We Need to Talk About Children’s Books in a Grown Up Way

There was an article in the Evening Standard on 28 January with the above title written by Katie Law, an ES journalist, covering the views of Lauren Child, the best-selling author-illustrator and current Children’s Laureate, on the problems faced by children’s books.

Lauren Child

Law says: “Lauren Child thinks children’s book publishing still gets a bad deal. It’s one of the reasons she is so happy to be a judge for this year’s Oscar’s Book Prize ‘There’s still a lot of snootiness about children’s books. Just look at the teeny-weeny percentage that get reviewed compared to adults. It’s as if there’s a kind of hierarchy.’

“Child is best known for her books featuring Clarice Bean, Charlie and Lola (who became a TV series), Ruby Redfort and Hubert Horatio, which together have sold more than five million copies worldwide. In the two decades since we first met quirky, snub-nosed Clarice Bean and her chaotic, trendy family, her legions of original fans have become adults. ‘The most touching experience in my whole career is talking to grown-ups who tell me what the book meant to them when they were growing up,’ says Child, 53. ‘It’s why I’m so passionate about the idea that children’s book writing and illustrating should get more recognition, and why prizes like Oscar’s Book Prize are so important, because there is so little coverage. We know that a child’s life can be changed by what they read, so why don’t we spend more time thinking about what that material is?’

“Pippi Longstocking, Mary Poppins and The Secret Garden — all of which she has illustrated — were the books that had the most profound effect on Child when she was growing up. ‘The Secret Garden was a gamechanger because it was about someone who was so hard to like. She was plain, had a horrible expression on her face, was bossy and ungrateful. As a child I felt like her, I felt all of those things. I felt it was me. So for children who might think bad things about themselves, these stories can help let them off the hook. It’s all a drip-drip effect, which is why it’s important we talk about children’s books in a grown-up way, in terms of what they’re about, rather than just saying ‘Isn’t it lovely?’

Clarice Bean

“Ms Child says: ‘We’re great at giving prizes for unusual adults’ books but not so good at praising people who have different ideas about children’s books; things need to be a bit more extraordinary.’ Her own trajectory is a great example: Clarice Bean only took off when she stopped trying to please her publishers. ‘I was young and kept trying to do what they wanted and getting it wrong, so every time I rewrote or redrew something, it would get more dead. It had none of me in it, so quite rightly they rejected it. I actually started writing Clarice Bean as a film and forgot about all the things you need to make a book, and that’s when the publishers suddenly became interested. It’s about the need to reject everything you think they want and find your own voice.’

“The National Literacy Trust finds that one in 11 children and young people in the UK don’t own a book (a figure that rises to one in eight children on free school meals), and that book ownership is one of the highest predictors of reading attainment and mental well-being.

“Child grew up in Wiltshire in a happy family not unlike Clarice Bean’s. Today she lives in north London with her partner, criminal barrister Adrian Darbishire, and their daughter Tuesday, now nearly nine, whom she adopted from Mongolia at the age of two-and-a-half after visiting the country as part of a Unesco project.  ‘Having Tuesday doesn’t change the way I write or illustrate but it does make me see more than ever how important illustration is. We had no common language when she arrived. But we did have drawing, and she was a natural right from the start, which really helped us communicate. It’s important for children that their drawings are looked at and that it has a wide role in education because it’s about learning to observe and understand, just like creative writing, and having these skills can make you much more empathetic.'”

I particularly agree with what Ms Child says about book publishers: they don’t know what they want, but when they find something eclectic that is well-written and full of the author’s passion, they go for it.

 

Review: The Choice

My wife read this book – an autobiography of an Auschwitz survivor – and recommended it so highly that I had to read it.  Dr Edith Eger, the author, was born Editke Elefant in Kosice, Slovakia (then part of Hungary) on 29 September 1927.  In early 1944, the Nazis occupied Hungary and forced Edith, her two sisters, Magda and Clara, her mother and father into the Kosice ghetto.  In May, 1944, when Edith was 16, she, her mother, father, and sister, Magda, were loaded onto cattle cars and sent to Auschwitz, where her mother and father were murdered; Clara, a violinist, is away from home at a concert, and survived the war with a false identity.

