Category Archives: Biography


It took me a while to work out what Mårbacka was. As a child I’d read another Selma Lagerlöf autobiographical book with very nearly the same title. I was reluctant then, but as a book-starved young thing, there was no way I could ignore even a boring looking book for very long, and once I began reading I loved it.

Selma Lagerlöf, Mårbacka

This time I felt much the same, except this new translation – by Sarah Death – does not look boring. It’s very pretty with its red roses on the cover. But I thought it might go over the same ground (I suppose it does, but not so it matters), and I really don’t feel I ought to read it in anything but the original.

But once I got past that bit of snobbery, I discovered it was fun, in a quiet Swedish kind of way. Disconcerting, too, as I feel that this was more or less my life, one hundred years earlier. I wonder if this is something that many Swedes are afflicted by? I grew up in a small family with not much money, in a town. Selma was part of a larger and wealthier family in the countryside.

It could have been my life too. And the anecdotal way of telling us about her life is a good technique. It’s almost like a regular column in a magazine. And like them, entertaining and partly truthful while also being helped along with some embellishments to the truth.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help stopping every now and then to consider what the original might have said. A bit as with subtitles when you don’t need them; you still look for something. (I might have gone differently with the vörtbröd…)

It’s charming, and funny, and it shows the reader what Sweden was like before the big move to the towns, before socialism and before Ikea. It’s about building a new cowhouse, the Swedish way of celebrating birthdays when you can’t prevent the whole county from turning up uninvited, about having your old, former maid come to tea, coming face to face with a kelpie, dreaming of the King coming to visit, and how it took days to travel from Värmland to the West coast.

I can see that if I had been awarded the Nobel prize, I’d have done exactly what Selma did and done up my childhood paradise. After all, she only did what her own father worked on before her. What most of us would do if we could.


The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

This is the book that got banned. Possibly more than once, but certainly last year, which caused some Idaho teenagers to arrange for the book to be handed out for free to the 350 students who had protested against the ban by the local school board. This was on World Book Night, and you probably heard about it in the media. I did, but forgot what the book was, so am glad that Andersen have decided to re-issue the book. Because you’ll want to read this one.

Sherman Alexie lived a slightly similar life to that of his main character, Arnold Spirit. Close enough that it’s a sort of autobiography, but not completely.

Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Arnold has a pretty rotten time of it, and I’m guessing that while Sherman sounds fine in his afterword, his teenage years were no picnic either. He – they – have grown up on a reservation, and at the age of 14 Arnold decided to go to the white school in town, rather than the school on the reservation.

It’s a brave decision, and his life was just as hard as you’d expect, because once you’ve made the change, you don’t automatically belong in either place. He’s intelligent, which is good. He’s foolhardy and brave, which is just as well.

The story proves that people can change, though. His white classmates start off prejudiced, and slowly change. Some of them, some of the time. But while Arnold meets kindness, eventually, and success both in the classroom and on the sportsfield – much to his surprise – his private life is very, very hard. Lack of money and too much drink is the least of his troubles. He doesn’t mince words, and it’s possible to see why some people wanted the book banned.

Not wanting to spoil it for anyone, I won’t go into detail. But it’s tough. And after everything, he still seems to emerge smiling.

This book gives you hope. I just wish there will be a reason to feel hopeful.

Tomorrow Can Wait: Exploring Europe With Our Autistic Child

When Monika Scheele Knight first told me about her book, I was only paying attention to the travelling. I felt it was a very ambitious – perhaps too ambitious – task to undertake with an autistic child. Easier to stay at home, I thought. But, each to their own.

German Monika lives in Berlin with her American husband Scott and their 13-year-old son John. Her book about travelling with John is self published (at least the English version, as I understand it), and exists in two languages. Once I’d begun reading, I had to ask her what language they use at home, feeling it unlikely they could be bilingual with a mostly non-verbal boy. Her reply was that John does understand some English, as it’s what she and Scott use, so she reckons he is a non-speaking bilingual child.

