We were reading Pippi Longstocking. The child then about 4 asked: But what happened to Pippi’s Mommy. Me: She is dead. Child: Ah ok, at least Pippi has a horse and a monkey. Yes, indeed, dear child of mine, she does have that. At that age, the fact that mothers were quite often dead and fathers were mostly absent did not bother the kid. That came later, once her own mother nearly succumbed to pneumonia, the possibility of a parent dying became something tangible and for a long time, she avoided narratives with dead mothers like the plague. And let me tell you: finding stories with parents around and healthy is quite difficult.
Now, I understand why parents in children’s books are often dead or away: It makes it easier to explain how the kid can take such tremendous risks, go on adventures without anyone shouting “bedtime” or “brush your teeth”. It is just simpler and more straightforward if there are no parents. A lot less explaining to do.
And the whole dead and absent parent thing is not new at all. Look at the Little Princess. Heidi moves in with Grandpa after her aunt takes a job in Frankfurt, both her parents are dead. Before that, the brother’s Grimm collected folk stories and a lot of them speak of absent, dead or cruel parents, which you may argue reflected reality for a lot of children then.
When I was little, I preferred stories of whole families, because I did not have one. The dead/absent parent thing was not something I needed to explore, nor did I need to explore the cruel parent thing. I wanted to be Annika rather than Pippi with a mother who tucks the kids at night and a father who leaves to go to work each morning. I wanted to be the Nesthaekchen, adored by a large family even though she was a lot naughtier than I would have ever been. As much as we seek reading material that reflect our lives, we also want to explore what life could be like. If you have healthy parents, exploring how to overcome hardship after your parents die will be fascinating. It teaches empathy and the “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”. It also teaches you about independence, consequences of decisions without the parental safety net. You can also explore how it would be to be brave or ask yourself what you would do yourself in certain situations, this being something I still often ask myself as an adult reader.
I admit that at times, I groan when there is another story of “mother is dead and father is away”, but I truly understand the doors it opens for storytelling. I am not quite ready to say “The mother is dead, long live the mother”, but I feel we need to accept that this aspect of storytelling will stay with us for good and for valid reasons.
The latest Maisie Dobbs – The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear is coming out on the 26th of March and I was lucky enough to get a review copy via Edelweiss. Thank you so much.
Naturally, I do not want to talk to much about the plot, this is book 15 in the series and naturally, things happen along the way, you would want to find out for yourself as you are reading them. Let’s just say this: The Blitz has started and London (and the rest of the country) experiences horrific bombing attacks each and every night. Everyone is tired but doing their bit despite the fear. At this time, a young woman is found murdered and Maisie is asked to investigate.
I have read this series for a long time, so I am always in the state of waiting for the next instalment, but I really like it that way. Every time it feels like I am meeting my old friends again. The books are easy to read, brilliant for escapism yet they deal with subjects like grief and loss, but are never without hope. In fact, I would say the main storylines of these books are resilience, failing and starting again. Certainly something I can identify with.
The Maisie Dobbs books are often looked down upon by more “serious” readers, and yes, they are not literary fiction, but so often the things women enjoy to do or read is being ridiculed, so we must just ignore that. Otherwise, we never get to do anything we truly enjoy. If you like historical mysteries, then you may just like this series. If you just want to sit down and read something that takes you away for a few hours, then these books may be for you. Whether you will enjoy the books or not will depend on whether or not, you gel with Maisie herself. I do. I find a lot of things in common with her, but also plenty that frustrates me about her. And that keeps me reading.
This latest instalment I read in one sitting as I did with all the other books. I am looking forward what the rest of WWII will bring to Maisie and her family and friends.
So, here we are on the 1st of March. The husband awoke this morning with a FFS how is it March already. We are getting old as this phrase is uttered pretty much every month and has become as ubiquitous as complaints about the weather.
So March. Which means that February is over and that we can look back at that shortest of months. Normally February sees pancake day which this year is in March, which made me and the kid feel cheated, so we had waffles a few times. As a German, it’s my obligation to own a waffle maker (naturally for round waffles, because square waffles are for square people) and I am not sure if that disappointment over the pancake situation has had an influence on my reading or not, but overall, I would say that February mainly stood out for the lack of real “Wow” books. Some decent books for sure, but really not that much that blew me over.
The month started with me feeling the blues quite a bit (much better now thanks for asking) and so I reached for Anne Lamott’s “Almost Everything – Notes on Hope”. I adore her books and I find that despite the fact I no longer consider myself a Christian, I don’t mind that she uses God and her faith to ponder some of the human problems we all face. For me, she truly achieves the aim she has in her writing. The making it just a tiny bit better.