Edith Eger

Edith is made to dance by the infamous Dr Mengele.  Together, Edith and Magda endure the terror, famine, forced labour,and extreme hardship of Auschwitz; in late 1944, they are moved by train to Germany where they work as slave labourers in factories.  They are moved again to Austria.  Of the two thousand prisoners who were forced on a death march to Gunskirchen, the sisters are two of only one hundred who survive.  Edith was discovered in a pile of the dead, more dead than alive, by a US soldier in May 1945.  The sisters are nursed back to health and travel to Prague, where they are reunited with Clara.

They return to Kosice, and find their old house which has been occupied and looted.  Edith meets Bela Eger, a wealthy Jew, who has survived the war as an anti-Nazi, and they are married.  Many Hungarians feel threatened by the Communist take-over of Hungary and cast about for a safer refuge.  Clara emigrates to Australia, Magda chooses the US and Bela has made arrangements to start a business in Israel.  At the last moment Edith decides to take her baby daughter to America, and Bela goes, too, first to Brooklyn, then Baltimore and El Paso.  They face low wages, poor accommodation and discrimination.   Bela finds work as and accountant, and Edith gets her masters and doctorate degrees, becoming a clinical psychologist.   She has three children and now lives in La Jolla, California.

There are poignant descriptions of Edith’s journey to Hitler’s castle in the Bavarian mountains where she slept in Goebble’s bed, of her return to Auschwitz, and of her counselling sessions, particularly with soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

The title of the book, The Choice, is derived from Edith’s belief that we cannot change the external events in our lives; we can only choose how we respond to them.  She and Magda chose to survive against all odds.  She also highlights a piece of advice from her mother: “They can never take away what you put in your mind.”

Perhaps the most important passage in the book occurs on page 307: Edith is recalling that on entering Auschwitz, Dr Mengele asked her, “Is she your mother or sister?”  She replied, “Mother,” and learned later that this choice effectively condemned her mother to death, as all those over 40 or under 14 were executed.  She says, “Could I have saved my mother?  Maybe.  And I will live all the rest of my life with that possibility.  And I can castigate myself for having made the wrong choice.  That is my prerogative.  Or I can accept that the more important choice is not the one that I made when I was hungry and terrified, when we were surrounded by dogs and guns and uncertainty, when I was sixteen; it’s the one I make now.  The choice to accept myself as I am; human, imperfect.”

This is a timeless book, well-written, that speaks constructively about life, death, humanity and uncertainty.

Review: Achieving Superpersonhood

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Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives
William Peace
Strategic Book Publishing and Rights Co. (2018)
ISBN 9781948858892
Reviewed by Robert Leon Davis for Readers Views (1/19)
“Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives” by author William Peace is a novel set on the Continent of Africa, involving the personal lives of three East Africans. Each is exposed to various decisions and choices they make involving their lives, with either dire consequences or happy outcomes. The intertwining relationships between the friends is just plain awesome.
“Achieving Superpersonhood” is sort of written in the third person, which eloquently dictates the pace of the characters’ lives. There is also what I call a “footnote,” or another person speaking in the third person, which reminds one of God or Satan, (or good or bad), immediately questioning each person’s decisions. This “footnote” is the brilliancy of the author and the plot! I really don’t know how he imagined this stupendous plot or “footnote.” It’s a novel that can’t be explained but actually has to be read.
I’ve read hundreds of novels, but this is top on my list. It’s the crème de la crème of novels that I’ve read. I personally place this work in the vein of a Charles Dickens. Huh, you say? Yes, in my humble opinion. As I’ve stated and must repeat it again; the plot is beautifully set, with surprisingly contrasting differences between each character and a “can’t wait to read what’s next” feeling.
“Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives” by William Peace is an excellent, well-written novel, thought provoking on a serious level, and a beautiful flow from one incident to another. The characters also seem real, not imaginative. I thank the author for sharing this “work” not book, with me, and recommend it to the many readers who enjoy and love reading a good novel. Well done, sir. 5 stars plus!

