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Review: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guos

My parents came to visit yesterday, and after a bit of a struggle to find a free space in a sandwich shop at 1pm on a sunny afternoon in Lewes, we had a lovely family lunch, where I discovered that both my children support Wales, land of their grandfather, in the Rugby World Cup.  As they hardly speak to each other, there was no collusion in this decision, it’s just something that they both identify with.

After lunch, my mum helped LD#2 write her name in Chinese, as she wants to use this in her GCSE Art project on identity.  My teacher friend Meg says she hates this particular project, because as she puts it “all the kids with money and horses end up with a lovely project and the ones whose parents barely acknowledge they exist end up with nothing.”  Anyway, so far, Isabel has Chinese writing, some Dr Who memorabilia and a tap dancing medal, which Meg assures me is far less difficult to make a cohesive project out of than it would appear, although I wonder what ideas she would come up with if she had to add a Welsh dragon into the mix?

My mum was getting a bit carried away, suggesting that I could teach my children some Chinese writing, since I have a GCSE in Chinese.  To be honest, this counts for nothing as I have forgotten most of the characters, and I can’t speak it.  I find it really annoying when people say things like, “Oh I’m sure you are much better than you think you are” or “If you got back into it, I’m sure you’d pick it up quickly.”  People have no idea how difficult it is to speak Cantonese.  Chinese people cannot even understand me when I try to speak it because of the way I pronounce the words.  Also, there’s the question of grammar.  As the narrator of A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers puts it, “Chinese, we not having grammar.  We saying things simple way.”  So that’s why they sound funny to us and why I sound funny to them.  The Chinese have traditions of how they say things, rather than rules, which makes it a nightmare to learn.  You can’t really learn it, you sort of have to pick it up by instinct.

Zhuang, the narrator of A Concise… , has come to London from Beijing to study English for a year.  She comes from a peasant family made good, so has known great hardship, and is now cautiously enjoying prosperity.  The book is narrated in her broken English, which improves quickly throughout the book, as within days she meets an older man and moves in with him as his lover.   I found this development rather startling, my first reaction being “Is he some kind of psychopath or what??” but then I returned to the no grammar, no rules concept introduced early on, and decided that the storyline of this novel was a bit like that, Zhuang and her lover behaving outside the accepted grammar of social situations, in the same way that she says things outside of the grammar of Western etiquette, eg as an attempt at conversation “Are you a bit fatter than me?”  (Yes, that’s very Chinese.)

Later on, as Zhuang’s English improves and she is able to put forward opposing viewpoints to her lover (who is never named, just referred to in the second person) they find that they irritate each other quite a lot.  I did struggle with the fact that they hadn’t anticipated this, but then he clearly has his own issues, as does Zhuang.  The bits of Chinese history that I have read about (the way they used to execute criminals, the whole of the cultural revolution etc) is seeped through with violence, and that together with the “group” rather than “individual” mentality has led to a casual acceptance of violence within the family that Chinese people themselves don’t really understand, and that came through well in this book, although I can see that non-Chinese people would find it very puzzling.  Also there’s a strong Chinese tendency to believe that if you are not in danger of famine, debilitating violence or death, everything must be OK, which affects a lot of their outlook.

I did wonder whether this was a play on our tendency to assume that what people can express is the sum total of their thoughts.  Zhuang mentions that many people find her and her fellow language school students funny because of the way they talk, and certainly the beginning of the novel is very funny.  My favourite among many was the amazed description of an English breakfast: “messy scrumpled eggs, very salty bacons, burned bread, very thick milk, sweet bean in orange sauce…” As Zhuang becomes more fluent, she is better able to express the Chinese way of thinking.  It’s easy to see why Christianity went down so well in the pockets of China that missionaries were able to reach, because of the similar themes of self-sacrifice and inner spiritual contentment that both cultures prize so highly.

In the end, the book ends up pondering the question of how best to lead our lives when we have experienced the benefits that both cultures have to offer, while necessarily having to choose between living in one of them, which does not understand the other.  Although the conclusion is as definite as it could be, given the need for a sensible time scale, this book surprised me by being one of the few that made me wish I could have stayed with the character and found whether she managed to work out how to achieve her contentment.

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Review: A Separation, directed by Asghar Farhadi

This terrific film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2012.

It comes from the director of About EllyAsghar Farhadi, and explores similar themes, but is much more developed and complete.  In About Elly, three liberal, middle class Iranian couples and two singles go on holiday by the Caspian Sea.   When one of the singles, Elly, disappears, it prompts the fall of a complex tower of lies upon lies, all set against the restrictive backdrop of Iranian social norms.

