April 2007


Secrets, Jacqueline Wilson “I trailed back to bed and started reading Anne Frank’s diary all over again… The first part made me fell sadder than ever because Anne had so many friends when she was at school, before she had to go into hiding.
Maybe we’re not soulmates after all.
I absolutely
have to get a proper best friend at school this year. I shall try harder with Maria. Maybe she’ll let me be her second-best friend. She might even get fed up with Alice and want to go around with me.”

Secrets is a story in two voices. Treasure has escaped a violent stepdad, “Terry the Torturer”, and a helpless and/or heartless mum to live with the nan she worships, on the dodgy Latimer Estate. India is stuck with her vacant mother, increasingly self-absorbed father and drippy au pair in the neighbouring and infinitely more luxurious Parkfield. One day they meet, by chance, and become unlikely best friends. When Treasure has to hide from Terry, India hides her in the attic and the two of them seem about to re-enact the life of India’s inspirational heroine, Anne Frank.

It is a story about all that, but mainly – to me – it is a story about friendship. It is a story about not having a best friend. And then, it is about finding one.

Here is an Amazon link.
I have had my copy for a while.

The Silver Sword, Ian SerraillierThey liked the stories from the Old Testament best. Their favourite was always Daniel in the lion’s den. They enjoyed it just as a story, but for Ruth it had a deeper meaning. She thought of it as the story of their own troubles. The lions were the cold and the hunger and the hardships of their life. If only they were patient and trustful like Daniel, they would be delivered from them. She remembered a picture of Daniel that her mother had once given her. He was standing in the dungeon, with his hands chained behind him and his face lifted towards a small, barred window high above his head. He was smiling and did not notice the lions that prowled about his feet, powerless to touch him. At night she liked to fall asleep with this picture in her mind. She could not always see it clearly. Sometimes Daniel’s face was clouded, and the light from the window fell upon the lions. They were scowling and snarling, and they filled her dreams with terror.”

This is the story of the Balicki family during and immediately after the second world war. The father Joseph is taken to a prison camp for turning a picture of Hitler to the wall in his Warsaw classroom. The mother Margrit, who is Swiss, is conscripted to work as slave labour in the German fields. The children are left – Edek, Ruth and little Bronia – to fend for themselves, living in the woods during summer and wintering in a bombed out cellar. Edek takes primary responsibility for finding food, and is caught smuggling so he too is taken to slave in Germany. Ruth and Bronia eventually fall in with Jan, a vulnerable little boy with a talent for thievery and a gift for befriending animals.

The eponymous silver sword is a device used to tie all the threads together. When Joseph manages to escape from his prison camp and walk all the way to Warsaw, he finds his home bombed and his family gone nobody knows where. In the ruins is a little silver sword, a letter opener, that he had given to his wife years before. He gives this to a boy in the ruins, asking him, if he sees any of the Balicki children, to tell them that he has gone to Switzerland to their grandparents’ house. Traumatised little Jan forgets the details but guards the sword as a precious treasure. When Ruth finds him ill in the street, takes him in, and later recognises the silver sword, they piece together the essentials and know they must leave Warsaw and go to Switzerland. From that point, the sword becomes a kind of talisman, and plays an important part in their journey.

The writing in this story wouldn’t set the world on fire, although its direct simplicity does make it an easy read. Better, the themes of the book – hardship, poverty and death in a cruel world where even little children are left to fend for themselves – are themes not often handled in children’s literature. Certainly this is a very early example of this dark, unflinching realism in a children’s novel. Despite the somewhat implausible happy ending, and the slightly irritating focus on good Christian children, this is an important book, and not in the least patronising. Refreshing.

Here’s a link to Amazon.
My copy came from the library.

One Flew Over the Cucoo's Nest, Ken Kesey“I’ve heard that theory of the Therapeutic Community enough times to repeat it forwards and backwards – how a guy has to learn to get along in a group before he’ll be able to function in normal society; how the group can help the guy by showing him where he’s out of place; how society is what decides who’s sane and who isn’t, so you got to measure up. All that stuff. Every time we get a new patient on the ward the doctor goes into the theory with both feet: it’s pretty near the only time he takes things over and runs the meeting. He tells how the goal of the Therapeutic Community is a democratic ward, run completely by the patients and their votes, working towards making worthwhile citizens to turn back Outside onto the street. Any little gripe, any grievance, anything you want changed, he says, should be brought up before the group and discussed instead of letting it fester inside of you. Also you should feel at ease in your surroundings to the extent you can freely discuss emotional problems in front of patients and staff. Talk, he says, discuss, confess. And if you hear a friend say something during the course of your everyday conversation, then list it in the log book for the staff to see. It’s not, as the movies call it, ‘squealing’ , it’s helping your fellow. Bring these old sins into the open where they can be washed by the sight of all. And participate in Group Discussion. Help yourself and your friends probe into the secrets of the subconscious. There should be no need for secrets among friends.”

