The Language of Flowers – Vanessa Diffenbaugh

ISBN: 0330532014

This novel is a bouquet of old and new. Diffenbaugh arranges the ins and outs of family and business in the 21st century with an almost extinct method of messages from the early 20th century: the language of flowers. The story is moving without being false, it is realistic without losing a sense of magic. It is tragic in the way that real life is tragic, and is heart-warming by equal measure.

Victoria, the narrator, is canny, and reveals information to us only when it suits her, making for an intriguing read that is plot-driven to just the right extent. Victoria is eminently identifiable; we can see her in ourselves, in our friends and in our families.

Which brings us to the heart of the novel: family. this is essentially a book about joining families, leaving families and trying to piece a family together. It cannot fail to touch anybody who has ever experienced family life, for better or for worse.

Rating: 7/10

Macaroons

The macaroon is a delicate mistress. She is the princess of baked treats: high maintenance, hard to please, demanding, but oh so beautiful. I am of course talking about French macaroons; the English macaroon has tainted herself with coconut. I have yet to perfect a macaroon but today I will attempt to whip up a batch. Armed with sugar thermometer, food processor and electric whisk I will not let her defeat me. I shall master her. And a light, chewy, sugary feast will be my reward (and the reward of those who happen to work in the same office as me!).

So, before I start, here is what I am aiming for, something along these lines:

Off I go!

So I made a start with the following toolkit (plus more that I realised I needed as I went along) :

I used a recipe that was new to me, from a book dedicated to baking macaroons, and I was feeling hopeful and excited to use a sugar thermometer. However, I discovered that I needed 200g of ground almonds, and I only had 150g. Plus, once I’d mixed the ground almonds and icing sugar together, the resulting mixture wouldn’t go through the sieve. It all started to seem like a terrible disaster when it looked like this:

Nevertheless, I kept going, fearlessly pressing on. In fact, I broke the biggest rule of macaroon making: I overwhisked. Once I’d combined the eggy syrupy mousse to the almond ‘paste’ I couldn’t get the lumps out. So I had to beat the stubborn things with the electric whisk. It was bold, it was daring, it was quite possibly very stupid. But we’ll see. At present the little delights look like this:

They are ‘drying’ before I put them in the oven. Of course, there was another disaster, in that I could only fined two baking trays so approximately half the mix is still sitting in the kitchen in a sandwich bag, longing to be piped. In an hour or so I can intrepidly open the oven to discover their fate…

I realised that it’s over a week later now and I still hadn’t put up the picture of the finished result! Well… they were a failure, but not a spectacular one. They were definitely edible (although I filled half of them with lemon marmalade, which I wouldn’t recommend!) but I was too embarrassed to take them into work, so we had cakeless Friday.

Anyway, here is the end result. But I shall not give up! (maybe…)

The Summer Without Men – Siri Hustvedt

ISBN: 9781444720259

This is a somewhat melancholy little book, but one that beckons us in like girls at a sleepover. It is all about women, from toddlers to old women and every age in between. Hustvedt concentrates on the shape of women, not just the physical and anatomical shapes of them (although she doesn’t shy away from this), but also the shape of women’s minds, and how they are shaped.

Although the premise for this novel is loss, it is remarkably celebratory, and of womankind in particular: think a cross between Angela Carter and Jane Austen. While I’m on the subject of Austen, if she invented free indirect discourse, then Hustvedt has established it firmly in the 21st century. She plonks us straight inside the brain of Mia, the Narrator, and we are encased there for 216 pages without a breath for air. And this is certainly a woman who can think. Ever thought that you wish you could turn your brain off? Well, be thankful you’re not Mia Fredricksen.

So, this is quite an intense read, and yet it is not claustrophobic, as you might expect. There is something freeing about the writing, with light, airy prose and Mia’s readiness to observe. Though this tale is told through this narrator, there is not really a sense of a main character. All of these women are important, simply because they are interesting.

Rating: 8/10

Beauty

Stuart, my boyfriend, has been blogging about beauty for a few weeks, and can be found at http://www.hunterofbeauty.co.uk
I thought it was time that I jumped on the band wagon and did a post about beauty myself, so here goes.

