Saturday, December 23, 2006

A very blessed Christmas to you all and, whether you celebrate the religious aspect of this part of the year or not, I hope that the year ahead will be a joy filled and peaceful one for everyone.

The incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is also a poet, and in keeping with the season, I offer you this poem of his:


He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.
From LIGHT UNLOCKED: Christmas Card Poems edited by Kevin Crossley-Holland and Lawrence Sail.

Back on the 27th.


Friday, December 22, 2006

Superb! The bookcase is a little over 8 feet high and is 3 and a 1/2 feet wide. The wood burrs are so beautiful that we've decided (at least temporarily) not to paint it. I've wiped and dusted; now for putting all the books in situ...the fun part as I'm sure you'll all agree: who should live next to whom? alphabetical? genre? subject? hmmm.


I've spent the last day or so clearing out our study and moving the indecent sized collection of books into the dining room - I think they must breed when I'm not looking: how did there get to be so many?! A carpenting friend arrives in half an hour to deliver and build a built-in bookcase which (we hope) will solve all our bookish woes. A couple of months ago he put one up in the guestroom which looks gorgeous now (having been painted by my own two hands), but this one is rather larger.

Oh joy! Thankfully, we're sharing Christmas celebrations with friends and family so the state of this house doesn't matter.


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Ireland was fantastic! I realize I have become semi-addicted to blogging, however, when it felt slightly strange not to connect with everyone of a morning! Didn't last too long - so much to see and do.

As I mentioned in my last post, I read to the Giri in the car. This is a longstanding tradition in my family as my mother would read to all of us on cross-country trips (actually she read to us every night at home too, so guess where my book addiction stems from?!) I suppose it made sense to transfer the story to the car, and it just never occurred to me as a child that one might not be able to read while moving. It wasn't until I was a teenager that I realized such a thing as car sickness existed. The giri suffers from motion sickness, but all things work out - he drives, I read.

In recent years we've wended our way through (among others) Susan Cooper's THE DARK IS RISING, John Wyndham's THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, Michelle Magorian's GOODNIGHT MISTER TOM, Alexander McCall Smith's THE NO. 1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY series (we've read the first four together), J.K. Rowling's HARRY POTTER series (again, the first four), R.K. Narayan's SWAMI AND FRIENDS, John Buchan's THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS, and Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy (actually, the latter was read not only in the car but on transatlantic flights to and from Sydney - don't worry, we had five seats to ourselves, we're not THAT annoying - and finally made it into bedtime reading at home, because it was so exciting!).

Most recently we've completed the Philip Pullman HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy, and Ann over at Patternings asks what I thought, so here goes. I recommend them, with reservations. Firstly, they are not (in my opinion) children's books, which is how they were originally packaged - teen yes, adult yes, but not children. Pullman writes well and convincingly of worlds alongside worlds - the multiverses so much under discussion in the world of physics these days. In the real world some scientists argue for the existence of multiverses with fractional differences. Could the big bang have been caused by some of these worlds crashing together accidentally? Very interesting concepts, and which most of us spend very little time thinking about. What Pullman has done is take this concept of multiverses as a given and convincingly described and explored them. What if just through this gap there is another world, almost exactly the same as yours - similar streets and names and people, even graffitti, but it is not the same...

The first in the trilogy, NORTHERN LIGHTS (published in the USA with the title THE GOLDEN COMPASS; I'm never sure why they do this changing titles thing), is a triumph. Exciting, well-written, with a fantastic young female protagonist. Lyra is both vulnerable and hard as nails. In her world every person has a visible daemon (pronounced "demon") in animal form. They are deeply personal and cannot be seperated from the human to whom they belong (being essentially souls). Lyra uncovers a dastardly plot to sever children from their demons to produce...what? I won't spoil the plot for you, but suffice to say this book has a real corker of a cliff-hanger ending. If I'd read the books as they were written, I'd have been huffing and puffing until the next in the series came out, instead I just went roaring out to the shops!

