Pausing to think about The Stopping Places

I read Damian Le Bas’ book The Stopping Places in two days.

It’s the sort of book that should be available everywhere, on all shop bookshelves, in libraries, schools and universities, and widely read. It offers a first-hand account about the Romani people, the culture and their experiences in society, in history and in the community.

It touches on something I’m always concerned about, that there are so few books written by Romani writers which depict real Romani people, as opposed to the romanticised or demonised stereotypes so often used in novels and folk-lore.

Moreover, there are so few realistic books about Roma issues and lives available to children in schools and to older readers, so books like The Stopping Places enable Roma readers find themselves represented in literature and non-Roma readers are able to broaden their understanding.

Damian Le Bas writes beautifully, with clarity and warmth. He is also able to bring the situations in which he finds himself and his emotions to life: much of what he writes resonated with me. In particular, his experiences at school, the conflicting attitudes of his family and those outside his family, and his sense of difference being something he should keep quiet about.

I enjoyed reading about his mother and father, and his Nan in particular reminded me of my own Nanny: her sayings, her cooking, her positive attitude to life and the present.

By tracing the old stopping places, the atchin tan of travelling communities, Le Bas is looking to find out more about himself, his heritage and his identity. I empathised with his desire to discover; I shared his quest for knowledge and followed the journey in his van through the South East to the South West and then upwards, to North Wales and Scotland, with interest.

I was fascinated by the people he met: those who welcomed him, who challenged him and those who would rather stay separate. His experiences at Halden Hill in Devon and at Appleby Fair did not surprise me.

I am familiar with the suspicion which follows travelling communities. Le Bas writes without comment or judgement, but not without emotion. We understand his reactions to moments of intimidation and we rejoice in the recognition and affirmation he receives from kindred spirits on his journey.

The description of Romani values, customs and language struck a chord with me. Le Bas tells it as it is, with warmth and affection, and he evokes a community where allegiance and tradtions run deep, where the struggle for survival has been paramount amidst prevailing suspicion, mistrust and misunderstanding for centuries.

There are no answers; he is not seeking to justify or explain: his book is a journey of his own, a way of understanding his past and present.  For me, there is one clear resolution which jumps from his book, and that is the importance of education. Erudite and articulate, Le Bas demonstrates the power of the written word, the impact of experiences shared, the need for research and understanding, the joy of empathy and ongoing discovery.

The Stopping Places is a book which is long overdue; it has taken too long for such a celebration of identity to reach the public. It should be read widely. It has its place on my shelf, in between Ian Hancock’s The Pariah Syndrome and Cecelia Woloch’s Tsigan. It is an important book, and one which can only open doors to more of the same writing.

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My top ten to bring us in from the January cold

January isn’t most people’s favourite month. I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about it. It’s cold. Christmas has gone and won’t be back for a long time so it seems like there’s nothing to celebrate. It hasn’t snowed. It probably won’t. A holiday to somewhere warm would be nice but….

So, with a brief nod to a lovely woman I worked with once, who said I was ‘horribly positive,’ here’s my top ten of things to warm the heart this January. In no particular order other than random selection …

  • VEGANUARY. So many people are trying a plant- based diet this January and 61% of them, according to statistics, will still be vegan by December. The Bosh! Cookbook will be out soon and, having followed their blog for years, I know there will be some sumptuous recipes to make everyone happy, whether they are looking for a Christmas dinner, a delicious burger or a chocolate cake.
  • BOOKS. There are so many good books to read. Mary Beard. Sarah Winman. Patrick Gale. This is just my January reading list. On the exercise bike, it’s amazing how many chapters I can whizz through in an hour. I’m so lucky to have good books to read.

