Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

hope

 

Should I be worried? Kugel asked.

You should only worry, said Sergeant Frankel, about the things you can control.

If I could control them, said Kugel, they wouldn’t worry me.

Exactly, said Sergeant Frankel.

I decided to read this due to a colleague’s description of it as a comedy book about death and a Jewish man finding Anne Frank living in his loft; I also read reviews comparing it to Woody Allen and how it perfectly encapsulates “that dread feeling of being alive”. As an part-time sufferer/full-time fan of Allen-esque angst, how could I resist?

Hope: a Tragedy is a strange book. It’s about a Jewish man named Solomon Kugel who moves his family from an urban life to a rural farmhouse in order to start anew. His mother is terminally ill so she moves in with them. Someone is burning down farmhouses similar to the one Kugel and his family live in; this is one of the (many) causes of his worry. He then discovers an elderly, ailing and cranky Anne Frank living in his attic, writing a novel and defecating in the air vents.

And as for the hope? Jove, Kugel’s psychiatrist, believes hope to be the cause of all human misery. There is so much evidence against optimism, yet humans still foolishly remain optimistic, therefore remaining miserable. Hope is irrational. According to Jove, Hitler was an optimist, because he thought he could change the world for the better. And by trying to make the world better, Hitler made it worse. Ergo, an optimist is certainly not a good thing to be. This interestingly twisted philosophy is threaded throughout the book and, indeed, the way in which Kugel interprets the world around him.

The book is a fairly simple structurally, as well as being a super quick read. Although not particularly varied in narrative or tone, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Kugel’s angst-ridden inner monologue as he tries to figure out what to do about his mother, Anne Frank, his family, the arsonist and life in general.

This book is definitely outrageous at times, although I didn’t find it quite as shocking or offensive as some people seemed to. It definitely veers towards the satirical, in that there is a purpose to all its statements. As a non-Jew, I think it is very difficult for me to comment on matters of Jewish history and culture (and there were quite a few occasions where I found myself confused by references and had to look up names and other facts), however I feel that the major themes have resonance for everyone. One of the these, as I see it, regards the nature of history and how it impacts on individuals and events in the present and the future. Although we must remember history and learn from it, we must also be aware that it can become a thing in and of itself, with a power over us that we cannot control. For example, Kugel’s mother constantly talks about the Holocaust as though she had been there, when, in fact, she was born afterwards and she has had a relatively comfortable and safe life. The Holocaust rhetoric has, for her, become an overwhelming part of her cultural and personal identity, and she paints herself as a victim at every opportunity. This perpetuation of Jews as victims through generations here seems to be the flipside of remembering the Holocaust in order to prevent its reoccurrence. Could this stance of victim have a negative outcome? This connects with concepts such as self-fulfilling prophecies, cultural stereotypes and human nature itself. (I would be interested to hear other perspectives on this!)

The portrayal of the various neuroses that Kugel suffers about secretly harbouring Anne Frank was very droll, and very cleverly done. There is one exchange in particular, between Kugel and his wife about who they are and are not allowed to secretly house, that was hilarious.

Auslander’s book is hilarious and worried; morbid and full of the joys of life, often simultaneously. There is a very large question-mark about hope and whether one should just be miserable (as Jove urges us to be), but Kugel can’t help but enjoy life sometimes, it seems, almost despite his best efforts.

“It couldn’t be an all-bad world, could it, not with birds who warble and call? Maybe that was the secret – to find the few things that made life just a fraction better, and to focus on those. Bird warbles. Peach fuzz. Puppies barking as if they’re full grown dogs. Nothing great, certainly nothing to justify the rest of it, but enough to keep you going.”

Advertisements

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner

maggotmoon

Maggot Moon is set in a dystopian vision of the past. It is not immediately clear when the story is taking place, only that people’s lives are tightly controlled by the totalitarian regime of the “Motherland” and that theirs is a brutal, harsh world characterised by fear, poverty and violence.

It was only afterwards that I read that Gardner’s inspiration for the setting was thinking about historical “what if” questions: for example, what if the weather had been different on a particular day? What if this meant that London had become an inferno? What if this had altered the course of a war?  It’s an interesting thing to think about.

It is in this alterative version of history that we are introduced to Standish Treadwell, a 15 year-old dyslexic boy with different coloured eyes, and his Gramps. Everyone thinks Standish is stupid because of his dyslexia, and he is constantly facing the threat of bullies (both children and adults) because of this. Standish and his Gramps live in Zone 7, which is reserved for outcasts and political anarchists. Standish’s parents have been “taken away” because of their beliefs. All the while, the Motherland is attempting to prove its might by achieving the first moon landing, but Standish and his Gramps think something is not right.

