Monthly Archives: October 2017

Book Review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? – Jeanette Winterson

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is the story of Jeanette Winterson’s childhood up to her writing Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, and it then skips 25 years to pick up what happened with her life when she was much older (though this part connects with the earlier bit!). In other words, it’s not about her success as a famous author. It’s brilliantly moving and gives you a magnificent portrait of life in a northern English town in the 1960s (spoiler alert: it is grim!)

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I decided to read this because next week I’m going to see Rebecca Solnit being interviewed by Jeanette Winterson as part of the Manchester Literature Festival. I love Rebecca Solnit (as previously documented here and here), but I haven’t ever read any Jeanette Winterson, though I am aware of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. I decided I needed to read a Jeanette Winterson book, and couldn’t resist this one – I was drawn by the picture of Blackpool on the cover (my home town) and really wanted to read about her childhood in Accrington. Basically, set a book in North West England to guarantee I want to read it. That feeling where you recognise the landscape or place in the description is irresistible (it last happened for me in The Loney – set around the Morecambe coast, but hasn’t happened very often).

Jeanette was adopted. She is reminded daily by her mother that she could have chosen a different baby – she is compared to the mysterious Paul, who would have been a much better child than she was, and less possessed by demons.  The family are poor. Her Dad works long hours and leaves the parenting to her mum (though is called upon to dish out regular physical punishment). Her mother is a Christian who believes the Apocalypse is due any day. We are all doomed to die and we must spend all day reminding everybody. The house is full of biblical quotes on pieces of paper taped around the place. Oh, but books aren’t allowed. Education should be minimal, lest you stray from the teachings of God, and don’t you dare try and expand your horizons.

To say Jeanette had a miserable upbringing is the biggest understatement. Her own family life is so wildly bizarre, that would be enough to make this a fascinating book, but we also get an incredible portrait of general life in 1960s working class Accrington. It’s like an old episode of Coronation Street on steroids.

Just one example is the story of Auntie Nellie. It totally broke me reading about Auntie Nellie. Auntie Nellie who gave onion or potato soup to all the neighbourhood kids a few times a week. They would be 30 or 40 in a queue at her door, all hungry because they never had enough food at home. Auntie Nellie would fill up their cup with soup. Auntie Nellie who never took off her coat. Aunt Nellie who they discovered didn’t own any clothes after she died, when they were preparing her body for burial.

When Jeanette reaches college age, she finally leaves home. She lives in her car, while studying for her A levels, until she is taken in by a teacher. This isn’t much of a hardship for her as she is used to either sleeping on her doorstep, after her mother locks her out of the house, or being locked in the coal shed.

Somehow, miraculously, despite her upbringing, she gains a place at Oxford University. I cried buckets when this happens in the story! I know this is partly because my job involves trying to persuade working class kids, from a grim northern English town, to raise their aspirations and apply to Oxford or Cambridge for University. And it’s tough, there’s such low confidence in so many of them that they won’t even try because they are terrified of not making it. I was so happy for Jeanette. Her drive and determination to succeed is so inspiring. It doesn’t spoil the book to know this is what happens in advance – how she gets to this point is the magic of her story.

When she arrives at Oxford, she is immediately told by her tutor that she is the ‘working-class experiment’ and her friend is ‘the black experiment’. So things are not plain sailing even from this point.

I haven’t even mentioned another incredible part of her story. Jeanette is a lesbian. Her mother and her church attempt to perform an exorcism on her. It’s just disgusting what they put teenage Jeanette through. Utterly vile.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is one of the best autobiographies I’ve read. It’s written in a quite rambling style – where the narrative is linear in time, but there are frequent departures into interesting stories that aren’t specifically connected with the main text. It gives it you a feeling like you are in conversation with the author yourself. It follows that conversational style and feels very natural when you read it. I can’t wait to read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit now! I’m really looking forward to the Manchester Literature Festival event next week.

 

 

 

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Book Review: History of Wolves – Emily Fridlund.

History of Wolves is the story of a lonely teenager, living in a remote part of Northern Minnesota. It’s all forests and lakes. Linda, lives with her parents in a cabin, the leftovers from a hippy commune that broke up while Linda was much younger. Her parents don’t interact with her much and she’s left to her own devices for the majority of the time. She ranges freely though the woods and kayaks around the lakes when she feels like it.