I’m asking myself the question, what do I find the most beautiful? I really like the colour pink. I like things that sparkle. I like things that appeal to more than one of my senses, but not too many of them lest I become overwhelmed. The perfect thing is probably a beautiful pink cake. It would appeal to my sense of sight, smell and taste. I think three is the optimum number of senses. A gorgeous book, too, I find oh so appealing. It would appeal to my sense of sight because of a wonderfully designed cover. My sense of touch, because I love the way books feel, especially books that are matte but have a shiny finish on certain details. It would appeal to my sense of smell because the books are just my favourite smell.

But a book would also appeal to my sense of imagination. Now, this isn’t traditionally considered one of our five senses. If people say that they have a sixth sense we tend to think of mediums and silk scarves, silver coins etc. But perhaps imagination is this sixth sense, for something can spark it off, be it a painting, a written phrase, or a scene from day-to-day life. I think it is this sixth sense that is the heart of beauty. I don’t think anything can be truly beautiful unless it forces something into your imagination, it makes you think, it stirs up something inside of you. Without touching your imagination, a pleasant thing is transitory. But if it captures your imagination, who knows where that trail will lead. It becomes a part of you.

If you’re interested in seeing some of the things that I find beautiful, follow me on Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/undivided89

Good

I was chatting, the other day, with my boyfriend (we do that sometimes) about a book I was reading. I said something along the lines of, “It’s not good, but I’m really enjoying it.” Which, of course, got us to thinking about what it is that makes something ‘good’. So here are some of my musings.

I was really enjoying the book in question (I won’t say which book it was, simply because this is not a discussion about whether a particular book is ‘good’ or not), and yet I still had valued it as a book that wasn’t good. I suppose what I should have said was, “It’s not well written, but I’m really enjoying it.” But somehow I had qualified being ‘good’ as meaning ‘well written’. Is this the same thing?

I suppose it comes down to what the purpose of a book is. Is the purpose of a book to be informative? Is it to dazzle us with grammatical accuracy? Is it to make a political/religious/sociological point? Is it to imitate life? Or to be imitated by life? Or is it simply to entertain? When somebody tells us that they read a good book, maybe we should ask them what their criteria for ‘good’ is. This would certainly lead to some intriguing conversations.

Bookmarks

On the train home from work today I began musing about bookmarks. I have noticed over the last couple of days on this commute that an alarming number of people do not use bookmarks. Firstly, how do they do this? Do they remember which page they were on? Do they always finish exactly at the end of a chapter? Do they just guess about where they were when they pick the book up again? If you are one of these people, do get in contact; I’d love to know how you manage it!

Secondly, these non-bookmark-users seem to all be men. So, is a bookmark a particularly feminine utility? I wouldn’t have thought so, but then men can be so sensitive about these things. I myself am a hoarder of bookmarks. I just love them. They are beautiful, quirky, useful and sometimes even precious (I’ve had my eye on a silver-plated ‘K’ bookmark). The other day in my Internet browsings I came across a bookmark that looked like a pair of legs sticking out of a book. It was fantastic! And yet I can’t remember where I saw it–such a tragedy! If anybody can point me in the right direction for this, I would be hugely grateful.

And yet, I can never find a bookmark when I need one. More often than not, I use a discarded train ticket as a bookmark. What does this say about my reading habits? That I don’t care for the book enough to warrant using a fancy bookmark? No, I hardly think so. It’s probably more to do with the fact that I’m always reading several books in one go. Perhaps they should sell bookmarks in multi packs, for every bibliophile I know cannot constrain him/herself to reading just one book at a time.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey

ISBN: 9780141187884

Set in a ward in a mental hospital, Kesey treats it like a school. He describes the antics of a group of men much like a Just William tale. Through highly unique characters, Kesey tells the story of a fight for liberation, but more than that, the fight for a personality, to rediscover yourself when everything, down to the very clothes you wear, has been stripped from you, and a new, corporate, identity forced upon you.

