Books

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In The Bleak Midwinter: Nick Duffy chooses five books to counteract the ghastly bonhomie

Christ but it’s awful.  Between the more-inappropriate-then-ever exhortations to excessive consumption (“Battery turkey?  You tasteless plebeian fiend, simply everyone’s having rare-breed Guinea Fowl with Nigella’s gingerbread-and-rollmop stuffing this year,” fuck off why don’t you, don’t you know there’s a recession on?) and the terrible music everywhere (and how much must it suck to be Jona Lewie?  11 months of the year, nobody knows who you are, then for one month EVERYONE knows EXACTLY who you are, and they all think you’re a cunt), and the pubs being full of godamned amateurs (“Oooh, is it that much for a gin and tonic?” Yes, yes it is, as you’d be well aware if you’d BEEN IN SINCE FUCKING BUDGET NIGHT, and by the way, I’ve been keeping this place going and wearing my own personal arse-groove into that barstool these past 11 months, get out of my FUCKING way and take your novelty waistcoat with you, you nebbish) and…well, you need something to counteract it all.  Literature is, as always, your friend, and what you specifically need is some good, bleak stuff you can get morose and gloomy over.  And that’s what I plan to give you, good and hard.

1. Martin Amis, Night TrainMartin Amis

An unlikely source, Amis Jnr., as he normally leavens even the weightiest subjects with dextrous, scabrous comedy in a perfect mix of the broad-brush and the filigree (some other time, try Money, London Fields and Success for some of the finest comic writing of the 20th century), but this brief yet absorbing novella (partially inspired by David Simon’s Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, The Wire fans) abjures laughs for terse, cold, hard boiled meditations on murder and suicide as responses to being alone in a godless universe.

KEY QUOTE: “You key the mike and you get the squawk that no one wants: Check suspicious odor. I have checked suspicious odors. Suspicious? No. This is blazing crime. Fulminant chemistry of death, on the planet of retards. I’ve seen bodies, dead bodies, in tiled morgues, in cell-blocks, in district lockups, in trunks of cars, in project stairwells, in loading-dock doorways, in tractor-trailer turnarounds, in torched rowhouses, in corner carryouts, in cross alleys, in crawlspaces, and I’ve never seen one that sat with me like the body of Jennifer Rockwell, propped there naked after the act of love and life, saying even this, all this, I leave behind.”

2. Neville Shute, On The Beach

Being Shute’s second most famous novel after the heart-warming, life-affirming A Town Like Alice, it gives me a schadenfreudegasm to think of all the people who followed that work with this one, and what a slap in the psyche they must have experienced.  OK, from the outset it’s clear this isn’t going to be a barrel of laughs – the whole premise is that a nuclear war has destroyed the northern hemisphere, and backwoods, distant, late-50s Australia, with it’s colonial, repressed, provincial natives and a few accidental refugees, is the only habitable place left, and that only until the weather brings the poison south – but the sheer relentlessness of it, the way Shute refuses to offer any salvation or escape, just calmly narrates a group of basically decent people’s journey to a horrible, inescapable fate, adds up to one of the most despairing books ever, which will reduce even hardened cynics to tears.

KEY QUOTE: “He undid the little carton and took out the vial. “This is a dummy,” he said. “these aren’t real. Goldie gave it me to show you what to do.  You just take one of them with a drink – any kind of drink.  Whatever you like best. And then you just lie back, and that’s the end.”
“You mean, you die?” The cigarette was dead between her fingers.
He nodded. “When it gets too bad – it’s the way out.”
“What’s the other pill for?” she whispered.
“That’s a spare,” he said. “I suppose they give it you in case you lose one of them, or funk it.””

3. Grant Morrison, Doom PatrolDoom Patrol Jane never painted again Grant Morrison

You wouldn’t think that a comic book about robot men, psychic superheroes, alien invasions and so forth would fit into this kind of list.  You’d be wrong.  Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol is full of self-aware post-modern fun with the conventions of the spandex-and-fighting genre, but is bookended by two issues which redefine grim, bleak and pitiless.