A Separation has a similar structure; a germ of a crisis becomes huge problem, not just because of the lies people tell, but because of the pressures that people are under, which makes their behaviours and subsequent lies almost inevitable.

Simin and Nader are on the verge of separation.  Simin wants to leave Iran, for a better life for the family, and especially for their daughter Termeh (the script says 11 year old, but the character is written more as if 13/14).  Nader cannot leave Iran because he has to care for his father, who has Alzheimers.  So Simin leaves Nader and goes back to her family home, while Termeh stays with Nader.

Nader has to leave the house to go to work, therefore he must employ a carer to look after his father during the day. This beginning is a bit slow, as we see the stress that Nader is under, looking after his father as soon as he comes home from work, but also the stress that Razieh, the carer, is under, forced by poverty to commute long distances for little pay, and unable to tell her husband what the nature of her work is, due to her religious and cultural misgivings about how proper it is for her to be caring for a single man, even an elderly and incapable one.

The plotting is astonishingly intricate, which belies the fact that the action takes place on only a few stages; the family apartment block; Simin’s family home; and a crowded, jostling courthouse, for the courthouse is where they all end up when the families end up in conflict and one family claims against the other, only to be faced with a counterclaim.

The acting is very good, very naturalistic.  Our sympathies swing from one character to another, and all of them end up compromised, but the rigid legal system means that for all concerned, the stakes are high, and only and all or nothing outcome is likely; there are no such things as mitigating circumstances, which might lead all to a sympathetic outcome.

I’d been expecting from the title rather a narrow film. concerned with the personal dynamics of a break up, but nothing could have been further from the reality.  As well as the legal system, the religious and class systems also play their parts in the unfolding drama, and this felt as complete a portrait of a modern society that it’s possible to put across in two hours.

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Review: The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

LD#1’s school sent one of her RE GCSE papers back to be re-marked last month.  I have a theory that because her handwriting is really terrible, examiners assume the content is not that good.  The first time round this paper got 41/50 but when it came back last week, it was marked 50/50, which moved her total mark up enough to send her from an A to an A*.

She is really enjoying college, which is such a relief, after years and years and years of her really hating school and being very unhappy there.  She says that the tutors are really enthusiastic and the other students are friendly and are genuinely interested in what they are studying.  She also gets to go home at 11.45am on Thursdays and Fridays, and her timetable is even considered to be very full compared with people who are only doing 3 A-levels.  What a life it is to be a student!!!

I asked her whether there were loads more boys than girls in her Maths/Further Maths A-Level group, but she said, “No, there are quite a lot of girls.  There are about six of us.”  (That’s out of a class of twenty.)  I also asked whether people who hadn’t done Further Maths didn’t find the pace of double Maths A-level a bit much, but she said most people in her class had done it.  “Which makes it even worse for the people who haven’t,” she concluded, after some thought.

Back at school, the little daughter is getting a bit disconcerted that her new teachers keep asking her, “Are you Rhiannon’s sister?” and then going on about how well Rhiannon did in her GCSEs.  Especially the maths and physics teachers.

“But I don’t even like maths and physics!” she said.

LD#2 is very different from the rest of the family.  She has no interest at all in maths, science, or even really computers, cheerfully announcing, “I’m really terrible at IT.  I spent weeks and weeks last year trying to work out how to use Photoshop.  And I couldn’t use that programme with the squares at all.”

Programme with the squares?

“Do you mean Excel?”  I asked.

“Yes, that one!”

She can do maths and science well if you explain things carefully to her, she just isn’t interested.  She is very fine with this, though, because she thinks that people who like maths are strange, and she is happy not to be strange.

“Do you think Rhiannon is strange?” I asked.

“Yes.”  (Immediate response.)

It took a few seconds for an almost comedy moment of realisation to steal over me.

“Do you think I’m strange??”

“You’re not very very strange, but yes you are a bit strange.”

What I did think was strange was that teachers would expect siblings to be good at the same things as each other.  Although it was a very similar unconscious prejudice that I think must have stopped me for years and years, despite seeing glowing opinions every now and then, from reading anything by the Mitfords, because of the involvement that Diana and Unity, two of the siblings, had with Oswald Mosley and with Hitler.  I assumed that anyone who was related to Diana and Unity must therefore possess a heavy and unforgiving soul.

