we had the freedom to study about 10 books over the course and write a few essays/pieces in response to each of them, meaning that I had a very well rounded education in literature, rather than the “teach to the test” mentality these days, which sees either To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men studied to exhaustive depth.

Streetcar is a pretty racy text for fifteen year olds, but my children are about the same age now as I was when I first saw it, I thought it would be nice to give them a bit of culture that they wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise.

We watched the Marlon Brando film of this at school, over a few lessons, and therefore I didn’t remember the play being quite as long as the bum numbing 3 hours that the Young Vic ran to.  I am feeling completely sacrilegious saying this, as people in the audience around us were ooh-ing with appreciation at just about every turn, but despite Gillian Anderson’s magnetic and energetic performance, I did feel that the second half, where there is more confrontation, was a lot more entertaining than the first half, and the first half could have done with a few judicious cuts…

I also didn’t remember the latter stages of film as being quite as disturbing and insightful into Blanche’s mental state as the Young Vic production became.  The intensity of the stage setting, the opportunities for sound distortion and the in-your-face theatricalities over the garish exhibitions of Blanche’s mental state – all these were well explored.

When I first studied the play, I remember feeling most sympathy for the character of Stella, Blanche’s sister who was torn between loyalties towards her warring husband Stanley and sister.  I’ve always felt slightly ashamed of this, as Stella’s ultimately a pretty passive observer of her own life, a reactor, rather than an actor.  However, as the play unfolded, I remembered what it was that appealed to me, which was that Blanche and Stanley are basically both monsters and Stella was the character most invested with human uncertainty.

The monstrosity of Blanche is a pretty weird thing to come back to.  When you’re fifteen, you don’t think it’s that odd to have this woman alternately throwing herself at and hiding herself from every male she comes into contact with.  As an adult, I was left feeling a bit ambivalent about Blanche’s alternate “come-on”s and “go-away”s towards Stanley, and her ultimate rape.  I’m not sure whether this is a brilliant pre-emptor to the date rape debate, or whether on one level, Tennessee Williams is inviting us to say that she deserved it? :-/

I was also left wondering - “Is/was any woman ever really like this??  Is Blanche just a symbol, and weird fantasy projection of how Tennessee Williams wanted to live his own life?  And if so, how has this play become so enduring popular?”

It was really interesting, therefore, to read a review in the Times just a week later of John Lahr’s new biography of Tennesse Williams, in which he reveals that Williams’ sister Rose was forced to have ECT and a lobotomy for having “delusions of sexual immorality” about “gentleman callers”.  I still think Blanche is a bit of a gay projection, and not a “real” female character, but I think the play’s enduring popularity is to do with Williams’ tenderness and understanding of Blanche, and his willingness to let her have free rein on the stage, however mad she might be.  After Rose’s lobotomy, she was unable to live independently, and it was Tennessee Williams, and his estate after her death, who paid for her to have the best institutional care until she died, aged eighty-six.

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The 10 Album challenge

OK, it’s not really a challenge, but there’s a tag running round Facebook at the moment, where you list the 10 albums that have most stayed with you.

The ensuing discussions led to a very nostalgic weekend listening to music from the 80s and 90s!  Also,my friend James mentioned Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds.  I put this on at work and it was so popular!  We had a kind of mass hum and nod along this afternoon. 

It also got me thinking about my musical history.  My albums are as follows.

1) Little Earthquakes – Tori Amos.  First album I ever bought!  I have enjoyed all Tori’s subsequent albums, but to me, her first is her most meaningful, because the lyrics are the most direct (even though they are very poetic and dreamy.)  

2) Do You Like My Tight Sweater – Moloko.  As with Tori, I discovered Moloko through reading the Channel 4 teletext music ‘zine!  That was a fine ‘zine and it was inevitable, but a real shame when teletext died a death…

3) Blur – Blur.  I liked the fact that they could write and perform many different types of music.

4) Mezzanine – Massive Attack.  When I was a teenager, I bought this for the soulfully beautiful track Teardrop.  The rest of the album was a bit heavy and scary.  Then in my twenties, I used to put it on if I wanted something to challenge me.  But now I have grown into it and just love to sink into its heavy beats.

