Monthly Archives: January 2020

Dolly and the teaspoons

I find it hard not to like Dolly Parton.

First, though, over to Sölvesborg in the southeastern corner of Sweden. According to Teskedsorden – which basically is an organisation that wants to do good things, even if it is a teaspoonful at a time – the political parties on the right came up with the idea of saving money by not letting its libraries order books in the many mother-tongues of the town.

In fairness, I have to say I’ve not been able to find out whether this decision was carried through, and many people doubted the legality of it all. But to go against the knowledge that letting children read in their first language as well as in Swedish benefits them in how well they will do in life, is plain wrong.

Then we come to Dolly. To stop the high school dropout rate in her Tennessee home town, she essentially bribed the fifth and sixth graders (in 1990) to complete high school. They were to pick a buddy, and if both of the children graduated high school she’d pay them $500. It worked. It still works, apparently.

The next thing she did was to pay for teaching assistants in every first grade for two years, with an agreement that the school system would continue with this if successful.

And then Dolly founded the Imagination Library (in 1995), sending a book every month to every child in her home county of Sevier from when they were born until they started kindergarten. This has now spread to all of the US and to Australia, Canada and the UK.

That’s more than 100 million books, from the child of a man who couldn’t read or write.

Highfire

This was lots of fun! It was also rather gory, with not only missing body parts but a fair bit of death and destruction. It’s only what you’d expect when you have a real live dragon in a Louisiana swamp, a cheeky teenage boy plus a pretty crooked cop.

Highfire by Eoin Colfer shows, as did his earlier adult crime novels, that he can be just as funny when writing for grown-ups, but also that he knows plenty of bad language. If it weren’t for the air turning rather blue around Vern, as the dragon calls himself, this would almost suit Eoin’s child fans. Almost.

15-year-old Squib Moreau is working hard, if not legally, to see if he can get himself and his mother out of the swamp, and preferably away from Constable Hooke who wouldn’t mind knowing Mrs Moreau a little better.

And then Vern happens, and when he does, he happens a lot, in an unavoidable fashion. He wants to kill Squib. Squib doesn’t want to be killed, and there we have a problem. But it’s not as big or bad a problem as the one of staying alive when Constable Hooke gets going.

Think Carl Hiaasen and his Florida criminals, except this is a state further west and there is a dragon. Highfire has been labelled fantasy, but it all feels quite normal. There is just a fire-breathing, flying dragon. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Squib is small and human, and Vern is bigger and more dragon-shaped.

As I said, not everyone survives. And it’s hard to work out how Vern can avoid being discovered, but those swamp-dwellers are canny people. Unless they are dead.

Personally I wouldn’t mind more of this. It could be a sequel..? It could, couldn’t it? Or a standalone. As long as there is more.

Stoppard in Vienna

When I read the article in The Jewish Chronicle about Tom Stoppard’s new play – Leopoldstadt – I realised I’d forgotten about going to the theatre. I wonder when that happened?

I used to keep a sharp eye open for anything I might be interested in. Distance to London, first from Brighton, then from Manchester, and now from Scotland (it’s getting worse) played a part in weaning me off the stage. Yes, I know you can go to the theatre in these other places too, but some of the freshest and most exciting things come to London first, and sometimes never leave it.

By now I’ve got jaded enough that I see there are plays, but know I won’t go.

And then there was Leopoldstadt, where to be truthful, it was the name that caught my attention, having stayed there when Daughter and I were in Vienna 15 months ago. So I read the article, and then felt I’d quite like to go and see the play.

I looked up tickets, without knowing when I might actually cart myself off to London. They were expensive, and more so than its own website claimed. Maybe I looked at the wrong dates. Most of them were pretty solidly booked up, with only a few seats here and there. Clearly I should have known about this sooner.

But I’m glad it’s on, and that people are buying tickets and going to see Leopoldstadt. And I might experience a miracle. At least relieved my enthusiasm has returned.

Remember them

At the back of The Missing Michael Rosen recommends many excellent books, both fiction and non-fiction, mostly on WWII related topics, but also books in a similar vein from later on. Because we never learn, and someone, somewhere is always doing something bad to another human being.

I thought I’d mention a few books here too, before we start forgetting again. It’s anything but an exhaustive list, and I have tried to choose books that are seen more from the German or European side of the war, and actually during the war.

One I share with Michael is The Children of Willesden Lane, by Mona Golabek with Lee Cohen. Admittedly, this one is set in London, but not being fiction it shows the fates of unaccompanied German minors.

The Girl in the Blue Coat by Monika Hesse. This is about the resistance in Amsterdam.

A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik, begins in Poland and then turns into that awful kind of forced transport of innocent people to somewhere a long way away.

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, which features Ravensbrück as seen from the inside.

