Friday, 23 September 2016

Lessons from "banned books"

Sunday is the start of Banned Books Week (25 September - 1 October), an annual US-based initiative that celebrates "our freedom to read". To mark the event, I have decided to review the lessons I have learnt from reading banned books. To be honest, not all of the books below have been banned but they are all about societies in which freedom (and by extension, reading) was repressed in someway. And in keeping with the 2016 Banned Books Week' theme of diversity, I am focusing books that are about cultures and experiences different from my own.

Chairman Mao - in his own way - was just as bad as Hitler 
Prior to reading Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's biography Mao: The Unknown Story (banned in China) I didn't really know much about communist China under Mao. Having read Chang's family memoir Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (also banned in China), I knew the Cultural Revolution was a "bad thing", but I didn't quite understand quite how ruthless Mao was or how dire life could be for those who fell foul of him. After reading this book, I realised how appalling it is that some people seem to think a bag with Mao on it is a kooky or kitschy thing to have. No one (of sane political mind) would think walking round with Hitler on their bag would be an acceptable thing to do, would they?

Survival is a combination of luck and ingenuity
The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman depicts, in the form of a graphic novel, Spiegelman's father's (Vladek) - a Polish Jew (or mouse in this book) - struggle to survive the Nazis during the 30s and the Second World War. What quickly becomes clear is how utterly powerless someone like Vladek is against the relentless might of a force like the Nazis. He does what he can to avoid being taken to the camps but it's only through being in the right place at the right time (or rather, not being in the wrong place at the wrong time) that he manages to avoid them for so long - ie, in other words, it's not necessarily the bravest or the brightest who survive; it's the luckiest.
Obviously, "luck" is very much a relative term as the book also shows the damaging lifelong effects of living through an experience like the Holocaust on not only the person who survived but also on those around them. Vladek is portrayed as a difficult character who has strained relationships with both Art and his second wife. You do wonder who he would have been were it not for the Holocaust.

Don't judge a nation on its Government
Iranians don't have a great reputation - judging by your average Hollywood blockbuster (and a fair bit of Western media), they're either fanatical terrorists (men) or submissive, uneducated simpletons (women). That stereotype, of course, is completely and utterly wrong. It's no more accurate than the idea that English people can only be posh toffs or "cor blimey guv'nor" cockneys (only much more offensive). Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel, shows just how diverse and cultured a people the Iranians are. It also shows how, despite the repressive regime they live under, they have just the same everyday concerns as everyone else in the world. As a teenager, Satrapi had posters on her wall just like any other girl her age - even if her parents did have to go to extreme lengths to smuggle the said posters into the country (ingenious use of a coat when coming back from trip abroad).
Persepolis is banned in Iran funnily enough but somewhat bizarrely found itself on the 2014 American Library Association 10 most frequently challenged books list (well so Wikipedia says anyway). 

To ask myself  "And what are you doing about injustice?"
Given that I was only 10 when Nelson Mandela was released, I am going to let myself off for not wearing a Free Nelson Mandela T-shirt or making a fuss if my Mum bought Cape Granny Smith apples (my older sister made a fuss to be fair). But reading Mandela's autobiography A Long Walk to Freedom (not banned, obvs, as it was published when he was president) did make me question what I would do if I was faced with a terrible injustice? Would I, as Mandela did, risk everything to make a stand? Probably not; I am a complete coward. But being white and British, it's highly unlikely I will ever be faced with the type of repression that Mandela and other black people (or, in fact, pretty much anyone who wasn't white) had to deal with on a daily basis during Apartheid. Therefore, a more important and more relevant question is what I am doing to help those who are currently being repressed? The shameful answer is not much apart from a small monthly donation to Amnesty International* and the odd email to a head of state about a political prisoner. I am not sure what else I can do to be honest - sometimes there seems to be so much injustice in the world, knowing what campaigns to get involved in is difficult - but I do think I have a responsibility to help give a "voice to the voiceless".

One thing I can definitely do is read more books about repressed communities. For example, I do feel rather remiss about the fact I've never really read a book about the effect of the British empire on the nations it conquered. Therefore, I've added Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe to my "to read" list. Not sure if I will get round to reading it, but I definitely think I should read something about the damaging consequences of my country thinking it had the right to rule the waves. After all, I benefit from living in a prosperous country so I really ought to understand the negative consequences of what it did to become that prosperous.