As soon as I had started reading, I also understood why they travelled, and why Monika needed to write about it. After meeting the mother of a 30-year-old autistic son who refuses to go out, effectively imprisoning her in the home, Monika vowed to travel with John to try and prevent that fate for herself. As a toddler John was reasonably willing to go out, if it was on his terms.

So she set off for Rhodes for a week on her own with John, and it went well. What I particularly like is the way Monika and Scott realise they need to take things slowly and not force John (unless absolutely necessary), which means holidays where they occasionally do ‘nothing’ or just a little, like eating lunch bought in the local shop in a deserted children’s playground.

And it’s not just about travelling. In each chapter about a different place they visited, Monika writes about John’s autism in general, how he develops, and what life with an autistic child is like in Germany (much better than in many other countries, I’d say). She muses about various theories, as well as the history of autism, and the murder of handicapped people in the war, and how people treat them when they are out and about. The older John gets, the easier it becomes for strangers to realise he’s behaving oddly because he is not normal, rather than being a badly brought up child.

John auf dem Fahrrad

(This rather lovely photo of a smiling John, in Holland, was taken almost immediately after a major meltdown, which is such an autistic way for things to work out. I have borrowed the picture from Monika’s blog, as it was used for the back cover of the book.)

You feel exhausted following the family round Europe. All the driving, or having meltdowns in airports, or moving things out of John’s reach, or stopping him from hurting himself, seem like an endless lot of hard work with no respite. And I’m sorry their experience of Sweden was so poor.

I find case histories irresistible, and this book is one big case history. Very interesting and very inspiring.

Bookwitch bites #104

Waterstones Children's Book Prize Winner Annabel Pitcher

When Jimmy Savile trumps US murderers, you know it’s a strange world. Very pleased for Annabel Pitcher who has gone and won something yet again. Her Ketchup Clouds won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize this week. ‘Unsettling’ story is how the press release described it. Then I read in the paper that Annabel had had a narrow escape, by abandoning plans to have her heroine write letters to Mr Savile. Death row prisoner is nowhere as awful.

El Mundo es Nuestro is about another world. Daughter and I went to see this Spanish film at Cornerhouse on Monday night, enjoying both it and the Q&A with the actors and the director and the producer that followed. The world the film is about is the [imagined] financial crisis in Spain (this was in 2009), and it is very funny. It’s been ignored by Spanish television, presumably because you don’t talk about stuff like this.

Alfonso Sánchez

The actors were relieved to find the Manchester audience laughed at the same things as they did. In fact, they have a facebook page where they were quite interested to see what the ‘English journalist’ thought of the film. (That’s me, btw…) What I think I’m trying to say here, is that we are more alike than we think. And it’s good to have learned languages, especially when visiting actors do their Q&A in Spanish. (Not to mention the DVD the week before that came sans subtitles. But ‘anyone’ can watch Spanish OAPs learn about sex…)

I did a book review over on CultureWitch yesterday. It felt more appropriate doing it there since it was the 1986 autobiography of Roger Whittaker, So far, so good, and it was Roger’s 77th birthday yesterday. I reflected on how much easier buying books from across the other side of the world is today, than back when I needed to find it (a local bookshop said they would, but failed).

On discovering Mr Decorator working down the road from Bookwitch Towers, I summoned him to come and relieve me of more books. The poor man staggered out of the house with another three bags of reading material. Not only am I trying to keep track of his children’s ages, but I’m targetting their cousins, too. Baad witch.

Lucy Hawking and Helen Giles

After a pretty lengthy delay* since she conducted her interview with Lucy Hawking, Daughter has now published their January chat. The additional wonderful news is that Lucy and her Dad are writing another two books about George. That’s the thing about trilogies. Some are longer than others.

And now Daughter’s off to chase more scientists in Edinburgh. The Science Festival begins today.

*Random House needed time to formalise all the Georgian plans before they were released.