  • FOOTBALL. After Liverpool’s monumental win over Manchester City last week, (a team I admire for their attacking football and excellent players such as De Bruyne,) the future for the Reds looks good, especially if we can sort out the goalkeeper conundrum. Plus we have signed Virgil Van Dijk, and the Fab Four (Salah, Mane, Firmino, Ox) continue to amaze. Football is theatre, a performance in two halves. Which brings me to the next one on my list.
  • THEATRE. Last year ended on a high, seeing Josie Lawrence in Mother Courage. This year promises to be brilliant too. Hamlet is on in Plymouth next month and it will be really good. I must sort out tickets and then I’ll look forward to it throughout January.
  • MUSIC. I’m enjoying Spotify while I work at the computer and my current writing backing track is Humble Pie. I love Steve Marriott’s voice and the stomping rhythm makes sure my writing is pacy. Check this one. I know it’s from way back in 1973 but who cares if it’s this good…
  • WORK.  My book cover is out. My novel follows soon and I am so excited. I’ve had a wonderful review and such kind words and real enthusiasm blow me away. It’s a joy to work with people who aren’t just incredible professionals, but truly lovely. We are blessed if we find ourselves alongside people we trust, who are supportive, efficient and completely totally nice. Kiran, Rachel, Sabah, the Avon Team – they know who they are.

  • NATURE AND TRAVEL Whatever the season, whatever the weather, being outside, travelling, going somewhere the wind blows the salt of the sea in your face, or somewhere there is nothing but silence and a deer peering behind a tree, or somewhere you have to try a new language and rethink your own lifestyle, or somewhere you can be lost in bustle and noise and culture. It’s good for the soul.
  • ANIMALS (CATS). Last year, my best cat, Pushkin, was knocked down on a lane where three cars pass daily. She was so unlucky and of course, I said, as we all do, ‘No, I won’t get another cat. Ever.’ My daughter persuaded me to adopt Monty and Murphy, two mad clowns who had been feral and will now scrounge hummus on toast. Colin is just starting to tolerate them. They are lovely and cats make such great company. I love the way they slap their bottoms full-on the keyboard when I’m editing and give me six pages of dzzsmk..rrrtlgggggggggggg

  •  FRIENDS. My friends are scattered everywhere from the North to the South. I don’t always see them all as often as I’d like. I know we have email, messenger, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, phones. When we do meet up it’s rock and roll. I have happy friends, mad friends, friends who need a hug, who give hugs. I have funny friends, talented friends, kind friends. Where would life be without friendship? I love you all.
  • FAMILY. Family is at the centre of everything I think and do. Without them, it would all mean so much less. They are my backbone. They are my smile when I wake up each morning.

You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. Desmond Tutu 
I’ll tell you what I’m grateful for, and that’s the clarity of understanding that the most important things in life are health, family and friends, and the time to spend on them. Kenneth Branagh.

A book in the hand…

There are some things which are improved by time.We don’t have to sideline everything old in favour of something new. When they are left to develop, whether it is an idea, a favourite jumper or a bottle of brandy, some things just keep on improving. The same can be said of a book. Holding a pristine book, unread, unexplored, is a thrilling feeling: no blemish of a fingerprint, the endless possibilities of a good read jumping from each page. But think of the deep fulfilment of finding an old book, knowing its crumpled cover has been turned over by many hands, its pages bruised and thumbed and avidly read.

Second hand book shops smell of dust and warmth and love: the books hold the scent of every person who has touched a page and there is promise of so much magic. As you move around the shelves and sift out a book, sliding the title towards you with interest, there is a secret shared between the binding.

I picked up some ancient books on a market stall this week. A coverless copy of Victor Hugo, with stained pages, the past leaping out, letters black against the grey. The book lay in my palm like a prayer, and then the bookseller held out another book by Alphonse de Lamartine: maroon cover wrinkled, dry as an old fig, the gold letters of Poésie almost worn away.

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I continued to search, touching each book lightly with my fingers and found Tout Compte Fait and Réflexions sur la question juive, by Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, side by side as they probably are now at the Cimetière du Montparnasse.

The books cost me five euros altogether. That’s currently just over four pounds; a pound each and a few pennies for each piece of genius.

Last week someone recommended to me that I read a novel called The Butcher’s Hook. It was brand new and cost me £6.99 and I will give it away to anyone who wants it for free. I read the first hundred pages.

Alphonse de Lamartine and Victor Hugo, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus may be old, battered books, creased and coverless, but they hold a special place in my heart. And now they are on my bookshelves.

Sublime Shakespeare: ‘Tis Beauty Truly Blent

‘… we will draw the curtain and show you the picture.’

