Book Review: The Other Ida

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It’s been a while since I did a book review on the blog, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. In fact, I’m reading a lot at the moment, as we have a fantastic library in the village. It has a great library, and Ben and I walk down there most Saturday mornings. As well as a huge range of books for younger children, Ben has recently discovered the children’s DVD section. Borrowing a Thomas the Tank Engine DVD last week turned out to be a pound very well spent, as Ben is currently obsessed.

This means that I’ve been able to pick up the odd novel and also a few cookery books. The Great British Bake Off Christmas book is currently in my possession, and I’m tempted to renew it until the end of December. I’ve also joined a local book group run by the Library service. This is great, as it means I have to prioritise my reading – this is never really a chore.

So when I was asked to review a new novel which had won the Dundee International Book Prize, I was happy to agree.

The Other Ida, by Amy Mason, is a fast-paced, original novel, with a great main character. To be honest, I didn’t think I’d like Ida, the main character very much – she drinks too much, is hopelessly chaotic, and seems to be on a path to self-destruction. But actually, she is a really complex character, and her journey of self and family-discovery is a really good read.

One of the things I love so much about reading, and Literature in general, is that it can transport you into the shoes of another person. In Ida’s shoes, there is an element of discomfort. Her experience and history is so far removed from mine, and yet, I could really relate to her. In fact, it made me think back to my teenage self and made me realise how much we do change in those formative years in our teens and twenties.

Suffice to say, Ida’s own teenage years were chaotic, and traumatic at times. As an adult, she is experiencing the fallout from that, and hasn’t spoken to her alcoholic mother for years. When her mother, the writer Bridie Adair, dies, Ida has to return to the home of her teenage years to help arrange the funeral. Her relationship with her sister is fractured, to say the least, and the spiky dialogue between them is vivid and engaging.

I really enjoyed this book. It is the kind of book I would choose, but I have to say, I enjoyed it so much more than I thought I would. The non-linear structure means that the pieces of the puzzle fall together for the reader in the same way they do for Ida. Each evening, I couldn’t wait to find out just that bit more. Its fast pace kept me interested, as well as my real hopes for Ida.

I was sent a copy of the book by the publisher, but all opinions here are my own.

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Book Review: The Snow Child

I haven’t posted a book review for ages, which is ridiculous, because I have read several books over the last few months which would be good to review. This was the December choice of my book group, and it was one of my suggestions. The theme I went for was ‘Winter,’ and Anna Karenina and The Dark is Rising were my other choices.

The Snow Child was written by Eowyn Ivey, and was a Richard and Judy Book Club favourite in 2012.

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The story follows Jack and Mabel, a childless couple in the 1920s, who settle in Alaska. During their second winter there, they build a snow child. Mabel, still grieving for a child she has lost, carves a girl’s face lovingly into the snow. Like the snow child in the Russian fairytale which inspired this story, the snow child appears to come to life.

This is a beautifully written book, and particularly striking in its descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness. Although the descriptions are beautiful, life for the couple is harsh and difficult. The girl, Faina, changes their perspectives and their relationship. They come to know, and ultimately rely on, another pioneer family. The winters are difficult, sometimes life-threatening. Farming and hunting are hard, tiring and wearing. Yet throughout, Ivey retains the sense that there is something magical, almost fairy-tale like about this story.

I really enjoyed the descriptions of their pioneer lifestyle; it is an aspect of history I know very little about, and I had never read anything set in Alaska before. Others have said that they found the day-to-day aspects of the narrative slow, and I can understand that, but don’t share that opinion. I liked the characters, and felt that each was well-developed; each certainly had a dark side to their souls.

Somehow, the novel is never a happy one. There is a sense of sadness that lies throughout, perhaps reminiscent of the ever-present threat of winter and death in Alaska. Although I liked it, it is not a book I think I will read again. However, it is definitely a book to read once.

Book Review: French Children Don’t Throw Food

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This book was published in January 2013, and its title echoes the previously popular ‘French Women Don’t Get Fat.’ The premise is the same: the way the French seem to do things is so much better than the way the British or Americans (generalised with the term ‘Anglophone’) do it.

The author, an American journalist, lived in Paris while her children were small, and observed how Parisian women raise their children. She then turned these observations into the book.

