Tuesday 31 January 2012

Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School

It's tough being the New Kid at school. Marshall Armstrong is the somewhat geeky New Kid at school. 

His arrival is viewed with suspicion by the current inmates. 

After all, his things are different.

He does things differently.

Will Marshall, poor geeky Marshall, who has mosquito bites and food in silver parcels, ever fit in and be accepted?

The drawings are simple, quirky and fun. You don't often get design classics in kids picture books!

Once again I was alerted to this wonderful book on Kids Book Review. It was voted one of their favourite books of 2011. I'm planning on donating my copy to my son's public school library. I hope they love it as much as I do. 

An Illustrated Year is hosted by An Abundance of Books.

Monday 30 January 2012

Old Newspapers #2

Today I was reading an old Sydney Morning Herald, and came across a fascinating article about Damien Hirst. Usually I'm not that interested in his work- all that chopping dead animals in two, seems more like butchery than art to me. But he's making a lot more money than I do that's for sure.

This article caught my eye because it was about his dot paintings. I wasn't familiar with these. He's been making them since 1986, and yet they are apparently the least known of his themes. He was inspired to make them after his dad painted blue circles on the front door of the family home. Ok then.

Picture credit

You get the idea.

The most interesting part to my mind:

Of the hundreds of spot canvases, Hirst painted only five himself. ''When I worked out how to do it, I sold one painting for, like, 50 quid and then used the money to employ other people to paint them,'' he says.

So is Damien Hirst an artist? Or a businessman? I imagine he's been called worse.

BTW The article mentioned his butterfly paintings. I hadn't heard of those either. They're fantastic! And art I think. Unless he pays someone else to do it, which he probably does. I am somewhat sad at the usage of butterflies in this way, but I think he's highlighting their beauty by creating these kaleidoscopic, trippy images. I'd love to see one.

Sunday 29 January 2012

A Visit from the Goon Squad

I have a busy reading schedule. I'm reading mainly kids books at the moment, carrying on with my quest to read 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up. But I want to read all sorts of books. Sadly life gets in the way. Family. Work. Being possibly the slowest reader in the world. Naturally I have a huge TBR, both tangible and figurative. Sometime though a book shoots out of nowhere and becomes the book I have to read next. Reading schedules be damned. An itch that has to be scratched. A Visit from the Goon Squad is exactly such a book.

I'd heard of it of course. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. I'd seen it in the shops. But I only knew about it in a vague sense. I'd never read a review, and I don't remember anyone on any of the myriad blogs I read reviewing it. If they did it's possible that I ignored the review anyway. The title really didn't appeal to me. Somehow I thought that is was a mafia book or something. Even though the cover art didn't look like a mafia book.

Then one night recently I was home alone and decided to watch an old edition of First Tuesday Bookclub (check out the video, it's well worth it), and I was hooked. I had to read it. I bought it a few days later, and read it when I should have been reading The Wind in the Willows. Thankfully, it's not a mafia book.

It's really quite hard to say what sort of book it is. It's about music certainly, the interconnectedness of our lives, the personal and the political, and time. Time is the titular goon.
'Time's a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?'

There is an extraordinary cast of characters, but the story centres mainly on music executive Bennie Salazar, and Sasha, who is working as Bennie's assistant when we first meet her at the beginning of the novel. It's a broad sweeping novel. An unusual structure it must be said. A challenging multiple point of view, multi-layered work. Thirteen chapters all offering a different narrator, giving us insights into the main characters and those that inhabit their lives- whether briefly, or for the long haul. Many times I found this confusing (and I am generally a fan of the multiple POV), and for the first two or three pages of each chapter you're searching hard for clues trying to work out whose voice it is and when, as the chapters slip back and forward in time too. I started to imagine this book as a heap of threads of coloured wool thrown haphazardly on the floor. It's all connected, it's all joined together, but it takes time to make sense of it.

The two chapters that work the best are the least traditional non-narrative structures. A great one written as a celebrity bio piece by Bennie's brother in law (and is apparently an "uproarious parody of David Foster Wallace", I wish I was well read enough to know that). And very late in the book we have an extraordinary powerpoint presentation style chapter, a slide journal, written by Sasha's daughter. You wouldn't think that would work- but it definitely does. It's really very clever.

But not too clever. Jon Ronson one of the guests on the First Tuesday book club says that it's not annoyingly post modern. I think that's very true. I'm not a fan at all of postmodern styling just for the hell of it. A Visit from the Goon Squad breaks with tradition, and takes some risks, but never tries to annoy the reader. In fact, Egan often ties up loose ends. Early on, she tells us the future of a very minor character. What will happen to him 35 years later.

