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Foreign Policy had a heartbreaking photo essay last month on the Arab uprisings called Children of the Revolution.

Some of the facts from the piece :

In Yemen UNICEF counts at least 19 children who have been killed by both snipers and explosions since early February — an estimated 20% of the total casualties;

In Libya  Save the Children estimates that one million children are in serious danger as government forces battle rebels.

The article came to mind when reading my latest book club choice – The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

The novel is set in the country of Panem, from the Roman model of Panem et Circenses where in return for bellies full of bread and entertainment provided by gladiators in the arena, citizens were willing to give up political responsibilities and power.

Panem is made up of 12 districts ruled by a distant Capitol and has risen from the ashes of a place once known as America. The heroine, Katniss Everdeen, lives in the Seam, the coal mining area of District 12, in the place once known as Appalachia where “looking old is something of an achievement since so many people die early” and a “plump person is envied because they aren’t scraping by like the majority.”

The novel immediately lays out its themes by beginning on reaping day when the names of each child in the district aged between 12 and 18 are put into a pool. Each year a boy and girl from each district are pulled out at random to take part in the Hunger Games. The 24 children, known as tributes, fight to the death in a televised tournament with the winner receiving a life of ease and extra food for their families and their district.

The most interesting aspect of the book is the exploration of what this violence means for their society and if

something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences.

Katniss volunteers for the Hunger Games to replace her younger sister, Prim, and immediately becomes an unwitting symbol of resistance:

Instead of acknowledging applause, I stand there unmoving while they take part in the boldest form of dissent they can manage. Silence. Which says we do not agree. We do not condone. All of this is wrong.

Peeta Mellark, Katniss’ fellow tribute from District 12, wants to show the Capitol that he is more than just a toy in their games :

I don’t want to them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not

and Katniss finally comes to understand what he means.

Another interesting aspect of the book is how Katniss moves from being an unwitting symbol to an active player who movingly decides to do something during the Games to show the Capitol

that whatever they do or force us to do there is a part of every tribute they can’t own

However, just like in the real world, the issues are not presented purely in black and white, which has to be applauded in a book aimed at young adults. In Catching Fire, the second book of the trilogy, President Snow warns Katniss:

You have provided a spark that left unattended, may grow to an inferno that destroys Panem.

This spark provokes uprisings and acts of resistance in other districts and Katniss worries she is hurting the people she loves. However she realises they have already been hurt:

because what has been done to them is so wrong, so beyond justification, so evil that there is no choice

In the final book, Katniss becomes Mockingjay, the bird that has survived despite the Capitol’s plans.

Her fellow rebels idealistically aim to form a republic where the people of each district and the Capitol can elect representatives in a centralised government. But these ideals soon give way to reality of waging war, despite protests from Katniss:

But that kind of thinking – you could turn it into an argument for killing anyone at any time. You could justify sending kids into the Hunger Games to prevent the districts from getting out of line.

Katniss tragically learns that no-one benefits from a world in which these things are allowed to happen. We can only hope that lesson is understood in the real world for the real children of the revolution.

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This is a question I have been asking myself since I had to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as part of my book club and was reminded of by a recent article in The New Yorker.

Initially I was excited to see what all the fuss was about and why it had sold millions of copies. However that soon faded as I waded through the clunky writing (although to be fair I have only read the translation).

All the descriptions are well-worn clichés, “they had a connection as addictive as heroin”, and the book is full of mundane passages giving an unnecessary breakdown of how Mikael Blomkvist spends each minute of each day  :

“Instead on Monday he took the bus into Hedestad and spent the afternoon walking into town, visiting the library, and drinking coffee to see The Lord of the Rings, which he had never before had time to see. “

And Blomkvist, the “hero”, is really annoying. He is the only financial journalist I know who can go away for as long as he wants, not tell his editors what he is writing about and who has an unlimited budget.  But the most annoying thing about him is that every woman he meets, young and old, throw themselves at him without Blomkvist having to lift a finger.

