‘The Weight of Water’ by Sarah Crossan – children’s fiction for June

Regular readers of my blog will know that I am a huge fan of children’s literature. I aim to read and review at least one children’s book every month, so here is my offering for May.

The Weight of Water imgThis was the third book I read last term with the children’s book club at my daughter’s primary school. It was something of a risk as it’s not conventional either in its subject matter or its format. But having read Time Travelling with A Hamster with them (which they loved) and The Snow Spider (which many of them were lukewarm about), I felt they were ready for the more complex themes and the quirky format. The kids in my book club are 10-11 and it’s well-known that children tend to like reading about characters who are a couple of years older. The central character in this book, Kasienka, is 13, so that fits, although some of the themes are quite mature. For example, she mentions her periods, puberty more generally and her feelings about a boy at school, which had some of my book club attendees sniggering! That could have been down to the group situation, however, and read alone or with a parent, this might actually be an opportunity to have a proper conversation with a child about such issues.

The book starts with Kasienka and her mother leaving Gdansk, Poland, with just a suitcase each. They are travelling to England to join Kasienka’s father, who left some months earlier. They are heading for Coventry, as they know he is somewhere in that city, but they have not heard from him for some time and have no address for him. There are clearly two things going on here: firstly, there is the immigrant experience, people leaving their home country in search of a better life, but there is the sub-text also of the mystery of the father’s departure and possible marital issues between Kasienka’s parents.

When Kasienka and her mother arrive in England they find themselves in a dingy bedsit, living amongst other immigrants, including Kanoro, a Kenyan doctor working as a hospital porter. Kasienka is placed in a local school, but is put down a year because of what are perceived to be her inferior language skills. She is resentful at this humiliation not only because she finds the schoolwork very easy, but also because she struggles to be accepted amongst the girls of her own age. Parents of teenagers will know there is usually quite a maturity difference between 13 and 11/12 so one can only imagine what it must have been like for Kasienka to be placed in this situation. There is a sense that the authorities at the school do not necessarily have her best interests at heart either, that perhaps they feel the additional demands placed upon them by immigrant pupils are a burden. There is a feeling that Kasienka is being made an example of.

Kasienka finds her relief in swimming, it is where she feels free and where she feels equal, and it is where she is able to prove herself to her enemies from school. It is also where she begins a relationship with a boy from school, William. There is some kissing here, which the kids in the book club found deeply amusing!

The second strand to the book is the search for Kasienka’s father. Her mother sets about the task with great energy, knocking on doors, marking off the streets on the map as they go. Kasienka is doubtful about this work and you sense early on that she realises long before her mother that her father does not want to be found and that they would be better off giving him up. They do eventually find him, with a new (English) partner and a baby. Kasienka then has to cope with her mother’s depression and despair. Things do work out in the end for them but the themes are clearly quite challenging. The book club coped well with it and particularly enjoyed the occasional minor swear word!

A word on the format, which is quite unique. It’s written in verse form, although it flows more like prose and each chapter is very short, with each topic covered as an extended poem. This makes it quite powerful. Here is an example of one of the early chapters, entitled ‘Mistaken’, when Kasienka is beginning to realise the scale of the challenge facing them in their new life:

“When Mama said

‘We’re going to England,’

I didn’t see myself

Alone.

I knew I’d be different,

Foreign.

I knew I wouldn’t understand

Everything.

But I thought, maybe, I’d be exotic,

Like a red squirrel among the grey,

Like an English girl would be in Gdansk.

But I am not an English girl in Gdansk.

I’m a Pole in Coventry.

And that is not the same thing

At all. “

I really enjoyed this book and my 11 year old daughter did too. It’s a good one for this age group so if you have a child transitioning from primary to secondary I’d recommend it for the holidays perhaps, particularly if you’re travelling abroad; it may help them to think about what it feels like to move to a foreign country.