Cliff From Doom Patrol by Grant Morrison

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

Slow, elegaic, fatalistic…a lot of people seemed to miss the point of this book – a quasi-sci-fi tale of clones, bred to provide organs for donation, and doomed to an early and grisly death – asking “why didn’t they rebel and run away?”  To me, it’s an extended meditation on the fact that the defining characteristic of humanity is that we don’t run away from our fate, or scream in alarm; whether in Srebrenica, Sobibor or Surbiton, we accept the hand we’re given and make the best we can of it, and support each other down the long, cold, final road.

KEY QUOTE: “Perhaps we’d have been happy if things had stayed that way for a lot longer; if we could have whiled away more afternoons chatting, having sex, reading aloud and drawing.  But with the summer drawing to an end, with Tommy getting stronger, and the possibility of notice for his fourth donation growing ever more distinct, we knew we couldn’t keep putting things off indefinitely.”

5. Derek Raymond, I Was Dora Suarez

Any of Raymond’s works would have filled this slot, especially those from the Factory series, pitiless police procedurals that make Ian Rankin at his gloomiest look like an episode of Midsomer Murders.  This one edges it (beyond He Died With His Eyes Open and How The Dead Live – yeah, he didn’t mess about disguising the bleakness, old DR) just for the endlessly grim, hopeless, despairing tone, they way even our nameless cop anti-hero can’t kid himself he’s saving the world, he just wants to save some last vestige of his own belief in truth, if it’s – and it probably is – the last thing he does.  If you want a thoroughly depressing musical accompaniment for all this, hunt down the author and Gallon Drunk’s part-audiobook, part-soundtrack-to-a-film-that-could-never-be-made album.  But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

KEY QUOTE: “Writing Suarez broke me; I see that now. I don’t mean that it broke me physically or mentally, although it came near to doing both. But it changed me; it separated out for ever what was living and what was dead. I realised it was doing so at the time, but not fully, and not how, and not at once…I asked for it, though. If you go down into the darkness, you must expect it to leave traces on you coming up” – Derek Raymond, The Hidden Files

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Watching All Of Shakespeare: Ground Rules and Confessions

Confession first: I haven’t seen much Shakespeare.

Lots of people have probably seen less, but they’re probably not very bothered. I feel like I really should have.

I’ve studied English Literature at post-compulsory level off and on for over two decades (although admittedly without getting any meaningful qualification), got to the semi-finals of Mastermind twice, and been quite willing to argue with people about Shakespeare and quote him. I’ve got a sort of Roger Craig type knowledge – I can identify all the most famous quotations, probably even give you a precis of the plots of most of them, but as far as ACTUALLY HAVING SEEN them, on stage or screen, as far as I recall I’ve ticked off:

Hamlet
Macbeth
King Lear
Titus Andronicus
Twelfth Night
Midsummer Nights Dream
Much Ado About Nothing
Taming Of The Shrew
Richard III
Henry V
Julius Caesar

And that’s it. Maybe they were all bluffing it as well, but I’m sure most of the people I’ve done Eng Lit courses with had seen more than that. Christ, I’ve never even seen Othello, or Merchant Of Venice, or Romeo and Juliet (I got about half an hour into the Baz Luhrman thing before metaphorically putting my foot through the screen and sending him the bill). Romeo and Juliet! There’s undiscovered tribes in Papua New Guinea who’ve seen three versions of Romeo and Juliet, for Christ’s sake. I’m pretty sure I’ve written essays on others not on that list, and got fairly good grades, but I’ve not actually watched them. Maybe excerpts, but not all the way through.

This has to change.

So – and this is basically me muscling in on one of the entries on my wife’s “Things to do before turning 30” list, which gives us a deadline of 4th January 2015 – we’re going to watch it all.

A few ground rules:

1. Only original text versions. Obviously there’s much dispute about what the original text even is, I’m not going to get excessively anal and insist on unabridged first folio versions or something, but no modernised language versions, or “based on an idea by” stuff. There’s some excellent stuff of that nature – I saw a really good Othello update set in the Metropolitan Police with Christopher Ecclestone a few years back, and Neil Gaiman’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is pretty damned peerless, but you’ve got to have rules. Start letting Throne Of Blood in and next thing you’re counting Ten Things I Hate About You, and before you know it you’re ticking off Hamlet because the child watched The Fucking Lion King – AGAIN – while you were in the room.

