Thursday, March 29, 2007

I can never resist memes which "require" me to spend time browsing my bookshelves and so, following in the footsteps of Stephanie over at So Many Books, here are my selections for "10 books I would read right now if I didn’t already have a bunch of other books going" (the requirement being that I already own all of these):

I am a practising anglican (episcopalian, for you americans out there), so am constantly frustrated by, and grappling with, the big issues of the day faced by the church as an institution. In England the two largest are the issue of women clergy (far from resolved) and gay clergy (in some sort of don't-even-go-there administrative wasteland). I won't get into a long discussion here, but for me the more crucial overriding issue is "where is God in this?" I mean, is God really bothered? And I have to think not. A great priest is a great priest, whether gay, straight, female, male, black, white or brown. Let's get on with it. Stephen Bates is The Guardian's religious affairs and royal correspondent. I like his interesting press commentary, and am curious to see what he has to say.

I recommended Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's PURPLE HIBISCUS to a friend who, gratifyingly, loved it so much she's been recommending it to everyone she knows. In return she recommended this Boyne to me. It looks like it might be shattering.

Michael Dirda AN OPEN BOOK
When I lived in Washington D.C. some years back, I would religiously read the lovely Dirda; he became a staple - one of those folks whose latest despatch I'd look forward to, thinking there'd be something in there for me (even if I never got around to reading it!)

Cynthia Enloe is one of those pioneering types in the field of international relations, in that she tried to place women front and centre. Bearing in mind that women are very often excised from the study of government, politics and international relations (other than as victims) this was a refreshing approach.

Kimbofo over at Reading Matters has a reading group, and this was their previous selection. Appropriately, I even bought my copy in Ireland, but I've yet to begin it (story of my life). Ireland is where we holiday most, and I have a real soft spot for the country.

Beverley Naidoo is a talented children/teen writer. I met her several times when running the bookshop up in London and I have to say that she epitomizes the image of the hardworking writer - I was always very impressed with her work ethic and friendly approachability when confronted by fans. I haven't read this one of hers.

Aflame Books is a new independent publisher, focussing on translating into English books from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East originally published in another language. This is the first of their titles I've picked up and I'm looking forward to it very much (I loved Pepetela's THE RETURN OF THE WATER SPIRIT). If you enjoy Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you'll probably like Pepetela.

Both Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak have had a rather difficult time in Turkey lately because of their work.

One of my favourite books is John Wyndham's THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, which has so much contemporary resonance, despite being written in 1951. THE HOPKINS MANUSCRIPT, I get the impression, has similar overtones. And it is a Persephone title.

Niall Williams AS IT IS IN HEAVEN
The dove grey one over at dovegreyreader scribbles raved so much about Williams (and then he left her equally charming messages) that I succumbed - I trust her judgement, so am sure this will be good; also, did I mention I have a soft spot for Ireland?!

Naturally, it is highly unlikely I'll read any of these soon but one can live in go and rummage through your shelves, what would you read if you could?

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Back in November, Michelle over at Overdue Books issued a "From the Stacks Challenge" which I happily signed up for (which compulsive reader does not have books on their shelves yet to be picked up and read?!). What with all the travels, I've still to blog about all the gems I hoofed my way through as a result, but you can see my first post about the challenge here as a refresher, and a sampler from THE MAKING OF A MARCHIONESS by Frances Hodgson Burnett which I was thoroughly enjoying at the time. So, thanks to Michelle for spurring me on to read this book.

It turns out that we owe more to Elaine over at Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover than just thanks for a wonderfully entertaining blog. Persephone Books' Nicola Beauman takes suggestions from the public in terms of what they may publish, and it is Elaine who drew her attention to both THE MAKING OF A MARCHIONESS (divine) and the forthcoming Hodgson Burnett title THE SHUTTLE out in April (can't wait!).

Now it turns out that THE MAKING OF A MARCHIONESS will be broadcast over the next two weekends (oh joy!). Persephone describes it as "a two-part Classic serial starring Miriam Margolyes and Charles Dance on BBC Radio 4 on the Sunday before Easter (April 1st) and on Easter Sunday itself (April 8th) from 3-4 pm". Elaine has discovered a link for listening online for those of you outside the UK (archived for 7 days only, so you'll have to be quick about it)

Here's a taster:
She had not lived in a world where marriage was a thing of romance, and, for that matter, neither had Agatha.It was nice if a girl liked the man who married her, but if he was a well-behaved, agreeable person, of good means, it was natural that she would end by liking him sufficiently, and to be provided for comfortably or luxuriously for life, and not left upon one's own hands, or one's parents', was a thing to be thankful for in any case. (p.42)

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

I received a lovely parcel of books this week from the Africa Book Centre containing the books I was missing off the 2007 shortlist for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (I picked all the others up while in South Africa, and am currently working my way through them).

