50 Books 2013 / 52 Reads

Graciously accepting the challenge from MamaOwl and Making It Up, I will endeavour to get through a fair few tomes this year. I’m going to try alternating grown up stuff with children’s classics so that I am ready for my kids wanting to listen to books chapter by chapter.

13.01.2013 I never knew I was a feminist!

Thanks to Caitlin Moran’s ‘How to be a woman’ I have discovered something I genuinely didn’t know about myself; I am a feminist after all.

Large (!) numbers of you (how many readers do you think you’ve got, Leoarna?) are now shouting at your screens, alarmed that I could have gotten all the way to 41 and not made my mind up on this important issue. I can explain. Last year, I read a book called The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman. Now I am not a Christian, but having studied Theology at A Level, and psychotherapy since then, I have always been intrigued by any attempt to explain the human mind (or soul), the commitments it makes, the beliefs it adopts and lives by, and so on, and so on. The book was a cracking read, the basic premise being that Jesus had a twin, Christ who indulged in all the worst elements of what Man can do to a Great Idea, diluting and tarnishing the good his brother’s message of peace might achieve. He was vain, self-promoting, driven by ego. In short, he spoiled the Church. It now strikes me that my view on Feminism has been blurred in much the same way; what I’ve seen during my life is the ways in which Feminism has been led up blind alley after one-way street, and had become unappealing to me. In essence, that Eighties mix of Thatcher, Nicola Horlick and Madonna didn’t really do it for me.

But Caitlin’s witty, honest and original thinking has swept all the unhelpful clutter and media spin out of my view, and left me with one simple question to answer, ‘Do I own a vagina and do I want to be in charge of it?’ Of course, my answer is ‘Yes, and Yes!’ (Apologies if that wasn’t a word you were expecting to read when you started reading what is, essentially, a book review.) Given my positive answer, Caitlin would argue that I am indeed a feminist, and that any residual discomfort I feel with that label is simply an indication of how the word itself has been skewed and needs reclaiming.

Through a thorough examination of every topic that matters to women, from the ownership of breasts, to housework (I’m so on-topic! https://notdifferentbutinteresting.wordpress.com/2013/01/06/they-dont-make-a-dyson-big-enough/), via body image, the workplace, marriage and the decision to have kids or not, she’s had me 1) laughing out loud in bed and really annoying my hubby 2) rethinking my views on quite a lot of stuff that matters, and 3) feeling reassured that what I spend my days feeling and pondering, someone else does too. And luckily, because she’s just so darn honest and insightful, I don’t mind a bit that she is a zillion times funnier than me in print.

05.02.2013 Rudyard Kipling; he loved his kids

Either I don’t read that quickly, or my life is way too full of Stuff To Do. At this rate it will be 23 or 24 Reads 2013, and not the requisite 50-52. Never mind. It is noble to try. I have been squeezing in five or ten minutes of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories each night, usually following a hefty evening of tapping away on the laptop. It has been a pleasant antidote to the seriousness of my evenings. It also fits the bill in terms of being something to share with my kids, when they are a little older.  

Kipling wrote these stories for his daughter, whom he refers to directly as his ‘best beloved’ throughout the book. The stories are sweet and engaging, all aimed at explaining some natural or man-made phenomena (like why crabs lose their shells once a year or why the elephant’s nose grew into a trunk).  It is, I should warn you, definitely a book of its time; a use of language we would now consider racist (no doubt a norm in 1902) and references to ‘spanking’ those who misbehave, may not be the modern reader’s cup of tea. That said, literature, as an art form, reflects the progress of human society as a whole and should always be seen in the context of the society it was written in. Kipling was, for a man of his day, also rather more in touch with his emotions than perhaps other Victorian fathers were; he does not hide his love for his girl, and the death of one of his sons during the First World War and the impact that had upon him is well documented. If you read some of these stories aloud to your children, you can either ‘change’ the words you don’t want to repeat or explain that Kipling wrote a long time ago when people saw childhood differently.

My favourite story is that of how the Alphabet came to be. As an allegory about the usefulness of written language it is close to perfect, and the excitement little Taffy feels at discovering a whole new form of communication, that will make her family’s life easier, feels very fresh and real. It strikes a chord for me too. My little girl is just dipping her toe in the waters of reading, and her sweet face fills with wonder and surprise each time she realises she has made sense of that jumble of symbols on a page, and formed a word that she knows.

Last week, on my personal facebook page, I shared a lovely ‘poster’ that said, simply, ‘Children are made readers on the laps of their parents’. There is a huge amount of stuff going on at the DfE around communication, language and literacy skills. There is also a lot of opposition to their strategies. Debate is lively, to say the least. As the eloquent and insightful Michael Rosen frequently points out on Twitter, concentrating on phonics teaching may prove to be too narrow a focus. Children need book-rich environments, and to delight in stories shared with others. Kipling’s enduring collection would be a suitable addition to any library aimed at engaging children in the written word, imperfections and all; he uses langauge and alliteration that begs to be spoken – and is thus part of a great tradition that passes through Zuess and on to our beloved Donaldsons and Rosens.


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