Easter holiday reading suggestions

2017-03-30-11-55-53.jpgI’m off on a short holiday to the Netherlands so I’m planning to take some reading with me, of course, and have decided on another book from my ‘to read’ pile (I’m in the groove now!) called In the Dutch Mountains by Cees Nooteboom. It looks delightfully weird and I love the Dutch so am very excited to be reading it at last. I’m also taking Roxane Gray’s Difficult Women, a collection of short stories which was a gift from a friend. Looking forward to that and hoping I can get some tips for my own short story writing. I’ll also take North and South which I’m re-reading this month as part of my 2017 reading challenge.

If you’re looking for ideas yourself and would like something light and amusing which you can dip in and out of, you could try Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe. I mentioned this book in a blog a few weeks ago; I read it whilst on a ‘break’ from a book I was finding quite heavygoing (Do Not Say We Have Nothing). It was the perfect antidote: a straightforward jolly read. It’s a series of letters from Nina, to her sister Victoria in Leicestershire and therefore readable in bitesize chunks.

Love Nina imgNina is twenty when we meet her in the early 1980s. She lives with Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, and her two young sons, Sam and Will, to whom she is a nanny. They live at 55 Gloucester Crescent NW1, an area that was also home to other literary types, among them Alan Bennett and Claire Tomalin, who also make appearances in the book, particularly ‘AB’ who is a great friend of ‘MK’.

Nina’s letters home detail the events of daily life in the household, and are brought alive by her pithy observations on the quirkiness of her employer and the neighbours. It was particularly nice to read this after watching Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van over Christmas, which was also set in Gloucester Crescent and features many of the same people. Nina’s affection for the family shines through and she writes with great fondness of Sam and Will, her young charges. MK is idiosyncratic, but charming, and Alan Bennett leaps off the page. The personalities of the individuals come across strongly; Nina clearly has a talent for this since much of what we learn about them is through the conversations she reproduces in the letters as extracts of dialogue. She manages to pick out the little details or the nuances and word choices that reveal so much.

The letters cover a couple of years, and at the end of the book Nina is part way through her degree in English literature at Thames Polytechnic. By this stage you can see she herself is becoming a more accomplished chronicler, although the later letters, many of which are about her university friends, I found less endearing than the earlier ones.

Nina, now in her 50s, eventually became a writer, and had two children with Nunney, one of the other inhabitants of Gloucester Crescent (though they got together much later), and has subsequently published two novels in addition to this memoir: Man at the Helm and Paradise Lodge, which I’d be interested in reading. Love, Nina was also adapted for television by Nick Hornby, and starred Helena Bonham Carter. I think that could be fun to watch.

So, a good little read, perfect if you’re going away this Easter holiday.

What are you reading this Spring?

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My ‘to read’ pile is shrinking!

Last week I posted a review on this blog of Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which I’d read as part of my 2017 reading challenge. The challenge for March was to select something from my ever-growing ‘to-read’ pile. I know you have one too! It felt very satisfying to finally get around to something that I’ve been wanting to read for some time but which never seemed to rise to the top of the pile. My ‘to read’ pile bothers me a lot, so much so that I have many “‘to read” piles’ around the house. I’m a compulsive book-buyer so I feel guilty about the money I spend (although it has to be said a great many of the books I buy on impulse are from charity shops or waiting rooms) and about the space taken up, especially since I read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying! Clutter, to me, feels like a powerful signal of under-achievement. I bet my tidy, high-achieving friends don’t have large ‘to read’ piles! The psychology of the ‘to read’ pile is clearly very deep.

2017-03-30-12-10-56.jpgSo, it gives me great pleasure to announce that I completed the March challenge and the pile is one volume smaller. I really enjoyed Just Kids and I’m pleased I finally got around to it. I’ve also given up book-buying for Lent so hopefully I will be better able to resist temptation in the future and tackle the unread books before buying new ones. Sometimes.

April’s challenge is to re-read a book I have enjoyed in the past. I’m not a big re-reader and yet I know this can be hugely rewarding, especially if you’re in a quiz or something and the name of the central character from that really famous book you read years ago is on the tip of your tongue! My husband is a good re-reader and he finds that he is able to get something new out of a book each time he goes back to it. I’ve decided to re-read Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. I read this many years ago, whilst studying English Literature at university and I’m afraid I remember very little about it, but I do know that I enjoyed it.

2017-03-30 11.25.47I am fortunate to live in Manchester, northern England, the setting of this book. It’s also where Gaskell spent much of her early life. You can visit Gaskell’s house in Plymouth Grove, Ardwick (and then stroll over to the Pankhurst Centre nestled in amongst the buildings of the Manchester Royal Infirmary) which I did last year. It’s still a work in progress, so well worth supporting, but has a fascinating collection of her possessions and is set out as it would have been when she and her family lived there. I moved to Manchester relatively recently and have become fascinated by the city’s history and culture. It will be interesting to read the book now, with that new knowledge and awareness.

