Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Chilly chilly chilly

It's snowing again! Here in Edinburgh we usually get very little snow but this year has certainly not been typical. I've just come in from teaching my evening class and got soaked while I was walking across the car park by big, sloshy snowflakes propelled by howling winds. This pieris outside our front door is covered not with beautiful white blossoms but huge lumps of soggy snow. March going out like a lion!

I've finished marking my huge heap of essays, which were not (alas) startlingly good but which featured (alack) not all that many sillinesses for your delectation. I can offer you only:

Some scientists say that it's a sign of global warming that the glaziers are retreating.

The way tha't the theme effect's the characters in this story...

He is being sartistic and dimsife.

(No, I don't really know what she meant either. I assume "sarcastic and dismissive".)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

That was the week

It's been a bit of a week. Our lovely, kind Daughter 2 went down to London to visit her once-more-unemployed actor boyfriend (sigh) and gave me these tulips and daffodils before she left. While she was down there, she learnt that she (together with all apart from the most senior architects in in her office) is about to be made redundant because, with the slump, there is hardly any work for them. She'd seen it coming, but all architects are finding the same, so getting another job in this field will be very difficult. I'm so proud of the philosophical way she's taken it: sympathising with her bosses, thinking positively and telling them how much she's enjoyed working there. The boss that broke the news to her told her that she'd made him feel better at the end of his terrible day of sacking people by what she said to him when he phoned to tell her.

On the same day, our son-in-law's grandfather died.

Spring has come to the garden.

The office building near us that I wrote about the other week - the prizewinning one that was being demolished - now looks like this.

I visited my friend and her kittens again.

Our cats sat on our neighbours' garage roof.

Sirius lay in the sun.
We heard that our son has been offered a job (he's a junior doctor and there's a strange, rather random system for giving out jobs) for July onwards for the next two years, but it's not where he wants to be - and his girlfriend wasn't allocated one - so he's going to turn it down. There will be more jobs on offer at a later stage but who knows if there will be a suitable one? Or indeed two. They may decide to do locum work for a while.
My mother fell down on getting out of the bath twice this week and couldn't get up for a while. One of these nights, I was in the house with her but she didn't call out because she didn't want to bother me.

I went up to the U....r Hall this afternoon, walking past Edinburgh Castle, to rehearse for my choir's concert. I'm not putting the full name of the hall in case it comes out on Google because I took a couple of forbidden photos at the afternoon rehearsal. I'm such a rebel.

They're terrible photos but this is looking towards where the choir was about to sit, in the organ gallery.

This is our view looking out at the audience. Can't imagine what the ectoplasm is - the Big White Worm of the U....r Hall? The concert was this evening. Our choir is attached to the school that our children went to, and it was wonderful: beautiful music from the wind band and the orchestra, and then my adult choir and the massed young people's choirs sang "Carmina Burana". It was a fantastic experience.
So. A week of mixed emotions. One day, life will be plain sailing. You think?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

More bloggish musings

It's hard to blog when there are cats sitting on your computer chair.

What is the function of your blog? I’ve mused on this question before but it’s an interesting one. (Or at least I think it is.)

One of the function of mine is to record my life. For me. Not that I’m claiming that it’s a particularly interesting or significant one – but it’s the only one I have and I want to preserve it. I’m struck by the fact that I occasionally look back to see what I was doing this month two years ago, for example, and come across things that I’d more or less forgotten about – not huge life events, obviously, but amusing little snippets or enjoyable visits or whatever. I also like looking back to see what the garden was doing at this time in another year.

For this reason, I wish that I’d had a blog when the children were little. All those jewelled mummy moments that Stomper Girl, for instance, records on hers – lots of mine are probably forgotten by me because they were never documented. On the other hand, I do have more recent bloggy bits from when ours were still at home and I’m glad of that.

Another blog function is to communicate. I love the feeling of scattering words and being aware of them landing in people’s heads in distant lands. Now, I think we all feel that while quietly chuntering to ourselves is satisfying, it’s more so if people leave comments, making the communication two-way. It’s striking (to me) how many people read without commenting. I hardly ever do this. Somehow I feel as if I have to earn my pleasure in reading by at least waving hello. I think “lurking” suggests the slightly underhand sensation one gets from merely reading. And yet of course it’s a free world, this Blogdom. If we don’t want people to have access to our burblings, we shouldn’t publish them.

The only times I don’t comment are when there’s nothing I feel I can say – when I really don’t agree with what people are saying/doing (and this applies to very few people I read); or if there are already so many comments that there’s nothing to add.

