Category Archives: Bookish things

My favourite collections of words


Here are my five favourite sentences/lines from children’s books (the topic for Writers’ Bootcamp for today is Your Five Favourite Words, but I’ve exercised a bit of artistic licence here).

1. “That very night in Max’s room, a forest grew … and grew … and grew, until the ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around.”

The assonance and alliteration in that part of the sentence, the way it rolls around in your mouth, is just a tiny part of the late Maurice Sendak’s genius.

From Where the Wild Things Are, or, as Lil A calls it, simply “Max”.

2. “Night came with many stars.”

I never read Sylvester and the Magic Pebble as a kid. Lil A got it from an American cousin and every time I read it to her, it breaks my heart. That one sentence conveys so much desolation and beauty, wrapped in such a simple little package.

3. “It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like ‘What about lunch?'”

There are so many lovely little gems in Winnie the Pooh. On Lil A’s bookshelf is a copy of the first version of Winnie the Pooh ever published. It used to be mine when I was little. It’s written in AA Milne’s own voice, addressed to his son Christopher Robin, who has a beloved bear called Edward. Even before he became known as Pooh Bear, the sense of exactly which kind of bear he’d go on to be is right there in that very first book.

On a trip to New York a few years ago, I spent a lot of time staring at the original Winnie the Pooh toys at the Public Library. They’re all faded and their fur has been loved off – whether by time or Christopher Robin, it’s hard to say – which made them even more charming than they are rendered in fiction. They were real toys. And despite the Disneyfication of the “brand”, I like remembering that it all started as a real story told to a little boy by his Dad, about his favourite bear.

4. “The Lupine Lady is little and old. But she has not always been that way.”

Miss Rumphius is another favourite from an American cousin that I had not read myself as a child. The watercolours are gorgeous, for one thing, but I also really love how it carries so many truths about old age that children are usually shielded from in books and pop culture. It’s about an old lady who is not a witch – which is unique in itself. But further to that, it’s about an old lady who used to be a little girl. These sentences capture that idea very neatly, and I think it’s an important thing for all of us to remember on a visceral level. As adults, we all know intellectually that the elderly were not always elderly, but I know that I forget at times that not very long ago, they were exactly like me.

5. “I know a bear and when it is sunny, we go for a picnic with brown bread and honey.”

This might sound like another line from Winnie the Pooh, but it’s from Lil A’s favourite book, I Know A Rhino. I bought this book for her because the main character is maybe a boy, maybe a girl. He or she is equally happy playing in the mud and dressing up in a tutu. Their gender doesn’t matter, which is unusual for a children’s book. So I bought it more for the pictures than the words, but now I love this sentence about the bear. It always makes me hungry and seems like a good way to live. When it’s sunny, we go for a picnic. Yes.

And, as added value, here are some great resources on feminist-y children’s books. You’re welcome.

  • A Mighty Girl’s guide to cool picture books for little ones
  • A Mighty Girl’s favourite fairy tales
  • This Guardian article from 2009 (yes, pretty old, but does include Pippi Longstocking, of which I wholly approve)

On fighting sentiment

An extract of an interview in the Paris Review with Louise Erdrich (highlighting is my own):

By having children, I’ve both sabotaged and saved myself as a writer. I hate to ­pigeonhole myself as a writer, but being a female and a mother and a Native American are important aspects of my work, and even more than being mixed blood or Native, it’s difficult to be a mother and a writer.


Because of the demands on your time?


No, and it’s not because of hormones or pregnancies. It’s because you’re ­always fighting sentiment. You’re fighting sentimentality all of the time ­because being a mother alerts you in such a primal way. You are alerted to any danger to your child, and by extension you become afraid of anybody getting hurt. This becomes the most powerful thing to you; it’s instinctual. Either you end up writing about terrible things happening to children—as if you could ward them off simply by writing about them—or you tie things up in easily opened packages, or you pull your punches as a writer. All deadfalls to watch for.

Having children also makes it difficult to get out of the house. With a child you certainly can’t be a Bruce Chatwin or a Hemingway, living the adventurer-writer life. … There is also one’s inclination to be charming instead of presenting a grittier truth about the world. But then, having children has also made me this particular writer. Without my children, I’d have written with less fervor; I wouldn’t understand life in the same way. I’d write fewer comic scenes, which are the most challenging. I’d probably have become obsessively self-absorbed, or slacked off. Maybe I’d have become an alcoholic. Many of the writers I love most were alcoholics. I’ve made my choice, I sometimes think: Wonderful children instead of hard liquor.