My copy of North and South is a slim little thing, perfectly innocuous-looking, but the text is tiny and it has over 500 pages! I’m looking forward to immersing myself in 19th century northern industrial poverty. I also note that the Introduction to my edition is written by one of my former Professors, so it will be a trip down Memory Lane altogether.

Did you start a reading challenge this year? If so, how are you getting on?

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Just Kids

JUst kids imgI’ve been an admirer of Patti Smith for a number of years now. I’m a bit young to have been a fan of hers when she first broke onto the music scene in the mid-1970s. I became aware of her much later when I picked up a sale copy of her debut album Horses. I was also aware of Robert Mapplethorpe, the late artist-photographer who was her lover and then close friend when they were both very young. Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989 and it must have been in the 1990s that I saw an exhibition of his work in London (I had an interest in photography at the time). Later on again I learned about the connection between the two and how Patti had been, if you like, Mapplethorpe’s ‘muse’ when he was first discovering his art.

I’d known about this book for a while, having heard Patti Smith talking about it in a radio interview, but I picked this up, ironically, in New York, when I was there on holiday last summer, from the famous Strand Bookstore. I’d hoped to read it whilst there (and perhaps visit some of the places she mentions in the book) but that didn’t happen. I decided to read it as part of my 2017 reading challenge; March’s challenge is to read something from my ‘to read’ pile, which, as I have written here recently, is substantial! And it has been a real pleasure to read.

The book is an account of her and Mapplethorpe’s early artistic development. They found each other by accident in New York City in the late 1960s when they had both arrived there in search of a more meaningful life. Their early life together was marked by poverty and the struggle to be recognised. In many ways their life was pretty ordinary, were it not for all the incredible people they meet and hang out with – Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, William Burroughs – and if you are familiar with New York City, particularly the lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village areas, you will enjoy the mentions of different places, particularly the infamous Chelsea Hotel where many a star has risen and fallen.

But the book is so much more than that; it is an account of how artists find their voice and their medium, but it is also a love story. Patti writes tenderly and affectionately of her love for Mapplethorpe and the profound mutual respect that lay at the heart of their relationship. You don’t need to be admirers of them to appreciate this. It is also an account of how love changes; Mapplethorpe loved Patti deeply but he eventually came out as homosexual. He had been brought up a Roman Catholic and this was a long and difficult process for him. Patti later married a musician Fred Smith, and they lived a happy humdrum family life together in Michigan with their children until he died at the age of 45 in 1994. To that extent the book is also about what happens when love moves on, and how former lovers can evolve their relationship and grow as a result.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, particularly the escape into bohemian New York in the 1970s. Some books you read of this nature can make you feel your own life is rather dull and insignificant, but at the centre of this book is not glamour and sensationalism, but the day to day human love that we all need and hopefully most of us experience at some point in our lives. To that extent it is a story we could all identify with.

A nice book for kids for the holidays

xmas-1-2Regular visitors to this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s literature. My children are part of the generation that grew up with Harry Potter. JK Rowling is one of my heroes, for a number of reasons, but primarily for all that she has done to get (and keep) children reading, particularly those who might otherwise not have done so. Harry Potter wasn’t the first literary character to bring wizarding and magic into children’s literary lives, however. The Snow Spider was first published 30 years ago and was a multiple award winner. It was originally published as a trilogy, but this anniversary volume has been issued as a stand-alone. I chose it for the book club I run at my daughter’s primary school.

It’s set in Gwynedd, rural Wales, where our central character, nine year-old Gwyn Davies, lives on a farm with his parents. It starts on the morning of Gwyn’s birthday with his grandmother, the eccentric Nain, giving him five gifts: a brooch, a broken wooden horse, a yellow scarf, a piece of seaweed and a tin whistle. It turns out that these rather unusual tokens are in fact a kind of test, designed to determine whether Gwyn has inherited the magical powers that run in the family line but which have now missed several generations.

We learn that Gwyn’s birthday is usually a quiet and fairly sombre affair because it is the anniversary of his elder sister’s disappearance, four years earlier. Bethan went out in search of a pet lamb belonging to her little brother, after he begged her to do so, and never returned. Gwyn’s father blames Gwyn for his beloved daughter’s disappearance and has since become a cold and distant figure in his son’s life.

Gwyn soon finds that he does indeed possess certain magical powers and each of the gifts given to him by Nain has an individual significance, a power he must explore and learn about. The first sign he receives is when the brooch becomes a delicate and beautiful silver spider, Arianwen. The spider becomes his guide and companion throughout the rest of the book and on his journey of self-discovery. The broken horse unleashes some malevolent forces that Gwyn must learn to control – this is a very high-action chapter! The yellow scarf, which had belonged to his sister and was the only sign of her left on the hills after she vanished, attracts Bethan back into the family’s life, but in an abstract way; Eirlys is introduced about halfway through the book when she arrives at Gwyn’s school, apparently an orphan. She lives with a family in the village, but after becoming trapped in a storm finds herself spending some days with Gwyn and his family. Eirlys clearly reminds Gwyn’s father of his missing daughter and her presence brings about a softening in his relationship with his son.