After having been rather weighed down with Anna Karenina and The Luminaries, I was slightly gasping for something lighter, and Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love was the only thing I could find on my shelf.  I couldn’t believe how wrong I could be with my prejudices – it only took a couple of pages for me to be completely hooked by The Pursuit of Love‘s charming, energetic band of Radlett siblings, as observed by their cousin, the sensible Fanny.  We watch the group from late childhood, marauding in a semi-feral state of upper classness around a large country home, through their “debuts” as adolescents, leading to their various marriages and relationships, successful or otherwise, as adults.

I loved very much the way the characters’ conversations and thoughts were ostensibly so lightweight, yet often concealed much deeper feelings that none of them were culturally able to admit.  I also loved and was totally surprised by the narrator’s voice that Nancy Mitford had chosen.  The narrator, Cousin Fanny, was abandoned by her mother at birth and brought up by her unmarried aunt, Emily; the Radletts’ mother, Sadie, is the third sister of this older generation.  Emily is an advocate of education for girls, choosing to send Fanny to school, to the horror of Sadie’s husband, Uncle Matthew, who thinks that this can only encourage unforgivably terrible habits, such as referring to “writing paper” as “notepaper”.  I really liked the way that Mitford was able to filter the view of all this eccentric, upper class family through the eyes of an outsider.

Early on in the book, Aunt Emily marries, and there is a moment of uncertainty when the children wonder whether this interloper into Emily and Fanny’s life will be a benign or malign force.  Davey turns out to be a wonderful father and step-uncle, and he is one of the characters in this book who generate the many quiet acts of staunch kindness that balance out the selfish decisions of the more thoughtless, or merely less socially able, characters.

The Pursuit of Love is a deceptively throwaway title, and the style of writing is skims brightly and deceptively over a deep pool of emotion.  They may think that what they want is love, but it is really happiness and contentment that all the characters are after.

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Solidarity with Refugees march, London

I went on the Solidarity with Refugees march in London today.  The march was huuuuge.  90,000 people signed up on Facebook.  I’d love to know how many actually attended, but I can’t imagine how anyone could have counted.

I went with my friends Rachel and Celia.  My mum was a refugee as a baby in Macau in 1950 with her family, and Rachel and Celia’s father came to Britain on the last Kindertransport; he lost both his parents and his younger brother in the Holocaust.  It was interesting discussing our experiences of growing up as the children of refugees.  It seems that both our ex-refugee parents were particularly overprotective, but whereas Rachel and Celia’s father was keen to educate his children very broadly about the political realities of other countries and the effects of migration, my mum was keen to turn away from all of that and become much more inward looking.

The idea for the march started off with one woman, Ros Ereira, posting on Facebook.  A few more organisations, such as Amnesty International, then got involved, but still, I was pretty impressed with the number of volunteer stewards and speakers they’d got together in that short amount of time, not to mention the mobile stage and PA system.  Some of the speakers were a bit random, such as the guy from the Socialist Alliance, who provoked dissenting murmurs from the crowd around me objecting to the way he was pushing his own political message rather than paying any attention to the issue of refugees.  A better speaker was the woman from Sarajevo spoke about her gratitude to the UK for providing her with refuge 22 years ago, and how life is not just about not being in immediate danger, but about living the rest of your life with dignity.  Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, talked about the Kindertransport children who came to Windermere (near his constituency) in the 1930s and his sadness that more children were not able to come – a mistake that we should not make again, he said.  That’s actually the first time I realised that the Lib Dems had actually voted themselves a new leader!  He was really a very good speaker, and it’s a pity the Lib Dems have only got 8 MPs.

At the other end of the march, in Parliament Square, we got a speech from Jeremy Corbyn, who had earlier that day been announced as the new leader of the Labour party.  In a discussion with my dad earlier this month, it turns out we had quite similar views on the possibility of a Corbyn election.  My dad thinks that it will open up discussion and debate and pave the way for someone else to come through and lead the party to a stronger future.  For me, I feel that more of the same old ex-Blairite faces, trying the same formula of centrist inoffensiveness with ever diminishing returns would never have result in victory, and even if Corbyn becomes the “mincemeat” my friends were worried that the press would make of him, it would shock the party into facing up to the current  emptiness of their central political premise.  I think it is easier for the right wing to hold together, as there are fewer ways to be laissez-faire, whereas the left wing premise of constructing a more equal country is a complex proposition, which needs to be thought about and discussed.  I do wonder what happened to all the political philosophers, such as Bernard Williams, when you need them.  I fear that until someone confronts the differences between ideological, usually more privileged, socialists and the communities of poverty and low employment that socialism is intended to benefit, the left will not be elected again.  I feel it is a similar barrier to electability for Labour that massive negative press influence was during the 1980s; it took Neil Kinnock’s vision and effort to defeat it.