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Linda is an outsider at school. She becomes the interest of her, repulsively described, new history teacher, Mr Grierson – he encourages her to enter a history competition, and here she completes a piece of work called the History of Wolves. She becomes interested in trying to interest him, and grooming of various types is a theme throughout the book. He rejects her advances, but soon has to move away over a scandal involving another student, and he spends some time in jail for sex offences. Linda continues to be interested in Mr Grierson, and she follows his movements via a website tracking sex offenders. Linda seems to be disturbed by his rejection of her.

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Linda notices a family moving into a cabin across the lake, and she becomes a babysitter for their four year old son, Paul. His mother, Patra, is often alone with Paul as his father is an astrophysicist often away working in Hawaii.

During the first half of the novel there are a few hints that not everything is quite right in the cabin across the lake. There is mention of a trial, and Paul says something strange about God…

At the trial they kept asking, when did you know for sure there was something wrong? And the answer probably was: right away. But that feeling faded as I got to know him.

Linda is telling the story in History of Wolves from later in her life, when she is 30. We find out a bit about how her life has turned out. The effects her mentally absent parents have had on her. How the events of the novel have affected her. As well as being about how people can be influenced, and grooming, it’s about responsibility. It’s clear that an adult grooming a child is completely wrong, but what about when an older man seems to influence a younger woman, even if she is an adult? If a child knows about something going on that they feel uncomfortable about, how responsible are they for it? what if they are 15? It’s also about religion, and belief.

It’s not what you think but what you do that matters.

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History of Wolves on my kindle and a very gigantic puppy.

I really liked History of Wolves. It is shocking, and horrifying, and really makes me wonder about Emily Fridlund’s experiences that led her write to this book! I think it was a very deserving Man Booker Prize shortlisted book. I’m going to be thinking about it for a long time. I’m very deliberately not giving away any spoilers in my review, but come back to me when you’ve read it so we can talk about it properly, ok?  and just in case you didn’t realise from the rest of the review, you won’t find out anything about wolves from this book!

P.S. I was provided with a copy of this book by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks NetGalley!

Prudence and the Crow September 2017

I got my first book from Prudence and the Crow in September. I was looking for an affordable, monthly book surprise in the post, and after looking at lots of options decided on Prudence and the Crow. They have a great name. You get a book chosen for you. You get some little bookish treats. The book is secondhand and this is probably what makes it more affordable. It costs £15 a month.

I had stated when I signed up that I would like to read more BAME authors and I quite like sci-fi, and I ended up with My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due. I can’t wait to read it (though I know it probably won’t be for a while!). I also got this lovely book sleeve – a great bonus because I keep thinking I need something to help keep my books from getting damaged in my bag.

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As well as the book and the fabric sleeve, there were some sweets, teabags, postcards, labels, and a few other bits too.

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The packaging was nice too, though the fragile sticker didn’t seem to have been taken notice of, and the packaging was a bit battered when it arrived – but everything inside was fine.

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I’m expecting my October post any time soon. Hopefully I’ll be just as happy with this one. 🙂

 

 

Book review: Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace is a really quite long book about the 1840s Canadian murderess Grace Marks. She’s a real person, who was jailed for the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, when she was 16. She is also thought to have murdered his lover, and housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Alias Grace is Margaret Atwood’s fictionalised version of this story, weaving the facts of the case with a constructed story of Grace and her life up to, and beyond the conviction.

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Reading at the bus stop on a very rainy night. 

I should point out that I quite enjoyed the story, but it’s definitely not really my sort of thing, and I wouldn’t have got through all 550 pages if it hadn’t been for a book club I go to. Having said that, most of the other people at book club absolutely loved it.

Margaret Atwood brilliantly builds up and creates the world that Grace inhabits. The detail about everything is rich and stunningly done. I never got bored of the descriptions it all helped put me right in Grace’s world. It has recently been made into a Netflix series and I think it will definitely be worth watching.

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Reading in my space pants. 

We meet Grace as a young girl in Ireland. Her family are poor, with lots of children and a feckless Father. They decide to begin a new life in America, and make the frankly horrendous journey over on a boat. During this trip, her Mother dies. Then Grace abandons her family after they settle in Canada, as a survival mechanism to get away from her abusive Father. From here she lives in as a house maid.

