Paul Magrs – Exchange

A quick review today for a quick read (or in my case, a re-read). Which isn’t to dismiss it at all, because this is a lovely book and a perfect one for voracious readers.

After the death of his parents, 16-year-old Simon packs up his things, including a few boxes of books, and moves in with his grandparents. His grandmother, Winnie, shares his passionate love of reading and the two embark on a series of excursions around the local charity shops to bolster their impressive collections of books. Until they discover The Great Big Book Exchange, a bookshop unlike any other.

Membership of The Great Big Book Exchange comes with a host of other unexpected consequences, including Simon’s burgeoning relationship with the store’s gothic assistant, Kelly, a link to Winnie’s childhood and the incendiary breakdown of Simon’s grandfather who is slowly losing his mind at sharing his home with both the readers and their books.

This is such a warm, well-characterised story with a lot to say about the act of reading, why we do it and when we need to be wary about the lines we draw between life and books.

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Judith Kerr – When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

It’s easy to forget that there must have been a time when I didn’t know about the holocaust, about other similar horrors or the sheer breathtaking scope of the potential for man’s inhumanity. I don’t remember when I heard about it for the first time or what I thought when I did. I can only imagine it’s a little similar to how I feel about it now because it isn’t really an idea you get used to or one that softens with time.

It makes me sad that one day my daughter will have to hear about it for the first time and a part of her world view will be permanently shadowed. But when in doubt about tackling the harder things in life, there is always a book to help you along the way.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, published in 1971, was written by Judith Kerr to help explain the events of her own life to her children. It tells the story of nine-year-old Anna, who journeys with her parents and her brother Max from Germany, through Switzerland, to France and eventually on to England. Forced into a new life as refugees by the rise of the Nazi party, Anna’s family must contend with poverty, isolation and a growing awareness of what is happening back home to the friends and family who decided to stay. Judith Kerr’s own father, Alfred, was a theatre critic who openly criticised the Nazis and whose books were publicly burned after the family’s flight. Kerr’s family reached England in 1936, and she has lived there since, becoming an OBE in 2012.

I was surprised by the book in a number of ways; it has an unexpected sense of humour and masterful subtlety. It also resonates with a powerful honesty that doesn’t seek to apologise or revise any of Kerr’s own childlike views or perceptions about what happened to her. So on the one hand you have this lovely depiction of a child’s-eye view of the ‘adventure’ of creating a new life. And on the other hand you see glimpses of what the reality must have been for her parents and how hard they both worked to create the illusion of normality for Anna and Max. Kerr herself said that the book was a chance to ‘remember [her] parents, and for them to be remembered.’

Anna’s own innocent resilience also acts as a powerful antidote to the crimes of the Nazis; a reminder that no one is born into evil. Whether or not Kerr intended her to be, I think she becomes a very effective metaphor for the hope that we all share that the next generation might just find a way to pick up the pieces.

In an interview, Kerr said ‘When you have small children, you think you know what you think about things. But you don’t.’ This rang so true for me reading the book and realising that I had a new filter through which all my thoughts were passing and emerging subtly altered. But I don’t think you need to be a parent to take something powerful from Kerr’s story. Approaching a known event from the perspective of a child has a powerfully transformative effect on something that we think we know well. I love being forced to come at something from a new angle and always come away feeling like my ideas have been refreshed in the process.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is the first in a trilogy that includes Bombs on Aunt Dainty and A Small Person Far Away and I’d love to read both.

If you have a bit more reading time:

Mount TBR – the Book Jar

After the Epic Book Sort, I consolidated all of my unread books on shelves in our lounge. It’s a room I spend a lot of time in as it’s an office (of sorts) as well as being my place to chill out. But, mindful of how things can become invisible once they are comfortably settled in their new home – pocket piles anyone??? – I decided I needed a more novel way to keep them from sliding once more into dusty obscurity.

Witness…

The Book Jar.