Review: Achieving Superpersonhood

The following review has been posted on the Indie Reader website:

ACHIEVING SUPERPERSONHOOD: Three East African Lives

by William Peace

Verdict: With ACHIEVING SUPERPERSONHOOD: Three East African Lives, author William Peace delivers a beautiful, if sometimes gritty story, functioning as a contemporary and outstanding example of narrative form.

IR Rating   5.0  IR Rating

Three coming-of-age tales set against the dramatic backdrop of East Africa make up this compelling novel from William Peace. Each young person comes from a distinctly different background: Kamiri, a poor migrant from a tribal culture, Dorothy, an earnest college graduate, and Hassan, the youngest son of a wealthy Muslim family. Their lives intersect as they experience the real world and learn more about who they are and what they want to become.

Told by an observer narrator, each person’s story is in the present tense, so the reader will feel like an insider, experiencing stirring and sometimes sensational highs and lows. Peace paints a stunning picture of each character and what they endure, whether on the road with Kamiri as he makes his way from “Village” to “City”, or in the thick of a mining scandal with Dorothy, as she attempts to expose the truth and save poor diamond miners from an evil corporation. As for Hassan, his struggle with identity delivers him from university into the hands of an Islamic extremist group, whose violent practices repulse him. Readers will sense Kamiri’s sweet innocence, Dorothy’s sincerity, and Hassan’s confusion and self-doubt. Readers will root for these characters, none of which are unlikable, despite their flaws and naivete.

But perhaps what is most fascinating about this book’s narrative form is the interjections by the “One” and the “Other.” Both of these “characters” speak in the first person, commenting on Kamiri’s, Dorothy’s, and Hassan’s choices, as well as human nature in general. Readers can interpret these “characters” as God and the Devil, with the latter often dismissing the former, due to the deity’s disinterest in the seedier side of humanity. The One and the Other also occasionally drop in to influence the characters in various ways, some of which gets ignored, much to the Other’s disgust.

What could have been another loss of innocence story or journey of the spiritual self is a truly magnificent example of narrative form. As readers experience what happens to characters in between comments from the One and the Other, they will find themselves increasingly unable to wait to turn the page.

With ACHIEVING SUPERPERSONHOOD: Three East African Lives, author William Peace delivers a beautiful, if sometimes gritty story, functioning as a contemporary and outstanding example of narrative form.

~Kent Page McGroarty for IndieReader

Review: Washington Black

I went through the short list of candidates for this year’s Man Booker prize, and I selected Washington Black by Esi Edugyan as one I wanted to read.

Esi Edugyan was born in 1978 to immigrants from Ghana and raised in Calgary, Alberta.  She studied creative writing at the University of Victoria and received a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars.  Her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne was published at the age of 24, and despite favourable reviews of it, she had difficulty finding a publisher for her second manuscript.  She was a writer-in-residence in Stuttgart, Germany, where she found inspiration for Half Blood Blues, which was published in 2011 and short listed for the Man Booker.  She has since written a book of non-fiction, Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home, and Washington Black, which was published in September 2018.  She currently lives in Victoria, British Columbia with her husband, the novelist and poet, Steven Price and their two children.

Esi Edugyan

Washington Black is set initially on a sugar plantation in Barbados in the 1830’s.  An eleven-year-old field slave, Washington Black, is selected by the younger brother of the plantation manager,, Erasmus Wilde, to be the younger man, Titch’s servant.  While Erasmus is the irascible slave driver, Titch is a scientist with abolitionist sentiments, and he needs Washington to help him launch a prototypical lighter than air ship, the Cloud-cutter.   While preparations for the launch are underway, the Wilde brothers’ cousin, Philip, arrives on the plantation.  Philip brings news that his cousins’ father has died, and that their mother requires Erasmus to return to England, while Titch should take over the plantation, an assignment which he definitely does not want.  Philip commits suicide in the presence of Washington, so that the boy becomes a suspect of murder.  Titch and Washington depart hastily in the Cloud-cutter, but the craft is downed in a storm at sea and they are rescued by a ship which takes them to Norfolk, Virginia, where they find passage into Hudson’s Bay, Canada, where Titch’s father, an arctic explorer is supposed to have died.  But he hasn’t died, until later.  Titch disappears and Washington travels to Nova Scotia where he finds work and a Mr Goff, a marine biologist and his daughter Tanna, who becomes his love interest.  Washington travels to London to help the Goffs set up a pioneering aquarium.  Washington has Titch on his mind and he tracks him down in Morocco.

