It's weird how reading books opens up a whole train of thought and associations that don't tie directly to the plot of the book being read but nevertheless encourage reflection. I was thinking the other day how important relationships that we make during our teens and at universities can be. The impact of either positive or negative friendships we make can resonate years later. Who we are in our late teens, who influences us and why and how, massively impacts who we become.
That's generally what was on my mind as I started reading Sally Rooney's 'Normal People' and the things it made me ponder on during and after were loosely linked to that. The book made me reflect on how little I actually know about my kids' friendships for example. What I do know, shows itself mainly in a fierce desire to protect them, which can be harmful to their personal and social development. It led me to think about friendships that I've had in the past that perhaps went a bit sour and now, for a whole host of reasons, are too late to fix. The book also had me feeling gratitude for connections I've retained and new ones I've formed. For example, I've been privileged to be back in touch with the mum of a friend who passed away when we were younger. So, although 'Normal People' wasn't about any of these things it is interesting to consider how literature shapes our thoughts into some kind of coherency. Perhaps all a good book is, is a fancy form of word and thought association!
I do like 'naturalistic' or 'realistic fiction' and 'Normal People' explores family and friendship, looking at how these cannot be separated in the relationships we form. Isn't it strange how there are some things you'd tell your friends that you'd never tell your family, and yet family is often likely to be more permanent than support from friends? Families come with a battery of assumptions and pre-formed views and attitudes about you so you would think they'd know you inside out, YET a friend quite often knows you better, or at least knows the 'current you' better. It's a messy cocktail and one that I find fascinating but don't pretend to begin to understand. For example, I'm likely to see things from my kids' perspectives, and I'm likely to be sympathetic, but I think that can also underestimate my ability to understand that they are complex humans.
In this book the protagonist 'Marianne' has a lot of negative stuff to deal with, and we see how she does and doesn't handle it well. Her family set up is BAD. The boy protagonist though, Connell, has a supportive mum, yet he also struggles to find his place, and is acutely aware of 'self' and lives with a lot of self-doubt and anxiety. The text reminded me what being at university can be like and was a poignant reminder that what twenty year olds go through is no less signficant or important than any other experience. I think it is a bit too easy to dismiss student exisential angst as 'just a phase' and dismiss the complexity of emotions that it creates. Perhaps the book made me feel a little bit like I was twenty again. It is not just for millenials!
So as you can see Sally Rooney's 'Normal People' resonated with me. It was a study of 'mankind' that parallels the excellence of Simone De Beauvoir's 'She Came to Stay' or 'The Second Sex'. 'Normal People' is a perfect micro-example of excellent writing that illustrates how good fiction helps us to address the vey fundamentals of who we are, what makes us human and how we interact. It has gone straight into my top ten books and I can't wait to hear what others think of it.
I was in Kinokuniya (a large bookshop in Bangkok) yesterday, choosing book gifts for Betsy’s teachers to say thank you for the encouragement and help they’ve given her. I wanted the choices to be perfect. They needed to be amusing but not shallow; original yet of personal relevance; challenging but not inaccessible; and most importantly approved of by Betsy. Meeting this criteria was a challenge. Also, I knew I was once again, over-parenting (when will I learn?) and that Betsy would probably want to choose the books herself. However, it was a window of shopping opportunity and I forged ahead!
I made a few purchases, and when I got home had a look at what I’d bought. This is the weird thing though, amongst the books was 'Brave, not Perfect' by Reshma Saujani, the Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code. I do not remember choosing this book, nor taking it to the cashier - yet somehow, I had bought it.
I’m thinking it must have been an act of fate as it is completely relevant to me as a teacher, mum and daughter and also a great book for both my daughters to read (once they've both finished their exams-there's a certain irony there!). In a nutshell, Saujani says: don’t try to be perfect, and don't let anyone else make you behave in a certain manner, instead take risks as it is better to be brave than to adhere to an outmoded of being perfect.
The first half of the book explores how girls are conditioned into striving for perfection, and illustrates how this can be at great personal cost. It then changes focus a little bit with more self-help emphasis on ‘girl power’. It has shorter chapters which provide a kind of check list of things we can do to feel empowered to take risks.
So, as mentioned a main thread of the book is how individual women should aim to worry less about being perfect in their own domain, be it the work place, family or with friends, and how they should essentially take risks and please themselves, not others. In addtion, the text also touches on how in wider society there is a sense that women are becoming less ‘pleasers’, as we speak out more about institutionalised sexism and inequality. It was written as the #MeToo movement was at its peak and addresses how the public sphere for women is changing. It is not a sign of imperfection to speak up for what is right, it is the brave thing to do.