Hardcover, 208 pages
Published October 16th 2018 by Riverhead Books
Then I picked up Mary Beard’s “Women and Power” which had been lingering on my shelf since it came out and I enjoyed it very much. Nothing new as such, but a nice confirmation, nodding along sort of read and sometimes that’s quite nice. A book that tells you “darling, the things you are thinking about, others are thinking them, too. You are not alone.” Nice.
Hardcover, 116 pages
Published November 2nd 2017 by Profile Books
I read Affinity by Sarah Waters way back when it came out in 2000ish or around that time. It was fresh and new and all exciting then and although it has never been my favourite Waters, I still liked it very much. I love all her books, I am a total fan girl. I re-read this on audio as it is the bookclub pick and we are meeting next week. I think this will be an interesting discussion and I am very much looking forward to it.
Paperback, Reprint edition, 352 pages
Published January 8th 2002 by Riverhead Books (first published 1999)
My mission this year is to read more books in German and so far it’s going well and low and behold there will be two German books in this round up. Der nasse Fisch by Volker Kutscher, known in English as “Babylon Berlin” set in 1929 in Berlin (surprisingly) centers around the shady side of Berlin, the decline of the Weimarer Republik and all sorts of shenagigans. Now, the characters are a bit flat and the plot at times a bit “oh dear”, yet the setting of this book in Berlin of that time just won me over. So I thought I mention this here.
Hardcover, 494 pages
Published 2007 by Kiepenheuer & Witsch
Kindle Edition, 544 pages
Published May 19th 2016 by Sandstone Press (first published 2007)
February’s pick for the Read Around the World Bookclub was Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, a novel set in Uganda. The story starts in the 18th century. The fascinating thing about reading around the world is that you get exposed to cultures and ideas that are not part of your own cultural map. I have been a reader all my life but my cultural map is very much based on European writing and also US fiction. I lack historical knowledge of Africa beyond the things of colonialsm we did in school, I certainly lack an understanding of culture, mythology, storytelling traditions, tribes etc. etc. So there will be much in this book that just went plain over my head. I see reading books like this as a chance to develop over time a new cultural map, so with time, I will gain greater understanding of Africa and its cultures, its history, its countries. The emphasis here is on time, reading one book by an African writer or even two will not do this. I am very much willing to be on this journey, so this book is a stepping stone and a good one at that.
Paperback, 442 pages
Published June 18th 2014 by Kwani Trust (first published 2014)
I am not sure if I would have found Sherry Thomas if it wasn’t for Booktube, but I am glad I did, I enjoyed the second book in the series just as much as the first one. Sherry Thomas is a Chinese-American writer mostly known for her romance novels, this is more a mystery with a dash of romance. But man do I enjoy escaping into the world of Charlotte Holmes and the “what if Holmes was a woman” scenario. This past week has been super busy with work and then to just kick back and open a book that just transports you away: Magic.
Kindle Edition, 336 pages
Published September 5th 2017 by Penguin Group (USA) LLC
Die schärfsten Gerichte der tatarischen Küche by Alina Bronsky was another German book I enjoyed but that also repulsed me. Rosa is a woman who is – put kindly – overpowering and we hear her point of view of all the things that happen in her life through her eyes and witness her psychological abuse of her husband, her daughter, her grandaughter through her eyes. Harsh, but a great read. My husband always says, evil people don’t consider themselves evil, they think they are doing the right thing and that is essentially the story here.
German edition: Paperback, 317 pages Published 2010 by Kiepenheuer & Witsch
English edition: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine
Paperback, 262 pages
Published April 26th 2011 by Europa Editions (first published 2010)
That’s it from me. What were your favourite reads in February?
What with Brexit and all that stuff, I have felt very much bereft of home over the past 2 1/2 years. I came to the UK and made my home here, but I cannot honestly say that the UK feels like home at the moment. Yes, my husband and kid are here. Yes, I have a house. Yes, I am still quite privileged. But home is a feeling that you cannot just so easily conjure, it is something that you feel, something that is linked to feeling save, feeling wanted, a place where you feel that you can contribute and that your contribution is valued and alas, I have not been feeling any of this for quite some time.
In recent months, I have heard from various people that I could go “home”, meaning I could return to Germany (which conjures that feeling of not being welcome mentioned above). It is hurtful to hear this even if it is meant well. Hurtful because for one: I thought I made my home here, but if other people think my home is elsewhere, then how can I feel at home here. And also: I am not so sure, how at home I would now feel in Germany or how at home my husband and daughter would feel.
Germany will always be my “Heimat”, my home country, where I am from, the country of my roots. But the place I think of now when I think of Germany is very much a place of nostalgia, after all, I have not lived there for more than 15 years. Still, there are so many things I still miss about Germany. Too many to list them in just one blog post, but I thought I list a few.
