Knitting Yarns edited by Ann Hood

As well as walking and reading, my main hobbies are fabric crafts: sewing and knitting. I knit whenever I get the chance: on the sofa, on the train, in a corner during my lunch hour and the gradual building up of stitches has gently become how I think about things.

This book was tucked in a corner of the LRB bookshop, an American import without a price in pounds. My aunt, who I was in London with, kindly bought it for me has half of my birthday present (the other half is a book on mathematics which I haven’t yet read).

It is a lovely collection of stories and essays, covering how knitting brings people, mainly women together. From mother-daughter bonding over learning together to a passionate gap year affair. Then there are the serendipitous meetings an conversations, because knitting in public is a way to break down the barriers that stop strangers talking. But mostly it is about how construction of fabric from a ball of string using a pair of sticks is a wonderfully soothing, powerful thing to be able to do.

I did wonder if the non-knitter: Elizabeth Searle’s friend was Suzanne Strempek Shea, as they seemed to describe each other so well, one wanting nothing more than to sit by her knitting friend and watch her produce something from just that ball of string.

My only misgiving about knitting the patterns included is that there are no photos in the book, so no indication as to how they will turn out. But I have Ravelry, so patterns aren’t something I am short of, and photos of the finished projects are never far away

The Wild Rover – Mike Parker

Unwell in bed earlier in the week I sent my (4 year old) son to fetch a book for me*. He was under  instruction to fetch the library book I am halfway through, but decided that looked boring, so instead chose a book with hills on the spine. This was one which had languished on the shelves for a while, but once I started it was fascinating.

We do a lot of walking, despite not being nearly old enough by Parker’s standards, and have often spent much of a walk speculating on the history of a path, looking for evidence and wondering how it would have been to have been obliged to walk those routes on a daily basis throughout the year.

Parker does get out in his boots and do an appropriate walk for just about every chapter, which range from the gloriously successful to absolute disaster. These walks tie the history to the current day, and make the book more about a project than simply an academic piece.

When Parker was discussing the history of access rights, and what the historic paths were, it was inspiring. However towards the end he did get steadily further into the recent history of the ramblers (Ramblers Associate as was) and government cuts. Whilst these will have a negative impact on footpath inspections and maintenance, it moves the book towards being a political statement.

I was also put off by the description that “… the path goes up and down like a whore’s drawers, through rickety steps…” There are other, better metaphors for up and down than language like that when it is out of place. I wouldn’t have objected to it so much had it been in the same section as the one on “Lovers’ Lanes”.

*his daddy was also home, but the 4yo wanted to reassure himself that I was ok. Once I’d had half his stuffed toy collection brought to me I decided to distract him into getting something I wanted.

Bitch Lit edited by Maya Chowdhry & Mary Sharratt

Bitch Lit is a collection of stories about female anti-heroes, which was included in a Manchester Geek Girls conference pack. Given this I was hoping for something less romantically-focused than this collection. There were very few stories which would have passed the Bechdel test, and a few of those that did were about lesbian relationships.

For all that though, it was good to have a collection that focussed on the female perspective, and many of the stories were well-written and compelling.

My favourite tale was Forklift Trucks by Michelle Green, which talked to the pettiness of some office environments, and how we all dream of behaving outside the very restricted norms. It also helped that this one didn’t have a strong romantic theme! On reading her mini-bio at the back, I discovered she is local to me, based in Manchester.

Overall, not what I expected from this book, but still a good strong collection.

Hot Milk – Deborah Levy

One of this year’s Man Booker shortlist (and one of only three that I managed this year before the winner was announced: life somewhat got in the way of reading this year) this is an examination of a codependent mother-daughter relationship, a launching of an independent life, a love affair and a battle with hypochondria.

What I couldn’t see is why this could be stand-out enough to win the Man Booker prize (it didn’t) as it seemed to barely be above the standard of usual airport paperbacks. Family drama and a developing sexual relationship are set against the backdrop of Greece and a doctor with dubious ethics to produce something quite unremarkable.

Hair the Musical at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester

Prior to seeing this I knew that Hair was a 1970s musical that significantly changed the direction of musical theatre, but not the storyline or any of the songs. So seeing it was due to run in Manchester, I booked tickets to go with my Mum – who had been considered too young for even the LP when it first ran.

Set in a hippy community during the Vietnam war years, we were taken on a journey through anti-war, but mostly anti-draft protests, free love and drug usage. I was most drawn into that political debate on war and freedom – and how strong fears and passions merged with mob-like behaviour with the social norm becoming to refuse law whilst also (allegedly) refusing to harm others.

