February 28, 2013

Book rec: TANGLEWRECK by Jeanette Winterson

I had no intention of reading this book because it was going to be pretentious, patronising drivel by someone much admired in the field of lit’rature, who would make it clear in every paragraph that she was slumming by writing a kids’ fantasy.

I loved it.

I had been, with most of the rest of the reading world, gobsmacked by Winterson’s first novel, ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT.  You’ve read it, right?  It was also made into a very effective (and affecting) TV miniseries*.  And while it is about an adopted girl who may be rather like Winterson herself growing up gay in an English Bible belt town with a ferocious mother, I entirely agree with Winterson’s comment about this, ‘I’ve never understood why straight fiction is supposed to be for everyone, but anything with a gay character or that includes gay experience is only for queers.’**  ORANGES is just a fabulous novel about growing up not belonging to your family or your society or your world.

I’ve read some of Winterson’s other books but I’m about a hundred years out of date in my liking for literature.  As a modern reader I tend toward the genre end.  But Winterson is a witty and powerful writer so I’ve kind of kept an eye on her.  There was a fairly substantial hoohah when TANGLEWRECK came out, and I thought, nah, it’ll just make me crazy.  But I kept frelling tripping over references to it.  Too many of the writers and critics I like liked it—in the edition I ended up with there’s a quote on the front from Jacqueline Wilson***—and I could feel myself becoming ensnared, rather like the heroine and her friend Gabriel in the evil machinations of Abel Darkwater and Regalia Mason.

And then on one of Fiona’s and my yarn expeditions we spent some time at an old-books store.  I’m sure I mentioned it at the time.  Well, one of the books I bought was . . . TANGLEWRECK.  I didn’t mean to!  But it was sitting face out on its shelf, all shiny and new, and obviously having belonged (briefly) to someone who didn’t appreciate it!  It was waiting for me!

Here.  Read Chapter One, The Time Tornado, and see if you don’t immediately want to read the rest of it:††  http://www.amazon.co.uk/Tanglewreck-Jeanette-Winterson/dp/0747580758/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1362011579&sr=1-1#_

And there’s a scene near the end that I wish I had written.  This happens a lot less often than you might think.  There are lots of Great Books I wish in a sort of admiring, mostly intellectual way, that I’d written.  There are not that many books that get me close in, through the secret back entrance, grab me by the heart and squeeze.  This scene is one of those.  But Winterson thought of it first.  Ah well.

* * *

* Wiki says Winterson herself did the adaptation.  It was also extremely well cast.

** I am so grateful Wiki happens to cite that quote.  I was wondering how the doolally I was going to persuade Google to find it for me.

*** ‘A fantastic book, a big wonderful story.  It’s got everything’

† It was also rather less than half price.  Never underestimate the draw of a bargain.

†† Here also is a very good review, I mean not merely positive but persuasive, although in case anyone else has the same reaction I will add for your reassurance that I thought the rabbit named Bigamy was a sure sign of the tweeness I feared http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2006/jul/02/booksforchildrenandteenagers.jeanettewinterson

Here also is a review of the more-or-less sequel which I clearly have to read.  I haven’t done so yet because the Creature Sawn in Two will give me nightmares.



I lead such an exciting life


I’m sitting here in a skirt.*  Yes!  A skirt!  A real live skirt!  And it’s not my birthday or Peter’s birthday or even a hellcritter’s birthday!  We just randomly went out to dinner tonight!!!!  It’s so exciting! **

Well, not quite randomly.  It’s a 26th.  I’ve told you that if we feel the need of a celebration creeping over us we’ll try to fend it off till the next 26th or 3rd, those being our two official monthly opportunities for festivities.***

So we were feeling festive.  So we went to The Bard and Orpharion and ate duck leg confit and drank champagne (me) and Chilean merlot (Peter).   And we took a pack of cards with us and dealt bridge hands and then Peter got all interested about how we would play them.  Eeep.  Did I tell you I did, in fact, survive my second bridge lesson last weekend?  I mean with two other people so we were, like, pretending that I could play bridge?  And I keep saying that I have the wrong shape of brain for bell ringing.  Well, I do.  But at least bell ringing doesn’t make you guess what the other ringers are going to do next and the winning and losing aspect is a little more tactfully obscured.  Arrrgh.

* * *

* Furthermore I’m sitting here writing an evening blog post at the cottage.  With my feet propped up on the front of the Aga and an acute and sublime awareness that I’ve already done the coming-home thing with three hellcritters and a ridiculous amount of kit^ and don’t have to do it again tonight.

^ A gigantic knapsack plus a bulgy canvas carryall briefcase thing.