* = I am aware that Amnesty, controversially didn't fight for Mandela's freedom because they did not consider him to be a prisoner of conscience, but that doesn't mean they don't do good work.

Friday, 16 September 2016

A Little Book of UnknowingA Little Book of Unknowing by Jennifer Kavanagh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this book, Jennifer explores what we really "know" (not much it turns out) and how we can come to terms with uncertainty in our lives. Her view is that we should embrace uncertainty as it can provide opportunities for growth and a deeper spiritual understanding.

As the title suggests, this book is short - it's only 73 pages - and you could probably read it in one sitting if you wanted. But actually, I think it's better to take your time reading it otherwise you might miss out on the points that Jennifer is making (one point being, ironically enough, you sometimes need to wait for the answer to come to you). I certainly think you will get more out of this book if you read it multiple times.

Jennifer writes very much with a faith perspective (specifically, a Quaker one), but that doesn't mean her book doesn't have value for people who don't believe in God/The Divine. As she points out science is a faith to some extent, so even the most confirmed atheist could benefit from reading this book (they could always skip passed the bits when Jennifer references the G word).

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Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Stuff I am going to possibly read in September

In BookTube parlance,  your "TBR" or "To be read" list denotes books that you're planning read (thank God you've got me to explain this stuff to you hey). Personally, I find this type of thing intimidating because basically I am incredibly stubborn and don't like being told what do (even if it's me telling me what to do). So, I prefer to have "possible read" books - i.e. books that I might read but don't have to read (I do grant you that this probably makes very little sense to anyone other than myself). Anyroad (usually write "anyway", but wanted to mix things up a bit), these are the things that I am "possibly reading" this month.

Have started to read it but keep finding excuses to read something else. This is probably why you shouldn't buy a book purely so that can make some rubbish "when in Rome" gag about reading a book about Rome when you're visiting the place for work. It does seem interesting but in my heart of hearts, The Rotten Romans by Terry Deary is probably more my level.

A Little Book of Unknowing by Jennifer Kavanagh 

I bought this book after attending Jennifer's workshop "Walking into the dark with a smile", which was basically about coping with uncertainty - particularly when the future looks less than rosy. I  am going to save it for when my anxiety next plays up (so end of the week probably) as I am hoping it will help. Should point out that Jennifer is a member of the same Quaker meeting house as me, so my purchasing of the book was slightly biased but I'd like think I still would have got it even I didn't know her.

Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles by Jeanette Winterson

As I mentioned in my previous post, I really liked her take on The Winter's Tale (The Gap of Time). Therefore, I wanted to give this one a shot. Like the book above, I will probably leave it a while before reading because I don't like reading books by the same author in quick succession - too much of a good thing etc.

Dead Beat by Val McDermid

Downloaded this because it was only £3 and I was looking for a reliable, easy read. McDermid may never win the Man Booker but she certainly knows how to spin a good yarn. Plus as this book was written in 1992, it's going to be interesting to see how her private detective Kate Brannigan tracks people without the aid of the internet or a smartphone. So far Kate, as the narrator, has made several references to "working on the computer" and "databases" - which seems very old fashioned. Keep having to remind myself that she can't just Google it!

My August GoodReads reviews

August was quite a productive reading month for me - mainly because I took a week off to go to the Edinburgh book festival (and the general festival) and it would seem a tad churlish not to get some serious reading done while there. And because I am sure everyone is as fascinated by my opinion as I am, I've decided to collate (not sure that's the right word to use but it sounds posh) my GoodReads reviews (in chronological order) in this blog post:

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Parts One and Two (Harry Potter, #8)Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Parts One and Two by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can't say too much as I don't want to spoil the plot for anyone, but it was lovely to revisit the world of Harry Potter. Harry, Hermione, and Ron are older but otherwise not much changed and pretty much have the same roles that they did in the books - reluctant hero, super smart, and muddles along.

I wasn't a great fan of Albus, Harry's son, or Rose, Herminoe's daughter, purely because they seemed like reruns of their parents. Draco's son, Scorpius, on the other hand isn't Draco mark II and was actually one of my favourite characters.