To whet your appetite, here are the cover blurbs. For THE SHADOW FOLLOWS by David Medalie a description which, unintentionally or not, sounds like a soap opera!
It is August on the highveld: a time of dust, wind and melancholy. Distracted only for a moment by the unremarkable person in the cinema noisily excavating his popcorn, Deanna's real concern is that she might be HIV positive, having stabbed herself in the thumb after giving an injection to a patient. She hasn't heard from her brother in days and doesn't seem to have a clue that he's busy fighting off a silent obsession with her estranged husband, Richard. Richard, meanwhile, has much on his mind too. He has enlisted the services of a company called Relative Success in an attempt to track down his biological mother who disappeared shortly after giving birth to him in the early evening of Boxing Day in 1964...
For ALL WE HAVE LEFT UNSAID by Maxine Case (which, incidentally, has won Best First Book, Africa Region in the meantime):
Danika believes she can cope with anything. Now, as she keeps vigil at her mother's hospital bed, watching her life slip away, she feels compelled to answer the questions that linger from her childhood in the eighties. What was the state of emergency about? Why did her father leave, and what happened the night no one ever talks about?
Only now, with her mother beyond hearing, can Danika break the silence of those difficult years. Now she can speak the words that were always left unsaid.
It is really annoying that there was only about a month between announcing the shortlisted candidates and declaring the winners. Despite my best efforts there was no possibility of finishing all the titles in such a short interval, unless I'd had the luxury of dedicating all my time to completing just these books. Perhaps they don't think the general public actually reads?! Ah well, I'll press on and keep you informed as I go.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Debi Alper has some worthwhile (as always) thoughts on slavery in modern times. Which has had me thinking, not least because of a heart-wrenching documentary on child slavery shown last night on the BBC. Rageh Omaar reported on the approximately 8.4 million child slaves alive today - you can watch it here if you missed it.

Scaling the sides of my soapbox (as I regularly do!): one teeny tiny place to start, if you feel you'd like to do something, but don't know where to start; Ethical Consumer reports:
Approximately 75% of the world’s footballs are produced in the Sialkot district of Pakistan for export to the world’s markets. In the build-up to the 1998 World Cup in France, studies by groups like Save the Children brought to attention the fact that children were involved in the stitching of footballs. As a result, most major brands have taken steps to ensure that children are no longer involved. Unfortunately, some of the steps taken have reduced the income of families in Sialkot. Some production is being moved to China, where particularly lower quality balls are increasingly being part-produced by machines. Another measure has been the concentration of stitching in larger factory units, which can necessitate longer commuting times and can make part-time stitching by women less easy.
You can help to change that by buying beautifully crafted, fairly traded footballs from (and they've got a new line of sneakers too).

‘Fashion Victims’, a recent report by War on Want, found "that workers in Bangladesh are regularly working 80 hours a week for just 5p an hour to produce cheap clothes for British consumers of Primark, Tesco and Asda’s ‘George’ range". And before all you Americans out there dismiss these as British companies, may I remind you that Asda is owned by Walmart, so you may wish to scrutinize prices and compare them with realistic production and transportation costs. Their website continues:
Primark, Tesco and Asda have given their commitment to fair treatment for suppliers’ workers. But employees interviewed for War on Want’s report said their managers had been given prior notice of these companies’ social audits, and workers themselves had been bullied by their bosses to lie about their pay, hours and safety.

Louise Richards, Chief Executive of War on Want, said: “Bargain retailers such as Primark, Asda and Tesco are only able to sell at rock bottom prices in the UK because women workers in Bangladesh are being exploited.
You can download the full report from the War on Want site, and read more related material on the site Labour Behind the Label.

Hopping down from the soapbox...