** You mean . . . some people just go out to dinner?  I’ve been living in a small town in Hampshire with too many hellcritters for too long and I’m losing track of modern cultural mores.^

^ And we won’t even discuss modern technological mores.  My editor’s poor assistant wasted kind of a lot of perfectly good time and air space explaining some of SHADOWS’ copyeditor’s more arcane (and sometimes invisible) marks to me.  Like the one that made it look like she’d spelled Haydée Haydé.  (Maggie has read THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO.)  ARRRRRRRRGH.  Worrying about this sort of thing keeps authors awake at night.  It’s your name on the book jacket.  To publishing hopefuls still working toward their first sale of course this sounds like the MOST THRILLING THING EVER.+  To those of us it has happened to, while it’s still totally worthwhile and I don’t want any other job++, there is indubitably a mixed-blessing aspect.  Like when people get really angry with you because pages 35-60 in their copy are repeated and 61-86 are missing and when you tell them that you’re sorry but it’s nothing to do with you, to take it up with your publisher, they think you’re blowing them off and become abusive.  Or they want to know why you haven’t made movies of your books, don’t you know that’s where the money is?  Um.  Well, that’s where the money is for the few, not for the many, and very, very, very, very, VERY rarely for any writer involved . . . not to mention that this isn’t up to me either.  But the proofreading mistakes?  Totally yours.  The thing is, they’re at least half right about that.  Your publisher hires eagle-eyed professional proofreaders, but you see the final pages too.  Occasionally some hideously embarrassing botch creeps through the gauntlet of all those searchlight eyes and appears in all its malign glory in the finished book+++.  But usually it’s something that’s gone wrong in the process somewhere, like a full stop dropping out or quotation marks curling in the wrong direction or a half sentence disappearing at the bottom of a page.  Even the missing full stop will haunt your dreams, once you’ve noticed it, or had it pointed out to you, AND YOU SHOULD HAVE CAUGHT IT IN PROOFREADING.  BUT YOU DIDN’T BECAUSE YOU ARE A MORON.#  AND IT IS ALL YOUR FAULT.  It would have been a really good book if it weren’t for that missing full stop.  As some reader, somewhere, will tell you.

I am not looking forward to proofreading SHADOWS.  I will miss the quotation marks curling in the wrong direction and the use of ‘their’ when it should have been ‘there’.  Which will be lacerating enough.  But what will be worse is discovering THAT ENORMOUS FRELLING PLOT HOLE that it’s now way way way too late to do anything about.##

+ Even more thrilling than randomly going out to dinner.

++ Not least because I’m pretty sure I’m unemployable by any normal standard

+++ Regular readers of author blogs will know that there is a LAW OF THE UNVERSE that says that any author opening any first copy of any new book—I mean that author’s new book—must open it on a page with a proofreading error on it.  I get around this by not reading my stuff once it’s published.  I can’t read it anyway.  It’s a sort of combination effect, like psychic eczema, migraine, and being trapped in a stuck lift/elevator with a bore.  A pedantic bore.  A smelly pedantic bore.  And the smelly pedantic bore has a large smelly dog who doesn’t like me.

# You are a moron who, furthermore, has looked at these insanely annoying words in this beyond-insanely annoying order WAY too many times AND CAN’T LOOK AT THEM ANY MORE.

##  You can make limited editorial changes at the proofreading stage, with an emphasis on the limited.  If you go over a certain short sharp maximum your publisher will charge you for it.  If you want to make real structural changes . . . I think they gag you and lock you in a closet till the book is safely out.  I don’t know.  I don’t want to know.

*** For new readers or old readers who have better things to remember:  The Beginning was when I met this fellow Peter Dickinson, whom I knew slightly from book conventions and things, at the Bangor, Maine airport, to bring him back to Blue Hill for a weekend’s exposure to life in a small New England town.  This was on 26 July, twenty-one and a half years ago.  We got married the following 3rd of January.  I’m not young and Peter is old, and when we decided to do this thing, Peter said that there weren’t enough years left for a sufficiency of anniversaries so we needed to celebrate some monthlies as well.  So we do.

Of Daydreams and Harps, part 3: Guest post by Bratsche


I had one early adventure with my harp. A week after we got it, I was working outside when my husband came out to tell me that my harp sounds very resonant when a string breaks. Bother! I called Dusty Strings and they promptly popped a new string in the mail. When I bought the harp, they provided care and maintenance instructions, which included detailed directions on how to change strings. I have changed lots of strings on violas and violins over the years, so I knew I could change a harp string; but there was still an element of “let’s be very careful so I don’t mess anything up” about changing my first harp string. It all went well, and nothing else has broken since then.