I loved Shakespeare when I was at school, despite my English teachers. They were not the enthusiastic pedagogues of today, striving to make the bard accessible because every child mattered. My teachers were dry pecking birds who wanted to perpetuate a class system in which the Felicities and Florences were urged towards Oxbridge and the threadbare uniformed eleven plus-passing paupers like me were relegated to the back row of low expectations. I knew I would achieve an A grade at A level in English. When I mentioned going to Liverpool to study my degree, the headteacher wrinkled her rhinoceros nose at me and said ‘Eww, that is so towny!’

I paid her about as much attention as I ever did and never looked back once I’d left.

But I loved the Literature classes, even though Abigail and Arabella got to read all the best parts round the class and I had the occasional comic role because I could do accents.

In year eight we ‘did’ ‘Twelfth Night’. I struggled a bit with the concept of Shakespeare’s comedies at that point. We were told that some plays were classed as comedies, but I didn’t understand why some of them  were funny, and no-one explained it to me. In ‘A  Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ we were meant to laugh at Bottom’s working class plight and his subsequent humiliation. In ‘The Shrew,’ we were meant to find Kate’s subjugation funny. And I never knew, as a kid, what was  so hilarious about the antisemitic abuse and exploitation of Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice.’

It was the 20th century, not the 17th, and I was clear why Sir Toby was fairly funny and Sir Andrew was a figure of parody, and I understood that it was hilarious that Maria and her boys took the poke out of Malvolio because he deserved it for being priggish. I was a bit uncomfortable with that, though. The idle rich and drunk laughing at others and marrying the maid because she showed her superior wit by ridiculing someone a bit weak with probable low self-esteem. Wasn’t that bullying, I wondered? And as a thirteen year old, I had no idea why it was funny to dress up as a boy and cause a rich egotistical heiress to pursue you.

Then much later I saw Mark Rylance as Olivia.

‘Twelfth Night’, at The Globe in 2013, was an all-male cast, much as it would have been almost 400 years ago, in Jacobean costume, with traditional music and instruments.

Rylance as Olivia brought everything into sharp focus: with his tiny steps, which gave the impression of gliding daintily across the stage, and his falsetto-high voice, his performance was not a parody or a grotesque, but a radical and witty interpretation which cleverly makes the traditional also sharply contemporary. Olivia was not played for her superficial beauty, but for her keen wit and her ability to run her own household powerfully and with insight. And when she sees Cesario, Viola’s male character in disguise, looking very similar to Boy George in his days of ‘Karma Chameleon’, she decides she must have him.

All performances were incredibly impactful and strong. The cast were a collaborative team, but Rylance has such a superb sense of timing and diction and how to use Shakespeare’s language to wring out the most meaning for the audience. The moment Cesario and twin Sebastian appear on the stage together for the first time , Olivia exclaims ‘Most wonderful!’ A fresh interpretation from the one which implied a miracle: we as the audience know she is goggle-eyed, considering the prospect of a ménage a trois and we oblige with spontaneous laughter.

Olivia is in charge but her attraction to Cesario is a sucker punch to her omnipotence, and it is this new found frailty and dependence which swings from cool mistress to besotted girl which inspires the humour. We find ourselves, like the groundlings of the 1600s, laughing raucously at the innuendo jokes which would never be noticeable in a straight performance done entirely for the type of middle class audiences who laugh politely in the right places. Yet Rylance remains credible, a dilemma of delicate femininity and a woman who rules her own world. It is fun and frivolous, but never a pantomime.

The scene between Orsino and Viola/Cesario annoyed me when I was in year 8, when Orsino says such lines as:

There is no woman’s sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart
So big, to hold so much. They lack retention.

But this scene was tenderly homoerotic. Orsino is not the priggish macho aristocrat here: we realise that his words are currently mistaken as Viola gazes at him through the eyes of Cesario, but we forgive him, because she does, and also because the rapport between the characters promises such passion and hope for change. This too is why the scene is humorous but also full of tension and romance. It’s perfectly positioned to pave the way for the action and confusion which follows.

