little red jottings

when a little red pen wanders off the page

Tag: i am what i read

Reading list

Well, that was an idea that didn’t work. I have so many of those. I decided last year to write a short post about everything I read, sort of as a record to myself and sort of as a way of being part of the big book-lovin’ world. Yep, totally failed. Can’t even remember what I’ve read this year, and certainly can’t say anything very coherent about it.

Brief, partial notes, then, and maybe I’ll talk about last year’s books some other time.

Hilary Mantel
I was late to the Wolf HallBring Up the Bodies party, but boy was I ready for it when I got there. If history was always told like this — with characters and plot and excellent dialogue — I would be all in. I would also possibly know much more than I do, which would be useful because I read half of Wolf Hall wondering why Thomas Cromwell was being so chummy with the king when he was about to start a revolution and bring down the monarchy.

I also watched the TV series, which was dark and full of fabulous faces. I could look at Mark Rylance ALL DAY, but was damn near ready to chop Anne Boleyn’s head off myself by the end.

While I was at it, I read some of Mantel’s earlier work, some of which I liked very much and some of which I didn’t so much.

The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton*
I’m halfway, folks. This book is hefty. I’ve just got past the point where the narrator helpfully summarises and explains how all the characters and plot points relate to each other, so I’m feeling on firmer ground and keen to push on. I do have problems with books that are too heavy and awkward to read lying down or while eating breakfast though, so I’m interspersing it with lighter fare.

Six Square Metres: Reflections from a Small Garden, Margaret Simons
This is lovely, and very encouraging if your garden is in as dreadful a state as mine is but you still like gardening and dream of being a better and more productive person.

Noon Tide Toll, Romesh Gunesekera
One of those books that you pick up without much thought or anticipation simply because it’s the next thing in your pile, then can’t put down and can’t forget and foist upon anyone who gives you even the slightest opening. The narrator is a van driver for hire in post-civil war Sri Lanka. He takes his passengers north and south, and I liked everything about this book.

Bad Feminist: Essays, Roxane Gay
Feminism AND Scrabble. Loved it.

Old favourites
I’m having a Gavin Maxwell and Louisa May Alcott reunion. I’m quite shocked about Maxwell. The version I have of Ring of Bright Water is from my childhood and it is both abridged and adapted. I always knew that was a problem, but had no idea how much so until I got a pile of his stuff from the library. I dipped in last night and let’s just say, he has a COMPLETELY different prose style to what I thought and I suspect the otter situations are going to be quite a lot more complicated than I was aware of.

And LMA wrote all these sensational thriller romance-type books, which I’m not sure I can even go there. I started one last night which featured a very dodgy man called Tempest and an ACTUAL tempest, with lightening and wind and rain and raging seas and whatnot.

I love rediscovering books from my childhood, but sometimes it’s TOO MUCH. I did reread Charlie and the Chocolate Factory though, which is a very sensible thing to do when you’re 40 and in danger of getting a bit serious sometimes.

  • Bloody hell, with immense thanks to my sister who pointed out that I had the wrong author for this one. No biggie, I mean, she only won the Booker. I want to note though that Anna Smaill was long-listed for the Booker for her wonderful The Chimes. New Zealand: land of writers, rain and small brown birds.

Marmalade days, Part II

I picked up Shonagh Koea’s book, The Kindness of Strangers {Kitchen Memoirs} at breakfast this morning, and I’ve been rolling her words like marbles under my tongue all day. I could start quoting anywhere, really, and my stopping point will be likewise borderline arbitrary, but I thought, y’know, marmalade.

The first time I made marmalade was when I was working as a very junior reporter in New Plymouth. The Daily News was a morning newspaper so we all worked until eleven at night, or even later, and no one wanted boarders going in and out of their houses at that hour so I had a tiny flat of my own. There was a tiny kitchen with a kauri bench and a very old-fashioned gas stove on cabriole legs. It had a mottled blue and while enamel surface and I always thought it was rather pretty. I made my first batch of marmalade on that stove and when I had poured it into the jars and left it to set on the bench I thought it looked truly beautiful, so golden and glittering and clear.

This tiny flat was the first home I ever had of my own and I liked it very much. It was very quiet and looked out on to large trees. When I stepped into the place it was always quiet and exactly as I had left it. In Hastings, my father had a habit of suddenly arriving home in his big car, loading it up to the roof with anything nice like crystal glasses or the better blankets or anything he thought was worth having and, with much shouting, driving away. He would not return for several months. That is why when I had that first little flat it pleased me very much that whatever I had, and it was not much, remained where it was. If I had a coat hanging in my wardrobe when I left for work the same coat was hanging in the same wardrobe when I got home. I found the idea of that absolutely charming. Possibly it was the first time I had any reliable sense of security.

