Book review – “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink

This was a recent choice for my book club. It was not a title I was familiar with although I had a vague recollection about a film adaptation coming out a few years ago. It was adapted for the screen in 2008, starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. I had high hopes for the book and was excited at the prospect of reading it, especially since the comments on the cover of my edition were extremely enthusiastic. I’m afraid we were all slightly disappointed. The following review contains some spoilers.

2019-06-26 20.31.04The story begins when 15 year-old Michael, off school for many months after contracting hepatitis, seeks out Hanna Schmitz, a woman who had been passing when he found himself being sick in the street and who had helped him. Once he is well again, Michael’s mother sends him off to find the mystery good Samaritan in order that he can thank her. Hanna is twenty years Michael’s senior and employed as a bus conductor, but despite the social and age gap between them, they begin a passionate affair, both parties equally consenting. One of the more intimate aspects of their relationship is that Michael reads aloud to Hanna, after sex and in the bath mainly, although never the other way around. Michael never questions Hanna’s desire to have him read to her, he just accepts it. This makes up the first part of the book and perhaps it is a testament to events that have occurred since the time of its writing that all of us (mothers of teenagers!) found the prose rather discomfiting, and not a little implausible. Hanna disappears mysteriously out of Michael’s life, leaving him heartbroken and perhaps also rather damaged.

In part two, Michael is older, now at law school, when, as part of his studies, he is sent off to observe the trials of a number of former female guards of a concentration camp who are being charged with allowing the deaths of dozens of Jews, locked in a church when it was hit by a bomb and destroyed by fire. Michael is horrified to discover that Hanna is one of those on trial. There is a detailed report of the events that Hanna is accused of writing, thereby implicating her as the main guard responsible for the atrocity, a charge she does not deny. Michael observes the trial in horror unable to come to terms with the back-story of the woman he once loved. Only at the end of the trial, does he realise Hanna’s secret, that she is illiterate (and therefore could not have written the report), and he finds himself with the dilemma of whether to intervene and tell the judge, with all the implications that would have. He elects not to, realising that Hanna confessed in order to conceal her illiteracy and for him to expose her would breach her autonomy, even if it means there has been a miscarriage of justice.

The final part of the book is about Michael’s life after the trial, his failed marriage, and his eventual decision to make contact with Hanna in prison. He sends her cassette tapes of himself reading aloud although he never includes any personal messages or letters. Eventually, he sees Hanna again, as she is about to be released at the end of her sentence, and helps to set her up with work and accommodation for when she is released. Hanna never gets out though as she hangs herself in her cell on the night before her release.

Set in the late 1950s and 1960s, the novel is said to be about Germany coming to terms with its wartime past; there is Hanna’s trial, the account of the events in which she was involved, the opportunity for the survivors of the camps to give an account of their experiences, and for the German judiciary to rightfully punish those responsible and be seen to dispense justice. On the cover of the book, the late Sir Peter Hall is quoted as saying “[This] is the German novel I have been waiting for: it objectifies the Holocaust and legitimately makes all mankind responsible.” I’m afraid, I just don’t think it reaches these heights. Yes, it is quite well-written and is arguably an interesting story, though one which my fellow book club members and I found deeply uncomfortable since we saw the relationship between Michael and Hanna as borderline child sexual abuse. The fact that this is in no way acknowledged is a problem. The story for me, though, just didn’t go anywhere; I reached the end and had nothing to say, no great realisation or revelation, or even closure. I just don’t think the book really knew what it was about.

So, a disappointing read, I’m afraid and not one I can recommend. I’d quite like to see the film, to see what Director Stephen Daldry (of Billy Elliot fame) made of it.

I’d love to know what you thought, if you have read it – did something different come out for you? And how are we to view works of literature written at times when societal norms, or our understanding of them, are different?

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog. Let’s also connect on social media.

Building your children’s library #1 – books for pre-schoolers

 

I have a deep love of children’s books and am passionate about keeping kids reading, as regular readers of this blog will know. I am frequently asked for recommendations for books for children and young people. In truth, there are so many great books for kids out there and I can only read a fraction of what I’d like to, so it’s difficult. Wander into any bookshop or library, however, and you will see before you dozens of wonderful titles. I am a firm believer in allowing kids to choose their own books; that way you build their love of reading from the inside out rather than it being an interest that the parent tries to impose from the outside in. This is particularly important for teenagers who a) are likely to resist all things their parents like and embrace the opposite, and b) are particularly sensitive to being told what’s ‘good’ and ‘not good’. My advice would be, don’t worry too much about the ‘quality’ of their reading and take pleasure in the fact that they are reading. Once you engage with them on their terms, they may be more open to suggestions further down the line.