Thirty five years from now, in 2008, this warrior will be caught in the tribal violence between the Kikuyu and the Luo and will die in a fire. He'll have had four wives and sixty-three grandchildren, one of whom, a boy named Joe, will inherit his lalema: the iron hunting dagger in a leather scabbard now hanging at his side. Joe will go to college at Columbia and study engineering, becoming an expert in visual field robotic technology that detects the slightest hint of irregular movement (the legacy of a childhood spent scanning the grass for lions). He'll marry an American named Lulu and remain in New York, where he'll invent a scanning device that becomes standard issue for crowd security. 

It's funny the detail of that passage stayed with me, and it's only now, when looking it up again, that I see the significance to the story! It's more clever than I realised. And every review I read is only making me want to reread. If only I had time to go back and read it again.  I don't feel compelled to do that immediately, as I did with The Road (and the Wind in the Willows is still waiting). But this is definitely a book that would reward rereading.

Saturday 28 January 2012

Crested Pigeon

I love Crested Pigeons (Ocyphaps lophotes). They're a very common bird where I live in rural NSW. Actually they're really quite widespread across Australia. They used to live mainly in central Australia, but this seed eating forager has made great use of farming and urban areas, and they are now found in most areas of mainland Australia.

They are great to take pictures of, especially for the novice birdwatcher and photographer. They're quite a large pigeon sized bird, and they are relatively used to people being around, and so aren't skittish. When they do take flight they make quite a commotion, so you can often hear them before you see them. Their wings whistle as they take off (think corduroy jeans rubbing together), because they have modified wing feathers, and so the wind can whistle between their feathers as they take flight, easily alerting bird stalkers to their presence.

Recently I found some in my local Botanic Gardens.

They have quite a strutty walk when trying to impress the Ladies
 As well as a snazzy mohawk spike they have beautiful colours on their wings if you look carefully.

 Sometimes you can't see the coloured patches.

Sometimes one hops up onto a branch in a little spot of sun to perfectly display the beautiful colours in his wings. 

Saturday Snapshot, is a wonderful weekly meme from at home with books

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Wondrous Words Wednesday 25/1/12

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a fabulous weekly meme hosted by Bermuda Onion, where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our weekly reading.  

This weeks words come from Tom's Midnight Garden.

1. Clunch (Noun)

Of the four sides of the garden, Tom had already observed that three were walled: one by the back of the house itself, another by a very high south wall, build of clunch blocks and brick; and another by a lower wall that might well prove climbable. 

Clunch is a term for traditional building material used mainly in eastern England and Normandy. It is a term which encompasses a wide variety of materials, often locally variable.
It often comes as irregular lumps of rock either picked up from the fields, or quarried and hewn from the ground in more regular-shaped building blocks. It is predominantly chalk/clay based and is bedded in mortar to form walls. It is a particularly soft building material. Some people comment that it could be cut by a saw. Wiki.
Picture credit

2. Besom (Noun)

Perhaps he had been on his way to stoke the furnace; perhaps- for he carried a besom broom- he had come to sweep the rest of the pond-ice for Hatty. 

i) A bundle of twigs attached to a handle and used as a broom.
ii) Sports. The broom used to sweep the ice from the path of a curling stone. The Free Dictionary.

Besom brooms are the broomsticks traditionally associated with witches. Wiki

3. Pollarded (Verb)

Now the young men among the skaters were pulling curved branches off the pollarded willow-trees, to make sticks for a practice game of bandy, or ice-hockey: a stone was to be the ball. 

i) A tree whose top branches have been cut back to the trunk so that it may produce a dense growth of new shoots.
ii) An animal, such as an ox, goat, or sheep, that no longer has its horns. The Free Dictionary. 

Picture credit
4. Lodes (Noun)

Here it prepares to enter the Fenland, where many other waterways- lodes and cuts and drains, with a man-made directness, rivers with ancient meanderings- will, in their own time, join it. 

I initially found meanings about a vein of mineral ore in rock. Clearly that is not the right usage. 

The Cambridgeshire Lodes are a series of man-made waterways, believed to be Roman in origin. 

5. Hithes (Noun)

Ice stopped the wheels of the upriver water-mills, and blocked the way for the barges that, in those days, plied from King's Lynn as far upstream as the hithes of Castleford.

A port or small haven. The Free Dictionary. 

Saturday 21 January 2012

Concrete Jungle Project

On my recent trip to Sydney I came across an interesting use of temporary hoardings in Ultimo. I found it particularly fascinating. It's a project called Concrete Jungle, and is designed to stir us out of our comfortable suburban slumber, and question our actions and our life.

