A Moranifesto for our time?

2016-09-07-14-15-00This was a library loan, which is problematic as I could only borrow it for 3 weeks (and then another 3 weeks, renewed online), when actually it’s the kind of book that lends itself to being picked up from time to time, read for a few pages and then put down again. It does not work as well when you try to read big chunks of it at bedtime. (And it’s a hefty book!)

The book is basically a collection of Caitlin’s columns over the years, gathered together under broad headings. For those of you unfamiliar with her writing, she is a columnist of the light campaigning variety. She is intelligent, warm, laugh-out-loud funny and wears her heart very much on her sleeve. I love the way she shows her vulnerabilities, which, of course, become her strengths, her humanity. I enjoyed her novel How To Build a Girl (which I think is more or less her early life story), I like the TV show she co-writes with her sister, Raised By Wolves (also part-autobiographical) and I enjoy her writing whenever I come across it. I haven’t read How To Be A Woman, which became a bestseller.

I picked this up in the library after reading an extract in The Guardian Weekend but I’m afraid it left me a bit cold. I love Moran’s sense of humour but it’s not as funny after 20 pages. It works best in short bursts. I’m afraid I gave up at page 135.

In parts the book felt dated; some of the columns were published years ago, eg a few TV reviews of the 2012 Olympics. Another, a TV review about David Bowie, seems unfortunate. (I also got really irritated by the typographical errors not picked up in the editing process!)

Funnily enough, whilst writing this review, I have looked at some of the later columns I hadn’t yet got to, one in particular about the extraordinary power, wealth, stature and hedonism of New York City and what it says about the human race was an interesting read as I spent time there this summer on holiday. So, yes, it works in brief reads, but not one for getting lost in.

Touring the bookshops in NYC

So, it would appear that I haven’t posted a blog for almost a month. I’m afraid, dear Reader, that my tech skills (or was it my ‘phone?) let me down. I did try and post from my mobile but the app was a bit rubbish and I couldn’t make it work.

So, I’m back from my holidays. I spent some time in Dublin with my in-laws and then went on to New York City. (Lucky me, we have family living in Manhattan.) We had a fab couple of weeks, hanging out, doing NYC-type things.

I was also able to indulge my passion! – one of my favourite things to do when I visit a city is to survey the local bookshops. It helps me to get the measure of a place, even if I don’t speak the language! In New York City there is no shortage of bookstores to sample. What is also refreshing is the number of independents.  

‘Three Lives’ on W10th Street in the heart of Greenwich Village is a lovely little establishment where you feel the passion as soon as you walk through the door. It feels like a place that has its finger on the literary pulse. It’s small but beautiful, calm and the stock has been well-selected.

 

 

 

In contrast, sizewise, is Strand Books, on the corner of Broadway and E12th Street, a real NYC institution. It claims to have 18 miles of books on its five floors. It reminded me very much of Foyles in London. It also has trolleys of secondhand books on the street outside where you can pick up some bargains for a couple of dollars (helpful as the exchange rate was not in my favour!)

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Here are my literary holiday souvenirs:2016-09-07-10-20-32

The Treats Truck Baking Book was actually a gift for my daughter, who loves baking. In the Dutch Mountains I bought because the title intrigued me. From the blurb it sounded a bit like an Angela Carter, whom I love. I’m also a lover of all things Dutch. Just Kids I had to buy; I love Patti Smith and have heard her speaking about this book, I think I even read an extract from it when it was first published in 2010. Not sure why I haven’t read it yet, but it seemed fitting to do so now. Hot Milk I actually bought in Dublin at the wonderful Rathgar Bookshop. It’s been long-listed for this year’s Man Booker so I’m looking forward to reading that. The last three? Well, there are stories: in New York one is surrounded by high-achievers and their high-achieving kids, so I got a bit panicked and felt the need to get in on this secret! Unlatched was in the $2 truck – I’m a very gentle Breastfeeding Counsellor and am always perplexed by the passion and ire it evokes in equal measure, so I thought it might give me an insight. Happier At Home was a $1 proof copy. I liked Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project (ever on a quest for self-improvement) and this is the follow-up.

So, I’ll let you know how I get on with these in the coming weeks and months. I’ve got so much in my ‘to read’ pile just now and am really enjoying All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I’ll be back with my latest reviews very soon.

