Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne

This was the last book I read while on holiday in Wales back in October, but for some reason I didn’t get around to writing about it then. (I thought I had, which is probably why I didn’t).

This book came to me much hyped, so I was a bit nervous about it. I’d also understood that it was a children’s book so clearly in the back of my mind was the thought that maybe I might give this to Alex to read at some point. Well, not yet, that’s for sure.

Interestingly, since Alex had apparently “done” the second world war at school last year, I asked him if he’d done anything about the holocaust. No, he hadn’t. He’d done the battle of Britain, and I think that’s about it. He’d seen a tiny reference (in a contemporary newspaper report) to the bombing of Germany, but only in the context of “this is what they did to us, so …” Talk about a biased view of history. Of course while he was doing it I was also telling him a little bit about the Eastern Front, the war in the pacific, etc. I’d imagine it would be easy otherwise for them to come back from lessons thinking that the second world war was fought between England and Germany and England won. Is this relevant to the book? Well, kind of, actually, yes. Wait and see.

And it’s interesting too that they don’t seem to have touched on the holocaust, particularly as many people would have you believe that was the reason for the war in the first place. (My understanding is that in fact at the time hardly anyone had any idea of what was going on, and this has just been used as a post-hoc justification for the war in an era where some people are at last starting to think that “king and country” / “my country right or wrong” / “us and them” isn’t actually quite enough to kill people for). Personally I think the holocaust, and events like it – for there are others similar in type, if not on the same industrial scale – is the most important thing to learn about if you’re teaching that period of history in school. But that still leaves the question as to at what age children are really ready for that. Alex is particularly sensitive, so while he’d be quite capable of reading this book on the one hand, and probably wouldn’t be remotely interested in it on the other (it’s about people, he prefers books with talking dinosaurs), I don’t think I’m ready to deal with how upset he’d be if he read on to the end. I found the ending quite upsetting. I don’t know how he’d cope.

All of which is not in any way to denigrate this book. I think it’s a great idea trying to write about the holocaust in a way that is personal, not just dry and factual, and that makes sense of it for younger readers. And why choose a German as the protagonist? That’s the best thing. I hear many people say that history is important because it tells you where you come from. And I think that’s absolutely wrong, and the reason I hate so much of the way history is taught. History is important, if it’s important, because it allows us to learn from the past. Not just our own past, but the past of all of humanity. The battle of Britain is no more relevant to us today than, say, the siege of Plataea or the battle of Tsushima. History taught that way is worse than no history at all, for it serves only to reinforce national prejudice – that history is about the great things we have done and the terrible things that have been done to us. In the book, tremendous importance is being placed on the teaching of history within the curriculum, and in particular, that kind of history. The injustices done to Germany after the first world war, the heroic past of the German nation. So that the children in the book can understand where they have come from – and to give them a context that makes the holocaust seem reasonable.

On the contrary, what we should be learning about in particular, if we are learning about British history, is things like the fire-bombing of Dresden, the invention of concentration camps during the Boer war, the highland clearances, the treatment of the poor in Dickensian London, the evils of colonization – our own, as well as others – and of the slave trade. The things that teach us not to confuse “good” and “evil” with “us” and “them”.

That’s why the book had to have a German protagonist. If you understand the holocaust as something done by other people, by “them” – then you fall foul of the old maxim: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In a country where you can be locked up for a month without trial or charge, where ‘immigration’ is a dirty word, where people picket a workplace because it employs foreigners, where a network of cameras watch people with dark faces going about their daily lives because other people find them threatening, this lesson is as relevant to us now as it ever was.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Thanks for the Memories – Cecelia Ahern

Another note - this one's very out of order, it should have been before the last two.

I enjoyed this one, even if the central premise was a bit unbelievable – but then you always have to give a book that, and I guess that unlike “P.S. I Love You”, this book contains an element of fantasy. This one felt cute and cozy and comfortable, but not in an insubstantial way. I liked the characters, particularly the relationship between the FMC and her dad (the airport scene was brilliant). I guess the one thing I felt uncomfortable with was the hinted-at subject of divorce: one of the main characters is divorced, the other starts the book in a marriage that has broken down. But I guess what I really liked about this book, the reason I enjoyed reading it and when I finished went out to try to find more by the same author, was the well-drawn, colourful, and entertaining characters and the cheery and cheerful way they cope with what life throws at them.

I should add here for clarity that I finished this book a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it. If that doesn’t quite come across it’s because I’ve written this and the two posts that follow at 3am having woken up feeling headachy, cold, and faintly sick. I know that life isn’t really as bad as it feels right now – that in a few hours I will no longer be alone or cold or miserable (I’m in Wales, for goodness sake, it doesn’t get better than this!) I know it, but I don’t feel it.

The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants – Ann Brashares

Ok, I was on holiday when I read this one, it was sitting in the cottage, and I’d kind of run out of easy books to read and didn’t feel up to reading anything too heavy. And I’d vaguely heard of it but couldn’t remember why or what kind of book it was. That’s my excuse.