 

for-reading-813666_1920
Image by Aline Dassel from Pixabay

I have a deep love of children’s books and am passionate about keeping kids reading, as regular readers of this blog will know. I am frequently asked for recommendations for books for children and young people. In truth, there are so many great books for kids out there and I can only read a fraction of what I’d like to, so it’s difficult. Wander into any bookshop or library, however, and you will see before you dozens of wonderful titles. I am a firm believer in allowing kids to choose their own books; that way you build their love of reading from the inside out rather than it being an interest that the parent tries to impose from the outside in. This is particularly important for teenagers who a) are likely to resist all things their parents like and embrace the opposite, and b) are particularly sensitive to being told what’s ‘good’ and ‘not good’. My advice would be, don’t worry too much about the ‘quality’ of their reading and take pleasure in the fact that they are reading. Once you engage with them on their terms, they may be more open to suggestions further down the line.

I know, however, that many parents want to build a decent library of choices for their children, and also, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and godparents also want to know what they should give as gifts. So, I am starting a series of posts on building your children’s library. I will focus mainly on classics as these are books that have stood the test of time. As ever, age boundaries are flexible – a mature 10 year old might enjoy something in 11 -13 range and vice versa. Again, don’t worry; this is not a reflection of their ability, only of their interests. It is counter-productive to push them to read topics they are not ready for.

That probably won’t be a concern for today’s list however, as I’m picking books for pre-schoolers! Having said that, my teens still get great pleasure from having many of these books around (many of our books have gone to charity shops over the years, but some will be treasured forever).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So, if you have or know young children in 2-5 age group, here are ten of the very best books ever:

  1. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  2. Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
  3. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury
  4. Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram
  5. Miffy by Dick Bruna
  6. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd
  7. The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr
  8. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  9. The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
  10. Elmer by David McKee

There are probably at least a hundred other books I could have included here, so my next post on this topic might just be an extension list to this one! I’d love to hear your recommendations too. I should add that these are books not only that my children loved but that I also loved reading aloud to them. And THAT has truly been one of the joys of my life.

What are your favourite books for pre-schoolers?

If you have enjoyed this post I would love for you to follow my blog. Let’s also connect on social media. 

 

YA book review – “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s literature and regularly review both kids and YA books. I haven’t done a kids book review post for a while, for reasons that have been rehearsed in recent blogs, so it was a joy to pick up a YA book again and to be able to start another ‘Kids Books Week’.

The Hate U Give imgThis book is Angie Thomas’s debut novel and it caused a sensation when it was first published in the United States in February 2017. It enjoyed both critical and popular acclaim, remaining at the top of the New York Times YA best seller list for almost a year. It was made into a film which was released last Autumn. The novel came out of a short story Thomas wrote in college following the police shooting of a young black man in 2009.

The narrator is Starr Carter, a 16 year-old who lives in a poor neighbourhood of an unnamed American city, but who attends an elite private school. Her parents are not wealthy (her mother works in the health sector, her father owns a shop and has spent time in jail) but they are ambitious for their three children and determined that they should have a good education and defy the expectations of their birth. Throughout the novel Starr tells us how this presents her with some complex challenges and how she effectively has to be two different people – school Starr and ‘Garden Starr’ (the family’s neighbourhood is called Garden Heights). She is constantly torn between these two identities at an age when she is still trying to work out who she really is, and doesn’t feel she truly belongs in either place. This puts her in conflict at times with her wealthy, white boyfriend, who cannot fully empathise with her and from whom Starr keeps many of her true feelings, and indeed her father, who is angered when he discovers Starr is going out with a white boy.

Starr’s life is turned upside down when one of her friends, Kahlil, a boy she has known since kindergarten, is shot and killed by a police officer while he is giving her a lift home in his car after a party. Starr and her older brother have been drilled by their father about how to behave with the police, but non-threatening, compliant behaviour does not save Kahlil when confronted by the police officer who carries assumptions about young black males. This is the second time in her short life that Starr has seen a friend killed. As the only witness to the killing, Starr is in an impossible situation – it is her word against that of the police officer. The police officer is also a colleague of her uncle’s, so the whole family is affected and divided by the events that follow the shooting. Furthermore, the shooting raises tensions in the neighbourhood between the police and the residents, in particular the two main gangs that effectively control the area, and whose actions are presented very much as part of the problem.