Monday, March 26, 2007

For anyone who has ever wondered about my blogging identity, Equiano, here is the beginning of an explanation. Olaudah Equiano was a slave in the 1700s of extraordinary intelligence and ability who not only survived, but thrived despite terrible odds. Naturally, I make no claims of comparable horrific experiences; Equiano's suffering and that of the millions of other slaves of his time is incomprehensible to us in the west today, but on reading the account of his life and travels some years ago, I was deeply inspired by his story. I identified strongly with his ability to adapt from one nation and country to another. His vivid descriptions and articulate remonstrations are both reminder and warning to all of us for the need to recognise each other as human beings, and we have much to learn from him in our contemporary world.

Yesterday was the 200th anniversary of the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in England. Elsewhere in the world, the slave trade continued unabated, but for England this was the first step towards a more equal relationship between people, and the first step on a long list abolitionists were working towards. In fact, it was not until 1833 that Britain outlawed slavery entirely, but yesterday marked parliament finally abolishing the British trade in people.

It seems appropriate then, to reread the writings of England's most famous slave. The edition I use (which makes for riveting reading) is edited by Paul Edwards, EQUIANO'S TRAVELS: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African. I will post highlights of his life over the next month. We begin the story with Equiano's capture at the age of 11:
One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both, and without giving us time to cry out or make resistance they stopped our mouths and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands and continued to carry us as far as they could till night came on, when we reached a small house where the robbers halted for refreshment and spent the night. We were then unbound but were unable to take any food, and being quite overpowered by fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep, which allayed our misfortune for a short time. The next morning we left the house and continued travelling all the day. For a long time we had kept to the woods, but at last we came into a road which I believed I knew. I had now some hopes of being delivered, for we had advanced but a little way before I discovered some people at a distance, on which I began to cry out for their assistance: but my cries had no other effect than to make them tie me faster and stop my mouth, and then they put me into a large sack. They also stopped my sister's mouth and tied her hands, and in this manner we proceeded until we were out of sight of these people. When we went to rest the following night they offered us some victuals, but we refused it, and the only comfort we had was in being in one another's arms all that night and bathing each other with our tears. But alas! we were soon deprived of even the small comfort of weeping together. The next day proved a day of greater sorrow than I had yet experienced, for my sister and I were then separated while we lay clasped in each other's arms. It was in vain that we besought them not to part us; she was torn from me and immediately carried away, while I was left in a state of distraction not to be described. I cried and grieved continually, and for several days I did not eat anything but what they forced into my mouth. (pp. 13-14)

Friday, March 23, 2007

Inspired after writing about childrens' books yesterday, I rummaged among my shelves and emerged triumphant with a marvellous book bought on a previous trip to Australia: WOMBAT GOES WALKABOUT by Michael Morpurgo, with illustrations by Christian Birmingham. This is a must-have picture book, telling the tale of a baby wombat in search of his mother (the underlying story is that everyone is good at something; even if no-one else thinks much of your talents, just wait and see, your time will come...):
One day Wombat woke up and thought, "I think I'll dig a hole today." Wombat loved digging holes. So off he went and dug a deep, deep hole. He crawled inside and sat there in the cool and the dark and began to think, because Wombat loved thinking too. He thought to himself, "Why is the sky blue? Why am I a wombat and not a kangaroo?"
Needless to say, after much sitting and thinking, Wombat saves the day and along the way the reader meets a cast of Australian animals, beautifully and engagingly illustrated by Birmingham (his pencil sketches around the text are particularly charming).

I happened to glance at the acknowledgements while typing this extract up, and was amazed to find that Jackie French (of my post yesterday describing
JOSEPHINE WANTS TO DANCE) is thanked by Christian Birmingham. One thing leads to another and I just did a quick search online to discover that French has a website with marvellous descriptions of the Australian bush - a current sample from March begins:
It’s rained. And rained.
The first rain sent a flash flood down the gorge, all mud and logs and froth, a wall of water higher than I am and a roar like 1,000 helicopters. The flood went down 10 minutes later ... and the ground was still dry, baked so hard that almost no moisture penetrated.
But then it rained again... and again... thunderstorm after thunderstorm.
I watched a puzzled echidna trying to dig for ants under 3 cm of water, and the lyrebirds dance along the fences. Rosie wallaby has even stopped eating roses, and is just munching grass- lovely soft green stuff that even tempts a blacktail wallaby who likes variety in her diet.
Go and take a look for yourselves; she also shares the real story which inspired
JOSEPHINE WANTS TO DANCE. I think I'm going to have to seek out her DIARY OF A WOMBAT - the real one still lives under her bedroom floor! Hard to resist after finding that out...