Once, Then, Now, After, Soon, Maybe, Always. All by Morris Gleitzman. All – probably – wonderful. I say probably, because I’ve not managed to keep up with the last ones. But there are ways of remedying that.

The Missing

We both had reasonably normal and uninteresting and safe childhoods, ten years and many miles apart. We also had [maternal] grandfathers with a liking for holes. But where my Morfar asked me to save him the holes in the Emmental cheese, Michael Rosen’s Zeyde wanted the holes from their bagels.

The other difference is that Michael’s father had two great-uncles who ‘were there before the war, but weren’t after.’ The war was WWII, and when Michael had grown old enough to realise this was not a normal thing to say about your family, he began decades of research to discover what happened to Oscar and Martin Rosen.

It’s rather amazing that in the end it was possible to discover enough of what probably happened. It was slow, but then Michael was looking into things in a different country, in the past, during a war. I feel he could easily have found absolutely nothing.

His search is both inspiring and frightening. It’s wonderful that he could find, but what he found is horrific and tragic.

I’m just grateful that he went to the trouble and that he then wrote this little book, The Missing, about his great-uncles, and filled it with so much feeling and so many of his beautiful poems.

And then we learn how he has gone into schools to talk about this and some children ‘know for a fact’ that none of this actually happened.

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. It’s time to remember the Oscars and Martins of the past. While we hope there will be no more in the future, we know there will be.

Skulduggery Pleasant – Bedlam

I’m late. Sorry. But I had to buy Derek Landy’s latest Skulduggery Pleasant book Bedlam myself. And then I had to find the strength to carry it home. No, I didn’t. The postman did. After which it suffered because of its sheer size when I couldn’t take it out with me.

It’s the end. Or is it? Well, actually, not only are a few of the characters still alive on the last page, and I daresay others could be revived a little, but I cheated and looked online and there seems to be another book coming. Soon. Just as well I read this one now.

Bedlam. Where shall I start? As usual, I wasn’t sure who was still alive and who was friends with whom, because this keeps changing so much. But basically, Valkyrie needs to make her younger sister unhappy again. Can’t have a child so content, despite the dead hamster and all that.

And then there’s all the rest, fighting between the magic world and the ‘normal’ one, and fighting within these worlds, and being stabbed in the back by your best friend, both literally and figuratively. It’s exciting and it’s funny.

What also makes the Skulduggery books stand out is that Derek has so many female characters who fight and are strong, as well as being sexy and good looking, and it feels so much more equal. None of this one token female and then lots of guys. Valkyrie rules, or maybe it’s China who does. Or Abyssinia. Serafina is powerful, as is Solace, and there is no getting away from Tanith. We like Tanith.

In fact, among the males we have a dead [obviously] skeleton and various scarred men, vampires and ghosts. Plus we have Omen Darkly, who continues being seemingly mostly useless and kind. But sometimes that’s the best person to be.

Anyway, as I might have been saying, much gets sorted towards the end. Some not. And with a few characters a little bit alive, we need more of the same. Which, according to Wikipedia, we will get.

I will alert the postman.

Flott slott

Akkurat.

I quite like Norwegians. While I can’t claim that some of my best friends are Norwegian, because I simply don’t know that many, I like the ones I do know. And I sincerely hope that the first three words in this post are correct… Because according to the former Norwegian minister at the Scandinavian Church, I live in a town with a flott slott. Big castle, apparently.

As some of you will know, I enjoy interior house magazines. At least if they are Nordic and not too extravagant. The magazine I’ve been reading the longest, about 25 years, has generally offered ‘at home’ articles from the neighbouring countries as well, and I used to be able to spot the Danish kitchens from miles away. I’ve always liked them.

The Norwegian houses would look nice and normal, and the Finnish ones, with saunas and a lot of trees outside. No Icelandic houses, but I suppose the cost of travelling there would be high.

Now, however, my [formerly] favourite magazine has had far too many Norwegian interiors for comfort. Not because I can’t tolerate months and months of nothing but Norwegian homes; more that they have featured a certain type of house. The boasty, glitzy kind, with more gilt, velvet, marble and crystal than you can shake a stick at. They often also publish photos of the house owner, by which I mean the woman, posing in ‘beautiful’ clothes, which to my mind does not belong with architecture and upholstery.

I hesitated about writing in to complain. (I know, not very me!) But when the [new] editor actually wanted to discover what we thought of the magazine I decided she’d asked for it, so I emailed her. Apparently many of us did.

Having honed my skills at recognising a Norwegian house without a map, I could nearly always tell. I still can. They no longer publish any Norwegian house articles. They have purged them, carefully removing all place names as well as the words Norway and Norwegian.

But as I said, you can still tell. And they seemingly can’t remove the names of the journalists and the photographers, who tend to have Norwegian names, because the whole point of the exercise is to save money by using material from their ‘sister magazine.’