My fourth blog birthday passed at the beginning of March and, reading back, I’m struck by how much sadder my life is now than it was then. Then, the children were all at home (including our soon-to-be son-in-law), my father was still alive, my mother was reasonably independent. Now the offspring have flown, my father’s dead and I spend a lot of time supporting my mum who, while amazing for nearly 88, is getting gradually frailer. I do still have Mr Life (a fine chap and I’m grateful for him). But I feel my life has changed from colourful to sepia. It's all right, day to day. But only all right.

I say all this because of the third function of my blog: not really to canvass sympathy, despite the pathetic tones of the previous paragraph, but to force myself to clarify my thoughts more publicly – and therefore possibly more coherently – than I do when just gently musing. I’m not really one to bewail my lot and then expect angels to descend from the sky and sort things out. (Though this would be handy.) My children aren’t responsible for my happiness. I have to find a way of being happy, some point to my life. And it needs to be a bit more than just getting up, breathing a lot, teaching, marking and then going to bed again.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Kittens and things

I'm about to enter assessment hell again - 70 essays (not written by my students) on texts they've chosen themselves. But I managed to fit in a visit to a friend first... and her kittens.

Very cute.

These are not my slender legs.

A couple of thoughts from the essays:
1. "Stanhope was a hypochondriac with many imaginative illnesses."
(Yes, I've come heard about some imaginative illnesses in my time from students who haven't been in class.)
2. [Quoting from a poem]: "The deck piled high with bodies - this doesn't sound like a very pretty picture."
(Well, no.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Wise sayings

"It's a pity," said my colleague J, slightly late for class because he was searching frantically for the handouts he had photocopied just minutes before, "that there are only a certain number of times you can say: I'm usually very organised ... ."

(The picture is not of J but of Daughter 1's guinea pig Pumpkin. Look at the light of intelligence in her eyes. )

Friday, March 12, 2010

What IS it that makes good writing good?

Ok, this is my last self-indulgent English-teachery pontification about writing for the moment. Oh, how easy it is to criticise and oh, how hard it is to do well!

With Anne Tyler, what I didn’t really mention was the way she turns phrases – because I was writing at work while supervising exams (they didn’t need a close eye…) and I didn’t have the book with me. But now I have.

Here’s the opening of “A Patchwork Planet”:

“I am a man you can trust, is how my customers view me. Or at least, I’m guessing it is. Why else would they hand me their house keys before they leave for vacation? Why else would they depend on me to clear their attics for them, heave their air conditioners into their windows every spring, lug their excess furniture to their basements? “Mind your step, young fellow, that’s Hepplewhite,” Mrs Rodney says, and then she goes into her kitchen to brew a pot of tea. I could get up to anything in that basement. I could unlock the outside door so as to slip back in overnight and rummage through all she owns – her Hepplewhite desk and her Japanese lacquer jewelry box and the six potbellied drawers of her dining-room buffet. Not that I would. But she doesn’t know that. She just assumes it. She takes it for granted that I’m a good person.

Come to think of it, I’m the one who doesn’t take it for granted.”

That first sentence is quite clumsy – deliberately so, I’m sure. It sounds like a man musing, considering the situation. AT could have written, “My customers trust me” or “My customers see me as a man they can trust” – and that would have been okay. But I like the way she’s set up the ambivalence from the start with the declaration followed by the qualification: he is – or is he not? – a man to be trusted. Trust is one of the key themes of the novel.

Then that “Why else…?” repetition shows that he’s keen to be trusted – but perhaps can hardly believe that he is. He examines the evidence: a list of tasks that he’s trusted to do in people’s homes. This also neatly conveys the speaker’s job: he’s a manual worker – look at those verbs: “clear… heave… lug”. His youth is made obvious by Mrs Rodney’s “young fellow”. Then the repetition again: “I could… I could….” – we feel him almost luxuriating in the possibility of that “rummaging” as he lists the items he could look through. Then the paragraph ends with those four short, emphatic sentences: “Not that I would. But she doesn’t know that. She just assumes it. She takes it for granted that I’m a good person.” And we wonder: is he so emphatic because this is true, or because he wants us to think that it’s true, or because he’s trying to convince himself that it’s true? I also like that rather naïve wording – “a good person”, as if it were an absolute; as if everyone fell into one or other category, good or bad.

And then there’s that last, one-sentence paragraph: “Come to think of it, I’m the one who doesn’t take it for granted.” Here AT makes his self-doubt clear and leaves the reader intrigues as to why he’s so concerned about whether or not he’s good.

Ah, what a pedant I am: 313 words to discuss AT’s 169.

