An unexpected treat read.
I probably chose this book because as a listener to the Older and Wider podcast, more than anything else, I was curious about the author. I was doubtful whether a stand-up-comedian could really write good fiction and wondered whether Jenny Eclair was just cashing in on her name. Cynic that I am! The answer is that that Eclair is an excellent author.
I also guess I chose it because it was cheap - only 99p on Kindle!
Moving was an excellent book, well written with a tightly plotted storyline. It addresses many of the social issues of late twentieth century UK with both warmth and humour. Addressing issues associated with 'yuppiedom', politics and the original 'entitled' generation, the story line moves towards a moderately hopeful yet pretty realistic conclusion.
The book does end quite abruptly, with me continuing to flick the pages on my kindle to check whether there was more to come, but the structure drew it effectively to its conclusion. It reminded me just a little bit of Barbara Kingsolver's 'Unsheltered' as both books use houses and setting to evoke most of the atmosphere in their stories. Kingsolver, would, I guess, be viewed as a far more literary text (what makes a literary text anyway?), but which did I enjoy the most? I'd have to say, surprisingly, this one. Having said that I did admire Unsheltered too, and reviewed it on Goodreads. It was just a bit long and slow to get into!
Elcair's novel was immediately attention grabbing and a a page turner. All in all it's an excellent read, not highbrow but accessible and full of merit. If you are looking for summer reads, I definitely recommend it.
For me, listening to the podcast and thus feeling I know a little something, at least about the author added positively to the reading experience. ("To what extent can an author ever be separated from their writing. Discuss?") It's time I stopped framing essay questions, left school behind and focused on something else. Oh Lordy, I sense a podcast on 'if only we could all be podcasters' coming on!
I have just spent a pleasant hour reading the Kate Greenaway medal shortlisted titles for this year. It made me sad and nostalgic that I won't get to share them with the kids at school. We have always enjoyed reading them, voting for our favourite title and discussing the issues they explored. The kids made connections, sometimes even to the previous year's titles and remembered the stories way after I'd forgetten them. Sometimes we added to this a little research activity, author study quiz, or creative writing and drawing extension activity, though for me, it was always sharing the story that was fun. I'm not a big believer in forcing written responses to reading (it kind of kills the magic). Anyway, I didn't always realise it, but those were fun days.
There are, however, certain advantages to reading the books alone, by myself, from the comfort of a sofa, not least being able to enjoy a cup of tea and a hob-nob as I read. Despite being a little regretful to not be having the follow on discussion and excitement that sharing books with little people brings, I still enjoyed them and as stories are 'want to do' they got me thinking. It sort of felt like a ton of rusty doors in my old grey matter had been opened, with each room having a different set of thoughts and issues to ponder on. Consequently I've now got absolutely no idea what to blog about. There are just so many options! Will it be one of these things?:
As I say, I'm not always a fan of using reading to do follow up written work, so perhaps today I'll take it easy and just enjoy having read the Kate Greenaway stories for no reason other than the enjoyment of reading them. I'll keep the personal, social and political follow-on reflections in my head. That is, until tomorrow at least!
I read Ian McEwan's Children Act back in 2014 and wasn't disappointed. At the time I posted a review on goodreads.com, as I am want do. If you are not a member of goodreads I can't recommend it enough for keeping up with what's current, getting book reading suggestions and for using as easy way to keep check of your own reading (required if, like me, you forget everything!)
The central question in The Children Act is whether a 17 year old boy should be forced to have a blood transfusion, which is likely to save his life, but goes against his Jehova's Witnesses' parents' (how do you correctly punctuate that?) beliefs. I revisited the story and the question a couple of weeks ago when I watched the movie (on a flight back to Bangkok). Fiona, the powerful judge in the story, was played brilliantly by Emma Thompson alongside a fantastic cast. The topic is weighty - it doesn't get much bigger than choosing life or death and had me asking all sorts of questions to which I don't have any answers!
It got me thinking about whether we actually 'own' our children. If the answer is yes then do we stop owning them when they turn 18? Or does it end when we stop subsidising our kids financially? Perhaps it never ends and ultimately the tables just turn and we own our parents - there's a thought to make the oldies break out in a cold sweat. No wonder there are often fireworks in families
My first response to the question is that of course we don't own our children, but when you think about it, so much of parenting does suggest a level of belonging (positive) and being controlled (negative). Perhaps we can view ourselves as benevolent dictators! Right now, for example, Betsy is sitting with her Maths tutor, the marvellous John of www.transum.org. She didn't choose to spend her Sunday mornings doing Maths, but is a willing participant in this transaction. Does this make her my 'owned product' being forced to achieve my aim of attaining a certain level of Maths competence, or is she an independent being making free choices about preparing for her future? (IB Maths exam tomorrow - yikes!) My other daughter, Annie, will hopefully be in the Science Library soon, at UCL revising for her Ecology exam. She did choose to study Ecology as part of her degree, and she did choose her University, but she was directed, encouraged and equipped to get there, so how much of that is actually free choice and how much is our 'owning' her life direction and choices? How much of parenting is a transaction and negotiation, and how much is non-negotiatable and led? Have our girls complied to our overview of where they are heading or have they chosen it, trusing our guidance and leadership? You can take it further; have we, as parents, complied passively or unthinkingly to social expectations or have we actively chosen them?
I guess you could say in my own life it doesn't actually matter, as the kids seem to be heading in a positive direction. To go really 'meta' for minute though, what if we were discussing the acceptance of an indefensible social or political system, that we believed in and were directing our children towards - then what? It makes you think how strong you have to be to really make independent choice and reject the factors influencing who we are.
Anyway enough meandering thoughts on a Sunday morning. The Children Act is a fab book. An aside, it is also a marvellous exploration of the deteroration of a long-standing middle class marriage, arguably due to wifely neglect (rolled-eyes, as of course the wife gets the blame!) If you haven't read it, definitely do. It's a short read but a powerful one. Then afterwards why not treat yourself to the film - always worth seeing Emma Thompson in action! (Hope she didn't have to make too many carbon-rich flights of course - tongue firmyl in cheek here!)
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!