Book review – “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred D Taylor

I chose this book as February’s choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge 2019. The theme for the month was a YA novel. First published in 1976, this rather pre-dates the emergence of the YA genre, so it does not fit quite so comfortably. However, it is a classic and, in my view, essential teenage reading. My edition is published by Puffin and the narrator and main character is a child, but make, no mistake, the themes here are mature and heavyweight.

Roll of Thunder imgRoll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is the first of three novels by Mildred D Taylor about the Logan family, black farmers in Mississippi, set in the 1930s. They are poor, but they own their own small piece of land, Grandfather Logan having bought it in the 1880s from local landowner Harlan Granger, much to the chagrin of some of the white locals who still cannot accept the social changes giving black people greater autonomy and rights. Grandfather Logan is now dead and the central character, Cassie, lives on the farm with her parents, her grandmother and three brothers. Despite owning 400 acres, the family still struggles to make ends meet, which is why Cassie’s father works away much of the year, on the railroad construction, and her mother works as a teacher at the local (black) school. All the family contributes to the running of the farm and the income it generates.

The scene is set beautifully, mainly through the four children and in particular, Cassie’s narration. The children have the same worldview of any kids their age, but even at their young age they have a strong awareness of their low status compared to their white counterparts, for example, in the way most of the local white children treat them and how the white kid’s school seems so much better resourced (they even have a bus, while the Logan children have to walk several miles every day). The unfairness is not lost on the children and sometimes they express their sense of injustice in ways that worry the adults, who know that for their own safety they must just keep their heads down and accept the reality. The early chapters set all these conditions in place and the readers is aware of the underlying tensions in the community that might erupt at the slightest provocation.

And that provocation soon comes along. Little Man, the youngest of the Logan children and a very fastidious boy, rejects a book given out to him in class because it is shabby. The books, cast-off by the white’s school as too damaged to use any longer, have been bestowed upon the black children and they are expected to be grateful. Little Man’s rejection of the damaged book is considered an affront too far, even by his teacher (it is interesting how most of the black adults in the book have been rendered completely docile by conditioning and by the threat of retribution if they speak out). For appearance’s sake, the children’s mother has to mete out Little Man’s severe punishment (being beaten), even though it pains her to do so. She decides to cover all of the children’s books, to make them appear fresher, but when this is spotted by the local (white) inspector, it has severe consequences for her too.

A series of other events set off a cascade of problems for the Logan family. For example, when the owner of the local store, upon which they all depend, appears to be treating his black customers unfairly, Cassie’s parents try to set up an arrangement whereby they make collective bulk purchases from a store charging better prices in a neighbouring town and the Logans transport the goods on their wagon. This riles the white community (black people have no right to make such a stand and resist the control being exercised over them) and the family is threatened.

Events take increasingly grave turns and the threat of violence, even death and financial ruin are never very far away. As you would expect from a novel for this age group, crisis is averted when a disaster at the end manages to bring the community back together in the most unexpected way. However, the novel does not shy away from suggesting that a terrible confrontational denouement is merely averted and not truly eliminated. It is happy for now, not happy ever after, as we know from the civil rights history of the USA. By the end of the novel, one thing is for sure and that is that nine year-old Cassie will never see the world in quite the same way again. Events have forced her out of her naïve belief in fairness and into an awareness that life, for her ilk at least, is definitely not fair.

I found this novel really gripping. I loved the characters, the dialogue with and between the children felt very authentic and the writing flows beautifully. It is a packed novel for its 220 pages, dealing with some important issues that will help to illustrate the African-American experience during a dark period in America’s history.

Highly recommended.

If you have read this book, either recently or when you were younger, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Are you ready for The Oscars?

Well, if you’re like me and based in the UK you probably won’t be staying up until the wee small hours awaiting the big announcements, especially as it’s a school night!