I’m officially the 1,476,298,008,572nd person to do some variation of this (according to pinterest/the interwebs) but that doesn’t make it any less of a good idea. I’ve sort of wanted to do it for a while and considered making a jar of wishlist titles about 3 or 4 months back. But Mount TBR wins now in the battle of neglected books.

I’ve tended towards a more scatter-gun, distracted approach to my reading recently so I think something like this could work beautifully. I’m quite excited about the idea of giving over my book reading choices to someone(thing) else. Of course, I’ll be reading other books besides: 2017 newbies The Witch Finder’s Sister by Beth Underdown and Britta Rostlund’s Waiting for Monsieur Bellivier came home with me from the library just this morning. But the loose plan is to alternate books of my choosing with Book Jar selections (otherwise known as books of my somewhat earlier choosing).

I’d love to know if anyone else has had success with TBR Book Jars. Did anyone make it through the whole jar?

#1968Club – Children were reading books too…

I love Simon from Stuck in a Book‘s biannual (I think?) reading weeks, where he chooses a year and rounds up a whole host of posts on titles published that year. It’s a great way to find out about more books and blogs to read. This time around it’s 1968, which The Guardian suggests, in its gallery of key events, was a year that changed history. I’ve been keeping up with the new posts on Simon’s #1968Club home page and authors featured so far include Elizabeth Bowen, Quentin Bell, John Le Carre and Jean Rhys.

I thought I’d go for a slightly different angle.

Children’s books!

The reason being that my daughter turned 2 last week and each birthday I track down a few classic children’s books that she needs in her library. Abebooks came up trumps as usual and I’d placed my order. Then I started hunting around for the right book for 1968 week and realised, to my surprise, just how many classic children’s books popped up that year. Including a couple that we already have, one on the wishlist and one I’d just ordered.

There’s no such thing as coincidences, right? So here I present – five classic children’s books published in 1968.

P D Eastman, The Best Nest – Mr and Mrs Bird go searching for a better nest, with unexpected consequences.

The ‘grass is always greener’ trope recurs a lot in children’s books: I spotted it most recently in Fran Preston Gannon’s Dave’s Cave, which is great. The Best Nest is a book I had as a child and hadn’t revisited in years. Looking at the pictures of the secondhand copy we tracked down, I had that lovely thrill of recognition you get when you see something familiar from childhood. Also contains the line ‘They got some man hair’ which is just brilliant.

Judith Kerr, The Tiger Who Came to Tea – does this even need a precis? Ok then, Sophie and her mummy have tea with a tiger who has a particularly large appetite.

Such a classic. My daughter loves this one and we’ve had our copy since she was born. Listening to her say ‘…and they had a LOVEly supper…’ just melts me. I particularly love the illustration of a 1960s street scene as they head off to a cafe after the tiger eats them out of house and home. Judith Kerr herself will likely be popping up again in these parts as I’ve just finished reading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.

Jill Tomlinson, The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark – Plop the owl (I know! Squeee…) is afraid of the dark and refuses to go out hunting. But he eventually discovers it’s not as scary out there as he thought.

Some of the best children’s books leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy. The dark is pretty terrifying as a child, particularly if you’re blessed/cursed with an overactive imagination. I love this story about shifting your perspectives and overcoming fears. It’s firmly on the wishlist for an upcoming birthday or Christmas.

Richard Scarry, What Do People Do All Day? – A trip around Busytown to see what people are up to.

There are some angry reviews out there about this one (along the lines of how Scarry is pushing a misogynist agenda to inculcate conservative values in the next generation of children) but I adored this as a child. The detailed illustrations, the insight into a world that I was only just beginning to understand was much bigger than I originally thought. Yes, I’m glad we live in a world where there are a few more female doctors and lumberjacks, but I actually think books like this can be really lovely kicking off points for important conversations about equality. I want my daughter to know she can follow her heart into whatever career most excites her, but I also want her to know that she has freedoms and choices that many women didn’t, and in many cases, still don’t have.