There is something surreal about this tale of achieving adulthood in the midst of tenuous relationships while travelling through a strange and hostile world.  All of the characters, with the possible exceptions of Washington and Tanna, are lost souls: people who have no chance of realising their human potential.   It is not clear to me what Ms Edugyan is hoping I will take away from her novel, except that being black is a life handicap and a being a slave is intolerable.  While the story in intriguing, I found my credibility being stretched now and then.  For example, Washington is uneducated except for some reading lessons from Titch, yet he designs a grand, state of the art aquarium, and aspires to have his name mentioned by the Royal Academy. Ms Edugyan’s writing is interesting, but occasionally it slips away from her as when she describes one character: “His was a small, square face in which the bones sat high and prominent, and the gesture seemed to thrust his skull to the very surface of his brow.”  I had the impression that the skull is just below the surface of the brow in any case.

Washington Black will appeal to those who enjoy the rousing adventures of an ex-slave.

Judge’s Commentary

I have received the following email form Nicole with Writers Digest Competitions, in which I entered Seeking Father Khaliq.

A few quick notes~

  • Books are evaluated on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 meaning “needs improvement” and 5 meaning “outstanding”.
  • The 1-5 scale is strictly to provide a point of reference; the scores are meant only to be a gauge, and are not a cumulative score, nor are they tallied or used in ranking. 

Entry Title: Seeking Father Khaliq

Author: William Peace

Judge Number: 33

Entry Category: Inspirational

Structure, Organization, and Pacing: 5

Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar: 5

Production Quality and Cover Design: 5

Plot and Story Appeal: 5

Character Appeal and Development: 5

Voice and Writing Style: 5

Judge’s Commentary*:

Author has a gorgeous writing voice, varying in formality as needed by the narrative and establishing position for Professor al-Basiri with language and inner thought. We get fine characterization throughout, especially impressive given the long list of supporting characters. Author has done well to differentiate their speaking voices, and engage us with their movement styles (regal for Princess Basheera and cautious for those he encounters on his journey, etc.) Author consistently builds a fine sense of setting for each scene, with sensory details that enliven the action and allow us to feel present in the scenes. The story is finely structured with gripping intrigue moving the story forward, and author doesn’t shy away from gory moments. Well done. Very well-layered. Dialogue shines with natural language, movement, inner dialogue, gestures and physical contact. At many times during this book, the scenes were so visual and so richly realistic, I saw them as a movie playing out. Well done. That’s the essence of good narrative. Some gorgeous phrasing here, such as young people being caught up ‘in immediacy and perceived wisdom.’ There’s a lot to digest there. Author never misses an opportunity to allow us a scenic view, such as from the bus, especially serving to the reader since the journey and the land is a character in itself. The search is well-paced, and well-written transitions carry us from chapter to chapter. With his concern for his son, we get a very strong subplot that invites additional layers of his character. The telegram announcing the death of Naquib, and the cold manner of invitation to collect his body, feels like a kick to the reader’s gut in its delivery, and tears flow at the scene of the professor washing his son’s body. Devastating. Elizabeth and God existing, and being needed, are revelations that tie the book’s soul together for us at the end. Beautifully done.

