Saturday, 31 May 2014

Of Mice and Men and American Novels

So my non-English readers may not know that the Education Minister (a fanatical little twerp called Michael Gove) has been micro-managing the English education system again, namely changing the books studied by 15 year olds. He has removed a lot of American fiction and replaced it with books by British authors.

Michel Gove knitted pin cushion
Micheal Gove looks pretty much like this...
This has got a lot of people up in arms 'cos one of the main things reading can (and should) do for us is open our minds to different view points and teach us things about different time periods, different cultures, genders etc.

I learnt all I know about English history from reading historical novels while living in New Zealand (so yes, some of the details are a bit confused). Through reading I learnt about what it's like to live as a young aboriginal girl, as a 'bright young thing' in the 1920s, as a child during World War II, as a prisoner is a Russian gulag, as a private investigator in Singapore, as a poor farmer in the Great Depression in America and much more.

You may be able to guess that I was (and still am to a lesser extent) a prolific reader. I was also a secondary school English teacher so I read a range of 'set texts' and other teenage fiction. My experience and research shows that the vast majority of teenagers only pick up a book if forced to at school. It's a phenomenon - when they turn 14, they stop reading fiction (especially the boys).

So, what kids read and study at school is pretty important because it may well be the only books they read that year and may even encourage or discourage ongoing reading habits. As a teacher, I found that if kids enjoyed what we were reading in class, many of them could be encouraged to read around the novel by picking similar authors, similar topics or more books by the same author.

Personally, I can't stand John Steinbeck. I just can't be doing with his depressed world-view. As a precocious 13 year old, I got an A on an essay castigating 'The Pearl' as a novel where things just went from bad to worse for the characters. However, Steinbeck does write books that are at a reasonably easy reading level, have clear themes and are well-written. Removing 'Of Mice and Men' from the curriculum is a stupid mistake if you ask me.

And as for 'To Kill a Mockingbird'! It is a very oddly structured novel, but it's strangely gripping. The theme is still vitally important and Atticus Finch is a fantastic role model. That book should definitely stay and it would make a great link with a history unit looking at racism in America and the UK between the wars.

So what's my point? I guess I'm saying that teenagers should be exposed to fiction from a range of contexts. And Micheal Gove is a twerp. 

 What's your favourite American novel? One of my top ten is 'St Agnes Stand' by Thomas Eidson (check it out if you haven't already read it).

What do you think about countries emphasising their own literature over world literature?

Also, if  you've got a teenager of your own (or know one), here's a handy guide to encourage their reading.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Two Faces of January - stylish summer inspiration

I saw 'The Two Faces of January' recently - it's a great movie, go and see it! Also, it's an intensely stylish movie with bespoke costumes by Steven Noble. I'm not a blonde so I might need to change the colours, but I coveted everything Kirstin Dunst wore. The film is set in Greece in the 60s and she plays the wife of a rich man so she's all about classy shift dresses.

 We first see her in a beautiful belted primrose yellow sundress with matching hat. That boat-neck is so flattering and the colour is lovely on her.

 We also see her in a summery brownish tartan dress and flat sandals. Those sunglasses are totally wearable today. I would totally wear that whole outfit. The dress is just up my alley with the sweetheart neckline, short sleeves, pulled in waist and below the knee length skirt. Sigh!

I couldn't find a picture of Kirstin wearing it, but this greyish, beige-ish shift dress was lovely. It's a very 60's shape.

 So, I had a wee look around Polyvore to see if I could find some similar-ish dresses to those the Kirstin wore. Some of my picks are crazy-expensive designer things, but we can use them as inspiration, can't we?

Two Faces of January - Kirstin Dunst inspiration

Friday, 23 May 2014

The perfect work dress

So I have this dress. I got in on a massive discount from an outlet store to wear to Ascot and a wedding. It's from Jaeger and it is the perfect dress. It's a raspberry/ burgandy/ cerise colour and is on the knee and well tailoured with short sleeves. The dress is made of a nice thick fabric that skims over the body and is machine washable.

As well as formal social events, I've worn it to (successful) job interviews and just generally to work in both winter and summer. It goes with all sorts of colours and accessories.