Russell Hoban, A Birthday for Frances – If Gloria, Frances’ little sister, can’t throw, catch or play hide-and-seek, does she deserve her birthday present?

These books about Frances the badger are such a great example of classic children’s storytelling at its best. Warm, funny, witty and a great way to remind yourself what the world looked like through your pre-school eyes. And isn’t this line just the best:

“That is how it is, Alice,” said Frances. “Your birthday is always the one that is not now.”

Oh, the agony of childhood!

Have you read these classics? Did you have them as kids??

By the way, if you wanted a more adult read from 1968, I reviewed Georgette Heyer’s Cousin Kate back in 2014.

Abibliophobia – it’s real

Abibliophobia – the fear of running out of reading material…

Some overwhelming evidence has been accumulating recently suggesting that I might….might…have a bit of a problem.

First, back in July, my husband took this picture of my bedside table.

I get why this is bad, obviously. First off, it was really difficult to get into the wardrobe. And it’s a terrible way to store books because if you decide you want to read one of the ones near the bottom, it’s such a faff trying to get it out without getting trapped under the resulting landslide.

If my arm was twisted really hard, I sort of knew it was a sign of a larger issue but truth was I really needed all of those books and anyway at least 5 were library books and therefore one day going back to live somewhere else.

Since we moved in just over a year ago, a lot of slow-burn doing up and DIY has been going on. As a result, I never did completely sort out my books as I promised I would in the move. I mean, I got rid of a few while packing but if I’m honest it was half-hearted at best. So when I recently found myself with a lighter working week and a recently decorated and still largely empty room available, I decided to put all my books in one place and tackle them once and for all.

This is what happened.

Those boxes are full by the way. It’s not like the books in front of them are the books that came out of them. I can’t even get everything in one shot. And I think I took the pictures before I was completely finished and ran out of floor space. I didn’t count them but a conservative estimate based on the average number of books in a box/pile put me somewhere in the region of 600-700. Eeesh.

Being realistic, I’ll never stop acquiring books. But I’m glad I’m doing this (yup, still going. It looks better but there’s a way to go). Lessons I have learned include:

  • You don’t need to keep every book you read. Just the ones that you think you might read again, or those that are sentimental or ‘speak’ to you in some way. (I appreciate how that last point sounds but anyone who loves and regularly acquires books will know that there are some books that just belong in your library but you can’t always explain why.)
  • You should really keep unread books together so you can see on a regular basis just how many there are.
  • Knowing how many unread books you have at home is an excellent moderator when you’re out and about and get the urge to ‘acquire’.
  • I have some REALLY GOOD BOOKS that are sort of lost on my shelves and I’m very excited about reading them.
  • I feel much more in control of my books when they’re vaguely organised (now by category, although definitely not alphabetically or by colour – urgh).
  • I love books.
  • A lot.

There’s a box in the hall that’s almost full of books to give away and I reckon I have another box in me. I also know that I won’t keep all the unread books once they’re read, so there will be more shelf-clearing to come. And I feel really positive about how I’ll make decisions on which books to buy and most importantly keep in the years to come. Now I don’t just have books, I have a library.

And I definitely don’t have a problem.

Right?

Highlights from a summer of reading: the rest…

I promised some miscellaneous bits from my summer reading to finish. So, in no particular order…

A scattering of essays:

Lives in Writing, David Lodge – this is hard to categorise because it’s not, as it might first appear, about people who write. Although it sort of is by a more roundabout route. It’s actually a lot about the people who write about the people who write, and a bit about the people who write in the process. Still with me? In this collection of essays, Lodge focuses on biographies, autobiographies, biographical fiction/criticism, diaries and memoirs from and about famous writers and, in so doing, unpicks the writing life from a number of different perspectives. Of particular interest is Lodge’s take on biographical fiction in light of his works Author, Author and A Man of Parts (about Henry James and H.G. Wells respectively). Given that the essays were mostly originally published in a number of different contexts, there’s a really interesting breadth of writing style on offer too. I breezed through more journalistic essays, such as those on Alan Bennett, Simon Gray and Malcolm Bradbury – in fact, I think my favourite essays are those in which Lodge writes about writers who are also friends, as in the case of Gray and Bradbury – and painstakingly unpicked my way through heavier, more lit crit essays on Frank Kermode and Terry Eagleton (with some success, I hope!). But I really enjoyed having to re-engage brain with each shift in style and there’s a lot of interesting information on offer about the subjects of Lodge’s essays too. A recommended read if you’re at all interested in writers (as well as their work).