“Don’t Call It ‘Chick Lit'”

There was an article in the 20th October issue of The Daily Telegraph, written by Camilla Tominey, titled: Don’t refer to women’s fiction as chic lit, says author’.  “Books should not be referred to as ‘chick lit’ because more women than men read novels – and it should be men’s fiction that is the ‘sub-category’, the author of Big Little Lies has said.  Liane Moriarty, who sold the rights to the book to Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon for a blockbuster TV series, said women’s fiction should never be treated as a sub-genre because women read more than men.”

Ms Moriarty’s page on Goodreads says: “Liane Moriarty is the Australian author of six internationally best-selling novels, Three Wishes, The Last Anniversary, What Alice Forgot, The Hypnotist’s Love Story and the number 1 New York Times bestsellers, The Husband’s Secret and Big Little Lies.  Her breakout novel The Husband’s Secret sold over three million copies worldwide, was a number 1 UK bestseller, an Amazon Best Book of 2013 and has been translated into over 40 languages. It spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list. CBS Films has acquired the film rights.  With the launch of Big Little Lies, Liane became the first Australian author to have a novel debut at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. An HBO series based on Big Little Lies is currently in production, starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. . . . Liane lives in Sydney with her husband, son and daughter. Her new novel, Truly Madly Guilty, will be released in July 2016.”

Actually, the first series of Big Little Lies completed in April of last year, and a second series was announced in December. Ms Moriarty has since written Three Perfect Strangers.

Liane Moriarty

Most of the rest of the Telegraph article deals with Ms Moriarty’s excitement in meeting Nicole Kidman, reaching an agreement on the sale of rights, and of her creation a a character to be played by Meryl Streep, whose real name is Mary-Louise, we are informed.

But to return to the main point of the article, I certainly have some sympathy for the name given to what Wikipedia calls ‘genre fiction which consists of heroine-centered narratives that focus on the trials and tribulations of their individual protagonists”, because ‘chick lit’ has become a somewhat pejorative term.  Wikipedia goes on to say, “While chick lit has been very popular with readers, critics largely disapproved of the genre. Reviewer Alex Kuczynski, writing for The New York Times condemned Helen Fielding’s novel, in particular, writing ‘Bridget is such a sorry spectacle, wallowing in her man-crazed helplessness, that her foolishness cannot be excused.’ Writer Doris Lessing deemed the genre “instantly forgettable” while Beryl Bainbridge called the genre ‘a froth sort of thing’.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, there are literary agencies which specialise in chick lit, though they don’t specifically say so; their focus is immediately clear from the covers and titles of their authors.  Chick lit is big business!

It seems to me that if Ms Moriarty doesn’t like her work to be called chick lit, she should change her subject matter and style or she should invent a new name for her genre – something like ‘Good Women’s’.   It certainly doesn’t classify at Literary Fiction.

To argue, in effect, that the chick lit genre should be deleted because women read more fiction than men – while it is true that women read more – doesn’t make sense.  How are we going to distinguish serious female writers like Kate Atkinson from writers like Helen Fielding?

London Literature Festival

My wife and I attended two events at the London Literature Festival: readings by Carol Ann Duffy (the Poet Laureate,) ‘and friends’; and an interview with Salman Rushdie, both at the Southbank Centre, London

Carol Ann Duffy was the last of four readers; the other three were Imtiaz Dharker, Keith Hutson and Mark Pajak.  Ms Duffy, born 1955, is a Scottish poet and playwright. She is Professor of Contemporary Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University and was appointed Poet Laureate in 2009. She is the first woman, the first Scot and the first openly gay to hold the position.  Her poems address issues such as oppression, gender, and violence in an accessible language that has made them popular in schools.

Carol Ann Duffy

Of the four poets, I liked the readings of Mark Pajak best.  His poems were quite ordinary in their subjects – the one I liked best was about removing dead birds from a hen battery – but he has a way of expressing emotions with unique yet powerfully descriptive phrases.  This is a talent which I aspire to emulate.  Mr Pajak is quite a young poet, currently completing an MA in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.   My wife’s preference was Imitiaz Dharker, a Pakistani-born, English poet in her mid-sixties.  Ms Duffy’s concluding poem was a bad-language rant against the corrupt elite using seven key words.  It was intended to be clever but for me, it came across as bombastic.

