Monthly Archives: April 2012

London skyline

London skyline

London. In the background, hazy against blue sky, the skyscrapers in the City. In the foreground, terraced houses

I took this photo from the window of the office I’ve been working in. It’s funny how much easier it is to pick out the details – the London Eye, the Shard and so on – in real life than in a photo.

Still, it’s lovely having this sweeping urban landscape to look at – and it’s interesting to watch it change with the weather.

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Another book from my childhood – #156 is The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier. I think I got this as a prize at school as it still has the typed note-card from Elm Books in it. We didn’t shop at Elm much but most of our primary school prizes came from there.

The Silver Sword tells the story of one Polish family during the second world war. The father and mother are taken away by the Nazis, which leaves the children to fend for themselves in Warsaw. At the start of the book, in 1940, Ruth is 12, Edek is 11 and Bronia is 3. Their mother is Swiss and, with another lost child, Jan, for various reasons they decide to go to Switzerland. The novel describes their long journey across a particularly battered part of Europe as the war rages.

Based on true fact
In the author’s note at the start of the book, Serraillier says “The characters in this book are fictitious but the story is based on true fact.” Naturally, I was curious but I haven’t been able to find out much more than that.

First published in 1956, The Silver Sword seems designed to share the experiences of children in Europe with those ‘safe’ in Britain. Reading it now, it seems like a sanitised version of the war both literally (there’s no mention of what anyone does for waste disposal or personal hygiene while they’re living in bombed-out cellars) and figuratively but for children, especially those for whom this might be their first introduction to WWII or to the idea that children get caught in war, it works well.

Because it elides the most obviously horrific elements of the war and the camps – I’m not sure anyone actually dies in the novel even – it leaves space to explore other aspects of the war as it affected displaced children – loyalty, family and authority are three which come to mind.

Serraillier manages to make some fairly complex points without preaching – the juxtaposition of the people the children meet, who helps them and who doesn’t, for example, raises questions about enemies and friends, the difference between a soldier you’re fighting and a person you meet and invaders/liberators being largely down to perspective.

All in all, I enjoyed this book and am glad it came my way as a child. It’s a book which is likely to provoke discussion, which is ideal for teachers but perhaps a note of caution for parents – you may have to answer some tough questions!

Lake Geneva

Lake Geneva

Grey water under a grey sky, fading to light at the horizon. A scattering of dark dots - ducks - across the lake

I’m in Switzerland this week, and the weather has been really changeable. One of the interesting things about being here is the way the mountains come into and out of focus as the clouds drift by. You can see when it’s raining across the lake, and watch the storm come closer.

A lot of the time, it has been something like this photo I took a couple years ago. It’s a shot of Mont Blanc looking across Lake Geneva – can’t you tell?

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Matilda by Roald Dahl

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

One of my childhood favourites, Matilda, is #74 on the list. I’m visiting my parents this week, so I’ve been able to read the actual copy which I remember so well from when I was small.

A book about reading
The story of Matilda, like most of Roald Dahl’s novels, is that of a small powerless person finding a reserve within themselves and standing up to a bully but the book is about reading. Matilda is amazing and she reads a lot. She reads a lot because she is amazing and she is amazing because she reads so much. By the time she is five, we are told, she has read:

Nicholas Nickleby
Oliver Twist
Jane Eyre
Pride and Prejudice
Tess of the d’Urbervilles 
Gone to Earth (by Mary Webb)
Kim
The Invisible Man
The Old Man and the Sea
The Sound and the Fury (Faulkner)
The Grapes of Wrath
The Good Companions (by JB Priestley)
Brighton Rock (by Graham Greene)
and Animal Farm

It’s an impressive list for any child but as it comes on about page 18 of the book, I think it’s more than just exposition: Roald Dahl is trying to get kids to read. He’s giving them a list of books which he thinks are worth reading – and presumably appropriate for small children – and a hero who has read them all.

The list – and it’s presented as a list in the book – has a significant crossover with the Big Read list, which confirms that these are books which Britons think are generally worthwhile.

The odd thing is that I read a lot as a child, so I read Matilda often enough that I can still quote the climactic scene more or less verbatim, but I don’t remember this list. In fact, if you’d shown me the list in any other context I would swear that I had never seen the titles Gone to Earth or The Good Companions before in my life.

