Parents and children in literature

We learned last week of the death of  Christopher Tolkien at the age of 95. Although he was a renowned Oxford scholar of Old and Middle English, the obituaries that I read, and the tributes I heard on the radio, tended to focus on his rather more famous father, JRR Tolkien. Not unreasonable; he was, after all, chief custodian, curator and champion of his father’s literary archive after his death in 1973 and from all accounts he was pretty well-adjusted, not seeming to have suffered any lack of self-confidence or self-esteem as a result of his eminent parent.

Christopher Tolkien
Image CNN.com

The same cannot be said of other children of famous or high-achieving parents: the two children of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes seem to have experienced great unhappiness – Nicholas hanged himself in 2009 and their daughter, Frieda, a poet and painter, moved far from her UK birthplace to become an Australian citizen and is three times divorced. I reviewed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a couple of weeks ago and learned that Muriel and her only son became estranged, her having left her husband and child not long after she married in 1937, and Doris Lessing also left her husband and two young children to pursue her literary career. In Lessing’s case, I am not aware of what impact the separation had on the children longer term, and, I hasten to add, I make no judgement. It cannot be easy, though, growing up in the shadow of a famous, high-achieving literary parent.

It got me thinking about parent-child relationships explored in literature and I decided to write a list! Here are my top picks (in no particular order):

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  1. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson – based on the author’s own difficult northern childhood
  2. Educated by Tara Westover – a memoir from the child of religious zealots
  3. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – harrowing novel shows us how a lack of nurturing in childhood leaves its main protagonist deeply damaged
  4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – an awful meddling mother and impotent father cause chaos in their daughters’ lives
  5. Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens – most of Dickens’ novels focus on family relationships but this for me is one of the darkest
  6. Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence – an unhealthy relationship between mother and son blights a young man’s future
  7. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – a woman suffering in the shadow of a toxic parent
  8. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy – a brilliant study of a young woman trying to escape the straitjacket of life with a domineering and emotionally manipulative parent
  9. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – among his many other misdemeanours, Heathcliff would surely be found guilty of child cruelty today!

I’ll no doubt think of a few more in the coming days!

What are your favourites?

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Audiobook review: “Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of audiobooks. Having said that, it doesn’t work every time for me; the narrator is vital and I struggled listening to 1984 as I could not get beyond the fact that the reader was Andrew Winnicot…or Adam Macy from the The Archers, which I listen to avidly! Recently, I have enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale on audio, I listened to all of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, with the sublime Hilary Huber, and I am currently listening to Gone Girl, the January book in my Facebook Reading Challenge, (which I am finding totally gripping, by the way).

Ashes of London imgA book I listened to at the end of last year was Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor. I borrowed it from the library when it was first published in 2017 but did not manage to get through it before I had to return it for someone else. It is a historical thriller set at the time of the Great Fire of London in September 1666 and is the first in Taylor’s Marwood & Lovett detective series. I have not yet read (or listened to) the second and third books in the series, both of which were published last year, but they sound intriguing.

James Marwood works as a junior reporter on a newssheet, situated at the centre of courtly London life. Marwood lives with his elderly and increasingly senile father, a former printer and ‘Fifth Monarchist’ (a Protestant sect which believed the monarchy would fall and Christ would return to earth to rule), whose followers were considered criminals after the triumph of the Monarchists in the English Civil Wars. Marwood is asked to report on the aftermath of the Great Fire in various parts of the city and the rebuilding projects, but he soon becomes embroiled in the case of a missing person, the niece of a gentleman, Cat Lovett.

Cat Lovett, is a young woman sent to live with her uncle and step-aunt in Holborn, after her father, a convicted regicide (plotter against the monarch), became a fugitive. She is due to be married to an odious dandy, and much older man, but then her step-aunt’s son rapes her. She fights back, mortally wounding him, and, realising the danger she is now in, decides to escape and take her chances on the streets of London, hoping eventually to track down her father. An elderly servant, who had known Cat from childhood, is presumed guilty of the attack on the son and is flogged to death.

When James Marwood and Cat Lovett’s paths cross, inadvertently and fleetingly, he finds he is drawn by personal curiosity into the search for her. He realises early on that all is perhaps not what it seems in the household with the uncle and step-aunt. He suspects foul play and when he is then sent to investigate the cases of two bodies dumped in the Thames, he comes to believe that all these events are linked.