Rosen on Dahl

I wonder if Roald Dahl caused Bookwitch to be born? (Yeah, I know. It was Meg Rosoff.) But even so. It’s because I am old. So old that I never read Roald Dahl’s books as a child, and it was this deficiency that made me read some of them when Son was Dahl-age. I had to know if they were any good, because you can’t leave it to those little boys who read nothing but Dahl.

And if I hadn’t done that bit of catching up, I might not have continued on a life of reading children’s books, third time round.

Michael Rosen, Fantastic Mr Dahl

For Roald Dahl day this coming week, there is a new biography by Michael Rosen, Fantastic Mr Dahl. To me this is one funny man writing about another funny man. And in a way there is nothing new here. Michael says he has based the book on what you find in those other biographies, which I have also read. But he writes in his own kind and thoughtfully funny way, adding his own experiences at times. (Like when Dahl talked to Rosen Jr about his dad’s beard. Or comparing his own father’s life with Roald’s.)

Because Michael is writing for young readers, this biography is probably more accessible to fans than Roald’s own Boy, for instance. And as befits a Dahl/Rosen book, it has been illustrated by Quentin Blake. Obviously.

Michael likes the way Roald (as I write this, I find myself saying Roald in my head, the Norwegian way, and not ‘in English’) made up his own words. I wonder if it is actually less strange than he thinks. It feels natural to me, and perhaps also to a fluent Norwegian speaker?

There are Roald’s letters home to his mother, both amusing and a little heart-breaking. I remember feeling desperately sad when reading his own book about his time at school, but Michael has thought about this, and has some comfort to offer.

Divided up into three parts, boy, man, writer, Michael finishes by teaching his readers literary analysis. It might not be necessary, but it happens so rarely that I found myself quite fascinated by it all. And it goes well with the way Michael and Roald both treat their young readers as intelligent individuals, with feelings, and a sense of humour.

From dolphins to torpedo fish

The dolphins ‘belong’ to Nick Green, from earlier on Thursday, while the torpedo fish – much to my surprise – turned up in the Michael Faraday launch talk by Professor Frank James in the evening. It’s not as outlandish as it seems. The fish can generate electricity in some form, and that’s something Faraday was interested in.

Professor Frank James

The serendipity I have mentioned led us to the London launch of Faraday’s letters, and more serendipity still provided a half hour interview with Frank James before the event at IET. That’s when my common sense kicked in, and I said we’d love to, but that any interviewing had better be done by the Faraday descendants, because they might understand what it was all about. There is only so much pretending I can manage.

So the Photographer and the Resident IT Consultant shared out the time between them, and very pleasant it was to sit back and just enjoy the talk. For me. All in all it was one of my more relaxed interviews. Good questions were asked, and interesting answers from Frank means we have something to look forward to reading (when someone else has typed it all up).

Michael Faraday

Earlier in the day the Resident IT Consultant had hared off to Highgate cemetery, only to be fobbed off by the forced guided paid for tours of the place. So, no grave photograph. We do have the Faraday statue from outside the IET to offer instead.

Faraday descendants

We’d barely been introduced to Frank when the Resident IT Consultant whipped out the family tree to show him. Our bit, since clearly someone who has spent 25 years on Faraday will have seen something of trees already. Later on Frank introduced us to someone who’s not called Blaikley, but who was descended from one, and who had his own family tree to brandish. So there they were, comparing trees, and seeing where they might connect. (As a mere outsider, I gather this non-Blaikley gentleman is the cousin of the people who lived near great aunt A and were her support in the years before she died.)

Michael Faraday

My Photographer was able to take pictures of the exhibits of old letters, including one where Faraday had written first in one direction and then the other, apparently to save on paper. That’s not all she did. Picking up freebies was equally important, and I have to say that the photo of Faraday on those bookmarks is disturbingly similar to what the Grandfather looked like (if you disregard the hair style).

The archivist at IET mentioned they had wanted to do Faraday tweets, but found that he was always rather lengthy and that tweets would so not have been his style. (Now, who does that remind me of?) She thought blogging would have been more Faraday’s thing. (That sounds about right.)