I love sparkling water, but here I hardly every buy it because of the single use plastic bottles. I miss the deposit scheme in Germany, where you buy a crate of drinks and then return it again when empty and get a new crate of drinks. It may be an odd thing to miss, but I just do. When I was little, you even could have the crates delivered. And taken down into the cellar. And then it was usually my job to get the drinks from the cellar, because no one else wanted to go down and get them.
2. Swimming pools
We have pools here in England, sure, but German pools are just nicer, cleaner and more family friendly. Last summer, we spent most days at the local outdoor pool, it has a restaurant, you can hire deckchairs, it is clean and green. We also went to an indoor pool with slides and a spa area, we spent nearly 4 hours there and it cost us half of what a cinema trip for the three of us costs in the UK.
3. The weather
I am from South Germany and it rains there too and we have days where the skies are grey and it’s miserable. Yet, the summers seem to be overall warmer and the winters see some snow each year still. Also, it is less humid overall, which means that my asthma is always better back home.
4. Non-shopping Sundays
I hope this never changes. At times it feels to me all English people ever want to do is go shopping. I love that Sundays are quiet days, family days. And don’t you dare mow your lawn. I never thought, I would miss that, but alas I do.
5. The cities and towns and villages
I miss that it is mostly clean. I miss the bakeries. The small supermarkets. The ice cream parlours. I miss Freiburg. And the mountains. I miss the forests and the fries. I miss a good, German beer and the fact that you can speak your mind. I miss the difference between Du and Sie and that the distinction is between friend and acquaintance. I miss so much and now I am super homesick.
Have you ever that thing that when you think about a certain topic, it will pop up everywhere? I get that all the time and in the past few weeks, I have been thinking about who decides that a book is worthy to be read. Are the high-powered readers gatekeepers and only willing to let those in that read the books that are high-brow?
It will come as a surprise that I don’t just wreck my brain about Brexit, but that I actually think about a lot of other stuff too. Mainly reading. Luckily thanks to youtube and starting my own Any Book Bookclub, I am now surrounded by readers both virtual and actual and that has been mighty fine, but the thing that got me pondering started a few weeks ago.
At the local slimming club (yep, I know, yet, trust me in this, it is the most culturally diverse group I belong to), a friend and I were talking about books and a lady chimed in and said that she tried to join a bookclub once and she was made to feel that she was stupid because she did not read literary fiction (or as she referred to them “high and mighty books”) and then she never went again. We were obviously sad about this, but at first I thought, that she would be an isolated case. So I asked some friends, who are readers as to why they don’t attend a bookclub, every single one stated the same reason. Now, I am not saying this is the perfect sample size or anything, but it certainly got me thinking.
Then someone on twitter mused if literary snobbism is something that puts people of reading full stop. And then Dr. Sami Schalk posted this which opened this even wider for me.
“Can I instead write an article about how the concept of guilty pleasures in based in classism, racism, & sexism instead? Because “low brow” often means poor/working class, racialized or feminized things? How bout that article?”
And suddenly all started to make sense to me. If you want to be part of an educated elite you cannot read for entertainment, you must read for advancement and by the sheer act of choosing to read a romance novel, you somehow out yourself as someone who is a bit silly and cannot be taken serious. Nonsense naturally, but still deeply ingrained in society.
My grandmother read voraciously, she and her friends in our village exchanged reading material and had an elaborate system of initials to mark the reading so the bags full of stuff went around the village in the right order. Trust some middle-aged/older ladies to organise the shit out of reading, they loved it and the exchange of reading material always meant chats and random meet ups for a cup of coffee.
Does it matter that the reading material was what we call in Germany “Groschenromane”.
I don’t think so. My grandmother and her friends had all survived the war, most of them were displaced from various Eastern territories, now, we would talk about Post-Traumatic shock but back then we did not. I know now that my grandmother suffered from depression, as a middle aged woman I have the language to describe what was the matter while I was growing up and I firmly believe that those little novelettes gave her respite from whatever was going on in her head. (She also had arthritis in her hands, so hardbacks were never an option, but the ableism in the reading community is a completely different topic.)
My daughter started secondary school last autumn and so far, I really like how the school handles the whole “reading challenge” thing. They got a challenge book which they can fill out and the expectation is to read 12 books throughout the year in various categories with one set book for all of them to read since the author will visit the school in the summer term. But as for what those books are it does not matter. If you want to read Bone as a classic, you can as long as you can make a case why you fit it into the category. Zero judgement. My daughter read a manga for historical fiction. The school librarian told her that that was an inspired choice. I felt like sending flowers to the librarian.
I think it is no accident that women’s fiction is a “genre” and every time I see someone use it in a way that makes it feel like the put down of a whole sex and women pointing out that they don’t read women’s fiction because they don’t have time for that, I feel like getting my soapbox out and lecturing everyone on how this is a form of oppression and how clever that is because most of us buy into it, shamefully at times picking a title up that is deemed to be light and just right for those silly little women. I have turned it around. I am proud to read fiction written by women – which is all what women’s fiction really is – about women’s lives. Barbary Pym wrote women’s fiction, Jane Austen did, too. There is nothing wrong about reading whatever type of author as long as you enjoy the book.
