February 2008

I will not pretend I wasn’t petrified. I was. But mixed in with the awful fear was a glorious feeling of excitement. Most of the really exciting things we do in our lives scare us to death. They wouldn’t be exciting if they didn’t. I sat very stiff and upright in my seat, gripping the steering-wheel tight with both hands. My eyes were about level with the top of the steering-wheel. I could have done with a cushion to raise me up higher, but it was too late for that.

Danny and his widowed father live a long in a tiny gypsy caravan parked behind his father’s filling station and garage. Danny absolutely worships his father who seems annoyingly good at everything to do with both cars and parenting. Oh, and to make things worse, the book ends with the following message to child readers: When you grow up and have children of your own do please remember something important. A stodgy parent is no fun at all. What a child wants and deserves is a parent who is SPARKY.” Way to make a mummy feel inadequate!

Anyway, Danny’s father has a secret vice, and it leads to a Great Adventure. And yes it actually is exciting, even for grownups – I was reading this book for at least the second time and even I was on the edge of my seat more than once. :)

Here’s an Amazon link.
I read my own.


“Now, Miss Thompson has been telling me some very distressing things,” the vicar began. My heart began to thump.
“She has told me that someone has been calling names. We don’t have people calling names in the house of God. Come out to the front…” I waited for Michael’s name to be called. Now, I thought, God will show him how wrong he is, how bad he is to hate difference. But the vicar said, “Ada and Angela.”
At first I didn’t move, I thought he’d made a mistake.
“Come on out to the front,” the vicar said, beckoning us. Sonia pushed me and I stood up and walked to the front. So did Ada, slowly. The vicar put his arm around me and Ada. Ada held her head firmly on her chest. I looked up around me and saw Michael grinning. Then I dropped my head too.
“Now Ada and Angela and their families are coloured, but that does make them any different to you or me. We are all God’s children and in the sight of God, everyone is equal. Now we will sing the chorus together.” The vicar held on tight to me so I couldn’t’ go back to my seat. Then he began to sing “Jesus loves the little children.”
And everyone joined in…
When the chorus was finished the vicar patted us each on the head. Then he let us go.

In this compelling novel, narrator Angela Jacobs witnesses the slow death of her father and remembers the scenes of her own childhood, growing up in London as the youngest child of her Jamaican parents. The characters most strongly drawn are Angela herself and her parents – her father is so real you can see him.

I don’t know what else to say except: read it. It is real, unswerving, and funny too – as vivid a portrait as you could hope to find.

“When Mary’s mother was young, she had been taken against her will to Jamaica, from her home in Africa. On Jamaica she was a slave, like thousands of other black people. They were made to work very hard and were not free people. Mary’s mother was lucky because after a while she was given her freedom back…”

“England was not at all like Jamaica. Because there were not many black people, Mary looked different. Some people pointed at her and called her unkind names because of the colour of her skin. When she was older, Mary wrote about how children had made fun of her.”

This is a short, simple account of Mary Seacole’s life, with lots of “real” pictures (photographs and contemporary engravings or other images of the people and places mentioned). Suitable probably for children from about the age of three or four on up, it covers the main ground without either talking down to the reader or making things too confusing / difficult to understand. We like it.

It’s also a great way to start talking about slavery, racism, and the position of women in general and black women in particular. We have also spent quite a while talking about what war is and why people do it and how much hurt it causes.

“You said it quite well” she said. “Just a bit more work on the screeching. Aint that right Nanny Ogg?”
“Very useful screeching, I thought” said Nanny Ogg, hurriedly. “And I can see Goodie Whemper, maysherestinpeace, gave you a lot of help with the squint.”
“It’s a good squint” said Granny Weatherwax.
The junior witch, whose name was Magrat Garlick, relaxed considerably. She held Granny Weatherwax in awe. It was known throughout the Ramtop Mountains that Miss Weatherwax did not approve of anything much. If she said it was a good squint, then Magrat was probably staring up her own nostrils.

Another fun read – what can I say, it’s the Discworld. They’re all pretty enjoyable, and all the same but very different.

This one features the three witches, possibly my favourite characters (along with Susan, who is Death’s granddaughter) who must save the Ramtop kingdom from a cruel, unstable and, worst of all, entirely indifferent usurper to the throne. All withot interfering in Politics, because everyone knows that a witch never interferes. Especially not with politics…

There are also ghosts, a reluctant Fool, some travelling players, many Shakespearean ripoffs and some other stuff. Yay!

Here’s an Amazon link.
I read a library copy.

The skin I’m in looks good to me.
It will let you know one small way to trace my identity.

But then again

the skin I’m in will always be just a covering.
It cannot tell my story.