‘In the Dutch Mountains’ by Cees Nooteboom

As a mother of three, I find it is always a challenge to get back into the swing of things after a school holiday. I am self-employed and work from home so I tend to take the holidays ‘off’ (insofar as one is ever ‘off’ as a parent!), but it always seems to take me a week or so to restore the term-time order of things and get back into my rhythm, including my reading rhythm. The dynamic at home has also been affected by the fact that my eldest is deep in GCSE revision and now on study leave, wanting feeding during the day and everything!

We took a short family holiday to the Netherlands over Easter, a country we know well and have visited annually for many years now. We spend our time either in Amsterdam (a fab city for kids, by the way) or in the far south of the country in Zeeland, a fascinating area for which I have a very deep affection. I’m a bit reluctant to plug it because it’s authentic and unspoilt, but we love the cycling, the beaches, the space, the calm, the beautiful and historic Dutch and Belgian towns and the warm welcome we receive each time we go there.

Despite my love of Holland, its art and architecture and its people, I am ashamed to say that I know very little about its literature, so on this trip I decided to take with me a book called In the Dutch Mountains by Cees Nooteboom. He is one of the giants of not only the Dutch but also the wider European literary tradition. I picked up this book at a secondhand stall in a market in Dublin, so this particular copy is well-travelled!

Since starting this blog almost a year ago my reading habits have changed; I now find I am reading much more newly-published work than I have ever done before, which is great, but that has been at the expense of my reading of the classics or other contemporary fiction from recent years which I have wanted to read. There really are only so many hours in a day, after all! So, it felt lovely to be picking up a novel that was first published in 1984 and is widely considered to be a modern classic.

2017-04-26 13.45.25What is so immediately intriguing about the title of the novel, of course, is that Holland is very, very flat. But In the Dutch Mountains imagines a world where the Netherlands extends much further south of its modern borders to northern Spain and the Pyrenees (hence the Dutch mountains). The narrator is himself a Spaniard, a civil servant who not only relates the story, but also philosophises on the processes of writing and story-telling: a story within a story. The main characters in the tale are Kai and Lucia, a slightly other-worldly circus couple, remarkable for their physical perfection, who are relieved of their jobs (because times have moved on and audience tastes have changed) and find themsleves travelling south to look for work. Kai is kidnapped and Lucia sets out on a journey to find him, accompanied by an old woman she meets on the way who agrees to drive her to find her lover.

The book is a vivid re-telling and reinterpretation of an iconic European fairy-tale, The Ice Queen, and explores the boundaries between myth and reality, but as a 21st century reader the strongest themes that came out for me were that of migration (for work), and what it means to be one nationality or another. The author contrasts the orderly, tidy north (what we now know as Holland) and the more chaotic, but freer south. He himself is Dutch but his narrator is part of the Spanish establishment (an inspector of roads), who happens to be a part-time novelist and philosopher. Alfonso, the narrator, is writing in the quiet of a school, empty of children who are on their summer holiday, a middle-aged adult sitting at a diminutive desk and chair. Thus the novel sets up a whole series of contradictions which invite us to challenge our assumptions and expectations.

This is a short novel, but one which merits reading slowly and deeply, and I will probably re-read it at some point. It won the 1993 European Prize for Literature.  It was a curious read and I can’t exactly say I loved it, but I did find it fascinating, and it wasn’t at all what I expected. I think it’s always good to push your reading boundaries and as I read this book I certainly found myself drawn into a very different literary tradition than the one I have become used to in recent years. As a citizen of a nation that has expressed its intention to leave the European Union I feel strongly that European literature has a great deal to offer us in terms of enhancing our understanding of and empathy with our near neighbours, and I intend to read more of it in the future.

What European novels have you read? Do you think they are different in style and tone to English literature?

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Books for Spring

What do you think of when you think of Spring? I think of birth, renewal, reinvigoration, green shoots, hope, beginnings, fresh air, clean, the colour yellow, eggs, baby animals and life. There is a little more light each day, and it’s getting ever so slightly warmer. I want to be outdoors and I want to let the outside in by throwing open the windows. It’s also a time when people start to think about putting into effect changes they’d like in their lives, whether that be losing weight, decluttering or pursuing a new venture, because it’s easier to motivate yourself when the sun is shining and you have more energy.

