Questioning history

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Well, this has to be one of the more creative and challenging structures for a book.

Two sisters who never meet form the basis of this book as each alternate chapter follows their and then their descendants’ stories.  It is a little hard to read as it does come across as a series of short stories.  There are some wide open and very definite holes in these vinaigrettes.  The impact of these missing stories is gruelling, and it’s hard to accept that was (and is) the reality for many.

This book will challenge most reader’s views on slavery and race.  It’s powerful and disturbing with a real strength of purpose, a first class choice for bookclubs.

There are many ‘lessons’ in it, but what has stayed with me was the reminder that history is written by the victors, by the powerful.  In this time of fake news and global perspectives, it’s a reminder we all need.  And one we must like the teacher in the book impart to our children.

This quote has remained with me:

“We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

Put it on your list for your next bookclub choice, loads to think and talk about.

Live for today

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

This is a beautiful and sad book.

I suspect it will speak to people in different ways. For some it will simply be one of the loveliest but saddest books they will ever read. I’m in that category. But for some people it will really challenge and change their perceptions, perhaps speak to them in a way nothing else will.

It’s the story of Tom, for whom time stops.  Or perhaps better said he ages so slowly he is centuries old despite his youthful appearance.

Given that time has stopped for him, what will Tom do with his life?  Will he aspire to greatness? Or will he allow fear to overcome him?  If you outlive everyone you ever meet can you form relationships?  With a seemingly endless future should you focus on the unknown ahead, the reality of your past or live for the moment?  And how do you even do that?

“The first rule is that you don’t fall in love”.

Imagine going through life avoiding falling in love. Of course, many people never feel that joy but knowing it’s impossible and never being lucky enough to experience it are very different.

Tom asks us the question – is it love that gives our lives meaning?  Or by living for now can we fall in love?

“A problem with living in the twenty-first century….. we are made to feel poor on thirty thousand pounds a year. To feel poorly travelled if we have only been to ten other countries. To feel old if we have a wrinkle. To feel ugly if we aren’t photo shopped and filtered”.

Tom knew Shakespeare, Captain Cook and Scott Fitzgerald.  He looks backward, believing that everything good is behind him.  And yet it’s a book about our own time.  A time in which despots appeal to people who feel threatened, where likes on an FB post are worth gold and celebrity images dictate our self esteem.

The author explores the role that putting down roots and forming real connections plays in your identity and mental health resilience.  What did his lack of connections post Rose and Marion say about Tom?  Should he risk it all again?

So, we come to the ultimate question.  What would you do with such a long life?  Would the fear of scientific exploration keep you in hiding?  Or would you throw caution to the wind to live your best life?

This book is so interesting, compelling and hugely relevant for today.  It’s simply beautiful.

Another great choice for your bookclub.

Time and childhood

The Child in Time Ian McEwan

At first glance from the blurb I expected a Madeleine McCann type story.  So, I started it with some trepidation, but it was a bookclub book so it had to be done.

Whilst, Kate the missing child dominates, I was surprised how little the story was actually about her.  I came to see what happened to Kate as the starting point to look at the concept of being trapped in time.

I loved the exploration of time and what it means, especially how the author cleverly speeded up time and then slowed it down.  It totally showcased the genius of the writing.

McEwan uses various ways to play with this concept of time. There’s the role of the commitee in giving structure to Stephen’s time – time was used to show that the book had already been written (past), whilst the committe sat (present) and worked towards their report (future). Brilliant!

Perhaps most impressively McEwan used his style of writing to demonstrate his theme, with the details about the committee being dull and bringing on a feeling of lethargy. Yet other parts were fast paced and absorbing.

The other theme inherent in the title is ‘child’ or childhood.  Obviously for Stephen this began with the missing Kate and then Julie’s decision not to share her pregnancy, so he had no time to prepare. The references to Stephen’s own childhood via his ride in the train engine as if he needed this memory of his own childhood before he moved on.

The character most impacted here was Charles. His revision back to childhood and Thelma’s role in this. Did this refect her experience as never having had a child? Was this their attraction?

The book is dystopian in nature which allowed for political commentary of sorts, including the gender neutral PM, most likely a representation of the Iron Lady.  This style allowed the almost magical story around Stephen and his parents’ memories, how he could access a memory from before he was born.  Memories and how we choose what to remember is another theme.

For bookclubs the quality and diversity of themes make it an absolute winner. I’m not sure I loved it, but I found it intriguing and definitely worthwhile with lots to talk about.

I read this in November but am only just catching up on review. I ran out of time (!).

Bookclub delight

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Definitely an incredibly fascinating story, gloriously detailed and richly thematic. And absolutely a bookclubber’s delight.  However, I’m not sure I’ll be adding it to my favourite ever books.

Yet, I think my view probably misses the point.  Anthony Doerr shows us so many slices of life, and his style is deliberately open to so many different interpretations.  In fact, there are elements that I simply didn’t get, which makes a bookclub conversation so much better.

For most books it’s pretty clear who the protagonist is. Not so here. Is this Marie-Laure’s story? Or Werner’s? Or maybe it’s both? Or is it all about the jewel?

Depending on how you saw the protagonist will define your story perspective. Is this about war and one that ask questions about the obvious villains?  Is it a war novel or not?  And how do you feel about the sympathetic portrayal of the Germans.

Or is it the story of M-L’s blindness, and the war is a tool that demonstrates the difficulties she faces. In particular the struggle to find a learn a new town.  And to survive the horrors when perhaps so much if it us hidden from you. Or is it?

Perhaps it is a story about power. The stone is incredibly powerful, as are the Germans and the man who searches for the ultimate jewel. But is the power in having the jewel, or in setting it free, given the supposed curse?

Alongside this big story, the author captures in such incredible detail an insight into a long lost world. The description of the museum and Marie-Laure’s father and his role with the keys was immensely moving and fascinating.  It’s so out of the realms of understanding for those of us working today, yet gives a sneak peak at the work our great grand parents might have done.

Werner’s love of radios and wires, when the mobile is so ubiquitous is both sweet and compelling.  It’s extraordinary to imagine little children tuning into radio shows across Europe as the fabric of that society tore itself in two.  The concept of a small boy trying to work out how and why the radio worked touched my heart.

The horror of the war with a unique twist of the average German, is exemplified throughout but the Giant’s search for clothes in his size and the Russian soldiers and the girls in Berlin were so simple, powerful and dreadful. It left a metallic taste in your mouth.

What makes it perfect for a bookclub is that I’ve not mentioned so many aspects of Doerr’s book:

– what makes someone like Eitenne so brave. Who would risk family for the greater good? And if none did what would the consequences have been?
– what does the ending mean? How impactful what was it? Was it what we wanted? Personally I didn’t get it at all!
– what was Frederick’s role? Was it demonstrate the changing nature of power? Or to show the impact on Werner? Or was he just a side show? I can’t see Doerr going with a side show but you never know.
– the indoctrination of children to the Nazi cause. How relevant is that today looking at Syria and other conflicts.  Have we learnt nothing?
– do the German people have a particular national resilience?  Or strength? To suffer the complete chaos in defeat that Doerr made evident yet somehow move past it to become a world power in a generation, is rather amazing.  Perhaps Mrs Merkel is really into something in her belief in Germany’s ability to cope today.

Of course, the resonance of Doerr’s story has such powerful implications for all of us today.  So, definitely suggest it to your bookclub and may the discussion commence!