While Stephen Fry as Malvolio and his rowdy tormentors create the slapstick which the groundlings would have revelled in, Rylance and the actors play out the love triangle and confusion of identity with  intelligent comedy, wit and farce, a great homage to how Shakespeare should be done. I just felt really happy to be in the audience: no numb bum moments, which can be the case with some productions – we were truly transported and delighted throughout. If I didn’t understand Shakespeare’s comedies before, this production made every opportunity crystal clear.

I also saw Rylance as Richard the Third, a performance rich in self-loathing and machiavellian exploitation. But perhaps that production is for another blog.

As we remember Shakespeare’s birthday, and his death on April 23rd, 400 years ago, we can contemplate an important part of our culture which may once have been the property of the middle class audiences who, due to their elitist backgrounds, understood or claimed to understand what it all meant. But it didn’t start that way. Shakespeare’s plays were the top dramas and soap operas of his time, played for fun, for laughter, for passion, loved by all who saw them, whatever age, class or background.

It is thanks to brilliant actors like Rylance and his cast, and thanks to the dedication of outstanding modern teachers who make Shakespeare’s plays fresh, accessible and meaningful that those times are here again. We can all enjoy Shakespeare; we can understand the meaning of every line in context, and new and exciting interpretations enable us to build bonds with the characters and make the storylines contemporary and meaningful without losing their original impact. The curtains have been drawn and we have been shown the picture. And what a great picture it is too.

If I could go back to my dry and diffident English teacher, I’d still say thanks, though. She may not have taken me to where I was always going to go, but I had a seat in the room and a book marked ‘Shakespeare’. And from that starting point, the journey was always going to be exciting.

How will you celebrate World Poetry Day?

Today marks the first day of Spring and it’s also World Poetry Day. It is a time for rebirthing and creativity. All around the country, countless kids will be going to school and reading a poem, maybe some Edward Lear or Ogden Nash or a wonderful bit of Benjamin Zephaniah? Maybe the old favourite, Blake’s Tyger, will crawl out of the woodwork.

Poetry is one of those delicate issues in schools where kids can easily be turned off. But there is also a huge opportunity to galvanise their love of words and mix it up, make it real and find your inner poet.

I remember a group of us being taken into some gorgeous gardens and told to look at nature because we were all going to write poems. One student turned to me and said ‘Bloody Haiku again, innit?’ as we were ushered into a cold room and asked to use the beautiful things we’d seen around us in nature and render it in a five-seven- five formation. I admire John Cooper Clarke’s Haiku best, the one which goes:

To-con-vey one’s mood
In sev-en-teen syll-able-s
Is ve-ry dif-fic

I think iconoclasm is important in a poem, or at least that the poet uses the opportunity to write something big. It doesn’t have to be world changing but it must say something resonant, something more than just personal indulgence. It goes beyond self gratification,  to create a bond with the reader, so that they either understand, want to work at understanding or are simply blown away by the ideas and the words.

I am fortunate to know four brilliant poets personally – probably more, but I am going to mention the four on World Poetry Day, because their poems mean a lot to me. Nathan is a performance poet and he is incredibly gifted, not just with his words but with how he takes ideas and works an audience. Julie, too, a talented actor and performance poet. I heard her do one on Dunblane last week which made everyone in the room gasp. Erika, who is a wordsmith, an artisan, who creates beauty in words and hones them so that they are a gift from her to the reader. And Zack, a poet of incredible sensitivity and skill, who unwraps words in his poems which astound and gratify. They are four brilliant poets, and today, being the first day of Spring and a time for rebirthing, I am going to wish you the best of all words this year.

I know people who don’t like poetry. While I loved trochees and iambic pentameter, metaphors and allegory, they didn’t see the point and were not enabled to see it. Poetry should not be hard graft, it should be a joyous exploration. If one has the slightest love of words, then the delights of Hopkins, Plath, Byron, Donne, Ginsberg, Coleridge, Lamartine, Atwood, Heaney, Nichols,  Rimbaud, Tagore, Thomas, Bukowski, Angelou, Frost, Pushkin, Yeats, Larkin, Duffy – I could go on – are  blooms in a Spring garden, each offering something different for the reader, but it has to be said, there are so many people out there who don’t get poetry at all.