The reader is carried along with Starr’s pain at the loss of the her friend, fear for the position in which she has been placed as the only witness and what this means for her family, especially in the context of the gang elements in Garden Heights, and ongoing confusion at her place in the two worlds in which she moves.

This is a profoundly moving and fascinating novel; as a reader I really felt drawn into Starr’s dilemmas – she is such a powerful narrator. On one level, the novel left me feeling despair at how easy it clearly is for young black people to become the victims of violence for which they are not responsible and how, for young black men in particular, this presents a constant threat. The author’s note at the end of the book expands on this. On another level it is a novel full of hope as the strength of the community, family bonds and Starr’s maturity and dignity shine brighter than the injustices.

The novel pulls no punches and parts of it are a tough read, but the themes are important ones for all of us to be aware of, and it is an important contribution to the Black Lives Matter  movement. Young people will I think empathise with Starr’s agonies; even though most will never have to face the terrible ordeal that she has, they will understand her teenage outlook, her anxieties and her emotions, because these are universal.

There are drug and sexual references as well as some strong language, so I would recommend this for mature 14 year olds and over. I also recommend to all adults  – it’s a cracking read.

Have you seen the film of this novel? I’m keen to know if it does justice to the book.

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog. Let’s also connect on social media.

 

Facebook reading challenge – join us in June

Despite the awful British weather, it is actually June at the moment, halfway through it in fact, so it must be time for a new book on my Facebook Reading Challenge. Earlier in the week, I published a review of the May title – Lord of the Flies by William Golding, one of the great literary classics of the 20th century. So many people have studied this book at school, at a time, perhaps, when English literature was not the thing they were most into, that it can often elicit groans of anguish! In fact, coming to it again after so many years (and as a mother!), I saw new things in this book. That’s the great thing about a reading challenge; you pick up books that you might otherwise have turned away from.

This month’s theme is something from the Women’s Prize shortlist. At the time of setting the challenge I obviously did not know what was going to be on the shortlist. The title I selected is a book I have had my eye on for some time. In fact, I recommended it over a year ago in a post Hot new books for springAn Amercian Marriage by Tayari Jones has since been announced as the winner of the prize, as of 5 June, so I’m delighted to be reading it this month.

2019-06-14 10.49.53The book is about a young newly-married couple, Celestial and Roy, and is set in the American Deep South. Their lives appear full of potential until Roy is accused of a crime he did not commit. He is convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison. The book concerns the effect of the separation on their marriage, how Celestial copes alone and what this means for their shared dreams.

The chair of judges of the women’s prize described the book as one that “shines a light on today’s America” and it has won praise from the likes of Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, as well as achieving wide acclaim in the review columns. The whole shortlist was extremely impressive and I could have chosen any of the books on; the fact that it beat Anna Burns’s Man Booker winner Milkman, which I loved, tells you something about the high calibre.

So, if you fancy a good read and getting involved in the discussion, do join us, it’s not too late. 

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog. Let’s also connect on social media. 

Book review – “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding

When I announced that this book was May’s choice for my Facebook reading challenge (theme, a 20th century classic), there were mixed feelings – it seems a few of our participants had studied it at school for their ‘O’ level English Literature (predecessor to the GCSE for anyone young enough not to know!). Some were delighted…others less so! I did not study this at school, but I read it at University (I did an English degree). My childhood home was not one filled with books, though I spent a great deal of time at my local library, so when I went to University I had a lot of catching up to do on many of the classics. Golding’s book is one of those and is widely considered to be one of the all-time great novels.

2019-06-12 15.24.56
My lovely 1965 edition of Lord of the Flies is older than me and has a cover price of three shillings and sixpence!

Lord of the Flies was Golding’s first novel, published in 1954. I doubt many people could name any of his other works (I couldn’t!), although he won the Booker Prize in 1980 for his novel Rites of Passage, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983. He died in 1993 at the age of 81. Lord of the Flies has been adapted three times for the big screen, and several times for stage and radio.