I'm kind of thinking I could do with a few of these magic dresses as they make getting dressed in the morning so easy and they look so put-together. I've scouted out a few options below with slight variations. Most of them are way outside my price range, but I can scour the outlet stores and use them for inspiration.

I just need to make sure that I don't get sucked into something that:
  • Has a pattern I'll get sick of
  • Is too short or too low-cut or too tight
  • Has fabric that isn't machine washable and no-iron
  • Isn't too clingy, static-y or creasable
Only perfection will do! 
What is your formula for the perfect day dress?

Work dresses

Saturday, 17 May 2014

What might surprise you about yoga - updated

Oh my goodness, I love yoga! Sorry to give the game away so early in the blog post, but really, I do! So I want to share the joy and bust a few myths (Scroll to the end for my caveat).
  •  You don't need to be flexible or fit or young or skinny. A good teacher will encourage everyone to work to their own level and will give different options for the poses. You can even do yoga with longstanding injuries or disabilities.
  •  Yoga is a real workout - with regular practice you gain balance, flexibility and strengthen muscles through you whole body.
  • Yoga doesn't usually involve spiritual or religious practice (again, it depends on the version you do, but the types I've done don't involve anything more alarming than a few easily ignorable references to chakras.)
I did my first yoga class for over two years last night. I was really tense and stressed - I woke up with a headache due to the tension in my neck and jaw. I toddled along to my gym and met the tiny perky young blonde woman who took the class. We sat and breathed for a bit, we went through various poses and stretches - mostly downward facing dog, lots and lots of downward facing dog.

Downward facing dog yoga pose
 Supposedly some of the benefits of this particular pose are that it:
  • Calms the brain and helps relieve stress and mild depression
  • Energizes the body
  • Stretches the shoulders, hamstrings, calves, arches, and hands
  • Strengthens the arms and legs
  • Improves digestion
  • Relieves headache, insomnia, back pain, and fatigue
Downward facing dog and the rest of the poses certainly did a wonderful job of relaxing the tension in my neck, jaw, shoulders and hamstrings. To end the class we did a brief relaxation exercise lying flat on our backs on the floor - bliss! Then I floated out, feeling a million times better than when I entered the room.

So basically, I'm enthusiastically recommending that you give it go (if you haven't already). I did Hatha yoga for a couple of years in New Zealand. My class yesterday was Ashtanga yoga which is supposed to be a lot more physically demanding, but actually it was very similar to my Hatha yoga class, just a touch faster in moving from pose to pose. This is a helpful article about the different styles of yoga.

What do you think - are you already a fan? Have you tried it and thought it's not for you?

I did my first (and last) class with a new yoga teacher last night and now I see why people can be apprehensive about it. It was Ashtanga yoga similar to the first class I did at this gym but the atmosphere was competitive with only one option given for each pose. The (male) instructor adjusted people to help them get into the right position. That's okay but one of my adjustments involved full body contact which isn't my cup of tea with someone I've just met!

We were asked to do quite difficult balancing poses and ended the class with a couple of inversions that were completely beyond me. I sat there feeling like a fool while people attempted to balance their whole body weight on the arms while upside down. Not a great experience.

So my summary is, find out as much as you can about classes you're thinking of taking, the teaching style, the difficulty level etc. I've experienced four or five yoga teachers and this is the first one that I couldn't be doing with, so I'm sure you'll be able to find one who suits.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Save money - colour your hair at home!

Do you get your hair coloured at a salon? Well stop it! (Oh feel free to carry on if you like, but keep reading anyway...)

John Freida hair colour
I'm here to suggest that you could easily save buckets of money by doing your own hair at home. If you've never tried it (or haven't tried it for years) it's much easier than you think!

Firstly, choosing the colour.

The safest thing is to chose something similar to your natural hair colour. If in doubt, go cool, not warm. When I see people with unfortunate hair colour, it's mostly because they're gone with a bright warm colour like burgundy or ginger when they should have chosen a cool colour that looked a bit more natural on them.

I swear by John Freida myself. I've tried a few different colours from their range and they've all been excellent. I'm on 'Deep Brown-Black' at the moment but I have dabbled in some of their very flattering and subtle reddish or purple-ish shades like the 'Radiant Red' shown in the picture.