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Three-Lives-Co/116725281685722

http://www.strandbooks.com/

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An absolute joy of a book

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I’m finding this a very hard book to review, because it is incredibly difficult to pin down. When first published (according to the blurb), it was a sensation, was serialised on BBC Radio 4 and sold five million copies worldwide. I have to confess that it passed me by at the time, but in 2008 (it was published in France in 2006) I was knee-deep in small children and did not have much time for reading. If I’d read it then, I suspect I may not have enjoyed it as much, firstly, because, for me, it was a slow-burn and took a while to get to know the characters, and, secondly, because I feel it is best savoured in longer reading sessions (although the chapters are short); my reading habit then was ten minutes a night prior to falling asleep, and this book would not have lent itself to that.

The book is divided into five ‘parts’ and each part is separated into a number of chapters, all of which have very cryptic titles. It is set in an apartment block in an affluent part of Paris. It is written in the first person and there are two narrators: Renee, the middle-aged concierge, and Paloma, the pre-teen daughter of one of the resident families. Both are highly intelligent ‘misfits’. Renee comes from a poor provincial family and never received the education her intellect deserved. She has devoted her adult life to learning at the local library, devouring a diverse range of topics, about which she speaks with knowledge and authority. Sadly for Renee, the class constraints of French society have held her back and she has never felt able to ‘flower’ or to realise her potential. To the residents of the apartment block (most of whom we understand to be buffoons, snobs and poor little rich kids) Renee is careful to maintain the façade of the stereotypical concierge – subservient, truculent and uneducated.

Paloma is a precocious young girl whose superior intelligence means she finds the company of her family irksome as she is irritated by their social and intellectual pretensions. School is also a bore, her teachers dull and obtuse, a place where she feels she has to ‘dumb-down’. Like Renee she prefers to keep her intelligence hidden – for the sake of a quiet life, perhaps, but also I think because she has yet to meet anyone worthy of seeing that side to her.

Then, the mysterious Mr Ozu from Japan moves into the block, following the death of one of the more odious residents, and his presence sparks a fascination in both Renee and Paloma because of their mutual interest in Japanese culture. Continue reading “An absolute joy of a book”

What I’ll be reading this summer

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A couple of weeks ago I blogged about my suggestions for reading this summer.Well, I though I’d share with you what my reading plans are. For me, ‘summer’ means August, when the kids are off school, so that’s when we take our main family holiday. Now that my kids are a little older and don’t need to be watched or played with every waking moment, there really is some downtime during holidays, so I expect to get through all four of the above. I’ll let you know how I get on!

The Glorious Heresies has been on my must-read list for a while, since it was nominated for (and, of course, subsequently won) the Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier this year. The reviews I have read remind me of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy (OMG, had to just look it up – The Commitments film came out in 1991!!!) So, I’m looking forward to something very Irish and very gritty while I’m hanging out in Dublin next week!

The Little Red Chairs will be very Irish, but probably somewhat less gritty. I’ve not read much Edna O’Brien, a gap in my knowledge I think. The novel is about the impact a travelling faith-healer from Eastern Europe has on a small west-coast Irish community. Joseph O’Connor (author of The Star of the Sea, one of my favourite books ever) is quoted on the cover, describing it as ‘Extraordinary’, which is good enough for me.

The House of Hidden Mothers came up in one of those ‘Amazon recommends…’ emails. I don’t normally give in to such blatant marketing, but I do love Meera Syal, such a versatile talent. Its subject matter ticks all my boxes – motherhood, women, families and everyday domestic life which is never as ordinary as it seems at first. I’m sure I will enjoy it. This one for the long ‘plane journey I think.

Finally, All the Light We Cannot See…and I cannot for the life of me think why I chose this! I really liked the cover? I’ve read a few books set during the Second World War recently, and this one, like the ones I really enjoyed, seems to be about people on opposite sides who find each other through their common humanity. Plus, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2015, so that’s as good an endorsement as any.

So, if you like the sound of any of these, look out for my reviews on them in the coming weeks. I’m off to Ireland then America with the family. Whatever you and yours are doing, have a good summer and happy reading!

A superbly unconventional novel

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If you are going to Canada for your holiday this year, this would be a fantastic read. I hope the background I’ve given in the opening paragraphs of my review below doesn’t give away too much information!

Etta and Otto are an elderly married couple. Russell is their friend and neighbour. The three have known each other all their lives. They are all in their twilight years, but there is a sense that they each have something left to do. The narrative is non-linear and as the book progresses Hooper fills in the details of their early lives, how they all met, the circumstances of their childhood and upbringing, and how this human triangle evolved.