The book doesn’t take off until he meets computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, a “heroine” who can calmly assess whether to use a gun, knife, bomb or poison against her guardian. She explains Salander’s Principles:

“One of them is that a bastard is always a bastard, and if I can hurt a bastard by digging up shit about him, then he deserves it.”

Larsson does a good job of creating sympathy for Salander despite constantly telling, instead of showing, the reader about “her lack of emotional involvement” by highlighting her intelligence, her loyalty to the few people who have shown her any kindness and her adherence to her own moral code:

“There are no innocents. There are, however, different degrees of responsibility.”

After finishing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I hadn’t intended to complete the trilogy but a friend urged me to continue to find out what happened to Salander in the “Great Evil”.

The banal dialogue and characterisation didn’t get any better but my friend was right in that the plot gets tighter and veers off in unexpected directions.  I read on because the last two books focus more on Slander than Blomkvist.  She becomes the rebel battling corruption in the highest reaches of the Swedish government, at great cost to herself, and that is ultimately a winning formula.

The best reason for the trilogy’s success is probably found in The Girl with Dragon Tattoo itself – in its description of Blomkvist’s book :

It was uneven stylistically, and in places the writing was actually rather poor – there had been no time for any fine polishing – but the book was animated by a fury that no reader could help but notice.

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“She passed away in a perfected dream of tragic love – consumptive, wet-eyelashed, and as often as not singing her goodbyes to him in phrases borrowed from popular Italian opera.”

Julian Treslove in The Finkler Question

Completely by coincidence, while I was reading the Man Booker-prize winner, a friend invited me to a fabulous production of La Boheme by The Metropolitan Opera. In Howard Jacobson‘s book, Julian Treslove, an obscure BBC radio producer-turned-celebrity-lookalike, has a “Mimi complex” :

“He couldn’t picture them dying in his arms. Couldn’t weep for them. And where he couldn’t weep, he couldn’t love.”

The beautiful music of La Boheme builds up to the climax of Mimi’s death but The Finkler Question deals with the grief of those left behind. Treslove is friends with two recent widowers –  the elderly Libor Sevick, who was devoted and faithful to his “inspiration, his instructress, his companion, his judge” Malkie in a long marriage and, in contrast, a much younger Sam Finkler, who had a string of extra-marital affairs.

Treslove wants to ask Libor :

“How do you go on living knowing that you will never again – not ever, ever – see the person you have loved ? How do you survive a single hour, a single minute, a single second of that knowledge ? …. Was it better then – measuring the loss – not to know happiness at all ? “

Treslove is not a widower and unlike his two friends he is not Jewish. However after a sequence of events which starts with being mugged by a woman Treslove decides he wants to be a Jew, or as he says, a  “Finkler” :

“If this was what all Jews looked like , Treslove thought, then Finkler, which sounded like Sprinkler, was a better name for them than Jew. So that was what he called them privately – Finklers.

He would have liked to tell his friend this. It took away the stigma, he thought. The minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say, or the Finklerish Conspiracy, you sucked out the toxins.”

Jacobson uses the wannabe Treslove and the contrast between the old Eastern European Libor and the secular Finkler to explore questions of Jewish  identity, antisemitism, and Israel and Palestine. But he also uses humour, even when discussing the Holocaust:

“Perhaps they [Jews] were able by a glance to thought-transfer the Holocaust to one another. “

and Jewish stereotypes:

“It was what God gave the Finklers as the mark of His covenant with them – the ability to shrug like him.”

The humour strikes exactly the right tone so that it does not diminish the seriousness of the issues being discussed and the laughter highlights the mourning of the two widowers. The book manages to be both funny and sad and it also provides hope:

“At a funeral Jews wish one another long life. It is a vote for life’s continuance in the face of death.”

