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Beautiful, Groundbreaking and Disappointing: The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

I have been holding off writing this review because I’ve never felt quite so personally unravelled by a novel. Call me a nerd – for that is what I am – but the emotional entanglement I feel with good fiction has become more complicated after encountering Reif Larsen’s ‘The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet’. I fell deeply in love with this book very quickly, but turned the final pages feeling letdown, heartbroken even.

The cover of the book, or my edition at least, is beautiful (and even better without that Daily Mail sticker on the front!), and I have derived comfort in contemplating the book whilst tracing my fingers over the rolling blue waves and the stark outline of the different states.  Inside, a story awaits about a young mapmaker and his journey across America, from his farm in Montana to Smithsonian Institute in D.C. He makes maps of everything in his life, from corn shucking and parental facial expressions, to the loneliness of city pedestrians and the automated menu options on a phone. What is spectacularly beautiful about the book is that these maps mark the margins next to the text, as illustrations that not only aid the narrative, but also bring an alternative and enchanting way of interacting with the story. It’s not so much that the book is brought alive by the maps – as the storytelling does that on it’s own – it’s more that it brings another dimension, a new perspective, a different way of presenting a narrative, which is exactly what Larson’s view of the power of maps seems to be. As noted in the book, ‘a map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.’

Now, I have yet to meet another human being who is not in some way intrigued by the power of maps, their quality of detailing information that requires a scientific logic but also an artistic creativity. We love maps because of their power to represent reality, and we hang in the balance between the truth of the map, and the awareness that this truth is limited, a fragment, to be used only as a guide. I know many scholars who are often keen to draw on the metaphor of mapping for the value of their research – it’s best for navigation, a particular perspective on the world, do not confuse it with the whole, with the real world. As T.S. notes about his own early attempts at map-making, ‘in retrospect, the map’s crudeness was not only due to the shaky hands of youth but also because I did not understand that the map of a place was different from the place itself. At age six, a boy could enter the world of a map just as easily as the genuine article.’ What blew me away about this book was the reverence, almost mysticism that Larson created around the power and limitations of maps, and indeed the mapmakers themselves.

            T.S. is more than obsessed with map-making, it’s something of a quest, a heroic burden on him to map as much of existence as he can. It’s beautifully played and balanced this quest. On the one hand, you feel that it is the impulses of an odd 12-year-old boy, slightly out of time and out of step with the surrounding world, to try and comprehend his surroundings through scientific observation.  (There is an underlying sense that his genius comes with a lack of social and emotional intelligence: he makes maps of facial expressions to try and understand emotions; he calls his mother Dr Clair and appears to see her more as a scientific colleague than a family member; and he has elaborate packing routine every time he leaves the house, in order to prevent hyperventilating.)  At the same time, this obsession with mapmaking as a search for understanding the world and trying to find a place in it feels so emotional rather than rational that you cannot help but feel that these desires are common to all of us, and indeed what make us human. Due to this, I resonated completely with T.S’s cartographic desires, and felt that ache, that inner loneliness of the knowledge of never being able to make a single map that draws everything together, single map that can detail every truth.  T.S. draws on this power and transience of systems and maps in one of the annotations: ‘Still, even with such a system in place, things fell and things broke; piles formed and my methods of orientation always seemed to unravel. I was only twelve, but through the slow, inevitable burn of a thousand sunrises and sunsets, a thousand maps traced and retraced, I had already absorbed the valuable precept that everything crumbled into itself eventually, and to cultivate a crankiness about this was just a waste of time.’