The basic plot is that a group of boys (thought to number about thirty, but it’s not entirely clear) are marooned on a Pacific island following a wartime evacuation attempt that ends in a plane crash. There are no adult survivors and the boys, ranging in age from perhaps nine to thirteen years, must learn quickly to survive. Three main characters emerge: Ralph and Jack are the two alpha-males of the group, but have very different instincts about the priorities, and Piggy, an overweight, severely near-sighted boy, probably of lower class than Ralph and Jack, who proves to be the most thoughtful, sensible and self-aware but who lacks the leadership skills to wield any power.

Initially, the boys attempt to organise, with Ralph at the helm. His primary concern is that they should get rescued and stay alive and safe until then. He meets resistance in the form of Jack, who is less keen on the rules and disciplines that Ralph wants to impose. His priorities are “fun” and hunting animals so that they can eat meat. As the days and weeks pass morale drops, particularly among the younger boys, many of whom are clearly terrified. They fear the darkness and the heavy forest on the island and what may be lurking within it – they imagine a terrible beast. Order begins to break down and powerful instincts surface. There is a terrible power struggle between Jack and Ralph which intensifies as the novel progresses. Factions form around the two leaders and the behaviours become increasingly reckless. Simon, one of the other older boys, and a sensitive soul, is killed in a case of mistaken identity, the now savage and adrenalin-fuelled group around Jack believing in his night-time approach to the camp, that he is in fact the much-feared “beast” they imagine stalks them.

Simon’s death at the hands of those who were once his schoolmates, unleashes further savagery, like the genie is out of the bottle. There is also, however, a kind of denial; it seems only Piggy recognises and is able to articulate the danger they are in – from themselves! It seems inevitable that Piggy should also die, brutally; Roger crashes a boulder onto him during a fight between Ralph and Jack in which Piggy is trying to intervene. Jack’s group would have killed Ralph too had it not been for the timely arrival of a rescue ship.

Although it was written in the early 1950s, this is very much a post-war book for me in which the author is reflecting on the base levels human beings can reach. If you simply scratch the surface of society you will find some instincts most of us would rather not admit to. A modern reading of the novel might also see the hazards of excessive masculinity and how lust for power can easily corrupt. You can also look at how easy it is for followers to forget their own moral codes and normal standards of behaviour when seduced by charismatic or persuasive leadership. The younger boys are unable to face the reality of their situation, stranded on a remote island, with an unknown chance of rescue, and the picture of excitement that Jack offers, playing at hunting, escapism from their problems, leads them to follow him down a dangerous path.

Whilst re-reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking about the current political turmoil we are in, both in the UK and globally. Some social norms seem to me to be breaking down. And when it came to the Jack/Ralph power struggle the Conservative party leadership contest came to mind! The only thing I couldn’t decide – who in our current crop of politicians is Piggy?!

A must-read for anyone wanting to gain a serious understanding of English literature.

Did you read Lord of the Flies as a teenager – can you remember what you thought of it?

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog. Let’s also connect on social media.

 

Postcard from the Hay Festival

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Hay Festival again this year, having made my first visit ever in 2018. Last year I went down just for the day, and loved it, so I decided to make a weekend of it this year. It felt busier this time, although perhaps that was just my imagination. Last year, I packed four events into my day and felt like I didn’t have enough time to just wander around soaking up the atmosphere, so this year I booked five events for the two days and built in some time for a stroll into the town. The festival site is about a mile outside of Hay-on-Wye itself, or the ‘town of books’ as it calls itself. It really is a beautiful little place. I must go down sometime, outside of the festival period.

2019-05-25 19.05.44There was a decidedly political, Brexit-y feel to events this year, perhaps that is because of the looming Tory party leadership contest and the European elections last week. Also, there is a sense that the world of arts and culture is beginning to assert its feeling about the Brexit issue more vociferously as the UK’s departure draws nearer. I saw Keir Starmer on Saturday and found him extremely impressive (surely a future leader of the Labour Party?). He was thoughtful and candid, whilst also remaining tactful about current political events. He was gracious about Theresa May and less so about many of her colleagues. He was being interviewed by Philippe Sands, author of East West Street, and it was a treat to see him too.

2019-05-28 15.52.24I also saw Naomi Wolf, a woman whose work I have admired for years. She was talking about her latest book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love in which she traces the evolution of attitudes to sex, particularly homosexual activity, from the mid-19th century on, through the writings of John Addington Symonds. There has been a lot of controversy in the press about an error in her book (which she has acknowledged and plans to correct in the next edition), which in my view, has been somewhat overblown; I truly doubt whether a male author would have experienced the same opprobrium. Naomi Wolf was warm and articulate, and gracious about the cultural and political turmoil in the UK, reflecting also on similar events in the US too. I was glad to have heard her speak.