What follows is a complex thriller with a multi-layered plot, strong characters and the weaving-in of comprehensive historical knowledge of the period. I learnt a lot! It all leads to a thrilling denouement – not ideal when you’re listening whilst driving! – in the half-built St Paul’s Cathedral. I absolutely loved this book and recommend it highly. I’m delighted to inform you that it is also available for free on Kindle Unlimited!

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I’m looking forward to reading or listening to the next two books in the series, The Fire Court and The King’s Evil.

PS The narrator on this one was great!

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Book review – “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” by Muriel Spark

150120Last week I launched my 2020 Facebook Reading Challenge and promised I would post this week, my thoughts on the final book of 2019 – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. The theme for December was a novella – I wanted something short as I know it is a busy time of year and I never get as much reading done as I think I’m going to! In some ways, though, this does not do full justice to what is a highly complex, multi-layered and thematically dense piece of work. You simply have to read every word on its 127 pages and read them at the measured pace of how you imagine Miss Brodie might speak.

Dame Muriel Spark is considered one of the finest writers in English and one of Scotland’s finest writers. She won many glittering international literary awards in her life, and was made a Dame in 1993. She was married briefly, just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, during which time she gave birth to a son, from whom she later became bitterly estranged. In the 1960s she lived in New York and in Rome, where she met her long-term female partner. The couple settled in Italy, where Dame Muriel died in 2006 at the age of 88. Quite a life!

Muriel Spark
Dame Muriel Spark

I think the author’s background makes this novella all the more interesting because it is such an ‘Edinburgh’ book – I say this as a non-Scot, so please forgive me if you disagree! – or at least, an Edinburgh of a certain time (pre-war). Spark left Scotland quite early in her adult life and her father was a Lithuanian Jew. Perhaps this makes her acute observation of Miss Brodie and her other characters even more profound.

 

You will probably know the basic plot of the book; the 1969 film starring Maggie Smith is widely considered a classic. There was also a television series made in the late ‘70s starring Geraldine McEwan, which I vaguely recall having seen, though I was very young at the time – I definitely would not have ‘got’ it; although the book is set in a girls’ school, Malory Towers it most definitely is not! Miss Brodie initially cuts a dominant and impressive figure – determined to influence a selected group of pre-pubescent girls about the broader aspects of life which she feels the school curriculum neglects, such as genuine appreciation of art, social and cultural awareness and matters of the heart (or, more accurately, matters of sex). The strictures of the girls’ school, with its emphasis on knowledge, facts required to pass the exam for the secondary level, and the protestant ethos are seen by Miss Brodie (so she tells us) as narrow and not a true preparation for life. She tells the girls:

“I have no doubt Miss Mackay [the headmistress] wishes to question my methods of instruction. It has happened before. It will happen again. Meanwhile, I follow my principles of education and give of my best in my prime. The word “education” comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning and the stem trudo, I thrust. Miss Mackay’s method is to thrust a lot of information into the pupil’s head; mine is a leading out of knowledge, and that is true education as is proved by the root meaning.”

maggie smith
Dame Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie in the 1969 film

At first, we may see these girls as lucky to have such a dynamic, interesting and strong female personality in their young lives who, for example, is prepared to take them to the theatre off her own bat. What we gradually learn, however, is that the girls are merely Miss Brodie’s ‘project’, that it is not altruism and genuine care that drive her, rather it is her ego. She manipulates the girls, in some cases to their tragic detriment, and they become a vicarious extension of her own ambitions and disappointments, particularly in the matter of sex. Here, she acts as little more than a ‘pimp’, though I am aware this may be a 21st century reading of what may have been regarded at the time as less shocking (a sexual relationship between one of the girls and the married one-armed art master with whom Miss Brodie is herself in love).

In the end we can only see Miss Brodie as disappointed, disappointing, manipulative and manipulated, a deceiver and ultimately deluded. She becomes increasingly troublesome morally, as she expresses her admiration for Mussolini and fascism, and the various fates of the girls she once sought to educate are laid out before us.

This is such a clever book which I would encourage anyone to read. And read again once you’ve got to the ending!

Recommended.

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Happy New Reading Challenge!