5) Over Fly Over – Kathryn Williams.  Very sensitive and sincere in her music, funny and irreverent on TV.

 

6) Spiegel im Spiegel – Arvo Part. Spare and magic.

I didn’t listen to much music between leaving University and last year.  I got quite out of touch with the world when the kids were young.  More to the point, we didn’t have much money to spare for buying music, and there just wasn’t the same access to so many different types of music that we have with the internet now.  And then in my late twenties, I went out with someone who really didn’t like my taste in music.  He found it… I suppose… intrusive.  I often like my music quite edgy and unusual.  He liked jazz.  He had problems with my Penguin Cafe Orchestra, my McAlmont and Butler, my Paula Cole, and especially with my Massive Attack.

During this period, I bought a Moby CD and a Norah Jones CD.  

7) Les Revenants – Mogwai;  My first purchase as I emerged into the real world.  Loved the television series, so many sad moments.

8) Tales of Us – Goldfrapp;

9) The Bones of What We Believe – Chvrches;

10) Reflektor – Arcade Fire. 

The last 3 I have reviewed here and still love them!

Have you been “10 album challenged”?  What would you choose?

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Review: The Girl Who Just Appeared by Jonathan Harvey

I’m always on the look out for books that are completely recommendable.  By that I mean, accessible to read without being simplistic.  Well plotted without being contrived.  Warm.  Felt.

The Girl Who Just Appeared is one of those books.  Written by Coronation Street script writer Jonathan Harvey, it’s big on sentiments and emotion tugging, and has a fun and well drawn sense of place – in this case, Liverpool.

Holly Smith finds out that she is adopted at the age of eight.  But it isn’t until her adopted parents are both dead that she feels able to go and trace her birth mother.  When she sees the Liverpool flat she knows her real mother once lived in come up for rent, she takes it straightaway, leaving the metropolis and a PA job with a demanding starlet in her wake.

I decided that TGWJA was going to be the easiest review I’ve done since The Undertaking (which I think I summed up as “harrowing”) because everything amazing about it was there in the first chapter:

The respectable Jean Smith’s passion for church music only narrowly eclipses her passion for involving her adopted daughter, Holly, in its production.  One day, she takes Holly to London to see Miss Saigon.  They go to McDonalds, which is a treat beyond Holly’s wildest dreams.  There she experiences her first Filet o’fish, the anticipation and delight of which are conveyed in delicious, teasing slo-mo.  And just as we are sharing with Holly this experience of a lifetime, her mother comes blundering in with an absolutely terribly and hilariously executed revelation of Holly’s provenance.

This is followed by Holly’s dawning realisation, even through the fog of her emotions, that she can manipulate her flustered mother in the ensuing confusion like never before.  Holly provides the perfect unwitting foil, with her child’s naivity, to her mother’s uptightness.

What follows is more of the same – laugh out loud humour, fast pacing, confusion and unexpected emotions.  

It also tackles the class question that hangs over literature in general; readers and writers alike tend not to be working class.  The middle class’s way of expressing itself on paper tends to be more fluent, more grammar-and-spelling standardised and therefore easier to read (just ask anyone who has ever glanced over a selection of bottom set Y10 essays), and more complex and therefore interesting than the working class’s.  How do writers get across the themes and events of working class life without sounding inauthentic?

Jonathan Harvey achieves this remarkably well by using a couple of short diary entries, belonging to a boy called Darren, who lived in the same house as Holly’s real mother.  Darren’s claustrophobic and hopeless world, where one needs to menace first before one is menaced, and where pleasures are rare, fleeting and not to be passed up, is tenderly drawn, and done with genuine insight.  Darren is not the world’s best speller and there are some wonderful comic moments, such as when he is expressing his fear of someone he loves being “used as a porn,” and his delight at dressing a baby up for a wedding as a “flour girl”.  The effect of his spelling is not to make you laugh at him, but to highlight the fact that despite his lack of education, he is as sincere and good hearted as anyone more eloquent than he.

One of the best books I’ve ever read.  I can’t remember whose blog I first saw this on, but I thank you from the bottom of my heart!