Now here’s the beginning of “My Sister’s Keeper”:

“When I was little, the great mystery to me wasn’t how babies were made, but why. The mechanics I understood – my older brother Jesse had filled me in – although at the time I was sure he’d heard half of it wrong. Other kids my age were busy looking up the words p____ and v_____ * in the classroom dictionary when the teacher had her back turned, but I paid attention to different details. Like why some mothers had only one child, while other families seemed to multiply before your eyes. Or how the new girl in school, Sedona, told anyone who’d listen that she was named for the place her parents had been vacationing when they made her. (Good thing they weren’t staying in Jersey City, my father used to say.)”

* JP doesn’t use dashes but I don’t want my blog to attract the wrong sort of comments….

Ach, it really annoys me that I can’t quite analyse what’s wrong with this. Indeed, there’s nothing wrong. She writes well, and I apologise to anyone who really likes JP – I’d love to have as much success as she’s had by writing. (Or any other way, come to that.) She’s good. This first paragraph does the job. It sounds reasonably like a young person talking (though not, in my opinion, a 13-year-old as it’s supposed to be), the rhythm is fine, it sets the situation up all right. There’s a bit of humour, though it’s the joke we’ve probably all made about the Parises of this world.

But it’s a bit… ordinary. Workmanlike – workwomanlike. Clear. Fluent. But it doesn’t make my heart sing.

Anyway. I’ll shut up now and get back to posting about cats.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Anne Tyler

So, let’s be more positive. Anne Tyler – why is she so good?

I think this is quite an interesting question. I think we all find that our piffle detectors work quite well – Jodie Picoult yes, Anne Tyler no – but I personally sometimes find it difficult to work out exactly what tips a novel over into the piffle area. JP writes very fluently; it’s not that she’s not articulate. Her novel has a plot, quite a complicated one. Why is AT wonderful and JP pot-boilerish?

In my opinion, Anne Tyler’s novels convince because they deal with ordinary people who have little quirks which one has come across or could imagine that one might. These characters would be interesting even without a plot, but they usually find themselves in just slightly unusual situations and the reader is intrigued to know what will happen. There are few deaths in her novels (though I can think of a couple); no car chases; no murders or transplants or anything hugely dramatic; and that’s how I like my books. But there are plots, and these plots play out according to the characters’ personalities.

One of my favourite of her novels is “A Patchwork Planet”. The main character and narrator, Barnaby Gaitlin, is about 30 and considers himself the black sheep of his family. Never having been a man, I’m perhaps no judge, but his voice convinces me. He seems to think and speak as such a man might. He’s no saint but he’s an amusing and sympathetic character, often speaking colloquially (he calls someone a “lamebrain”, for instance) but sometimes using vivid descriptions – as when he describes an old lady who’s carrying a small dog “folded over her arm like a waiter’s napkin”.

The unusual aspect of the Gaitlin family is that it’s a very wealthy one – maybe something like a minor version of the Carnegies or the Rockefellers. Their wealth derives from a supposed visit by an angel to Barnaby’s great-great-grandfather to give him advice. The result is that he decided to make his woodenware factory manufacture a hugely successful mannequin called the Twinform - for women to try new outfits on, to see which combinations of clothes and accessories go together.

How did Anne Tyler think this up? This seems to me like real imagination - not just looking in the newspaper to find a current topic which might be exploited.

Barnaby is beginning to think that he should make something of his life, and the novel covers a year in which he makes a stab at changing things. He comes across one of these Twinforms manufactured by his family’s firm, and this becomes a symbol of change – just as women stood back and looked at a new version of themselves, in a new outfit, Barnaby looks metaphorically at himself and his life and decides to remake himself.

He works for an agency called Rent-a-Bak, which people can call up if they want someone with a bit of muscle to shift things around the house. (If only this existed in Edinburgh.) He is anxious (for various reasons) to be trusted, and obviously this is relevant to his job as well as other areas. A lot revolves round the agency – his co-worker is a main character, his boss helps bring about change in Barnaby, his clients come into the story too and prove that they trust him. The other main factor in his life is his family, particularly his mother, who married from a humble background into this wealthy and confident dynasty and who is desperate to conform – and for Barnaby to conform.

I realise that this sounds a bit far-fetched – angels and Twinforms and fortunes. But the characters are totally convincing in their reactions to these admittedly odd situations. Barnaby, for example, sees the angel thing as being eye-rollingly characteristic of his tedious family – and yet he wistfully half-believes that if only he could find his angel, he could be guided to a better way of life. Wouldn’t we all like an angel to wander past from time to time and tell us what we should do?