With all those things in mind, I have come up with a list of books for Spring, a mix of fiction and non-fiction, hopefully covering a broad range of topics and interests.+

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  1. The Life Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo – for those of you determined to do some spring decluttering. I read it last year and you can read my review here. It is a great talking point even if you don’t follow the Kon-Mari method for clearing your home and unblocking your life to the letter.
  2. My Mother My Self by Nancy Friday – 26th March is Mothering Sunday in the UK and I think this book is essential reading for all women. I learned so much about myself when I first read this some years ago, reflected a great deal on my mother and my relationship with her, and thought about the kind of mother I wish to be to my daughters.It covers all sorts of issues from how we talk about our bodies, sex,
  3. We: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel – I am a huge fan of Gillian Anderson and I am dying to read this book. She is a very interesting and uncompromising woman who is open about her lifelong struggles with mental health. Jennifer Nadel is apparently a writer friend of hers.
  4. Gut: the inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ by Giulia Enders – the microbiome is getting a lot of publicity at the moment as we realise how little we have still to learn about the body and the influences on our health prognosis. This is a fascinating book, not just a handbook on how you can improve your overall health through what you eat, but, for those of us who like our advice to come backed up by a little more evidence, has plenty of science in it too.
  5. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid – published just last week, I’m very keen to read this. Globalisation and migration will be the defining issues of our time, I suspect, and this book is a novel about two young lovers who leave their home in the ‘east’, as civil war is about to break out, and plan their escape to an idealised ‘west’. The seemingly impossible clash between the desire of those who want a better life and those who are anxious about the pace of change is explored.
  6. Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo – Chimamanda Nogozi Adiche, possibly one of Nigeria’s finest literary figures, has been in the news a lot recently, as her views and publications on feminism have been getting some profile. Her work has certainly roused my interest in African women writers (I’ll be writing more about this in a future blog) and this novel by Adebayo stood out for me when the longlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced last week. It is the story of a young woman whose husband and family are desperate for her to have a child, yet she seems unable to conceive. It is set in 1980s Nigeria and explores the social and cultural pressures faced by Yejide, the main character.
  7. Tweet of the Day: a year of Britain’s birds by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss – I have a bit of a phobia about birds, but I love them and am fascinated by them at the same time. This is a really gorgeous book that I want to look at when I see all the young birds landing on my neighbour’s bird feeder (we have a cat, so a bird feeder is not an option for us!)
  8. A Year in the Life of the Yorkshire Shepherdess by Amanda Owen – the story of a farmer in a remote Yorkshire location. She has eight children, so plenty of birth and renewal here. Also, the very outdoor nature of her and her family’s life may inspire you if you want to get your family off the sofa.
  9. The Detox Kitchen Bible by Lily Simpson and Rob Hobson – Spring is a good time for a health detox, I find. I have my own little detox method, which I’ve used for years, but if you’re looking for one for yourself this book, published at the end of 2016, has had some excellent reviews.
  10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – you don’t need an excuse to revisit this classic, but if you want one, Charlotte was born in the Spring (21st April 1816) and she died in the Spring (31st March 1855).

 

What are your recommendations for Spring reading?

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Finished at last!

 

Do Not Say We Have Nothing img

I cannot remember when it last took me so long to read a book. I started reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing in early January and finished it at the end of February. I toyed with giving up on it (as I blogged about here), but instead I took a couple of ‘breaks’ to read other books, which interrupted the flow for me a little, but also helped me to persevere. At over 460 pages it’s of a considerable length, but I’ve taken less time to read longer books. It’s a tremendous achievement, a work of scholarship, but I found it really hard-going. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize last year; I’ve read the other five and I have to say that although in some ways this is the ‘finest’ book, it was not, for me at least, the best read. It has also been longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, announced today.