It was really interesting hearing Corbyn as the leader of a major political party come out with some straightforward views.  Corbyn was very careful to remain positive, and non party political on the cross-party stage he had been given, although Billy Bragg then went and undermined it all by bellowing out the Red Flag straight afterwards (an effect magnified by the fact Bragg was also one of the few on the stage who could work out how to use the microphone properly).

Rachel and Celia are still convinced Corbyn is going to be obliterated by the press, but then again, we are in a strange new world.  The gap between rich and poor in this country is becoming more and more unbridgeable, due to the way of the property market, and so is the gap between the standard of living between countries.  Climate change is going to play a factor in people’s need to migrate away from other countries (Celia was telling us about the role that drought had played in the Syrian migration).  War seems to be getting more widespread and brutal, and in many western countries, the relationship between the public and the elected politician has reached never before seen lows of cynicism and mistrust.  It will be interesting to see whether all the established rules that have recently seen in the victories of successive polished politicians will also be part of the new world.

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Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to!

As with The Goldfinch, I’m very late arriving with this, but this seems to be turning into the summer when I finally have time to read all those big thick books I’ve been putting off.

The Luminaries is a pseudo-Victorian mystery set in New Zealand during the gold panning days.   As would have been the case at that time and place, the large cast of characters is very male, with the exception of a prostitute and an enigmatic “femme fatale,” and very white, apart from a couple of Chinese men and a native New Zealander.

Differentiation between all these characters is helped by the fact that their roles are strongly identified with their profession/place in society.  On another level, Catton has assigned each a sign of the Zodiac, or a planet, and there are two “moon” and “sun” characters, the mysteriously missing young man Emery Staines and prostitute Anna Wetherall.  The “Zodiac” characters’ actions motives revolve around the “moon” and the “sun”.

If this all sounds very complicated, the nice thing is that you don’t have to know anything about this at all to enjoy the book, which is basically a murder mystery, done in that atmospheric manner that I love my mysteries to unfold in, and which is so different from most modern mysteries/thrillers, which I don’t get on with at all.

I’d heard criticisms of the book’s complicated structure, but I found that I liked it.  Each section is half as long as the one before.  That immediately got me thinking about the way mathematical series work, and how the sums of some series get bigger and bigger (diverge) and the sums of others converge, ie get closer and closer but never exactly get to the same point as a number.  So if you add a half and a quarter and an eighth and keep going with terms that are half as big again, you get to 1.   There are these things called Baravelle spirals, which illustrate what I am thinking of.  For me, it mirrored the idea that the mystery was getting ever more complex, but that we would never really reach the heart of it.

The best thing about the book was the incredible way in which the twenty-eight year old Catton (and that’s twenty-eight when it was published! Never mind the time it took her to write and research it) empathised with the way outsiders, especially racial and gender outsiders, had to battle so hard to survive in this harsh society.  Some of the backstories were full of terrible injustice, and as the novel unfolded, I found I was rooting for the “Goodies” and wanting the “Baddies” to come to a sticky end – something I find a compelling motive to read on.

The end was the only thing that was a bit disappointing – it didn’t have the emotional closure that I would have liked, considering how much I had invested in the characters by the end of it.  Still, I just as much enjoy an exciting journey as I do a great destination.

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Parents and children: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? By Roz Chast

My kids have suddenly started doing really grown up things.

LD#2, the 14 year old, has started a blog. to record the pictures she has drawn, and the films she has watched. I was really surprised when I saw it, because when she described it, I imagined that she’d just put up a picture and written something like “Here is a picture” on it.  Whereas it turns out she’s highly articulate and capable of documenting all her reasons for choosing to draw what she drew the way she drew it, and of describing her reactions.

LD#1, the 16 year old, went on a two day painting course over the summer, going off to study the sea for half a day, then going back to the studio where the course was held to paint the picture.  She dropped art at school two years ago, so I was a bit nervous about how she’d cope with the course, but she coped fine:


although she came home absolutely exhausted both days.

Both of them went to serve tea at one of the Lewes Artwave over the weekend, which is something they’ve never done before.