The book begins with T.S. out West on the ranch he calls home, and this section of the book is full of charming, moving insights and humorous annotations.  He receives a call from the Smithsonian Institute, who offer him a prestigious award on the basis of his work, clearly unaware that he is only twelve. The middle section of the book details his journey across America to get there – ‘hoboing’ on trains and hitching lifts with truckers. This is interspersed with stories from a notebook stolen from his mother about his Great-Great-Grandmother, Emma Osterville, one of the first female geologists in America. The tale is pleasant enough, and provides the opportunity for T.S. to gain insight into his mother as a person and family member as well as a scientist. This family story is perhaps telling in it’s lack of an ending; his mother cannot write the great romance of the story, which for T.S. is evidence of her uncertainty about staying with his father and raises questions about what keeps any of us together, and whether loyalty and love can be evidenced in any scientific mapping. The story begins to unravel however, as T.S. reaches the Smithsonian. There is, of course, the issue of these scientists being confronted with the fact that their prize-winner is actually a 12 year old, who has arrived without the permission of his parents. Following this, there is a lot of confusion surrounding television interviews, being turned into a political pawn for the Smithsonian, and even secret clubs and hidden tunnels.  By this point, the charm of the book feels lost and the narrative confused, paralleling in many ways T.S.’s own displacement and confusion. There is no Hollywood moment where he gains clear insight and gets himself out of the mess of lies and politics he is in, or where he delivers an erudite speech to the scientific community. Instead, he becomes more lost, adrift without his mapmaking equipment, growing more lonely as he realises his inability to come to terms with the death of his brother, Layton, and his own part in Layton’s passing. The insight and the wonder of the first half of the book have diminished, and the obsessive little boy has become irritating in his genius and his childishness. In many ways, this disappointing ending to the book feels like the dawning realisation that, despite his brilliance, we are dealing with a 12 year old: the promise and genius cannot be sustained, leaving only a sense of dissatisfaction.

Having laughed, cried and felt undone by the first quarter of the book, it is understandable that I felt cold, even a little angry at the ending being unable to live up to the magic. However, I’d still recommend the book, if only for the novel experience of the annotations and drawings in the margins.  The book also contains one of my favourite scenes about dealing with gender pressure and playground bullying, which is too long to relate here, but contains a hilarious comeback for anyone who has ever been picked on by a little girl. And, if like most people, you are entranced by the beauty of maps and their makers, it’s worth picking up for knowing that someone else can describe that joy so eloquently.

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A Few Things…

 

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Sunshine: Rhubarb and Passion Fruit Pudding

 

I’ve been in a good mood all weekend, grooving about the house…singing out some soul…smiling at strangers….and I think this pudding is the main culprit. Honestly, this baby is like eating pure sunshine. The tang of the rhubarb, against the burst of vibrant passion fruit in a light, airy sponge…it cannot help but put a smile on your face. It can be eaten hot or cold: warm is great when there’s still this march chill in the air, but it’s very refreshing at the end to a meal when it is nicely chilled. Either way you are on to a winner. I also love getting a good burst of colour in preparing this pud, bright pinks and reds, golden yellows and orange.

Preparation wise, it’s a tad fiddly, what with getting the juice out of the passion fruit and neatly folding in some egg whites to keep the topping feather-light. But one bite ends any resentment towards that instantly.

It’s also very easy to make as a lactose free pudding if you can get your hands on some lacto-free cream and milk – no flavour is lost at all. Recipe after the jump.

 

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Baking Quirks

I love baking, but I know that I bake in a particular way that isn’t the same as everyone else. Here are my kitchen confessions.

 I love order and organisation– that’s my shelf in the kitchen with different flours and sugars and so on. However, I rarely have enough energy to maintain that kind of organisation.  I’m learning to live with the happy medium of the inspirational ideal and the realistic necessity. So the shelf…..it’s never that tidy.

I’m extraordinarily messy when I’m baking. Some people like to take ingredients out, and put them back when they are done, tidying as they go. Not me. Everything goes everywhere when I’m baking…except in the cupboard or the bin.

I cannot be doing with cups for measuring out ingredients. Give me nice, precise electronic scales, even for the recipes that I could bake blindfolded.

Due to the above, I know cups to grams conversions for most baking ingredients by heart. Which is probably the reason that I struggle to remember my pin number.

 

I bake in silence, no music, no radio, nothing. It’s a rare and slightly meditative joy to have silence whilst doing a practical task – I find it really refreshing.

I structure my day based on meals and snacks, and most of my memories are created around good meals that I’ve had in good company.

I’m a bit of a bakezilla – I don’t share the kitchen well. I’m happy to have help with preparing ingredients when cooking, but I really struggle with people being around when I’m baking something complicated. It’s a bit of a personal, sacred space for me.

 

I love the process of baking more than I love the end result. Let me bake something mad and complicated in a quiet kitchen one afternoon and I’ll be happy for weeks.

I often bake from colour rather than taste. I’m in a pink mood at the moment and pining for rhubarb or raspberries.

Other people enjoying my baking means more to me than getting to taste something myself. If I was a hermit, or was completely isolated and cut off from others, I wouldn’t cook or bake at all.

