Category Archives: History

Why she’s still reading, fifteen years later…

Remember my appalling reading habits when I was young? Well, here is a glowing example of what the perfect parent should do – according to Bookwitch. Author Helen Grant makes me green with envy. I’m hoping that now that I will be living closer to her, some of her excellence might rub off.

Who am I fooling? Over to Helen:

‘I read to my teenager. I didn’t think there was anything particularly noteworthy in that, until the Bookwitch wrote and asked me whether I would be prepared to do a guest blog about it for her: what I read, how I find the time, and also something about the fact that the teenager in question is prepared to listen to me reading.

Helen Grant

I started to think about the topic a bit and it is perfectly true that when you think “bedtime story” you don’t think “mum and teen.” You think of sweet little shock-headed toddlers who have to be read to, because they can’t read themselves yet, or primary school kids who like a reassuring half-hour with mum before bed. Hey, look at the music video for Ylvis’ What does the fox say? – how old is the kid sitting on his grandpa’s lap, do you think? Four, maybe five years old, tops.

What you don’t imagine is gramps reading to 170cm of gum-chewing teenager in a hoodie.

So how come I’m doing it? It’s a long story.

My daughter made her appearance in the world almost three weeks late, and I have often wondered whether it was missing that three weeks of thrilling outside world experience that made her so darn sleepless as a baby. I know all mums think their darling is special, but I really am convinced that I had the wakefullest baby ever. She resisted sleep at all costs, maintaining instead a kind of squirelly perma-attention that would continue until she was screeching with tiredness. Car drives and being carried around in someone’s arms would make her drop off (eventually) but it can be difficult to prepare meals whilst driving a car or carrying a baby. Another solution had to be found.

By trial and error, we discovered that reading aloud would make her go to sleep. I suppose it was the reassurance of a familiar voice without too much interaction: no coochy-coo, who’s a nice baby then? – more, I read, you listen. As she was too tiny to know or care what the reading matter was, we chose our own. My husband read her Heinrich Harrer’s mountaineering classic The White Spider; I read her Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (another of those cultural experiences she was too young to remember later, like visiting every single Antoni Gaudi building in Barcelona). A few terrifying crevasses or paragraphs of war-torn love and she would be fast asleep.

Helen Grant's reading pile

Over the years that followed I often read to her and her little brother. Greater love hath no mother than this, that she readeth every single volume of Beast Quest, believe me. I discovered that the classics are still the best. Beatrix Potter’s language is so flowing and elegant that it can be read accurately even when the person reading is three-quarters dead with exhaustion.

Eventually, of course, both kids learnt to read themselves, and were able to pursue the time-honoured custom of covert under-the-bedclothes reading after lights out, whilst I put my feet up – or more probably, emptied the dishwasher.

Reading aloud was relegated to one of those things we did during particularly long car journeys or intolerably wet days on holiday.

Over the last couple of years, however, we’ve started it again. My daughter is a voracious reader, so she doesn’t really need any encouragement to get through books, but she did need some help with sleeping. The dawn of the teenage years seemed to have restored her to factory settings, so to speak: all of a sudden she was having problems sleeping again, resulting in exhaustion in the mornings. Sitting up late at night in front of a bright screen – whether tv, computer or hand held console – is not a good recipe for sound sleep. Science says all that artificial light close to the face fools the body into thinking it is still daytime, and delays the production of the hormone melatonin, which helps us fall asleep. Trouble is, if you are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 11pm it is difficult to lie patiently in a darkened room waiting for the elusive sleep to arrive.

Alan Grant at bedtime

I suggested reading to her again. And that is what we have done. We started off with The Hound of the Baskervilles; since then we have also done King Solomon’s Mines, The Lost World, Dracula, The Chrysalids, The Werewolf, Carmilla, my own novel The Glass Demon, and various short stories including those of Arthur Conan Doyle, Saki, M.R.James and L.T.C.Rolt. We choose the books between us. I think this is pretty key to the teen-being-prepared-to-listen bit. It helps that we share a taste for thrilling and creepy stories. If she wanted me to read her endless romances I would still read them, but I’d be reading between clenched teeth. We’ve also tended to go for stuff she might not tackle on her own: Dracula, for example, is easier if you have someone ancient on hand to explain what telegraphy, collar studs and hansom cabs are (not, I hasten to add, that I actually remember those things!!).

