THE CHURCHILLS by Mary Lovell
It is quite a daunting prospect to review a book about such a monumental person as Sir Winston Churchill. Google his name and pages and pages of stuff are listed. Any one of these provides a potted biography, lists of his many outstanding achievements, the ups and downs of his political career, his talents and interests, his personal and family life, his memorable quotes, trusts, speeches and books he wrote. The latter a career in itself.
So the purpose of this review is not to tell you about Sir Winston's life, but about this particular book which sets out to document it. And what a book it is. It sheer size alone is huge - running to 670 pages, with the last 100 pages comprising bibliography, notes, appendices and a most impressive index; chock full of photographs; and a comprehensive family tree. All of which I regularly referred to.
Beginning with the origins of the family dukedom (awarded by Queen Anne in 1702), the first chapter gives a brief but fascinating history of the family up till about the middle of the 19th century and the time of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. Sir Winston's father, Lord Randolph, was the third son of this particular Duke. From then on the book focuses in huge detail on the life of Winston, literally from cradle to grave.
The research the author has put into this book is quite staggering. I always find it quite remarkable how people in our recent past kept so much of their personal written correspondence. This is now such a rich source of information about daily life, issues, and relationships of those who until quite recently really were living amongst us. I am thinking of letters that Winston wrote at boarding school to his parents, or the heart felt letters and notes that he and his wife Clementine wrote to each other constantly through out their marriage. Not only has the author managed to find her way through all this material, but somehow she has the ability to put it all together in such a way that at times you feel as if you are invading someone's innermost thoughts, or being given permission to wallow in the salacious gossip and lurid details of the lives of the British aristocracy. Will email and Facebook ever provide us again with such a rich and thoughtful insight into lives?
There is plenty of scandal and gossip throughout this book. Quite startling too I have to say: a whole appendix devoted to whether or not Lord Randolph died of syphilis, for example. And one look at the extensive family tree, with Winston and his brother Jack in the center of it, shows that they are the only ones who were married only once. So much for 'till death do us part'. There certainly wasn't much of that around! Fascinating reading.
But it is not all social climbing, bed hopping, and saving face. I doubt whether Winston would have had the impressive career and political life he had if it had not been for the support, devotion and undying love of his wife Clementine. She herself was an amazing woman and became a life peer, as well as a Dame. Her own war service as president or chairperson of various service groups earned her enormous respect and recognition. Yet her role as Winston's life long partner will be what she is forever remembered for. As the saying goes, behind every successful man there is a great woman.
From childhood Winston set his sights on a career in politics. His love of toy soliders and battle planning meant a defence career was also a foregone conclusion. To make these subjects interesting and readable to the average reader is quite an achievement; there were perhaps only a few pages when I felt I had read enough about that particular political machination (plenty of them), or the intricacies of a certain military action. The one section that did have me riveted however was the appalling debacle at Gallipoli in 1915-1916 when Churchill was the First Lord of the Admirality. As a result he received much of the blame for the disaster. Coming from New Zealand, the battle of Gallipoli features very heavily in our history and national identity as it also does for Australians. We know a lot about this battle in this part of the world. So to have the author so vividly, concisely and simply tell the story, for me, was one of the main things I have taken away from this book.
What I also take away from this book is that the world is sorely lacking in leaders with the outstanding qualities that Winston Churchill had. I can't think of a single leader in recent years who has the ability to inspire people,to not be afraid, who, as the author tells it, is not in the job for personal glorification or sees the job as a means to his own ends. The author clearly loves her subject; her admiration for the man and what he achieved in his life time and for his country is enormous. Whether this is a failing of the book I do not know, as I have not done any research or previous reading of Winston Churchill. The author has however, compiled mountains of material into a most readable and fascinating account of Britain, Europe, its leaders, movers and shakers over almost ninety years and for that reason alone it is worth reading.
Mary Lovell has written biographies of some very interesting well-known and not so well-known people and families - the Mitford sisters, Beryl Markham, Amelia Earhart and Jane Digby, plus others. I have read two of these other biographies, both of which were easy, enjoyable and informative, but also large reads!
PIGEON ENGLISH BY Stephen Kelman
This book was one of six books to make the short list for last year's Man Booker Prize. So as with the Man Booker books, I was expecting a challenging, but not necessarily likeable read. And I got likeable, but not very challenging.
It is the story of Harrison Opoku, an 11 year old Ghanian boy and recent immigrant to London with his midwife mother and older sister. One can only imagine the culture shock this family would be feeling moving to live on the 9th floor of an apartment building on a London housing estate. The author grew up on a housing estate in Luton, so he has first hand knowledge and experience of life in a setting we generally associate with inner city poverty, ugliness, deprivation, violence, drugs, and anti social behaviour. In other words not a very pleasant place to live or raise a family.
The story is narrated by Harri, as he is known, trying to make sense of this very different world he is living in, the complicated relationships and pecking order, trying to sort out where he wants to be and who with, and in the process, finding himself doing and saying things he knows are wrong, but feels compelled to do just to belong.
