Monthly Archives: July 2013

Charlotte’s Web by EB White

Charlotte’s Web by EB White

Looking for books off the list at the library makes the reading order fairly random. I picked up #170 Charlotte’s Web by EB White last time I was in, although it wasn’t one I had in mind. When I walked in the door, I was looking for On the Road or A Town Like Alice and I got this instead. No regrets though – it’s rather lovely.

Charlotte’s Web is the story of Wilbur. Born the runt of the litter, he’s saved from death by Fern who hand-rears him until he’s weaned, when she sells him to her uncle, Homer. Finding out that Homer is fattening him up for winter bacon, Wilbur, quite naturally, gets very upset. The rest of the farmyard is fairly blase about his situation, but Charlotte, a spider, steps in to save his life.

Talking animals
All the animals in Charlotte’s Web talk, apart from flies. It’s interesting as the only predators in the book seem to be Charlotte herself and the humans – the other characters are herbivores. I don’t even remember seeing a farm cat or the dog talk. Moreover, Charlotte recognizes the moral quandaries associated with her position, something the humans don’t seem to do. Another interesting point is that Fern can understand the animals talking (at least when she’s young) so she has an additional insight into their plight. And yet, so far as I can recall, her family still eat ham and mutton and other meat products, including, one assumes, Wilbur’s siblings.

Eater or eaten is a critical power dynamic in so many animal stories, and the communication element makes it more interesting. What if mice really could plead for their lives? What if the cat could understand them? What if pigs really could object to being killed with a reasoned speech? Would you become vegetarian? If not, what would that do to you?

The book itself
I enjoyed Charlotte’s Web, although not quite as much as I thought I would. It’s an intriguing, unusual story and well told. EB White is a talented writer, and I have very fond memories of The Trumpet of the Swan, which we read in school so I had a copy of for my very own. Charlotte’s Web must have been a library book, so I wouldn’t have reread it as often and as a result don’t have strong childhood memories of it.

Wilbur is something of a stereotypical princess-in-a-tower. He’s somewhat hard-of-thinking, prefers comfortable confinement to difficult freedom, and can’t save himself. Charlotte, on the other hand, is fabulously complex. She’s smart, creative, analytical and has a clear, complex moral code. She’s the star of the book, and it’s interesting that all her energy goes into saving the life of a creature who isn’t her equal. But then, Wilbur is both childlike and quite literally a child, being only two or three months old at the start of their friendship, so it’s hard to argue against saving him on the grounds that he’s kind of dull.

Charlotte’s technique for saving Wilbur is also very clever and another interesting side to her character – while it saves Wilbur’s life, it’s only through the superstition and gullibility of the humans who prefer to believe in divine intervention than a clever spider.

All in all I thought the book was interesting, definitely a good read. I didn’t remember the ending, and now I know it I’m tempted to read the book again, to look at Charlotte’s words more carefully, get my hindsight in, but as it’s gone back to the library, I can’t. The book does have a few sad moments and there is a risk that young readers may stop eating meat, but otherwise I think it’s a good choice for new readers.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Swimming in the evening

Swimming in the evening

A ladder into a swimming hole

I love being in or by water, and it is a real joy and a luxury to be able to go swimming, outdoors, in the evening. In Cambridge, a dip in the Cam or the Jesus Green pool was usually a chilly affair, saved for the hottest days of the year. Here, lovely beaches abound, by river and lake, and the light and heat fade slowly. The shadows get longer and longer, stretching out so far you’re in shade wherever you go, and yet the sky is still blue and clear and the water, if not exactly warm, is temperate.

A few shots of Sweden

A few shots of Sweden

The popular image of Sweden is all about the snow and ice. It’s July, and there’s not a hint of chill anywhere. We’ve been staying in Linköping, about 200km south of Stockholm and this is what it looks like.

In the countryside:
Red Swedish farm building nestled in green fields

In the fields:
Tall grain under a blue sky

At the lake:
View over a wide lake, can't see the other side, with scraps of shore poking into view from right and left

Swimming at the lake:
A group of dots (people) swim in a bay in a lake

Swimming in the river:
A river under a blue sky, swimmers' heads are visible

I’m not surprised that summer here should be lush and luxurious, with heat and sun and all kinds of good things. It’s a lot like a summer in Switzerland in that respect.

I’m astonished by how long the light stays strong. Most or perhaps all of these pictures were taken in the evening, i.e. after 6pm, a few of them much later as I tend not to pull out my camera until we’re on the move and we tend not to leave somewhere so gorgeous until we’re properly famished.