Yes, it does take up a bit of time in the evening – but on the other hand, the time is more pleasantly spent than if I were passing her door every ten minutes saying “Haven’t you turned that light out yet?” Nobody gets nagged, she gets entertainment as she slides into sleep, and I get to rediscover books I loved in the past.’

St George and me

And we’re off. Not this very minute, if you’re an early reader. But barring horrific delays and mishaps and calamities, this is the day.

Does it seem like an un-English thing to move out of the country on St George’s day? ‘snot intentional.

It’s World Book Day. The real WBD, I mean. So I suppose it makes sense that a Bookwitch moves around in the world, a little.

Shakespeare kicked the bucket on this date, and when I looked it up, lots more people as well. Not Cervantes, for some obscure reason. I had laboured under the impression that he and William died on the same day, but Don Quijote’s creator has shifted to a day earlier. Oh, well.

Some were even born on April 23rd. Ngaio Marsh. Halldór Laxness.

Oh look, there’s the dragon..!!!

Scotland for Beginners

1314 an’ a’ that. Well, you can’t say I’ve not picked a good year to move to Scotland. Or place. In fact, by the time we have somewhere to actually live, I suspect we’ll be hitting the Battle of Bannockburn celebrations almost squarely in the face. 700 years…

To be perfectly honest, I’m a little hazy on Bannockburn. Who did what to whom and why? The where is more obvious. We have decided Bannockburn is too far out for us, but there have been some attractively priced houses to consider.

Anyway, Daughter felt I needed a book to help me get by, so she gave me Rupert Besley’s brilliant Scotland for Beginners. I think it helped that she knew I’ve collected his postcards for decades. (They’ve been packed in some box for the move.)

So, it’s got a little bit of everything. It begins with your arrival. Apparently you drive in the middle of the road. And I will do just fine if I say ‘dinna ken’ all the time.

‘A wee way’ is further than ‘no far.’ It mentions the West Highland Way, without which I’d not have had a Resident IT Consultant. (Although I didn’t know the footpath was pioneerd by a motorist in 1980 who set off south from Ben Nevis in search of a phone box. I think he found one in Glasgow.

This useful guide has something to say on kilts, midges and dead haggises (they make good sporrans).

And even without the book I know not to get my hopes up if someone tells me I’ve already had tea. (It’s a tad mean, if you ask me.)

Because I learned to talk while living in southern Sweden, I will have no trouble with the ‘ch’ sound. I just don’t want to be mistaken for a Sassenach.

Rupert Besley, Scotland for Beginners

Now, before and much earlier

At the same time as I read Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier, which briefly featured the men who built the railways across America, I was facebook stalking Son and Dodo on their travels across America on possibly the very same rails. Or maybe newer versions of what was being built 150 years ago. It felt like one of those odd coincidences.

Amtrak

Besides, modern people don’t usually cross that vast continent down at ground level, taking days travelling at speeds of 40 mph.

Crossing America

After Reading Buffalo Soldier, the one unread book which I suddenly felt I must read was Laurie Halse Anderson’s Forge. It was the ‘black soldier in American history’ theme, although I had actually forgotten that Laurie’s characters lived a hundred years before Tanya’s.

They too were slaves, and the war is America versus England, instead of North versus South. I did find the war in Buffalo Soldier very harsh, but it is nothing compared with the war to free ‘the country of the free’ from European rule. The conditions were atrocious.

The place names have only ever been names to me. Yes, maybe someone fought a battle there, but it’s history. Now I can put so much misery to the small gains made with such great sacrifice by all the soldiers involved, whether English or American, free or slave.

Son and Dodo are back home, and they turned up yesterday, telling us all about the trip and giving us a picture show on two laptops simultaneously. And they’d visited Concord, one of those places where much blood flowed and people suffered. Because it’s what you do as a tourist.

Without Forge, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.

Boston

It’s strange how the realities between the three centuries have changed. Freedom fight in the 18th century. Civil war in the 19th. Leisurely travel, accompanied by digital cameras, laptops and facebook in the early 21st century. I wonder what Tanya’s and Laurie’s characters would have thought if they’d had an inkling of what was to come?