A lot has been written about the challenges of being a mother and a writer (actually, a lot has been written about the challenges of being a mother at the same time as being just about anything else). Lauren Sandler wrote in June in a piece for the Atlantic that perhaps the only way for a female writer to have a successful career while also being a mother was to stop at having only one child (using Margaret Atwood and Susan Sontag as examples). The inevitable backlash was led by Zadie Smith, who said that being a mother was no threat to creativity. And, of course, nobody has ever suggested an optimal number of children that men should have if they are to be successful authors (or have they? If you’ve read something like this, please post a link in the comments – I’d love to read something like: “Dickens had 10 kids. Ergo, to be a really good writer, you should aim for your children to number in the double digits”.)

But Louise Erdrich’s insight is the best explanation I’ve seen for how motherhood can both stem and free a writer’s creativity. And you don’t have to be a novelist to relate to what she’s saying. Increasingly sentimental and afraid of anybody becoming hurt (because everybody, even a fictional character, has/had a mother)? Yip. Feel compelled to write about terrible things happening to children (and to obsess over the terrible things that could happen to my child) as if this could ward off danger? Yes. (Louise Erdrich finds her books consistently being “hijacked” by abandoned children, she says, doubtless because of her own fears of being a bad mother.) And all of this happens on a primal level, totally beyond your (conscious) control? Definitely. Just before and just after having the baby, I was so determined that I wouldn’t change when I became a mother. That just because I had gone through the (really quite routine) experience of procreation, it didn’t mean that I wasn’t still myself – the only thing that was different now was that I had a tiny baby to look after. It hadn’t turned me into a different person.

But, of course, it had. And, despite myself, motherhood continues to change me and my understanding of life. It makes me less self-absorbed, less able to “slack off”, more receptive to everyday kinds of comedy. I’m constantly afraid, and constantly alert – when I’m watching my daughter do mundanely risky things like climbing the jungle gym or crawling down the stairs backwards, I feel like a cat with its ears pricked, ready to spring into action (though in reality my reflexes are far from cat-like, as evidenced by a traumatic tumble my daughter took down five stairs about a month ago while I was standing right next to her. It taught me that top-heavy toddlers fall head-first faster than mothers’ feet can move.)

And, being a mother – mostly – keeps me off the gin.

The Cuckoo’s Calling: a little review

According to this stock photography site, a magnifying glass has a convenient overlap. It = reading and also private detectives, so it's perfect for this post. Turns out you have to pay for a picture of an *actual* detective, and I'm much to cheap to do that.

According to this stock photography site, a magnifying glass has a convenient overlap. It connotes reading and also private detectives, so it’s perfect for this post. Turns out you have to pay for a picture of an *actual* detective, and I’m much to cheap to do that.

Like most people, I didn’t even know that the Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith existed until I read that Robert was actually JK Rowling. After reading the (largely) disparaging reviews of her other post-Harry book A Casual Vacancy, I wasn’t expecting very much. But I’d been wading my way through Marish Pessl’s Night Film, which I had uncharacteristically bought without downloading a sample because I’d loved her debut novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics so much. But when I realised that the action, such as it was, was turning occult and voodoo-y, I had to give up. What I’d hoped would be a mystery thriller was, in fact, a pretty shabbily written gothic horror, so I suppose I was starting off quite a low base when I downloaded the sample for the Cuckoo’s Calling.

I devoured the sample and hit the Buy Now button immediately, then read up to halfway in about four hours (not consecutively, of course – the toddler would never stand for that) and I am so besotted with the characters that they are almost all I can think about at the moment. One of the criticisms of A Casual Vacancy was that the characters were too unsympathetic, but within the first few pages, the protagonists of the Cuckoo’s Calling had endeared themselves to me completely.

The main character, a PI who gets roped into investigating the apparent suicide of a supermodel in central London, is of a new ilk for me. I’ve enjoyed the escapades of many a down-and-out private detective who ends up saving the day, but Cormoran Strike (how can you not love a character with a name like that?) is like no other. Unlike my (now) second-favourite fictional detective, Jackson Brodie, there’s no rakish charm about this man. No scruffy handsomeness or effortless flair or slapdash confidence. He is fat and looks like “a boxing Beethoven”. He has a prosthetic leg. He is self-conscious and introspective. He is fastidious in record-keeping and annoyingly and meticulously thorough, and he’s battling homelessness and debt collectors after leaving the home of his cruel and unhinged girlfriend. But he’s also exceptionally sharp and incisive, and his kindnesses are of the gruff variety. I find him so appealing and so interesting that I just can’t get enough of him.

His sidekick, a temp called Robin (yes, really), is sweet and serious, conservative (with a small “c”) and eager, with a totally unexpected resourcefulness and a talent for wheedling information out of the most reticent punter. Best of all, she’s a graceful liar, and I have become quite attached to her as well.