Anne Tyler prepares so beautifully for everything; it all slots neatly into the structure. And she requires her readers to pay attention. For example, Barnaby tells us early on about a Shakespeare sonnet which is never mentioned again till all of a sudden he speaks a line from it and it tells us exactly what he’s thinking about another character. And there’s a scene near the beginning that takes place at Baltimore Station – and this part of the story doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Until the end, when it suddenly – wonderfully – comically – does. I just love the sense of planning. Characters don’t wander randomly in and out; they work for their places in the novel by having a vital part either in the plot or the characterisation.

I love the way she plays with the reader. At first, Barnaby sounds rather creepy. Then you realise that he’s actually quite good-hearted. Then suddenly she makes him say, “Back in the days when I was a juvenile delinquent…” and you start wondering about him again. I love her little human truths: one client gets Barnaby to haul her Christmas tree down from the attic on New Year’s Eve because her grandchildren are coming and she wants the house to look festive, and Barnaby instantly understands – grandchildren are so important among his older clients. And at one point someone tells an old lady that she looks “youthful” and she thinks for a moment that he said “useful” and is thrilled – because one of the sad things about old age is that we no longer do feel useful.

And I like the way it finishes. Barnaby has moved on to some extent and it looks as if – well, I won’t say what – is going to happen. But things might go a different way. The ends aren’t quite all tied up; some of them are loosely looped and…

One of the reasons why I’m so interested in what differentiates commercial piffle – which may be good in its way – from storytelling that really grabs you is that from time to time in recent years I’ve had little goes at writing novels and then abandoned them because they seem to me to be coming out much nearer the piffle end of the spectrum. And I can’t quite work out how that happens. I’d much rather be Anne Tyler.

Though I’m sure Jodi Picoult is very rich…

Saturday, March 06, 2010

I think, therefore I am a bit confused

Well, it's Saturday night, and while all you lucky people are out partying or at home, sitting around reading good books or (like Mr Life) watching television (not currently with the feline obstructions as above and below), I'm marking exam papers. Or - you've spotted the deliberate error - I'm not actually marking at this moment. This is a brief break in my red pen hell. But I'm off back to the kitchen table shortly.

Here's a sample. The question was, in essence: how does the poet give us a flavour of a city? The student is writing about Norman MacCaig's "Hotel Room, 12th Floor" which is about New York in the 60s -a good choice of text for this question. Candidates are supposed to analyse the poetic techniques in detail.
Here is the final flourish of the essay. Believe me, it's of much the same standard as the rest.
The poem isn't your typical ryhming poem it is effective in its comparison to real life and what society is like and you can not change life. It seems that nothing has changed in time and there is more voilence outside that every before so the poet is right to think that our society is a bit like the Wild Wild West.* The word choice was very effective giving you a lot to think about when it comes to imagery. Overall the poem had a great contrast and comparisons.

*Note the repetition of "Wild" to add yet one more word of meaningless waffle to this piece.
The good news is that I didn't teach this student. I'm sure my students' exam essays (which someone else will mark) are a lot more insightful and analytical.
You think?
Off I trudge, hoping that the next essay will be a good one. Good ones are so much quicker to mark than bad ones.
(Exit. No bear. Cats)

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Some of us have to work. Others get to lie in the sun.

Sirius (oh no, you're right, Daughter 2 - Cassie ) enjoys a patch of indoor sunshine.

From today's batch of essays:

"I feel motivated to follow my hearth." (Me too. It's far too cold to follow anything unheated.)

"This play is about a grizzly murder." (That'll be A Winter's Tale, then, with its stage direction Exit, pursued by a bear.)

Must go and mark some more.

Edited to add, the next day...

What I originally put in my laboured little parenthesis was that the grizzly must have been in Pericles. Then suddenly, this morning at work, a propos of nothing at all, I thought - argh, it's not Pericles, it's A Winter's Tale. So, unable to bear the thought of this silly mistake remaining on my blog, I logged on as myself-at-home - which is a bit of a fiddle when I'm not at home - and rapidly made the change. Only because I was hurrying, I typed A Winer's Tale, which made no sense, or in fact looked as if I was making some ponderous but incomprehensible joke.

Oh, ho, the irony: mocking others for their errors and making TWO myself. Serves me right!

Tuesday, March 02, 2010


I don’t often write about books but for once I thought I would.

The great thing about doing a degree in English at university was that it gave me permission to read - because it was “work”. Before that, reading a book instead of doing my homework was laziness. Now it became study.

