A Utopirama from the Olden Times: Star Teacher

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Welcome to Utopirama, the place where I suggest books that are guaranteed to uplift the heart or, at the very least, not make you feel any worse than you did before you read them. The point of Utopirama posts is to highlight cosy reads across all genres that are perfect for those times when you need to retreat from the horrors of the world and escape to gentler place. Today’s selection fulfils this brief perfectly and also has the honour of being part of a series from my olden times. In fact, the earlier titles in this series of books can make the amazing claim of being the very first and second entries in my Book Depository wishlist, which now, ridiculously, boasts over 1200 individual titles.

Our book today is Star Teacher, the ninth in Jack Sheffield’s Teacher series, set in quaint Yorkshire village Ragley-on-the-Forest. When this popped up on Netgalley I was stunned to see that this was book nine – I stopped reading after book four, having skipped book three (and all subsequent instalments) due to the fact that our local library system didn’t have them (and I’m a cheapskate and therefore couldn’t possibly buy them). And all of a sudden, here was book nine!

That’s enough of my reminiscing though. Let’s get on with it. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

It’s 1985, and as Jack returns for another year as headteacher at Ragley village school, some changes are in store. It’s the year of Halley’s Comet, Band Aid, Trivial Pursuit, Dynasty shoulder pads, Roland Rat and Microsoft Windows. And at Ragley-on-the-Forest, Heathcliffe Earnshaw decides to enter the village scarecrow competition, Ruby the caretaker finds romance, and retirement looms for Vera the secretary.

star teacher

Quick Overview:

The wonderful thing about this series (and series similar to it, of which there are many) is that you can stop reading at some point, pick up the lastest release some six or seven (or more) years later and absolutely nothing of substance has changed. It’s a bit like those long-running American soap operas – they of the drawn-out, moody stares and soft filtered lighting – except with fewer fake tans and a Northern accent. I came back to Jack’s life after a significant leave of absence to find things pretty much as they were in Ragley, albeit with a new baby in residence and having finally discovered which of the sisters he was keen on that he actually married.

That’s one of the interesting things about this book – while absolutely nothing of note happens throughout the preceding 200+ pages, the books always finish on a cliffhanger, usually relating to the problem that initially prompted you to pick up the book in the first place. For example, the last book that I read in the series finished on the cliffhanger of Jack making up his mind which sister he was going to pursue. This one, of course, leaves us hanging in the balance while the author strings us along, hoping we’ll buy the next book to find out whether Jack gets to remain as head teacher of Ragley village school.

The other utopiramic thing about the series is the continued references to current events, fashions and developments of the particular year in which each book is set. For example, Star Teacher is set over 1985 and 1986 so you can expect lots of mentions of the new technology of the era (the Commodore 128 computer for example!) and big events of that time (the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, for instance). I always find these references a great comfort, because while the characters are in various states of worry about such things, I, as a citizen of the future, can relax in the knowledge that I know how it all turned out.

As a Utopirama pick, you can’t go past the Teacher series, mainly because absolutely nothing painful, shocking or uncomfortable ever happens. This really is a series revolving around caricatures of the population of a small Yorkshire village (complete with phonetically rendered accents) and the head teacher of its school. On the flipside, of course, is the chance that things can get a bit tedious, because nothing painful, shocking or uncomfortable ever happens. I found that this instalment felt a bit tedious to me – although I will always go back to this series for those times when I need safe, escapist read. Provided the library has a copy of course.

Utopian Themes

Escape to the country

The carefree days of youth

Circle of friends

80s nostalgia

Protective Bubble-o-meter:

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4 out of 5 bubbles for the unsurpassed serenity of a ruminant beast supremely unconcerned with the problems of humanity

Until next time,

Bruce

Utopirama!: Knit the Sky…

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Welcome to another Utopirama, wherein we stroll in a calming, light breeze through the flowery fields of tomes thatNonfiction 2015 lift our spirits.  Today I have a book that Mad Martha insisted we review, given that it relates to her chosen hobby of needlecraft.  I am also submitting today’s book for the Non-Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader, in which I am participating, hence the comfy armchair.  We were lucky enough to receive a digital copy of today’s book from the publisher via Netgalley, but we suggest if you’re wanting a copy of this one for yourself, it would be better in print, simply for the tactile nature of the subject matter.

