Tuesday, 20 January 2015

'The Humans' by Matt Haig

In my last book review I lamented the overground train and its tendency to throw a sweaty armpit in the way of a good book. 'The Humans' is an excellent book to remind us of the wonderful fallacy of humans. Through the sweat and the tears there is a lot to celebrate as well as bemoan about our species. Matt Haig's heroic, humorous examination of us through the eyes of an alien is spot on. And for this reason I couldn't help but burst out laughing on the train, to the bemusement of all those sour-faced human people. As the alien declares in his list of advice to us all: 'Laugh. It suits you.'

'The Humans' certainly suited me (which sounds quite odd if you forget the inverted commas.) The opening is one of the best I have read in a long time. It just crackles with wit and invention. The premise of an alien landing butt-naked by a road near Cambridge is funny enough. But the fact the alien has taken the form of a distinguished professor makes this funnier still. I couldn't help but be reminded of the scene in Terminator when Arnie appears naked in a ball of electric blue. Haig, though, takes the consequences of such a bizarre incident to extremes of insight. Imposing as a professor, this alien has a serious mission to accomplish, though he becomes distracted by everything human, including noses, music, a dog and peanut butter.

What made this book more enjoyable for me was that it was meditative, truthful and ultimately uplifting about the human condition. It is an anti-depressant in book form. Like the author, I once suffered panics and bouts of anxiety. Heading down to town felt like an ordeal into the unknown. With so much chaos and uncertainty in the world it is easy for anyone to feel this way. 'The Humans' would have been good for me then, as much as it is now. It steers you through all the mess and confusion of human life, and brings you to the understanding that we could, in all the wide universe, be the most loving and beautifully complex creatures around. This book is such a creature too.

Thank you, human Haig.

P.S Watch Matt Haig's video on 'How to Be A Writer' on his website.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

A Canon of Art for Children at Primary School?

It was recently suggested at my school that one way of being deemed 'outstanding' was to consider what selection of books children should have read by the time they leave key stage 2, and also what artworks they should have seen. I didn't like this one bit. Should anyone be told what is best to read or best to look at? Shouldn't we just discover books and art for ourselves?

On Friday I was shocked to discover that a list of the artworks had been stuck onto the staff room board. Here were the artworks that every child should look at before leaving primary school. I stared and stared at these artworks and tried to work out what I thought was wrong. On reflection, all the artworks were pre-1960, mostly western and nearly all of them were paintings. There were quite a few representations of trees and skies. I'm not against trees and skies, but hasn't humanity produced more variety in its art than that? This frustrated me.

So, in response, I have put together a selection myself. These are not what I necessary believe all children should see, but this selection is more of a counter-argument to the list in my staff room. We should debate these lists as teachers and not just accept some canon.

Firstly, I have paired up a cave painting from Lascaux in France, from over 10,000 years ago with Damien Hirst's Zebra from merely decades ago. Pollock's 'Composition with Pouring' sits nicely against aboriginal art. Did they use the same techniques? Are their human figures in Pollock's drips too? Talking of figures,  Leonardo Da Vinci's 'Last Supper' is juxtaposed with the famous photograph of 'Lunch Atop a Skyscraper'. Photography is art too, let's not forget. These workers in New York are compared to Lowry's 'VE Day' scene, with the factories and people celebrating the end of war. We can start to debate history, make narrative connections.

Moving on, Turner's burning of parliament sits with Rothko's 'Orange and Yellow'. How did Turner use colour and then what did Rothko do with it nearly a century later? Why was parliament on fire anyway, this wasn't the second world war?!

Like the selection in my staff room, I have included two still lifes. But instead of both of them depicting only flowers and fruit, these two have skulls (one by Cezanne and the other by Picasso.) Why is a skull more interesting? Do we always need to put humans in our art? Are we that obsessed? And can we compare these skulls to the African mask or even the dead zebra? Is Marilyn Monroe's printed, simulacra face also a mask? And look, there's a sculpture too by Moore; humans can be represented in three dimensions too.

Finally, I have included a local artist from near my school, Gabriel Parfit, who has combined drawing and paint to show a statue at Kensal Green cemetery, with the steelworks behind . After all, there are artists all around us and we shouldn't just look at the famous ones.

Anyway, do you agree with my selection? What would you omit or include instead? It's all up for debate and no one can really have the answer either.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

'The Tiger's Wife' By Tea Obreht

Reading on a packed commuter train is never easy, especially if your book is rammed to your face or soaking up the sweat of some man's armpit, but with a good book it is more endurable. The best books help you transcend the very worst of environments. Overground, I am over you!