Books are more my thing than films, for sure, but I do love a good movie and going to the cinema remains a treat, even with all the alternative options we have today, such as DVDs, television subscription channels and live streaming. The UK Academy Awards (the BAFTAs) have got bigger over the years, but still don’t match the glitz and the prestige of the Oscars, even though scandals and mishaps have tarnished the image of the US awards ceremony in recent times.

if beale street could talk imgI’m always looking for the films with literary links and they are particularly scarce this year. If Beale Street Could Talk is the only novel-based film, that I could spot, and is based on the Harlem-set love story by James Baldwin, first published in 1974. I’ve just started reading it. The Spike Lee film BlacKkKlansman and the comedy Can You Ever Forgive Me? are both based on memoirs, the former a true story of a young African-American detective who set out to infiltrate and bring down the KKK, and the latter, starring Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant, also a memoir, about a celebrity biographer who finds herself out of work and changes tack to become a forger. This one also has a female director (too rare). I haven’t yet seen any of these films, but all of them appeal.

The three films above all have chances of winning big and have been nominated in a number of categories, but I note that in the Best Adapted Screenplay category the Coen brothers have a nomination for The Ballad of Buster Scraggs, a film based partly on short stories, written by the Coen brothers themselves. I don’t know much about this one and I don’t think it’s on general release yet in the UK.

Traditionally, when the Oscars come around, many of the films are fairly new to the UK, so audiences here may not have seen some of them, for example, The Wife, which has not yet reached the north of England. Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born seem to have been around forever. Neither really appeals to me, although friends who have seen them say both are great.

I have seen Roma, Vice and The Favourite and loved all three. Roma was probably the one I found most moving, although Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, manages to draw out the heartbreaking loneliness and isolation of the troubled monarch. Vice is just scary!

I don’t know enough about the film world to offer my top tips, but I will watch the highlights tomorrow with interest and hope that the script for the myriad presenters is less cringe-making than poor Joanna Lumley’s at the BAFTAs!

Which of the big Oscar-nominated movies have you seen and what are your favourites?

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A few days in Madrid

It has been half term in our household this week. My husband took our daughters off to visit family so I decided that I would take a trip with our eldest, to spend some quality mother and son time together. He will be taking his Spanish A level this summer so I thought it would be good to try and get him to Spain for a bit of speaking practice. I booked the flights three months ago and chose Madrid mainly because we got a fantastic price and the flight times were great. To be honest, though, I was open to going anywhere in Spain; I have been to Barcelona, San Sebastian and the Southern tip around Jerez and Tarifa, and have enjoyed my trips there very much.

Madrid, where both the grand architecture and the narrow streets bring equal pleasures.

Madrid is one of the must-see European cities. There are not too many major ‘sights’ to see, so it is not overwhelming in the same way that, say London or Paris can be (visitors to London: where do you start?), and they are mostly within a compact city centre area. You can take some great trips out of the city, for example to Toledo and Segovia, both within an hour or so, but we decided that remaining central would best suit our purpose. It is a city for walking, eating and art. We took a relaxed approach to sightseeing, soaked up the atmosphere and enjoyed it immensely.

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Our companion was the Lonely Planet guide to Madrid (I find these are consistently the best travel books). On the first day we followed the suggested walking tour of old Madrid, taking in, amongst other things, the Palacio Real, the cathedral, the Plaza Mayor and, very importantly, the iconic Chocolateria De San Gines, for the ubiquitous churros and hot chocolate (take a bottle of water with you, it is very rich!)

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Madrid’s oldest tree, planted 1633

On the second day we walked round the wonderful Parque del Buen Retiro, the huge park to the east of the city centre, with its wonderful gardens, footpath, boating lake… and more churros! Madrid’s oldest tree, a Mexican conifer planted in 1633 and with a 52m trunk circumference, stands impressively opposite the Puerte Felipe IV entrance. Near the border of the park is the stunning Museo del Prado, which we went to in the afternoon. Most galleries of this stature need two or three visits to even begin to appreciate the collection, but if you are on a short visit it is worth just taking in the highlights, and the museum provides a handy leaflet with all of these listed. Our guidebook recommended going soon after opening to avoid the queues, but we went around lunchtime and there was no queue at all. The cafe in the museum was over-priced and not particularly good.