The children in the book club had mixed feelings about The Snow Spider. Some did not like it at all – one even abandoned it! For others I think it was perhaps rather gentler than their usual reading, with not quite enough “action”. Compared to many of the books published today it has a certain innocence that I confess made me rather nostalgic! I loved the sense of place; rural Wales, with all its traditions of myth and magic is beautifully evoked, and the characters are well-drawn and familiar.

The recommended age group for this book is 8-12 years, but I feel it would probably work best for children at the younger end of that spectrum, and it’s a lovely one to read aloud together; some of the keener children in the book club raced through it (it’s quite short) and I think this may have compromised their enjoyment. I think it also helps to have an adult to discuss the book with as it deals with some challenging themes, not least the disappearance of a child. Gwyn’s relationship with his parents, particularly his father, is quite a tricky issue, as is the question of acceptance by peers (once Gwyn’s ‘visions’ become playground gossip, he is teased by some of the other children). Also, Gwyn’s discovery of his magic after his 9th birthday is, I think a metaphor for puberty and adolescence, which may resonate with children approaching double figures.

It is a lovely book that I think quieter, perhaps more thoughtful children will enjoy, or children who like to read with an adult. But it isn’t Harry Potter!

Who knew about ‘The Secret Life of Bees’?

2017-03-08 12.29.54

When I put it out on social media a couple of weeks ago that I was about to start reading this book, I had a number of comments back from people telling me how much they had enjoyed it, so I started with high expectations. I was not disappointed. I was only puzzled at how I’d missed it first time around, but then it was published in 2001, the year my first child was born, which explains a lot! I was totally absorbed by this book, as were my fellow book club members – I read it very quickly because it was so hard to put down. It is a very female book in the sense that it is full of strong women, so perfect to be reading around the time of International Women’s Day.

The central character is fourteen year-old Lily. When we first meet her she is living a lonely, loveless existence on her father’s peach farm; we learn that her mother died when she was four years old in a mysterious accident with a gun which seems to have involved Lily pulling the trigger. Lily lives with her father, whom she calls T. Ray, an indication of the distance and lack of filial affection in their relationship. It’s worse than that though; T.Ray’s treatment of his daughter is borderline abusive. He is emotionally and physically cruel, administering harsh physical treatment for what he perceives to be her misdemeanours, and exploiting her labour. Lily’s only friend is the black maid Rosaleen.

Lily longs for her dead mother and craves the affection she feels sure her mother would have given her. She spends time imagining what her mother was like and cherishes the small trinkets which serve as her only memories. One of these trinkets is a picture of a black Madonna with the words ‘Tiburon S.C.’ written on the back. It transpires that Tiburon is another town in South Carolina, some distance from Sylvan where Lily lives.

The novel is set in the Summer of 1964, when the Civil Rights Act had just been made law, giving people of colour the right to vote throughout the United States. Whilst racial equality had been affirmed in law, it was not yet fully accepted in the wider society. Rosaleen walks into town to register to vote and is involved in an incident with some local thugs. She is beaten up by these men, but finds herself arrested and put in jail. Her injuries are so severe that she is sent to hospital. For Lily this is the final straw and she sees this as an opportunity for them both to escape their repressed life. She gets Rosaleen out of the hospital from under the nose of the guard who is meant to be watching her, and the two women make their way to Tiburon by hitchhiking and walking.

Lily has no plan beyond getting to Tiburon and does not even know what she intends to do or what she expects to find when she gets there, but there is no doubt she feels drawn there and, in reality has no other option. Through a series of chance encounters, Lily and Rosaleen find themselves at ‘the pink house’, the home of the calendar sisters, August, June and May, three black women who run a cottage industry from their home, producing honey. The label on their jars has a picture of the same black Madonna that Lily has among her mother’s possessions. It turns out that the sisters also belong to a group called The Daughters of Mary, a small religious coterie which worships Mary, mother of Jesus (manifested in the black Madonna, of whom they also have a statue in their home), as the source of divine love and power.

The sisters take in Lily and Rosaleen and they spend the summer with them, working for their board and lodging. Over the weeks and months, Lily begins to uncover some truths about her mother and her own story, which are not easy for her to bear. Lily also learns what it is to be loved as her relationship with one of the sisters, August, develops, and she is accepted by the other sisters and their companions.

This is a wonderfully written book with a powerful sense of time and place. The setting, hot, sultry South Carolina is beautifully conveyed. It is not a light book; there are some dark and sinister undertones here with the racial violence, child cruelty and social injustice, but it is ultimately a hopeful and uplifting book. Through Lily, Rosaleen and the sisters, truth and goodness ultimately prevail.

I loved this and would recommend it highly. Great bedtime reading, great holiday reading, great anytime reading, this is storytelling at its best.

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!

 

Do Not Say We Have Nothing img

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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