Salman Rushdie was interviewed by Erica Wagner, and American-born (1967) author and critic, who was literary editor of The Times from 1996 to 2013; she has written several books, including a novel, a collection of stories and a biography.  She has served twice as Booker Prize judge.

The discussion with Salman Rushdie began with Midnight’s Children, which he characterised as a history.   He made the point that one writes an historic novel, one must have a road map of places and events to be covered before one starts writing.  This road map makes the task of writing quite different than when one starts with a character-based novel, and lets the development of the characters control the flow of the novel.  He confessed to being very torn between Midnight’s Children and Children of Midnight.  After writing both titles down repeatedly on a sheet of paper, he woke up the next morning and realised that Midnight’s Children is the better title.  He said that while in Italian and Spanish, there is a similar choice between the two constructions, in French there is only one, so one has to be attentive to the advice of translators.

He confessed to be a reader who is ‘not anxious to turn the page’, and this confession reminded me of my criticism of Rushdie’s writing: that it is sometimes too verbose.

The narrator of his latest novel is a young man called René, and he made the point that it is an important decision for an author to select the narrator: there have to be good reasons for the selection.  I agree.  He then spoke about the difficulty for a seventy-year-old writer in getting into the head of a hip young New Yorker – though he didn’t mention his technique for the transformation.

Much of the dialogue with Ms Wagner was about The Golden House, Rushdie’s most recent, which is a parable of American politics, written after the Obama inauguration.  There is a Trump-like character who likes to refer to himself as The Joker.  Rushdie said, “In a deck of cards, only two of them don’t behave properly: One is the trump and the other is a joker.”  He read from The Golden House: “It was the year of The Joker in Gotham and beyond, as America had left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe. . . Suddenly lying was funny, and hatred was funny, and bigotry was funny.”

Suggesting that perhaps Donald Trump, The Joker is insane, Rushdie said, “people backed him because he was insane, not in spite of it. What would have disqualified any other candidate made him his followers’ hero.”

Most of The Golden House was  written before Trump was president, so it was prescient in predicting the outcome. “The book knew,” Rushdie joked.

Having met on several occasions, Rushdie and Trump are acquaintances, though there is some doubt that Trump has read the novel, not being much of a reader.  “I’m still waiting for that tweet.” Rushdie said.

Writing a Negative Review

Susan Violante, the Managing Editor, of Reader Views, places a post with this title on the Reader Views blog.  Since, as you know, I like to write reviews, and have occasionally been quite critical of what I have read, I was interested in what she had to say.

“Let’s face it, being a reviewer does not mean liking all books. There is a big chance that a book will not live up to the expectation of a reviewer, and thus result in a negative review. Other books simply do not even meet publishing standards in writing, editing, or production, in which case reviewers have trouble even completing the book. Being an author and a reviewer, I get both sides of the coin, and I have written many editorials from the author’s point of view about receiving a negative review of their title. This time, I want to focus on the reviewer’s end in hopes of helping reviewers write honest negative reviews, while remaining respectful and professional. Here are some tips on writing negative reviews:

“Do not let it get personal or be biased.  Actually, reviewers pretty much review only what they choose themselves. There is no need to take the author’s opinions personally and reflect that in the review. A review should be just an opinion of the storyline, the writer’s craft, and the book’s production.

“Being a reviewer is not all about reading; it has a lot to do with communication and the ability to express an opinion to an audience in writing. The success of a reviewer is actually measured on the size of their following audience, not on the number of reviews under their belt. This indicates the importance of the quality of their writing skills. If a reviewer communicates honestly and skilfully, the audience will look for that opinion before deciding to purchase a book. Readers want an impartial opinion about titles that will communicate to them the positive and negatives of the book as a product, so that they can decide whether to buy and read it.

