Sunday, 16 November 2014

Bad Grammar

Last night I spent an hour or so reading my favourite blogs on my I-pad, adding the occasional comment, while sleepily watching tv at the same time.  This morning, I noticed that there are quite a few typo and spelling errors in these comments and, in one of them, I have muddled my homophones using 'to' instead of 'too'.  Somewhat ironic, since I spent quite a lot of time on Friday afternoon telling students about the importance of proof-reading their work to avoid errors just like this.

Looking back over my previous blog posts I can see other errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar (or SPaG as the exam boards call it) and am aware that I am setting myself up for criticism. How can I, as an English teacher, publish writing which contains errors?  Shouldn't I be ashamed of myself?  I've been asking myself these questions recently.  Perhaps I shouldn't blog at all, when I don't have time to construct careful sentences or proofread properly.  And I compare myself to other bloggers: two of my favourites write flawlessly, despite having English as an additional language.  Why can't I manage this?

Before half term our Year 10 students, including my daughter, completed something called the Spoken Language Unit for their GCSE.  Their task was to produce an essay in which they analysed examples of their own use of digital communication and considered whether they were similar to spoken language.  This meant collecting examples of their texts, Snapchats or other messages and commenting on them. A pointless, time-wasting activity in my opinion: I am not sorry this particular part of the English Language GCSE has been dumped in the latest rewrite.  However what emerged was quite interesting.  My daughter and her friends use a whole range of techniques to make their 'chats' similar to spoken language:  repeated !!! or ???, capital letters to suggest tone of voice and emojis to suggest gesture and facial expression.  She doesn't worry about sentence punctuation much but does make an effort to use the apostrophe distinguish between words like 'your' and 'you're'.  The important thing for her is communicating and the speed at which she does so astounds me: she can type accurately on the tiny I-phone keypad without looking.

And so, like her,  that's what I've decided to do: focus on communication. So forgive me, dear readers, for the occasional error.  This blog is a record my thoughts and experiences: it is not perfectly crafted prose. Blogger allows me to share these thoughts and experiences with others who can respond, if they wish, just as I can respond to their writing. I love being able to do this.  As E.M Forster said in his preface to Howard's End: 'only connect.'  That's what matters.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

The Year in Books - November: Reading 'Best Sellers'

My October read was this Booker Prize nominated novel, We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.  I noticed yesterday that it is number 3 in the best selling paperback list published in 'The Times'.  In fact quite a few of my recent reads are on there (The Chimp Paradox, The Goldfinch) as well as my November choice Us by David Nicholls.  This has lead me to consider how much I am influenced by marketing in my choice of reading: the book promotions and displays in Chester's only bookshop, Waterstones; the reviews in the papers; the radio interviews; and even the appearances at literary festivals: all of this is marketing.  And even though I know this, I am still easily influenced. It makes me a bit uncomfortable: how will any new writers get on the shelves if booksellers fill them up with these heavily promoted books, often written by those who have already had a best seller? So I am going to make a deliberate effort to avoid such books in the future, basing more of my reading on recommendations like those on this link up The Year in Books by Laura at Circle of Pine Trees.

I quite enjoyed We Are Completely Beside Ourselves which I chose initially because of the intriguing title, though possibly also because of its position in the Waterstone's display.  (I didn't actually buy it from Waterstone's but did my usual library order.  It's usually either that or a Kindle purchase for me so I am guilty, I suppose, of contributing to the demise of independent bookshops and their support of new writers.)  It was another book which was really promising in the first few third, but then lost pace later on.  It's in the first person again, like many books I have read recently, and tells the story of a young woman who is the daughter of psycholgist parents and how the family breaks down because the father chooses to experiment with his own family. There's a major twist which I won't give away, but after that is revealed, I think, the book goes downhill and I felt sometimes that the writer's research was a bit intrusive - more scientific detail than I wanted. Perhaps others like this: I noticed it had a rave review in The Guardian. (Don't read this if you want to discover the twist yourself).

I have started Us, by David Nicholls.  It's about the marriage of a couple in their fifties whose son is about to go off to university and so interests me as I'm not so far from that stage.  But so far it seems depressingly similar to One Day: the main character is a kind of older version of Dexter,  Anyway - will reserve judgement until I read some more.  I have also tracked down the book I referred to in my last post and I have ordered it from the library.  It is 'Happiness by Design' by Paul Dolan.  I'll be reading this too.  And now I am off to rake up leaves in the garden, an activity which makes me happy.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Doing Too Much

Thank you to all those who commented on my previous post.  After a week off school I am now feeling more relaxed and on top of things.  I've been thinking about why I got myself into such a state: it's because I always end up taking on too much,  It's a mistake I make again and again. I agree to do things too easily, without thinking of the consequences for me and the rest of the family.  A recent example was editing our school magazine,  a demanding task which I ended up doing in evenings and at the weekend, snapping at anyone who interrupted me.  It has now been printed and distributed and I am pleased with the results.  But was it worth the collateral damage to my mental health and relationships at home?