2. The list I’m using is this:

All’s Well That Ends Well
As You Like It
Comedy of Errors
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Measure for Measure
Merchant of Venice
Merry Wives of Windsor
Midsummer Night’s DreamA picture of William Shakespeare, who is the focus of this challenge
Much Ado about Nothing
Taming of the Shrew
Tempest
Twelfth Night
Two Gentlemen of Verona
Winter’s Tale
Cymbeline
Henry IV, Part I
Henry IV, Part II
Henry V
Henry VI, Part I
Henry VI, Part II
Henry VI, Part III
Henry VIII
King John
Pericles
Richard II
Richard III
Antony and Cleopatra
Coriolanus
Hamlet
Julius Caesar
King Lear
Macbeth
Othello
Romeo and Juliet
Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus
Troilus and Cressida

I know there’s others attributed, but that’s what I’m going with. It seems generally accepted and lets face it the world’s not going to end if I’ve missed one. 3. “Watched” means that. It can be stage or screen, amateur or professional, but it has to be watched, radio versions don’t count. Why this will be of interest to anyone is beyond me, but there it is. We currently have David Tennant’s Hamlet, Al Pacino’s Merchant Of Venice and a Globe version of Othello on the TiVo, any recommendations welcomed but not necessarily followed. BRING ON THE BARD.

A Book or eBook?

E-reader and Paperback Book. Photo: IslesPunkFan

I used to believe in the humble book. There was a time I was certain that nothing could come between us and our fistfuls of musky scented yellow pages; that undeniable sense of character imparted by time and the tender hands of countless companions. Somehow I was sure that no matter how technologically advanced we became, nothing could possibly replace an authentic and unassuming hard cover.

There’s something deeply romantic about the book; a physical collection of words and sentiments, whose compilation is tangible evidence that as a people, we have existed. Through the book we happily accept the love and laughter, tears and tragedies of others; a testament to the human condition. Then when we’re done, we pass it on so that those words that shook us might wake the senses of a new reader. In that moment when we hand it over, we send our own story wordlessly with it; an unspoken yet undeniable shared history that can be sensed in the margins of every page. The happy knowledge that the leaves you now turn have been caressed by some number of others, binding you with your humanity, like the linking fingers of a best friend.

I was wrong, of course. I have always been, above all else, embarrassingly naive. How green to imagine that, while the rest of the world became increasingly clinical, uninterested in their brother and the intimacy of breathing someone else’s air, the defenceless book could survive. No one wants to own something that’s been handled by an unfamiliar other any more. We want to live apart. Possess our own things. Selfishly believe the world is ours; that we are the only one. Populations are booming, but even as we’re forced to dwell on top of one another, moving ever higher into an unconquered sky, we are slamming tight our shutters.

Needless to say, there will always be stories. We’re too governed by ego to let the story die; we see ourselves in every narrative and our sense of self importance is affirmed. But books and stories, those words that were once synonymous, are about to be broken apart. Driven by our need for efficiency, we can now download our own version of the texts we wish to read. These days we need not even leave the house. What a blow of cruel irony when the interwebs adopted the phrase connectivity.

Like so many things, it’s come to pass that every book you own can be uniquely yours; you read it once but do not pass it on. The pages are ever crisp and white; untarnished as a surgeon’s scalpel. But the romance is gone. In our hunger for perfection and instant gratification we have sliced off and slaughtered the glorious romance.

It’s been estimated that within this decade, electronic books will have completely replaced commercially available paper publications. There are of course, many advantages to the electronic book. Affordability is one; for the time being, they are certainly cheaper. Owning an electronic reader also means you can have countless titles at your finger tips. Many people are also citing the environmental card, claiming that the e book is better for the environment. I’m not sure I buy this one. While I’ve done exactly no research on the subject, I can’t believe the process involved with constructing these little gadgets is particularly sparing on the fossil fuels.

What do you think about our move toward electronic books?

Have you taken the leap to e-reader?

How do you feel about the humble hard cover being made redundant?

