Monthly Archives: December 2018

A thought for our time

Before we look too deeply into our mince pies, I want to share the quote Lucy Mangan shares in her Bookworm. It’s from one of her ‘older’ children’s books, Summer of my German Soldier, by Bette Greene.

Set in the American deep south, the quote comes from a [hidden] German soldier, who’s made friends with a young Jewish girl, and his explanation of ‘how Hitler succeeded is still my go-to reference as I’m reading the headlines about the rise of whichever new (or ancient) evil is dominating the news cycle that day.

“His first layer is an undeniable truth, such as: the German worker is poor. The second layer is divided equally between flattery and truth: the German worker deserves to be prosperous. The third layer is total fabrication: the Jews and the Communists have stolen what is rightfully yours.”

Evil builds in increments. Your understanding of this basic truth may grow in sophistication and detail over the years, but the earlier and harder you grasp the simple, unchanging bastard fundamental, the better off you’ll be.’

Needless to say, I want to read this book.

Bookworm – A Memoir of Childhood Reading

I want to be Lucy Mangan. We are so alike in many ways, but I haven’t read all the books she has, nor can I write like she does. I want to [be able to] write like Lucy Mangan!

I don’t expect that will happen.

I also want to know what her house/library/bookshelves look like. I can’t conceive how you can keep that many books – in a findable way – in a normal house. Assuming she lives in a normal house.

Lucy Mangan, Bookworm

After reading Lucy’s Bookworm, I now love her parents, too. I especially feel I’ve got to know Mrs Mangan better – and that’s without the letter to the Guardian stating that the Mangans were happy to have their daughter adopted by some other Guardian letter writer.

A friend of mine often mentions the fear induced in millions of people by the four minute warning so ‘popular’ in the 1980s. I’d almost forgotten about it, and never really worried all that much. Little Lucy was extremely concerned, but was reassured by her mother, who clearly knew what the child needed to hear. Basically, it would be in the news, so they would be prepared. They’d not send her to school if the end seemed imminent, and they would all die together at home. Problem solved.

Bookworm is about what one bookworm has read – so far – in her life of loving children’s books. She is not repentant (I must try harder), and will keep reading what she wants, as well as keep not doing all those ghastly things other people like, if she doesn’t want to. That’s my kind of bookworm!

This reading memoir is full of the same books we have all read, or decided not to read, as well as some real secret gems I’d never heard of and will need to look for. Lucy rereads books regularly, but doesn’t mention how she finds the time for all this.

It’s been such a relief to discover that she dislikes some of the same books I’d never consider reading, and even more of a relief to understand how acceptable, and necessary this is. Lucy even has the right opinions on clothes. Very useful to know there are sensible women in this world.

I had to read Bookworm slowly. I needed to savour what I could sense wouldn’t last forever. Although one can obviously reread Bookworm, just as one can other books. (Where to find the extra time, though?)

Growing up a generation – not to mention a North Sea – apart, we didn’t always read the same books. But by now we sort of meet in the here and now, and Lucy ends her book by listing a number of today’s must-read authors, and her judgement is almost completely spot on and correct.

So to summarise; I can read the same books. I can probably not store as many in my house. But I will never be able to write as well. (And I rather mind that.)

(According to Lucy, she loves her young son more than she loves books. Bookworm was given to me – after some hinting – by Daughter, whom I happen to love more than books too.)

…and the Christmas tagliatelle

The Fledgling Girls booked themselves in for Christmas lunch at Corrieri’s yesterday, and they allowed me to tag along, in all my un-Fledglingness.

Moira McPartlin, Alex Nye, Bookwitch and Helen Grant

It was good. Corrieri’s used to be somewhere the Resident IT Consultant’s relatives gathered for Christmas Eve pizzas in the semi-olden days, so it has Christmassy connotations for me. And what could be more seasonal than mushrooms and tagliatelle? Fish and chips. Pizza. It was all good.

We exchanged gifts and cards.

We exchanged opinions on a lot of things, from all that stuff in the news, to literary agents, authors having large incomes (hah), second husbands, incidents with cars, art, lemon desserts, having nice offspring, 1980s music, getting on with one’s parents. You know, perfectly normal conversation.

At least I think it was…

We might have stayed longer than the restaurant expected us to, but it’s hard to stop chatting mid-gossip. If there is a next time, I’ll have Moira’s dessert.

Bookwitch’s 2018 selection

It’s that time of year again. Here are some of the books I enjoyed the most, chosen with some difficulty, because the next tier consists of really excellent books. Too.

