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!

 

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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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Thoughts on unhappiness

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My children and I are privileged. On every level. There is no doubt about it. Because we have a roof over our heads that we can afford to pay for, because we know where not just the next meal, but the one after that and the one after that are coming from, and because we can turn the heating up when there’s an unexpected cold snap, we are more privileged than many. And I don’t just mean those children fleeing war or who have lost their families, but many in our country, our city, or our town. And yet. And yet.

I read somewhere once that you are only as happy as your unhappiest child. And just now I have an unhappy child. A child who feels that nothing is going right for them, who feels there is pressure, who struggles sometimes in their social network. A child. One who is too young for this. A child who says that sometimes life is so hard they wish they could just hide away from it all. So no matter how good my life, no matter how well my other children are or are doing, I too am unhappy. I’d go through the pain of childbirth every day to take that pain away.

I was lucky to be a relatively successful child. I sailed through most things. I was disliked by some of the nastier kids in the neighbourhood, but I managed to avoid them, mostly. I thank my lucky stars I wasn’t bullied because I was a prime target for it (nice, timid, studious, spectacle-wearing), but I came through school largely unscathed. It was in young adulthood that the realities of the world hit me. When I realised that, hmm, life was tough. That it wasn’t all going to be plain sailing. That life wasn’t fair. And I was powerless to do anything about much of life’s injustice. It was only later I learned all I could do about it was just to be the best that I could be.

Mental nd emotional wellbeing have been a lifelong challenge for me, as for many people I know (most?). I admire and am fascinated by people who have a natural positive outlook, that sunny disposition, and I wish I knew how to get it. No. I wish I knew how to get it for my child. My question is, is it better for children to learn when they’re young that life is not fair and you just have to make the best of it? Does disappointment and heartache when you’re young help to build resilience when you’re older? I sometimes wonder whether a bit of disappointment, a reality check, when I was a kid, might have helped me cope better with it in adulthood. But maybe not.

More recently, I’ve learned how focusing on gratitude can help to build resilience and a positive mindset, so I practice this every day. And I know I have so much to be grateful for. Just recently I heard a single mother on the radio talking about the pain of having to put her severely disabled 12-year old into care because she could no longer cope. And, again, I thank my lucky stars, my guardian angels, or whatever force in the world is out there looking after me and mine, that I have a healthy, stable family. That said, the least empathic thing you can say to someone who is feeling low is to invite them to think of all the people who are worse off than they are.

I also read somewhere once that you get the children you need; maybe that divine force out there has gifted my children to me because I have within me the love to support and care for them, when unhappiness strikes. But today I feel ill-equipped and today I feel as unhappy as my unhappiest child.

 “Happiness, not in another place but this place, not for another hour but this hour”

As ever, I look to my books for help. The above quote from Walt Whitman is a call to embrace joy in the here and now, and is one of the techniques for being happy listed in a little volume I picked up in a bargain bookshop a while ago. A little book I keep to hand for times like this – How to be Happy by Anna Barnes.

I don’t think Whitman will mean much to my child at this point, but perhaps my job as a parent is to try and pass on some of my own hard-earned resilience to my child, who is still maturing, still growing, still learning.

I have 14 books on my ‘to read’ pile – oops!

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And that’s just the living room pile! I have a few more beside my bed, and, ahem, a shelf or two full in bookcases here and there. If I sat down and worked out how long it would take me to get through them all I’d probably find I don’t need to buy another book for…some time! It’s a fairly harmless vice, compared to some, but I can’t help thinking that there’s something wrong with me – am I an eternal optimist (thinking I CAN read all these books) or do I have my head stuck in the sand (believing I WILL read all these books)? Is it wasteful? Of money and the earth’s resources? Or am I right to reward the many hard-working writers who have put so much time and effort into their books, by purchasing copies, even if I might never read them?

Who knows, but the piles do rather haunt me and get bigger in my mind, in true Dorian Gray fashion.

2017-03-01-13-21-23-hdrSo, the task for March on my 2017 reading challenge is to grip up this issue and tackle one of the books on my ‘to read’ pile that has been sitting there the longest. It’s Just Kids by Patti Smith. I came to Patti relatively late in life; I was a bit young to be into her in the ’70s when she was prominent. I’m not a big music fan and am relatively ignorant but I picked up her career-defining album Horses in one of those ‘2 for a tenner’ type sales in HMV, or somewhere similar, a few years ago, and it quickly became one of the soundtracks of my 30s, and my children loved it too! We all loved ‘Gloria’ particularly and that song would definitely be one of my Desert Island Discs, both because I love the power and energy of the song and because it brings back happy memories of us all singing in the car – “Gloria, G-L-O-R-I-A, Gloria!”

2017-03-01-11-40-14Patti Smith is a fascinating woman who has led a fascinating life. I have been meaning to read this book for years (it was published in 2010), so when I came across it in the Strand Bookshop whilst on my trip to, where else, New York last summer, it had to be bought! (It’s a very New York book.)