In my case, I love literature despite being drilled, hammered, bashed, cajoled and threatened in the classroom, made to read around the room words which made little sense to anyone at all and were never explained. I remember the whole class being given detention when we sniggered at the lines ‘Pistol’s cock is up,’ without the teacher ever explaining that Shakespeare’s Henry V and other great works  had characters who were there to be bold and bawdy and amuse the groundlings, and that this was perfectly legitimate literature.

I know some brilliant teachers who work a lot harder than is physically good for them. They are not just trying to achieve the target percentage of passes which the education system deems they should reach each year, but they aim to ensure that each kid is inspired, learning something  which will last  long after they have left the classroom and which will be their first steps to wider autonomous reading, writing and enjoyment throughout their lives.

I dare say the old adage, with a bit of adaptation, could be true here: if you love words and can read them, thank a teacher.

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For Mums: flash fiction

On Mother’s Day, we remember our Mums with love and we give thanks for all they have done for us. Many of us don’t have our Mums any more and feel quite sad that maybe we did not say thank you enough at the time and it’s a bit late now.

I often think about how great my Mum was and how her life was tough on all levels, but at least she knew we all loved her, even though we weren’t always there with the right words, or there at all. But what about those Mums who give so much and receive very little back? I often think about what a lonely place that must be, to love and be a victim for loving, to be perceived somehow as weak for caring, or to care about a child who has gone away.

I never asked my Mum how she felt when I left home at 18. I was more interested in pursuing my own education and my own independence and it never occurred to me that it might feel to her like part of her life had changed forever.

This blog post is a piece of Flash Fiction, written for all Mums, but especially for those Mums who don’t get the love and thanks they should. In the lines of self-sacrifice and expecting nothing in return, I can also remember my Mum too.

Mother’s love

Gingerbread cake, warm as mother’s love. Spicy and harsh as an absent father.

Her whisk whirled in her hand as she beat away thoughts of the father’s leaving, his new lover, his old threadbare life, a closed door, a final slamming. The eggs dissolving, frothy: her marriage dissolving, messy.

The flour, light as hope. The sugar, each grain a birthday wish, the cake rising, foetal, new, golden and gifted as her son’s future.

She looked at her hands: cooking hands, caressing hands, empty.

She would keep active, useful, to forget.

The cake, displayed in magnificence, shining plate covered with a flurry of flour, icing soft as mother’s hugging, melt in the mouth then forgotten.

Soon her son would be like him. Gorged. Grown. Gone.

 

Slade House – David Mitchell. Come in and feel the noise!

I have just read David Mitchell’s ‘Slade House’. It took me a day and I didn’t put it down. What a clever book! Again, no spoilers from me for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but there is a scarily  weird place, Slade House, where things happen and have happened in the past, which the reader visits with readily suspended disbelief and held breath.We are propelled from one terrorised protagonist to the next with car-crash speed, but the journey is breath takingly enjoyable.

The novel is short: it is composed of five stories or novellas, set in different time periods, nine years apart. Slade House is a mysterious place, a huge mansion down a dark alley, accessed by an iron gate, and its residents are fascinating twins Norah and Jonah who lure their prey into the house with scary results.

David Mitchell is the master of the ability to show the reader every detail of a character without telling. His first narrator, Nathan, is a teenager who is obviously on the autistic spectrum and is charming and delightfully funny, although Mitchell allows the reader to discern the character’s individuality through anecdotes, such as tales of his teacher/ enabler getting him to practise reading people’s expressions, or his examples of semantic/ pragmatic errors, such as the brilliant story: ‘Our scoutmaster told me to get lost, so I did, and it took the Snowdonia mountain rescue service two days to find my shelter.’

In true ‘Psycho’ style, Mitchell builds up an intriguing hero and then disposes of him, and the reader doesn’t know whether Nathan has taken too much of his mother’s valium or if something horrendous has happened to him, but we are led to suspect the latter.