The marmalade I made then is essentially the same recipe I still use but I have altered it slightly over the years. I now take no notice of the recipe’s instructions about when the mixture is ready to be put into jars to set because, for marmalade, the timing often varies with the ripeness of the fruit.

To Make Marmalade

six large grapefruit
four lemons
12 cups of water
12 cups of sugar

Slice the grapefruit and lemons as finely as you can, after washing the fruit carefully. Cover the sliced fruit with the water and leave overnight. The following day bring this mixture to the boil and boil for twenty minutes. Remove the jam pan from the heat and stir in the sugar, bring the mixture quickly to the boil after that and boil it for thirty minutes. At this stage you can start testing it to see if it will set. I used to put a spoonful in a saucer and leave it for a minute or two to see if a skin would form on it but after several years of my using this not overly reliable method, an elderly lady I knew told me a very handy trick. It had been passed on to her by her mother. She said to dip an ordinary silver or stainless steel tablespoon into the mixture and then hold it horizontally over the marmalade so you are looking at the wide inner face of the spoon. When the marmalade drips off the lower edge in two separate places simultaneously the marmalade is ready to be put into the jars. It sometimes takes much longer than thirty minutes’ boiling to accomplish this but it is a very reliable method, I have found. When I first started to make marmalade I used to put the clean empty jars in a slow oven to sterilise, about the time I put the sugar in the mixture. Then I would have to get them out one at a time — and they would be hot — with an oven cloth, in a sudden untidy kind of scramble. But these days I put them neatly in rows in a roasting dish and then I just have to get the whole lot out at once and any drips of marmalade, when I fill the jars, are caught in the dish.

[Interlude for a marmalade loaf recipe and time to marvel at the genius spoon and roasting dish methods which, collectively, would eliminate about 80% of my previous marmalade trauma, then…]

Another very nice loaf I sometimes make has no marmalade actually in it, but I put marmalade on it and sometimes make it instead of having ordinary bread. It is a bran teabread and is very pleasant to have sliced and buttered and spread with marmalade for breakfast at a weekend when I go out to my little garden house to read the paper and have a look at my wilderness (which is really only about as big as a tennis court, if that). I have cultivated quite wild and spreading plants so there is an atmosphere of largesse and tropical wilderness in my garden and through this I walk carefully with a cup of coffee in one hand and a doorstep of homemade bran loaf spread with marmalade in the other. Once I tripped on a low-lying leaf of my big flax plant and fell flat on my face, so I have walked through my garden with greater care since then. I had thought, as it was my very own garden, that I would be able to do anything there and be unharmed but this was just a fanciful thought — I am apt to have such fancies and think that because it is me everything will be all right. It mostly is but sometimes not, like the time I tripped over the flax leaf.

Shonagh Koea, The Kindness of Strangers {Kitchen Memoirs}, Auckland, NZ: Random House, 2007 (pp. 32–35).

Will you read with me?

My great-aunt told lovely stories about her parents, her mother Mary and her father Percy. Percy was quiet, a bit of a socialist, a reader. Mary was a cheesemaker, a manager, a maker-doer. She would invite everyone for Christmas dinner and he would go out and dig his turnips. In the evenings, Percy would read by the fire, and I imagine Mary would knit or sew or make elaborate plans and organisational lists, not that I’m projecting or anything. After a while, she’d crack it and say, “Do talk to us, Percy.” And he’d slowly put down his book or paper, take off his glasses and look around like a mole emerging into sunlight from the dark and fragrant earth. He might talk then, a little bit, but after a while he’d retreat back into his book and silence would fall again. Not that I’m projecting or anything.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that there’s precedent, and it’s taken me a long time to realise that not everyone holds with reading in company. Some people find it disconcerting and kind of rude, and they want you to come out and talk to them or at least keep an ear open for what they’re saying.

But we readers go a long way under when we’re reading, and spoken words take a long time to reach us down there. Surfacing takes effort, and we don’t function so well bobbing about with the chat and the questions and all. Haul me out of the water and talk to me on dry land or let me sink back down. Better yet, join me underwater.  My sister knows how this works. Every now and then we’ll go out for coffee, and somewhere between the stories that must be told and the ordering of drinks one of us will ask if it’s okay to read. Then we’ll sit there, coffee at our elbows, books in our hands, and read together. Together and apart.