I’m looking forward to starting it, especially as I have now at long last finished Do Not Say We Have Nothing, with which I rather struggled, as I wrote about here a couple of weeks ago (I’ll post my review of that book soon). Reading Just Kids will I hope transport me back to last summer as I await the proper arrival of spring; I see a few snowdrops sprouting in my garden, but I also saw snow yesterday so we’re not there yet.

So, if you fancy joining me on the challenge this month, and picking a book from your ‘to read’ pile, do let me know what you’ll be tackling and why. (I think I’ll also give up book-buying for Lent!)

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A month of poetry

How often do you read a poem? The answer for me is rarely these days. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to include some poetry in my reading challenge for the year, to make myself sit down and do it. Why February? Well, firstly, it was Valentine’s Day last week, a time when one is more inclined, perhaps, to encounter a verse or two (or maybe even write one!) Secondly, and much more prosaically, it was half term, so I knew I wouldn’t get as much reading done as usual.

Well, I didn’t write my husband any poems (he was away, for goodness’ sake!), but I did read a few. The challenge was to choose a poem for each week and to read it every day for that week. In other words, four poems. The first one I chose was The Wild Swans at Coole by WB Yeats, a favourite of mine, having first got to know his work when studying for my English degree. It’s also a short poem, so an easy way into the challenge. First published a century ago (pure coincidence that I chose it), a year after the Easter Rising in Dublin, which affected Yeats deeply, the First World War was still going strong, and it was the year that he first married (at the age of 51), never having persuaded the real love of his life, Maud Gonne, to accept him.

“Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.”

It is a poem about ageing, about loss and grief and about the passage of time and Yeats’ search for true lasting beauty in a world where all about him was deteriorating and decaying. I had a different response to the poem, reading it now, aged forty-something, than I did in my early twenties, for obvious reasons.

I’ve always wanted to get to know Emily Dickinson (1830-86) better; she is a celebrated American poet, who lived as a virtual recluse in Massachusetts. She remains something of an enigma, not least because of the deep passions expressed in her poetry, so at odds with what is known about her life. A book was published in 2015 by Nuala O’Connor called Miss Emily, written from the point of view of an Irish maid who was taken on by the Dickinson household. I am keen to read this now, having dipped into the poetry.

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I picked up this lovely little volume in my local Oxfam bookshop (what wonderful work this charity does, not only in its programmes abroad, but in providing many towns with such a fantastic literary resource). From it I chose poem no. 249 (Dickinson did not give titles to her poems so they are known by numbers or first lines) “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!” Very appropriate for the week in which Valentine’s Day fell and fascinating when you think of the kind of life she led – a middle class spinster living in 19th century rural America.

 

 

“Wild Nights – Wild Nights!

Were I with thee

Wild Nights should be

Our luxury!”

For my final two choices I thought I’d better get a bit  more modern, so I chose Jackie Kay from my other Oxfam purchase The Penguin Book of Poetry and Britain and Ireland since 1945. It’s quite an old anthology, published in 1998, so only one of Jackie’s poems is in there Brendon Gallacher. For my brother Maxie, but what a super poem it is. It’s about the narrator’s imaginary friend, a fantasy of a life much more exciting than her own. I had an imaginary friend as a child (Leda), through whom I had access to a much more colourful world, so can idenitfy with the theme! I also love listening to Jackie Kay, and here is a YouTube video of her reading this poem

 

The final poem for my challenge, which I shall continue reading next week, is Warming Her Pearls by the current British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. It is written from the point of view of a lady’s maid, one of whose tasks is to wear her mistress’s pearls before she goes out, in order that they are not cold on her skin. It has obvious themes about class but also has a deep erotic resonance – another one for Valentine’s Day perhaps!

I’ve enjoyed this month’s challenge much more than I expected and I have actually read more poems as a result than the four that I set myself. Poetry really is a pleasure and requires a lot less time commitment than a novel. It’s also incredibly relaxing!  I would urge you to give it a try if it’s not your usual thing.

Do you have a favourite poem or poet?

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The Oscars – literary references

You will no doubt have picked up that it’s the Oscars this weekend; they start somewhere in the middle of the night (UK time) on Sunday 26th. I’m not a huge film buff so I’ve never stayed up for them, but I’ve become interested in recent years as an increasing number of the top movies, it seems to me, have been based on works of literature. The ones that spring to mind are Life of Pi (2013), 12 Years A Slave (2014), No Country for Old Men (2007) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Last year was particularly rich in literary reference with The Danish Girl, Carol, The Revenant and Room all big winners based on books. (I was so struck by this that I read three of the books and posted about it not long after I started this blog. You can read my post here)

hidden-figures-imgThis year, literary references are a little thinner on the ground, but I want to tell you about a couple that have caught my eye. My children were on their half term holiday last week and I took my youngest daughter (aged 10) to see Hidden Figures. It is based on a true story, but the film was inspired by a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. You will  no doubt have seen the trailers, but, to summarise, it tells the story of three exceptionally talented mathematical minds whose contribution to the US space programme in the 1960s went largely unacknowledged…because they were African-American women working at a time when racial segregation was still in place. It is a remarkable story, very moving and very well told.