The book is Knit the Sky: A Playful Way of Knitting by Lea Redmond.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Look up from your knitting needles and explore the world around you! That’s the mantra of Lea Redmond, the creative instigator behind Knit the Sky. Challenging herself to capture the changing colors of the sky in her knitting, Redmond loaded up her yarn basket with shades of blue, gray, and white and set out to knit a strip reflecting each day’s shades. In 365 days, she imagines having a one-year weather report in the shape of a scarf. This is just one of 30 adventurous knitting challenges she shares with readers in this whimsical, inspiring collection. These are knitting projects like no other, as the goal is not just to have a finished project but to have a one-of-a-kind piece that tells a story about the knitter’s life experience. Accompanied by basic instructions for all the needed stitches, techniques, and patterns, Knit the Sky is a complete creativity starter kit for any knitter looking for a fresh approach to the craft.

knit the sky

Quick Overview:

The greatest thing about this book is that you can replace the word “Knit” in the title with any crafty word you please and you can still get an enormous amount from the book.  For in Knit the Sky, it’s the process, not the finished product, which is the important thing. Mad Martha doesn’t know how to knit, but I had to listen to her enthuse over the exciting projects in this book and how she could convert them to crochet. There seemed to be only one or two projects in the book that really are specific to knitting – one in which friends cooperate to knit two scarves on one pair of needles springs to mind – but with a bit of creativity, crafty crafters could easily modify these projects to get around that.  Even if you don’t do any crafty endeavour yourself, the book promotes a way of looking at and interacting with the world around you that inspires mindfulness and memory-making.

Another handy thing about the projects here is that the author has suggested numerous variations on each project to inspire you to have a go. For example, with the titular project – knitting a scarf comprised of individual stripes capturing the colour of the sky each day for a year – there’s the ingenious and touching suggestion of instead creating a baby blanket comprised of squares representing the colour of the sky on each day (or near enough to!) of the baby’s time in utero. We experienced a mild thrill of terror at the idea of the “Neighbourhood Cowl” in which the crafter is challenged to go visit all the neighbours on their block and then knit a stripe in the colour of each house, in street order. Then there’s the family projects, like the heirloom idea of beginning a pattern or simple project, and then leaving it safely encased somewhere for future generations to find and complete, and the almost unbearably cutesy idea of the grandparent creating a basket-coloured (or basket-stitched!) woolly hat for themselves, and a berry-coloured woolly hat for each of their grand-offspring!

In all honesty, this book made Mad Martha’s heart sing for the potential it has to promote connection amongst people – family, neighbours, complete strangers – and the flow-on effect of crafting as a means to achieve Utopia.

Utopian Themes:

Knit one, connect one

Crafting positivity

Intergenerational connection

Yarning with strangers

Protective Bubble-o-meter:

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5 out of 5 bubbles for the cosy embrace of a handmade creation

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Utopirama!: Find the Good…

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imageNonfiction 2015It’s Utopirama time again – a time to take a brief time-out from the horrors, suffering and general discomfort of daily existence and look toward a higher goal.  Today’s book is all about making that glass at least half-full before you metaphorically kick the proverbial bucket.  It is Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-Town Obituary Writer by Helen Lende.  As it is also a memoir of sorts, I will be submitting it for the Non-fiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader, hence the comfy armchair.

find the good

Quick Overview:

 In brief, easy-to-digest chapters, Lende takes the reader through the wisdom she has garnered from time spent composing obituaries in the local paper for her fellow townsfolk, both well-known to her and otherwise. Each chapter is titled with a little nugget of truth and follows the salient life lessons that presented themselves to Lende on reflection, ranging from “stop and smell the fish”, to “put on a costume now and then”. The stories are gentle and often humorous, and packed with unspoken exhortations for the reader to dig beneath the thin veneer of daily life and appreciate the untidy, unexpected and unexplored bits of our existence and that of those around us.

