Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Knocked up

Went to see this movie last week as it got a stunning review in the Guardian. It wasn't quite as good as all that, I thought, but I couldn't quite put my finger on what was wrong with it. It did manage to avoid a lot of cliches, but actually I don't think it replaced them with anything, so remained rather hollow.

I can see why the reviewer thought it was sweet, but the sweetness needed a little more substance. There really wasn't anything (minor spoilers here) to show why the female character would decide to make a go of it with the geeky guy. If we'd seen some evidence that she'd had a hard time with a couple of smart-alecky media guys, say, it might have made more sense for her to go for someone she perceived as sweet but dorky. But I suppose I did like the way that his sweetness wasn't overplayed.

The sexual stereotyping seemed to slightly patronise both sides, as it often does (yes, I know that's a split infinitive, and I see no reason to avoid them -- if you disagree, tell me why). It seemed odd that neither female character had any other female friends. But that explained why the sister in particular was jealous of her partner's relationship with other men, though what wasn't clear was why the writer seemed to think this was reasonable of her. Ooh, she was horrible. Is it really all right for someone to love you so much that they want you to be with them all the time, and regard time spent with other people or even time spent on your own as a betrayal? If this had all been the other way round, she'd have been demanding 'me time' (loathsome phrase) and that would have been just fine, wouldn't it?

It was certainly thought-provoking in a way one doesn't expect a slushy romcom to be. And that has to be the most realistic childbirth scene I've seen. Ouch.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Good places to eat in London and, er, Pampisford

Fellow fenlanders might like to try out the Chequers, in Pampisford: quite a nice walk from Sawston. They've revamped their menu, and it's pretty darn good. A had the sausage and mash, which was okay but lacked onions. I had a jacket potato with smoked bacon, mushrooms and gruyere. Just the right degree of ponciness, and they didn't skimp on the cheese. Excellent stuff. And a good range of beers. Much better than the Red Lion in Ickleton, where we went a week or two ago because it had been recommended: definitely over-poncified, and our home-made burgers were really quite nasty.

In London next to Farringdon tube, and nipped into a new place called St Germain. Turned out to be pretty packed, but they said they'd see what they could do. When I said apologetically that we also had a pushchair, they were all smiles. I was waiting a minute or two for the manager and three different members of staff came over to say he wouldn't be long... gosh. The manager himself managed not to make "You haven't booked?" sound like a snub, and was as helpful as a human being could be. We also saw that they have a set menu at two courses for £14, three for £17, which they do *all the time*. We will be back! (89-90 Turnmill Street, EC1M 5QU)

As we couldn't get a table there, though, we set off for Exmouth Market. Everywhere was either packed to bursting, or completely empty. Then at number 55 was a place that looked good. Again, super-friendly staff, pushchair no problem. In fact,this time the manager came over with a lime and a cork for Sasha to play with. And the guy at the next table spent ages talking to Sash. And the food was *fab*. The starters we chose were foie gras parfait, mmmmmm, which they recommended a glass of dessert wine with, and it was an especially gorgeous one. And scallops, which were cooked to perfection -- tricky, as they take less than a minute -- with fennel, which was beautiful. Main courses of beef something, lovely again, with polenta to die for (no idea how they made it so tasty), and a fantastic puree they said was parsley, though I don't usually like parsley and this was yummy. And a red wine risotto with goats' cheese and beetroot that was pure genius, and possibly the only time that a vegetarian option has actually competed with the carnivorous stuff. Puddings were a divinely squidgy chocolate pudding with marmalade ice cream, yum yum, and a very tasty cheese selection. All that, and every person in there -- customers and staff -- was lovely. Starters were £5-8, mains £8-14 or so. Do go: The Ambassador, 55 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QL.

Under attack

As well as eating my shirts in the loft, the mice have also chewed through our phone cable (they're trying to cut us off!!). The moles in the garden have dug another hole in the lawn. And the moths in the clothes room have nibbled another two of my favourite jumpers, despite there being so many mothballs scattered around that a recent guest refused to sleep in there.

It's been that kind of week. For the last fortnight.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Hurrah (again) for Libby Purves

I've just been re-reading Libby Purves' Holy Smoke, subtitled Religion and Roots: A Personal Memoir. A wonderful book: very affecting. I suppose in essence it's a defence of religion, and in particular Catholicism, but it's so very well written. I think it's partly that Purves is intellectual, so there's nothing sloppy about it: she knows her doctrine and her CS Lewis. But she's also not afraid to have, and to declare, moral standards, and rigorous ones at one. It impressed me, and made me cry.

The bits of autobiography in it made me realise that Love Songs and Lies has quite a lot of her own life in it, and I think that may be why it doesn't quite come off as a novel: the first-person narrator doesn't quite convince, being a mixture of fact and fiction. Given the amount of thought I've now devoted to this novel, though, I have to admit that it made a strong impression. In comparison, the last Joanna Trollope I read, Second Honeymoon, I looked at the spine of a couple of days later and found I couldn't recall a thing about it: not characters, not plot, not nothing.