‘Information is Beautiful’ by David McCandless

So, that’s what this book is. Miscellaneous facts and ideas, interconnected visually. A visual miscellaneum. A series of experiments in making information beautiful. See what you think.” From the author’s Introduction to ‘Information is Beautiful’.

Information is Beautiful book cover

Click Here to Order the Book

Come the end of each calendar year, as religious types prepare festivals in celebration of the birth of a child actually born around April, and the press dust off stories about Muslims hating Christmas trees, and fat men are jolly as they know, with utter certainty, that they will get back in shape starting January 1st, your local book store also goes through a time-honoured tradition by stocking a number of tomes that review the events of the previous year, or express them in dull statistical lists.

The most recently famous of these, because of its proximity to Waterstones till (and yes, Waterstones should have an apostrophe traditionally, but they changed the name at the start of this year, which makes a kind of sense – it could refer to “Waterstone’s shop” and be a possessive, but now there is more than a single branch it makes a kind of sense to use the plural) is ‘Schott’s Almanac’, a discount collection of information and statistics relevant to the year in which the book was produced. They often collect dry statistics from throughout the year, and present them in a list format for people to briefly glance at then leave on a shelf until their grandchildren pick them up decades later and marvel at the strange days when they still allowed Dutch people into the country and let one of them play, and score, for Arsenal.

However, the great problem with most books that collect lists and graphs of statistics is that they are dull. Ask any pupil asked to create one for their subject in school, and they will agree. Informative they may be, but the information is presented in such a way as to make it inaccessible to anyone born after the coming of MTV supposedly ruined our attention spans.

‘Schott’s Almanac’ was an interesting curiosity, an archaic product released into a market-place already rampaging far off into the distance, which could provide far greater statistical information at a greater pace. It was already more up-to-date, too.

It was called the Interwebs. The Information Super-Motorway. Generation Y’s Google-Box.Hollywood Earnings represented graphically

It too shared Ben Schott’s vision: to supply some fascinating data in as boring and cluttered a way as possible. Most of us have been there, on a lazy afternoon, feet up on the sofa, netbook/laptop/iSomething on our laps, possibly overheating a bit and burning the hair, skin and denim from our thighs (note to self: get laptop fan fixed), when we come across a list of the top ten greatest LOLcat videos. Overjoyed, we click the link to find…

Ten videos.

On successive pages.

That.

Take.

For.

Ever.

To.

L

o

a

d.

Early in the last decade a comic book writer named Scott McCloud wrote an instructional manifesto on the future of comics called ‘Reinventing Comics’, and McCloud suggested that the Internet was a fantastic tool because it gave a new generation of writers and artists the opportunity to express themselves in ways that they couldn’t previously due to the limitations of illustrating on the page. This idea excited me, because it meant that virtually any idea that could be imagined appearing on the screen could potentially be used to tell that story. Mainstream comics, that had wanted to be films for so long, could appear as large 4:3 ratio images, one panel per page. Independent titles could go more experimental routes. Then there was the notion of sequential artwork itself possibly being subverted by a much more interactive medium, perhaps in the style of a choose-your-own-adventure narrative.

Instead, showing the staggeringly unimaginative obsession with the status quo that has been the hallmark of the age of innovation we are presently living in, comics eventually came to our computers looking exactly like they had always done, and ignoring the limitless possibilities of a new medium in favour of dull standardisation.

But whilst comic books have floundered and failed, in much the same way as mainstream producers and distributors of cinema, television, music and literature, the basic delivery of information in the form of an almanac, for an age of extremely up-to-date information, has seen at least one great revolutionary: David McCandless. His fascinating book looks at subjects that interest him, and, as a consequence could be seen as almost being an autobiography in a time when people are defined more by the products they buy and media they consume than by who they are inside. However, the book also looks at what is inside David McCandless in more detail than perhaps any autobiography in history (considering that he reprints the entire map of his chromosome sequence from page 52).

The chromosome sequence looks like a multicoloured swarm of bugs, gathering on a badly tuned television screen, but it includes labels pointing out important facts, such as indicators for the likelihood of prostate cancer, lactose intolerance, and sensitivity to pleasure. Most importantly, it is colourful, interesting, and fascinating. In other words, everything a list of 2 million letter combinations would not be.