 

What are your kitchen confessions? Do you have particular quirks in the way you cook or bake? 

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The Best of Compliments: Lemon Meringue Bars and Bites

This is a favourite bake of mine and one of my top three go-to recipes if I’m baking without the time to experiment. They have a light and fluffy meringue topping with a sticky sweet lemon filling, and a buttery shortbread base with a little bit of bite – and just a hint of ginger. It’s sweet and fluffy, with the sharp citrus tang. How could I not love this?

But, don’t take my word for it, take the word of a cute child. After all, adults can lie and be polite about your baking, but children, they have the pure, unadulterated preferences of ‘ewww, yuk’ and ‘I will eat this forever, until I am sick, and then I will eat more.’

As well as making this into a bar, I make this into little lemon meringue bites, which I made for my friends’ wedding last summer. I don’t quite know why I decided that making 70 of these little things (plus 150 other items of baking) in someone else’s kitchen over 2 days would be a good idea for my sanity, but I did it nonetheless. With the stress levels rising, I managed to drop a large plate of these on the floor (no time for tears, I just got my game face on and made more.. giving yourself a pep talk is essential in this situation.) Most were completely unusable, and although others hadn’t hit the floor,  they were still too squished to be servable. So instead, I offered them to the family I was staying with as a lunchtime treat. As well as being lovely and very kind to put up with a mad baker, they had two adorable kids, a wee boy of about 4 and a wee girl of about eighteen months. As soon as the wee girl saw these, she stuck out her hand, high above her head, and made the urgent begging noises that only the smallest of children can make sound adorable. As soon as it was placed in her palm, she devoured it in no time, and was back to the demanding hand gestures, and pleading noises. Another one soon went the same way, double time. It was then explained to her that this would be her last one, no more treats after this. Once it was in her hand, she was the picture of grace and delicacy, making each bite smaller than the last, savouring each moment. With the lemon meringue bite finished, she took to licking her hands, slowly and for a long time, as if gleaning every morsel and memory of the treat.

So there you have it – possibly the highest baking compliment I have ever been paid. Recipe after the jump.

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Lessons from Childhood Part 3: The Reader of Books

Over the past week, I’ve been talking about my favourite book from childhood – Matilda. In part one I talked about my practice of endless re-reading of this book, and wondering why I don’t really re-read anymore. Yesterday, I talked about female role models, and used Matilda as an example of how I tend to prefer fictional or distanced role models.  So now it is finally time to get round to the particulars of Matilda, and trying to remember why I loved it so much.

Having re-read the book over the past few nights, I’ve both re-lived the enjoyment that I felt as a child, as well as gaining a few insights on why it appealed to me as a child that I probably wasn’t aware of at the time. It’s been an interesting process, feeling that appeal deep within me, but also being in a place to be more critically aware of how the story probably filled particular emotional needs.

 

In the first place, I love that Matilda is described as a reader of books. It becomes a very clear identity for her, that she is a keen learner and simply cannot get enough of good literature. Yet, whilst Matilda is portrayed as unusually smart and far beyond average intelligence, the fact that she is kept unaware that her brilliance as an anomaly means that she is also quite down to earth, or ‘normal’ if you will. Which means that you don’t need to be a supersmart kid to have identified with her; I identified with her simply as someone who loved reading and learning. Here was someone who loved what I did, but was at the extremes of brilliance.

However, the love for her that is imbued by the author is clearly not just because she is a brainiac, but because she is gutsy and adventurous and she sticks up for herself and other people. This is probably what stuck out to me the most in delving into the book this week. Matilda did what I never could as a child – she stuck up for herself, often verbally and then when she could not win the power games with an adult, she found other ways of getting her own back for the wrongful accusations and the humiliation to which she had been party. She plays wonderful pranks on her father, sticking his hat to his head and bleaching his hair and spooking the living daylights out of him with an artfully placed parrot that doubles as a ghost. In the end, she also uses her wit and newfound powers against the bullying headteacher, Miss Trunchbull for the sake of her much-abused teacher Miss Honey.