That’s “unique”

An interesting conversation came up on Facebook the other day about whether it’s possible to talk about a film being “more unique”. I’ve wound myself into knots trying to think my way through this, and I need your brains, dear readers.

As I read it, the conversation was about the definition of “unique”, but perhaps also about how it can be meaningfully or usefully used. And my first bit of wondering was about whether the trick to using the word in a meaningful way when talking about films (or people) is to attach the adjective to a more specific noun or characteristic.

I can see that describing a particular film as unique is meaningless if we argue that films have so many variables and characteristics that each film is unique — it’s not like the one yellow pebble in a box of blues and browns, where there are few characteristics and most of them are uniform or shared. And following that line, to say that every film is unique is true, but a platitude, so we don’t want to go there.

But I think it could be useful to say something like, “The director’s vision of New York is unique” or “The filming of bridges is unique” — narrow the field of reference and it starts to make more sense to talk of something being one of a kind, rather than similar to or the same as others.

Maybe a litmus test is to think of the non-unique examples: the director’s vision of New York that’s pretty much like someone (or everyone) else’s, the way of filming of bridges that you’ve seen before. If it’s easy enough to come up with other, non-unique (or standard or shared) ways of doing the same thing and you can’t think of another film that does it the same way as the one you’re referring to, then I think you’ve got a good case for meaningful or useful uniqueness.

But definitely no “more” or “less” in the picture.

And then I started wondering if there’s a problem with saying that “unique” or “one of a kind” means that nothing else is exactly the same as it (which is why films and people are all unique). Maybe “unique” means something more like “there’s nothing else like it” or “there’s nothing else similar to it”. So then what we’re talking about is a film that sits in a category all its own, a film that doesn’t have peers or siblings or imitators or close antecedents. And then it’s clear that a film can’t be more or less unique — it’s either out of the box altogether, or in it and playing with its mates. I think that looking at it this way, some films could be unique where others are not, but still no film could be more or less unique than another.

Or, we could scrap all that and say that every film (and person and bus-stop) is unique, and the only meaningful conversation we can have is about what makes a particular film/person/bus-stop unique.

What do you think, writerly, travelling, thinky, wordy, arty,  crafty, wandery friends? Please tell me where I’m wrong, where I’m right, and what I’ve missed. But gently, hey.

Get thee to a library

Another piece for my sporadic but fervent library fandom, geek-happy, book-philic, dance-crazy series.

But who gets to do the reshelving?

Finding my people

Being self-employed, working from home, juggling parenting, and running a small business — there’s a lot of fun and satisfaction in there and NO BOSS, plus you get to listen to whatever music you like while you work, and the only office politics are when you have to convince the children to scoot on out of your office and let you concentrate on your work, which may or may not include checking Facebook and reading The Toast (have you found this yet? you should) and watching reruns of The Cosby Show, or you have to negotiate with your partner for an evening or a weekend of work time while he does the Dad-ing. And if you get really into the zone and the proofreading’s flying, you may have to stop to make dinner or pick up the kids, but you’ll rarely have to push the pause button to go to a meeting that’ll get you so wound up you’re good for nothing for the rest of the day, so while you’re mothering and cooking and playing and all the rest of it, your mind can kind of keep trundling along thinking about words and ideas and what your logo should look like. Also, there’s all the stress about money and why there isn’t enough of it and where the next job is going to come from, but best we don’t think about that too much because this post is supposed to be upbeat.

But one thing you don’t have — and that you start to miss after a while — is co-workers, the good sort who instinctively get you and take turns making the coffee and never startle you with casual racism or sexism and who tell good jokes. The sort who make every project you work on together come out somehow much better than either of you could have managed on your own. And in the process of doing which projects, you have lots of those moments where you have a little jump inside because you’ve made sense of something that seemed impossible and found the right words and got the structure just exactly perfect and quite possibly written something that will change the world, or at least a small, tame corner of it. Anyway, forget it, because you don’t have them, those co-workers.