This is simply dishonest. They must think we are stupid.

Besides, it’s the tasteless glitz I don’t care for. Not the country. One recent ski lodge was impossible to hate. Its owners had designed everything around a handmade kitchen table, where the main criteria was that the table top had to be strong enough to dance on!

Perform

From what I understand it’s something that takes most [new] authors by surprise. They thought it was enough to write the book, enough to get enough professions interested in the book, and enough for it to be published and enough for people to buy the book. And then we start the whole process all over again for the next book.

Well, after a few years of stalking authors.., I mean going to lots of author events, I knew I didn’t want to be one of them. I did not want to get the call from the Edinburgh International Book Festival to come and talk about my new book. It’s enough to make me not even consider writing, other than this drivel, in case it turned out better than expected.

And I have looked at them. Many are extroverts. Quite a few are [ex]-teachers, and I have assumed standing in front of rooms full of people is fine if that’s what you’re like. I gather some make use of the wine in the green room, just to feel braver. But I’d like to think that a good number simply say ‘no thanks.’

I saw this article in The Bookseller a while back. Couldn’t actually read it, as I seem to have clicked on too many articles recently. But it sort of says what it’s about. Benjamin Myers, whom I don’t know at all, and the Society of Authors are critical of the pressure to be[come] a ‘personality’ in order to sell your book, when writing it in the first place ought to be enough.

And then we have the personalities who take to writing. One assumes they at least relish the performing. Maybe that’s why we have so many? Publishers get fed up with authors hiding in garrets, so go in search of new ones from the stage and the screen?

Breakfast with Burns

There we were, a roomful of foreigners, invited by the Scottish Government to a Burns Breakfast. I looked around and found we all appeared boringly normal. With the exception of one splendid looking man wearing what I will call a Bavarian style outfit, there was nothing to point to our foreign-ness. And I suppose that’s the whole point. We are all the same, give or take the odd thing.

The presence of quite so many press photographers became clear when Nicola Sturgeon entered the room. I should have guessed. After all, the venue was only divulged after registering. Ben Macpherson, Minister for Europe, Migration & International Development, kicked off with an introduction, and then it was time for the First Minister. It struck me that this was the first time I’d heard her speak, after so many encounters at the book festival. Basically, Scotland wants us here. We are welcome.

Thank you.

Nicola pointed out that Scots are good at having fun, even in deepest, darkest January. So before the first half ended, a young actor whose name I didn’t catch, talked about Robert Burns, and Robert’s strong belief in his own greatness, but thought the great poet might have been surprised to learn of the existence of vegan haggis. There was a most professional address to a haggis, followed by the piping in of a plateful of haggis canapés…

In the interval there was music, and Nicola Sturgeon walked round the room chatting to anyone who wanted to chat. I daresay she’d even have talked to me if I’d been able to come up with something sensible to say. She’s the mistress of selfies, and many many selfies were taken. (Daughter – via WhatsApp – demanded one of me with the FM, but I wriggled out of that by borrowing someone else’s big moment.) The thing about our First Minister is that she talks to people as though she’s a normal person. Not all politicians can.

As we started the second half, Nicola was spirited away, and the rest of us were treated to more music by the trio from The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. They play very well, and the singer has the most beautiful voice. Starting with Auld Lang Syne, the audience perhaps displayed more of a foreign disposition by merely humming cautiously along, but I’d say that’s because we didn’t want to inflict our voices over that of the singer’s.

After several more wonderful songs, by the Burns chap again, Minister Macpherson thanked us, while apologising for the things Westminster is putting us through.

I had a final look at the information stalls, and helped myself to a blue and white pen. Very grip-friendly for elderly fingers, so one simply has to steal where one can.

And I never needed that book I’d brought.

All the Dear Little Animals

How could I not love Ulf Nilsson’s All the Dear Little Animals? To begin with, anything illustrated by Eva Eriksson is automatically extremely loveable. And the story of three children who hunt out dead animals so they can bury them is also rather sweet, don’t you think?

It starts with a bumblebee, which died of natural causes, and its death causes the poetic narrator and his friend Esther to arrange a funeral for it. Our narrator is good at coming up with poems for the ceremony.

And then Esther’s little brother Puttie discovers what they are up to, and he cries. He cries so well that he becomes their official crier. Puttie – unlike his older sister – finds death rather upsetting. He can see that when he dies, their parents will be very distraught.

Esther, on the other hand, avoids telling him that the most likely scenario might be the other way round. This, presumably, is for the adult who reads with their young child to decide to discuss. Mortality, and how it makes you feel.

Once they have hunted out a good many corpses, dug graves, read poems and cried, they are satisfied.

Tomorrow they will do something else.

(Translated by Julia Marshall, this is not a new book. Not even in translation. I would have liked the original title to be mentioned, so I didn’t have to Google it; Alla döda små djur.)