These infographics are a stunning way to render information, and whilst McCandless may fall back on so old standards, such as graphs and pie-charts, they are presented in such a way as to make the discovery and understanding of the information as fascinating as what it means. Graphs can represent multiple things at once, such as films for a certain year by box-office takings, whether they were a financial success or failure based on their original budget, and the level of critical acclaim but together in one graph that can be understood easily at a glance.

Other infographics look at diverse topics such as the most deadly facial hair on the planet, based on the amount of death caused by the famous people wearing it at the time (such as Genghis Khan) presented as a graph which handily features the facial hair; or the colour-coded list of hangover-cures and their ingredients by country, represented as the amounts within the cups that appear on the page, with cocktails on the other page to help get you into a state where you might need one; similarly, there is a double-page on calorie intake, and how to burn them off with simple graphics showing the food, a description and the number, whilst exercises and daily activities gets the same attention, with stark white-on-black silhouettes, description and numbers underneath (hopscotch burns off 185 calories, a visit to the toilet 44); there is a map of popular Internet search terms by country, colourful Venn-diagrams on the lack of rape convictions in England and Wales, and a lovely graph entitled, “What’s Better Than Sex?” based around Google Insights search results (the answer? Since 2007: youtube.com).

The book is a fascinating mixture of things you might want to know, things you didn’t know you wanted to know, things that look pretty that you don’t care about except when you are looking at the fascinating presentation, an insight into one man’s interests, and two ironic pages of text on postmodernism. It is a brilliant and imaginative way of taking interesting facts and turning them into something clever and pretty. The hope is that one day, McCandless’s efforts will inspire a new generation to present many of their own work in a similar fashion. The worry is that we have been here before, as Scott McCloud may testify, and it is so much easier to just go with the industry, social, or cultural standard.

But it is so much more enriching when the information really is beautiful.

For more information, click here for the official website

Beyond Books: The Future of Libraries

Libraries are facing cuts, and are closing at an alarming rate all over the country – CILIP (Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals) estimates that 600 libraries, mobile libraries and services could be destroyed in the next few years.  As a former Library Assistant (totally different to a Librarian, but more of that later) I have seen first hand how people rely on these hubs of community and their books.

But the world is moving fast.  Books are cheap.  Do libraries still have a place in the society of the future?

Books on library shelves

Most people see a library as like some kind of book shop – like Blockbuster, but with novels instead of DVDs. They might have popped in to use a computer if theirs was broken or they needed to study in peace, and they might even have borrowed a CD or taken their children to story time. I think they are missing the point, but I don’t think libraries are helping their own image.

What is the actual essence of a library? It’s not necessarily the books, or the building.  It’s a more abstract concept – that of a community of learning. There are moves now to introduce more events and variety into the day to day lives of libraries – Newcastle Central Library is a good example of this; There are story times, book groups, study space and exhibitions, but I still don’t think they are going far enough.

Libraries should be alive with learning.  They should be a destination, a democratic meeting place.  Lectures open to the public with teachers and librarians on hand to help with research.

There was a time when every public library had to have at least one qualified librarian – a graduate who has studied for a highly specialised qualification.  A librarian can not only answer any question, but they can show you the reputable sources and guide you to further reading. They can navigate the world of information and pick out the important bitNewcastle Central Librarys, and they can keep that information safe for when it’s needed.  In this age of information, Librarians should be our guides, instead they are losing their jobs.

I propose that we bring back this emphasis on the skills of the librarian, and allow them to work with teachers, lecturers, artists and other specialists to create an environment that will remain a vital part of our educational armoury.

Home Education is becoming more and more widespread, with current conservative estimates at 40,000 school age children, and rising.  More people are choosing to study university and college courses on a part time or distance learning basis, with most universities offering part time and distance options, as well as dedicated institutions like the Open University and ICS.  Many people now can’t afford the qualifications that they need or want, and there is a  growing group of adults with poor literacy and numeracy.  The world is getting more and more complex, yet mass entertainment is becoming simpler.  If we do learn informally, it is often through Wikipedia, or reading biased newspapers.  People are getting lonely and more and more segregated by age, class and social group, which is leading to tensions, blame and prejudice.