I love the plants built into it

I think these are my favourites:

 I thought it was all great. 

Nearby in the big car park where I parked my car I found a new sort of parking space that I hadn't seen in rural Australia. Perhaps it's common in larger centres? I don't know. 

Saturday Snapshot, is a wonderful weekly meme from at home with books

Thursday 19 January 2012

The Dream of the Thylacine

Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks are both famous in their own right. Margaret Wild as the author of more than 70 books, including the extraordinary Fox, the result of her previous pairing with Ron Brooks. Ron, equally is one of our most famous and celebrated illustrators, his Bunyip of Berkeley Creek an enduring Australian classic. So I was sure that any new book by the two of them would be an interesting read.

I have a soft spot too for books about Thylacines, the Tasmanian Tiger, that became extinct in the 1930s after the last known animal died in captivity in Beaumaris Zoo, near Hobart, in 1936. Their extinction is particularly tragic I think, although of course the extinction of any species is tragic. Thylacines lived on the Australian mainland before the introduction of the dingo about 4,000 years ago. After white settlement of Australia they were restricted to Tasmania, and they were hunted out of existence in little over 100 years, aided by bounties. Now the Tasmanian Devil, Tasmania's other major predator, is under threat from Devil Facial Tumour Disease, at least now people are working to try to prevent the Devil's demise.

I was always going to pick up this book as soon as I saw it at the library. I hadn't heard of it before, but it literally leapt off the shelf at me. The back cover blurb calls it a lament for a lost species, and it certainly is that. The words are few, and illustrated by black and white illustrations of caged Tigers. The Tiger in each of the three pages like this becomes faded and more distinct in each image.

Interspersed between these pages are Ron Brook's beautiful painted illustrations of a free Tiger, capturing the Tiger's dreams of freedom, and a life in the wild. Ron Brooks writes very movingly about his paintings for this book on his website (you just need to scroll down a bit). Ron lives in Tasmania, and his love for the Tasmanian landscape is evident in his paintings.

It's a beautiful and moving book. I found this last image particularly poignant.

An Illustrated Year is hosted by An Abundance of Books.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Wondrous Words Wednesday 18/1/12

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a fabulous weekly meme hosted by Bermuda Onion, where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our weekly reading.  

This weeks words are from Comet in Moominland

1. Tarn (Noun)

A little farther down they came to a tarn, which had sunk so low in its stone basin that the sides were too steep for them to get down and have a swim. 

i) A small mountain lake, especially one formed by glaciers. The Free Dictionary. 

An Aussie tarn

2. Titivating (Verb)

But as she was titivating herself, a horrifying picture came into the looking-glass. 

i) To smarten up (oneself or another), as by making up, doing the hair etc
ii) To make decorative additions to, to spruce up. The Free Dictionary. 

Why are all the Google images of Pamela Anderson?

3. Cowslip (Noun)

"Oh, we celebrated my escape with minnows and cowslip wine for many hours," answered Snufkin. 

Primula veris. A flowering plant native throughout most of temperate Europe and Asia. The common name cowslip derives from the Old English cūslyppe meaning "cow dung", probably because the plant was often found growing amongst the manure in cow pastures. (Wiki) Nice. Despite this, cowslip leaves and flowers have culinary uses in many countries, including using the flowers to flavour wine. And indeed good old Google tells me that the ladies of Cranford busy themselves making cowslip wine. 

The alternative name of palsywort caught my attention, and now The Free Dictionary tells me - A perennial herb, the flowers and roots of which contain flavonoids, glycosides, and saponins; it is analgesic, antispasmodic, diuretic, expectorant, laxative, and sedative. (not exactly what you look for in a wine) It has been used internally for arthritis, headache, insomnia, measles, paralysis, respiratory tract infections, and restlessness, and topically for sunburns.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Old Newspapers #1

I'm a dreadful one for leaving unread or partly read papers in an ever increasing stack. I always mean to read them on the day, but somehow never get the time. Whenever I get the chance to sit down to read some, like I did this morning, I'm always rewarded by finding some fabulous articles of interest on a wide variety of topics. Here's what caught my eye today.

An inspirational article about 98 year old Jim Henry from Mystic, Connecticut. Jim had to stop schooling when he was in the third grade. He worked as a lobsterman, and then took up reading in his late 90s! Jim didn't admit his illiteracy until he was 92, and then began to learn to read and write when he was 96. Jim has since authored a book called In a Fisherman's Language.

More astonishingly I found a suggestion for Christmas presents (I did say they were old papers). The one I was particularly taken with was this one. 