Standish speaks fondly of his friend Hector and his family, who moved next door and then got taken away themselves. The story is not told in chronological order and can, at times, be difficult to follow. Not everything is explained. You have to work at understanding things, and there are lots of different layers to everything.

Standish talks about his life in a very sparing way, but his narrative voice is completely clear. The language Gardner uses is vivid and colourful, but also sparse and precise. This matches the mood of the world she creates perfectly; the contrast between Standish’s colourful, imaginative inner world and the grey, bleak world of his reality. The chapters are short and to the point. It’s a quick read, but challenging, and it is rare to see language used in such a compellingly simple way to express such complex ideas.

I also think that Maggot Moon is the sort of book that needs to be talked about and thought about to be fully appreciated. I found myself puzzling over it for days afterwards, trying to figure out what I thought of it. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. Because it is short, you do end up feeling like you want to know more about the characters, their relationships and their lives. This was something I found a little frustrating. However, the power in Maggot Moon is contained within what it does with very little, and how it makes you think.

The only thing that really bugged me was abundance of made-up swear words (just swear if you’re going to swear! If you’re not, there are existing words that will suffice) but that is a particular bugbear of mine and doesn’t necessarily reflect anything other than my own particular tastes.

All in all, Gardner creates some moments of sheer brilliance. I can’t even possibly go into them all without giving too much away, and, despite its flaws, this is definitely one of the most interesting children’s books I’ve read in a very long time, and for this reason alone, you should give it a go.

Thoughts on the Carnegie Shortlist 2013

It’s been such a busy week that this is the first time I’ve had chance to sit down and fully give my attention to the books that are on Carnegie shortlist. I must say, I’m pretty impressed.

Last year was my first librarian experience of the Carnegie medal and, at first, although I liked some of the books, I felt it didn’t reflect the things that the children were reading in my school library at the time. This did change, for primarily three reasons:

1. Urging, nay,  harrassing kids to take out particular shortlisted books.
2. Kids getting “Between Shades of Gray” confused with a different shade/s of grey (I read an article somewhere about how parents could capitalise on this confusion to get their kids to read a good quality children’s novel. I cannot locate it now, but if anyone can point me in the direction of it I will link to it here.)
3. Using/discussing the books with our reading groups.

My personal favourite was Between Shades of Gray, however the overall winner was the librarians’ favourite author, Patrick Ness with his beautiful book A Monster Calls. Bad librarian alert: I do think that Ness’s book is beautiful, and I am pleased that Jim Kay won the Greenaway award, however, and I’m really sorry about this, I know I may be wrong, this is just my opinion, etc., but I am not a huge Ness fan. In theory I am. The way he deals with gender in the Chaos Walking books (well, the first one. I haven’t read the rest. See above RE: bad librarian). The way he talks about how doesn’t want to patronise kids, but challenge them. I love that stuff. But there is something, and I can’t quite put my finger on what, that doesn’t click. Our kids hardly ever take his books out too, which obviously doesn’t necessarily reflect on their quality, but does make me think a little. I always do this in my head: “yes, but do the KIDS like it?”

This said, I am glad that he won, because I know I was in a minority, but I am also glad that someone else gets to have a go this year.

MIXED FEELINGS.

Anyway, tangent aside, I am pretty excited about this year’s selection. I have read two so far. Here is what I thought:

WONDER

wonder

I absolutely loved this. I thought it was going to be a little maudlin, and it was, a really tiny bit, when I forgot that I’m an adult reading from an adult’s perspective and what I really need to do is be an adult pretending that I am reading from a child’s perspective. Again, that question: “yes, but will the KIDS like it?” Here the answer is a big yes. Every single kid (and that’s quite a lot of kids) who has borrowed this book from the library has loved it. It’s funny, touching and it’s major theme of not judging people by appearance is fantastic. (And in the end, even when reading it from an adult perspective, I would still give it 5 stars.)

MIDWINTERBLOOD

midwinterblood

I liked this before I asked myself the question. After I asked myself the question, I wasn’t sure what I thought. Sedgwick is undoubtedly a fantastic writer with great mind, but I’m just not sure whether this book really connects with the kids I work with. It’s barely been taken out. The seven interlinked stories and themes of death, love and eternal life are fascinating and atmospheric, but there is barely any character development and the entire thing feels a little cold. This was fine by me as an adult reader; the atmosphere was brilliant enough to make up for this. However, for the kids? I’m not so sure.

I am currently reading Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner and will endeavour to read and review all of the titles before the winner is announced in June.

What book do you think will win? Do you have any general thoughts?

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

gone girl

I am not quite sure what to write about this book for two reasons: 1) I don’t want to give too much away; and 2) I’m not actually sure what I think. In light of this, I do hope that the following makes some sort of sense.