If you want to know who I am you have got to come inside.

This book has a quality I love in children’s books (well any books really, it’s just that it is so much rarer in books aimed at children): a slightly offbeat rhythm, half-rhymes – not quite the easy verse we are used to, but poetry nonetheless.

It isn’t a story as such, but it will be meaningful for – and a good way to start a conversation with – any child who has got questions about race, colour and identity, or who has experienced or witnessed prejudice or exclusion and is trying to make sense of why and how much race matters.

Ariel likes the pictures.
I do too: they are bold, bright and sassy.

(And fortunately the somewhat creepy line “you have got to come inside” will probably be lost on most young readers…)

George had absolutely no doubts whatsoever about how he was going to make his famous medicine. he wasn’t going to fool about wondering whether to put in a little bit of this or a little bit of that. Quite simply, she was going to put in EVERYTHING he could find. There would be no messing about, no hesitating, no wondering whether a particular thing would knock the old girl sideways or not. The rules would be this: whatever he saw, if it was runny or powdery or gooey, in it went.

Nobody had ever made a medicine like that before. If it didn’t actually cure Grandma, then it would anyway cause some exciting results. It would be worth watching.

Yes, I know, it’s Roald Dahl and kids everywhere doubtless love it – but – ewww. I can’t help thinking that this is such an irresponsible book! Put loads of probably poisonous and certainly inedible items in a pot and feed it to Grandma just to see what happens?

(And, yes, just one more story where it is a female relative who is wicked and/or comes to a sticky end. Ho hum.)

Here is an Amazon link.
This is already in my Dahl collection.

I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother. They were beckoning mountains with a brown grass love. The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea and they were dark and brooding – unfriendly and dangerous. I always found myself in a dread of west and a love of east.

In this novel, Steinbeck weaves the history of his own maternal family (the Hamiltons) and the place where he was born (the Salinas valley in northern California) into a fiction, a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel. The central character, Adam Trask, re-enacts that brotherly rivalry with his brother Charles: Adam is better loved by his father; Charles takes his revenge. In the next generation, Adam’s sons Cal and Aron follow that same pattern: Aron is better loved; Cal takes his revenge; and there is even a version of “am I my brother’s keeper?” worked in, somewhat inelegantly (the only inelegant thing, I think).

It is often said that this is a book about good and evil. I suppose it is, but primarily to me it was a book about redemption. A major theme is signified by the Hebrew word timshel, translated in the book as “thou mayest”. The point is, that this is what God says to Cain when he puts his mark upon him – not that you MUST overcome sin, not that you WILL overcome sin, but that you MAY. Must implies obligation, will implies inevitability but may implies choice. Timshel is a word of blessing which offers not a command or a predetermination, but hope and freedom – the possibility of true redemption.

Finally, I can’t let this book go without talking of sinful women, the Eves.

Adam’s mother abandoned him by committing suicide immediately after his birth. His stepmother (Charles’ mother) was a sick, passive woman who did what was required to survive her loveless existence, and no more. Adam’s wife, Cathy, the mother of Cal and Aron, was a more actively sinful woman. She is described variously as a monster, as missing some essential human quality, as impenetrable, as inhuman. Her sins are many and shocking, the primary among them (plotwise) being that she abandons her twins immediately after their birth and runs away to become a whore.

The only other women to really feature in the story are Liza Hamilton (Steinbeck’s grandmother) and Abra (Aron’s and later Cal’s sweetheart, of whom her father frequently says: I called another, but Abra came – meaning, he wanted a boy). I see these women as Rebecca figures – assertive, moral women, but women who ultimately submit unquestioningly to male headship.

There is no depth to these women. There is no reality to them. There is a certain note struck in the sketches, a certain likeness to an underlying reality, but no interest in their stories or to what shaped them. Indeed of Cathy we are repeatedly told that there is no possibility of understanding her, not even for the author who created her and who therefore knows what happened to her from the day she was born. The author cannot understand her, and so she cannot be understood. Or redeemed: Steinbeck puts the mark of Cain upon her, yet she is Eve, and for her there is no redemption.

One more thing. There is another character, Lee, a Chinese servant to the Trask family whose wisdom, learning and care nourishes them throughout, in some ways replacing the absent mother figure. Perhaps I am struggling to hard to fit him into the Biblical theme, but I see him with his ng-ka-py as a kind of Holy Spirit, an intermediary between what is, and what ought to be – perhaps a kind of angel.

Hmm. Overall, a fine novel – if you like to have your men at the centre, and if Steinbeck’s portrayal of whores (as, on the whole, willing sluts doing a job of work) does not make your my skin crawl.

Here is an Amazon link.
I already had a copy, although I had not read it until now.