I’m also finding it fiendishly difficult to review! It’s a book about China. It covers a period from the mid-1960s, when Mao’s Cultural Revolution was instigated, to the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the government’s military reaction to which resulted in several hundred deaths. These deaths, however, pale into insignificance when compared to the thousands, possibly millions who were tortured, killed and persecuted in the previous forty years under Communist rule. The great horror the author explores more closely in this book, however, is the obsessive annihilation of all ‘unauthorised’ culture.

The novel begins in Canada where 10-year old Marie lives with her mother. Marie’s father, we learn, committed suicide, leaving many papers and a mystery. Then Ai-Ming comes into their lives, a refugee from China whose links to Marie’s father are not clear initially. She is a troubled young woman, though at this stage we do not know why. Marie becomes close to Ai-Ming and with her she begins to uncover some of the mysteries lying within her father’s remaining effects, but Ai-Ming eventually disappears, leaving many unanswered questions. Marie sets out to uncover the full story of the connections between Ai-Ming’s family and her father and most of the book is a detailed first hand account of these events.

Ai-Ming’s father, Sparrow, was a gifted composer at the prestigious musical academy in Shanghai. Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, a little younger and a gifted pianist. The third key individual is Zhuli, Sparrow’s young cousin who lives with him and his parents because her own parents have been imprisoned in remote labour camps for crimes against the state. Zhuli is a prodigious violinist. For each of our three main protagonists, music not only dominates their life, but their whole being. The homogenisation of culture under Mao, the proscribing of musical performance and the condemnation of musicians as ‘bourgeois rightists’ has profound effects on their lives. The book is primarily about how each is affected, both the shared horror they feel, and the different paths they must each follow for self-preservation.

It is a profoundly moving book: the horrors of the time are recounted in breathtaking detail and the aims of the book are noble. The author paints a picture of how the Cultural Revolution, by denying the expression of a shared history through art, literature and music, and by prohibiting so much that was beautiful and valuable, was a programme of dehumanisation that exercised control by turning a mass of people into savages. There is no doubt that Madeline Thien is an extremely talented writer. However, I was only able to become really engaged with the book partway through; the first hundred pages or so just failed to move me at all. I found the transitions from 1990 Canada to 1960s China rather clunky; each time we were with Ai-Ming and Marie and just beginning to get to know them, we were suddenly drawn back to China and a set of random characters in whom I struggled to get interested. It was when Sparrow, Zhuli and Kai’s story came to the fore that I began to become more invested. Even then though there would be extremely long sections of the book telling us their story, without even a mention of Ai-Ming and Marie. Yes, the author ties everything up very cleverly at the end, but it rather rendered the Ai-Ming/Marie reflective device a bit redundant. I think it would have been just as good a story without involving these two at all.

So, a powerful and moving book, a necessary one perhaps, demonstrating the dangers of oppression, control and the regulation of art and culture, but a book that is hard-going at times.

Have you read this book? I’d be interested in your views

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What to do when a book feels like a hard slog?

Last Autumn I set myself a challenge to read the full Man Booker Shortlist 2016 (six books). I didn’t manage all of them before the winner, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, was announced. I planned to complete and review the final one on my list (Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien) this week, but I’m afraid I haven’t finished it; it is taking me an inordinate amount of time to get through!

swan-319379_640Now, dear reader, this blog is rather like the proverbial swan – whilst it may look smooth and effortless to you on the surface, the planning (reading, idea generation, social media, writing, etc) that goes on behind the scenes is like a military operation! Well, not exactly, but, you know, I do plan my reading, aim to bring you a book a week and try to blog twice a week. And this book has totally blown my schedule! You know what it’s like when you’ve got a busy day planned either at home or at work…and you hear the words “Mum, I’ve just been sick!” and you know your day is irretrievably banjaxed. Well, that’s how I feel.