This is interesting as well, because it suggests to me that the way to get kids to read is to write great stories, which Dahl does, rather than tell them to read the great stories of your past. I’m sure that’s harder though, so I’m not surprised that Dahl hedged his bets!

A great book for kids
I was surprised to learn that Matilda was first published in 1988. I was five that year, like Matilda is in the book, but I don’t remember ever not having this book on our shelves. I do have a couple of qualms rereading it now – for example, fat or ugly characters are all either bad or disgusting, which is unfortunately all too common – but I think that its strengths outweigh them.

The cast of Matilda is almost exclusively female – the hero, the main villain, the princess to be rescued, the sidekick are all women or girls. It’s an unusual line-up, to have a novel which is so adventurous and female-dominated, which is one reason I’d recommend the book to kids of all ages (girls and boys).

We went to see the musical version of Matilda in London a few weeks ago, and I was surprised by how vividly I remembered the story. I had a very clear image of what Matilda and several of the other characters should look like, how they should move and speak.

These images, it turns out, come from the beautiful and telling drawings done for the novel by Quentin Blake. There are a lot more pictures in the book than I remembered, which makes it a good choice for less confident readers or to read aloud.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

The next book, one I’d never read before, is #138. The Thirty-Nine Steps is available to download for free through Project Gutenberg as it’s out of copyright. The book was first published in 1915 and it really shows its age. Sometimes the vintage is charming and sometimes it’s off-putting.

Antiquated attitudes
The book starts out with casual anti-semitism and racist threads are woven throughout the story. Knowing nothing about the book before I started – not even the date of first publication – made these moments particularly jarring.

This is one time when I think I would have enjoyed the story more if I’d known more about the book ahead of time. It was published in 1915, which explains a lot of the anti-German sentiment, as well as the tiresome Britain Uber Alles theme and the entirely implausible conspiracy theory plot.

Wikipedia suggests that this was deliberate, that the intention of the author was to create a story which could barely be believed. Frankly, that makes me feel rather better about not believing it. It’s a wild romp through the England and Scotland with mysterious shadowy enemies hot on the tail of Our Hero. The enemies are not just his own – they want to destroy Britain, her Empire and probably Truth, Justice and A Decent Cup of Tea as well. The enemies are so bad they couldn’t be worse and Our Hero is so heroic he can solve an international crisis by falling off a log.

Born to be a hero
I should perhaps mention that Our Hero doesn’t actually fall off any logs. I made that up. Instead, the author throws in previously unmentioned elements of his backstory to explain a sudden preternatural competence which saves every situation, usually in a suprisingly destructive way which, one would expect, would have the ultimate consequence of jail time for damage and affray if nothing else.

And Our Hero does have an incredibly useful back story. He speaks fluent German (“my father had had German partners…”), knows how to blow stuff up (“I hadn’t been a mining engineer for nothing…”) and break codes (“I did a bit…as an intelligence officer…”), not to mention more ordinary skills like driving any car, disguising himself and beating up villains.

As someone who has frequently been pulled up for speaking English in a way which sounds slightly foreign, I was surprised to discover 1915 simply having Scottish blood (“my people were Scotch…”) was enough to allow a fellow who had lived in Africa since the age of six to pass for a crofter without even a kilt. Perhaps it was truly a simpler time or perhaps I just don’t have what it takes.

A piece of history
The Thirty-Nine Steps is short and quick to read, but if you’re just looking for entertainment, I don’t recommend it. However, if you like spy stories and thrillers, it might be worth a look as it is one of the early works with a strong influence on the genre. Like Dracula, the tropes in the story have now been so well used in the intervening decades that this original work now looks cliché.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Anglesey Abbey

Anglesey Abbey

Last weekend – you know, when it was sunny briefly, before it started hailing and blowing like the ghost of January – we went to Anglesey Abbey.

The front of Anglesey Abbey, an English manor-type building with a lot of green lawn in frontAs it was a nice day and we were mostly interested in visiting Lode Mill, we didn’t pay to go in the house but spent a happy couple of hours wandering around the gardens and climbing the ladders into the flour loft.

The gardens are enormous. We didn’t get even halfway around in the time we were there. We ‘only’ saw the rose gardens (not much out yet), the winter gardens (full of daffodils), the woods (full of rustlings and squeakings), the main lawn (significantly larger than a football field) and a few gardens which just seemed to be filling in on the way to somewhere else.