A bit last minute, but you've got a week yet - I've just picked up on the BREAD LOAF WRITERS' CONFERENCE and the fact that they are offering a scholarship to an African or Caribbean writer to attend this year's session in August. The deadline is April 1st, full details of the Fairbanks International Fellowship for African and Caribbean Writers here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Bit of a shock to the system, arriving back to sleet and snow when you've been swanning around in 25C plus for most of the last couple of months! Australia's heat (in the 20sC) was not as intense as South Africa's, where I stewed quietly in 34C and higher.

The surprise 75th birthday party in Sydney for my father-in-law was exactly that - he had been asked as a favour to collect food from a caterer for a business meeting and deliver it to a relative who works from home (therefore entirely plausible, especially as the actual birthday was still a few weeks off). Imagine his amazement at finding all of us gathered from far and wide to celebrate with him. The expression on his face made the 23 hour trip over (and 28 hours back!) absolutely worthwhile.

Most of the two weeks were spent with our delightful nieces and nephews - six of them aged between 3 and 10 - on school runs and extracurriculars: jazz dance, ballet, drama, swimming, T ball (baseball), soccer and AFL (Aussie Rules football). Who knew such little people could pack so much into their lives?! I was exhausted, never mind them (although that may have been the jetlag)!

As usual we were the bearers of good reads:
MY HAIRCUT STICKER BOOK by Lauren Child; Lauren Child has a deservedly quirky and entertaining reputation, although she's not suitable for very little children as they may find the action packed formula a little overwhelming. I recommend her for ages 5 and up. This book has great reusable stickers, and stickers for children are always just fabulous.

JOSEPHINE WANTS TO DANCE by Jackie French; this is new to me, but we stumbled across it in Australia - a delightful story about an enthusiastic kangaroo who wants to dance, persevering despite all attempts to curb her.

A BEAR CALLED PADDINGTON by Michael Bond; I lived near Lancaster Gate ten years ago, and that whole area of London with Paddington Station and the Portobello Road antique shops are the stomping grounds of this very loveable bear. Paddington Station has since been refurbished, but at the time there was a giant Paddington Bear soft toy in the Lost Property Office, which you could see from the platform - I hope it is still there. We had a tape recording of Paddington Bear stories when I was a child, and I've never forgotton the horror of the maitre'd when in a posh restaurant Paddington places his order: "A marmalade sandwich for the young bear gentleman, with custard."

GOODNIGHT MISTER TOM by Michelle Magorian; I have waxed lyrical about this one before so won't say more except that it is one of the finest children's books ever written and I give it to just about everyone I know over the age of ten.

THE MAGIC FARAWAY TREE by Enid Blyton; sigh - not exactly great literature, but it is fun, escapist and good for children who don't read much, or easily, to themselves.

WHERE'S JAMELA? by Niki Daly; Niki Daly is one of my favourite authors and illustrators of children's picture books. A very talented artist, he is also a superb storyteller, and the combination is fantastic. He has a great series of books following the adventures of a little girl called Jamela living in Cape Town. This particular title is the third in the series and looks at the anxieties faced by children moving house. I recommend without reservation all of this series. If they are new to you, start with the first, JAMELA'S DRESS, in which all the regular characters are introduced. Ages three upwards. If your local bookstore doesn't carry them, amazon does.


Saturday, March 03, 2007

I am in Australia! Sydney to be precise. We are here as the surprise present for the 75th birthday celebrations of the giri's father. Festivities begin tomorrow and we are in hiding until then, having arrived yesterday after 23 hours en route, flying via Kuala Lumpur. While I am delighted to be here, I look forward to arriving home and staying home for a while. I am clearly a landlubber.

We flew Malaysian Airlines (good legroom, quite tasty food, and reasonable selection of tv, movies and games): new features I'd never seen before on an airline included a prayer room on board (Malaysia of course, is a muslim country) and audiobooks should you not be a movie sort; these included Sewell's BLACK BEAUTY and Peter Carey's MY LIFE AS A FAKE. The giri of course had his own personal audio version (moi of course) as we continued with poor old Harry Potter's travails - it is a humdinger of a book to carry around while travelling, but needs must...!