The second narrator, CID Gordon, is not so likeable. He is sexist, racist, a bit of a player and a manipulator, but the character is evoked without obvious exposition: details are filtered cleverly through action, dialogue and description, and the plot rolls forward as we wonder why Norah and Jonah seem to be still active as ghosts in Slade House and they frighten him witless when he is there ostensibly on a hot date.

Each novella develops the story’s intrigue and propels us through the possibilities, until the final climax in which they merge and there is an exciting conclusion.

I enjoyed the clever twists of this story and the way each novella’s character was plausible, written vividly and very quickly established with depth and idiosyncrasy. While the narrator is becoming a credible part of the reader’s experience, the parallel story of Norah and Jonah is tantalisingly present, but no solutions about them are made clear, so that the reader is constantly looking for clues and signals.

Mitchell makes it apparent to us that the twins are evil in nature, malevolent and capable of soul- sucking slaughter. Moments such as when we see Nathan’s portrait on the wall, in which he appears dressed in a bow tie and with facial blemishes, exactly as he was on that day, but with his eyes missing, are powerful symbols which hook the reader into the storyline and make us hang on for the next moment of suspense.

Mitchell writes well; his characters are captivating, his dialogue witty and his language exactly perfect. There is a small section where Nathan is in Rhodesia with his father, and the colours and characters are perfectly evoked and we are there with him; although he has taken valium, and we are never sure what is real and what is distorted, and Mitchell continues this brilliant confusion for the reader until the last section, leading us by the nose round twisting, turning, unexpected corners.

Vampires and ghosts have been done to death! Most writers, myself included, have dabbled in writing the supernatural dirt, evoking atmospheres bulging with haints, dybbuks, mulo, monsters, spirits and psychics. It’s fun to write but not always fun to read, unless the writer has the ability to create the credible and enable the reader to invest in outcomes.

Mitchell keeps us prickling with gooseflesh and all the time he is having fun with ‘Slade House’: he doesn’t expect us to take it seriously, but he is a slick dude of a writer who can mix in jokes about tropes, throw in some farce and a bit of spine tingling horror, and what emerges is a spell of magical reading which is a gift of pure enjoyment and impressive stylistic skill.

As readers, we are safe in Mitchell’s hands, we are safe within the genre but we are not safe in the sinister Slade House. His prose sings spells from the pages and we laugh, we cringe and we shiver. It is a skilful book and one which shocks and which entertains. ‘Slade House’  is a genre-bending horror tale and one I enjoyed more than I thought I could . Superb writing!

Two poems for Holocaust Memorial Day

For those whom we remember and those we will never know.

 

Spring prayer after winter

These months have been brick cold and here

Threadbare blankets hold ice, soft from our mouths’ sucking

Two were taken out this morning, stiff

As dawn frost and blue white

Their coughing clogged in the night with their breath.

I sit and shiver and wait for spring.

Our shaven heads feel the wind’s cut

The day’s toil seals our skin with sweat

Bones remain brittle within thin rags.

Snow falls in darkness, flakes against shadows

And settles soft like an embrace on spikes of wire.

The chimneys belch fire and ash by day

But we shiver as we watch the distant warming.

I pray through still lips for the end of winter

That spring will wrap me in her shawl a small moment

That grass will dare to poke through mud mashed by so many boots

I pray for a warm cup in clasped hands

For soup to soothe knotted starvation

For sleep without sobbing and jagged cries

And the shape of sentinels black across bunks

I pray that spring will melt the metal in my shivering heart

And the sounds of trains approaching and the choking stench of coiling smoke

And the fear which lurches as we stand bare and broken in lines

Will stop with the start of a new day

Evening at supper

The bushes part and eyes move.

A rabbit in each hand

Nanny gap tooth grins

Full chuckles in her belly.

‘She got two pheasants out-a back,’ says Daddy

‘An’ hotchiwitchi (*) to bake.

She alright for now.’

The pan’s steaming and smoke twists from the logs are lovers ‘twining.

Vapour vanishes in the night studded with stars

Like a blanket full of light holes but warm.

The bushes come together and eyes become metal barrels.

The smell of baking clay and sweet juices fizzing hot,

Sister at the pump washing splashing light against iron shadows,

Laughter fiddles music in the air,

Children chase then sit chewing quiet.