There were copies of The Complete Corresponcence of Michael Faraday for sale, or rather, to look at, with a view to ordering. I was awfully tempted, because £315 is a pretty good price for what’s a lot more elsewhere. Common sense prevailed, however.

The Complete Correspondence of Michael Faraday

After drinks and some very agreeable canapés it was time for the talk from Frank. He admitted that if he’d known he was in for 25 years of research he might have had second thoughts, but reckoned he’d still have gone ahead. Ten years was his first estimate.

The talk centred on Faraday’s religion, the Sandemanians. They don’t sound particularly easygoing, but it’s an interesting subject nevertheless. Frank gave a brief background to Faraday’s early life, how after seven years of learning book binding, he left it to study science. For someone so seemingly sensible it was a surprise to hear that Faraday looked into seances – scientifically, of course – and that his work covered both lighthouses and the torpedo fish.

Faraday letter

Ada Lovelace was an acquaintance (we saw one of her letters), and it seems that Mary Shelley’s father William Godwin was a Sandemanian friend of Faraday’s (so the Frankenstein connection has almost come full circle this week).

After Frank James’s talk, philosopher Mark Vernon presented his rather different point of view on science and religion, which when it came to question time almost led to blows between members of the well informed* audience and Mark. Almost. So it was a good thing when we could all troop out for more drinks and nibbles.

Had we not had a train to catch I’d still have been there eating cheesy breadsticks.

*I have to say I didn’t entirely understand the questions, but they did seem to have a lot of opinions.

A Vicarage Family

Noel Streatfeild, A Vicarage Family

A Vicarage Family is the first of three parts of an autobiography by that man who curiously enough seemed to write books about girls and ballet.

Relax! I have long since found out that Noel Streatfeild was a woman, and although it’s a sexist thought, I feel this explains the ballet book. Yet again I have grown up in the wrong country, and have ended up knowing nothing about what everyone else grew up loving. A quick search tells me a few books were translated early, but Ballet Shoes not until I was an adult. I still haven’t read it, but I did watch the television adaptation a few years ago, which helped.

This first part of Noel’s autobiography has put me much more in the picture, and leaves me wanting the rest. It was a little confusing to begin with, because Noel chose to rename everyone, including herself. It’s a good idea in one way, as no one can actually know what life was like for the rest of the family. We only know our own thoughts and memories. On googling Noel, I found that she had done more than pick new names. She appears to have made herself younger, as well.

This volume deals with ‘Victoria’ at the age of about eleven to 15, in the years immediately before the war, ending in 1915 with the arrival of the telegram that the adult reader will have been expecting throughout the book. You do the numbers, and you know it’s not going to end well. Even when prepared, you cry.

Noel’s father was a vicar and the family of four children was always poor, and she and her sisters were the ones who had to go to parties badly dressed, and to eat only the bread and butter if it’s during Lent. But they were all talented in different ways, and with their cousin ‘John’ put on entertainment for the parishioners, and Noel’s writing skills got her into early trouble at school.

The parents are both imperfect, the way real people are. But mostly they are like this because of how they themselves have been brought up. Noel’s father didn’t know any better, and was frequently a little too naïve. Her mother married at 17 and had five children (one died) in quick succession. How could she be calm and mature? And although they could see how unhappy young Dick was at his boarding school, no one thought to question this.

Written in the 1960s it allowed Noel to look back to the beginning of the century, and to explain to modern children about the differences between then and ‘now.’ What I found most fascinating, however, was how very similar people were then, thinking about what we are like now, one hundred years later. You never know with fiction if the truth has been altered, but the way Noel describes her own feelings, and how the other girls at school behaved towards the sisters, it’s only the mobiles and laptops that are missing.

This is an altogether wonderful book.

(There is an introduction by Julia Donaldson in this Jane Nissen edition, which brings Noel Streatfeild much closer to the reader. Julia actually met Noel in the 1970s, and this almost makes me feel as if I did too.)