A white marble statue of a man with a beard is the backdrop to a row of bright purple hyacinthsIt was all rather lovely but I can’t imagine being responsible for maintaining so much land for no other reason than it was mine to walk in. How on earth would you manage to use every square foot every year, nevermind every day?

It’s not that I think all land should be useful – quite the contrary – but this land was so carefully sculpted and managed it was clearly designed by and for people. And that seems a bit odd, when it was created by one man, for the use of a family, but today hundreds of visitors don’t get in each others’ way.

A straight canal bordered by a footpath leading to a white building on the right and a row of tall, pale trees on the left

The milll – the white building just showing in this picture – was fascinating. It’s a watermill, and the old grinding stones and 18th or 19th century mechanisms have been restored to let it grind again. It wasn’t running the day we were there, which meant we could climb up into the lofts and look at the workings. And of course we bought a bag of flour on the way out – it makes rather good bread.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

The fourth book I’ve read off the list is #18. Little Women is available to download for free through Project Gutenberg.

I loved, loved, loved Jo when I was young. I thought she was marvellous and wanted to be just like her. I wanted her to grow up, be a famous author, and marry Laurie. I don’t think I looked any further than that at the time but rereading the book now I notice the heavy-handed morality and the limited nature of the girls’ lives and expectations and I’m sort of surprised that I enjoyed this book so much as a child.

That said, I did enjoy the book this time round and a large part of the appeal is still Jo, with her love of reading, awkward height and passion for writing – all traits I share and don’t see in children’s books or YA novels very often.

What’s it about?
Published in 1868, Little Women is the story of a year and a bit in the lives of the March girls. Meg, the eldest, is 17 and growing into a proper young lady. Jo, a year younger, has no intention of ever growing up and would rather play. Beth, 14, is the timid, loving heart of the home. Amy, the youngest at 12, likes pretty things, looking fine and drawing. Their father is away near the front – the American Civil War is raging, and he’s a chaplain. Marmee (their mother) and Hannah, the servant, hold the fort on the home front and try to make sure the girls grow up well, aided and abetted by the wealthy old man next door and his impulsive 16 year-old grandson, Laurie.

Little Women is – to misquote Susan Coolidge – the adventures of girls who didn’t really have many adventures and several of the most talked about events are actually from the sequel, Good Wives. Apparently they’re often bound together, and films treat them as one but to me they are separate books with different bindings, just like when I first read them.

Then and now
When I was about eleven, we visited Orchard House, the Alcott family home in Massachusetts, USA. Alcott is well known to have drawn on her life for the story, and – thanks to some sterling conservation work – the house looks like one the March girls would be at home in, making the real and the fictional families seem even more like one.

Finding out that Alcott had based her books in part on her own life and those of her sisters made the stories seem more real – and helped me forgive her for not giving the characters the lives I wanted them to have.

The period shines through in how quaint and good all the girls are. Even Jo and Amy – the most ‘troubled’ and troublesome of the four girls are a bit too saintly for my more skeptical tastes. All the girls have their small sins, and the book dwells on these and their efforts to do better, which is good and uplifting – except that the sins really are small, old-fashioned and often followed up with a disproportionate punishment meted out by the author. For example, early on Amy burns the only copy of Jo’s book, a collection of stories she’s been working on for several years. Jo is angry – really angry – which isn’t surprising. Amy is sorry – eventually – and then when her apology is rejected, she gets cross too. All nice and plausible so far and a reconciliation seems interestingly far off. Enter the author, who has Amy fall through the ice on the river while skating putting Jo firmly in the wrong again and forgiveness ensues all round.

There are some rather lovely scenes though, even in the Victorian morality plays. There’s one where Marmee shares her own struggles with anger with Jo which I really enjoyed, and her thoughts on what makes a good marriage are rather sweet too.

Poverty and privilege
The Marches are framed as poor throughout but reading between the lines I don’t think they are. Although the girls and Marmee use that word to describe their circumstances, and they don’t have a luxurious life, it’s also clear that they’re several rungs up from the bottom of the social ladder. One of the few other families mentioned in the book are the Hummels who are a really poor probably immigrant family – poor to the point where the children don’t have enough to eat, and the baby dies from lack of medical care. With that as a contrast, as well as frontier stories like Little House on the Prarie, it’s interesting to see the Marches who have education, books and a servant described this way.