However, you do have a group on a social media website (which will remain nameless) of people who are just a bit like you, with the silly, wordy jokes and the incessant mulling over punctuation and syntax and the secret comma anxiety and all. So when you collapse into bed on a Thursday night after a day stressing about the workshops you’ve got coming up and making soup and reading stories, you roll into your partner’s arms and say, “I had such a great day; we had this thread running for hours about punctuation.” At which he sort of pauses, then says, “You’re really quite geeky, aren’t you?” But luckily, he finds that quite endearing, you think. And on a Friday, while making train sets and doing water play and chopping vegetables and walking the children home and getting everyone into bed FAR TOO LATE, you have this parallel fantasy in your head the whole time of working towards Friday night drinks with that virtual, barely glimpsed, desperately real out there somewhere group of not-quite-co-workers, the ones with whom you’ll pour a G+T and kick back, make increasingly bad puns, sit up in sudden, garrulous enthusiasm when someone mentions a book that no-one else ever seems to know about, but which you will quietly treasure for all time.

And that — and also the lovely, endlessly surprising, ever unfolding blogging world — is why the internet is QUITE A GOOD THING.

Reading lists

P1050661The bedside table
The pile of books by my bed is getting out of hand — I’m partway through eight of these and have worthy intentions towards the rest. From bottom to top, they are: excellent, but hard work; strange; charming, but my French was better eight years ago when I started reading it; essential, but daunting; thought-provoking, but irritatingly blokey; so well written I can’t bring myself to read past the first chapter until I can pay proper attention; fun, then boring; terrific, according to my partner; a classic; very dated, but I’m much calmer this week; also dated, but I’m having a good time.

Coming up
Two of my friends have books coming out at the moment, and they both look to be winners. Check out Maria McMillan’s The Rope Walk and Pip Adam’s I’m Working on a Building.

And I’ve got three books on hold at the library: John Le Carré’s A Delicate Truth (because I can’t hold out any longer) and James Salter’s Light Years and All That Is (because I read a review of one and then wanted to read both).

How to write
If you want to know how to avoid writing rubbish prose, Orwell summed it up pretty well almost 70 years ago. For example:

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

The next project
By now, it will be obvious that I have a weakness for the spy thriller, so I might just have to work my way through this list too.

What else?
So, there’s all that, but I feel like I’ve spent the last few years reading in snatches, collecting books at random and inhaling them in any tiny quiet space I can find in a day.

But what am I missing? What’s out there that I don’t know about? What would you recommend? If I browsed your bookshelf, what would you pull out for me? Should I be keeping more lists: “What I Want to Read”, “What I Have Read”? Would that mean I could go stationery shopping, buy a notebook?

Fourteen things

One: Going home
Vincent O’Sullivan has written a 14-episode account of Ralph Hotere’s journey home. The number recalls Hotere’s use of the number, his referencing of the Stations of the Cross and of his 14 siblings. Frustratingly, the full version is only available to subscribers (when did the Listener change that?).

Two: Favourite birds (my son will be so cross that I haven’t used the proper full names, but the truth is, I can’t remember them)
godwit
kingfisher
pelican
spoonbill
robin
shag
plover
kea
bellbird
crane
heron
mandarin duck
black cockatoo
superb lyrebird

Three: Books that got me through my childhood, and my children’s
Corduroy, Don Freeman
Any of the Frances books, Russell Hoban (illustrated by Garth Williams)
Tell Me What It’s Like to Be Big, Joyce Dunbar (illustrated by Debi Gliori)
Mr Gumpy’s Outing, John Burningham
Big Momma Makes the World, Phyllis Root (illustrated by Helen Oxenbury)
The Ramona books, Beverly Cleary
Big Sister and Little Sister, Charlotte Zolotow (illustrated by Martha Alexander)
Virginia Wolf, Kyo Maclear (illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault)
Come On, Daisy!, Jane Simmons
The Raft, Jim LaMarche
The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the Mog books, Judith Kerr
Dogger and everything else, Shirley Hughes
far too much by Noel Streatfeild
Anne of Green Gables and all the rest, LM Montgomery
bonus: Kitten’s First Full Moon, Kevin Henke + about a hundred others

Four: Authors I’ve found myself consuming in bulk
George Perec
Italo Calvino
Primo Levi
Laurence Fearnley
Janette Turner Hospital
Nigel Cox
Sara Maitland
Jeanette Winterson
Maurice Gee
Philip Pullman
Ann Patchett
Jim Crace
Michael Ondaatje
(see the children’s list above)

Five: Foods that make life better
avocado
pistachios
chocolate
smoked salmon
salad, lots of it
roast chicken, then chicken soup
oranges
peaches
eggplants
poisson cru
tomatoes
fennel seed and olive oil biscuits
bacon
lasagne