The BFG by Roald Dahl

The BFG by Roald Dahl

Deservedly famous, #56 The BFG by Roald Dahl is another childhood favourite of mine, and I enjoyed rereading my battered old copy for this challenge.

BFG stands for Big, Friendly Giant. Sophie, an orphan, sees this 24-foot-tall man sneaking around her village one night, and he snatches her to prevent her telling the world what she’s seen. When Sophie discovers that the other giants are the opposite of friendly – they eat people by the handful – the two of them hatch a plot to bring them to justice.

More than words
Dahl has a way with words, and The BFG is packed with new inventions, words whose meanings are usually obvious but which aren’t found in any dictionary. It’s a masterpiece of gymnastic language, and is worth reading as an example of a living language, and how expressing yourself well can be more important than correct spelling or grammar.

That said, there’s more to the book than words and if you’re going to read The BFG, get an edition with the Quentin Blake illustrations. They are a critical part of the book, in my opinion. The illustrations are simple line drawings in Blake’s usual, sketchy style and they bring the characters to life. They also pad out the book, and transform it from a pure reading experience to something more mixed-media.

I may be a little biased though – the picture of the BFG always reminded me of my Granddad. Although he wasn’t 24-foot-tall he was tall (particularly from a child’s point of view) with big hands you could lose yours in, a similarly slender frame, strong nose and big ears. And a lovely smile. Like the BFG, he also had mysterious powers and cared very much for a small, not particularly special, girl.

A grown up’s eyes
I read all the Roald Dahl books I could get my hands on when I was a kid, and yet only really liked about half of them. Matilda was probably my all-time favourite, and Ioved The BFG but remember hating The Twits and being too scared to finish The Witches the first time I read it, age about 8. 

It’s interesting reading them again as an adult as the books – even the ones I still enjoyed – really aren’t that nice. Dahl has a surprising amount in common with Stephen King in that when his books are good, they’re very good – the best ones are finely crafted portrayals of people in extreme and usually gory situations – and when they’re bad they are horrid.

In both cases, the stories are like fairy tales in the sense that “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” – a quote the internet attributes to GK Chesterton, but a sentiment I remember from a Pratchett book, perhaps Witches Abroad or Hogfather.

Dahl expresses anti-adult sentiments quite regularly in his books. He’s in the class of children’s authors who suggest that adults are, typically a bit dull, talking about mortgages and not getting it but more often than not are stupid or untrustworthy. It’s probably a reaction to the Blyton style, where authority figures abound, but it’s not quite a modern sentiment – it suggests that children shouldn’t trust grown ups, even their own parents, and shouldn’t expect to have fun with them. Although, not all grown ups in his works are like this – there are exceptions, like Danny’s father in Danny The Champion of the World. And certainly, it’s not a terrible message to give that not all grown ups are smart, trustworthy or have your best interests at heart.

The BFG is easy to read, good fun and beautifully, effectively, illustrated so it’s ideal for younger readers and those beginning to read on their own. However, there are monsters in this book. The unfriendly giants eat human beings, joyfully, and gather them by stealing them from their beds at night. Somehow, the world has remained oblivious to the scale of these disappearances through the centuries. Further, giants aren’t born – they just appear – so there’s no real reason to suppose that dealing with them once in a time which is clearly Long Ago to modern readers, (the Queen of England is a young woman, for one thing) is enough to stop the problem for good. Waking up in the middle of the night, it can be hard – even as an adult – to be absolutely certain that monsters aren’t real and your bad dreams aren’t prophetic, so this is simply a note of caution as the book is generally wonderful, but is, in a certain sense, junior horror.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Copenhagen for Knitters

Copenhagen for Knitters

You must be wondering if I ever go anywhere without looking for yarn – the answer is, honestly, not really. I don’t tend to make special yarn quests in the UK any more, but I’m always curious when it comes to other countries as sometimes the selection is so similar to what I know, and sometimes very different.

Copenhagen is a great city for yarn shopping – and I’ve got very little else to say about it, as we were only there for a very short period and K was feeling rotten thanks to hayfever, sleep deprivation and us driving 1500km in 2 days. We’ll probably be stopping on the way back from Sweden, as well, as it’s hard to get a caravan out of this country without going through Denmark.

Ordinary streets in Copenhagen are really pretty. It started out grey when we were walking around, which doesn’t do my amateur photography any favours. Luckily the sun came out between one photo and the next.

A random pretty street in Copenhagen, tall old houses in pretty pastels

We walked and cycled around a lot – the town is full of swarms of cyclists, so it’s easy to deal with the traffic. I hadn’t expected quite so much over and undertaking by other cyclists, or mopeds on the cycle lanes, but apart from that it was all fine. The country is very flat, so it’s easy to get around.