2017-02-08-11-48-44Do Not Say We Have Nothing, broadly speaking, is about China after the revolution, what it was like living under the dictatorship of Mao Tse Tung and about the hardships endured by the population, particularly by artists and intellectuals, in an era when culture was heavily proscribed. I have had a lifelong fascination with China, have read very widely about this enormously diverse and culturally rich nation, so I should be loving it. But I’m not! And I’m barely halfway through! I took a break from it this week and read Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe (which I’ll be reviewing soon), and that book is at the very opposite end of the literary spectrum – light, fun, quick to read. Many people probably would have given up by now. After all, a book, particularly a long one, is a huge investment is it not? I rarely give up on a book – I gave up on White Teeth by Zadie Smith a few years ago after a couple of false starts, but I have always planned to go back to it. My rationale for continuing with Do Not Say We Have Nothing is as follows:

  1. I’ve already sunk several hours into it
  2. I keep thinking that it’ll get more enjoyable
  3. It seems a worthy book, so I feel I ought to finish it
  4. I set myself the challenge to complete the shortlist and I can’t let one book make me fail.

Reasons 2 and 4 are the most compelling. So, I will carry on to the bitter end and hope that a turn of the plot will make it all worthwhile. I’ll keep you posted!

Do you give up on a book if you’re not enjoying it?

If you’ve already read this book, I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether you think it’ll be worth it in the end. Is it just me?

A tale for our times?

This week I’d like to tell you about a book I read over the Christmas holidays. It was not a cheerful book, but it certainly made me reflect and think, as I am wont to do at that time of the year. I’m surprised it hasn’t received more attention as it is a beautiful, powerful and challenging exposition of an issue which is rarely out of the headlines: the movement of large numbers of people from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe.

2017-01-11-13-23-50

Listeners to Radio 4’s PM news programme will be familiar with Emma Jane Kirby and her reporting on the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. In her dispatches she has returned frequently to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, located about halfway between Sicily and north Africa (Tunisia and Libya). It has become infamous in recent years as the target destination for North Africans fleeing chaos, poverty, war and social disintegration in their own countries, and looking for a more settled way of life in Europe. Mostly, they flee on vessels that are barely seaworthy and thousands of people have died en route.

The book is written from the point of view of a local optician on the island who became deeply and personally embroiled in the crisis when he, his wife and six of their friends found themselves rescuing dozens of stranded and desperate migrants. They were on a sailing trip and were awoken early one morning by a noise they thought initially was coming from excited gulls. In fact the noises were human screams and cries. A flimsy boat, carrying possibly hundreds of people, was sinking and its occupants were drowning.

The eight friends set about a desperate rescue mission, pulling as many people as they could from the sea, dragging them onto their own small boat, and endangering its stability in the process. They rescued dozens before help finally arrived, in the form of the coastguard, who immediately ordered them to cease their mission, as they were putting their own vessel at risk of sinking, and to return to port. The friends do as they are told, bringing those they have rescued to safety on land. They are haunted, however, by the images of what they have witnessed at sea, the deaths of so many whom they did not, could not have, rescued.

The book is very short but it packs a mighty punch. It tells the human story behind the headlines, and this is what has been so powerful about Emma Jane’s reporting on the issue. Through its intense focus on the thoughts and feelings of one individual who played a direct part in saving the lives of so many, it brings to light, not the social and political challenges of this terrible and desperate phenomenon that is covered so extensively in our news, but the personal human catastrophe for those lost, and their loved ones, and those on the island of Lampedusa for whom the crisis is part of their daily life.

It’s the ordinariness that comes through; the optician lives a modest but happy life in a beautiful part of the world. He is not wealthy but he provides a valuable service to his community and wants for little. Like most of us. His small life is completely upended by the events of that terrible day, which is described in vivid detail. He, his wife and his friends are changed irrevocably by their experience and the latter part of the book is an account of how he is transformed.

It is a powerful piece of writing; with a journalist’s eye the author picks out the details which tell the story – for example, the incongruity of the donated clothing worn by the migrants at the reception centre. They have nothing and depend for everything on what people have given.

This book provides a powerful insight to one of the biggest news stories of our age, where the people involved are often objectified and dehumanised. Should be required reading for politicians.