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Two good things are happening on Monday: one, M and I go see Mamma Mia again (see previous post!) with a number of other future devotees (at least, that’s what I’ve convinced them they will become…). 

Number two is a secret-ish. But I can tell you it involves a small ball of white fluff. And lots of quiet excitement. And a few skittery nerves.


to a little bleat of joy: saw Mamma Mia the other day, R under duress and E hoping no one would recognise him. M and me just settling back for the journey.

Well, of course it had its cheesy moments (particularly in the first 5 minutes: R’s head well and truly in hands). But also had some wonderful ones that took me by welcome surprise. Much like Enchanted (which for similar reasons only M and I saw in the cinema) there are some truly delicious scenes of the good old fashioned musical, when everyone drops what they’re doing and starts singing and dancing…great stuff.

I also found Mamma Mia hugely moving. Not the whole thing by any means. But much of it was gutsily acted by middle-aged men and women — such stars in their own rights — whose commitment to the simplicity of the heart of the piece — loving and aging — shone through every moment. Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan in particular were just…luminous. Really.

Anyway, I found myself crying through the Dancing Queen sequence. Really. I was mortified, until I realised that the woman next to me was crying too. 

After poking around on You-Tube, I’m pretty sure that the clips are all pirated. Oh well. You just gotta see the movements with the song though, so I’ve stuck the best one I can find here. GO SEE THE FILM. Really. Whether you see the karaoke version I leave up to your own fine judgement…

Brother-in-law Hugh’s wonderful photos have arrived. I’m going to take my time… Here’s the first –the main view from the house.

On the hill, three kilometres away, is the village of Civitella, the history of which turns out to be remarkable: established in Roman times, like so many villages in Tuscany it was fought over by the factions of Siena, Florence and Arezzo, settling with Florence in the mid 1300’s.  

World War II didn’t treat it any better. When we went to see it, we found a hillside town almost entirely in the shadow of its past. The castle, bombed by Allied forces, remains split open and unrestored. And on 29 June 1944, 244 citizens of Civitella were massacred by German forces, in retaliation for the murder of two German soldiers by partisans. The church marks the spot, right in the middle of town, where it happened. There is a room, a tiny museum, with documents and artefacts, picture after picture too of those who were executed, and the transcript of the martyred priest who tried to stop it.

There is also a plaque in the town, next to the church, commemorating the liberating forces. Who, as it happens, were British. 

A moving place. We only went there once, despite it being the closest village. Something about it just needed some peace, perhaps…

Am waiting for hugely better photos than I took to wend their way from my brother-in-law before embarking on Italy and related subjects, so will meanwhile say what I’ve read the last few weeks:

1) The Book Thief (Marcus Zusak): at Valerie’s suggestion (or rather, insistence!). I fell right into this book, almost against my will, and found the narrator unusual and compelling. Liesel was a superb character, and Rudy, and Max and Papa especially. They were full of depth, colour and breadth immediately. It’s quite a feat I think to maintain strong character and nearly omniscient narration; one is often sacrificed for the other.  It was a journey. I loved the visual aspect of the book, and its typography too, and more than anything feel real relief that such an unusual book, with so many different components, can meet with real success. Like probably everyone else in the whole world, I wept all the way through the last 50 pages. I then passed it onto my sister-in-law. I could tell when she reached the same part, from her sniffing on the sunbed next to me…I was oddly disappointed by the ending, though, the very ending, as in the last couple of lines. They felt flat. Sorry to be so picky.

2) The Gathering (Anne Enright): Booker prize winner last year. I liked it alot. Can’t say that I loved it, but I thought it very well written, extremely so, subtle, enticing, troubled and troubling. The narrator here is very particular, specific first person, and the play with time and memory was very, very effective. However: once again I found myself dissatisfied with the ending. I felt that it didn’t quite hold up to the writing. The book was actually about elusive things, so it is no surprise that much of the book felt elusive… Yet, yet… I’d be curious to know what others think. I wonder if it never really, really got down to brass tacks? The constant veering away from subject by the narrator made the book feel veering away? Maybe. However, I am delighted that for once a rather slim volume, with a limited framework and canvas, made it to the Booker table. As a general rule, ‘limited canvas’ books are my favourites — and not the British public’s or Booker judges’. With John Banfield’s book two (?) years ago, room for variation seems to have started with the Booker, for which I am relieved….

3) Engleby (Sebastian Faulks): well, a different order of book I thought. Almost French somehow, in its methodology. There is a fundamental mystery here, but the book is not a mystery book. There is a oddball character here, but the book is not about that either. Somehow. Somehow — despite flagging a little, the narrative loosening in tension to the point of near collapse in the middle — the book becomes about how certain minds work at the edges of certain worlds, certain points of extremis that few if any of us know or understand. Yet the character, caught in this, being this, is also compelling, human, and strangely sympathetic. The book achieves this balancing act through near technical acrobatics I thought. I can’t give it away, but suffice to say that once a certain aspect of its creation is revealed — the whole endeavour takes on a completely different and more complex and gripping quality and motive. It’s impressive. It’s also funny — very dry, ‘smart’, almost cringingly so — throughout. And unlike the previous two books, the rather anti-climactic ending didn’t bother me. Where the other books I think are despite possible intentions dependent upon the narrative — Engleby isn’t. So I didn’t feel its lack in the final pages.