Six: 14-letter words

Seven: What I want in a house
a chair by a window, just for reading
a kitchen that I can eat, cook, talk, and read in
a space for the kids to play
a front porch
a sheltered space to eat outside
plenty of trees
a glasshouse
vegetable patches
a workspace
bookshelves in every room
a woodburner
insulation
flowers
light

Eight: Condiments, loosely interpreted
lemons — fresh, juiced, zested, preserved
honey
mustard
fennel seeds
yoghurt
parmesan
sea salt
pepper
tomato sauce
mint
coffee
a book
a friend
quiet

Nine: Punctuation that makes text prettier
fanciful ampersands
the Oxford comma
double quote marks
em-dashes
en-dashes
ellipses
semi-colons
full stops
question marks, sparingly
well-placed commas
accents
tidy, well-aligned bullet points
parentheses, occasionally
spaces

Ten: Plants I like to have in my garden
tulips
crocuses
sweetpeas
roses
azaleas
ferns
mint
thyme
sage
peas
beans
lettuces
zucchini
potatoes

Eleven: The elements of a fine day
rain
sun
a small boy’s arms around my neck
that first cup of coffee
a shower
a walk, run, or yoga class
music
writing
banter
a kiss
friends
seeing something through my children’s eyes
lunch
supper

Twelve: A 14-year-old dancer

Thirteen: Colin McCahon’s Stations

Fourteen: A sonnet, of course
Not in a silver casket cool with pearls
Or rich with red corundum or with blue,
Locked, and the key withheld, as other girls
Have given their loves, I give my love to you;
Not in a lovers’-knot, not in a ring
Worked in such fashion, and the legend plain—
Semper fidelis, where a secret spring
Kennels a drop of mischief for the brain:
Love in the open hand, no thing but that,
Ungemmed, unhidden, wishing not to hurt,
As one should bring you cowslips in a hat
Swung from the hand, or apples in her skirt,
I bring you, calling out as children do:
“Look what I have!—And these are all for you.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay

On shadows

Enough of me; today you get Orwell.

24.2.39 Pretty heavy rain last night & this morning.

Found sprays of fennel, which evidently grows here. Saw very large slow-moving black & white birds, evidently of hawk tribe. Forgot to mention curious property of human shadows, noticed at Taddert. Sometimes one stands on a crag whose shadow is cast hundreds of feet below. If one stands right on the edge of it, naturally one’s shadow is cast beyond that of the crag. But I notice that whereas the shadow of the rock is black & solid, that of the human body, at anything over about 50 feet, is faint and indistinct, like the shadow of a bush. At short distances this is not noticeable & the shadow seems solid, but at long distances, say 200 feet & over, one seems to have almost no shadow at all. At certain distances the body as a whole has a sort of shadow, but eg., the arm by itself none. I do not know whether this is because, relative to rock, the human body is not opaque, or whether it is merely a question of size.

George Orwell, “Morocco Diary: 7 September 1938 – 28 March 1939”, The Orwell Diaries, ed. Peter Davison (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 127.

What this day needs

This is for you if ― like mine ― your day needs a poem. Well, really, what my day needs is a bevy of friends and a gin and tonic and someone else to put the baby to bed, just for one night. And a walk in the clean, cool air and five minutes to hold together a sense of myself, underneath those pressing roles I hold ― mother, partner, daughter, editor. Anyway, I’m going to yoga, which is a bit like a gin and tonic, but with less garrulous laughter, so really, no, not like a gin and tonic at all. And I went hunting for a poem, then realised, again, that almost all our books are in storage and we really should get a house, if only to have somewhere for bookshelves to go. But my aunt did lend me a book of poems  when we visited, so I flickered through it, and this is what I found.

Quiet

turn it off

listen to the cicadas
listen to that knock of branches
listen just to the wind ―
here it is, rolling now
like a pitching wave into the trees
erasing the crazed and cross-tracked footprints of static

in what you took for silence
listen to the dry wood
catching, at this perfect moment, in the stove

stop, and you’ll hear it;
the stretch and crack and tick
of the thin metal flue
expanding in the heat

oh, you are beaten so thin
and still the joins hold,
still that bloom of warmth
opening up
more than enough

and your hands
still feeling the shape
of the kindling, the axe, the tree;
the flexing
of your own bird-fine bones.

Cate Kennedy, “Quiet”, The Taste of River Water (Carlton North, VIC, Australia: Scribe, 2011), p. 36.

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