There’s actually a lot of sensible advice in this book. I particularly liked the chapters on food, on childcare and on sleep. The general premise of it is: be calm, observe, remember that you are in control, but also that you are teaching your child to become independent. I loved the sense of ‘let children be children;’ let them discover the world, rather than hovering about anxiously monitoring whether they have reached the expected milestone by the expected date.

The chapters on feeding and food were interesting. Some particularly sensible advice, which in hindsight supports my own experience, was along the lines of feed on demand for the first three months, then ease them into feeding every three hours. Then move onto 4 hours as you introduce solid foods and gradually decrease milk feeds. Now, that sounds so simple and obvious. But a health visitor will never say anything so obvious to you. And for a sleep-deprived, anxious, new-mother, obvious rationality doesn’t come easily.

Yes, it does acknowledge that many Parisian women don’t breastfeed for long, if at all (they are more interested in regaining their figures, it seems). But we all know the benefits of breastfeeding, and in my experience, most women would if they could successfully. I will keep my thoughts on breastfeeding for another post. And possibly another blog altogether.

Some of the cultural observations were interesting. Her observations from the planning meeting for a nursery menu were amazing – the chefs spent hours discussing the different vegetables on offer to the babies. One dish should not be repeated from one month to the next. This led to the very sensible advice that children should be encouraged to try everything, even if they don’t like it.

Another observation which made me laugh was the description of parents describing everything that their child does – to the child! “You’re climbing up the steps, up you go. Now you’re at the top. Are you going down the slide? There you go, down the slide, weeee!” I’ve seen something similar myself, and have to stop myself from doing it.

Personally, I think the French thing is a gimmick. There are plenty of wise and astute anglophone parents doing exactly the same thing. But at the moment, parenting advice either seems to be strict Gina Ford-esque rulebooks or the complete opposite: respond immediately to your baby’s every demand until they are at least 5 years old. Neither of these will lead to happy parents, or happy children. This book strikes a happy balance between the two. Love your children, nurture them, encourage them, but don’t smother them with your attention or let them rule the roost.

I got my copy from the local library; I probably would have purchased it if they didn’t have it, so it’s worth checking.

Daily Prompt: Bedtime Stories

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Without a doubt, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis was my favourite book as a child. The idea of finding a magical world in a wardrobe was entrancing; a world of talking animals and dryads, of magic and dwarves, and, of course, of Aslan. I was obsessed with Narnia, and would imagine myself finding a door like that of the wardrobe to take me to this land. 

Like many other children of the early 1980s, I first discovered Narnia through the BBC serialisation on a Sunday afternoon. Although it looks dated today, I thought it was magical at the age of 6. My parents, having incredible foresight, taped every single one of those episodes. When I left home at 18, they were still in the video drawer. Now, none of us own a video player, but I expect the videos themselves are still there. 

The idea of escaping, and finding a magical world, has always fascinated me. A few years ago, I read The Magicians by Lev Grossman, and found a similar, more adult, escapism. Harry Potter and the His Dark Materials novels have a similar pull. I don’t know whether this is through disappointment with my own life or just a sense of wanting to explore something. I suppose because it is fantasy, it is safe. In all honesty, I’m more of a homebody than an intrepid explorer. But perhaps in Narnia, I could be so. 

Magic is a theme running through The Chronicles of Narnia. Not spells, like in Harry Potter, but more enchantments, like the White Witch’s everlasting winter, or her power to turn people into stone. The restoration that Aslan brings in returning spring to Narnia, and bringing the stone statues back to life is a deeper magic.

The true ‘deep magic’ though lies in Aslan’s sacrifice of his own life to atone for Edmund’s betrayal. Herein lies the true magic of Narnia. In Aslan’s story,we recognise Jesus and His sacrifice for our own sin. It is Aslan that the children truly love, and in Aslan I have come to understand more about the nature of God.

A phrase repeated through the series is, “He’s not a tame lion.” Aslan can be fierce, dangerous, unpredictable. As can God. Yet often I allow myself to think of God as a comfortable, familiar presence. Yet God is to be feared. He can be dangerous, fierce and unpredictable. Yet He is love itself.

Reading The Chronicles of Narnia now, they can seem very dated. We discussed The Last Battle, the final book in the series, in book group last year, and we were shocked at how racist it seemed in its depiction of the Calormenes. Yet, in reading the novel as adults, we could examine the complexity of it in ways that we could not as children. 

A good novel should stay with you and be re-read when you choose. I really hope Ben likes Narnia even a little bit as much as I did.