It is a savage place he is living in. A teenage boy he knows from school - a half friend he calls him - is stabbed to death in the street. Harri didn't see the murder but does see all the blood, the policeman standing guard, the fear and sadness in the adults. He resolves to find the murderer and bring him to justice, and so like the Hardy Boys and the Famous Five before him, he amasses clues, makes careful observations with his newly acquired binoculars, sets traps until he finds his mark. Unlike the Hardy Boys and the Famous Five however, he also has to stay on the right side of the local estate gang - Dell Farm Crew: their petty violence and acts of intimidation, plus the usual teenage issues - drugs,alcohol, sex. Harri also has to deal with homesickness and his lack of knowledge about such things as CSI, his mother being called a fuzzy wuzzy, and why his aunt has no fingerprints.
As adults we generally respond well to books written through the eyes of a child. We may not have experienced old age, or illness, or a serious accident, or intrepid journeys, or careers as forensic detectives, magazine editors or prominent lawyers, or even parenting. But the one thing we all have in common is childhood. Reading such books reminds us of our own childhoods and how we saw the world of the adults around us. Books such as 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night', 'Room' and 'Spies' focus on very large issues that are totally beyond the realm of a child to comprehend; the child narrator being a major catalyst in the unfolding action of the story. I feel that the author is trying to do much the same thing here with this winning formula, but for me it doesn't seem to work as well.It is almost as if he is trying too hard. Not a lot happens in this book - Harri tries to stay a good boy, tries to find a murderer and tries to stay on the good side of the gang. That is it.
There is also the most annoying distraction - the pigeon, just one of many hundreds of pigeons that nest on/in the apartment buildings. Harri chooses one pigeon as his special bird, his guardian, and at random places in the story the pigeon gives his perspective on what is unfolding beneath him. It really adds nothing to the story, and other than one crucial piece of action towards the end, boy and bird do not have any direct contact with each other. The bird may be the symbol for some sort of guardian angel of the boy, but because the two don't actually communicate with each other it all seems a bit far fetched.
However, the despite all this, the quality of the writing saves it. As English is a second language for Harri and his family, his inner thoughts, his conversations with his mother and sister are strewn with his own language. Hutious, which seems to mean frightening/scary/weird and is the perfect word to describe much of the strangeness Harri sees around him; asweh for I swear; his sister constantly telling him to 'Advise yourself', a fabulous universal phrase which seems to mean anything from sort yourself out, stop lying, grow up, shut up, get out of my face! The conversations Harri has with his new friends are also funny, wry, very diverse and imaginative. Making sense of a playground sign that says 'Say No to Strangers', trying to make his cheap trainers look like Adidas ones, falling in love with a girl in his class. Now these would not be out of place in many children's world view.
But this is not a funny or happy book. It is worth reading to once again be reminded of the desperate lot of many immigrant families to Western cities and impoverished areas, the random violence that frequently occurs around us, the aimlessness of many young people with little education and few prospects. But then again you may not want to read it, because we have daily reminders of all this on the nightly news, the newspapers and You Tube. Better perhaps to read some escapist fantasy fiction or a bit of light chick lit.
THERE BUT FOR THE by Ali Smith
Well, this is a most peculiar book, very surprising and ingenious, quite different from anything you are likely to have read in the recent past or in the near future for that matter. Even the title leaves you thinking something is a bit odd...
The very meandering plot revolves around Miles Garth, an ethical consultant, somewhere in his forties, who, one night at a dinner party in Greenwich, gets up between courses, makes his way upstairs to the spare room and locks himself in. Indefinitely. You would probably get up and isolate yourself too if you were at a dinner party with guests such as were at this dinner party. Nevertheless we never find out why he takes this course of action, in fact the reason, whatever it may be, has no bearing at all on how the story unfolds. Almost overnight Miles becomes a cause celebre, with people camping out in the street to catch a glimpse of him, organising a food delivery by basket and rope (he is vegetarian and the owner of the house he refuses to leave only feeds him slim slices of ham slid under the door), and media swarming as media does.
Four people, closely and loosely associated with Miles narrate the four chapters - There, But, For, The. Anna met Miles on a bus tour of Europe some 20 years prior; Mark is Miles' boyfriend and had taken Miles with him to the dinner party; May is an elderly lady biding time and hating it in a rest home; and Brooke is a nine year old girl, highly intelligent, lively, bordering on precocious and loving it. There are other people too on the periphery such as the other dinner party guests, Mark's long deceased rhyme loving mother, May's husband and Brooke's parents as well as Jen, the dinner party hostess.
The message or theme of this book? Not entirely sure, but feel it has something to do with No Man Is An Island, or maybe he is, and one state or the other is neither a bad thing or a good thing. Confused?