There was jazz on in the streets while we were there, and the street cafes and outdoor spaces were packed with happy people.

Copenhagen canal with sail boat It stays light and warm until really late at this time in the summer – that photo is from about 8pm, I think, maybe later. After dinner, anyway.

Famous sights
Yarnstormers are at work in Copenhagen! It’s true. Naturally I had to get a photo with the work I found.

Me, knitting a sock, standing next to a bar with a piece of knitting attached to it. In the background, the little mermaid statue

Would you like a close up?

Close up of a bar with a piece of knitting attached to it. In the background, the little mermaid statue

There were lots of tourists crowding around this piece of knitting and taking photographs. It’s nice to see handknits get their dues ;)

Yarn shops
There are clearly hundreds of knitters in Copenhagen, as the city supports at least a dozen yarn shops, many of which are within easy walking distance of the city centre. I found an incredibly useful and thorough list of Copenhagen yarn shops and noted down the four (four!) between where we were staying and the city centre. We hit up the first two, which was enough as they were both excellent, and then went for a swim. I should probably knit some things before we go back…

Copenhagen is very cycle-friendly – there are swarms of bikes everywhere, and it’s pretty much flat – so if you can cycle, that’s probably the best choice for a yarn crawl. Get one with a big basket on the back.

Nicoline Garn, Fyensgade 1, 2200 København

Shop front with baskets of yarn outside, yarn in the window, yarn everywhereThe first shop we went into, this is a good size shop and packed to the rafters with yarn in all colours. I resisted the urge to buy all the things but it was a close call. Nicoline Garn is slightly out of the centre, very easy to get to by bike, and I would say well worth the trip.
Wall of hundreds of balls of yarn arranged by colourOpposite this was a wall of sock yarn, mostly in solid colours, and I wanted to take it all home and pet it. I resisted. Mostly.
Inside of a yarn shop with yarn on the walls, baskets on the floor and samples displayed around
The stock is primarily what I think of as practical, workaday yarn – yarn you can make socks or a baby jumper or a sweater out of without risking financial ruin or wrecking the piece the first time it is worn. This is the kind of yarn I prefer. I mean, I’m all for a bit of luxury, but I’m not a delicate person and I’m much more likely to wear something I think will stand up to the test of time. Prices were entirely reasonable.

I didn’t spot much hand-dyed yarn or indie yarn, but most of the brands I saw were unfamiliar – not big German, American or British brands – so I think this is a good choice of shop for a visitor.

Ulstedet, Vendersgade 3, 1363 København K
Shop window showing two mannequins in handknits and a small amount of yarn This shop is seriously de luxe. It looks like a high-end clothes shop, it’s over an art gallery and there’s luxury fibres galore inside. It’s not cheap, of course, and had more brands I recognised than Nicoline Garn. It does have a lot of high quality, luxurious yarn, and some deeply intriguing kits. Colourwork, if you’ll allow the understatement, is a bit of a thing in Scandinavia, and Ulstedet has some gorgeous contemporary designs, packed up beautifully and ready to knit. I was extremely tempted to buy one for a friend but I didn’t quite dare risk it as colour choice is so personal.

Both shops I visited were lovely in their own way, and any city which had just these two would be well served for yarn. Copenhagen, however, has another ten or so shops, so I’ll have to explore further on the way back!

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Another book I read at school, #52 Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is a very short novel or novella. Like The Old Man and the Sea it’s pitched as being one of the best books ever (“as nearly perfect as any book can be”, says the back of my copy) although in this case, I have more sympathy with that comment.

Of Mice and Men follows the story of two itinerant workers making their way across California to a new job on a ranch. Lenny and George travel together, and have done for years. George is small and quick witted while Lenny is large and slow. Together they’re trying to scratch a place for themselves in Depression Era America, a world which has become inhospitable to life.

Hard to describe
I’ve just this minute finished the book and wanted to review it while it’s fresh in my mind, but it’s hard as what’s left is a mood, a sensation. The novel is very short, and if you read it, it’s important that you finish it. It shouldn’t be too hard to get through – the writing is excellent, the language clear and unadorned. I did stumble over the slang a few times, there being quite a gap between the concerns and interests of 1930s ranch men and my own, but I would say that was minor.

I’m shying away from the point. The book is effective. It’s evocative. It’s a novel that asks a hard question and gives an answer that probably no one will like but most readers will understand. It’s about hope and loss, duty and right. There’s a lot going on in 110 pages, and it’s an impressive work.

Overall, to me, it’s a feeling, a sense of hope, of loss and sadness, of duty done. It’s well worth reading.