Utopian Themes:

Let it shine

Everyday wisdom

Seize the day

Lemons to Lemonade

Ask not for whom the bell tolls

Protective Bubble-o-meter:

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5 out of 5 bubbles for the wholesome goodness (and unexpected sting) of squeezing fresh citrus fruits

This is a quick and gentle read and one that would make perfect before-bed reading for those who like to wind down by slowly shedding the layers of negative emotion accumulated during the day. Lende’s voice chimes with welcome and life-affirming humour and the format of the book suits those who like to dip in and out and reflect on what they’ve read. This is a great choice for when you need a cosy, restful distraction, such as during the daily commute, or while waiting for an unpleasant appointment.

Progress in the Non-Fiction Reading Challenge: 5/10

Until next time,

Bruce

Utopirama: Dogtology – Live. Bark. Believe.

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Welcome to Utopirama, the feature in which we present to you books that are guaranteed to uplift the weary of spirit and buff the corns of the emotionally downtrodden.  Today’s tome undertakes to prove once and for all the philosophical debate relating to whether humans’ appreciation of dog-kind has in fact attained religious status.  In Dogtology: Live. Bark. Believe, author and dog-lover J. Lazarus argues that it certainly has.

dogtology

Quick Overview:

Humanity’s love of canines is both universal and ancient.  In recent decades, at least in more affluent nations, the exaltation of our doggy friends seems to have reached a fever pitch.  Attentive owners purchase all manner of accoutrements for their pampered pooches, behaving in many cases as if their dogs were more important than their human relations.  Lazarus uses this tome to define and explain Dogtology: a religious belief system that retains at its core an unwavering belief in the goodness, connection and solace provided by Dog. After all, there could be good reason why dog spelled backwards is “god”.

Using humour and a light touch Lazarus spells out the ways in which human behaviour towards dogs has, over hundreds of years, developed to mirror the ritualistic practices associated with other world religions.  In clearly delineated chapters, the over-the-top actions of enamoured dog owners is flipped on its head and closely compared to other spiritual belief systems in an attempt to show how humanity has elevated humanity’s humble, shoe-chewing, face-slobbering, bum-sniffing companion to the status of a deity.  Non-believers be warned – the time of the Dogtologist is already upon us.

Utopian Themes:

Human’s best friend

“Normal” is relative

Sniffing out a connection

Spiritual philosophy for the layperson

Protective Bubble-o-meter:

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Three bubbles for the comforting odour of a couch upholstered in dog hair

I am also submitting this one towards my Non-Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader.

Nonfiction 2015

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Utopirama: Yarn Bombing (The Art of Crochet and Knit Graffiti)…

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Utopirama time again! This feature is where I share with you books that are almost certain to inspire a sense of warm fuzziness in the cockles of your heart.  Today I have a bit of a subversive choice, but it made us all smile and has engendered within us a new sense of happiness related to the possibility of secretly beautifying dowdy places.  I give you….

Yarn Bombing: The Art of Crochet and Knit Graffiti

by Mandy Moore and Leanne Prain

yarn bombing

Quick Overview:

Yarn Bombing, for those who don’t know, is the art of attaching crocheted or knitted pieces to random objects in the real world.  A car antenna, a neglected sign post, even the cold top of a lonely bollard – all of these are perfect locations for yarn bombing.  This book takes the uninitiated through the process of yarn-bombing from its inception in the mid-2000s in Texas.  It includes the history of yarn bombing, the philosophy of a wide range of yarn bombers and lays out a step-by-step guide for those intrepid crafters who know just the place for an injection of whimsical craft (and/or political statement).

I stumbled upon this book while browsing in the craft section (for Mad Martha, obviously) of my local library.  I only discovered yarn-bombing earlier this year and all of the shelf-dwellers immediately fell in love with the whole idea of non-permanent, aesthetically pleasing graffiti that is designed (in most cases) simply to uplift the spirits of all those whose eye falls upon it.  If you are unfamiliar with yarn-bombing and what it might look like, here are some instances…click on the image for the link.