We follow Grace through several jobs, in different houses, until the terrible events that put her in jail. At this point she is still only sixteen years old. These recollections are told to a doctor, Simon Jenkins, who is studying Grace to try and make an assessment of her mind at the time of the crime. The whole book is centred around their meetings. I liked the character of Dr Jenkins, who is entirely fictionalised. While he tries to maintain a respectable, professional image to Grace, his personal life begins to break down. He’s under constant pressure from his family to settle down, and his letter exchanges with his Mother are excellent.

As one season’s crop of girls proceeds into engagement and marriage, younger ones keep sprouting up, like tulips in May. They are now so young in relation to Simon that he has trouble conversing with them; it’s like talking to a basketful of kittens.

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We learn about Grace’s friend, Mary Whitney, firstly through several quotes she uses to describe things in a very funny, but coarse way. She uses Mary’s quotes to say things she would never dare, as Grace is quite prudish. Mary is slightly older than Grace, and she assumes the big sister role that Grace so desperately needs. She teaches her the ways of the job and how to get along well in life. Later, we hear Grace’s story about Mary and learn a lot more about her. She is my favourite character, she has such spark.

Mary said I might be very young, and as ignorant as an egg, but I was bright as a new penny, and the difference between stupid and ignorant was that ignorant could learn.

Grace’s story is interesting, but this book is a triumph of describing the domestic situation of 1840s Canada. There’s also a, quite Victorian, supernatural element to the story. I would recommend it of you are interested in this time, or a fan of historical fiction with a factual basis. Probably if none of those things really appeal, I would wait for the Netflix show (it looks really good! see the trailer below)

Book review: Autumn – Ali Smith

Autumn is the first in four planned seasonal books by Ali Smith. It’s a gorgeous look at the relationship between a young girl (and then woman) and an old man, set against the back drop of Brexit Britain.

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We meet Elisabeth as a young girl (around 8, I think). Her and her mother move into a house next to an old man, Daniel Gluck. He is used as a free babysitter by Elisabeth’s mum. The old man and the young girl go on walks where they talk about language, and art, and life. These walks continue until Elisabeth is 15 or 16, by which time her mother has become worried about their friendship and had forbidden Elisabeth to continue this friendship, which she disregards. From early on in their friendship:

She saw through a crack in the curtains Daniel coming up the front path. She opened the door even though she’d decided she wasn’t going to. Hello, he said. What you reading? Elisabeth showed him her empty hands. Does it look like I’m reading anything? she said. Always be reading something, he said. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant. A constant what? Elisabeth said. A constant constancy, Daniel said.

By the end of the timeline of the story, he is 101, and Elisabeth is around 30. He is at the end of his life in a nursing home – trapped in a deep sleep, and she visits, reads to him and ponders the state of Britain after the EU referendum, and reflects on Daniel’s life and the profound effect his friendship has had on her.

Added to this, we get some dream like sequences from Daniel’s mind (in fact, this is how the novel opens with a dream sequence that takes us to the migrant crisis in Europe and to tourists trying to holiday on beaches with dead people washing up on the shore). We also learn more about Elisabeth’s mother and her activism in response to an immigrant detention centre being built near her home. There’s also a lot about the pop artist Pauline Boty and about the Keeler affair. It’s all quite disjointed, but it works well during the book.

The plot doesn’t run in a linear way, rather we get memories of different times throughout the present day story. The parts on art reminded me of How To Be Both – the only other Ali Smith I’ve read (review).

The post Brexit descriptions are stark and horrifying in the same way my mind is still horrified by the outcome of the referendum vote. It feels very current and accurately shows the tangle of thoughts that different people must be having over the same issues. It’s hard to describe, but some passages just broke my heart. This rant from late on in the book sums it up quite well:

Her mother sits down on the churned-up ground near the fence. I’m tired, she says. It’s only two miles, Elisabeth says. That’s not what I mean, she says. I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on it’s way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how these liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to anymore. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity. I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says. I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says.