I haven’t always felt that ‘picture books’ belong here, but the two I’ve got on my list are more literature with pictures. They make you cry. I mean, they made me cry. And that’s good. They are:

Michael Morpurgo and Barroux, In the Mouth of the Wolf

Jakob Wegelius, The Legend of Sally Jones (translated by Peter Graves)

And then for the more ‘regular’ children’s novels:

Elizabeth Acevedo, The Poet X

Candy Gourlay, Bone Talk

Michael Grant, Purple Hearts

Matt Killeen, Orphan Monster Spy

Hilary McKay, The Skylark’s War

Sally Nicholls, A Chase in Time

Maria Parr, Astrid the Unstoppable (translated by Guy Puzey)

Celia Rees, Glass Town Wars

Ellen Renner, Storm Witch

Books like these make everything worth while. There are a couple of ‘beginners,’ some ‘mid-career’ authors – whatever I mean by that – and some established authors with decades of great writing behind them. And, only two that I knew and loved before Bookwitch became famous for her reading, meaning that this blogging business has been responsible for many introductions, without which my life would have been the poorer.

A small travelling miscellany

I lied a little. I told Daughter I’d only visited Cambridge twice, but once we got there I remembered a third time. Still, it’s not a lot, is it?

She had cause to go there for a couple of days, and I asked to be allowed to come along, to see a little more of the world and to discover if there was anything new since 2006. (Open Day, with Son, trailing round as many colleges as possible…) I’d say there was.

The weather was gloriously cold and sunny. And isn’t it marvellous how flat it is? Realised on the train home that I’d not travelled north of Cambridge before, so I really enjoyed seeing the flat landscape as I left. It might have been there on Monday as well, but it was dark so I can’t be sure.

I saw Newton’s apple tree. I’d been a little confused, thinking I was being promised to see his apple, but Daughter pointed out this was unlikely. I suppose someone ate it. I saw a Hogwarts shop. Or two. Had a nice cream tea, including the largest milk jug I’ve ever come across in a tearoom. Admired the Christmas lights in the darkening streets.

We met up with Anne Rooney, who kindly sacrificed some of her morning on us, and introduced us to a non-chain coffee shop. (If this makes it sound like we did nothing but drink tea and coffee, it’s because we – almost – didn’t.)

I didn’t actually have time to read any of the three books I’d brought until I was on the second train home, and I only finished one of them.

One Last Second Chance

A bit rough round the edges, but I enjoyed it. At the event with William McIntyre last month, my ears started flapping when I sensed I could hear something about a [self-published] children’s book he’d written. I had to email him to ask more.

He replied it’s the kind of book he’d have liked when he was young. I feel it’s the kind of book I like even when I’m not, but would have, back then, if he could have time-travelled so it existed in the stone age, as well.

William McIntyre, One Last Second Chance

One Last Second Chance is about Walter, a conman who taught me more about cons than I ever knew I needed to know. There is Gordon –  a young boy – whose mother is dying, and for whom Gordon wants to find a cure. And there is his new, violent, neighbour, a student called Marie.

Unlikely though this trio seems, they set out to find this cure. Or hang onto it, in case it’s already theirs. But there are worse crooks than Walter; crooks who all seem to be after them.

This madcap adventure would be really fun as a film, but I would love for the two nurses  to have their roles reversed. (Honestly, such a cliché this way round!)

I really don’t want to give too much away. It’d ruin the book for you. Whereas you kind of expect Gordon’s mother to be saved, you can’t really work out how this might happen. If it does. There are some fun characters and plenty of crazy ideas. And it’s all quite Scottish. All it needs is a haggis.

Hang on, there was a haggis.

Which uni?

Life’s not easy.

I don’t know if anyone here remembers little ChocBiscuit? Not that he will be so little these days. Son has grown up, and hopefully, so has ChocBiscuit. Some years ago I wrote about him and his family here. Not that it matters.

But I had another narrow escape – other than the one I mentioned then – chatting to his father.

There we were, sitting on the uncomfortable chairs at the local playgroup. I must have told him about my Swedish background. That’s unusual in itself, as I tend to avoid such things. Maybe he heard me talking to Son. Because with his own connection to Sweden, he’d have understood.

Without further ado, he asked whether I’d gone to Uppsala or Lund. Which is interesting, as I’d not even hinted at being ‘educated.’ For all he knew I might have left school at 16.

But there he was, asking the Swedish equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge? As though any given country only has the two universities that you could possibly have attended. Or that you are clearly such a proper person that there are only two options, and they need to know which one, before proceeding with the conversation.

Me, I merely skulked, sinking further into the uncomfortable chair, whispering that I went to Gothenburg. I have no recollection of what he said to that. He should have mentally kicked himself for assuming too much, while possibly feeling grateful I had at least gone somewhere.