The second in the trilogy, THE SUBTLE KNIFE, really develops the multiverse concept. Will, who lives in a parallel Oxford to Lyra's Oxford (like our world - no visible daemons), flees in panic and accidentally makes his way through a rip between worlds, where he meets Lyra. My favourite character, a vast armourplated bear king, features in this book too, along with witches, angels, God, and all manner of strange and entirely believable creatures. I liked this book, especially the concepts explored which held the warp and weave of the story together.

Unfortunately, I do feel Pullman goes off the rails a bit by the last book, THE AMBER SPYGLASS. It feels a little bit like being repeatedly thumped over the head by a heavy Bible - except that it is not the Bible, but Pullman, attempting to argue what a waste of time Christianity is. I have no problem at all with him challenging religion, religious practice and blind faith, but what emerges is a stereotypical bashing, rather simplified in argument. I would have loved a nuanced attack! Instead, where the other two books in the series were driven by the story (and what a wonderful story!), the third falls somewhat flat because the story takes a backseat to Pullman trying to MAKE.BASH.HIS.BASH.POINT.BASH. Such a shame.

Despite my criticisms, do read these if you haven't already. A word of caution - you must read them in the correct order for the story to make sense. NORTHERN LIGHTS/THE GOLDEN COMPASS is wonderful. And even in the last book, the world/s which Pullman creates are fantastic and consistently believable - worth reading for that alone. And you never know, you may adore all three titles, the great thing about reading being how different all our tastes are. For those of you who have already read these, what were your reactions?

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

The giri is treating me to a belated birthday treat away - a weekend at my favourite restaurant-with-rooms.

We are driving, and I always read to him in the car (a personal "book on tape"!); we've just finished the last in Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy, THE AMBER SPYGLASS. For this trip we're starting J.K. Rowling's HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, with the aim of finishing it before the film comes out next year.

For personal reading I'm taking along William Trevor's THE STORY OF LUCY GAULT, as the setting of the book is perfect for this trip.

Another clue as to which country we're headed for? Seamus Heaney declined inclusion in an anthology of British poets some decades ago (reported in this article), with some delightful lines:
My passport's green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast The Queen
Any guesses?!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Blame the non blogging on birthday celebrations (oh ancient me! I have stopped counting how many white hairs have sprung up on my head - only a few years ago I could name each one).

And despite my keenness to get cracking this morning, I've been side-tracked by a nice long phonecall catching up on relative excursions to India and Sri Lanka. I'm off to London again for Tamil class, but will update you all tomorrow on the festivities, including a wonderful Amadou & Mariam concert.

I have African children's books, my "From the Stacks" challenge, and more to report!

Let me just sneak in here (for those of you within easy reach of London) that Persephone Books has a Christmas Party tonight, from 6-8pm, with books on sale. Darn it, I have class! Technically speaking, it is not compulsory because the lecturer went on holiday to India for the past two weeks, so he has arranged tonight to make up the time, otherwise I would have been free. However, I do feel duty bound to attend (gritted teeth). Enjoy yourselves, if you Persephone...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Events in London this weekend for anyone in easy reach of the city:

Saturday 9th December - a literary blogmoot and book launch at the independent bookshop The Bookseller Crow. The author Debi Alper has been driving this event, so do visit her blog for additional info.

Friday 8th - Sunday 10th December - If you are looking for great seasonal gifts, the annual Fair Trade Fair is this weekend. On Friday I will be manning the Africa Book Centre stall at the fair, so do pop by to say hi if you attend.

Thursday 7th - Sunday 10th December - The fairly traded and organic clothing company People Tree is having a sample and stock sale this weekend too (more details here). While some of their range is a little too trendy for trad. (boring?) me, their basics are great, I've had beautifully finely handwoven work shirts from them, their bedding is luxuriously warm and toasty and their baby clothes with cute soft toys are charming for newborns.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Originating over at Cam's Commentary, a poetry meme is currently doing the rounds, and while I won't do the whole thing, something happened yesterday to inspire me. It was a wretched, wailing storm of a day (wind howling like a freight train and lashing rain); I was absolutely drenched by the time I'd walked into town and after drying off (mostly) over coffee, I decided to sit out the worst by dashing from secondhand bookshop to secondhand bookshop, exploring.