This week there's been another example.  In the summer I was offered the opportunity to host a Boden clothes party.  I like Boden clothes - pricey but good quality - and I have bought a few items recently. So when the email arrived, I signed up for it and was offered a date in half term.  I liked the idea of hosting an all female party and trying on the clothes.  Of course, I didn't consider the downside - the huge effort required to set up all the clothes and pack them away again.  Did I enjoy it? Yes - it was lovely seeing my friends and I quite enjoyed transforming our living room into a clothes shop. Yet it really wasn't lot of fun getting up early yesterday morning to pack it all away. My daughter helped - she set up and put away the accessories you can see below.  But, because I was so busy, I got stressed and snappy with her again and angry words were exchanged; too many fluctuating hormones in our house at present.

I read this article in the press recently about happiness. I meant to cut it out and try to get hold of the book it was promoting but the paper got recycled. If anyone knows the book I am talking about, please tell me.  The basic idea was this: you conduct a happiness audit.  Write down all the things you do - work and leisure activities - and how long you spend and then award a score out of 10 for each activity according to how happy it makes you feel. I'm planning to this for the next month.  I hope I will be able to break the 'doing too much' habit and spend more time on what I really enjoy.  Now I am going to stop blogging and go for a walk, one thing that does make me happy - it's a beautiful autumn morning.

PS - Camera playing up. Photos not uploading.  No pics of Boden party pics then.  Am I going to waste precious daylight hours struggling with technology? No  - will walk dog instead. Here's a picture of us on my birthday in July when we found a Gruffalo on a walk in Delamere forest.  He knows how to be happy and doesn't do too much ( the dog, not the Gruffalo.)

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Not Blogging, but...

struggling to cope.  Work demanding; not sleeping well; house a mess and depressing me.  List of things to do seems insurmountable.  Everyone grumpy at home.  And the things I enjoy are getting squeezed out.  This poem in my head a lot:

Not Waving but Drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,   
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought   
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,   
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always   
(Still the dead one lay moaning)   
I was much too far out all my life   
And not waving but drowning.

Half term soon.  Will return when I'm in a more positive frame of mind.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Year in Books: Easy Reading October

I've been on an enforced blogging break recently - busy with work and barely getting to essential household maintenance never mind blogging.  But time this morning for a quick books post, joining in again with Laura at Circle of Pine Trees.

In September, I eventually finished 'The Goldfinch'.  It was hard work in the end and I didn't enjoy the last 300 pages much.  I ceased to care very much for Theo and skipped over the rather complex business of how the painting was found; lost again and then returned for a large reward. There were too many characters; too much violence for my taste; and the aspects of the novel I was enjoying, such as the Theo's relationship with Hobie and Alice, were not really developed.

So my October choices are much lighter, easy reading.  Many other readers who post on The Year in Books have recommended 'The Rosie Project', so I'm now reading it too.  I love it and am already nearly half way through.  Don is utterly charming and a much more pleasant companion than Theo (Is it just me who considers characters in books in this way - especially when there is a first person narrator?)  But I am a little uncomfortable with the humour in this book.  Should we be laughing at the results of Don's social blunders because of his Asperger's Syndrome?  My experience of teaching children with Asperger's suggests that their lives are much more challenging than this.  My other September read was 'The Reason I Jump', which was written by a Japanese boy and translated by David Mitchell, gives a better insight into autistic spectrum brains.

I have also borrowed from the library 'How to Build a Girl' by Caitlin Moran which I'm looking forward to - I love her writing.  And I have reserved  'We are all Completely Beside Ourselves' by Karen Joy Fowler . I know nothing at all about this book but the title is intriguing.

Nothing too demanding then: I'm beginning to wonder if my capacity to cope with more serious intellectual books is declining and that is why I didn't like 'The Goldfinch while others loved it.

Saturday, 20 September 2014


After a very relaxed summer, I am now up to my eyes in school work and have little time to myself to write my blog or comment on others. So forgive me if I go a bit quiet for a while.  That's the problem with teaching - yes you have long holidays but it's full on in term time: I am working evenings and weekends even though officially I only teach half a timetable.  And you can't really get ahead in the holidays - you can design 'schemes of work' but I find rigid planning in advance doesn't work and you can't mark writing until they have done it!  I know, whinging teacher... Despite this I am enjoying the new term, getting to know new classes and new routine.  I spend quite a lot of time driving back and forward from my school which is 3 miles away and not accessible by public transport as I also need to drop off and pick up my daughter and  go home to walk the dog at some stage when I have a full day.