They’re also well out of the way of the war – it barely touches their lives and the only mentions I spotted are their father’s absence, one mention of Mr Brooks wanting to enlist and one or two mentions of Jo knitting socks for soldiers.

All in all, Little Women is a sweet, quiet, genteel book – so unobjectionable that I almost want to ban girls from reading it in case they do start striving to never say a cross word or raise a fuss when their wants and needs are overlooked. And while I enjoyed my foray into the past, I’m in no hurry to pick up Good Wives or the other three books in the series – for one thing, I never did quite agree with Jo’s choice of husband!

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

All the Money in the World by Laura Vanderkam

All the Money in the World by Laura Vanderkam

About the book
The full title is All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know about Getting and Spending and the big question Vanderkam tackles is: how can you use money to buy happiness?

While it’s fairly clear that money isn’t the only thing people need in order to be happy, it’s also pretty clear that money can let you have more time to do what you like, let you have more of what you like and help you avoid unpleasant things – all of which might make you happier.

If you don’t have all the money in the world, it’s not always clear how to best spend what you do have in order to make yourself happy. The book explores what happy people do, including both anecdotes and research findings, and turns lays out a plan of attack so that any reader can start figuring out how to do it themselves.

New ideas on familiar topics
As an inveterate reader who has been both broke and unhappy, I’ve read quite a lot of advice on happiness and finances and All the Money stands out. Vanderkam never suggests that getting out of debt or saving for emergencies is as simple as cutting out your daily latte (a tip which is on so many how-to-be-frugal lists I’m surprised Starbucks is still going). Instead, she encourages the reader to look at both getting and spending, to figure out what you want more money for and then think about where to get it.

The book is full of catflap ideas – ideas that sounds radical and odd until you’ve seen it in action: I should cut a hole? in my door? so the cat can have, what, more personal freedom? and while I’m on board with quite a lot of them already, there were some which had me tutting and going oh well, in the real world of course that would never… except that it does, actually, work in the real world. Real people have fabulous, ordinary lives doing things which make them happy.

The first radical idea Vanderkam proposes is that if you want more than you’re earning, you should earn more. She suggests several ways of doing this, at least a couple of which would work for me and one of which has doubled my salary (before I read the book, sorry Laura!) but looking through my notes I realised how skeptical I was about the whole section. It’s not that easy says the inner critic you have to have a skill worth selling and be able to network and… and… but in fact, that’s not true: I could probably have found examples of people who’ve tried – and enjoyed – most of the suggestions just by asking the 50-odd people I know on Facebook.

What do you really want?
One of the strengths of All the Money is that it encourages the reader to take a hard look at the treadmill of expectations and social pressure which shape so many big financial decisions. If you’re booking a big family wedding because ‘that’s what people do’ or buying a bigger house because ‘kids need space’ then this is a really good book to read. You might decide that you do want a big wedding or a big house – bigger than you thought, perhaps – but you’ll have better reasons, reasons which are about you, your values and what you think is important.

The flipside is that the book seems to be aimed people who are already upper-middle class and earning good salaries in flexbile careers, mostly in industries which didn’t exist 30 years ago.If you’re a resident-level doctor or a supermarket cashier, for example, you probably can’t earn more money easily (chapter two) or relocate to save on housing costs (chapter four). That said, you probably could give a little bit of money away (chapter eight) which research suggests will make you happier (I’m paraphrasing, Vanderkam has more details), you can definitely write a list of 100 things, large and small, which would make you happy (chapter five) and even do some (several of mine were a lot cheaper and easier than I thought) and you should probably take a long hard look at whether you’ll ever get to retire, in the traditional sense, and whether you even want to (chapter three).

All in all, I enjoyed the book. It’s well written and well thought out. Vanderkam presents a series of quite different ideas without losing the focus of the book and brings each broad, theoretical sweep back to small, concrete steps the reader can take straight away. I couldn’t tell you if you should shelve it under self-help, pop-science or opinion, but I do think its worth making space for.

Things you might like to know about this review
I was given a copy of All the Money in the World by the author to review. I was given the review copy because I asked, and I asked because I read Laura Vanderkam’s blog. I like her blog, think she generally makes sense and was therefore predisposed to like the book. As usual, the Amazon link is an affiliate link so if you click through and buy the book through Amazon, I might even make a penny out of this!