An Austen-free upbringing

After wondering why I didn’t read the books by Jane Austen or the Brontës in my early teens, I suddenly realised why, and who I could blame for this regrettable shortcoming. (Always important, because it certainly wasn’t my fault.)

My Swedish teacher when I was 15, is who. The last year of secondary school we had free reading once a week. I am – with my mature adult hindsight – guessing it was a way to get the non-readers to read. Anything. At. All.

We were allowed to read whatever we wanted, and could bring our own books or use the school library. I generally sat down with an Alistair MacLean, or similar. Generally in English (which is odd for a Swedish lesson, but never mind). Naturally the teacher would have preferred me not to.

So she suggested books I might try. The only one I remember is Pella. I am sure the Pella books were fantastic, and the teacher had most likely loved them when she was young. But I was 15, and I was reading MacLean. Pella would – possibly – have been right for me about three years earlier.

All these years I’ve remembered the teacher’s badly chosen suggested books and I have understood what she was hoping for. I just haven’t thought of what she ought to have pointed me in the direction of instead, because she was quite right in wanting me to better myself with something other than MacLean.

I already loved all manner of romances; the kind where a young governess meets her new employer who is a brooding and somewhat strange man, and where they eventually fall in love and live happily ever after. The Jane Eyre copycats. Reader, I had no idea there existed the real thing and that it would have been much more satisfying. (Not better than MacLean, obviously, but as good…)

We knew of Pride and Prejudice because it had been on television. At that point I was of an age where understanding there’d be a book as well was too much to expect. We knew about Vanity Fair, because that too had been on television. Also, Heathcliff ran around the moors on television, and I knew there was a book, but it didn’t tempt me at all.

I knew about Dickens because we had children’s abridged versions. And yes, he’d been on television.

Mother-of-witch was many things, and for someone of her background she had an astounding number of proper books and books in English. But she had not been brought up on the classic governesses, and so she could not point me in their direction. Which is fine.

But my well educated mother tongue teacher could have. And should have.

Buffalo Soldier

What a book! Buffalo Soldier is my first by Tanya Landman, and I don’t know why I waited so long. A few weeks ago the internet was awash with praise for this book, and I was the only one who didn’t even have a copy… Luckily, hints work well and it didn’t take long for one to arrive.

It’s a sad book. Well, no, it isn’t sad so much as the reason all the really awful things that happen, is sad. That’s history for you. Set in the years before, during and after the American civil war, it shows us a very different America from the one we might know now.

Tanya Landman, Buffalo Soldier

Charley is a slave girl from the south. She doesn’t know her parents, and her master isn’t particularly fair, and his new wife is worse. The overseer’s son persecutes her daily. But then the Yankees arrive, and the black slaves are ‘freed.’ Only, life appears to get worse, and Charley sees so much that is bad, that she steals the clothes off a dead man and disguises herself as a boy and joins the army.

That’s when she discovers how truly bad and unfair and insane the world can be. She works hard, as a new kind of slave, and no matter how much she tries to get herself killed, she survives when her friends don’t.

Tanya covers the history of black slaves and Indians, and the ruling ‘whiteys’ as well as the emerging US by showing us what the world looks like from Charley’s point of view. Her life is so bleak and so difficult, that neither she nor the reader can quite trust the slight ray of hope when it finally appears.

But to have a story book happy ending to what could very well have been a true tale of a young black slave and soldier during the second half of the 19th century, doesn’t seem quite right.

What makes this book so special is that even someone who craves happy endings can love it. The good parts are so very good that they carry the overwhelmingly bad parts. That’s a difficult thing to do, and that will be why everyone was talking about Buffalo Soldier.

The Letter for the King

Guest review by the Resident IT Consultant:

Tonke Dragt, The Letter for the King

‘Looking for something escapist to read, I came across Tonke Dragt’s The Letter for the King (Pushkin Press). The publisher, and the author’s name, led me to suspect that this must be a translation. And I was right.

Tonke Dragt was born in Dutch Indonesia in 1930, spent several years in a Japanese prison camp and came to the Netherlands with her family at the end of WWII. The Letter for the King was her second book, published in 1962. It was very successful in the Netherlands where it sold over a million copies and was chosen, in 2004, as the best Dutch children’s book of the last fifty years. It has been widely translated but only made it into English in 2013.