Secondly, preparations. I make sure I'm wearing something that I don't have to pull off over my head and that I don't mind getting stained. (I generally don't drip dye on my clothes, but just in case). I also remove all the towels from the bathroom and get out an old black towel.

Mixing up the hair colour is easy - then I just slap it onto dry hair. I don't find it makes a difference how clean my hair is or if it's full of mousse and hair spray. I tend to only manage to use about half the hair colour as I've got fairly short hair. Rub it in well so that all the strands of hair are covered. Wipe any drips or smears off with a bit of loo paper (and soap if needed).

I also don't worry too much about the timings. I leave it on for about 20-30 min. If you're feeling nervous about stains, just sit in the bathroom and read a book. I've found that hair colour tends not to stain things like the bath or sink or glass surfaces but will stain painted or porous surfaces.

When it comes to washing it off, I've got a shower-over-bath arrangement with the shower head on a hose. I get right down into the bath to wash the first bit off to avoid splashing all over the bathroom. Then I shower as normal and use the excellent conditioner provided in the pack.

Finally, after a gentle drying my hair is done!

So, are you convinced to give it a go? Or do you have complicated highlights and lowlights or are you au naturel?

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Saturday 6:43am or Crashing Cars and Getting Sick

So I'm pretty stressed right now. I've got big work projects due in a few weeks - my reputation is on the line and there are a lot of variables to juggle. And I've got a couple of other big life issues I'm dealing with at the same time. I'm holding it together, but I struggled to sleep until late last night then I was awake and switched on like a light bulb (ping! awake now!) at 6:43 this morning.

(Actually I had a really useful thought about work that I had to email to myself, but still...)

Stressed woman biting her laptop in frustration

So how do we deal with this stress thing?

In my younger years I had some pretty colourful ways of dealing with stress - mostly getting sick and crashing cars. One year I did my Uni exams in a neck brace because I'd developed torticollis (the muscles in my shoulder and neck went into a serious spasm so I couldn't straighten my neck).

Just before my wedding (and exams and moving house), someone thought they could move their car into the lane that my car was in (nope, they couldn't!). Thankfully that one was judged to be their fault so insurance paid. I also got bronchitis two weeks before my wedding so I got married the first day I'd been out of my sick bed. AND I had a massive pimple! People seemed to think I looked good anyway...

These days I don't crash cars (God willing) and I seem to have managed to teach myself that getting sick doesn't help. But what can I do to cope with the strain? About the only thing I can find to do is comfort-eating. When things get tough, ice cream and donuts help a bit.

Stressed is desserts spelled backwards

If I'm feeling sensible and/or virtuous I force myself to go to the gym. Classes like Pilates really help me remember I have a body and work on relaxing it a bit. A blat on the cardio machines to some pumping music also helps let off some steam. It's just tricky to actually get myself organised and in the door of the place.

Going to church helps to put things in perspective and to keep me focused on not being a bitch even though I'm stressed.

Um, what else? I try not to drink too much wine as it messes with my sleeping patterns and just generally makes me feel worse. Hmm... that's about all I got.

Ideas, anyone?

Monday, 5 May 2014

Style AND comfort?

Oh dear, I'm turning into my mother! In my younger years I swore I'd stay in my high heels and generally not forsake style for comfort. But I'm afraid the tide is turning.

Patti of the excellent blog Not Dead Yet Style recently posted about comfortable clothing and I found myself identifying with many of her points. Her post made me think about why some of my clothing, shoes and accessories just don't work. Comfort is a key factor.

Below are is a picture with approximations of things I've bought but am either sending to the charity shop or just not wearing because they're not comfortable enough.

Big, heavy jewellery just doesn't get worn, no matter how pretty it is. Just today I removed a couple of strands of a multi-strand cut glass bead necklace. It looked stunning with the whole set of five glittering strands but it was just too heavy so I didn't wear it. Better to have three strands and a wearable weight. 

Uncomfortable things/ failed purchases

Uncomfortable things/ failed purchases by eleanorbirdy 

The platform booties are there because they really weren't comfortable enough for miles of walking during a weekend, the fur trim made them too seasonally specific and they were too casual for even relaxed work days. A good idea but just didn't work for my lifestyle. I do still wear heels (even stilettos) but not above about 3 inches and only for office work. Also, I'm really fond of the less-frumpy shoes from comfy brands like Clarks and Footglove from M & S.