On the positive side, I found this very hard to put down. The characters were pretty well drawn, although it was only Tibby that I could really get into (I’m sure that says more about me than about the characters). The paragraph where she describes her parents losing their idealism in the face of middle-age, mammon, and small children is so brilliant I’d like to quote it whole (but won’t because I’m lazy and it’s probably illegal). Of the others, Carmen I could sympathise with but her experience felt just too one-dimensional (perhaps it is when you live it), Lena I could understand but not quite get into, and Bridget I didn’t entirely like (I could feel all too well her frustration with her coach, but not her relationship with Eric).

I was less convinced by some of the minor characters. Well, specifically Eric – I can’t be interested in a guy who shows so little self-control, even if I can see it might well be a female fantasy to be able to charm a guy who is out of your league. Bailey was brilliant, and her relationship with Tibby easily my favourite strand in the book, although you wonder if any twelve-year-old could really be that wise (given her circumstances I’m willing to accept that one). Carmen’s new family I couldn’t quite understand – they seemed on the one hand to be trying really hard to be nice to her, and yet on the other to be remarkably distant. If that’s just a culture clash then it doesn’t quite come across, and that’s a shame, as it’s something I could easily relate to. At least I liked the way Carmen’s thread ended. And Lena’s Greek Island too felt both too American (cheerios, wanton snogging) and not American enough (otherwise mysteriously isolated from foreign food and culture). Of course not knowing that kind of Greece myself I can’t say if that’s not 100% accurate, but it felt to me like an American’s caricature of what “abroad” might be like more than a real experience. And of course I know whereof I speak (not).

I suppose when you’re a teenager life does feel this full-on and people (grown-ups in particular) so self-absorbed. It’s easy to read this and say that many of the kids in it seem unpleasantly self-centred. But then, I was probably more like that at that age than I’d like to think, and I probably still am. And while it’s easy to think of teenagers as sometimes overblowing their experiences because of their lack of, well, life experience, is it not equally valid to think of those emotions as seeing life for what it is, and everything that comes afterwards as a kind of “heat death”, a greying and hardening and growing callous, a shutting out of the world more than putting it into perspective? Perhaps that’s why of the four main characters I was drawn most to Tibby; she was the one I felt who was seeing the world more clearly because of her age, not less. And maybe she embodies my ideal of being young as much as Bridget and Carmen contradict it, while perhaps there’s truth on both sides.

I’ve never been a teenage girl growing up in America so perhaps it’s not surprising if the gulf between my experience and some of these characters is not easily bridged. But then – isn’t that what fiction is all about?

A Place Called Here – Cecelia Ahern

Bit of a catch-up here: I read three books during a week's holiday in Pembrokeshire at the end of October and have only just got around to posting my thoughts on them (even though I wrote these thoughts while I was there).

After P.S. I Love You and Thanks for the Memories, this wasn’t what I expected. While the latter had a single element of fantasy in what otherwise felt a very real setting, this whole book felt like a bit of a dream. I didn’t feel I knew where it was going next, and, I got the feeling, neither did the author when she wrote it. Was this one of those books where the author just sat and wrote and followed the story as it unfolded? I always like to know (when I write) where I’m going, even if some of the twists and turns along the way might evolve in the telling. But I gather there are people who start writing without knowing where it’s going and that works just as well for them.

Maybe I felt I couldn’t get into the characters quite as well as in other books. Certainly the place called “Here” felt quite unrealistic to me in many ways. Some were quite mundane – the registration area seemed to have an implausible number of desks and doors in it, and the numbers of people living in the village seem wildly inconsistent. More than that, though, I was suspicious of the description of this seemingly idyllic community – ok, it becomes less so in some ways as it goes on – as it seemed to me somewhat in conflict with human nature.

The way the book is set out is in two stories that barely meet until the end. For me they felt just too disparate for this to work, although only just. I guess I like the real world in my reading so it’s inevitable I’d get on better with Jack’s thread than Sandy’s. There was also a third thread, really the unfolding through progressive revelation (if that’s the term) of Sandy’s back story and relationship. I have to say I struggled with that to some extent, and maybe I’m not so comfortable with the fashionable trend for starting at a key scene and then filling in what went before. (That’s not how we live life, after all). Although to some extent pretty much all books do the same thing – there are elements of Martin’s back story in Home that we don’t know in chapter one, but I guess the difference is we know pretty much where he is. I felt a bit cheated with Sandy reading about the development of her relationship with Gregory, as each chapter she related seemed to give the impression that was all there was, whereas obviously at the point of the story Sandy would have known what happened all the way to “now”. Maybe the moral of this is that you can find out about a character progressively from stuff that just happens or comes up for whatever reason, but if you feel they’re deliberately withholding information from you then you struggle to put yourself in their shoes?

I guess I didn’t find the ending entirely satisfactory either – how could it have been? But it did keep me reading avidly right to the end, not least because until I got there I had no real sense of how the book would end. That’s probably a good thing.

I’m also wondering if how I feel about a book says as much about where I was when I read it as it does about what’s printed on the pages – maybe more than I appreciate myself.