Naturally, some readers read for personal advancement, they are keen to learn something from the books, they love structure and wordplay but surely, they can enjoy that and discuss that without having to look down on readers who may not get the same kick out of that.
I always like to cite my daughter’s hate of aubergine and courgette, it’s just not her thing as much as that saddens me, I have come around to just appreciate that she eats sooo many vegetables with gusto. I wish the same would be said for readers and reading, which is mainly why I started the Any Book Bookclub. I hope that people will keep coming talking about whatever book they enjoy, whether that is a footballer’s biography, the latest Mills&Boon or a ManBooker winner, because instead of lamenting of what people don’t read, we should celebrate that they do in fact read.
It is hard to not be fully absorbed by the whole Brexit thing especially when as a European citizen in the UK, it could potentially have such a dreadful impact on your life. Yet, I don’t want to write again about Brexit and the idiocy of it all, the useless politicians (Caroline Lucas being an exception here), that if any of us did our work like they do, we would be fired, blah, blah, blah. I bore myself with it.
As always when things happen around me that I cannot change, I resort to books. Reading is and has always been the only form of escaping my head that truly works. In particular, historical mysteries, but as you know, I read all sorts. So, all things that must be done are done with speed and efficiency so I can retreat to the sofa or my bed with the book. At this point, it feels like it’s the only thing I can do.
I also had a lovely reply about some nature writing by writers of colour in form of a crowdfunded online magazine, called the Willow Herb Review and it is wonderful and has cheered me so much today and reminded me how wonderful the internet can be, you seek, you ask and then someone will say, oh yes, that thing you are seeking it’s here, come and have a look. Small things that make all the difference.
I made marmalade this week, which is a January tradition to banish my January blues and then promptly dreamed that when the government is banning me from the UK, I was not allowed to take my (English) family and not even a single jar of marmalade, because I was not British enough. But I did not really want to write about this kind of stuff, today, but it just creeps in everywhere like sand from the beach which will be found in shoes and bags for years to come.
As most weeks, I envy my cats who are so not touched by what is going on, but I like to kid myself that they can feel that I am overwhelmed and worried and like to hang out with me more. That the paw reaching for my thigh is a reassuring gesture rather than a “human please feed me” move. Like most pet servants, I am convinced that my cats truly love me and understand me. I guess this illustrates perfectly how mad I am, but since I am not the only person to do this, I would consider this a socially acceptable form of madness.
The asthma is still bad which meant that I opted against a walk today. Birmingham does its best to reassure us that air quality is good, but trust the asthmatic: it’s not. The last couple of winters in particular, I really felt it. I know that us with poor lungs are naturally not seen as a measure of things, that it has to become so bad that those with super healthy lungs complain too before anyone even listens. Not going outside though is hard, but my lungs do need a break. Looking forward to being back in the Angus Glens, after a few days up in Scotland my lungs always improve.
But then, will we be able to go at Easter what with Brexit. Argh, there it rears its head again. It’s freaking everywhere, I cannot think any thought for more than three seconds before Brexit flashes in big neonlights.
I shall leave at this juncture and drink some coffee and read a book.
There are books, that you just know you must read and Blood & Sugar is one of them. Then I saw that it had an endorsement by C.J. Sansom, which tripled my excitement and then it became the Bookseller’s One to Watch out For in January 2019.
The story set-up is simple. It’s 1781, Captain Harry Corsham is a returned war hero with an illustrious political career in front of him, when one day out of the blue, the sister of an estranged friend shows up at his door to say that her brother has gone missing after visiting Deptford and if he could enquire as to his whereabouts. Deptford had been at the time one of the most important ports in the UK for the overseas trade bringing in a steady supply of sugar and tobacco and thus heavily involved in transporting humans for the slave trade.
What I adored most about the book was the fact that it portrayed a Britain that was not completely white, it often irritates me that authors create this past that is whiter than white. This book deals with the facts of Britains ambiguous stance on slavery even then as in slaves could become free in Britain if they managed to get to court before they found themselves on a ship to the West Indies and yet, how the slavery lobby was so powerful it basically trumped everything. It must have been a situation of horror having claimed your freedom, yet, worry about abduction of yourself or your family members all the time.
I also loved how the author dealt so skilfully with Corsham’s constant struggle to decide what to do: The thing that is easy or the thing that is right. That is so skillfully done.
I believe this to be a standalone but I hope there will be other books by this author as I thoroughly enjoyed this debut. If you like the books by C.J. Sansom or S.G. MacLean then I think, you will like this one, too.