Do have a little oasis of calm mid week. I don't work on Wednesday mornings and this week it was a gloriously sunny warm day so I took the dog for a long walk with my neighbour.  We explored a new park which has been created in unused land between the local hospital and the canal.  Access isn't that easy from our village: we had to walk down a narrow footpath by the side of a busy main route into Chester.  But when we left the road it was wonderfully peaceful there even though it is so close to the main road.

Another highlight this week was a school trip to see NT Live production of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' at the local Vue cinema.  It was a fabulous production with Gillian Anderson very convincing as Blanche. I always identify a bit with Blanche as she is like me an English teacher with rather fanciful romantic ideas about things, though I certainly don't chase after young men like she does or drink quite as much.

I did manage to stop and stare occasionally this week - at the butterflies and bees all over the ivy in the garden.  Glad I haven't bothered to get rid of it if it attracts them.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

How Long is a Good Book? The Year in Books: September

I've been delaying this month's Year in Books post in the hope that I would manage to finish my August read, 'The Goldfinch'.  I'm now admitting defeat - there are still over 300 of the 771 pages to go.  Yes I'm enjoying it and I will finish it: the first section was really good.  Others have said it was unputdownable and at this stage I tended to agree.  It's another book with a young male first person narrator - the fourth of this kind in a row for me, by accident rather than design.  As a 13 year old, the boy's life is shattered when his mother is killed in a terrorist bombing of a New York gallery they are visiting.  Donna Tartt's description of this is really vivid and her characterisation superb - I have a full picture of the world she created in my mind.  He tries to help another injured victim, a character called Welty, who he had noticed with his granddaughter just before the explosion.  He dies but not before telling the boy to take the painting of 'The Goldfinch', which his mother loved, out of the gallery.  This is the central plot device and the reader looks forward to seeing what the boy does with the painting - you suspect that he will hang onto it as the book begins with him hiding from police in Amsterdam for an undisclosed crime.  But then she kind of wraps the painting up for a bit, just like her character does, and digresses: he moves to Las Vegas to live with his father, meets Boris, another fascinating character and they grow up drinking, discovering girls, drugs etc.  All very well written, though rather too much vomiting for my taste,  and again she draws you into this desert and sun and casino world.  But there is, frustratingly, no plot advancement.  Then his father dies in a car accident and he's back in New York, at first as a teenager and then as an adult in the part I'm currently reading I'm starting to lose sympathy with him now, always a problem if you have a first person narrator, and I want the real story to start.  I checked out what others on The Year in Books thought and Lifechimes seems to agree.

Basically this book is just too long.  I caught the end of an interview with Ian McEwan on the radio a week or so ago and he was discussing this   He says that "very few really long novels earn their length", and "my fingers are always twitching for a blue pencil".  I tend to agree.  Yet short books are not to my taste either.  I found McEwan's Booker prize nominated 'novella', 'On Chesil Beach' disappointingly brief.  He says that he likes the idea of a book that you can read at one sitting, like his latest 'The Children Act'. (A man's comment - few women of my acquaintance have the luxury of reading even a 203 page book in one go.)  It sounded good when I caught a bit of it Book At Bedtime but I won't be buying it.  Not enough reader satisfaction for the £6.45 it costs on Kindle.

And so to answer my own question.  For me a good book is usually at least 300 and no more than 500 words long.   Just like my other August book which I did finish: Hardy's 'Far from the Madding Crowd' (469 pages), first read with Mrs Neill at the Rainey Endowed school in 1974/5 for my O Level English Literature.  I haven't read it since and  I really enjoyed it.  Hardy may digress into descriptions of rural Dorset but he never forgets to keep the plot going for the reader.  Like Donna Tartt, he has that skill of drawing you into his world so that you live it for a while. 

I also think everyone should read this book before choosing a life partner. Listen to these wise words at the end of the novel. 
They spoke very little of their mutual feeling; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably un- necessary between such tried friends. Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other's character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good-fellowship — CAMARADERIE — usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death — that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.'

 Hoping I can persuade my daughter to read it so that she's not taken in by some Troylike flashy scoundrel in a red jacket showing off his fancy sword work. Or its modern equivalent.

So in September for the Year in Books, I won't be too ambitious. I will finish 'The Goldfinch' along with a couple of non-fiction library loans pictured below. Joining again with Laura at Circle of Pine Trees.