Continuance in the face of death is the subject of Joan Didion‘s  heartbreaking The Year of Magical Thinking. In her memoir she unflinchingly describes her feelings after the sudden death of her husband of almost 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, while their daughter Quintana lies critically ill in a New York hospital.

The first words she writes are:

“Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.”

I read this book when it first came out in 2005 but re-read it when it was the most recent choice of my book club. I had forgotten just how good Didion’s writing is – the language is spare but crystal clear in portraying her feelings frankly and honestly, especially as she reaches the end of her year of magical thinking during which she keeps imagining John will be coming back. Anyone who has experienced the death of someone they love will find she has expressed the feelings they found inexpressible:

“The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place.

I look for resolution and find none…..

I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.

I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.

Let them become the photograph on the table.

Let them become the name on the trust accounts.

Let go of them in the water.

Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water.”

Letting go is not easy but after reading Didion’s book you will know the answer to Treslove’s question – happiness is worth the measurement of  the loss.

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This was the latest choice from my book club and although I find David Sedaris funny I had two major issues with When You Are Engulfed in Flames – the format and the subject matter.

The book is a collection of essays and I find short stories less satisfying than novels -just as I get into them, they end, which frustrates me.

As the title suggests there is a big section on Sedaris trying to give up smoking. I don’t smoke  – and don’t like the smell or taste of cigarettes – so the humour wasn’t enough to overcome my distaste of the habit and my lack of sympathy with Sedaris’ eulogies on the subject.

However if you like short stories and are more tolerant than I am about smoking, there were many other parts of the book that me laugh out loud – and in public.  My favourite was Sedaris’ search for a “discreet, masculine and practical” male accessory which led him to try out an external catheter:

“What ultimately did me in was the self-adhesive condom. Putting it on was mo problem, but its removal qualified as what, in certain cultures, is known as a bris. Wear it once, and you’ll need a solid month to fully recover. It will likely be a month in which you’ll weigh the relative freedom of peeing in your pants against the unsightly discomfort of a scab-covered penis, ultimately realising that, in terms of a convenient accessory, you’re better of with a new watchband.”

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So is there no fact, no event, in our private history, which shall not, sooner or later, lose its adhesive, inert form, and  astonish us by soaring from our body into the empyrean. Cradle and infancy, school and playground, the fear of boys, and dogs, and ferules, the love of little maids and berries, and many another fact that once filled the whole sky, are gone already; friend and relative, profession and party, town and country, nation and world, must also soar and sing”

The American Scholar, Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1837

I recently read this beautiful essay by Emerson for the first time and it reminded me of my book club’s third choice, Out Stealing Horses, which I have been meaning to get to since it was among the Best of the Millennium by The Millions.

The plot involves Trond Sander looking back at a summer when he was 15 through the eyes and wisdom of a 67-year-old man at the turn of the millenium. The past is set during the Second World War when Norway was occupied by the Germans but the most moving portions involve Trond’s heart-breaking relationship with his father. The book is not just about growing up, both as a child and as an adult, but also manages to deliver a meditation on living with nature, the importance of physical work and the joy and pain of love and loss.

I loved the lyrical language for which credit needs to go both to author, Per Petterson, and translator, Anne Born:

“I picked up the jug and poured a little milk into my cup. That made the coffee smoother and more like the light and not so strong, and I shut my eyes into a squint and looked across the water flowing below the window, shining and glittering like a thousand stars, like the Milky Way could sometimes do in the autumn rushing foamingly on and winding through the night in an endless stream, and you could lie there beside the fjord at home in the vast darkness with your back against the hard sloping rock gazing up until your eyes hurt, feeling the weight of the universe in all its immensity press down upon your chest until you could scarcely breathe or on the contrary be lifted up and simply float away like a mere speck of human flesh in a limitless vacuum, never to return.”