Written and set in the 1930s, Of Mice and Men has racist and sexist attitudes and language built into the framework of the book. It’s not just in the plot, it’s the language the characters use and the language the author uses to describe the characters. The odd thing is that it doesn’t feel mean spirited. Quite a lot of the characters really don’t like each other, and many of them are unpleasant, and yet I felt that the author had an underlying sympathy for all his creations which saved it somehow. The attitudes and language are of the time, of the place, and the time and place was racist and sexist. Perhaps it’s that Steinbeck treats each of his characters as individuals, rather than fall into easy stereotypes. I don’t know.

Another -ism is, of course, ableism, and it ties in with the motifs of strength and worth present in the novel and in the culture it represents. I would say the bedrock of the novel is ableist, as it is racist and sexist. And yet, at the same time, in a culture which has no use for someone who can’t work, Steinbeck shows characters with nuance and as individuals.

I remember that I did this book in school – the copy I reread still has my name in the front to prove it – but I don’t remember talking about any of the -isms. It’s tempting to focus on Steinbeck’s prose, his lyrical quality, the voluntary simplicity of his writing and its power, but I think, given the era, it’s also important to address the treatment of the people in the book, both by each other and by the author. I’ve read a lot of books where racist, for example, attitudes are dismissed as being unimportant because of the vintage of the work – or worse, because of the historical period a modern author has chosen as a setting. Of Mice and Men isn’t ever going to be lauded as a feminist, anti-racist work moving civil rights forward – and yet Steinbeck has managed to treat all his characters as individuals. I’m impressed, and for the first time am actually looking forward to tackling the behemoth that is The Grapes of Wrath.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Glenthorne Beach, Somerset

Glenthorne Beach, Somerset

We lived in Somerset for three years without ever going to this part of it. We’ve been spending a couple of days right up by the border with Devon. On Saturday, we took a walk down to Glenthorne Beach, which is just off the South West Coast Path, down a twisty trail through the trees.
Narrow footpath slopes sharply down through woodsThe hills run right down to the sea on one side and Exmoor on the other. It’s an invigorating walk, although without the occasional, handy signs, it would be hard to tell where you were.
Stone wall with wooden sign reading Glenthorne BeachThe coast is beautiful on a clear day, with dramatic rock formations and cold water. I don’t know if you can tell in the photo, but you can see Wales across the water.
Pebble beach with steep hills to one side under a blue skyThey’re called pebble beaches, but it’s something of a misnomer in this case. Glenthorne used to be part of a country estate, and there are still odds and ends of habitation around – a ruined boathouse, an old icehouse, a trout pool – as well as the newer signs of use, like the nature trail and the informative sign.
Large rocks on pebble beach with steep hills to one side under a blue sky

It was a lovely walk, although rather hard work on the way up. I tend to be dismissive of heights measured in feet, but when you’re climbing 300 of them in a couple of kilometers, it starts to add up. According to my pedometer, the climb from the beach was the equivalent of 96 flights of stairs!

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

I chose #151 Soul Music by Terry Pratchett as my next Big Read book because it’s festival season, and this book is about rock and roll.

Soul Music is a Discworld novel, and while it features several recurring characters, it works pretty well as an entry to the series. In an Ankh-Morpork back street, a young man picks up a guitar, strums a chord, and a wild new music sneaks onto the Disc. Rock and roll is here, with its dancing beats and its rebellious anthems. It is the time to live fast – but can he avoid dying young?

Rock and roll is here to stay
Pratchett has written a whole string of books where a modern technology hits the Discworld. They’re usually stand-alone books and provide a good entry to the series. Soul Music is all about rock and roll. It was written in 1994, which is about when my personal music memory starts, so I was relying on a fondness for rock and roll from the 1950s and ’60s as well as music my parents played. I felt like quite a few of the references went right over my head but I still enjoyed the book.

That said, I do feel like this type of Discworld book, about the sudden introduction of a Roundworld phenomenon, chafe a little at the seams. Some new inventions get absorbed into Discworld well – like the movable type printing press from The Truth – while others, like the Moving Pictures are clearly destined to fade away. Soul Music is much like Moving Pictures. It’s lovely, and fans of rock and roll will probably appreciate seeing it done Discworld style, but ultimately you could read the Discworld series and miss this one out without missing much. It feels like a thought experiment, Pratchett writing out what would happen if rock and roll hit the Disc, and then tidying away his toys neatly at the end of play.

The girl with kaleidoscope eyes
Soul Music is the origin story for Susan, who is awesome and shows up repeatedly, she is Death’s granddaughter, and is thoroughly, strongly practical. I do love a hero who can wear a bit of lace and save the world with common sense.