And so 'The Tiger's Wife' is such a book to transport you to better places. Part fable, part memoir, part historical realism, it weaves a magical tapestry. Set in the Balkans, with its narrative spanning over a century, the 'Tiger's Wife' is a Russian doll of complexity and folklore.  The writing is beautiful and sews the threads of the patchwork narrative into something enchanting. Tea Obreht is alive with stories and this permeates the fabric of the page. For this reason, I was frustrated to discover that she was born a year after me, with such a book already to her name and the Orange Prize for Fiction in her hands! One can only hope...

Natalia is a doctor on a mission to help orphans devastated by another war in the region. While on her way to the small town of Brejevina, she learns of her grandfather's death, prompting memories of him and his uncanny stories. Also a doctor, Natalia's grandfather had many stories to tell, notably how, when he was a child, a tiger escaped a bombed out zoo and found its way to his remote village of Galina. Another story he tells is of the Deathless Man, who mysteriously turns up every so often throughout his life, with a ridiculous wager and an incredible talent. 

The narrative of 'The Tiger's Wife' therefore sweeps from Natalia's grandfather's childhood to his time as a doctor to Natalia's present day. But it is not so simple: each time period is soaked in its own folklore, its own gossip and fables. Ultimately this draws you into other times and into other peoples's lives. Not only do we learn about Natalia's grandfather, but we also learn about Luka the butcher, Darisa the Bear, Marko Parovic the apothecary and, of course, the tiger's wife. These characters have their own back stories, derived mostly from hearsay and speculation, creating a feeling that we are listening to a village nattering away at itself, unsure what is real and what is fantasy. In some ways it feels like many short stories sewn magically together. And this is the novel's appeal. 

Is it magic realism? Perhaps not. While there are definite parallels with, say, 'A Hundred Years of Solitude', 'The Tiger's Wife' is more a meditation on storytelling itself. Stories are human, transmitted orally, across generations. Even if the tapestry is a little faded, somehow the colours shine through,  

This was a great read to start the year off. Let's hope the next one can save me from the fate of armpits too...

Friday, 2 January 2015

My Favourite Books of 2014

In 2014 I devoured books as if they were food and I was very very hungry (more so than ever before!)

Unfortunately I am a teacher and not long ago I had an inset training on outstanding teaching. What annoyed me was the assertion made by the speaker that children should read a certain canon of books before they leave primary school. Shouldn't children just read? Does it matter if they have read 'The Tiger Comes to Tea' or if they decide to challenge themselves and read 'A Brief History of Time'? As adults, do we expect that we should have read a fixed set of books before we are thirty? No! All that matters is that we read. That we read insatiably. That we read what matters to us and what comes into our lives. Books, surely, are living things (especially the physical book.) Books are passed on and they grow into your day- either they are read or they are abandoned like wordy puppies.

 And so here is a list of my favourite 15 books of 2014 in no particular order (they may not have been published this year!):

1) 'The Letter for the King' by Tonke Dragt
A completely engrossing children's tale concerning a young squire who unexpectedly goes on a quest to deliver a letter to a rival king in an unknown kingdom. This book was published in the 60s but feels like a classic immediately. It stands up to the Hobbit or Earthsea in its sense of fantastic escapism. Chivalrous in its morality, it feels medieval but modern in its telling.

2) 'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt
It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and perhaps deservedly so. This is a huge novel which feels very Dickensian as it follows the life of its protagonist in New York from a tragic childhood to an adulthood linked disturbingly to crime, While I found the ending a little bit preachy and overlong, what made this book so enjoyable was the attention to detail in its main character and his relationship with a range of memorable characters in New York and Las Vegas. The incredible events at the beginning are unexpected and breathtaking.

3) 'The Luminaries' by Eleanor Catton
Another enormous book with Dickensian overtones. I felt as though I had unearthed this book from a gold mine in New Zealand, which is the setting of this novel. The language is exquisite and this is the main reason for reading and ploughing through it. Its sense of place and history is extraordinary, although at times it feels overwhelming. One to get lost in, in more senses than one.

4) 'Childhood's End' by Arthur C. Clarke.
Mad, bewildering, philosophical and brilliant. It's like Independence Day with brains and was written in the late '50s. C S Lewis admired it but questioned its morality.

5) 'What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?' by Tony Juniper.
An excellent, informative book about the purpose of nature's ecological systems and how it helps rather than hinders humanity. It is compelling in making us realize that nature gives us an awful lot but humanity seems to offer nothing in return. Rather than a negative, doomsday book about climate change, this is more an eulogy to nature on planet Earth, in all its forms. Inspiring and positive.

6) 'Cloud Street' by Tim Winton
Richard Flannigan may have won the Booker Prize this year, but Tim Winton is an Australian writer also deserving of big accolades. This story follows a family uprooting their life to share a house with another family in Perth. Over decades the families get a little closer, in many ways. Written unusually, this book is funny, poignant and with plenty of Australian whimsy. I loved it.