Nanny sucks on bread sops in gravy.

The old ways are diamonds in her fingertips

Secrets simmer in her eyes.

Smoke dies down to sleep in the starlight

Dogs settle to gnaw on bones.

Silence sits soft for a moment. Then

Gunfire spatters in the air and bodies roll red.

The men come out and kick the huddled dead

Take what they can find and leave.


(*) Hotchiwitchi= hedgehog

The Top 12 books I have read this year

As 2015 draws to a close, it is a time for reflection. In that spirit, here is a countdown of the top 12 books that I have read in the past year, out of at least a hundred! Note: they need not necessarily have been published in 2015, and certainly haven’t been read in this order.

As a writer, I find each and every one of these authors inspirational. They have all, in different ways, shaped my thinking about what good writing, especially good literature, consists of.

Enjoy!


 

12. Colm Tóibín Brooklyn

Clever and profound, Tóibín’s novel is about Irish immigration to the United States. It is subtle, sensitive and thought-provoking.

11. Hillary Mantell Bring Up The Bodies

Hillary Mantell is an author whose historical writing cannot be beaten for the sheer intelligence, the knowledge and her ability as a storyteller. Having been sceptical about historical novels, as a genre, before I read ‘Bring Up The Bodies,’ I can see why Mantell has so many prestigious awards to her name.

10. Manda Scott Into The Fire

I do not normally read detective-style stories, but the clever juxtaposition of the protagonist and Joan d’Arc made this story worthwhile and enthralling. Scott’s narrative cracks a great pace.

9. Lyndall Gordon Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson

Gordon gives us a real insight into one of the most enigmatic characters in the history of poetry. He enables us to understand Emily Dickinson and the motivation behind her poems.

8. Joseph Pierce Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile

A fascinating background into one of the greatest Russian writers, ‘A Soul in Exile’ . I never realised Solzhenitsyn had such a sense of humour.

7. Sunjev Sahora The Year of the Runaways

A deep and poignant story, which creates characters whose lives I could not possibly have understood, had I not read this novel. Not only a great read, but an important one, too.

6. Dave Boling Guernica

Boling mixes the fact of the bombing of Guernica during the  Spanish Civil War with a fictional narrative about a Basque family, affected by the Franco regime. Tenderly characterised and beautifully brought to life.

5. Matt Haig Reasons to Stay Alive

A very important book by a very talented writer. I met Matt on my MA course earlier this year and he is a genuine inspiration. ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ banishes the myths and the stigmas of mental illness and shows how one person’s triumph led to brilliant writing. This book should be on school reading lists.

4. Sarah Winman A Year of Marvellous Ways

A beautiful and poetic novel, the central character being an 89-year-old Cornish woman, who demonstrates physical strength and self-sufficiency, and tells a gripping and impactful story about her past to a young man with much to learn. I met Sarah in a Waterstone’s in Truro, and love both of her books. She is an inspirational writer.

3. Patrick Gale A Place Called Winter

This is a profound book, which tells the story of the protagonist in flashbacks. The central character, Harry Cane, is banished to a life of hardship in Canada. The harsh backdrop is a stunning metaphor for Harry’s coming to terms with his needs, his lifestyle and his past.

2. Paul Kingsnorth The Wake

‘The Wake’ is one of the most important books any writer can read. It shows how a determined writer, who believes in what he writes, can triumph in the writing of something entirely original and innovative. ‘The Wake’ is set in 1066 and written in a language which Kingsnorth calls a ‘shadow tongue,’ a version of auld English updated for accessibility to modern readers. It is post-apocalyptic, bloody, bold and breathtaking.

1. Roddy Doyle The Guts

Roddy Doyle is the master at writing bittersweet stories. He is the master of evoking characters we can love for their honesty and he puts them in a setting where we cannot help but admire their vulnerable humanity. ‘The Guts’ is a continuation of ‘The Commitments’ in which Jimmy Rabbitte has bowel cancer. The story deals with Jimmy’s life and his desperate need to survive after he realises he is ill. No-one creates tenderness and bravery through humour in their characters quite like Roddy Doyle can. You will laugh, you will empathise and you will share in the unfolding tragedy.

