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!