Through his first wife he had many memories of Uppsala, so he talked about those days. And I never turned the tables on him, but if I had, the answer would have been ‘Oxford.’

The Legend of Sally Jones

This is all about where you belong. It needn’t be the place you were born, although you will probably always miss it, while still being happy – or not – somewhere else.

Serendipity – and Pushkin Press – brought me Sally Jones, the ‘prequel’ to Jakob Wegelius’ The Murderer’s Ape. It’s not, really. But for those of us who came to Sally Jones in her second book, it will feel like a prequel. For the English language market it is a new book, just published, translated by Peter Graves. The Swedes had the original ten years ago, awarding it prizes.

Jakob Wegelius, The Legend of Sally Jones

Jakob Wegelius did all the illustrations for his recent novel, but here he has really excelled. The Legend of Sally Jones is picture book; each page a work of art. Especially the back cover is gorgeous. And the story is lovely and really tugs at your heartstrings. Now we know what made Sally Jones who she is, and why she is so loyal to her friend the Chief.

Because all through The Murderer’s Ape you have to take it on trust that he deserves all the love Sally Jones shows as she searches for a way to prove he’s no murderer. When you’ve read The Legend of Sally Jones you know.

Sally Jones met some quite bad people when she grew up, but also a few lovely ones. Even her worst humans proved useful as they taught her some of the many skills she later on puts to good use. If you want your gorilla to be your slave, don’t teach them to drive.

Glass Town Wars

How I had waited for the new novel by Celia Rees! It had been far too long. But as they say, good books come to Witches who wait.

Glass Town Wars is an interesting blend of Emily Brontë’s childhood made-up world, and gaming today. Plus a few other ideas. It’s sort of Truth or Dare meets Haworth.

It’s not explained to you. The reader has to work out what’s going on, between the young – seemingly unconscious – man in the modern hospital bed, and the girl in Yorkshire who dreams her fantasy world, and her alter ego in that other world. And then they all meet.

Celia Rees, Glass Town Wars

This is good stuff, and being left in the dark adds to the experience. I’m woefully uneducated in the Brontë ways – outside of their books –  so am guessing I’d have known more, had I known more, so to speak.

It’s about love, and lust, and fighting; whether in imaginary wars two hundred years ago, or in an intensive care unit right here and now. And I couldn’t very well ignore the fact that the lovely nurse who looks after Tom – our unconscious hero – is an immigrant. Where would we have been without him?

2018 is the bicentenary of Emily Brontë’s birth, and Glass Town Wars is a fabulous way to celebrate; to bring her and her siblings back to life – if they need it – and maybe introduce a new generation to their books, while keeping readers entertained with our own ideas of cyberspace. This is something Celia does well.

Few is fine

Really. It is OK not to have rooms full of books.

I know I keep coming back to this. Which I suppose means I’ve not solved the problem, once and for all.

But I had a bit of an epiphany at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August. Three authors – Candy Gourlay, Lari Don and Elizabeth Wein – talked about their early years. And someone, maybe all of them, mentioned not having had many books as children. Going to the library for something to read.

And of course, it was the same for me. Until the age of about 15, when it suddenly dawned on me that as an almost adult, I could save my pocket money and actually buy books. So I did. I know it might sound odd. But books in Sweden were expensive and mostly things adults gave you – a few of – for birthdays and Christmases. Not something you bought yourself.

I read so much. I went to the library. I was happy with what they had to offer, and didn’t mind handing books back after three weeks. Or four.

I didn’t mind that on my own shelves I had maybe a metre or two of books belonging to me. There was no prestige involved.

Whereas now, well, not only do I want to own the books I like best, and that I’ll want to read again, but I feel the need to show off a little, as well as having a selection of books in case someone comes to stay who wants to read.

The more I think of this, the more idiotic it sounds.

I need help. Someone to climb up to the back row of the top shelf (that’s the As and the Ns), so I can start being ruthless. Perhaps.

(Almost) every time I walk past the spot at Edinburgh Waverley station where Menzies used to be, I bless the day when I discovered you could buy Alistair McLean paperbacks there for 30 pence. Even though this was in 1973, it felt impossibly cheap to me, a young witch who knew books cost a fortune.

I grabbed a few books and went up to the girl at the counter, stabbing my finger against the printed price on the backs of those books, asking ‘is that really the price?’

It really was, and from then on, my luggage always contained at least twenty new paperbacks each time I left the country. I’d simply had no idea.

And with a start like that, it’s hardly surprising I now have a habit that has to be broken. Not the reading, but the owning.