So we play a bit loose with the point of the book but the real pleasure of this book, what stopped me from putting it down and thinking all a bit too odd really, is the writing. It is an absolute joy to read because Ms Smith is a master of words - puns galore (Brooke LOVES puns); witty clever dialogue used in such a way that the character of the speaker is revealed without us really knowing anything about them - the dinner party is fantastic reading (I read it twice); enlightening discussions about the word 'But' for example. Brooke is truly delightful, she would be an impossible child to have in a classroom, but her observations of the adults around her, her passionate interest in her home town of Greenwich as the place that Western time is measured from, (read symbolism for the time passing in the lives of the characters) marks her out as quite the most interesting character in the book.
The whole thing is really quite genius, I just loved her use of language, it dances all over and it all contributed to the package of what is quite an unusual book, but all in a good way. Even if I am not quite sure of its raison d'etre.
SIDEWAYS ON A SCOOTER by Miranda Kennedy
Yes, it is yet another book about India; there have been a fair few over the past four years since we lived there, and not all them have been reviewed! The country and its people baffle and intrigue, it frustrates and challenges, its all about globalisation and becoming an economic super power, yet deeply entrenched in its various cultures, religions and traditions. Its diversity and beauty and ugliness make your head spin. You can both love it and hate it several times a day, and yet, somehow, I don't know how, India gets under your skin, and stays there, forever.
As it did for journalist Miranda Kennedy in her five years living in Delhi, as Super Reporter Girl, fearlessly going where no female reporter had been before in this conflict-ridden region. Already you can see she has the capacity to laugh at herself. The core of the book really is this huge self awareness and self knowledge that she uncovers about herself, and completely without arrogance reveals to the reader. So not only are we reading a book about a young woman's life in a vastly different place from New York, we are also seeing her grow up, learn from what is going around her, develop deep respect for a culture and society so alien from hers, compassion for the people around her, with the final result being a totally different woman from the one who moved to India five years prior. In her family there is a strong wander lust with her great aunt having been a missionary in India for many years, and both her parents in their youth having spent time travelling there. She also draws a lot on the writings of Isak Dinesen who wrote 'Out of Africa' about a Danish woman living in Kenya during the early 1920s-1930s.
Of course such a 'journey' or OE as we say in this part of the world, short for Overseas Experience, could take place anywhere in the world that is not home. But to do it in India just makes it that much more intriguing, drastic and fascinating.
Being young and single, love and relationships feature fairly heavily in one's thoughts. From the beginning Miranda is struggling with her marital situation or lack of. Being young, female, single, working, living alone is a big fat no-no in India. So in the first chapter we learn of her problems in finding somewhere to live - no one will rent an apartment to her! To get a roof over her head she calls herself a married woman, her 'husband' making infrequent and increasingly difficult visits to her from New York. Of course that part does not end well, but she does have somewhere to live!
Her own search for love carries on behind the scenes with occasional and brief references, but the main subject matter is the concept of love and marriage in modern-day India. By far the majority of marriages continue to be arranged, although now, unlike a couple of generations ago, many such marriages have input from the young people themselves. Love marriages are still frowned upon, even by educated upwardly mobile middle class families. In poorer/less educated families, arranged marriages where the couple barely talk, if at all, before the marriage are still normal. Then there is the whole dowry question, the enormous expense to the bride's family, the idea that daughters have to be married off in birth order, the myriad problems for the new wife as she moves in to live with her in-laws, also still the norm. Let's not forget the issues around inter-caste marriage, young Indians from America returning to India for a wife - should she be modern or traditional or somehow combine the two? And what about the role the astrologer has in all this, with choosing the right pairing, the most auspicious day for the wedding, and so on. And all us Western girls have to agonise over in comparison is the dress!
Miranda develops very close friendships with two 'modern' girls - Geeta and Parvati and her two 'traditional' maids - Rahda and Maneesh, as well as a group of women she meets at a ladies only Muslim gym. Not only are we privy to their love or loveless lives, but Miranda opens our eyes to modern urban Indian life, where the majority of people are trying to retain the customs, traditions, beliefs and many rituals that are so much a part of any religion, all along caste lines against the 'Globalisation' taking place around them. Rahda for example is of high ranking Brahmin caste, and even though quite poor and having to perform maid duties, flat refuses to have anything to do with handling rubbish which is Maneesh's job as she is from the untouchable caste. Through their time being employed by the author, they learn to get along, which even fifty years ago would never have happened. They simply would never have had anything to do with each other.
As well as depicting the lives of the people around her and her interactions with them, in true journalist fashion, Miranda also gives lots of information about modern day India itself and its recent history. There is plenty about the institution or business of marriage, the caste system, Bollywood, women's place in society and much more.
Having lived in the place it is always good and reassuring to read that there are others with similar experiences to yourself. Even though she is totally unlike me in that she is a young, single, and working, lived there for 5 years rather than my 1, many of her experiences of day to day living ring true and are probably universal amongst the female expatriate population of a large Indian city. But I think anyone with a curiosity about women in other cultures, countries, and economic settings would enjoy this book.
Posted by Kiwiflora