Unreliable narrators are always interesting, but Kesey takes this to a whole new level by projecting his novel through a self-confessed madman who consistently lies to those around him, pretending to be something  he is not. This pretence seems to give him a huge amount of freedom, but perhaps it is actually a cage he has shut himself in. This is a theme that Kesey explores throughout the book as he toys with our perceptions of who is sane and who is insane.

As we sympathise with the richly furnished characters, we question where the line is between sane and insane, and is there in fact a line at all? Kesey draws us close to his characters, often without revealing much about them at all. It is the intricate details, reflected in the sketchy yet delicate illustrations, that gets us inside the lives of these men. The language he uses, too, is simultaneously precise and vague, which gives us a beautiful yet hazy view of the world. Feelings are exact, realities are not.

Rating: 8/10

Knit

I started reading Jane Brocket’s The Gentle Art of Knitting and breathed a sigh of relief. I felt my heart rate lower and my breathing slow down. It reminded me that knitting is supposed to be relaxing. All too often I get into a tizz about tension and break into a sweat over whether I’ve missed a row in my pattern. Or I knit myself into a frenzy desperately trying to finish a project I’m bored with but refusing to let it fall by the wayside of abandoned, half-finished knits.

When I look back to why I learned to knit (because I needed something to relax me during my A-levels) all my knitting anxiety seems a bit silly. I’m sure I’m not the only knitter who experiences this, though. It’s good to challenge ourselves, and it can be really exciting and rewarding to try something new—but do it for the love of knitting. Sometimes it’s time to let out a long breath, make a cup of chamomile tea and knit for the sake of knitting something.

Treat knitting like a spa break, your own little getaway to restore your aura of tranquillity. Put your feet up, turn on your favourite music and be soothed by the clacking of you needles. I think there are two ways you can do this; one is a little more extravagant than the other. The first is to dive into your stash and pick out some long-forgotten treasures.

The second is to go to your favourite yarn shop and just buy something that quickens your pulse. I think that yarns are like sweeties, brightly coloured, soft, shiny and with endless possibilities of texture, weight and material. Enjoy them. Spend time picking them out, like you’re choosing a gift for a loved one (you sort of are). Feel the yarn, squish it and rub it against your cheek… well, you might want to wait until you get home for that one.

And then, just knit. Don’t plan it too much, just start knitting and see what happens. Choose colour combinations that make your heart soar, theme the knit on a memory you have, or do a stitch you’ve been longing to try. Don’t worry about the end result, just enjoy the process. Later on you can turn it into a scarf, cushion cover, lamppost cosy… You’re not in a race, take your time, enjoy it and fall in love with knitting again!

Weak

I’ve been thinking recently about weakness and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a very good thing. Now, last night somebody broke our coffee table by sitting on it and so I certainly don’t think that weakness is an attribute I want my furniture to have, however, in people I think it could be a different matter entirely.

When a toddler takes his/her first steps, it is very exciting and we congratulate them immensely. And yet, if I got up and took two faltering steps across the room, nobody would take any notice. It is the child’s weakness, their previous inability to do this which makes it such a great thing. Whenever we come across an artist/musician and we discover that they have a disability, such as blindness or the inability to use their hands, it makes us marvel at what they produce all the more.

The Bible is full of stories like this, where God uses weak people to achieve great things: look at the story of David and Goliath, for example (1 Samuel 17), where a physically weak young shepherd defeats a nine-foot-tall warrior. The fact that the ‘heroes’ in the Bible are so weak should encourage us greatly, and it shows just how great God himself is. Paul, an early Christian, writes, “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us,” (2 Corinthians 4:7). If you have a light inside a clay jar, the more cracked it is, the more light shines through.

Think about it, aren’t you so much more proud of an achievement if you’ve really struggled to do it right? Aren’t you more delighted that somebody manages to do something if the odds are against them? It’s often said that we Brits love an underdog, but what lies behind this? I think it’s because we know that we are all inherently weak, but that this actually enhances the pleasure in our lives because weakness is designed to be overcome.