A wonderful epistolary memoir:

A Very Private Eye: an Autobiography in Diaries and Letters, Barbara Pym – I am a Pym fan and really have very little to say about this other than that, if you too are a fan of Pym then this really is a must read. Compiled by her sister, Hilary, and close friend and colleague of many years, Hazel Holt, this is a selection of extracts from Pym’s diaries, writing notebooks and letters (to, amongst others, Philip Larkin – a long-time friend and fan). It’s so lovely to hear from Pym in her own warm, astute, humorous and often poignant words. She’s a true writer, in the sense that even the littlest fragments from her notebooks are gold. Although I was aware that Pym had a bit of a resurgence later in her writing life, I had no idea just how many years she spent in the wilderness, doggedly continuing to write the novels that publishers assured her no one wanted to read. Her stoic humour in the face of all that rejection is an inspiration. Hopefully she’s currently somewhere lovely having a right good chuckle at the explosion of Pymophiles out there in the blogosphere continuing to do their level best to make sure she’s not overlooked again.

The obligatory Christie:

Peril at End House, Agatha Christie – every few months I get the urge to read another Christie. This was a good one. I didn’t see the ending coming at all. Nicely played, Agatha.

Highlights from a summer of reading: non-fiction

From my summer reading, here are the non-fiction highlights…

The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi – there are a lot of books in the world and I’ve mostly made peace with the idea that I won’t read them all. But there are some writers that I feel uncomfortable not having read, and Levi was one of them. The Drowned and the Saved was one of Levi’s later works, published for the first time in 1986, the year before he died. It is a collection of essays in which he further explores both the death camps and the people within them. It would be facile to suggest I ‘enjoyed’ reading this. There’s not a lot of enjoyment to be found (wider reading suggests that Levi’s final book is more bitter and despairing in tone than earlier ones, and I still feel like If This Is A Man is a book I must read) but I’m very glad I read it. A great deal has been written about the holocaust and I’ve read the tiniest sliver of it. I’ve never read anything like Levi though. He is understandably angry, although measured, erudite and considered. What he does that was so different to anything I’d read before was remove the easy interpretations, the sense of good people and bad people. He does away with the idea that any part of the holocaust can ever be ‘understood’ in a conventional sense. One of the essays is actually called ‘The Grey Zone’ and it quickly becomes clear that most of Levi’s polemic operates in this half light. It’s deeply unsettling but, particularly in light of recent political events, I came away confident that the unease he made me feel was vital.

My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me, Jennifer Teege – the slightly ‘click-baity’ title worked on me in the library but this was actually an emotional and thought-provoking read. Teege is the granddaughter of Amon Goeth, a fact she wasn’t aware of until, aged 38, she recognised a photograph of her maternal grandmother, Ruth Irene Goeth (Goeth’s mistress while he was at Plaszow) in a library book. The reason for the title is that Teege’s father was Nigerian, and her book was an interesting companion to Levi’s essays. Levi writes about both survivor guilt and the complex guilt felt by many people in the generations that followed. With Goeth’s atrocities so well-known and recorded, Teege has a particularly heavy burden of guilt to bear. The book was her attempt to work through the terrible depression she fell into on discovering her personal history and it has much to say about the responsibility we bear for the events of the past, whether directly related to the protagonists or not.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back with the remaining highlights – some essays, a memoir and a Christie.