This is, I think, what has always appealed about Roald Dahl’s work and particularly in Matilda – it is about readdressing the power balance between children and adults. It questions why Matilda’s parents should have authority over her when she is clearly smarter and better adjusted than they are. It questions why Miss Trunchbull should have power over the whole school – parents and teachers included – when she is a bully who cheated Miss Honey out of her childhood and her rightful possessions. Of course, the real joy of the book is that these abuses of power are righted both in the small ways in which Matilda is able to shame her father through practical jokes, but also in chasing Miss Trunchbull away and getting Miss Honey back her house and inheritance.  It gives some glimmer of hope, if only through the catharsis of fantasy, that these unfair power imbalances can be righted in the here and now, rather than waiting until you are big and bad enough to take people on.

 

What interests me now is that Matilda’s brand of justice is surprisingly similar to Miss Trunchbull’s.  Both of them get creative with their ‘punishments’. Miss Trunchbull makes Bruce Bogtrotter eat a massive chocolate cake in one sitting as punishment for stealing a slice of her cake. Matilda, uses her powers to write a message to Miss Trunchbull from Magnus, her dead brother and Miss Honey’s father.  So what makes Matilda the good guy and Miss Trunchbull the bad guy? What makes Matilda’s actions subversive, gutsy and sticking up for herself, whilst Miss Trunchbull’s are those of an aggressive bully? Essentially, it comes back to this idea of power and fairness. Miss Trunchbull should know and act better – she is an adult, she has a duty to look after those in her care and to see to their good education. She has authority, but she misuses it. Matilda, on the other hand, is a tiny little girl. She is at the mercy of the grown-ups’ decisions and treatment of her. She doesn’t pick on other children, or play a practical joke just for the sake of it– no, she makes her plans as a specific way of getting them back for something unfair that they have done. In many ways, the similarity between Matilda and Miss Trunchbull in their creative style of punishment highlights that they are nothing alike and furthers this theme of the redress of power.

Something else I found really interesting in re-reading the book as an adult is that there is a strong theme of the dualism between brains and beauty for girls and women. When Miss Honey comes to Matilda’s house to ask  the Wormwoods’ for permission to give her private tutoring, she is confounded by parents who have not only failed to notice their daughter’s brilliance but are unable to see it precisely because they do not think that little girls can or should be smart.

‘A girl should think about making herself look attractive so she can get a good husband later on. Looks is more important than books…Now look at me,’ Mrs Wormwood said. ‘Then look at you. You chose books. I chose looks.’

Miss Honey looked a the plain plump person with the smug set-pudding face who was sitting across the room. ‘What did you say?’ she asked.

 ‘I said you chose books and I chose looks’ Mrs Wormwood said. ‘And who’s finished up the better off? Me, of course. I’m sitting pretty in a nice house with a successful businessman and you’re left slaving away teaching a lot of nasty little children the ABC…A girl doesn’t get a man by being brainy.’

Of course, whilst Mrs Wormwood seems to think she has the upper hand in this exchange, the readers are made well aware that all her beauty efforts are to no avail, and that Miss Honey is in fact rather beautiful as well as being smart. In the end, Miss Honey is the one who lives in the large house and Mrs Wormwood has to run away to Spain with her husband and son in order to avoid the authorities catching up to Mr Wormwood’s fraudulent business.

            So, with all these themes running around about the redressing an imbalance of power and authority, and questioning the notion that women are made to be decorative wives, it’s really pretty obvious as to why I loved the book as a child and why I still love it. That’s to say nothing of the fact that Matilda develops super human telekinetic powers (I may or may not imagine her growing up to join the x-men and becoming a better version of Jean Grey. I may or may not also imagine me growing up to join the x-men and being a better version of Jean Grey. Just gotta work on that telekinesis.)

So, to tie three posts together…

On re-reading. It’s not lazy, it’s not a failure to move on or to challenge yourself. It may be comforting, but it isn’t comfortable. It’s picking up themes and ideas that you didn’t see before. After all, there’s always a good reason as to why something became a favourite book or a candidate for a re-read.

On fictional role models. What I’ve learnt about my childhood role model in re-reading is that she stands up for herself and uses what power she has to readdress the failures of authority figures. She’s smart and gutsy and stands up for the people who care about her. Of course I still want to be her!

On loving books.  This is one book where I feel more attached to the character than I do to the author, the story as a whole or the themes of the book. Normally when I read books, I love the characters, but I become interested in the author and what they have to say – nowadays they are more likely to be a role model than the characters themselves. So whilst I love Roald Dahl’s work, and I love Quentin Blake’s illustrations, I will probably still look more to a created character than to her creator.

 

Also, I’d love to see the Matilda The Musical – not least because Tim Minchin wrote the music and lyrics for it, and it looks like they have the perfect aesthetic for the show.

