I’m Back or On Why I did not Blog for Over a Year

It’s been more than a year since my last blog post on Memory of Water. My excuse for this silence is well, I had a baby girl on 12 May 2014!

fine balanceOn my last day at work, my wonderful colleagues at Belgravia Books gave me a pile of books that promised to make the wait for baby more bearable and less boring. Well, baby took it’s time and in between cooking and freezing, packing and re packing, going swimming (going floating really) I started a big fat novel called A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.

At 600 plus pages and a particularly small font, the novel symbolised my resignation that baby was officially overdue. There would be long days ahead of me.

Without giving much away, the novel is set in India in the late seventies during the period known as The Emergency. As usual, I knew nothing of this chaotic episode in India’s history but the great triumph of the novel are the characters. On one hand Mistry gives a heart breaking insight to life in Bombay’s slums, and on the other depicts the never ending struggles of the middle class to remain there. The clashes between rural and urban life are also a key element on the development of the characters in the story.

Half way into the book, Paloma was born. In the few moments of peace and quiet in hospital I found myself wondering about what was in store for my characters. In particular, the tailors and aunty Dina. They felt like family and in a surreal way I was worried about them.

Back at home and in between naps, I managed to finish the novel. It took me 3 months but every page was worth it. I had the best of both worlds, a sleeping baby and a good book.

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Hate the character, love the book

commandantIs it possible to like novel featuring a protagonist that is evil and unscrupulous? Or is it that we admire the author’s ability to construct a character that will give us the creeps as the story unfolds? In order to find the answer to these questions I dare you to read Monsieur Le Commandant (Gallic Books).

In this outstanding book, Romain Slocombe gives life to Paul-Jean Husson, a character that you will find very hard to forget. This is an epistolary novel centred in one letter only addressed to a Secret Service Commandant. We are presented with one narrative voice which is that of Mr Husson. So don’t get too upset demanding ‘the other side of the story’. There will never be one.

So, who is Paul-Jean Husson? Our protagonist is a retired WWI hero, powerful, arrogant, also a novelist and on top of that a Nazi sympathiser. Needless to say, the anti-Semitic element is pretty much a key part of his personality but things get nasty when he falls desperately in love with his son’s German wife Ilse. And to make matters worse, after he investigates her background, he finds out that she’s Jewish. Well, if you think this sounds bad enough, Monsieur Le Commandant has many more surprises in store for you.

There’s no question that Mr Husson is a despicable character. The things he says in his letter to ‘Monsieur le Commandant’ are shocking and offensive but we must remember that Paul-Jean Husson is overall a man of his time.  So before you throw the book in rage remember this is 1942 and although it may be hard to believe, this novel is a reminder that there were people who thought persecuting Jewish people wasn’t such a bad idea.

‘The Jewish question has been often been misunderstood. I do not criticise the Yids for their work ethic . . . or for their notorious business acumen. As you know as well as I, the gravity of the situation is that the Jews pose a national and social threat to every country in which they are to be found. National, because the Jews are a homeless nation and assimilate only superficially into the civilization of the country that has nonetheless honoured them with its welcome.’ (p.43)

It is hard to read some of these lines in the present time and not think in horror how could someone say and do such things? But I applaud Romain Slocombe for creating such a despicable character such as Paul-Jean Husson.  Why? For the simple reason that he is a reminder that we’ve come a long way and we must work together to make the world a better place.

Bitter Almonds or The Privilege of Literacy

bitterThey say that giving a book to someone is also giving a commitment as people expect you to read it. This is how Bitter Almonds fell into my hands.

As many of you, I have a reading waiting list and I promise myself not to buy more books until I’ve read the ones I have in that never ending pile. I must confess I was reading something else when Bitter Almonds appeared. With not too much room in my bag I carried the book in my hand and while on the bus I started reading it. The rest is history. I was hooked.

This is perhaps one of the lesser known novels by the French writer Laurence Cossé. But certainly one that had a strong impact in me and that I’ll remember for a long time. The idea behind the novel is simple: literacy.

For many reading and writing is as natural as breathing. I can’t even remember that process in my childhood. I was born in a family of readers, in a house with a library that keeps on growing and where you’ll be able to find all sorts of books from classics to mountaineering and landscape gardening books. Reading has always been there, but not for Fadila, Bitter Almonds’ main character.