I raced through the text and agreed with, pretty much, everything Saujani says, though it doesn’t always make easy reading. I know I am, frequently, a people pleaser and that I care lots about the mistakes that I make. However, I am also aware of this, and know that I need to be braver and care less about these errors (defined by the perfection ideal) that make me ‘imperfect’. Oddly enough, by caring about my mistakes I remain in ‘the girl trying to be perfect’ box, and thus perpetuate the ‘damsel in distress’ sexism that exists within society-I am rescuable and I let myself be rescued. Does that make sense? It does to me - nearly! It's disheartening. Even more disheartening is that I know that I have encouraged the same traits in my own children and probably also the students I’ve taught. Yikes! This is bad, not good.
My imperfections at instilling in others an institutionalised desire to be perfect are many! I bet in the classroom, I’ve probably crushed assertive girls’ voices more than those of boys. That sounds and is terrible, but haven’t you ever found yourself laughing at cheeky chappies – "boys will be boys" - whereas you’d reprimand a similarly cheeky girl?
It’s not just in admonishments where genders are treated differently. I wonder if you have ever been a bit harsh with an assertive girl and then because you've felt guilty you have gone on to spend ages coaxing her back to feeling ok. Perhaps? I also wonder if you’d have left an admonished chappy to ‘get over it’ and done less of the making up. Saujani doesn’t say much at all about boys, but does imply, I think, that they are left to be resilient when criticised, and expected to not be 'overly' sensitive, which apparently gives them better skills at managing failure and not striving for perfection.
If you get chance do have a read of the book. I’d say it is essential for educators (Saujani draws heavily on Professor Carol Dweck if that might lure you in), it’s insightful for parents, and kind of freeing to read; it's conversational, brave, honest and thought provoking. However, just to play devil’s advocate a little bit, Saujani states, quite critically, that young girls feel they can be assertive, but have to do so nicely, and that they then can go for what they want, so long as it doesn’t step on anyone’s toes. I wonder - is that so bad? In addition to encouraging girls to be ‘brave not perfect’, shouldn’t we also be encouraging boys to be nice, sensitive, and caring? Softness isn’t a sin and not all characteristics associated with aiming for perfection, as critically presented in the book, are weaknesses.
Gosh, I just took a break from writing (I'm in a coffee shop in a shoppign mall and popped into Zara. Lo and behold ‘Perfect to Me' by Anne-Marie was playing. What an inspiring song and video. This exploration of ‘perfection’ really is fate!
Last word - if this was a TV Show, not a blog, then this 'deleted' sentence would be in the blooper section:
"So in my quest to not worry about not being perfect, I am also trying not to worry about perpetuating the perfidary myth of perfection through this post!"
What a blooming nonsensical tongue twister. But hey, no one's perfect!
I have just finished reading Paul Hawkins' Into the Water; thriller of the year according to the badge on the front cover of my copy. I think it certainly must be one of the bestsellers of the year as it is dominating the shelves of high street, shopping mall and airport bookshops. It's definitely good and I would recommend unreservedly for thriller and crime writer lovers.
What the book reminded me of was a very complex episode of A Midsomer Murders (which it actually, a bit cheesily to my mind, cites) or, being generous, a well constructed episode of Morse. The plot is complex and and tied together effectively, but there wasn't a lot of suspense and it never really felt like a 'whodunnit', though it was. It's told in short chapters and pulls in all the different characters' roles in the unravelling of the crime to a satisfactory conclusion. To be fair, it's really well constructed, but I do struggle with intricate plot lines. Even the later Harry Potter books had me pretty confused.
I only started reading crime and thriller books when I became a librarian, (I needed to keep up to date) and now I'm not a librarian anymore I don't 'have to'. Thrillers are probably not my thing, but I was swayed by all the hype of Into the Water and did enjoy The Girl on the Train. Generally speaking I do find the writing sparse and a bit too plain for my taste. Also, the jump between the first and third person is a bit jarring, although perhaps necessary to create character understanding whilst getting the plot moving forward. Having said all that, what wouldn't I give to be able to write anything even a teeny fraction as good!