The Christmas period never really ends for me until twelfth night – I’m a bit attached to this concept and I’m not sure why. From a Christian perspective I believe it is when the Magi are said to have arrived in Bethlehem, but personally, I feel more in tune with pre-Christian rituals, to do with celebrations of the solstice and the importance of honouring the human instinct for quiet and a slower pace at this time of year, so I am very protective of the ‘downtime’ that follows the hectic Christmas preparations. For me it means time for reflection and, since I am fortunate to have a family, time together to relax and have fun.

So, I make no apology for launching my 2020 Reading Challenge one week into the new year, and here it is!

2020 reading challenge

This is my fourth reading challenge and it has been hard to come up with new genres, so if my themes this year seem rather random, it’s because I was having to think outside the usual boxes.

Gone Girl img

I’m starting the year, the new decade, with a look back at the 2010s and have chosen what was one of the biggest selling books of the decade, and which became an international phenomenon – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. It was also critically acclaimed, although being at the more ‘popular’ end of the market, it wasn’t nominated for the usual high-profile literary awards. Published in 2014, I’m afraid I never read it; I confess I got it mixed up with Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train so for years I thought I had in fact read it! I’ve decided to do this one on an audiobook as it’s quite long and I have some car journeys coming up this month.

 

 

The book that closed off the 2019 Reading Challenge (a novella), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, was very short so I don’t feel too guilty about setting a long one for this month. Look out for my review of that book in the coming days.

I hope you will join me at some point on the Reading Challenge this year – why not start this month and pick up a copy of Gone Girl. I am sure there will be plenty of copies knocking around in charity shops – it sold 20 million after all! If you’d like to join us, why not hop over to the Facebook Reading Challenge Group now.

Enjoy your reading year – there are some exciting titles due to be published this year. More of that in another blog!

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Books to give as gifts this Christmas (the grown-ups!)

Last week I posted my suggestions for some fantastic books to buy for kids this Christmas. Now it’s time for adults – see how I resisted writing “adult books to give this Christmas” as a title even though it might get me many more clicks!

I love giving books to friends and family at Christmas, though it can be tricky. Sometimes it can come across as a bit patronising; if you give something highbrow to someone it’s like you are suggesting they need to raise their reading game. Secondhand books are, in my view, definitely okay to give, especially if you and the friend are on the same wavelength about recycling and reusing. Even though it’s tempting to give a book that you might like, my advice is always to try and think of what the other person would enjoy, that shows real thought. Non-fiction books, television or film adaptations are always good ideas too.

There is no shortage of books on the market at this time of year, strongly orientated towards the gift market, but here are some that have caught my eye, which you probably won’t find on the supermarket 3-for-2 shelves.

xmas 19 1Fleabag: The Scriptures by Phoebe Waller-Bridge £20.00

I would be very happy indeed to find this under my Christmas tree! Phoebe Waller-Bridge, writer, comedian, all-round brilliant person, so clever, so funny and Fleabag is truly exceptional. Here are the TV show scripts with directions, plus some additional material. A bargain at twenty quid, I think.

 

 

xmas 19 2Who Am I Again? by Lenny Henry £20.00

There are very many autobiographies around at this time of the year. This one is the most worth reading, for my money. Absolute national treasure, Sir Lenny, a man worth listening to, and I doubt this is ghost-written.

 

 

xmas 19 3Wilding by Isabella Tree £9.99

Nature writing at its finest, this book was highly commended by the jury of the Wainwright Prize. This is a memoir about the author and her partner’s journey in attempting to return a farm in Sussex to nature, using free-grazing livestock to create new habitats for wildlife. This has had fantastic reviews and is just the sort of story of hope we need in these bleak times.

 

 

xmas 19 4Ness by Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood £14.99

Another book I’d be very happy to see under my Christmas tree! This is a beautiful book that defies description. Part poetry, part prose, stunning illustrations, it is a modern myth that defies description. Macfarlane is one of the most original and imaginative writers today and Donwood, long-time artistic collaborator with Radiohead, has provided the artwork.

 

 

xmas 19 5Twas the Nightshift before Christmas by Adam Kay £9.99

From the author of the bittersweet bestselling This is Going to Hurt, Adam Kay gives us another fascinating insight into the life of a hospital doctor in the NHS. At once hilarious and poignant, this book is a tribute to the NHS staff who will be working flat out over the holidays to look after the sick and injured among us.