I am finding it grand fun to have a harp in the house. It has been amusing to look over my own shoulder (so to speak) as I am learning to play the harp. I have been a teacher for long enough that I can see my progress happening even while I am in the middle of it. Things go even better when I remember to follow my own advice (go slowly, count out loud, practice the two hands separately, etc). The first December I had my harp, I discovered that if I concentrated REALLY hard I could actually play the melody of a Christmas carol I know well while singing a harmony part.* I wouldn’t do it in public any time soon, but it is a lot of fun to be able to play a duet with myself!

One of the things I wondered about when I was in the process of getting a harp was what it would be like to have two instruments I really like in the house. Frankly, I wondered if I would slight my viola in favor of my harp. It turns out that I enjoy my viola even more now than I did before. After playing my harp, I enjoy the ease with which I can play my viola. I like the pieces I’m playing on my harp, but being able to tackle “meatier” pieces on my viola is good too. On the other hand, my harp allows me to noodle around with different chords or large intervals that are harder to do on viola. I’ve written a few twiddles** on my viola over the years, and it’s fun to have another instrument with which to make up music.

There have also been a few unexpected pleasures about having a harp in the house. Its attractive shape adds grace to any room. In addition, my daughters enjoy playing on it from time to time. Most of the time, I enjoy hearing them and knowing they’re getting the fun of “fiddling” around on the harp. Every once in a while though, I’m not aware they’re going to play, and I get the added pleasure of hearing lovely harp sound*** in the house and then realizing “Hey, that is my harp, not a recording!” The final unexpected pleasure has been when I’m playing viola in orchestra (for work) and hear a harp behind me. The first time that happened, I was surprised by how strong my “I have a harp too!” reaction was; and that extra little glow of satisfaction still happens now, even after a couple of years.

My lovely harp

If anyone is ever considering getting a harp, I would highly recommend Dusty Strings.^ Everyone there with whom I dealt throughout this process was very friendly, helpful, and enthusiastic. If you’re in the Seattle area and want to plink on a harp, hammered dulcimer, banjo, ukulele or any of their other instruments, stop by. You will be welcomed!

A final thank you is due to Robin and many people on her forums. Your enthusiasms for various hobbies were an additional encouragement when I was starting to try my daydream on for size.^^

– – – – – – – – – – –

* I’m an alto but have never worked hard enough at harmonizing by ear to be comfortable doing so; so it’s nice to practice singing the alto part (from the music) while playing the melody on the harp, even though it takes a lot more concentration than when I sing the melody and play the harmony.

** I hesitate to call them pieces, since they’re short (2 or 3 lines of music); but I bet that if they were someone else’s creations I would “of course” consider them “real” music.

*** A harp sounds lovely no matter what is being played, so it sounds good even if they’re just plucking random notes.

^ I would also highly recommend two of their harp accessories. The first is the custom tuning wrench. Having now used both the “regular” t-wrench and the custom one, I definitely like how the custom one feels in my hand and its ease of use. The second is their harp stool. I was already going to be spending so much money to get my harp that I was hesitant to add to the total by getting the stool. However, the people I talked to at the shop swore by it, and I decided to go for it. I have loved it ever since! It gets taken from room to room in my house on a daily basis and is my harp stool, sewing stool, computer chair, kitchen table chair, etc.

^^ Although I still have NO intention of ever re-learning to knit. ::ducking the ravening knitting hordes::

Cold, cold, cold



IT IS SO COLD.  It is the 24th of frelling February in southern England and when I got up this morning it was SNOWING.  Snowing and lying.*

It has not been a good week for peace of mind so I determined to get to the monks extra-early for the Saturday night silent-contemplation-before service prayer so I could have a long enough sit (I hoped) to produce some insight.**  In pre-contemplation mode I considered the weather.  And took a BLANKET with me.  The blanket, indeed, in which I wrap myself up in my own sitting room when I do my Zen Christian zazen thing.  There are DRAUGHTS at floor-sitting level, even with an Aga on the other side of the wall, and while I’ve discovered I can sit*** in jeans I’m usually sitting in my dressing-gown, which was not made to keep you warm sitting on the floor with the central heating turned off and the snow falling outdoors.

I was very glad to have a blanket last night.  As well as the two cotton turtlenecks, the two woolly jumpers, the leather jacket, the two pairs of socks and the longjohns under my jeans.  And the fleece-lined leather gloves.  My circulation has always been rubbish—arguably I’m a fidget because I’m trying to stay warm, and not all the hurtling part of the daily hurtles is for the hellcritters’ sakes—and sitting still, I swear the blood all withdraws to my liver and has a party.†  And I’m going to be very glad to have my blanket next Saturday morning when I try yet again to go to Aloysius’ frelling early silent prayer service.  He says the chapel they sit in is COLD.  Where has spring got to?  Drinking Mai Tais in Hawaii?  What?