On the third day we went to the far west of the city centre to the Parque del Oeste. We planned to go on the Teleferico, a 2.5km cable car that travels over the vast green Casa de Campo, but sadly it was closed for maintenance (an issue with low season). We went to the tiny church of Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida (above) where there are some incredible Goya frescos, and the ancient Templo de Debod, a gift from President Nasser of Egypt, dismantled and transported brick by brick in 1968 (sadly, also closed). We walked back along Gran Via and browsed the shops. I always like to get the measure of a place by checking out its bookshops and Madrid has some fantastic ones, with plenty of foreign language books. There was even a bookshop devoted entirely to mountains (Libreria de Montana, above) in the Huertas district!

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Sculpture in the garden of the Centro de Arte Reine Sofia

On our final day we had plenty of time before our late afternoon flight to take in the modern art gallery of Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, not far from where we were staying. I was particularly keen to see Picasso’s Guernica, a painting I have long admired. It is truly stunning and I am thrilled to have been able to see it in the flesh, as it were. It is surely one of the finest anti-war artworks ever, and, 80 years after it was created, is as relevant as ever. It was worth the €10 entrance fee on its own just to see this, but there are many other stunning works of art to take in, including films explaining the context and history, and the main highlights are all on the second floor, again, useful if you have limited time.

My son and I are both fairly frugal by nature so I was keen to try and do the trip on a budget. We stayed in a little apartment in the Lavapies district, which was quiet and is great value. You can eat fairly cheaply, because there is so much choice and the quality is reliably good (definitely unlike London!). We spent €50-60 a day on lunches and dinners, including a glass of wine with meals. I bought a 10-journey Metro ticket, but we didn’t use it all up as we were able to walk nearly everywhere. That would no doubt have been less comfortable in the summer. February was a great time of year to go and I would definitely recommend it – the weather was mild and sunny and it wasn’t too crowded. We went to the cinema a couple of times, and I was pleasantly surprised to find tickets were only €5-6 each – that’s even cheaper than my little local cinema! My son found this very useful for his Spanish.

Madrid is a fabulous city, the people are warm and friendly, the food is incredible, it’s great value and I recommend it highly. We are completely churro-ed out though!

Have you been to Madrid – what were your highlights?

 

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Facebook Reading Challenge 2019 – February’s choice

I was in two minds whether to relaunch my online reading challenge for 2019, not least because I am not one of those bloggers who is able to plan and post in a wholly disciplined way (cf. the fact I am posting about February’s choice halfway through the month!) I am a mother of three teenagers, work part-time, blah, blah, blah, I know you’ve heard it all before – we are all busy. I’ve set myself a reading challenge for the past couple of years now, with the aim of trying to expand my reading from my usual genres and authors, and really enjoyed it. Then in 2018 I took it online and set up a Facebook group for others to take part. To my great surprise and pleasure, it was fairly successful and I enjoyed the conversations we had about the books we’d read, even if they weren’t always universally liked – sometimes you can have more to say or more fun commenting on the ones you don’t like.

Towards the end of the year, though, I faltered, both in my regularity of posting and my ability to get through the books I was selecting for us. This was due largely to family pressures and a period of not being very well. I’d more or less decided that I wouldn’t continue the challenge into 2019, until a few members of the group contacted me to say that they had really enjoyed it. Suitably re-motivated, I relaunched for 2019, albeit a little into January…

Roll of Thunder imgIn January the theme was a humorous novel and we read Beryl Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outingwhich I reviewed here last week and which, I think it’s fair to say, did not go down a storm! The theme for February is a YA novel and my selection is Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor. This was first published in 1976, probably before the concept of the YA genre as we understand it truly existed, so it is perhaps more accurately categorised as a teen novel. It is widely read as part of the KS3 school curriculum I believe.