Libby Purves has always cheered me up. Even when I had no intention of having children, I would read How Not To Have A Perfect Child just to be cheered by its good sense and decency: it restored my faith in human nature. Later, it made me realise that bringing up children might be more interesting -- in an intellectual sense, I suppose -- than I'd ever thought.

Holy Smoke is a really convincing defence of religion. It makes me feel that it would be a lovely thing to be a Christian and do it properly: it would make life both simpler (in terms of moral choices) and more rich, and be rewarding; a source of comfort. A counsellor once told me that her happiest patients were Christians, and that seemed perfectly logical.

I could never overcome my Darwinist principles enough to truly believe, but if I can't accept Christianity intellectually, I think I can understand it emotionally. Having been a Catholic helps, of course, but mostly it's the music, and the words. Some hymns still choke me up. (Singing on Sunday with a not very musical congregation and an effortful organ, I still choked up at the lines 'A thousand ages in thy sight/Are like an evening gone.' I like the grandeur of those sentiments. The modern liturgy seems to have somewhat neglected grandeur. Possibly in favour of Relevance, which is almost always A Bad Thing.)

It's time to go to bed. I've been stacking all my books into alphabetical piles, but there are still lots of them. Maybe double-shelving them is the answer. As it took me two years in this house just to get them all out of the boxes, I don't know that shelves are going to happen any time soon. How long, how long?

Baby vampire

Sasha has more teeth! But instead of two top front ones, the ones outside those have come in. So our little one is going to look like a vampire. What fun! And how very suitable... I've been trying to catch a demonic grin on camera, but I really need an assistant to jump around.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Why I like shagging

It's just such a good word for it. In my opinion. But not in everyone else's...

"Think of the transitive verbs for sex ... screw, hump, ball, dick, bonk, bang, shag, pork, shtup," says Steven Pinker in his new book. "They're not very nice, are they?"

Well, much as I love Steven, I have to disagree. I think some of them are much nicer than others, to the point of being -- well, pretty nice, actually. The f-word (first in his list, but edited out to make this more respectable) is a horrible word for the act. It's more useful as a swear word than anything else. (I am trying to give it up or at least cut down, since A said he thought it might be Sasha's first word. Oh dear.) But 'bonk' -- well, that's sweet, isn't it? And slightly crazy: associations with 'bonkers'. And I like the onomatopeia (gosh, that's hard to spell -- I'm not going to double-check, it's 1am here). 'Shag' is definitely my favourite, though, and A's. But a friend recently objected to my use of the term here, and as she's reserved but definitely not prudish I was startled, and gave it some thought.

First of all, to me, it sounds much less like something that somebody does to someone else than words like 'poke'. (I Speak As One who, as a feminist undergraduate, used the term 'make love with' to avoid such connotations.) Secondly, it's self-deprecating. It implies fun and slight naffness. I think the associations are with 'shaggy' (and therefore Scooby-Doo, if you're the right age) and 'shag pile'.

Because of this implicit humour, it makes the act sound fun, which is to be commended. 'Bonk' sounds fun too, but I suppose it has a suggestion of force, which we don't want. Not very much, though. Perhaps it also sounds just a bit too silly, whereas 'shag' has the hint of smut that's needed. 'Shag' also somehow connotes relaxation, casualness. You can say 'Fancy a shag?' in a very unthreatening way, and none of the others quite works like that.

Actually, looking at the list again, is 'dick' really a euphemism for sex? I thought it meant willy. Interesting how many words for sex and the make organ end in '-ck'. And 'shtup' ( why shtup when it's schmaltz not shmaltz and so on -- or isn't it Yiddish?) is too hard to say.... Imagine trying to ask "Fancy a schtup?" when drunk, as you almost invariably would be.

My favourite Steven Pinker joke: A linguist is giving a lecture. The linguist says, "Although there are many examples of the double negative in many languages, there are no examples in any language of a double positive." A rival linguist at the back of the hall says "Yeah, yeah."

Joss, oh Joss

I've just discovered that number one on Joss Whedon's desert island book list is A Little Princess -- how sweet is that? I would love to ask him why he thinks the recent movie changed the ending. SPOILER if you think you're going to read this Victorian children's classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett... in the movie, Sarah's father is lost but comes back to be reunited with her. In the book, she suffers through adversity but triumphs; he dies and stays dead. Someone apparently couldn't cope with the whole death thing. Isn't it rather the point of the book? Sarah survives by imagining things are different, but I don't think she ever conjures up her father. Gosh, it's more interesting than I thought...