Sorority in literature? Fear it, my dear sister.

I don’t have a sister and I never really wanted one. People have told me that older sisters can be bossy and younger ones sometimes behave in a tetchy and clingy way.

Of course, these stereotypes are not real and they are perhaps often fuelled by sibling rivalry. What about the older sister who fights your battles in the playground, or the younger one who is a calming influence and offers sound advice?

A sister could be really symbiotic, useful, fun, grounding: a friend who shares your history and biology.

So, having no sister of my own, and being confused by what friends who have sisters say – some love them and some don’t – I  turn to literature to find answers. Am I missing out by not having a sister? Surprisingly, there are few role models for me to use as evidence in my search to answer my question. Would I have benefited from a sister and which one would I like to have had?

My first experience of sisters were Cinderella’s two ugly ones. The moral is that you have to be either a meek and pretty subservient heroine or a bossy, unprepossessing villain. These jealous and ugly broads  bully in twos and have to cut their feet to bits to get a man!

That’s an ideal lesson for a little girl: judge women only by looks and fear all other women: they are your rivals in the dating game. I moved away from this idea before my sixth birthday.

Like many little girls, I read books like some people eat sweets or hang around in gangs. The appetite for female role models was insatiable but what could I feed it with? The Railway Children gave me no answers, nor the Famous Five, nor Katy and Clover Carr.

I didn’t want to be sister to any of those boring, predictable girls. So the March sisters beckoned: four Little Women, perfect stereotypes which could have come from a Hargreaves book: Miss Sensible, Miss Creative, Miss Prettily Vacuous and Little Miss Martyr. I have to admit, I enjoyed the book because there was precious little else around. Jo March can just about hack it as a role model when you’re nine.

At thirteen years old, I met the Bennets. I think they were solely responsible for my dislike of Austen, which has endured ever since. Don’t get me wrong; she’s a great writer and I so wish I liked her but I couldn’t care less about all those sisters whose conversation was about dancing at balls and batting eyelids at boys and marriage and money. Pride and Prejudice is a great classic, but the Bennets were never going to be my sisters.

Two years on and I found an interesting pair of Shakespeare’s sisters. Bianca the meek and Katherine the shrew, whose roles change after marriage, one newly assertive and one newly tamed. Depending on interpretation, of course; I have seen the scene where Katherine puts her hand beneath Petruchio’s foot ‘to do him ease’ done in some clever ways, suggesting a range of meanings.

However, I have no interest in subservience in any form and the moral is don’t marry the meek pretty one; she may turn into the shrew. Tame the feisty one instead? I move on.

Trust Angela Carter to give you some good girls to get your teeth into. Dora and Nora Chance, born out of wedlock, with a mad actor for a Dad. Two sisters who bond, who sing and dance through laughter and sadness, are great examples of sisters in literature. I’d have been happy having either of them in my family.

The same goes for  The Color Purple: Celie and Nettie are close, supportive sisters, although their closeness is treated with suspicion and jealousy by the patriarchal Mister and they are separated as girls and don’t meet again for over thirty years. The real soul sister act in Walker’s novel is found in Celie’s relationship with the independent and talented Shug Avery. Now there’s a role model!

Examples of brothers bounce from the pages in literature: fighting, feuding, finding out dark secrets. From the wonderful Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to the well-intentioned but often misinterpreted stereotypes of Russell’s Blood Brothers;  Maupassant’s Pierre et Jean; Rowling’s The Tale of Three Brothers, Munro’s Monsieur Les Deux Chapeaux; Miller’s Death of a Salesman: examples of  exciting novels and plays about men’s fraternal exploits abound. It must be great to have a brother!

I believe we often select our own spiritual siblings and I know many women and men whom I consider as family, so I don’t have a strong desire to invent a secret sister any more.

To be honest, literature hasn’t helped me much in my quest to discover whether I’m missing out or not. All it has done is to offer me a range of examples of sisters, most of whom I’d probably prefer not to have had. This leads me to conclude that there is perhaps a niche in the market here for new books about women who have strong, interesting and productive relationships and who share one or more parents.

That’s started me thinking…