Finally, the relationship between Daniel and Elisabeth is very touching, and a bit of a spoiler, but it remains innocent. I was so glad it didn’t take a different turn. From when they first meet:

Very pleased to meet you… Finally. How do you mean finally? Elisabeth said. We only moved here six weeks ago. The lifelong friends, he said. We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.

I can’t wait to read the next books in this series.

P.s. I was provided with a copy of Autumn by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks NetGalley!

 

Books Bought and Read – September 2017

Overall a slow month for reading. New term at school though, and littlest starting school, so it was always going to be a struggle to fit it in. Still bought a bazillion books though…

Books Bought

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing – Eimear McBride. Finally got a copy of this. It’s been hovering near the top of my ‘must be read’ list for a few years, and now I actually have a copy I will get around to it probably sooner! I finally bought it after hearing it be praised on the Bookshambles podcast – source of lots of my book purchases!

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The Sun is also a Star – Nicola Yoon. Kindle bargain and I’ve heard good things about it.

Oxfam books visit. Can’t leave without a handful of them! This was my birthday visit too. I got:

  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Steven Chbosky
  • The Earthsea Quartet – Ursula Le Guin
  • Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
  • Einstein Dreams – Alan Lightman

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Now for a trio of physics books, because I needed to buy a prize for a poster competition I ran at work.

  • Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – Carlo Rovelli
  • Storm in a Teacup – Helen Czerski 
  • Forces of Nature – Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen. 

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Ended up giving Storm in a Teacup away because it’s the one I most want to read myself. Of course, I now need to buy it gain so I can read it…

The Secret Pilgrim – John Le Carre. kindle deal and bought due to my extremely long term plan to read all of his books. I know own 5 times more than I have ever read. It’s going great!

Books Read

Click for links to reviews.

Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens – Eddie Izzard.

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead.

See I said it was a slow one!

Bedtime Stories

Tried to get my oldest child (age 7) to have something newer and more exciting to read at bedtime, but he insists on us read the Faraway Tree books again! He just loves them. Saucepan Man and all that.

The Enchanted Wood – Enid Blyton

Folk of The Faraway Tree – Enid Blyton

Also with the small one:

A German picture book that we have to look at all the pictures in. OMG.

Audiobook Review: Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens – Eddie Izzard

I’ve decided to highlight that this was the audiobook version I read because it has so many footnotes, it must be at least double the length of the actual book. Around fourteen and a half hours worth of Eddie Izzard’s life story, and I loved it.

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He’s certainly had an interesting, eventful, and quite tragic life. We start the book by finding out that his mum died when he was 6. He was then sent to boarding school with his older brother so his father could continue working. Before this happened he had a lovely time being at home with his family, hanging around with the neighbourhood kids, no idea that he would ever go to boarding school. It’s so sad reading about such a young boy being sent away.

We find out about boarding school life, and then how he spends his 20s trying to make it as a performer. He tried sketch comedy, and street performing, before finally making a success of stand up comedy when he was around 30. This highlights how determined he has been and how he grafted for a decade before getting successful, even though his early 90s rise in stand up comedy if often portrayed as swift.

There is an extraordinary amount of references to the Nuffield Physics syllabus of the 70s that he studied while doing A level physics. The syllabus was unusual in that it relied heavily on performing experiments to learn the theory. He refers back to this Nuffield syllabus at many key moments of his life, when he needed to make a decision. I found this very funny, because as an A level physics teacher, I know the course he’s referring to (as a historical A level physics course – not that I am old enough to have taken it or taught it!!!).

We don’t get many details about his personal relationships. It doesn’t detract from the book at all. Really it’s none of our business, and his life is interesting enough with out these details. We do get to hear a lot about his alternative sexuality, which is his own term for his transgender, or in the 80s transvestite, status. It terribly sad that essentially he’s had lots of issues in life because he likes wearing clothes that are traditionally female, and he likes to wear make up. I dress in traditionally mens clothes all the time and no one bats an eyelid. Society is so fucked up!

I really admire Eddie Izzard’s attitude to so many aspects of his life. I love him when he’s talking about atheism. And his footnotes are well worth getting the audiobook version for. His determination really shines through his entire life and follows him all the way to his Sport Relief mega marathon challenges.

Funnily enough, I don’t think I’ve ever watched any of his comedy. I will clearly need to seek some out very soon.