The language is also very sensual and captures the sight, sounds and smells of living in the woods:

“The sun was high in the sky now, it was hot under the trees, it smelt hot, and from everywhere in the forest around us there were sounds; of beating wings, of branches bending and twigs breaking, and the scream of a hawk and a hare’s last sigh, and a tiny muffled boom each time a bee hit a flower. I heard the ants crawling in the heather, and the path we followed rose with the hillside; I took deep breaths through my nose and thought no matter how life should turn out and however far I travelled I would always remember this place as it was just now, and miss it.”

I don’t want to give away the ending but the novel manages to finish on a perfect note, and the last sentence in particular bought tears to my eyes as it captures what Trond has to teach us about life.

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” I meant what I said, and I said what I meant ….

An elephant’s faithful – one hundred per cent !”

Theodore Seuss Geisel, Horton Hatches the Egg, 1940

This is the epigraph at the start of my book club’s second choice – Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

It is hard to tell from the title but the book has an unusual plot about  a travelling circus during the Great Depression. The main character and narrator is Jacob Jankowski, who is now “ninety. Or ninety three. One or the other” and looking back at his life while in a nursing home.

Although I haven’t reached that age yet, like all of us I know how it feels to get older, and one of  my favourite things about the book is that it captures how I imagine it must feel to cope with a body that does not let you do the things it used to :

“When you’re five, you know your age down to the month. Even in your twenties you know how old you are. But then in your thirties something strange starts to happen. It’s a mere hiccup at first, an instant of hesitation. How old are you ? Oh, I’m – you start confidently, but then you stop. You were going to say thirty three, but you’re  not. You’re thirty five. And then you’re bothered, because you wonder if this is the beginning of the end. It is, of course,  but its decades before you admit it.”

“Age is a terrible thief. Just when you’re getting the hang of life, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back. It makes you ache and muddies your head and silently spreads cancer throughout your spouse.”

The ageing is made more poignant by the fact that Jacob is looking back at his twenties when he joined a travelling circus, just as a circus sets up near his nursing home, and by alternating chapters between Jacob in his nineties and his younger self.

These are the sections I enjoyed less. The author has obviously carried out a tonne of research into the travelling circuses of that era but I feel the writing tries too hard to show you just how much research she has done – as a result the prose has a lot of detail, but can be a bit pedestrian, and doesn’t do justice to the story.

Nevertheless, I appreciate the originality of the idea and the plot and I don’t to give it away, but I love the ending.

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Have been reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This is not something I would normally choose but was picked by my book club and proved to be surprisingly enjoyable. An endorsement on the cover from Elizabeth Gilbert had always caused me to run a mile from this book as I hate memoirs/self-help tomes that bash you over the head about teaching you a lesson.

As is obvious from the title,  the book is set in Guernsey, but what may not be so obvious is that it takes place just after the island’s occupation by the Germans during the Second World War. Although I am English, this was something I knew very little about, and am ashamed to say that I knew nothing at all about the Todt workers, the slave workers sent over from Europe by the Nazis.

Despite these serious issues, the book also manages to be really funny, especially in the letters written by the heroine, Juliet Ashton. She manages to perfectly capture the tone of English sarcasm, no mean feat given that the book’s author, Mary Ann Shaffer, was American.

Living in New York I was particularly interested in Juliet’s impressions of her American suitor:

“He’s always had more than his fair share of what we call cheek and Americans call can-do spirit.”

Another reason I loved the novel is because the characters are passionate about reading, using the book club of the title as an escape from the horrors of Nazi occupation. As Eben Ramsay, one of the Guernsey residents, writes to Juliet:

“We clung to books and to our friends.; they reminded us that we had another part to us. Elizabeth used to say a poem. I don’t remember all of it, but it began “Is it so small a thing to have enjoyed the sun, to have lived life in the spring, to have loved, to have thought, to have done, to have advanced true friends? ” It isn’t.”

My only quibble with the book is that it is totally in the form of letters, but the only really distinctive voice is Juliet’s, so sometimes you get confused about which character is actually writing.

A reaction from the people of Guernsey can be found here.

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