As much as I would like to see the actual play, I am not prepared to sit by my computer waiting for the tickets to be released or whatever. I think I'll wait for the film because let's face it, they are going to make one a some point.

According to YesAccording to Yes by Dawn French
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am so irritated by this book!

First off, the book cover and book description makes you think it's going to be some light-hearted, chick-lit esque novel about a Mary Poppins/Maria Von Trapp character teaching an uptight family to be less, well, uptight.

It isn't; it has a lot more edge to it than that - which should come as no surprise to anyone who has read one of French's previous novels or watched any of her comedy (stuff she's done with Jennifer Saunders rather than Vicar of Dibley).

Why do publishers have this obsession with marketing a work by a female author that isn't literary fiction as chick lit? Why can't it just be marketed as a novel? Like books by male authors are?

Mind you, the second thing that really annoyed me about this novel is that French lacks the courage of her convictions to continue with the edgier stuff until the end. She raises a few issues but then conveniently overcomes them. I think it would be much more interesting if the pitfalls of the "saying yes to everything" philosophy of Rosie Kitto, the book's heroine, were highlighted to a greater extent. There are several events that occur as a direct result of this philosophy that in real life would not play out as smoothly as they do in the book.

One can only hope in later novels, French is tad a braver and lets her books end more messily than this one does.

The Tidal ZoneThe Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A very well written, poignant tale of coping with the aftermath of a shocking event (the narrator's daughter stops breathing for no apparent reason) and with the realisation we don't really have any control over the future.

The only reason I've given it three stars is because I felt it was about two or three chapters too long. I thought Moss laboured the end a bit and could have wrapped things up sooner than she did without detriment to the plot or to the characters' development.

Ethel and ErnestEthel and Ernest by Raymond Briggs
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A beautiful biography of Riggs' parents - from their first meeting to their deaths. He shows their imperfection (Ethel can be a bit of a snob while Ernest is somewhat insensitive) but most of all, he shows their devotion to each other. Despite spending most of the book bickering, Ethel and Ernest have a deep, obvious love for each other.

As we have come to expect from the author of The Snowman (it's not Briggs' fault it is shown every sodding Christmas), Father Christmas, and When the Wind Blows, the artwork is beautifully understated.

SpectaclesSpectacles by Sue Perkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A heartfelt memoir about the ups and downs of life - from meeting kindred spirits to the pain of break ups. The Bake Off barely gets a mention (one chapter and a reference that to the fact Perkins can't go anywhere - even when coping with a dog with diarrhoea - without someone shouting "bake" at her). In fact, she spends more detailing the things that have gone wrong in her career than the things that have gone right. I much prefer celeb autobiographies to be this way rather than someone blathering on about how great their life has been or how embarrassed they are at how successful/bright they are (unlike some celeb autobiographies I could mention*). It's comforting to know that even household names are muddling along in life just like the rest of us!

* = Stephen Fry's The Fry Chronicles may as well have been called "I didn't choose to be this clever" for the amount of humblebragging that went on (Fry later redeemed himself with the much better More Fool Me).

View all my reviews The Gap of Time: The Winter’s Tale Retold (Hogarth Shakespeare)The Gap of Time: The Winter’s Tale Retold by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Your enjoyment of this book will probably depend on how much you know of The Winter's Tale. I knew the very basics, so the idiot's guide at the beginning did help. But then again, it almost spoiled the book for me - because I knew what was going to happen, I was looking for it and got a little bored on occasion waiting for it happen (when I should have just been enjoying Winterson's unique prose). Had I skipped the recap bit, I might have enjoyed it more because I could have read it as a "normal" story (ie. not know what was going to happen). On the flip side if you know The Winter's Take well, you might enjoy reading how Winterson had modernised the tale (particularly some of the original's more fantastical elements) and how she has interpreted the characters.

Mind you once I learnt to just to enjoy Winterson's writing, I really started to like the book. For me, she's definitely one of those authors whose books - not matter what the content - I tend to lap up. Actually, she seems to have a bit of a habit of writing books to a particular theme. She's also written The Daylight Gate for Hammer Horror (read & loved) & Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Hercules (on "to read" list) for the Cannongate Myth series. You get the impression she likes a project (no bad thing)!

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