We need to bring our libraries back to the centre of our communities.  Let’s see informal and formal discussions, activities and resources, all together with books, computers andtwo children reading books in a library even things as simple as paper, pens and quiet tables.  Small libraries could be quieter, with only a few events, and larger ones should be full of opportunity and excitement.  I want to be able to bring a toddler to story time, an older child to a science lesson and a teenager to a philosophy group.  I want political meetings, inclusive discussions and exciting lectures.  I want to be able to buy stationary and a coffee and read the papers.  I want poetry readings, comedy nights and art exhibitions.  I want books, lots of them, but also guidance on the internet, more information on television shows, discussions after plays, talks about local history.

I want us to hold on for dear life to the principle that there should be a library, free and open to all, in every community, for everyone.  It might have to adapt, but it needs to exist.

Help! I Married a Spine-Breaker!

When it comes to books there are three types of people in the world.

There are those who see books as a resource to be consumed, those who see them as an almost religious artifact to be revered, and protected and those who have no interest. Both of the first two sets of people adore books, love literature and all it stands for and think a world without the written word would be a sorry, sorry place. That however is where the similarities end and the fine line of separation starts to widen into a gulf.

I have loved reading since I realised that decoding those squiggles meant I could get a story out of the thick cardboard pages of my nursery books. I saw being able to read and read well as a mystical, magical skill and I to certain extent, I still do. My mother filled every space of our home with shelf upon shelf of poetry and prose, fact and fiction, classical and modern; the greats, the good and the not so good and saw value in it all.

She taught me how to enjoy the smell of an old book; dusty, worn and full of knowledge and insight. Introduced me to the sensual beauty of a new book; the feel of fresh pages, smooth and crisp and eager to be read.Newspaper clipping of children protesting to save a library

Each Christmas I would eagerly await my presents knowing there would be a stack of new books in there, all full of fresh and exciting adventures and things I didn’t yet know. I’d peel off the paper carefully, stroke the front cover, gently adjust the dust jacket and then open the first page to read the inscription. Right from the off I was a book worshipper.

My husband is a good man, but like all of us he has bad habits. His book reading habits though are enough to make me want to live in a different postcode. He is a consumer. He devours books at great speed, so focused on greedily pawing his way through the pages that he doesn’t give the book itself the appropriate respect. He will read while he’s eating, turning pages with jammy fingers or leave oily marks on the pages where he’s been eating crisps.

He will leave books in the bathroom until they get damp from the steam, their pages all wrinkled and withered like the veins on an old lady’s hands. Books never make it back to the shelf on finishing, they are unceremoniously stuffed everywhere; between sofa cushions, on windowsills, around the bed, in wardrobes, rolling around the passenger footwells of the car, abandoned like they were nothing more than an old till receipt.

The most heinous of all his crimes however, is that he will never use a bookmark. Pages are turned and folded at best, but more often than not they are held open by a half-full coffee cup, discarded plate or pages viciously forced akimbo and rammed face down on the nearest (not necessarily clean) surface. Spines scream as they are bent and creased and pages cry as they are coated in coffee dribble and I silently monitor the progress of my seizures wondering if I should be documenting this as an example of prolonged emotional torture for use in the murder trial.

If you are like my husband you will be sat there now shrugging, thinking: Seriously, what is her problem? It just shows that a book is read and loved if it shows a little wear and tear. To a certain extent I do agree with you, far better to see a book that has been read and enjoyed than one that has never been opened, but here is the crux of the matter: imagine you are me, with your shelves and shelves of cherished treasures, pristine in their dust jackets, spines creased just enough to show they’ve been opened, like literary laughter lines, the only marks on the pages where the tears elicited by the tales inside have fallen, the only creases in the pages are those made accidentally whilst in storage or transit. Now imagine that Oaf Boy up there; with his sticky fingers, coffee dribbles and spine-splitting tendencies is approaching said revered volumes, arms outstretched and full of intent. It’s like watching someone pick one of your children to mutilate. Of course, you can’t say anything other than a gentle “be careful with that” because after all you love Oaf Boy and you love that he wants to share in your love of these books, and you love that he is willing to let you share his favourites with you despite the fact you can rarely bring yourself to read them because they wail horrific tales of abuse, scaring on every page.