Because it is off the main high street I tend to ignore the charming Chaucer Bookshop. Should you pay the city a visit, I recommend a detour here if you are a booklover, or collecter of engravings. You can lose yourself for hours - it is cosy and well-stocked with a really interesting collection (which has the added benefit of being largely well organized). I suspect that with the demise of The Albion, The Chaucer Bookshop will become my favourite haunt. It is not cheap as it is not a charity shop (which all the other secondhand shops in town are), but most of the stock is antiquarian or good, clean secondhand copies at roughly half the market price. You will find excellent gifts here, and books to own and cherish.

By chance, I spotted a book now out of print but still widely available on abebooks and amazon, THE PENGUIN BOOK OF IRISH VERSE edited by Brendan Kennelly. I snaffled it up, as it happens to contain my favourite poem.

Context, of course, is everything. I was raised in an activist household during the apartheid era. This was a poem we were taught when I was young by my wonderful parents for whom the cost of standing up to be counted as people opposed to apartheid, was considerable at the time. This poem spoke to them, and it spoke to me, and it may yet speak to you if you are working towards a world you imagine as better, but not yet achieved.

Several significant events in my life surround the poem. It was read at my baptism. I of course don't remember the occasion as I was a baby, but it has special significance as a result. My father read it as a farewell to a parish that had treated his vision for a new South Africa with some incomprehension. The high school I attended, while academically excellent, was a grim place for a teenager who felt (and was treated) as an outsider. We were asked to select for class a poem with special meaning to us and explain why. Aged 17, I recited this poem as my chosen selection:
THE FOOL - Patrick Pearse, 1879-1916

Since the wise men have not spoken, I speak that am only a fool;
A fool that hath loved his folly,
Yea, more than the wise men their books or their counting houses, or their quiet homes,
Or their fame in men's mouths;
A fool that in all his days hath done never a prudent thing,
Never hath counted the cost, nor recked if another reaped
The fruit of his mighty sowing, content to scatter the seed;
A fool that is unrepentant, and that soon at the end of all
Shall laugh in his lonely heart as the ripe ears fall to the reaping-hooks
And the poor are filled that were empty,
Tho' he go hungry.

I have squandered the splendid years that the Lord God gave to my youth
In attempting impossible things, deeming them alone worth the toil.
Was it folly or grace? Not men shall judge me, but God.

I have squandered the splendid years:
Lord, if I had the years I would squander them over again,
Aye, fling them from me!
For this I have heard in my heart, that a man shall scatter, not hoard, Shall do the deed of today, nor take thought of tomorrow's teen,
Shall not bargain or huxter with God; or was it a jest of Christ's
And is this my sin before men, to have taken Him at His word?

The lawyers have sat in council, the men with the keen, long faces,
And said, 'This man is a fool,' and others have said, 'He blasphemeth';
And the wise have pitied the fool that hath striven to give a life
In the world of time and space among the bulks of actual things,
To a dream that was dreamed in the heart, and that only the heart could hold.

O wise men, riddle me this: what if the dream come true?
What if the dream come true? and if millions unborn shall dwell
In the house that I shaped in my heart, the noble house of my thought?
Lord, I have staked my soul, I have staked the lives of my kin
On the truth of Thy dreadful word. Do not remember my failures,
But remember this my faith.

And so I speak.
Yea, ere my hot youth pass, I speak to my people and say:
Ye shall be foolish as I; ye shall scatter, not save;
Ye shall venture your all, lest ye lose what is more than all;
Ye shall call for a miracle, taking Christ at His word.
And for this I will answer, O people, answer here and hereafter,
O people that I have loved shall we not answer together?

Patrick Pearse was executed, Easter of 1916, following the Irish uprising.