We learn that Otto and Russell lived on neighbouring farms, Otto one of a large number of children in a dirt-poor rural family, Russell the nephew of a childless couple who had come to live with his aunt and uncle after his mother left in circumstances that are not fully explained. Etta comes from a more middle-class background, but her early life is devastated by the loss of her beloved sister Alma, who was sent to a convent far away on the coast after becoming pregnant, but who dies in or after childbirth from blood poisoning (there is no word on the child so we must presume it died too).

Etta goes to teacher training college and seizes an opportunity to take a job at a rural school (where the existing teacher had been forced to leave after losing his voice). Here she meets the two boys who are near contemporaries of hers. It is sometime in the late 1930s/early 1940s and, presently, Otto volunteers to join the war and is sent to Europe. Russell remains behind; he was left with a disability after sustaining a childhood injury to his leg, playing on a tractor with Otto and his siblings.

Continue reading “A superbly unconventional novel”

Powerful memories made on a visit to London

I’m just back from a weekend in London with the family. My teenage son is on an exchange trip in Spain at the moment so it was just the four of us (my husband and two daughters). An interesting change in dynamics!

On Saturday we went on a tour of the Houses of Parliament, a great value experience which I recommend highly. It was empowering and at times quite emotive. Both girls really enjoyed it and the timing was serendipitous; they have become very aware of politics in recent months – the Referendum, change of Prime Minister and, sadly, the death of Jo Cox, have put it at the forefront of their young minds. It was an amazing experience for them to stand in the Chamber of the House of Commons, which they have seen so often on the television. I remember going on a tour of the House with my local MP when I was at school, and they had exactly the same reaction I did – how much smaller it is in real life!

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My 12 year-old has also been studying the Suffragettes in school, so it made it very real for her. After our tour of Parliament, we strolled through Victoria Tower Gardens, where there is a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst. At the foot of the memorial there is currently a photo of Jo Cox MP. Coincidentally, we also stayed at a hotel in Victoria, on Caxton Street; Caxton Hall, just along from our hotel, was strongly associated with the Women’s Suffrage movement in the early 20th century.

2016-07-16 17.52.24-1Emmeline Pankhurst was, of course, born in Manchester, and her family home at 62 Nelson St, Chorlton on Medlock, now houses the Pankhurst Centre, which is open to the public on Thursdays. I plan to take the girls there during the school holidays, while the memories are still fresh. (Another coincidence: Emmeline Pankhurst’s birthday was last Friday.)

http://www.thepankhurstcentre.org.uk/

 

 

 

Yes, I know they are young, and I know many parents want to shield their children from news and politics, for good reasons, which I respect. It has been a bloody week, with the terrible events in Nice on Bastille Day and the coup attempt in Turkey. It is hard to manage our children’s access to this information. Whilst in London, we stumbled across an anti-austerity march in Westminster. This was a visceral demonstration of democracy in action for the girls. Sadly, there are too many countries in the world where such a march would be suppressed, and even more where girls and women do no play an equal part in society. Democracy, freedom and equality cannot be taken for granted so I want my kids to know what it takes to fight for those things.

Summer holiday reading suggestions

I’m often asked by friends for holiday reading suggestions. The general requirements, even from my most literary of acquaintances, seem to be:

  • not too heavy (physically or in terms of content!)
  • not overly challenging (we are on holiday after all!)
  • something they won’t mind leaving behind on a hotel bookshelf

You need a book or two that you can read whilst keeping half an eye on the kids in the water. So, in that spirit, I have a few ideas for you.

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Disclaimer by Renee Knight

I really enjoyed this book, when I wasn’t quite expecting to, and it’s a perfect summer holiday read. When it was presented as the month’s read by my Book Club, I was a little disappointed. I’d loved our previous book and this gaudy, yellow and black cover screamed all the wrong messages at me, tapping into my deep-seated reading prejudices – “Sunday Times bestseller”, apparently, but too railway platform thriller for me, perhaps even a bit YA-looking. The first 100 pages or so irritated me; I could neither relate to nor feel positively about any of the characters and the jumping around in time felt clumsy. Information was drip-fed in what seemed to be quite a random way and I had to keep checking back to see if I had missed something as I found some parts difficult to follow. Then, BANG!, at page 151, a revelation, and it all began to come together, as everything unravelled for the main protagonists.

As I said, popular thrillers are not usually my ‘thing’, but patience was rewarded and I have to agree with the Sunday Times quote on the front cover, it is truly addictive. Railway platform fiction it most definitely is and I can well imagine tucking into this on a long train journey and not coming up for air until Carlisle!

Continue reading “Summer holiday reading suggestions”