I’m sure he finds it just as hard watching me grimace as I do watching him and I’m sure that my neurosis seems as unreasonable to he and his ilk as their repeated torture does to me. So to all of you, whichever camp you belong to, heed my warning: pick carefully, and if you value your own sanity, stick with your own kind.

My New Book Buying Policy

After the whole “perfect princess” thing (see my previous post) I have decided to draw a line in the sand.  It is all very well having a case by case judgement on each thing and all, but sometimes you need to send a clear message to retailers, suppliers, manufacturers and everyone else who is putting these things in front of your children.

I would love it if you could join me.  It is a pretty basic rule.

I will no longer buy any books for my child that are labelled by gender.

That is it.  We’re not talking about colours or subjects, we are not talking about in depth analysis of the message.  Just that simple rule.Child reading a book

Unless it is “how to maintain your genitals”, (which is unlikely to be in a mainstream bookshop children’s section anyway…) there is no need for a children’s book to be gender specific.

So, no more “Boys Book of Football”, no more “Animal Stories for Girls”.  Animal stories and football stories are fine, but why are we automatically excluding half of all children in the title?  Even books with titles like “Girls Can Do Science Too!” are setting themselves up as being somehow unusual.  Boys and girls don’t want or need to be shoehorned into marketing sectors.  Especially not when it comes to learning and books.

I realise this rule misses a lot of books (it would even have missed out our old friend Princess Twinkle) and it may well include the odd book that has good contents, but, you know what, I’m tired of all this.  Publishers need to stop telling my children what is and isn’t for their gender.  If your book is so good, why can’t all children read it?

If enough of us do it, publishers might start noticing.  For now, they can still put a load of pink frilly stuff on the animal book, and a load of muddy boys on the football book, but lets not make it so blatant.

It might be a small, flawed step, but it is something.

Incidentally, a brilliant campaign against the “pinkification” of girls’ toys, clothes and books can be found at http://www.pinkstinks.co.uk/ – go and have a look at the excellent work they are doing.

Testing Treatments

Medical research is one of those areas where everyone thinks they know a little.  Images of lab rats, miraculous cures and money grabbing pharmaceutical companies compete with the day to day reality of patients and doctors trying to tackle illness.  A new edition has been published of a book that tries to shed a bit of light on to the subject.

Testing Treatments, by Imogen Evans, Hazel Thornton, Iain Chalmers and Paul Glasziou, is aimed at the informed patient and explains how new medical treatments are researched, and how that relates to the experience of the patient being treated.  The book strikes a tone that is halfway between academic text and pop science, and might seem intimidating to some, but the regular summaries of key points and personal stories mean that the reader will soon find themselves gripped.

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The book takes a long view over history, covering scurvy treatments in 1747 right up to cancer trials of the present day, advocating a partnership approach between patient and doctor, and includes calls to action for professionals, patients and policy makers to ensure that questions are asked and information is shared.  The reader is encouraged to look sceptically at the need for treatments and screening, and to try to see through marketing and media hype.

Ben Goldacre provided the forward to this edition, and the book continues in the spirit of his work – accessible without being over simplistic.  I would have liked to have more detail, but I’m not sure how that could have been achieved without losing the ease of understanding.  There is an extensive list of further reading and references at the back of the book for the reader who would like to know more, and I didn’t personally feel that the scientific knowledge was shied away from in the text.  Perhaps a scientist would disagree, but I went away feeling that I knew much more about the subject and that I would be a more informed patient.