This happy state of affairs ended when I graduated in 1972. Though it’s often been true since then that I have to read a novel because I'm teaching it, this is never quite as enjoyable. I’m distracted, as I read, by considerations about whether the class will like it/find it too easy/find it too hard/find rude things in it/ find anything that could possibly be construed as racist/fattist/anti-disabled/anti-smokers or any other anti- that could upset anyone.

Other than out of duty, however, I don’t sit around at home reading during term-time all that much, simply because there’s usually something less pleasant that I feel I ought to be doing instead. I do read in bed and in the bath. And I don’t read much fiction – not because I don’t like novels (I like some novels a lot) but because I certainly don’t like all novels and I really enjoy reading diaries and letters and biographies. And blogs.

I’ve now finished “My Sister’s Keeper” and am trying to analyse my feelings about it. In case you don’t know, the main character is a thirteen-year-old girl who was conceived specifically so that she could donate her cord blood to her sister, who has leukaemia. Later, the well sister donates other body products such as bone marrow and at the start of the book, her parents want her to give her sister a kidney. She goes to a lawyer to ask that she, not her parents, should have the right to decide whether she give any further parts of her body. This is the main crisis of the novel.

Of course it’s fiction and of course fiction has to have a plot, a problem, conflict, a dénouement. And of course a plot is artificial, and one wants a structure, with the writer’s hand guiding the plot to a satisfactory – not necessarily a happy – outcome. And this novel has most of these things. But it also seemed to me rather unpleasant: it milks the situation, fluently squeezing agony out of all the characters.

Jodi Picoult uses the device of multiple point of view, so that the girl, her sister, her delinquent brother, both parents, the lawyer, the lawyer’s girlfriend, the lawyer’s girlfriend’s identical twin (why?) each narrate a few chapters. Good heavens - the lawyer, who is epileptic, has a dog (called, with heavy thematic symbolism, Judge) to warn him of oncoming fits. I half-expected this furry character to get a chunk of narrative: (“Why does no one consider my point of view, dragged into court every day? Where are my rights? Woof. Grr.”)

It’s a jolly tricky thing to do, multiple voices, and I’m not saying that I could do it any better. But that’s not really the point. You wouldn’t notice that the narrator changed if you didn’t read the chapter headings. The thirteen-year-old girl writes like a forty-year-old, as does the drug-addicted delinquent brother, who goes around fire-raising because the really nice parents somehow don’t pay him any attention (and the father is a fireman so that makes it really ironic). The ill sister’s voice is identical to the donor-sister’s – in fact they’re all articulate and insightful and very reasonable but all much the same.

And really, does Jodi P have to make all these terrible things happen to one family? Especially what happens at the end? Come on, now. Gah. Yes, she's trying to grasp her readers by the emotions, but also I think it’s because there’s no easy answer to the problem. Should Anna give Kate her kidney? Kate looks like dying anyway; Anna is traumatised by the procedures already undergone and would have to give up her beloved ice hockey in case her remaining kidney got damaged in a game. But how can she let her sister die? It’s an insoluble problem so I suppose lots of distracting sub-plots are the novelist’s way of padding out her story.

I once had a lecturer who objected to EM Forster’s novels because of what he called their “crrrrrrude co-incidences”. This novel has its share too. The sort-of-guardian person appointed to help the girl just happens to be the lawyer’s ex-girlfriend. They both happen never to have found love again even after fifteen or so years, even though they’re both terribly attractive. The fireman father happens to be called out to all the fires started by the son. At the end, the father just happens to come across … well, I’ll not tell you in case you’re about to read the book, but unless he’s a member of the only fire crew, he might well not be called to this event and it’s rather unlikely – at best terrifically bad luck – that this event would happen in the first place.

And the rest of the book – the ever-after – is skimmed over far too fast. Apart from the one bad event, things are fine in the future. The bad brother becomes a police officer! This fits in well with the other unlikelihoods, such as that a thirteen-year-old would consult a lawyer to act for her against her parents; that the lawyer would take on a case for a thirteen-year-old with little cash; or that no one would know he had epilepsy even though he frequently has to plead in court cases. (He drives around, too. Not a good idea.) The parents never seem to have considered that the girl might like to be consulted about her kidneys. Surely they would?

Having said all that – Jodi Picoult sells lots of books and I did read it to the end, at least faintly gripped. Pressed. Nudged, maybe. It deals with a modern moral dilemma which might well cause such problems – if you forget about the subplots with the lawyer and the delinquent-but-with-heart-of-gold brother. But I can’t help feeling that that it would have been a much better novel if – say - Anne Tyler had written it.