I was blown away by the score and the quality of the cast and music: helped by Hope Mill Theatre being a very intimate venue: with only around 100 seats and most of those only two rows deep, a lot of the time we were eye to eye with the actors and there’s nothing to make you feel part of the story than a moment with eye contact, linked hands and someone singing right to you.

The cast sang well and were convincing, and the music was rocking: my favourite part was at the end when we were all pulled up to dance on the performance area once the actors had all taken their bows.

The Walker’s Anthology – Further Tales

This anthology is a selection of extracts covering much of what has been written in the English language on the subject of walking. This covers everything from the obvious of Bill Bryson discussing his favourite walks, to the advantages in the marriage market of walking for a young lady walking from Jane Austen.

The presence of the latter, and the quantity of countryside poetry gradually moved this collection from interesting to tedious however, and I ultimately gave up on it about one third of the way through. Tried dipping into it a few times, but there was nothing to interest me. Back to the library for this.

Two Brothers – Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon

Two Brothers is a graphic novel by the same artists as those who illustrated How To Talk To Girls At Parties. I’d enjoyed their artwork enough that I looked up something else that they had both worked on. There is also the appealing symmetry in reading a story about two twin brothers, illustrated by two twin brothers. The artwork was again very good, crisp pictures and distinctive figures carrying us through the story.

This was fundamentally a story of family dynamics, passions,  mistakes made and resentments and family ties carried through a lifetime. How imperfect parenting causes a divide that runs deep, and how adult choices lead to very different lives. But it is set against a wider background of political uprising and violence as Brazil goes through a period of change.

There is then the minor mystery of our narrator, A young boy growing up in this household, working out how he fits and who he can rely upon.

Overall, a strong story with good artwork.

Breaking the Code – Royal Opera House, Manchester

Regular readers may have noticed I’ve been on a bit of a theatre binge lately. This is mostly because going to the theatre triggers more theatre because I find out about other interesting things I need to see. But this Manchester Science Festival play was my first time in the Royal Opera House in about a decade: its a good place to go, a fully “in the round” (or heptogon/octogon) space where the action is surrounded by the audience.

Breaking the Code is of course quite light on actual code, and much heavier on Turing’s personal life and relationships. There are however a couple of lovely little maths monologues. I was most puzzled however by the line:

“You haven’t heard of Hilbert. Its a great shame”

Because to my mind, everyone knows of Hilbert’s Hotel. A wonderful place, although it is somewhat tiresome to always be moving rooms. But then probably we can’t assume the whole audience does!

However even knowing what was going to happen next, the ending is still somewhat out of the blue. The problem seems to be simply that there was too much material between mathematics, personal life and legal trouble to be fitted into a two hour play and therefore something had to give.

It was very well produced in the Royal Exchange: a simple system of horizontal and vertical light bars were moved up and down to form room outlines, with the only other set pieces used being a few chairs and a single table that were moved about to form different rooms. Gave a real sense to movement between scenes, even if poor Daniel Rigby (playing Alan Turing) hardly left the stage for the whole play.

Ragtime – Charing Cross Theatre

I had barely heard a song from Ragtime before we saw it this weekend – but it was the most suitable-looking show on in London this weekend with tickets available that we hadn’t already seen, so front-row tickets were booked.

Of course we didn’t know what to expect: but from the opening number it was clear we were in for something which was both deep and rocking. There are some seriously catchy tunes, heartbreak and politics. A lot of it is looking frighteningly relevant to the way the world is currently moving (as we saw this in the week Trump won the presidential election).

I really enjoyed the way this production had all the instruments onstage, and a simple set of two walkways that swung back and forth and was used imaginatively. Part of the fun was how the pianos were used as furniture on stage: I was amazed how much jumping on and off the tops was manageable without slipping or standing on the keys.

Other bits of fun whilst we were in London: John Soane’s museum, a fascinatingly packed house of everything he had collected in a lifetime, and of course a trip to the London Review of Books bookshop.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami, read by Ray Porter

I am a casual runner, doing only 5km a couple of times a week. But I enjoy reading about running, especially thoughtful pieces where people challenge their own motivations and consider what motivates them, as well as just diet and training regime.

Murakami is a wonderful balance of introspective and motivated. He delves deeply into his past as he racks up the miles and plans for the impending marathon. He struggles occasionally, and remembers times when his running motivation abandoned him entirely. More than that, he reflecst on what running brings to his life, an an everyday and a long term basis.

It did however seem wrong to me to be listening to this in a noticable American accent. Even though Murakami spends nearly all his time in English-speaking countries in America, the accent made it harder for me to picture the narrator. The narrating was clear though, and well-executed, so I can’t really complain!