One day, any day, Edith, receives her new housemaid: Fadila, a 60 year old Moroccan lady. Nothing unusual there except that Fadila is illiterate. And this is when the story becomes heartbreaking and an eye opener. Edith is determined to teach Fadila to read and write, and in this process the world of Fadila opens to the reader. Just imagine not using public transport such as the underground because you’re unable to read the stations or the map.

Even more, finding your bearings in a big city rely on your memory, street names mean nothing to you. Fadila always takes the bus, the same bus and if there’s a change of route she panics and can’t get to get to work. Using a cash point is unthinkable and therefore the only way is to ask a cashier in a bank to help you fill the slips. Needless to say, Fadila can’t do numbers either. The novel is set in modern day Paris, a city where, like many others, literacy is a given. In today’s world we look around assuming the written word speaks to everyone. But very few times we sit back to think about those who did not have the opportunity or the gift of literacy.

Fadila’s journey into learning is truly a very difficult one. I’ve never tried to teach anyone to read and write and since recommending this book on Twitter I was contacted by teachers who read the book and told me that Edith’s and Fadila’s experience was beyond painful and frustrating.

I come from a country where illiteracy is not unheard of and as a book lover is easy to forget it. The great achievement of a novel such as Bitter Almonds is that takes you to the core of a life shared by many people all over the world.

In a nutshell, never take literacy for granted.

All you need is less

I wonder if you share the feeling. One day you get out of bed and suddenly realize that there are way too many books in the flat. They don’t fit in the bookshelves any more, there are so many that you can’t even see them as they are in double piles. Some have been sitting there for so long that the sun has even changed their colour, leaving the covers with weird marks. Others, are just buried under a cloud of dust capable to give you a 10 minute sneeze attack by only flicking the pages. Something has to be done.

The process goes as follows. You stand in front of the bookshelves and choose which books to donate to your local charity (I give mine to the British Heart Foundation because they look genuinely interested and grateful for my books). You fail the first attempt: all seem precious, relevant and useful.

Attempt #2  involves being very, very honest with yourself. Are you really going to re- read all these books? As the answer is no, you start moving books around and having a proper look. But what do you find?

The “denied ownership” book

80(2)

You’re horrified to find a copy of The Da Vinci Code. Can’t be. You don’t read that kind of literature. Well, it’s there to remind you of weaker times in your life. The second horror moment comes from finding foreign language dictionaries. Did I really studied German, Italian, Russian and Japanese? You won’t miss them really. Be brave, find them a better home.

The “I never really liked it” book

The exercise is now becoming more of a behavioural analysis. You then pull that book that you read ages ago and didn’t like it. In fact, you don’t even remember what is it about (that’s how big its impact was in your life). Why keep it?

Signed book = can’t let go

Books2102FranciscoGoldmanThis one is really tough. Books under this category can potentially share the dust treatment. You bought the book at an event, got it signed by the author, read it and well, it was just not your thing. You know it’s taking up space but can’t let go: it’s signed by the author. Looks like you’re doomed to keep it.

I have a book like those. For some it’s a great and necessary book but I found it just too grim and sad to carry on reading. It’s called The Art of Political Murder by Francisco Goldman. I didn’t finish it, but it has a nice dedication after I helped in his UK visit. I didn’t get to meet him and he  still sent me the copy as a thank you. Should I? Surely not!

The “bought 6 years ago” book

Arthur and George

These are a classic! They work like those clothes you buy thinking you’ll fit in them once you lose weight. Truth is that those books sit there for ages being neglected. You pick them up every now and then, remove the layers of dust, and think “nah, not now”. And there it goes another year! The perfect example in my bookshelves of that kind of book is Arthur and George by Julian Barnes. I even tweeted asking if it was worth reading it! Answers were very positive but still ended in the charity shop. Sorry.

As hours go by you find it’s getting a little bit easier: if you let that book get so incredibly dusty it’s because you don’t really care that much about it. Come on, let’s be honest. But as I fill my bag of unwanted books I keep asking myself, why is it so hard to detach myself from books if they are just sitting there!

Perhaps the answer flows in the same direction as why we keep objects around us. Books are part of our lives, they grow with us, they accompany us in our travels, they share the coffee with us in the morning (especially when you spill it on it) and are the teddy bears of the grown ups.

Giving books away is hard. Trust me, every time I go to my local charity shop I can’t help explaining my action as if I was committing a crime.  “I love my books, they don’t fit any more, and all we need is less”. That’s what I said to the lady at the charity shop who clearly doesn’t care, gives me a big smile and says “thank you for your donation”.