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

It is distinctly eerie - every book I'm reading at the moment appears to have variations on the same theme (quite accidental I assure you!). I commented previously on the "ordinary lives of women" theme; have a look at this:
'Now, there is Agatha Slade, poor girl! She's of a kind I know by heart. With birth and beauty she is perfectly helpless. Her people are poor enough to be entitled to aid from the Charity Organisation, and they have had the indecency to present themselves with six daughters - six! All with delicate skins and delicate little noses and heavenly eyes. Most men can't afford them, and they can't afford most men. As soon as Agatha begins to go off a little, she will have to step aside, if she has not married. The others must be allowed their chance...But Agatha has not had any special offer, and I know both she and her mother are a little frightened. Alix must come out next season, and they can't afford frocks for two. Agatha will have to be sent to their place in Ireland, and to be sent to Castle Clare is almost like being sent to the Bastille. She'll never get out alive. She'll have to stay there and see herself grow thin instead of slim, and colourless instead of fair. Her little nose will grow sharp, and she will lose her hair by degrees.' (p.31)
This delectation is from THE MAKING OF A MARCHIONESS by Frances Hodgson Burnett (yes, she of THE SECRET GARDEN fame!). Originally published in 1901, republished by Persephone in 2001. Isn't it extraordinary how women's lives in the west (regardless of class) have changed in the past century?

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Friday, December 01, 2006

I can't really say "happy" World AIDS Day, but I would like to draw your attention to the fact that today is indeed World AIDS Day. You can read more at World AIDS Day and World AIDS Campaign. From the latter's website:
New reports by UNAIDS and the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate that, as of 2006, the epidemic continues to spread in every region of the world. By now more than 65 million people have been infected with HIV and well over 25 million people have died of AIDS since 1981, 2.9 million in 2006 alone. At this rate, the WHO predicts that in the next 25 years another 117 million people will die, making AIDS the third leading cause of death worldwide.
Both Heinemann and Macmillan are now producing children's/teen readers that deal with HIV/AIDS as subject matter: non-fiction are obviously upfront and graphic (this is only practical), while the fiction ones are often very sensitively handled, with HIV/AIDS as a background theme. Most of the fiction titles in both series have discussion points and puzzles at the back of the books for use by teachers with their pupils. These are geared towards the African schools' market, but I think should be used everywhere.

Set in South Africa, DANCING QUEEN is a gripping story for teens. A young dancer feels trapped with few options and her choices result in her contracting AIDS. While this might sound utterly depressing, the book is great at creating empathy in the reader for the young dancer and ends on a hopeful note for her friends and family. Deborah Ewing succeeds in telling a touching story without lecturing. Nothing twee about this one, the claustrophobia felt by the young dancer (for her perceived choices) makes for some grim reading, but is realistic and sensitively handled.

Glynis Clacherty's SIMON'S STORY is gorgeous (I love the illustrations). It is part of the HIV/AIDS series, but in fact the disease is never actually mentioned. Simon has come to live in an orphanage because both his parents have died. This is really a lovely book exploring grief, for younger readers (maybe 6-9ish?).

Adwoa Badoe's MY SISTER JULIE is a realistically described story from the point of view of Suki, whose older sister Julie, at aged 14, has become head of the household. Again, AIDS is not mentioned directly, but the parents have plainly died of the disease since Suki is teased by other children. The challenges of retaining childhood whilst juggling housework and responsibility are explored.

THE FRIENDSHIP TREE by Catherine House is a charming story about young Chiwila who is devastated that her friend Musosa is ill. Grandmother helps her cope with hugs and advice, so that she can be strong for Musosa throughout her illness. Since there are no direct references to HIV/AIDS in the story (just a mention that Musosa is "very ill") this would be highly suitable for any child with a dying friend; less about grief, and more to do with keeping strong and spirits up while a friend is ill.

To give you some idea of the format, these are readers rather like the Oxford Reading Tree series. For those of you outside the UK not familiar with this, imagine typical readers used in schools worldwide, in which stories are told in simple language for particular age groups.

It is a shame that some of these stories are not produced as picture books - I think they would appeal to a much wider audience, given the chance.

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