 

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

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This is an amazing book. If you read it, be prepared to think about it for days, weeks, months afterwards. Be prepared to lend it to your friends, telling them how amazing it is. Be prepared to have a Mississippi accent whirling around your head for the next week.

Kathryn Stockett’s fictional narrative about white women and their black maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s was our book group choice this month. Many of us had read it 2 years ago, when it featured on many bestseller lists. All of us were glad to have the opportunity to read it again, myself included.

The story is narrated by three women: Aibileen and Minny, who are both domestic helps, and “Skeeter” Phelan. Skeeter is a white woman, who begins to look at the black women in a different way when she realises how her friends treat their maids. She starts writing a book in which the maids tell their stories, putting themselves and their families at huge risk. Skeeter’s perception of the society in which she lives is changed dramatically by getting to know Minny, Aibileen and their stories.

I have read the book twice, and probably enjoyed the book more the second time around. With the first reading, I was anxious all the way through. This is something that Stockett does very well, hinting at the depth of racism and its violent consequences. The maid’s grandson who is blinded for using a white bathroom. The community member who is murdered outside his own home. The fears of Minny and Aibileen are an ever-present ominous shadow over the story.

Stockett achieves balance in the novel tremendously well. The three narrators balance each other well: smart, sassy Minny, reflective, wise Aibileen and clever, naive Skeeter work well. Stockett also achieves a great balance of tragedy and comedy within the book, and some of the most memorable moments in the book are also the funniest. I loved the character of Minny, with her hard exterior which juxtaposed effectively with the secret of her domestic abuse. Each of the members of our book group had their own favourite character.

The small-town petty-mindedness of Jackson is skillfully written, with Hilly Holbrook being possibly one of the most vicious, manipulative, yet believable characters I’ve ever read. She leads the attack on Skeeter, forcing her out of society in a way that only women can.

This is definitely a women’s novel, and all the members of the book group who were present for the discussion were women. But it’s also a book which opens your eyes to history, and its consequences for today.

We gave the book our highest score ever: 9/10.

The Shack by Wm Paul Young

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In January, we chose The Shack as our book group choice. It was, perhaps, a predictable choice for a church-based book group, but in fact, it was the first ‘Christian’ or religious book we had read as a group.

I led the discussion, but it was mainly shaped by a visit to our church by the author just before Christmas. Personally, I found my reading of the book was affected when I found out the author’s history, so I’ll share it with you.

Wm Paul Young was born in Canada but raised in Dutch New Guinea, as his parents were missionaries. He was sexually abused by some of the people his parents preached to, and again in Canada, at boarding school. As an adult, he drifted, relying on his wife Kim’s strong faith. But at 38, he hit his lowest point. He had a three month affair with one of his wife’s best friends. He contemplated suicide, but instead, faced up to the pain and suffering he had caused his wife, and they worked through it. God met him at the lowest point, and Young’s relationship with Him was changed forever.

Young wrote The Shack to explain his faith to his children. He did not intend for it to be published, let alone for it to become a multi-million bestseller.

If you haven’t read it, The Shack is the story of Mack, whose youngest daughter is abducted and murdered. Mack blames himself for her death, and his family is gradually falling apart in the aftermath. His wife’s faith, however, remains strong.

Alone at home one day, Mack receives a note, inviting him to spend the weekend at the place where his daughter was murdered, the shack. Not knowing what he will find, Mack goes, and encounters God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Most of the plot happens in the first six chapters. The rest of the novel explores the nature of God, and how He wants to have a relationship with us. It sometimes makes for uncomfortable reading, and is sometimes mind-blowing.

In the book, you get the sense that Wm Paul Young has an amazing relationship with God, and I loved how he showed the natures of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In particular, the character of Sayaru, who personifies the Holy Spirit is inspired. I would honestly say that the book helped me to understand the concept of the Trinity better. I also loved the way that Young describes God as ‘respectful’ – not an adjective I have ever heard applied to God before. Yet in the novel, you get the sense that God respects Mack, because He loves him so much.

The writing, and the language isn’t the most sophisticated, in fact, it is a bit clumsy in it’s imagery at times, and this was the main issue the book group had. It is also very dialogue-heavy, and can feel ponderous at times.

But the faith and the love depicted in the book is real, and so I highly recommend it. My book group scored it 6/10.

You can watch the video of Wm Paul Young speaking at our church here. Click on the link to ‘Ivy Player.’