The book contains a bunch of patterns for pieces and also for clothing to wear while yarn bombing, as well as interviews with prominent yarn bombers from around the world.  And it’s just beautiful to look at too.

Utopian Themes:

 Crafting positivity

Urban beautification

Whimsical imagery

International co-operation

Protective Bubble-o-meter

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Four protective bubbles for the unexpected joy of spotting granny squares in the urban wild

Mad Martha even got in on the trend after being inspired by this book.  Here’s a little piece she made for the tree outside our dwelling.  It’s not much, but it’s a start towards Utopia in craft.

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Until next time,

Bruce

Utopirama: A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home…

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Welcome once again to the semi-regular Utopirama feature, wherein I aim to heighten awareness about certain books that promote that feeling of happiness and that sense of all being right with the world.  Books featured in Utopirama posts are cosy reads, in which nothing occurs to disturb your equilibrium.  Today’s offering is one for the dog-lovers. And also for the nursing home lovers (in case any exist).  And finally for lovers of old age.  It is, of course, A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher by Sue Halpern.

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Quick Overview:

The book follows the story of Sue, and her loveable dog Pransky, who decide that the time is ripe for some volunteering in order to make their corner of the world a better place.  In the face of reasonably large odds (Pransky’s lack of desire to participate in the process, for one) Sue researches the requirements needing to be satisfied for herself and Pransky to become a therapy team and then tries to whip (metaphorically, obviously) Pransky into shape.  After passing the rigorous test for therapy dog teams, Pransky and Sue begin to volunteer at their local nursing home.  From the cranky to the welcoming to the downright not-quite-sure-what’s-going-on, Pransky and Sue encounter and engage with every possible attitude, state of mind and personality in their weekly visits to the elderly residents, proving in the process that sometimes the most effective form of healing and connection can be packaged in the shape of a big furry pillow. With dog breath.

Utopian Themes:

Comfort for the Afflicted

Going Gently into that Good Night

Furry Friends

Communicating beyond Words

Cultivating Virtue

Protective Bubble-o-meter:

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5 out of 5 bubbles for the gentle whuffling of a hound all a-snooze

This is the perfect read for those who like a dog book in which you can be sure that the dog doesn’t die at the end.  Although, a lot of the old people do.

Until next time,

Bruce

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Utopirama!: The Wisdom of the Shire….

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Evening all! It’s time once again for the soothing sounds of Utopirama, my semi-regular feature celebrating  contributions to literature that promote a vision of utopia in you, the reader.  This feature focuses on comfort reads – the kind of books with no nasty surprises, that you can confidently pick up when you’re feeling a bit dissatisfied with the state of the world, or have had your fill of zombification/totalitarianism/natural disaster etc etc…

Today’s offering, selected once again by the Marquis de Chuckleworthy (aka Larry), is The Wisdom of the Shire: A Short Guide to a Long and Happy Life from an author by the simultaneously grandiose and hoi polloi-ish name of Noble Smith.  Here is a picture of Mad Martha, snapped very recently reading the aforementioned tome while relaxing in the utopian location of Rainbow Beach, Queensland.DSC_0553

Quick Overview:

For those quick of both eye and wit it will come as no surprise that this book proposes methods for attaining satisfaction from living based on the lifestyle and outlook of those hairy-footed gurus, the Hobbits (found, of course, in the work of J. R. R. Tolkien).  Smith suggests applying careful scrutiny to, and adopting aspects of Hobbity living, such as their enjoyment of good, healthy, homegrown food and alcohol, their penchant for bursting into song and their commitment to friends and countryfolk, as a means to create a peaceful slice of Hobbiton in one’s own hectic, Mordorish world.

Utopian Themes

Eating, Drinking and Being Merry (or Meriadoc, as the case may be)

Cosy Hobbit holes

Communing with nature

The ultimate triumph of good over evil

the wisdom of the shire

Protective Bubble-o-meter

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5 out of 5 bubbles for the generic cosiness of Hobbit holes

This is a perfect pick-up, put-down, read-a-chapter-every-now-and-again-when-you-need-a-motivational-prod-towards-happiness utopian read.

Until next time,

Bruce

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