Set in a hospital mental ward in the 1960s, this novel follows the story of Randle P McMurphy, a swaggering bullish gambling wisecracking man with a fighting heart who has engineered his committal to the hospital in order to avoid serving out his sentence on a prison work farm.

What he finds on the ward is about 20 chronics, patients who are so far gone that they will never be cured or even interact rationally with the world around them, and about 20 acutes, patients who theoretically have a chance of successful treatment but who in reality are so rabbitlike in response to the “tender” mercy of the seemingly omnipresent and omniscient, big-brother style ward nurse (Big Nurse) that their true prospects of recovery seem to be slim to non-existent. The narrator is one of the chronics, “Chief” Bromden, a long term inmate who has pretended to be deaf and dumb for so long he has almost forgotten how to speak.

McMurphy does all in his power to chivy the patients out of their passive misery, starting a gambling school, organising a basketball team, standing up to the Big Nurse, joking and teasing all the way. His task seems hopeless. Yet he doesn’t seem able to stop, despite knowing that he is committed at the Big Nurse’s pleasure and that he is better off keeping his head down and his nose clean – he is on a collision course, risking his liberty, risking committal to the Disturbed ward, risking EST, even risking lobotomy. And for what?

Although I have no idea whether Kesey’s portrait of an asylum is anywhere close to reality, this is nevertheless a pretty chilling account and if not true literally it is certainly true in literary terms. I mean it is convincing and plausible – and it shows us in the clearest possible light how the inhuman treatment of people with mental illness can strip them of their dignity and self-esteem and can perpetuate or exacerbate their illness, or even cause a perfectly sane person to lose himself completely.

As well as chilling, and tragic, the book is chock full of black humour and beauty. But for its built-in racism and misogyny, I might even be recommending it… Ho-hum.

Here is am Amazon link.
I have a creased old orange copy that I didn’t finish reading a long long time ago.

Flushed Away - Rita (Kate Winslet)This is a CG animation by Aardman, which consequently has an actual story as well as some great lines, and plenty of toilet humour. <grin>

Roddy is a spoiled only-rat who lives as a pampered pet in a gilt cage (literally) in Kensington. When his family go away on holiday, an invading rat takes over the house and Roddy gets flushed down the toilet…

In the sewers, he discovers a rat city, complete with an evil toad supervillain. He meets resourceful, kick-ass rat pirate Rita (who has Kate Winslet’s voice), the only rat in the sewer who might be able to get him back home. She however has other concerns, as she has stolen a ruby from The Toad, needing the money to help support her parents, her uncountable siblings and assorted other family members – and the henchrats are in hot pursuit.

Feminist analysis: it was of course really great to see a strong, female lead. It was also nice that Rita and Roddy didn’t end up as boy- and girl-friend – it was hinted at the end that this might happen later, but there was mercifully no actual kissing, sighing, mooning, falling into each other’s arms or other annoying romantics.

You can hear the “but” coming, right?

Rita was certainly, as mentioned, resourceful and kick-ass, but she never actually saved or rescued Roddy. He was wimpy and clumsy and totally out of his depth, but he “saved himself” by clinging onto Rita, mainly against her will, and therefore imposing himself upon her rather than actually being rescued by her. He needed her, but he got her help by using or manipulating her, rather than having to wait for her to rescue him. On the other hand, Rita does find herself in need of rescuing and doesn’t have a lot of choice other than to wait for him to come to her aid – she is, of course, tied up by the Toad so she can’t escape. Roddy duly rescues her, in a heroic manly stunt that beats any of the grudging (or downright non-consensual) assistance that he ever weaselled out of her.

This may seem like nitpicking, but it bugged me that the way the female character helped the male character out was by being his chump; whereas the male character helped her in return by an act of dashing noble chivalry.

It also bugged me that at the end of the film Roddy had become Rita’s first (only) mate i.e. her assistant – yet as they shot away from the harbour together, it was her that asked him “Where are we going?” If she was really in charge, wouldn’t she already know that?