Set in the Deep South of America during The Great Depression in the 1930s, its themes are challenging, and the threat of, as well as actual, violence, is never very far away. The central character is Cassie Logan, a nine year-old black girl growing up in a small town and gradually learning about ‘how life is’ for people like her. I am well into the book already and am finding it thoroughly gripping. The evocation of time and place is very powerful and the characterisation very strong. I think this one will be more widely enjoyed.

If you would like to join the conversation, it’s not too late to take part. The book is fairly short so you could easily read it in a few sittings (perfect for teenagers!) I will endeavour to post on time at the end of the month to start the discussion!

Happy reading!

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Audiobook review: “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” by Elena Ferrante

I’ve just finished listening to this, the third book from Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. There are four volumes in total and I’ve chosen to listen to all of them on audio, mainly because I love the languid narration by Hilary Huber; she has really brought the characters alive for me and has managed to execute distinctly both the male and the female characters, something which I think is rare in an audiobook.

This is an extraordinary series and if you have not come across them yet (if you’re interested in books you will have been hard-pressed to avoid them since they were published to great acclaim between 2012 and 2015) I would definitely urge you to seek them out. As with the first two volumes, it has taken me some time to get through this book, mainly because I listen to it in 10-15 minute snatches on walks to the shops, etc. My enjoyment is none the worse for that, however; I would say in fact that it has added to my appreciation since this series is truly an epic saga than a set of novels, so broad is the sweep of time that they cover, so the long duration of my listening has given me a strong feeling for that.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay imgThis third book picks up precisely where volume two left off, at a small book launch for Elena’s first book, a mildly sexual novel which has caused a stir, and where she is being questioned in a patronising way by an obnoxious critic. A familiar face from Naples walks into the room – Nino Sarratore – and Elena’s confidence is restored. Nino has been a friend since childhood, and there is a complicated triangular relationship between him, Elena and Lila, the main but elusive protagonist of all the books. Elena has been in love with Nino since they were young, but this has not been reciprocated. Like Elena, Nino proved to be a successful student, despite the disadvantages of background and upbringing, and would go on to achieve great things academically, though both know that neither is as brilliant as their mutual friend Lila, with whom Nino was once in a relationship, but who would never reach the academic heights of the other two.

In this volume we follow Elena’s blossoming career as a writer, her marriage to a young Professor, Pietro Airota, and therefore, finally, Elena’s apparent full admission to the bourgeois intellectual circles she has always craved. At the same time, Lila’s life is taking a very different turn – she has left her abusive husband, the vulgar shopkeeper Stefano Carracci, had a child, and leads a modest life. At times, Lila’s life seems extremely harsh, particularly the period when she is working for Bruno Saccavo at the sausage factory, exploited by him and disliked and abused by some of her fellow workers. As Elena’s fortunes are rising, so Lila’s seem to be at their lowest ebb.

As life events ebb, however, so must they also flow, and things reverse. After a period of ill-health, Lila finally manages to claw her way back when she gets a job working for IBM, alongside Enzo Scanno, where she quickly becomes indispensable and starts earning a high salary (the contrast here is that she has achieved this off her own bat, whereas for Elena, despite her academic achievements, her prosperity is largely due to her marriage). At the same time, Elena’s career as a writer stalls, coinciding with the births of her two daughters. She resents her husband for his lack of participation in the household, while she is deeply frustrated by the mediocrity of her daily life, and having to take a back seat while he focuses on his academic career.

The pace of the book becomes quite intense at the end as events spiral towards an inevitable conclusion, which I don’t want to spoil. The writing in this, as in the other two books in the series, is remarkable, and the acute observation of character detail is fascinating and deeply engaging. The dialogue is also some of the most authentic I have ever read. The books have been translated by Ann Goldstein who also deserves praise for her very fine work here.

I am looking forward to the fourth and final book in the series, and highly recommend these novels. Do start with the first one, My Brilliant Friend, and whilst the audio is fantastic, I have also found it useful to have a hard copy to hand to remind myself of the very wide cast of characters.

Have you read Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels – how do you rate them?