Nick and Amy are a married couple living in Missouri. Both were previously writers in New York who moved to Nick’s hometown for various reasons, the most prominent being his mother’s cancer diagnosis. Here they live in a big, new house in a quiet neighbourhood. Nick’s mother passes away and Nick and Amy stay. Nick owns a bar with his twin sister and has to deal with his father, who suffers from alzheimers, continually going missing from his nursing home; Amy is the newly unemployed trust-fund daughter of psychologist-turned-writer “soulmate” parents who based a book series named “Amazing Amy” on her life. At the beginning of the novel, before Nick and Amy have even met, Amy is attending the opening launch of her parents’ lastest book where “Amazing Amy” has grown up and married “Able Andy”. The real Amy is single and discussing this disconnect between her real life and her parents’ fictional version throughout her life.

We learn about how Nick and Amy met and then how their relationship develops over time. How they fall in love and get married and live in New York and then have to move away. Ordinary relationship things.

On Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary, Amy mysteriously goes missing. The story is narrated by both of them, which gives the effect of a kind of “he said-she said” tale where nothing is quite as it seems. I liked this aspect of the novel, as it does make you question the truth of both versions of events and, indeed, consider how people shape the truth and interpret events to meet their own agenda or fit in with their own view of the world. Things don’t always add up and the characters definitely do not act the way you’d expect them to act. This moral ambiguity was something I really enjoyed about the world Fynn creates. It is also something that creates a strong sense of unease throughout.

It may not come as a surprise, this considered, that the characters are rarely sympathetic. This has been used by many as a criticism of the story, however I think that the plot itself is driven by this exploration of the darker sides of the human psyche and the ways in which people behave (and, indeed, misbehave) in relationships. This certainly isn’t a thriller with an easy resolution. I can’t say that I felt good after reading it, but I think Flynn was right to end it the way she did. That said, it is not satisfying in the traditional sense, nor particularly frustrating. I felt thoroughly disconcerted and baffled when I finished it, but there was also a feeling that it kind-of made sense. Not a feeling I often get from books, I must say.

I hope this sufficiently conveys why I am not quite sure what I think now, whilst also not giving too much away. I am currently verging on thinking that Flynn is a storytelling genius.

World Book Day 2013

worldbookday

It’s World Book Day this coming Thursday (7th March) so I thought I would share what we are planning at the school I work in to mark this wonderful occasion.

We have been very fortunate to have the help of four enthusiastic year 10 Duke of Edinburgh volunteers and have therefore been able to plan not just a day, but an entire week of book-related activities. A whole week! I have been geeking out (as the DoE volunteers would undoubtedly put it) over promotional colour schemes, fonts, posters, activities and, for probably the first time in my entire life, PowerPoint presentations (I used to vow that I would never become such a person, but alas, it has happened, 27 years into my previously technologically honourable life) and slogans saying stuff like “BOOKS ROCK!!!” with those three excitable exclamation points and many more besides. I love World Book Day. I approve of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I am much, much worse with computers than 15 year-old boys; 15 year-old boys are computer geniuses, 15 year-old girls read really quickly, ergo, most of this would have been impossible without them.

MONDAY 5th MARCH: We are having a book poll! We have made up ballot papers, a ballot box and a polling station. Kids get a ballot paper, write down their top three books and place their votes into the bright-green ballot box (yes, this is part of the promotional colour scheme; yes, living with a graphic designer has changed me) and then we count up all the votes and announce the whole-school top ten on Thursday 7th March. My guess? Diary of a Wimpy Kid will be up there. Jacqueline Wilson too. The volunteers have designed stickers for everyone who votes that say “I rocked the vote!”

TUESDAY 5th MARCH: Whole school read. During form time, everyone stops what they are doing and reads for twenty minutes. Magazines, books, kindles, newspapers. I run around with the volunteers taking pictures. The school is quieter that it have been since the last time this type of thing was done (2009, to be exact).

WEDNESDAY 6th MARCH: Book Swap. I love this one. You bring in a book you don’t want anymore, you choose another one from the collection brought in by others. Kids scramble over copies of Wimpy Kid and Harry Potter; bookworm staff members’ husbands and wives rejoice, get rid of loads of books, send instructions that said staff member must not bring home more than one book; instructions are ignored. The circle of books. This goes on every day until Friday.

THURSDAY 7th MARCH: Competition time. I have been round with the volunteers and the library camera, taking photos of staff members hiding behind their favourite books. On Thursday morning, I will come in and stick these photographs all around school. The kids then have to guess who the staff members are. We give them clues. The first three to correctly guess win a prize. 

We will also announce the whole school top ten books, with a separate list for staff.

FRIDAY 8th MARCH: I upload all the photos, put them up on the plasma screens, and eat some chocolate.

Does anyone else have anything fun planned for World Book Day?