My friends have this huge garden, which is great for displaying sculptures



And also a large pond, on which their enterprising 10 year old son was offering boat rides


It was worth £2 for the sales pitch alone, which went like this:

“If you want me to take you in the boat, I will.  Otherwise, I won’t.”  (Good start.)  “The life jackets are free, but if you want me to jump in and rescue you, it’s £3.”

I took my chances with the life jacket and was rowed round the pond, to enjoy a really lovely view.  I just think it’s so incredible to have the opportunity to row round your own pond as a child, and also to show such enterprising spirit.

I remember my mum totally underestimating at all stages what I was capable of, whereas by the time I was about sixteen (or even six), I thought that I clearly had a better idea of how to handle most life situations than she did.  Eg one of my earliest memories is of being at a party and eating some of those shiny sugar decorations, and my mum going totally ballistic when she found out, because she thought they were metal.

That’s still my perception, although now I look at my kids, I wonder how true it really was?  At the same time, I think I probably suffer too from what my mother did, which was not realising that my children (and my friends’ child) have grown up and taken in the world around it, and are capable of forming their own perfectly competent reactions to it.

Finally, at the other end of the parents and children spectrum, I got round to reading Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

This graphic novel is a combination of a memoir of Roz Chast’s childhood, and the history of her parents, and a brutally honest look at the realities of coping with extremely aged parents, who are dying very slowly.  The observations Chast makes about her past, her parents and their idiosyncrantic ways of bringing her up, and of interacting with the outside world, are very relatable and funny.  It complements the serious side of the book well – as her parents age, the funny sides of their personalities remain, making it a little easier for the reader to digest what is happening to them.  But the other side of funny, the parts that were always hard for Chast to cope with, get worse.  This is a very memorable book.

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My Daughter’s Sixth Form Reading List

A few people were interested in what was on my daughter’s reading list.  Everyone takes exams at age 16 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, in what is generally the fifth year of secondary school.  She’s just got the results of those (6A*s and 4 As and an A in the FSMQ Additional Maths!) and will be starting sixth form college in September.

Her new college has issued her with a reading list, and I have dutifully gone and ordered all the books, which have now arrived, and I asked her how she was getting on with it.

“We only have to read one,” she explained.  (Although as she didn’t object to me buying them all, I assume she will get round to reading them all at some point.)

Last year this college got 37 people into Oxbridge, so I assume they know what they are doing, still just the one book does seem the definition of setting the bar low (or as I read in one online student publication recently, “setting the bar so low it’s practically a doorstep.”)

Great big long reading lists are a common feature of highly academic private schools, like the one I went to.  I have mixed feelings about those lists, as although they introduced me to some very diverse writers such as John Wyndham, Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson, they were generally shot through with a very prescriptive idea of books that we should have been reading, ie “classics”, and there were a fair few teachers (by no means all, but some) who seemed to frown on any kind of reading that wasn’t from this canon.

Incidentally, LD#2 has a reading list too, a new idea from her non-selective comprehensive school, which is attempting to drive up its standards.  Her list has 5 quite random looking books on it, and includes Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife.

LD#1’s sixth form reading list is as follows:

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (had never read, but now have)

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (was on my school reading list and have read)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte (a less prominent Bronte book, which has therefore been overlooked by me)

White Teeth by Zadie Smith (the only big book on the list, I tried years ago but didn’t get on with it, found the characters a bit over the top.  I might give it another go.)

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (totally vindicating my decision earlier in the year to take them to a screening of this! Despite the fact that the younger one didn’t understand what was going on, and the older one was cross it went on so long because she had an essay to finish)

Selected Poems by Thomas Hardy (Urgh)

Selected Poems by T S Elliot (I know nothing of Eliot’s poetry, but I should)

Tess of the d’Urbevilles by Thomas Hardy (again on my childhood reading list and have therefore read, although not quite to the end as I found it totally depressing)

Nora by Colm Tóibín (not read this, I find Tóibín slightly hard work)

The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (haven’t read but definitely will)

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald, a book that should be re-read every few years or so

The Great Gatsby arrived first, so that’s the one she read first.  After that, she went for Housekeeping.  Maybe because it’s the shortest one, who knows?

If I was putting together a reading list, what would I include?  Maybe The Secret History, although I think that would be considered a bit too long to make the cut.  Likewise any of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s books.  Eliot instead of Bronte.  But actually, I’m struggling to think of short books that represent the canon of English Literature.