Ever since Swallows and Amazons and Treasure Island I have been captivated by books which contain maps. I even drew my own map for Kidnapped, and when I showed it, aged 12, to my English teacher he lent me his personal copy of The Lord of the Rings. But that’s another story.

The Letter for the King starts with a map of the Kingdoms of Dagonaut and Unauwen. I assume it is the author’s as she is credited for the illustrations, and was an art teacher. I found myself referring the to map quite often as I read the book.

Tonke Dragt, The Letter for the King

It’s basically an adventure story set in a fantasy medieval world which owes a greater debt to Le Morte d’Arthur than to Tolkien. Tiuri, the sixteen-year-old hero, finds himself suddenly tasked with the challenge of secretly delivering a letter across half a continent. The story follows his development as he deals with the difficulties along the way and tries to decide who he can trust. He learns that first impressions can sometimes be misleading, that help can come from unexpected directions and that hindrance sometimes arises from misunderstanding.

The fantasy is relatively realistic. There are no mythical creatures and there is no magic. Putting geography, and history, aside it feels more like historical fiction than fantasy. Though I think the characters take baths more often than would have been the case in any medieval period!

One strength is the clarity of the language for which, presumably, the translator, Laura Watkinson must take credit. I found it easy and enjoyable to read and it doesn’t feel dated in the way that English books published fifty years ago often do.

I was pleased to see that Pushkin plan to publish its sequel, The Secrets of the Wild Wood, in 2015.’

A Love Like Blood

A book like The Thirty-Nine Steps, but with blood. Lots of it, and not for the faint-hearted. Like Marcus Sedgwick’s mother, who promised not to read her son’s first adult novel. I can see where they both are coming from.

I wanted to read this, because it is a Marcus Sedgwick novel, and I wanted to see what he’d get up to when writing for adults. Considering that his YA books are no picnic (ooh, bad word, under the circumstances), it is not surprising that Mrs Sedgwick abstained. I wish I’d known.

Marcus Sedgwick, A Love Like Blood

This is a thriller set over 24 years, starting in Paris in 1944 and ending in Italy in 1968. I thought I could guess how it would end. I was wrong. And that’s despite the ending coming at the beginning of the book, giving you a flavour of what might be.

Charles Jackson is a young-ish consultant haematologist in Cambridge. He’s rather a failure of a man in most other respects, and not terribly likeable. It is, however, quite easy to identify with him. At least it was for me. (Up to a point!)

The book reads like an old novel, from the period it is set in. It looks so easy, but I’m guessing it’s not. Setting aside one mention of ‘having sex’ which felt too modern and one possible fashion mistake, this is pure old style adventure. It feels really comfortable, even as you wince at the inept Charles. You are lulled into a false sense of knowing where this story is going. Very clever.

It is mostly about blood. Possibly there is a vampire. You can’t be sure. Partway through you get a very Buchan-ish adventure, making my spirits rise, only to be dashed soon again.

Dr Jackson looks like he won’t last long. And in a way you don’t mind, because he’s hard to love. On the other hand you feel that a main character ought to be allowed to have something positive happen to him.

This is a fantastically well written thriller. I just wish there’d been less blood.

Dream Land

You can never go back. Well, you can, but it won’t be the same. Sometimes you have to, or you want to, despite knowing the sad truth. And then you might find you want to return to the place you thought you wanted to leave, and that could also have changed.

Lily Hyde blogged here this week, about how things are for the Tatars in Crimea right now, and it’s not looking promising. In her novel Dream Land we move twenty years into the past, to the time when hundreds of thousands of the forcibly displaced Crimean Tatars returned ‘home.’

Lily Hyde, Dream Land

Based on real life stories, Lily writes about 12-year-old Safi, her older brother Lutfi and their parents, who were all born in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, as they return to Crimea with her grandfather who was 17 when he had to leave in 1944, and who has dreamed of home ever since. He has told the stories and Crimea lives in their hearts, to the extent that they happily sold their Samarkand home at a loss and gave up qualified jobs, to return home to where they’ve never been.