Shooting modes including food and sweets! Does this mean sweets aren't food? Why would they need a different setting? Now, I got a new camera for Christmas. A snazzy Fuji X10. Does it have a food or sweets setting? I hadn't checked! 

Oh Man. I was totally ripped off. My new camera doesn't have a food OR a sweets setting. Although it does manage to take mighty fine photos in dimly lit restaurants. I just happen to know. 

Monday 16 January 2012

Tom's Midnight Garden

Tom's Midnight Garden is an enduring English classic published in 1959, and immediately popular and lauded. It won the Carnegie Medal in 1959, and in 2007 was voted in the Top Ten Carnegie Medallists in a  public vote to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Medal. 

In some ways it starts off as many classic children's stories do by taking a child away from their home, and removing the normal parental supervision. Typically, this is done by orphaning children and sending them to live with cold, uncaring or mean guardians. Here, Tom is sent to live with his aunt and uncle for a while. He hasn't been orphaned, but is merely being placed in quarantine as his brother Peter has come down with measles. Tom tries to explore his new world, but there isn't really that much there. His kindly aunt and uncle live in a flat in an old large house that has been converted into flats, with a small back yard that is only used to store dustbins and parked cars. 

There is nothing to do, and Tom quickly becomes bored, for he is not unwell, just quarantined and marooned. He quickly finds that the clock in the main hall doesn't work as it should, and one night it strikes 13 and he goes to investigate. He soon finds his midnight garden. A garden that only exists at night. 

Tom finds a magic garden out the back door, in just the same way that the Pevensie children find Narnia in the back of the wardrobe. The garden is only there at night, in the day it's replaced by the boring back yard full of dustbins. And just like in Narnia time doesn't move in the easy linear way that we ordinarily expect. Tom meets a young girl called Hatty, orphaned, living with her aunt in a rather Jane Eyre existence, and not really included in games by her older male cousins. Hatty spends a lot of time in the garden. She is the only person who can see Tom, and so they become friends and companions. Tom's nocturnal adventures make his boring days worthwhile, so much so that he doesn't want to return home when the time comes. 

Philippa Pearce was inspired to write Tom's Midnight Garden by the memories of her own childhood home. After her father retired the family home was to be sold and Philippa "imagined the possibility of it being converted into flats and its garden lost forever. Pearce wanted to recreate and 'preserve' the house and its garden as it was when her grandfather was alive."

We certainly get a sense of the workings of a Victorian house. Abel the gardener is always busy at work in the garden, the maid, Susan in the house. The garden is more than ornamental- it is a working garden, there are asparagus beds, gooseberry wires, hot houses with rather complicated plumbing

I certainly enjoyed visiting the midnight garden with Tom, but wasn't blown away by the book overall. I did learn lots of things from the book, and enjoyed that aspect of it very much. Ely Cathedral is mentioned several times. I'd never heard of it, but it looks quite magnificent and I know I'd love to visit. At one stage Tom researches clothing history so he can try to work out when Hatty lived, and he discovered that the Duke of Wellington had caused a sensation by wearing trousers in the early nineteenth century. And in a beautiful moment of synchronicity, I had just learnt about the Duke of Wellington and his scandalous trousers being refused entry to Almack's on QI the night before I read about it with Tom! I love that sort of thing. And I love this little insight into 1950s women in Britain:

On Friday morning, in the peaceful hour before the others were awake, Aunt Gwen leaned out of bed, boiled the electric kettle and made an early pot of tea. 

Really? Is it normal to keep tea making things within easy reach of the bed?

Sunday 15 January 2012

Comet in Moominland

Comet in Moominland is the first in a series of books very famous and popular still in Finland and Europe, but less well known to those of us in the rest of the world. Intriguingly they were written in Swedish, but published in Finland because Tove Jansson was part of the small Swedish-speaking minority population in Finland. In the 1940s and 50s she created the Moomins- gentle, white hippopotamus-like creatures. Moomins even inspired their own theme park in Finland, Moomin World

I was thrilled to get to finally read this book. I've been hearing more and more about these books in the past few years, and the suspense was killing me. In the end I enjoyed meeting these famous characters, more than I enjoyed the book I think. 

Moomintroll learns that a comet may be heading towards the peaceful valley where the Moomins live in their blue house. Moomintroll and Sniff set out to visit the Professors in the Observatory on the Lonely Mountains to find out more about comets and whether or not their peaceful existence is under threat. The "scientists made thousands of remarkable observations, smoked thousands of cigarettes, and lived alone with the stars." It was certainly another time. 

I've never been a big one for quest story, where "the action" is a seemingly endless journey across unknown country, and the things that happen along the way.