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Book review: “The Bottle Factory Outing” by Beryl Bainbridge

This was my January pick for my 2019 Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme for this month being a humorous novel. I hadn’t read any Bainbridge before and had read that this was considered a comic masterpiece and was in fact shortlisted the Booker Prize in 1974 when it was first published (Bainbridge had no less than four novels shortlisted). This book also won the Guardian Fiction Prize.

So, the book has a pedigree and I had high expectations. I enjoyed it, but I’m afraid to say that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected. Perhaps it’s partly timing; I posted a review last week of The Overstory, a book which I found breathtakingly good, and which I completed just before starting this one and I fear that it suffered somewhat in comparison. Perhaps I wasn’t ready for humour after that! I seem to remember having similar feelings about the books I read immediately after completing Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life a couple of years ago. There are some books which just need a little more time to sit with you before you launch into something else.

The Bottle Factory Outing imgIn summary, this book is set in the late ‘60s, early 70s and is about Freda and Brenda, two young women who work together in a London factory where Italian wine is bottled. They also live together in a pokey bedsit, and share a double bed at nights. Freda is blonde, buxom and outgoing, sexually frustrated and of a romantic inclination. She has the hots for Vittorio, the nephew of the factory’s Italian owner, and fantasises about being seduced by him, contriving situations to enable this. Brenda is a redhead, but mousey in personality, timid and sexually repressed. She has left her drunken husband Stanley in the Yorkshire farmhouse which they shared with his domineering mother. Freda and Brenda met after Brenda had a tearful outburst in a butcher’s shop. Freda took her in and got her a job at the factory. Freda can be kind but also cruel and the book is as much about the complex nature of relationships between women as anything else.

Almost all the other factory workers are Italian, expect Patrick, an Irishman who seems to be quite protective towards Brenda. The first quarter or so of the book is spent setting the scene before the ‘outing’ takes place. The outing, which was supposed to be by coach to a stately home, was Freda’s idea and was simply one of her plots to try and get Vittorio to declare his passion for her. Inevitably, things start to go wrong when the expected coach does not arrive and some workers have to go home while others pile into cars, and the outing turns into farce. It is a cold and bleak October day, so Freda’s fantasy of a sunlit picnic and strolling through romantic gardens with her hoped-for lover were never going to be realised. The other side-plot is that Brenda is being relentlessly pursued by the (older and married) Rossi, manager of the factory. At work he is always trying to get her into compromising situations.

The outing occupies most of the rest of the book. Inevitably, not all goes to plan and there is a dramatic and unexpected twist, which I won’t spoil by sharing with you. There is definitely humour, but it is very dark. By coincidence, there was a BBC radio broadcast of the story (abridged of course) in mid-January, where the wonderful Maxine Peake and Diane Morgan took the parts of Freda and Brenda, respectively, and Sue Johnstone (masterful) narrates. They drew out both the humour and the tenderness very effectively. In fact I enjoyed the broadcast slightly more than the book! I think this was because the ironic interpretation came across more strongly (the process of abridging perhaps?) and that felt more satisfying for a 21st century reading. Clearly we still have quite a way to go when it comes to gender equality, but you forget how bad things were only 40-50 years ago. In the context of the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment of women in the workplace is more difficult to find funny. Perhaps I am being far too earnest!

I enjoyed the book, but must confess that reading it did at times make me a bit uncomfortable. Which is a shame because I think it is a far more complex novel than a first (post-Overstory) reading allows. I think I need to read it again!

Hmm, what do you think?

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Book review – “The Overstory” by Richard Powers

According to my Goodreads account, I started this book on 4 December. It was the final book I tackled on last year’s Man Booker Shortlist. I have only just finished it. It has taken me well over six weeks. I have read a couple of other books alongside it, mainly because it is currently only available in hardback and at 502 pages it does not slip readily into the handbag. It is also a book that demands to be read slowly, almost at the pace of a tree growing, so it requires something of an investment. If you are put off already, read on, because I must balance that by saying that it is a quite extraordinary book and every hour I have spent with it has been time well spent. It is not a book that rewards being read a few pages at a time, it is best approached with an hour or so in hand.