7) '1Q84' by Murakami.
Firstly, this book should come with a warning. Reading it is like jumping into another world. At first the waters are cold. Even though you warm to it, at any moment the tides change and you often wonder why you even went swimming to begin with. It is very engaging, but you are never sure why. I'm still uncertain quite what happened in this book. Part of me wonders whether Murakami wrote this as a colossal joke. Read it, if you dare...

8) 'The Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4' by Sue Townsend.
Finally I got round to reading this classic. It was a joy and Adrian is such a superbly imagined character that I am still convinced he exists! He feels like a friend or someone I know (or perhaps me myself!) Sad to hear that Sue Townsend passed away; more reason to read the next one this year! What will he get up to next?!

9) 'The Steady Running of the Hour' by Justin Go.
A debut author writes with gravitas, wisdom with a true sense of history in its broad strokes and in its personal, intricate details. The story involves an American graduate tracking down his family history across Europe, hoping to receive a huge fortune in the process. While being saturated with the weight of history, the story is engrossing and the descriptions of World War One are moving without being overblown. An author to watch.

10) 'The Circle' by Dave Eggers.
A Waterstones employee recommended this. He said it put him off the internet for life. I have made it my vow this year to be more internet savvy, which is contrary to the message of this disturbing novel; a 1984 or Brave New World for our social media times. Imagine a company so huge and powerful that it subsumes Google, Apple and the rest; thus creating a monstrosity called 'The Circle' which dictates our lives. While some may say the ideas are stretched to the absurd, the warning in this book is there: be careful where Facebook takes us... We will all be watching ourselves... Are we all Big Brother in the end?

11) 'Into the Wild' by Jon Krakauer
I haven't seen the film, but the book is compelling. Based on a true story, the premise involves a young man who abandons all responsibility to head out into the barren wilderness of Alaska. Following Romantic notions of being a kindred spirit of nature, the protagonist is at once reasonable and rational though in the end seemingly naive and idiotic. I felt like running off myself at times, but this book acts as a warning. As much as 'The Circle' may warn us about turning away from our true nature, this biography alerts us to the folly of turning away from the inevitable progress of humankind too.

12) 'Hard Times' by Charles Dickens.
As a teacher, I find Mr Gradgrind to be a hilarious figure. He preaches the virtues of facts to children who wish to find fantasy in an imagined Victorian Northern industrial town. I find this book interesting in that Dickens has not based the town in reality like so many of his books. There is a lot to appreciate in this; the town is hard, sooty but polluted with the sense of a fairy-tale (a circus is on the fringe of the banal.) In some ways this could have been the prelude to the next book on this list...

13) 'The Night Circus' by Erin Morgenstern
A riveting read. This is an immensely enjoyable story about two magicians at a travelling circus who are competing in a competition which they do not understand yet manage to find themselves falling in love. The language is rich and weaves a magical spell. While being a fantasy it feels wholly real, as if the circus dropped out of Dicken's head, fell into Morgenstern's and morphed into its own beautifully dark new creation.

14) 'Carl Jung: Dreams, Reflections, Memories' Carl Jung.
Jung trumps Freud in my view. He was a fascinating psychologist in that myth, history, personality and his own life informed all his beliefs. This semi-autobiography, collecting parts of Jung's diaries and essays, is not only a brilliant introduction to his theories but a superb recollection of his life. Sometimes it is bizarre and unworldly, yet Jung has enough humanity and spirit to warmly carry you through it all, explaining along the way the basis for his rich and paradigm changing psychological treatises.

15) 'The Science Delusion' by Rupert Sheldrake.
Sheldrake has had some criticism over the years. Critics have labelled him as some anti-scientist or quack New Ageist. However, his views on modern science are seemingly lucid and rational. He is not in any way against the practice of science, instead he believes that science is fundamentally about challenging our viewpoints. Science today, he reflects, is stuck in its own paradigms and there is not enough reviewing and evaluating to progress our understanding of the world in ways that used to be in the spirit of science. Sheldrake has his own theories, which on the surface appear absurd, are on, closer inspection, perhaps as valid as any other views about our place in the universe. In some ways Sheldrake is the opposite of Richard Dawkins; he is ready to collapse the pillars of science to discover new truths. In this respect, it makes for very interesting and mind-bending reading!

And lastly... I had to add 'Fahrenheit 451' by Ray Bradbury.
This is probably better than 1984 or Brave New World or even the Circle. I can't decide why I think this but perhaps it has something to do with the notion of burning every book and the fear that entails. Don't do it, you idiots! Don't even get a Kindle! It sounds too close to kindling, which is used to make fires. And especially don't get a Kindle Fire... don't burn the books!!!

Hence, this blog begins (which I haven't written on a Kindling Fire 451). Books, books and more books....