The old Crimea no longer exists. Not only have Russians moved into Tatar houses, but whole villages have been razed to the ground. The paradise they’d heard so much about was long gone. And the current inhabitants don’t want them. They are illegals, and as such they can’t buy or build new homes, they can’t work, or go to school. (Sound familiar?)

Nevertheless, they embark on building a rather sorry excuse for a house, and they quarrel as things don’t go well. Grandfather continues telling them the old stories. The police persecute them and the neighbours aren’t exactly friendly. (To be fair, they feel threatened by the Tatars who might take their homes and jobs.)

It’s a sad story about people’s determination to rebuild a dream country. Safi wants to go home to Samarkand. And she is shocked by her family’s reactions to the Russians; even the few friendly ones are rebuffed, because they want nothing to do with anyone related to those who stole their homes.

If it weren’t for recent events, I’d have finished Dream Land thinking that sooner or later things would work out all right for Safi’s family and the many thousands of others, but it doesn’t look like it will happen, soon, or ever.

People take a long time to learn.

(I’d had this book for a while, and for once I’m actually glad I delayed reading it. Everything felt so much more relevant now, with Crimea in the news, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons.)

 

From my correspondent in Crimea

Some of you will recognise the name of Lily Hyde, because she reads this blog and comments occasionally. What you might not know, is that she is an author and a journalist. Lily emailed me last week, telling me she’s in Crimea, ‘reporting for the media, and for Amnesty International, on the referendum’ and how horrified she is by the ‘misinformation being spread both here and abroad about the situation in general and about the Crimean Tatars – their history, their claim to Crimea, their role in the second world war… it’s really provoking a lot of hatred and prejudice and potential violence.’

Naturally, I asked if she’d tell me – and you – a bit more, because it’s not every day you have someone in the middle of such a conflict, able to tell you about something which I am ashamed to admit I know virtually nothing about. Over to Lily:

‘I sat with Ayder Aga in Bakhchisaray, Crimea, three days ago, looking at photos taken there last summer. They are for the Ukrainian translation of Dream Land, my novel about the Crimean Tatars.

Lily Hyde, Dream Land

The photos are black and white and shimmering; they show a town of peaceful sunlight and grapevines, coffee pots and roses and minarets. They show Ayder Aga at his workbench, strewn with curls of silver filigree which he makes into traditional Crimean Tatar jewellery.

They are like images from the memories of the grandfather character in Dream Land, who recalls a long-lost Bakhchisaray before 1944 when the entire Crimean Tatar population was rounded up and deported on Stalin’s orders.

My grandfather character was based quite a lot on Ayder Aga and his own memories of Crimea before 1944, and afterwards in exile in Central Asia before he and around three hundred thousand other Crimean Tatars finally returned home after 1991. I’d been looking forward to showing him the photos. I could never have dreamed we’d be looking at them in snatches, in-between staring at the TV like frightened rabbits for news of Russian troop movements, or Russian president Putin’s latest statement on annexing Crimea. Ayder’s daughter Elmira and granddaughter Evelina sat with us; Evelina hasn’t been attending her university for two weeks, ever since Russian troops (or ‘little green men’ as everyone calls them) appeared overnight in Crimea. There are some just up the road from Ayder’s house, heavily armed and in balaclavas. Evelina doesn’t know whether her degree is going to be finished in a Ukrainian or Russian university – or finished at all. Elmira is worried about water and electricity, both supplied to the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. If Russia annexes Crimea, will the supply stop?

We’re all in a state of total shock and disbelief. “I keep thinking I’m going to wake up and find this is all a bad dream,” my friend Ayshe said to me earlier.

I feel like everyone in Crimea is in a kind of dream right now. The people who want to break away from Ukraine and join Russia are enjoying a dream of a perfectly happy future where salaries are high and they live in a great Empire and there will be ice-cream for tea every day. The ones who don’t want that, like the Crimean Tatars, are struggling to wake up from a nightmare; from their greatest collective nightmare; of losing their homes and their country all over again.

“Now you’ll be able to write a new book about the Crimean Tatars losing their homeland,” Lutfi, another friend in Bakhchisaray, said to me. “Only this time you get to witness it happening first-hand.”

I guess my dream is that this does not turn out to be true.’

Thank you, Lily. I sincerely hope Lutfi is wrong.

Mosque, Bakhchisaray, Commons Wikimedia