2019-05-26 11.34.46On Sunday, I went to a panel discussion led by Ed Vaizey MP, talking about branding with a number of business-people. It was interesting, and Ed Vaizey is very witty, but, to be honest, didn’t feel very “Hay”. I also saw Melvyn Bragg speak about his new novel Love Without End: A Story of Heloise and Abelard. I enjoy listening to his BBC Radio 4 show In Our Time and am always impressed by his ability to cut through to the core of so many topics. Can you believe this is his 22nd novel!!! He has also written seventeen non-fiction books. Surely, he is approaching national treasure status!

 

The highlight of the weekend for me, however, was seeing Anna Burns talking with Gaby Wood about her Man Booker prize-winning novel Milkman. Burns was characteristically humble and quirky, utterly authentic and it was joyous hearing her read several passages from the book. She is brilliant. I loved the book and hearing her speak made me want to go and read it all over again!

I struggled to tear myself away from the Festival; I ‘bumped into’ Maxine Peake on Sunday morning (who had performed a reading of Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy about Peterloo on the Saturday evening). I had not booked to see her performance as I’ve seen her do it in Manchester, but am a huge fan of hers so felt slightly star struck. I also strolled past BBC journalist Kamal Ahmed, who was talking about his newly-published memoir, Michael Rosen and new poet laureate Simon Armitage. Yes, the Hay Festival is a great place to just hang out!

Have you ever been to the Hay Festival? What are your fondest memories?

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you subscribe to my blog for regular updates. 

Book review – “To A Mountain in Tibet” by Colin Thubron

It is some time since I posted a book review – pretty shabby for a book review blog, though I like to think my non-review posts are suitably bookish too! I posted last week about my challenges in getting much reading done at the moment; even Why Mummy Drinks, Gill Sims’s very light, asking-to-speed-read, novel that my book club chose, seemed to be taking me ages. It has been a very busy few weeks – my paid work has been quite demanding (as has my non-paid work!), we have been undertaking a big decorating project in the house, plus we are properly working on the garden for the first time since we bought this house four years ago, and I am on revision-watch as one of my kids is on study-leave for exams this summer.

To A Mountian in Tibet imgSo my reading time has been severely curtailed. I managed to finish Why Mummy Drinks just after the book club meeting, just as well it was a quick read and did not require too much mental investment. My other big read for last month, however, did. Colin Thubron’s To A Mountain in Tibet was the April title for my Facebook Reading Challenge. The theme was travel writing, not a genre I know very much about, so I did a fair bit of research before choosing Thubron. It came with some fantastic recommendations. At just over 200 pages, it is not particularly long, but it felt like a very slow read.

The author has written more than a dozen travel books (as well as eight novels), mostly about the East. In this book he crosses the border between Nepal and Tibet on foot, to follow a route taken by thousands of pilgrims each year to Mount Kailas. I confess I had not heard of it, but it is one of the holiest shrines on earth, important to both Hindus and Buddhists. Whilst I have not read much travel writing, I guess my expectation is that it should educate and inform the reader about the location (tick), consider some of the social and political conditions of the people living there (tick), and include the personal reflections of the writer (tick). After all, isn’t travel writing as much about an emotional and psychological journey as well as physical one?

Thubron’s book does all these things and does them well, and the writing is beautiful. I learnt a great deal about Buddhism, about pilgrims’ reasons for undertaking the perilous trek around Kailas, about the political tension between China and Tibet, and about the poverty and social problems in the region, particularly in Nepal. All of that said, I’m afraid I have mixed feelings about the book. I gave it four stars on Goodreads, but there was something languid about the book that at times failed to engage me. Some of the history was rather dry, while the account of the poverty, the terrible conditions in which some of the people in the towns and villages on Thubron’s route live, was brought vividly alive.

The ‘journey’ that Thubron himself is on, in a state of bereavement, all his family members now dead, reflects the motive of many of the pilgrims in whose footsteps he is following. He writes about his late parents, and his long-dead sister, but I feel this wasn’t covered in as much depth as I would have liked. The blurb on the book’s cover indicates this is a major element, but I would disagree and feel the content could have had a little more meaning if these passages had been included in a slightly less random way.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and I would like to read more of Thubron’s work. I imagine if you know a little more of the subject matter it might have greater impact.

Which other travel writers would you recommend?