4) Noughts and Crosses (Majorie Blackman): young adult book passed to me by E, who read it for eight hours straight, barely stopping to eat. This again was quite compelling reading, though for different reasons. Its premise is one of the world being ‘reversed’ in discrimination, e.g. people of colour being powerful (‘crosses’) and white people being powerless (‘noughts’). It’s a star-crossed lover tale at heart, with politics, money, parenting and growing up thrown into the pot. The interesting aspect of the book is that the characters’ X or O status is rarely pointed up: there are few physical descriptions, and the world is close enough to ours such that as a white reader I had to remind myself many times of the ‘reversal’ of this imagined world. I was mortified and chastened time and again to realise that in my head I always imagined the people with power to be white — and the people without power to be black. Of course, I am liberal enough to know and think I understand that we are all complicit in our society’s racism. However, I have never read anything that so effectively brought me face to face with my own paradigms. The writing itself I felt was inconsistent — some wonderful moments, but also some rather weak ones (lots of adverbs, point of view slippages etc). Plot-wise though I couldn’t fault it. The writer set something up and followed it through, even if we didn’t want to see it…


Of course the reading pile has no end. And much of what I read on holiday was just that — good holiday reading. I find that I am always trying to balance ‘keeping up’ with ‘reading off-centre’. Holiday time is where I do the former.

I’m now reading one of R’s books, given to him by  student, and one he read on holiday: The Life of David Debrizzi (Paul Micou). So far, it’s frankly hilarious.

And I’m desperate to read Sue Guiney’s Tangled Roots. And a writer E is now reading, who I think is just superb from my snatched evening reads to him: Siobhan Dowd (Bog Child and The London Eye Mystery). AND I read Caroline Smailes’ In Search of Adam some time ago and still haven’t reviewed it here! Not fair! I WILL.


This is what M looks like when she travels. The reason you can’t see her arms is because they are full of all of the rest of the stuff that she can’t either fit into or hang off of her bag. If you’ve been reading this blog a while, you will remember M’s penchant for near-chaos, her particular brand of nesting.

So anyway. It is the morning after our first night away. We’re gathering our things for the descent to check out of the Novotel.

We like Novotels. They are dependable, anonymous, and often cheap (two children free for accommodation and breakfast — woo hoo!). 

The children like Novotels too. They are recognisable, comfortable, and say holiday. So, it is with some wistfulness that we open the door from our room in Lyons. 

Wait, says M. Can we take this? She holds up one of those complimentary shampoo bottles, full of admittedly attractive, jewel-like liquid.

No, I say. We really don’t need it, and we’re all packed. Let’s go.

So out we go. We pile into the elevator, wheelie luggage and bags for each, except M, whose arms are, as ever, full of what won’t fit into her bag. 

The doors close. Then, as the elevator starts to move, we all hear a soft clunk. Three of us look down: the blue shampoo bottle is lying on the floor, right under M. She, on the other hand, stares straight ahead at the silver doors, absolutely deadpan.

Only when the game is completely up, and we all know without saying what has happened — that she took it, hid it among her things, then accidently dropped it — does she turn to us, still unsmiling, pretend to be cross: What, she says, what?!

We all burst out laughing then, M included. And of course, I pick up the bottle, put it in my bag. And we’ve brought it all the way home.


M has always been charmingly determined to get what she wants. When she was tiny, this usually involved quietly helping herself to something she wasn’t exactly allowed: fistfuls of Daddy’s chocolate, licks of butter, or yummy salt from the bottom of the grinder. When she became properly mobile, this dogged tendency to acquire things of interest progressed to emptying out rubbish bins and pilfering ‘useful’ things like cardboard, molded plastic, broken utensils, old shoes and threadbare clothing. Even today it’s not unusual for me to find things in her room I swear I’ve thrown away.

Other things we’ve brought back from holiday this time courtesy of M: three rocks from the beach at Nice, and a plastic bag half full of chipped-off-the-ground citronella candle wax. She’s going to paint the rocks, she says, and devise a way to make her own candles that look like cup cakes. Apparently. 

Things make quite a lot more sense in her world I think than they do in mine. Long may it last.



From January 2010, my new blog is Waving and Drowning


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Who am I?

A writer born in Texas, who grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia (yes, like the song), and who's been living in the UK since 1988. I've published two books (see below), and teach creative writing at the University of Kent. I'm married to a composer, and we have two young children. See About for my full profile.