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Lessons from Childhood Part 2: The Role Model You Need

Last week I talked about a book that I read and re-read endlessly as a child, without mentioning the book as I didn’t want it to get in the way of the point that I was trying to make. Over the past few nights, in the ten minutes before bedtime, I have re-read that glorious book for the first time probably in fifteen years, and remembered why that book had such an impact on me.

 

Also, this week, Hannah has been exploring the theme of female role models over at Gingerbread Feminists.  She had asked me previously about my role models, to which my answer was the protagonist of this book, as well as a former lecturer of mine who has now sadly passed on. In a nod to the suffragettes, she also embroidered a list of female role models that she had gathered from different people. Isn’t it amazing? If you look hard enough, you will be able to see mine.

Yes, that’s right, the book is Matilda by Roald Dahl. As a friend has said, she doesn’t know a single smart little girl who hasn’t tried to move a pencil across a room with the powers of their mind in an attempt to be like Matilda.

Before I get on to the particularities of the book in tomorrow’s post, I wanted to talk a little bit about why I picked a fictional role model. As Hannah picked up in her post, the idea of ‘role model’ tends to get used at the moment when someone famous has done something a bit naughty. It seems that it is most often used in the media outcry, asking ‘does this person not know that they are a role model to young people?!’

In part, I think this idea of being let down by a role model gets at why I prefer my role models fictional or at least semi-mythical. The lecturer of mine who has sadly passed on was, even before her death, something of a larger than life character. She was an Argentinean feminist-liberationist who did a lot of pioneering work in her time, and was inspirational in her commitment and passion to marginalised people and their perspectives. There are a lot of different stories about her that are re-told and remembered with a smile. I didn’t know her at all, apart from as a lecturer and as a writer, and so in some ways I have never had the pleasure or the complexity of having to deal with her as a real person. I have really only ever had to deal with her as her ideas – ideas that can be engaged with, transformed – picked up when I need them, and adapted when they become unhelpful in the context I want to use them in. Which means that she cannot now disappoint me. She can’t fail an essay of mine, or say or do something that would offend me or let me down. Which is probably no way to remember someone, but is often what happens when someone creates incredibly powerful ideas and emotions in academia, in the arts, in politics – the real person is often eclipsed, and are portrayed however you need them to be – a saint or sinner, hero or disappointment.

This is probably why I chose Matilda as a role model as well. I’ll get into the exact details of why I love her and the book later, but as a fictional character, she can do very little to disappoint me. One of the strength’s of Roald Dahl’s writing, and why he made such an excellent storyteller, is that he creates vivid worlds and characters but does not over-tell their story. There is always enough room for your imagination to get into the book, and to do more. With Matilda, we only see the first six years of her life. We see nothing of how she grows up beyond that – what her teens are like, what she does after school, and how she adjusts in the wider world to being spectacularly and unusually smart. (The hint is that she will end up going to university at a very young age, and we know that she looses her telekinetic powers once she is being academically challenged.) So whilst the book has a neat ending to it, her story, her life does not, and when you are a geeky, over-imaginative little girl like me, you will make up the rest of that story for yourself. I’d imagine her growing up like I was, and I’d think about how she would react in similar situations to mine – except I could never live up to or live out the gutsy, adventurous way in which she sticks up for herself and others. Essentially, Matilda was the role model I needed her to be precisely because she was the role model that I wanted her to be.

I’m quite fascinated by this trait in my own thinking, the need for female role models that cannot disappoint me, who are much more fictional and fantastical than real and flawed and human.

I watched a segment on 10 O’Clock Live last week that discussed the problems with the over identification of footballers as role models. An interesting point was made that a role model shouldn’t be someone who is simply good at what they do or extremely well paid – especially when that’s football salaries – but when they are capable of learning from their mistakes, realising where they have been wrong and adjusting their behaviour accordingly. I’m not sure that this is a good definition of who or what a role model should be, but I find it an interesting counter to my need for role models so flawless that they are my own fiction.

            Perhaps the challenge, for me, is to see role models in real life, or at least to be able to identify attitudes and behaviours in other people that are worthy of praise, and are things that I want to emulate in my own life.  Perhaps this also needs to include the capacity for learning from mistakes and for growth, rather than being permanently flawless, in other words, allowing my role models to be deeply and properly human.

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