I am proud to say that my young daughter was incredulous at the level of discrimination that prevailed – why didn’t these very clever women get the credit for the work they did? Without them, John Glenn may not have made it into space, let alone come back in one piece! I’d be interested to read the book, if only because the film is at times a little sentimental (though this takes nothing away from the achievement of the central characters) and I’d like to  understand which facts have been sugar-coated for pictorial effect and which are true. And which bits they left out! I would highly recommend the film though, so take your daughters. And your sons!

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The other film I’m desperate to see this year is Lion, which has been nominated for six Oscars, and is based on the book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley. This book is also a true story and is a personal account by the author of how he became separated from his dirt-poor family in India at the age of five. He found himself on the streets in Calcutta and then ended up in Tasmania. At the age of 30 he set out to try and find his family and the book (and the film) is the story of that journey.

 

 

 

I’m starting to build-up a long ‘to watch’ list, alongside my ‘to read’ list, but at least the ‘to watch’ list is merely a page of notes at the back of my diary and doesn’t haunt me every time I walk into a room in my house and am confronted by a very real large pile of books! (Yes, there is one in every room!) Roll on the March reading challenge, which is to tackle a book from the ‘to read’ pile.

Have you seen any films recently that you would recommend?

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Lowry

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I was lucky to get a ticket for this performance at The Lowry in Salford last week. The play  has been a huge success for the National Theatre company in London and is currently on tour. You will  no doubt have heard of the book by Mark Haddon, which was published in 2003, and was a Costa Book of the Year and winner of the Guardian’s children’s fiction prize. Ostensibly written for a YA readership, it’s nonetheless a powerful read for adults.

The central character, Christopher Boone, has Asperger’s Syndrome, which means he operates at a very logical, ordered and predictable level. He struggles to make sense of emotion, finds social relationships very challenging and interprets his world in a very literal way. At the start of the story Christopher lives with his father and we are told that his mother has died of a heart attack. The dog of the title belongs to Christopher’s neighbour, Mrs Shears, and when the dog is found dead one morning, stabbed with a garden fork, he sets out to uncover the identity of the dog’s killer. His research does not generate the hoped-for answers but instead raises more questions for both Christopher and the audience. It also causes tension between Christopher and his father, who plainly wants him to cease his investigation. Christopher is completely incapable of interpreting the possible causes of his father’s stress and backing off from the task of finding the dog’s killer, but we as the audience, begin to see that there is more to this incident than meets the eye, and that people (Christopher’s father, the neighbours) are hiding something.

Eventually, Christopher searches his father’s bedroom and finds a stack of letters addressed to him from his mother, who is not in fact dead, but alive and living in London. Feeling that he can no longer trust his father he decides his only option is to go and find her and to live with her in London. What both the book and the stage play do so brilliantly is to convey the sense that logic and intelligence alone are not sufficient to navigate your way in the world. Christopher is a brilliant mathematician (he is doing his Mathematics ‘A’ level at his specialist school at 16) but getting from Swindon to London on a train, and then using the Underground to travel to north-west London, is a near-impossible task. For someone with Christopher’s condition, the noise, the crowds, the proximity of people to one another, are overwhelming. The stage direction is brilliant at conveying the sensory overload and also the extent to which the day to day humdrum interactions that most of us take for granted are utterly baffling to someone whose brain works at an entirely logical level; figurative language is hard for him to comprehend, and some of the most basic instructions and conventions cause him enormous confusion and therefore distress.

I had forgotten elements of the plot when I went to see the play, which was nice because it kept a bit of the dramatic tension for me. It would still have been highly enjoyable even if I had recalled the ending, however. The staging is superb, demonstrating cleverly how Christopher can only function in an ordered, boundaried environment where there is certainty and dependability. The dialogue and acting were also tremendous, with elements of humour, and there is great empathy for Christopher. His condition is dealt with not just sensitively, but triumphantly – it is the ‘normal’ adults around him whose shortcomings are exposed.

I went alone, but really wished I’d taken my 16 year-old son (who has read the book) and/or my 12 year-old daughter, both of whom would have enjoyed it. I think younger teenagers will be able to identify more readily than adults with the confusion of modern life, the challenges inherent in just getting from A to B when you have no experience of it, and the incomprehensibility of the codes that adults use to communicate with one another when they are afraid to use more direct language. The recommended age is 11+.

The run at the Lowry was short, just a week, but the production remains at the Gielgud Theatre in London and is on a UK tour until the end of September. Catch it if you can, it’s fantastic.