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson It was spring, the ground still had traces of snow, and I was about to be married. My dress was pure white and I had a golden crown. As I walked up the aisle, the crown got heavier and heavier and the dress more and more difficult to walk in. I thought everyone would point at me, but no one noticed.
Somehow I made it to the altar. The priest was very fat and kept getting fatter, like bubble gum you blow. Finally we came to the moment, ‘You may kiss the bride.’ My new husband turned to me and here were a number of possibilities. Sometimes he was blind, sometimes a pig, sometimes my mother, sometimes the man from the post office and once, just a suit of clothes with nothing inside. I told my mother about it, and she said it was because I ate sardines for supper. The next night I had sausages, but I still had the dream.
There was a woman in our street who told us all she had married a pig. I asked her why she did it, and she said ‘You never know until it’s too late.’
Exactly.

Jeanette (not the author) is a girl brought up with the unwavering religious certainty and absolutism of her evangelist mother in the North of England, who plans for her to become a missionary. Jeannette’s passion and charisma make her into one of the church’s most valuable assets, and are also the seeds of an irreconcilable difference – because she is passionately attracted to a young woman who she converted for the church.

Don’t let anyone tell you that this is “lesbian literature” (LesLit?) It is literature for every woman, beautifully written in a voice both direct and imaginative – the voice of a child, which becomes more grown up over time. It is humorous too, and is interwoven with fantasies, dreams and allegorical story-telling. Lovely.

Judi Dench, Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in LoveThis is the (fictional, obviously) story of how Shakespeare came to write Romeo and Juliet. His writer’s block, his doomed and impossible love affair for Lady Viola, his rivalry with Christopher Marlowe, the jostling for position between theatre companies, the precarious business of putting on plays in the sixteenth century – a colourful mix, in which Shakespearean lines and fragments abound. The inspriation for “A plague on both your houses!” comes from a street preacher, for example. And the nightingale/lark scene is played out in Lady Viola’s bedroom with an owl and a rooster. 

There is also quite a lot in the way of boys dressing up as girls dressed up as boys dresing up as girls (confused yet? I think I might be.) In those days, of course, it was unseemly for a woman to be a player and so all the female parts were taken by men and boys. Thus, Shakespeare often has his female characters dressing up as men: dramatic irony and all that. It was kind of fun to see them play with gender this way: Shakespeare’s face immediately after kissing Thomas Kent – just before finding out that “he” was really Lady Viola – lovely.

Highly amusing. Not even very annoying. And Judi Dench was, of course, excellent as the aging Elizabeth One.

Ice and Fire, Andrea DworkinCoitus as punishment for the happiness of being together.” – Kafka…
  * 
I gave up other lovers. I wanted solitude. It took a few years to get faithful. Coitus was the punishment for a breach of faith.
  * 
I came back to New York City, the Lower East Side. I lived alone, poor, writing. I was raped once. It punished me for the happiness of being myself.
  * 
I am alone, in solitude. I can almost run my fingers though it. It takes on the rhythmic brilliance of any passion. It is like holy music, a Te Deum. Coitus is the punishment for not daring to be happy.
  * 
I learn the texture of minutes, how hours weave themselves through the tangled mind: I am silent. Coitus is the punishment for running from time: hating quiet: fearing life.
  * 
I betray solitude. I get drunk, pick up a cab driver. Coitus is the punishment.

The protagonist is a young woman, anonymous, college educated, an aspiring writer – who is living the kind of existence you or I sitting here at our computers could not even begin to imagine.

She lives in absolute poverty, surviving on drugs and alcohol because they are cheaper than food, having sex to get drugs, alcohol, food, coffee, cigarettes, money, anything, trying to make and sell a film with her artist friend and secret lover, known only as N. They live in daily fear, insecurity, with such protection as may be available coming primarily from each other or from men who will insist on submission to violent, sadistic sex acts in return.

Despite this, she fiercely maintains her independence from men, refuses to be pimped, sharing her life instead with N, looking out for each other. When N falls ill, the protagonist has little choice but to find her a place to stay and then try to make it on her own. She ends up married, to a man who started out as someone seemingly gentle and repressed but who she unthinkingly teaches to be a sadistic brute. She escapes yet again, and returns to New York to live once again in poverty. Only this time she claws together her resources to make it as a feminist writer of fierce integrity. As she discovers, fierce integrity does not pay very well in this world.

This was totally gripping, totally terrifying, totally real. Gritty and nasty, but real, and awe-inspiring. It is the kind of book that could make you believe.

It may also be the kind of book that the bloody-awful Trainspotting aspired to be, yet dismally failed. Trainspotting was worse because despite the disgusting realities and insecurity of living with drug addiction that may or may not have been accurately portrayed in that novel, it never really made you think that you were getting to the heart of anything. With Ice and Fire, you really are getting to the heart of it. You are seeing a real human being – not a pathetic, disgusting, stupid, or otherwise repulsive one, a degraded person. Just someone real, living that degraded life, surviving, acknowledging each day what she has to do to survive.

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