I particularly enjoyed the philosopher Muskrat though:

I should just like to point out that your bridge-building activities have completely ruined my house in the river bank, and although ultimately it doesn't matter what happens, I must say even a philosopher does not care for being soaked to the skin. 

Thank you, but I was just thinking how dangerous it is to load yourself up with belongings. 

And I did enjoy the gentle writing, and the occasional nuanced humour. 

There are hardly any unnecessary things, I think. Only eating porridge, and washing....

I loved that she used words like titivating in a book clearly written for reasonably young children. I loved that the Moomins played poker, and ate pancakes rather incessantly. So while I wasn't bowled over by my first Moomin experience I am willing to give them another go, after all Neil Gaiman is quoted on the cover proclaiming it "a masterpiece". That alone is worth a second look. 

Saturday 14 January 2012

As we must appear to the hawk #2

I've always loved looking out of plane windows, down at the world below. Reading Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel last year confirmed it, and helped me start this series of plane window visions. These are from a recent flight from Launceston to Melbourne. 

Tasmania is famous for rugged mountains

and verdant valleys

I caught just a glimpse of the Tamar River

and the Northern Tasmanian coastline

before coming in to a stormy afternoon in Melbourne

Saturday Snapshot, is a wonderful weekly meme from at home with books

Friday 13 January 2012

The Scar

I came across this book on the excellent Kids Book Review a few months ago, and searched it out at my library. I'm so glad that I did. It's an astonishing read.

European picture books sure can pack a punch. Somehow they have a different sensibility. Right from the first page.

Wow. Not just about bunnies, or lost toys then.

This book deals with the raw grief and numb period after the loss of a mother. Her husband and son are left to cope with her loss. Her son is angry. At his mother for dying. He's sad. And he's upset about many things, that he might forget how his mother felt and sounded, that his father doesn't know how he likes his toast, cut in half with the honey in a zigzag, the way that his mother knew.

He's upset that his mother is gone, and won't be coming back. That the radio isn't on of a morning, and he doesn't smell the coffee brewing (that's actually a good thing in my book!). That his mother isn't there to comfort him after he grazes his knee.

It's a powerful and moving book about a boy moving through grief. The redness of the book helps reinforce that I think. The illustrations are strong too. Ultimately of course life must go on, and the boy and his father have to find their way, without their wife and mother.

An Illustrated Year is hosted by An Abundance of Books.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Wondrous Words Wednesday 11/1/12

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a fabulous weekly meme hosted by Bermuda Onion, where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our weekly reading.  

I recently read Eleanor H. Porter's classic work Pollyanna. As with any older book there were some interesting words that made be ponder as well as a lovely story. 

1.Basque (noun)

But there weren't any black things in the last missionary barrel, only a lady's velvet basque which Deacon Carr's wife said wasn't suitable for me at all; besides, it had white spots- worn, you know- on both elbows, and some other places. 

In Victorian fashion, basque refers to a closely fitted bodice or jacket extending past the waistline over the hips (wiki)

How I imagine Pollyanna's basque
nothing like the modern ones

2. Gimcrack (Noun)

When he comes back he writes books- queer, odd books, they say about some gimcrack he's found in them heathen countries. 

A cheap and showy object of little or no use; a gewgaw. (And isn't gewgaw a fabulous word?)

No mention of how this may relate to Gimcrack, the racecourse.

3. Scylla and Charybdis

They were always fight- I mean Father had- that is, I mean, we had more trouble keeping peace between them then we did with the rest of the Aiders,' corrected Pollyanna, a little breathless from her efforts to steer between the Scylla of her father's past commands in regard to speaking of church quarrels, and the Charybdis of her aunt's present commands in regard to speaking of her father. 

Between Scylla and Charybdis, is an idiom deriving from Greek mythology (wiki), which is used as we would use between a rock and a hard place.  They formed either side of a strait. Scylla being a six-headed monster, and Charybdis a whirlpool. I always wonder how often child readers would get Greek mythology references.

4. Pharisees (Noun)

"But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgement, mercy and faith: these ought to have done, and not to leave the other undone."

i) A member of an ancient Jewish sect that emphasized strict interpretation and observance of the Mosaic law in both its oral and written form. 
ii) A hypocritically self-righteous person. The free dictionary. 

5. Jigger (noun)

'Oh, she ain't handsome, of course: but I will own up she doesn't look like the same woman, what with the ribbons and lace jiggers Miss Pollyanna makes her wear 'round her neck.'

While I found lots of meanings for jiggers I couldn't find this meaning. I haven't been stumped before! We used to use jigger when I was a kid playing pool, for the thing you used to rest the cue on.