Next bit is for kidlit fans only. I've just checked the spelling of Burnett on Wikipedia, and discovered that Sara Crewe (1888) was rewritten as A Little Princess (1905). I've always been puzzled by the bit in Antonia Forest where Nicky finds a book called Sara Crewe: it looks as though this explains it. It's the one where Marie Dobson dies, isn't it.... and Nicola has won the form prize but may have to leave Kingscote... aha, must be Attic Term?

I've just joined Facebook. I seem to be the last person to arrive at the party.

PS Joss's list:
"Assuming they're books I've already read: 1) A Little Princess 2) Dombey and Son 3) Dune 4) Hitchcock by Truffaut 5) Pride and Prejudice." Joss Whedon IS eclectic!

Monday, 8 October 2007

First person singular

I was thinking about the Libby Purves novel again and realised that the real problem with it for me is that the first-person narrator is so self-conscious. This only works, I think, if there's an explanation for the first-person narration. If it's unexplained, too much intrusion from the narrative voice can destroy the whole illusion -- after all, a first-person narrative is intrinsically artificial. ("Odsbobs! I hear him just coming in at the Door. You see I write in the present Tense," as Fielding says in Shamela. There is nothing new under the sun...)

What I'd have done -- and this may only make sense if you've read the book -- is address the whole novel to the daughter, so that the story is the mother's explanation. That would also avoid the problem that if it was real -- which you are by implication being asked to believe while you're reading it -- there's no way the daughter would let it be published.

I read Espedair Street again, to compare it. What I like most about it is the physical sense you get of the protagonist: Banks is very consistent about it, and I like that. Purves's narrator was a bit too generic, in comparison. Hmmm. Need a close textual analysis, really. I'll stop there. Oh, but yes, I have read The Business: I've read all Banks's fiction, but not all the science fiction, which I think it's fair to say is more variable. I started one that was purely about robots and was obviously a bit of an experiment, and it didn't really grab me. My favourite, which I suspect I share with a lot of people, is The Player of Games. Also re-read Complicity. It was nastier than I'd remembered. I wonder if Banks's politics are going to make the books date really badly?

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Lies and Love Songs

I read Libby Purves' latest novel last night. Love Songs and Lies: an interesting one (and wouldn't Lies and Love Songs have been more mellifluous?). I think it's the first of hers with a first-person narrator, and it's quite awkwardly done: the first twenty or so pages were so self-reflective that I almost gave up. She's an interesting author: some of the novels, particularly More Lives Than One, are obviously written with a particular issue in mind, but they're often none the worse for that. I should be able to make an intelligent comparison of Purves with Joanna Trollope, but it's tricky (I am rubbish at analysing novels -- wish I'd realised this before I did an English degree...).

They both focus very much on families, which presumably is what gets them pigeonholed as 'for women's'. This one was, in fact, partly a chick version of Espedair Street. (By Iain Banks, and terrific stuff if you don't mind a large does of his usual wish-fulfilment: it's only really bothered me in Dead Air, where it seemed to take the story beyond the bounds of reasonable possibility -- perhaps because it affected both the narrator's job, and his love life.) The idea that you could write pop lyrics by paraphrasing great literature must be one that occurs to lots of English graduates -- I'm reminded of the narrator in Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers writing a letter persuading a girlfriend to sleep with him, based line by line on Marvell's To His Coy Mistress. But it was nicely done here.

As usual, some sloppy sub-editing: possibly not at all, of course. What is, for instance, 'a Burne-Jones Ophelia'? Is she thinking of Millais or Waterhouse? (Or is there a Burne-Jones I don't know about? I can't think of any Shakespearean subjects in his stuff.) And why does she think that Durufle's motet Ubi caritas starts with upper voices, when in fact it begins with divided altos and no sopranos? And, oh dear, on the penultimate page it suddenly goes horribly rhetorical. I'd have been getting out the red pen as soon as I saw "Life!". But I'm nitpicking. I enjoyed it.

Also read Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant for our book group. Really liked this -- the narrative voice was so unobtrusive and understated. It seemed to me a sign of great confidence to write so subtly: in my experience it's the worst writers who feel the need to over-describe. Nothing conventional about the story or the plot, either. I'd only previously read The Accidental Tourist, so I'll definitely be reading more of her work.

Hurrah for Blogger's automatic draft saving: I managed to press some combination of keys that shut down the PC. Very fat fingers indeed.

It's that time of year again...

... and my mum has given me a flamethrower for my birthday.

It's a little more tame than I was envisaging. I'd thought I'd be striding through the vegetable patch in my combats torching our eight-foot nettles, but, sadly, it's more like making a crème brulée. There are lots of fun-busting instructions on the packaging about how you don't need to incinerate the weeds, just warm them up enough to damage the cell walls. Bah. Having followed all this to the letter, though, I notice that the clumps of grass on our drive seem largely unaffected by the stipulated light toasting. I figure that gives me licence to be more vicious next time.