 

 

xmas 19 6The Jewish Cookbook by Leah Koenig £35.00

Cookery books are often a favourite to give at Christmas and this one would make a very stylish gift. It’s pricey, but it’s packed full of interesting recipes, gorgeous photos and is bound to elicit an “oooh” from anyone lucky enough to receive it.

 

 

xmas 19 7Mother: A Human Love Story by Matt Hopwood £9.99

A collection of true accounts spanning the whole gamut of what it means to mother in our world today. In these difficult and divisive times these stories remind us of the deep feminine nurturing spirit that unites us all.

 

 

 

xmas 19 8Poems to Fix a F**ked Up World by Various £9.99

And talking of difficult times this little anthology would make a perfect gift for anyone struggling with the events of 2019 and recent years more generally. The skill of the poet is to capture a moment in a succinct and accessible way, and the works in this book certainly do that.

 

 

xmas 19 9Fucking Good Manners by Simon Griffin £9.99

I hope you will forgive all the fruity language in today’s post, but I had to include this as it had me laughing out loud in the bookshop. Written with a clever wit and irony that is a delight and surely something to lift the spirits…though maybe not one for your Grandpa!

 

 

 

I would love any/all of these for Christmas, should Santa be reading this!

What books of 2019 will you be buying for loved ones this Christmas?

 

 

Books for kids this Christmas

It’s the second week of December so it must be time for some suggestions for books to buy for the children in your life. I’m almost there with my Christmas shopping, so I’m now on the look-out for the stocking fillers. Books are great for this. My kids are all teenagers so their main gift requests these days are either small or folding (!) so a few books can help to make things look a bit bulkier.

Books for 5-10 year olds

Xmas 19 kids 1The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy £16.99

The much deserved Waterstones’ book of the year and surely the most beautiful book you will come across this Christmas. A wonderful read to enjoy with children of any age. Stunning illustrations. Just gorgeous.

 

 

 

xmas 19 kids 2Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Illustrated edition) by JK Rowling and Jim Kay £32.00

For kids who want to be part of the HP phenomenon, but for whom the books may be a little daunting in their length. This is the fourth book in the series to be illustrated.

 

 

Usborne Politics for Beginners and Usborne Money for Beginners £9.99

If your household is anything like mine, there will have been a lot of focus on politics in the last few years. This can be worrying for younger children when they don’t fully understand what’s going on but pick up on parents’ concerns. This Usborne Politics book will help to demystify some of the issues and the jargon. The sister volume on Money and the financial world introduces foundation concepts which will be important to all children as they grow up. Not for everyone, but there is no doubt these are important topics and some would argue that the earlier we can get kids thinking about them in an unemotional way, the better it is for them long term.

 

Books for 9-13 year olds

xmas 19 kids 5Diary of a Dyslexic School Kid by Alais Winton and Zac Millard £9.99

At last dyslexia is being taken more seriously and I think this is a great book for kids just about to or just starting secondary school. Not just for kids with dyslexia, perhaps your child has a friend with the condition and wants to know what life is like for them. Accessible and fun.

 

Little Leaders: Exceptional Men in Black History & Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison £7.99

Two marvellous books which I hope will redress the balance in some of the coverage of important people in our culture and history and give children of all races some fantastic role models.

The Dog Who Saved the World by Ross Welford, The Lost Tide Warriors by Catherine Doyle, both £6.99

Two wonderful works of fiction here. Ross Welford is a favourite of mine and always delivers a cracking good story – Time Travelling with a Hamster and The 1,000 Year Old Boy are two favourite children’s books of mine. I loved Catherine Doyle’s The Storm Keeper’s Island and this is the second novel in the series.

 

Books for 12+ years

xmas 19 kids 10The Book of Dust Volume Two: The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pulman £20.00

Needs absolutely no introduction. The stunning BBC television adaptation of the His Dark Materials trilogy will help to ensure this book is the best-seller it deserves to be. This hardback edition would make a wonderful gift. I would love to curl up with this at Christmas!

 

xmas 19 kids 11No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton £6.99

An important story about the reality of life for child refugees who want the same things as children in any other part of the world. A book with a wonderful story that needs to be told and which will help foster understanding about other people’s lives.

 

xmas 19 kids 12My Hidden Chimp by Steve Peters £12.99

The author of the bestselling The Chimp Paradox, a guide to managing your mind, has written a version for young people. The aim is to help children and teenagers develop good mental health habits, deal with people to get the best win-win outcomes and help them manage both their emotions and their behaviour. Worth a try!