I sometimes grimace when people say "No, I haven't read the book but I've seen the film." I turn all book snobby, but I think when it comes to thrillers, TV maybe is a better medium for me. Here's why:
Probably the best thriller that I've read is Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. The plot was exquisite, but even better is that it was imaginatively and flawlessly crafted, rather than just being accurately plotted. I think Gone Girl far exceeds the expectations of a simple thriller and is appealing for those readers for whom strong characterisation is the main hook in. However, I still couldn't always keep up with the plot and had to flick back!
I have a Maths teacher friend who loves a good thriller and simply eats them up on holidays (the Maths may have relevance), but for me they are hard work and take too much concentration. They are a bit of a slow burn too - but, to be fair, by the end I'm usually glad I've persevered. I am glad I read Into the Water and I vow to try to be a little more open minded about thrillers in general. I am eagerly awaiting the next Robert Galbraith, though, that's possibly just because of my middle-aged mid-life crisis crush on the main character Cormoran Strike! Hmm, not sure I like what that reveals about me as a reader!
I've just read this through before posting. Did I really base the blog post on the premise that the TV version may be better than the book. Fully retracted!
I guess I'm a bit suspicious about politicians (can't think why!) and I was niggled by Michelle Obama's appearance at the Royal Albert Hall supposedly being out-priced for the wo-man in the street, (also why only speak in London, rather than schedule an evening in the North?), so I approached this text with a fairly negative mindset. I wasn't expecting much honesty, and I was bringing to it my own prejudices, ready to judge her negatively. I wasn't expecting a lot. (And who said 'sisterhood was dead?)
I am pleased to report, though, that I was very pleasantly surprised by the depth, intelligence and humanity that shone through her writing. It was a convincing autobiographical exploration of motherhood, womanhood class, education culture and race.
I chose to listen, rather than read the book in print version, whilst swimming; it kept my interest 95% of the time. I agreed with Michelle's political stance and acknowledged the frustrations revealed in the sub-text. It seemed that Barrack had great ideas, great policies and was always an advocate for a fairer and more just world, but was thwarted at every step, largely out of spite, rather than due to republicans having any real policies of their own, other than to keep protect gun laws at all costs. It seems to me that Michelle sees politics as an extension of the playground, and an arena to avoid like the plague. She is pretty clear at the end of her memoir, where her own political future lies...
The first half of the book explores her childhood in Chicago and outlines where her values stem from. It follows a predictable linear stance, but this works well. The structure of the text, is in fact, one of the strengths of the text. Michelle expresses her thoughts about Barrack's political ambitions and views, and shares her experiences of living and working from Washington DC. She is candid about her marriage and doubts about Barrack standing for election at any political level. She makes it very clear that it was not plain-sailing being 'First Lady'. It is hard not to regard her account of her life during Barrack's presidency, at times, as akin to surviving a jail sentence, albeit in a luxury cell called the White House.
Michelle's keen advocacy of positive change for women and children lead the text. She is assertive and strong in her style, which, for sure, is to be admired. She emulated her values through her strong narrative voice. A bit too much .. the feminist and equal rights believer in me says of course not, the semi-reserved English introvert says.. maybe a bit too much at times!
The memoir ends pretty much with the end of Barrack's presidency. As she narrates the audio version herself, it brings a real immediacy to the text and the reader almost feels like they have been invited to one of Michelle's weekends away with the girlfriends! If Michelle was here for tea, I'd be probing for a bit more. Something like: "Sorry Michelle, I'm not convinced about you buying in ]sharing Barrack with his constituents, and whilst I respect that you were even frank enough to touch upon your marriage counselling and how it helped you take responsibility for your own happiness, I need to know more!" Resentment tremors are never far from the surface, but I guess bearing in mind that she was probably as candid as she could have been, in light of how much she is in in the public eye.
So to sum up, I definitely recommend this book, not to a select group of readers, but to everyone. She needs teasing about her 'royal family' comments as, in my view, she clearly doesn't get that part of English culture, but otherwise a great 'listen' creating plenty of opportunity for reflection.
From sharing Roger Hargreave’s Mr Men stories with Year 1 children, to reading Shakespeare's Hamlet with Year 13, I have never had any doubt that reading aloud is hugely valuable. This is a common view, and certainly one that I imagine all librarians and lovers of books share. It is my colleague, Stephen Murgatroyd, who I have to thank, as his recent extensive research into this topic has provided so much evidence to validate my belief that reading is advantageous to all. As well as this, he also recommended the recent addition of Jim Trelease's The Read-Aloud Handbook to our library and the excellent youtube clips at the end of this article.