* * *

* I thought, okay, get thy tail to New Arcadia tower this morn, they will have need of thee.  Like horsefeathers and bulltiddly:  they had ten ringers.  I should have stayed in bed.

** Nothing like upsetting your own apple cart.  I didn’t think I was observing all that challenging a Lent.  Evidently the personal status quo disagrees.

*** That is, cross-legged on a cushion.  I did yoga fairly seriously for a while too and while I could (for example) do the splits with what I fondly believed to be a straight pelvis, I never quite made it to full lotus, not to stay anyway.  I could sit in half-lotus however and it’s a nice stable base when you’re settled, and you can forget about it and concentrate on your breath.  The books I’ve been reading lately insist that you must learn to sit properly—and the accompanying photos are of course of rows and rows of utterly calm and centred-looking people sitting in PERFECT full lotuses with both knees firmly against the ground and their laps perfectly level—and therefore their curved hands are perfectly level too.  Well I decided I ought to be able to get my half-lotus back.  And promptly pushed it too hard MCKINLEY THIS BODY IS SIXTY YEARS OLD CAN YOU TRY AND REMEMBER THAT and have managed to outrage one hamstring so seriously I can barely sit at allArrrrgh.  I told Aloysius this tonight and he tried hard not to laugh, but he also said that at the very serious zendo he sat at before he came to St Margaret’s everyone had a different assortment of pillows on which they sat differently with different props and supports.  Speaking of good enough.

I was planning to pull some of the comments out of the It’s All Performance.  Isn’t It? thread and the Good Enough. Mostly. Sometimes thread . . . but they’re all good, some of them are too complex to cut intelligently^, and it’s also a conversation so if I tried to haul any of it out here I’d have to haul most of it out here.  But let me recommend that anyone interested in performance, in the arts, in human creativity and in being good enough should go read those threads.^^

So just a random thought or two to be going on with.  I’d like to think EMoon’s and my generation^^^ will have been the last to get really mired in the If You’re Not Amazing Don’t Bother mindset, but that’s probably naïve.  But Shalea reminded us of that excellent old adage:  Perfect is the enemy of good.  Yes.  And blondviolinist, who is a professional musician, added that the concept of ‘perfect’ makes her nuts, because it makes it sound as if there is One True Way . . . and there isn’t.  She adds:  I’m blown away by the rich possibilities for creativity as individual people bring their own imagination and heart to their music. (Or visual art, or dancing, or writing, or….)  And someone else somewhere—sorry, I can’t find you right now—quotes Mahalia Jackson:  God don’t mind a bum note.

I do have a slight Well she can say that she’s Mahalia Jackson reaction to this last.  But all of this (and other comments I haven’t mentioned) point to what I wanted to say further about my own need to believe that I’m allowed to engage with—in this case, music, from the making it side as well as the taking in someone else’s making side, live in a concert, live in your sitting room, on the radio or CD, or Met Live at your local cinema.  Performance at any level, I think, changes your relationship to music—broadens it, deepens it, makes you go oh wow in a whole new thrillingly-more-informed way when you listen to your favourite Beverly Sills CDs.  For this alone it’s worth trying to play or sing, however badly, even if you have to send your husband to the pub and leave your critters at the other house while you practise.  Which, because I am very fortunate, I don’t.#

The other thing—the big thing—is that if you can really ENGAGE with the music—if you can inform it, inhabit it—express it—well, God won’t mind the bum notes, and, chances are, neither will your audience.  When Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau died last year, there were millions of words of obituary about what an astonishing singer he was—a lot of people think he is the greatest lieder singer who ever lived—at least since recording equipment got good enough for comparisons to be made.  I knew that.  What I didn’t know is that quite a few people also say that he did not have, by nature, a first rate voice.  He had a very good voice, obviously, a professional-quality voice, but it wasn’t absolute top value:  what he did have was overwhelming commitment and insight, and an unmatched ability (yes I’m a fan) to get inside the music he’s performing, and give it to his audience.  Perfect isn’t only the enemy of good, it’s also the enemy of fabulous.

. . . Okay, I want to get to bed tonight, so I Will Continue This Later. . . .

^ At least at this time of night when intelligence is getting a little thin on the ground anyway

^^ Note that if you want to comment yourself you do have to join the forum, but anyone can read the threads.

^^^ I know there are few more 60-pluses out there but I don’t want to drag anyone out of the shadows who doesn’t want to come.