 

xmas 19 kids 13Earth Heroes: Twenty Inspiring Stories of People Saving Our World by Lily Dyu £9.99

Climate change is the number one issue at the top of young people’s agendas today so this book will speak to this age group and provide stories about the role models who engage them, such as Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough, as well as some of the less famous figures, such as inventors in developing countries changing the lives of people in their communities.

 

I hope my suggestions inspire you. I would love to hear about your great finds too. 

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Book Review – “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” by John Boyne

This was November’s book on my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a children’s novel. It has very mature themes and requires a grasp of irony as well as some knowledge of history to fully appreciate, but it renders a difficult and complex subject accessible to a young audience in the same way as The Book Thief, so although it is not recommended for young children, it is entirely appropriate for the early secondary school age group.

the boy in the striped pyjamas imgI remember when this book was published in 2006. It was widely acclaimed, but also controversial; there were some questions marks over its historical accuracy (one senior rabbi argued that nine year-old boys were not kept in concentration camps, all were gassed because they could not work and were therefore of no use, though this argument also been disputed) and others have questioned whether such a relationship, between a young inmate and the son of the camp commandant, could have gone on for so long undetected, particularly when Bruno slips under the fence. Whatever its problems, the book has sold millions of copies worldwide and was made into a successful film within two years of publication.

 

The central character is Bruno, the nine year-old son of a senior Nazi. He lives happily with his parents, twelve year-old sister, and their maid Maria in a large house in Berlin. Until, that is, “the Fury” comes to visit and shortly afterwards the family is forced to move to a much less nice and isolated house in “Out With”, where Bruno’s father has an important new job. One of the charms of the book is Bruno’s habitual mis-naming and his innocent perspective on events, even though it is clear to the reader what the true facts are. An example of this is Bruno’s observations about changes in his mother’s behaviour, suggesting first her flirtation and possible affair with a young lieutenant, then her depression, and tensions in his parents’ marriage brought about by the family posting.

Bruno’s bedroom window faces the camp, though he has no idea what it is. Arguably, given his curious nature, it is perhaps a little surprising that he is not more questioning about the camp, the fences and the people he sees inside, all of whom wear the same uniform (the striped pyjamas). It must be remembered, however, that Bruno has almost no-one to talk to; his relationship with his parents is remote, he has no friends, he and his sister share a mutual contempt (he calls her the “Hopeless Case”) and the other adults around are involved in a conspiracy of silence that keeps him completely in the dark. The sense of fear, unwillingness to speak up or out, anxiety about the world, and intimidation are palpable.

Lonely and bored, Bruno eventually decides to go exploring and at the boundary of the camp one day he meets another boy of his own age, Shmuel, who is interred at the camp. Bruno is thrilled to at last have someone his own age to talk to and the two boys strike up a friendship. As readers, we are meant to see this friendship as in some ways unlikely, and in others completely obvious – why would two young boys be bothered about such differences as clothing, housing, status? They are just children. The author also comments on the transience of friendship at this age (in Berlin Bruno has three “friends for life”, whom he misses terribly, but after a few months he cannot even remember their names) and I think this helps address some of the credibility difficulties of the plot; friendship between young boys is mainly superficial. Bruno wonders about some aspects of Shmuel’s lifestyle, but Shmuel explains very little, which perhaps would not be surprising if the child was deeply traumatised.

No spoilers here, but there is a brilliant denouement to the story. Although it is a book that has been much discussed, and I have almost watched the film a couple of times, I had managed to avoid knowing the ending as I was determined to read it one day. I am so glad because there is a brilliant inevitability to it – there is a point where you just know what is going to happen and the author places you in this incredible state of suspense and dread, despite Bruno’s innocence. I have said enough!

It’s a short book, and the writing carries you along at a pace that feels like the mind of a child – no real sense of time. I think it’s also a book where you have to suspend the sorts of (adult) questions that would make the events improbable, in favour of the bigger picture, which is a fundamental questioning of the forces that create fascism, terror and discrimination; if only we could see all these things through the eyes of a child they could not exist.

A powerful and engaging novel which pulls off the trick of being both important and highly readable. Recommended for grown-ups and kids of 12+ alike.

How did you feel reading this book?

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