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It is hard to know where to begin to describe it so I will give you the New York Times quote from inside the dustjacket:

“A monumental novel about reimagining our place in the living world.”

After reading it you cannot help but feel that the human race is bent on a suicidal mission, that we will take most of nature down with us and that our tenure as a species on this earth has been wild and reckless and over in the blink of an eye (in evolutionary terms). We’re on the way out I’m afraid. The author’s framework for exploring this is the life of trees. The number and range of trees on the planet was once phenomenal, and humans have systematically destroyed most of them, in the pursuit of so-called ‘progress’, grazing land and space for short-term cash crops, a grossly selfish and short-sighted error of judgement:

“We’re cashing in on a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.” (p386)

This is the essential powerful message of the book and his method of telling it is also extraordinary. The first part ‘Roots’ is made up of individual chapters about nine individuals, their background, how they came to be at whatever stage of life they are at and, for some, how their families came to be in America. For each individual, trees represent some significant event in their lives. For example, Douglas Pavlicek served in Vietnam and after his plane was hit, he parachuted out and his landing in a banyan tree saved his life.

The second part of the book ‘Trunk’ is the most substantial and details how each of the individuals lives proceed. For example, Neelay, badly paralysed after a childhood fall from a tree becomes a powerful computer games entrepreneur when he invents an extraordinary virtual world. Patricia, an introverted sight and hearing impaired young girl, whose father invested in her a love of nature, becomes an academic but her book about the secret language of trees is derided and she retreats to a reclusive life as a ranger. Many years later, others will agree with her and her thesis becomes fashionable and influential. Olivia, who almost died in part one, becomes an activist, and hooks up with Nicholas, who lost his entire family in part one after they were accidentally poisoned with gas in the family home. The two of them occupy a giant redwood tree in forest threatened by loggers for many months, though ultimately their protest proves futile (this is a metaphor). Many of the characters’ lives intersect, while others remain firmly parallel, for example Dorothy and her quadriplegic husband Ray; it is not clear until close to the end how their story is relevant.

The third part of the book ‘Crown’ is a coming together of all these separate stories, the logical conclusion to the each of the individuals’ stories and the fourth part ‘Seeds’ is about the legacy they leave behind. The end is anti-climactic in some ways, but I think that is the point; for all our ego and self-importance, the mark that humans will leave is pretty insignificant in the long-term. We will simply destroy ourselves. As the book progresses the pace also picks up, as does the switching between the individuals and their stories and the sense is created of humans accelerating towards their decline.

It is hard to do justice to the book in a short review. It is a book which merits deep reading. It is a remarkable concept and remarkable in execution and the writing is sublime, possibly the finest prose I have read in years. In some ways it has left me profoundly depressed about the direction the world is going on – it would be easy to focus on the events of recent years for examples of this but the reality is we have been crafting our own demise for decades, since the Industrial Revolution. Despite all the evidence, we continue to press on with our self-destruction, although there are a few people out there trying desperately to make their voices heard, the author being one of them – I’ve heard him a few times on the radio making the case for paying attention. The non-depressing thing about the book is the realisation that human beings are actually just a miniscule episode in the natural history of this particular planet, and it will prevail, with or without us. This is the ‘overstory’, the picture that is much bigger than us. In this respect our arrogance, particularly that of some of our world leaders, is really rather laughable. What is fascinating is the why, what drives us humans to behave the way we do, and this book sets about trying to explore that.

Though I really loved Anna Burns’ Milkman and felt it was a worthy winner of the Man Booker, I am also rather desperate for a serious realisation of the impact we are having on the world around us, and feel that greater publicity for this book could at least have contributed something to that debate.

One thing is for sure, I will never look at trees the same way again.

Highly recommended, your patience will be rewarded.

If you have read The Overstory, do you agree with my take on it?

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