The publisher, Pinter and Martin, provided me with a copy of this book for review in my personal capacity

Testing Treatments is available for £6.99 from Amazon

Princess Poppy and the Patriarchy

By Alicia Duffy

As a proud feminist mother of two small girls, I try to strike a balance between letting my daughters join in with the culture they live in and protecting them from the more harmful parts.  This has been pretty easy up to now, but this September brought a whole new set of challenges when my eldest started school…

Every week, along with the usual reading practise, numeracy tasks and games, the children bring home a school library book to share with their family.  This choice is left to the children, from a selection, and so often some pretty odd books can be sent home, but it is all there to foster a love of reading, so fair enough.  A lot of four year olds will unfortunately not had very much exposure to books and reading before school, and so simply holding and enjoying a book is an important first step to literacy.  As I have worked both in public libraries and book sales, I know how hard it can be to find books that are acceptable to the reasonably aware adult, but usually the most horrifyingly un PC can be weeded out.Princess Twinkle children's book

So, when my daughter showed me her latest school library book – “Princess Twinkle and Other Princess Stories” – I cringed a bit, but settled down to read it with her.  She had chosen it herself, and while most of the book was far from what I would want my daughter to read, I trusted that it couldn’t get too bad.

The book is a collection of stories and poems, featuring princesses in various adventures and situations, all well within the stereotype of helpless pretty girl, but nothing jaw dropping.  As I read it, I substituted a lot of my own words, but more for my own amusement than anything else – badly written children’s books can be very boring.  Then I found the story entitled “The Perfect Princess”

“The Perfect Princess” features Princess Poppy.  She is introduced as a very messy little girl, and pictured climbing a tree in jeans and a t shirt.  She does have long loose hair, a crown and appears to be wearing lipstick, but is overall dressed like a normal little girl.  Wonderful, I thought – this must be the story where all the stereotypes that have made up the rest of the book are challenged.  Poppy is then pictured at the breakfast table, as her parents tell her there is to be a garden party.  Poppy asks to be able to wear her jeans, but her mother refuses, saying she has to look like a “proper princess” and be “pretty”.

Princess Poppy looking at herself in a mirror, thumbs up.So, up to now I am thinking this is the story where the princess shows everyone that is more important to have fun than dress up.  Maybe there will be an amusing incident where a “pretty” princess rips her dress, but doesn’t care, because Poppy has shown her how to have fun climbing trees or whatever.

Poppy is then shown getting ready for the party, putting on her t shirt, jeans and trainers, then giving herself the thumbs up in her mirror, saying she doesn’t care what people think, because being a messy princess is more fun.  As she stands in front of the mirror, her posture is strong, she is smiling at herself and she is surrounded by her sports equipment.  She looks confident and happy.  This story could go well.

Here is where the story gets worrying.  As Poppy leaves the palace to go to the garden party, she spots Prince Harry.  As soon as she sees Harry, she decides that she doesn’t want to be a messy princess any more, and runs back inside.  So now my four year old is being told that a confident, beautiful girl, in clothes that make her comfortable and allow her to play football and go skateboarding, is not suitable to be at a party with a boy.

Polly goes back to her room, and changes into a frilly dress and high heeled shoes.  When she returns, Harry is enchanted, calls her beautiful, kisses her hand and invites her for a game of croquet.  The children are pictured surrounded by love hearts.  So, here is the reward for changing how she dresses- she gets the guy.  We don’t know if she changes how she behaves, beyond a picture of her playing croquet nicely on a lawn instead of climbing a tree.  The most important thing about Poppy is how she dresses.

Prince Harry kisses Poppy on the handThe last picture features Polly’s parents looking on approvingly.  “At last, Poppy had become a proper princess!”

The rest of the book was bad enough, but this story was so blatant it shocked me.  Children of this age are highly impressionable -they are learning so fast that everything becomes a learning experience.  They are discovering where they fit in the world, what is expected of them, what to aim for.  Poppy was there to show my daughter that she should forget about playing active sports, having fun, being her own person, and should focus on getting herself a nice man.  Worse still, the way to get this man is to change everything about yourself, and that is a good thing.  Messy is bad.  Fun is bad.  Pretty and sweet is good.

It worries me to think that this book was published in 2003, and nobody anywhere in the publishing and purchasing process thought to change it.  I’m hoping that it has found it’s way into the school library by accident, because otherwise I despair.  Sadly, I suspect that the school is simply too short on funds to be able to pick and choose what books are availiable.

There are so many good children’s books out there, many of which challenge the princess stereotype without being boring or preachy.  For example, the excellent Zog by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, or Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole.  These books are a pleasure to hold and to read, with gorgeous illustrations and entertaining text – why submit children to rubbish, especially when they are at such a vital age?

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