“Enjoy reviewing. There are two kinds of reviewers. The ones that read because they love it, and get into reviewing; and the ones that won’t read unless they are reviewing. To the second type I say, please just stop. As a bookworm (writing and reading), I got into reviewing because I not only love to read, I also love to write, and even more, I love talking about what I read! Because I am having fun doing reviews, I will always find a positive and a negative in everything I read. Actually, sometimes I only find positives…but my point is that since I am reviewing only what I like to read, I will always be able to find a positive worth mentioning in my reviews, even when writing a negative review.

“Even if the book had flaws, or did not live up to the reviewer’s expectations, a reviewer needs to be respectful of the author’s efforts by choosing their words carefully when pointing out those flaws. There is no reason to be offensive when being honest, and reviewers who are passionate about books and reviewing will enjoy the process of writing a review that will be honest, yet respectful.”

I agree with what Ms Violante says.  I would add that keeping the format of the review professional can also keep a distance of professionalism between the author and the reviewer.  I usually start out with why I selected the book, and then give a summary of the story line in neutral language.  After the summary, I begin with what I liked about the book, followed by what I saw as its weaknesses.  It’s on the subject of weaknesses that tact needs to come into play: if in mentioning a weakness, I feel fairly certain that the author would understand and agree, I simply state the weakness using neutral language.  If I sense that it is just my opinion, or that the author might well disagree, I will say, “In my opinion . . .” or “It seems to me that . . .”

I usually end the review with a general positive recommendation, but if I don’t think that would be honest, I will say what kind of readers would like the book.  As far as I can remember, I’ve written only one one-star review, and that one ended without a recommendation.

 

Review: Midnight’s Children

Having finished the books I brought with me to Sicily, I went to the local bookstore which has a small selection of English language books, but I found nothing that intrigued me.  Looking on the bookshelves in the house, where guests occasionally leave books, I found Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.  Mitigating against reading it were its length (647 pages), and its author (I’ve read The Satanic Verses and admired it, but didn’t particularly enjoy it).  The main factor in favour of reading it is that it is twice the winner of the Booker of Bookers: the best Booker Prize winner in the last 25 years and 40 years.

First Edition

The story, written in 1981, deals with the recent colonial past of the Indian subcontinent, its independence and its partition into two states: India and Pakistan.  The narrator is Saleem Sinai who was born at midnight, the precise moment of India’s independence, and who is telling the story to his future wife, Padma.  Saleem is born with a huge, dripping nose with exceptional olfactory powers, such that he is able to read thoughts and identify intentions.  He learns that all the children born at the moment of independence are gifted with extraordinary powers, and he forms a Midnight Children’s Conference to try to influence events, including political developments and subcontinental wars.    In particular, allegorical style is used to critique the governance of Indira Gandhi during the ‘Emergency’ period.  Mrs Gandhi brought a suit against Rushdie, not for his slating of her administration, but for a single sentence criticising her family relationships; this sentence has been removed from current editions.  As well as the Conference, the tale involves Saleem’s extended family: mother, father, sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles and his infant son.  The style of the book is magical realism, not conforming to any particular genre, it is factual, comical, suspenseful, magical, surreal, historical and mythic.

In his introduction to the 2006 edition, Rushdie says, “In the West, people tended to read Midnight’s Children as a fantasy, while in India, people thought of it as pretty realistic, almost a history book.”  Though I have traveled to India three times, and know something of its history and culture, I read the book primarily as a fantasy, which is a shame: I feel I have missed an important dimension of the book.  It must be said that Salman Rushdie is an extraordinary story-teller: he has great imagination and invention, and sometimes I felt that he has invented himself into a corner – how can he get out of this one?- only to read a clever, smooth and sensible transition out.  His command of language is breath-taking, leaving one with the clearest possible image of what is happening.  Occasionally, though, I felt left out by his use of Hindi (or other native) words and expressions which are undoubtedly appropriate.  There were also times when I felt that his excursions into descriptive fantasy were too lengthy, and yet, long as it is, I wanted to read on.

So, for me Midnight’s Children is a literary masterpiece, and there is much to learn from Rushdie’s skill as a writer and a story-teller.  But did I enjoy it?  Not particularly, having missed too much of it,