# Peter continues to insist he likes hearing me sing, and the hellterror has mostly stopped erupting when I try.  Chaos may still leave the hellhound bed to walk over to the piano and stare at me earnestly—especially on evenings when the high B is considering making an appearance—but he doesn’t make an issue of it.

† As I like to say, probably too often, I’m cold all the time, except occasionally when I’m too hot.

KES, 67



The drive to Cold Valley was splendidly uneventful, comparatively speaking.  There were the cows, which were all clustered by the fence as we drove by and I’m sure the van shied, like a horse objecting to a field of pigs.  And then there was the getting lost, which is a good trick in a countryside that mostly only has one road at a time, but I managed.  The van’s elderly GPS could get you to New Iceland and then had palpitations, as I found out when I tried to program it to take me to Cold Valley, so I had to follow the paper map that had come with my copies of all the stuff from Homeric Homes.  Rental agreements had changed since my days in the East Village, or maybe landlords in the boonies were more concerned about the quality of their tenants when replacements might be harder to find.  My East Village lease basically said ‘pay the rent on time, peasant, or die.’  Homeric Homes’ fine print went on and on and had all kinds of dependent clauses about floods and hurricanes and polar bears and the mysterious appearance of solid-fuel stoves, the rights of Shub-Niggurath, Yog-Sothoth and Nyarlathotep to go on playing poker in the cellar and being polite to the deinonychus that lived under the front porch.  Here Be Dragons.  Not really very reassuring.  I might almost prefer the straightforwardness of the East Village model.

Finally I saw the Cold Valley sign on the road—and got close enough to be sure it was the Cold Valley sign and didn’t say Rivendell or Equatorial Kundu.  It wouldn’t be Kundu:  the local geography was all wrong.  Rivendell would be nice.  I was sure Elrond would have a method for dealing with deinonychus.  But the sign clearly said Cold Valley.  My eyes skated over the ‘population’ total again.  Whatever it said, it needed to be revised up by one.  Two if you counted Sid.  Three if you counted a rose-bush in a pot.  I didn’t have time to stop and look around but I stopped anyway.  I felt I needed to take a deep breath before I drove over the town line for the first time as a resident.  And it’s not like I was going to hold up traffic.  I’d seen exactly one other vehicle on the road since I left New Iceland:  another old beat-up pick-up truck, although both smaller and younger than Merry, and blue, so it wasn’t Ron’s.  I hoped that the van’s tinted windshield meant that whoever was in the truck would not recognise me next time, since chances were there would be a next time.  Village life:  where everyone else knew your business before you did.  Back in the city only Joe the doorman knew your business first.

I rolled the window down and leaned out.  Trees.  Grass, or anyway wild grasslike weeds.  Scrub.  Big irregular boulders.  I knew the lake was over that way (okay, I thought I knew the lake was over that way);  I couldn’t decide if I could see a distant glitter of sun on water or not.  The air smelled of green things and . . . I had no idea.  I knew the smell of car exhaust and the local pizza place and the Chinese next door and the bakery over the way and a squashed orange from the fruit stall and dirty steam from the latest burst pipe and unpicked-up dog crap and mystery substances in the gutters.  I had no idea what the smells in the country were.  I could almost count on two hands the weeks I’d spent outside some city or other—Gelasio liked urban holidays—four years of horse camp, two weeks per summer, and some long weekends under whooshing pine trees in the Adirondacks.  That was about it.  And I’d come to Cold Valley, unknown even to the GPS grid, because I’d stuck a pin in a map.

I quailed.  I reminded myself it was too late:  I’d already signed the lease, and Sally had already accepted payment from my bank.  I was doomed to the back of beyond.  This back of beyond.  I looked at Sid.  She looked back at me, enigmatic as a menhir.

I thought about ringing Norah.  She’d drop everything and take the call if I asked her secretary to put me through.  She’d also tease me about it unmercifully after the crisis was over.  Of course I could always remind her of that orange prom dress. . . .

I started the van again a little abruptly and it moaned a protest.  “Sorry,” I said.  I drove over the town line.  I was in Cold Valley.  I was home.  My hands were clamped sweatily on the steering wheel.  Even I failed to get lost the rest of the way to Rose Manor:  I turned down the first street I came to and counted houses, one, two . . . three.  This one was mine.

I pulled into the driveway.  Rose Manor.  It loomed.  It was huge.  If Sid was a menhir, it was Stonehenge with Avebury thrown in.  What was I thinking of?  I couldn’t live here.

“Oh,” I said.  I sounded a little like a van being started too quickly.  “Help.”


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