The dress was also a good idea (in fact I have several similar ones) but somehow the hemlines seem to magically shrink. This is a psychological comfort issue. I am not comfortable with my thighs on display. 

I really don't know what it is with the hems on dresses but I often have this issue. Do I pull them down when I'm trying them on in the shop? Or not walk around enough to check if they ride up? Do they shrink in the wash? Is it me getting fatter or just less confident? Anyway, I now have several floral print jersey dresses that I'm not wearing. I'm keeping them in the hope that something might change. What, I don't know... I just can't bring myself to send them to the charity shop yet.

One last thing that always turns out to be a shopping fail are tops that need ironing. They're not uncomfortable of course, I just don't iron so they hang around unworn for months on end. A shocking waste. I must train myself not to buy tops that need ironing. (Or start ironing, you say? Pshaw, get away with you!). 

Where do you stand on the comfort versus prettiness spectrum? Do have shopping traps that you regularly fall into?

Friday, 2 May 2014

Six reasons to love Bristol

I love Bristol with a big love. I've been living here for around two years and it still makes me smile on a regular basis. The Bristol Culture site regularly has articles of semi-famous Bristol folks talking about their favourite bits - here are mine, in no particular order (plus a pretty picture of the harbour that I took one evening).

Coloured terraced houses across the Bristol harbour

The Windmill Pub
I think these guys do the best roast in Bristol. Every bit of the meal is carefully prepared from the fresh crisp yorkies to the creamy leeks, spicy red cabbage and tender meat. Amazing. They have a laid back but comfy atmosphere in the pub and all the papers to read on a Sunday.

St Nicholas Market
Particularly the Moroccan stall and the Middle Eastern food stall down the end opposite the fabric stall. The Moroccan place does the most tender meat, beautifully spiced and melting in your mouth with delicious sauce and tasty rice or cous cous. The Middle Eastern place does fantastic meals with every part of the dish carefully spiced and prepared. Their freshly cooked flat-bread is an essential compliment to the meal. There is also a wide choice of other foods from Pieminster pies to local sausages, Jamaican, Indian, BBQ, Felafel wraps and more plus several pubs (including the excellent Rummer Hotel tucked away off All Saints Lane).

St Nicholas Market and Corn Street are historic (established in 1743) and picturesque with craft stalls inside. Along Corn Street are four brass 'nails' with the earliest from around 1560 and the Registry Office where you often see weddings taking place on a Saturday. We end up visiting here most weekends, especially as it's on the way to the shopping centre.

Ashton Court

Deer park at Ashton Court, Bristol

Bristol is full of lovely parks and green spaces. Our local one is the gorgeous Ashton Court; a 16th Century house and deer park with 19th Century gardens and acres of rolling fields and woods. The property was gifted to Bristol and is a great asset to the city (but don't bother with the cafe, it's complete rubbish). There is a weekly farmer's market, a small golf course, horse riding, a mountain bike track and of course the massive annual hot air ballon festival (more about that later).

The Ferries

Swans on Bristol harbour

Even though it's quite a way from the coast, Bristol's heart is its harbour. The small locked harbour and rivers are criss-crossed with ferries. For 80p you can cross from the SS Great Britain to the other side of the harbour (I recommend checking out the Grain  Barge for a drink and a meal while you're there) or for a few pounds you can toddle gently up and down the harbour taking in the sights, admiring the passing swans and possibly getting somewhere useful like the railway station or near the shopping centre.

Bristol has masses of different festivals (many of them free) throughout the year. Mayfest is probably my favourite - a condensed 10 days of theatre, dance, music and more with all sorts of top quality bizarre bits and pieces including award-winning shows from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Last year we loved a 1940s cabaret/ musical version of Beowulf by a hugely talented cast from America.

Police horses

Avon and Somerset Police horses

There are police horses stationed fairly close to our house and they can often be seen in pairs around the city centre. They are huge and brave and beautiful and I love them. They're worth a follow on Twitter for the cute photos. If you're in Bristol and happen to see them going by you can generally pat them if you ask first.

I've got lots more things to say about this fabulous city, but that'll do for now.