Like many of Pratchett’s other main characters, Susan changes dramatically between books. In her case, she literally grows up. Like Captain Carrot, she changes enough between books that it doesn’t matter if you miss her beginnings – and you may get a little shock discovering them if you’ve seen her later, more evolved character.

I enjoyed rereading Soul Music. As you’ll have noticed, I rate Pratchett highly – he’s one of the authors who never write a book I hate. The worst possible outcome is that I fail to fall madly in love with his new book, like with Dodger, and go back to the merry-go-round of previous glories. Pratchett writes comic fantasy, with dragons and magic and wizards, but he writes with a strong pragmatic realism, with people who react in believable ways even to fantastic situations. The Discworld is a brilliant place to linger for a while, and Soul Music is it’s summer festival. Take it to the park, listen to a band, and dip into rock and roll and magic between sets.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Couch to 5k

Couch to 5k

I’ve just started running. It’s news that’s going to shock anyone who knows me (the first person I told, via email, thought she’d imagined it). When I left school, my goal – and I may have vocalized this – was to never run again, unless it was vitally necessary for my personal survival. And even then I’d seriously consider, you know, not running. Now, I own running shoes and I’m happy about that – a pretty big reversal!

Me, in running shoes and smiling!

I’ve started the Couch to 5k program using the NHS podcasts. The program seems good to me. The podcasts are clear and easy to follow, and the NHS site has plenty of additional information if you want it. It’s pretty much the opposite of how I remember running at school. I’m doing the program with an added personal trainer element – K runs 10k for fun, and he’s kindly been coming out pootling along with me as I work through the program.

I hated running at school, hated every aspect of it. I don’t remember ever getting any instruction on how to run or an encouragement to take up a regular program which would lead to me being able to run comfortably. Or being given any information about running shoes or sports bras. Heck, I was well into secondary school before I discovered that having a stitch was a reason to stop running. Instead, we were – as far as I remember – taken into the sports hall (for the ‘beep test’) or out into the forest about twice a term and told to run. So about six times a year I was expected to have the capacity to run constantly for 20 or 40 minutes, something I never did otherwise, as every other sport we played involved significant amounts of waiting around mid-lesson. As an adult, this seems absolutely bonkers. How could that possibly work?

The Couch to 5k program starts off small – and I started off smaller. Thanks to the embarrassment, pain and unpleasantness of running at school, I am actually a little scared of going for a run. I would rather go on a roller coaster or go sky diving again. So I decided I’d go buy some running shoes. And I told K to remind me to do it. He did, and buying them freaked me out a bit. It helps to have someone normal with you when you’re freaking out. K says things like: “they’re just shoes” and “buying them doesn’t mean you have to run” and “running once doesn’t mean you have to do it again” and “it’ll be fine”.

Then I decided I’d download the podcast, put the shoes on and go outside. The first podcast asks you to run for a minute. A whole 60 seconds! I didn’t think I could do it – I gave myself permission to fail. So I was thrilled when I didn’t – at the end of the first run, my whole body was going ‘what just happened? and has it stopped?’ but I wasn’t collapsed on the sidewalk groaning.

Since then, I’ve done 8 more runs. I’ve just finished Week 3 of the program and it’s great. Each new session seems entirely impossible (I’m very resistant to the idea that I can run, it transpires, even when I have evidence to the contrary), but it’s actually been surprisingly doable. Each week builds up slowly, but keeps you moving. I’m up to 3 minutes of sustained running, but covering about 3k in each 20-30 minute session, so I think it’s going well.

As I didn’t think I would actually stick with this at all, I didn’t want to invest much in running gear. So far, two things have been really important: running shoes and a sports bra. K helped me choose decent shoes, which cost £35. The first thing I noticed is they have much more padding at the heel than any other shoes I’ve ever owned. I already had a decent sports bra, which I think cost about £12 from M&S a few years ago, and I’m glad I did because even with the sports bra, the first few runs it felt like everything was on the move, and not in the same direction. That’s not fun, y’all. You may not have this problem, but if you’re busty and thinking of running, don’t be put off – just go buy the kind of sports bra which says it’s for squash or other extreme sports! It will make a difference, trust me. Apart from that, I’ve been running in ordinary leggings and t-shirts, as you can see, and using my phone as an MP3 player, so very little investment overall.

I’m not going to pretend I love running or announce that I’m training to run a marathon. I’m not even convinced I’ll make it to Week 5. But I’ve done something I never thought I would, something that scares me. I’ve got this far, and that’s pretty cool.