After finishing a few more “serious”, twisty books lately, I’m also relishing that the plot is pretty straightforward. It’s a typical whodunnit: the action doesn’t jump between different eras or perspectives from one chapter to the next. You know that when you click forward (or turn the page) to a new chapter, you’re going to get a resolution to the cliffhanger paragraph you’ve just finished. There are no tricks here. JK as Robert has written a solid, entertaining detective mystery featuring characters you really want to triumph (and others you really detest, as well).

One downside, though: like the Harry Potter books, the Cuckoo’s Calling sometimes drags its feet with excessively descriptive paragraphs. I don’t need to know exactly what the staircase, paintings, bar tender, fruit machines and carpets looked like in the pub in which Cormoran spent about five minutes. It’s all very evocative, but I think the same effect could be created with about 12 fewer sentences.

But this is still the best crime fiction/genre fiction/pulp-type book I’ve read since the last good Kate Atkinson (I mean, the ones before Life After Life, like Started Early, Took My Dog) and that time I read all of Gillian Flynn‘s books in the space of a week. And who am I to criticise the storytelling style of JK-Robert? As far as I’m concerned, she-he can keep the Cormoran Strike books coming.

Not book club material


There’s one major reason I could never belong to a book club (other than the geographical one – in my rural neighbourhood there are a lot of yogis, grey-haired surfers and various factions of horse-riders, but book clubs are thin on the ground). The reason is that I’m a snob.

I know I’m supposed to be ashamed of this. Thinking that things are objectively good or bad is enough to earn you a side-eye nowadays. The prevailing, accepted attitude for everything from wine (“snobs might turn their noses up at this vanilla-infused chardonnay/coffee-infused pinotage, but I think it is delicious!”) to TV (“shows on Discovery TLC might be really trashy, but I just can’t stop watching them!”) to food (“I’d much rather read this blog by this ordinary non-professional about how to cook than read a recipe book by an actual chef”) is that whatever your opinion is, is right. Everything should be accessible to everyone. There’s no such thing as “bad taste”, and experts are out. And when this attitude is applied to books, I just can’t.

It’s not that I only read highbrow literary fiction – I’ve never even read a single Tolstoy. And that’s not a brag – it’s something I’m really ashamed of, but not so ashamed that I’ll neglect the new Kate Atkinson in favour of Anna Karenina (that’s one, right?). I actually love lighthearted contemporary fiction (hold the vampires and elves). My Kindle’s got everything from NW by Zadie Smith on it to, honestly, The Rise and Fall of a Yummy Mummy by Polly Williams (not a bad way to spend R70, actually) – so I’m not a snob in the sense that I don’t like “trashy” fiction.

But here’s where the snobbery comes in – I am of the opinion that you can’t truly appreciate anything if you don’t know what to look for. And you certainly can’t engage in a meaningful discussion about a work of art, or fiction, or anything, if you don’t have any background knowledge of what makes that art work “good”. I mean, I can point at a pair of shoes and say, “wow, those are pretty!” (that’s probably more enthusiasm than I have ever expressed about shoes, to be fair), but I wouldn’t meet with a group of women for an hour every month to talk about how or why this or that pair of shoes is pretty, because I just don’t know anything about what goes into designing and making a pair of shoes.

When it comes to book clubs, the thing I’m most afraid of is the glib understatement. I imagine discussing a great work of fiction with my girl friends – OK, not my real girl friends, because they’re too much like me for even an imaginary book club to be credible, so I’m creating a hypothetical group of girl friends, who are all in, like, finance or something that doesn’t require a BA. Let’s say we’re talking about The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Booker Prize winner, Pulitzer nominee, complex allegory about colonialism in Africa told through the story of a doomed and damaged Southern family, riddled with imagery, infused with energy, heavy with tragedy, but reads like any narrative about a family in an untranslated land). These hypothetical girls dabble in books the way I dabble in shoes – I’m definitely not passionate about shoes, but I wear them and sometimes shop for them, and occasionally notice them on other people. One of the women opens her mouth to declare her opinion on the book, and I can tell she’s going to say something nice about it, and I imagine myself having a “you’re fucking kidding me” moment like I did on the Ponte Fabricio in Rome three years ago.

While driving over this age-old bridge, surrounded by iconic architecture, one of my travelling companions – a very sweet person who, to be fair, had never been on a plane before the trip – said, in a tone of mild surprise, “They’ve got nice buildings here, hey.”

Even though I have zero personal investment in Rome or its “buildings”, I was insulted by how offhand this person had been – which is completely ridiculous. Yes, this sweet, quaint person appreciated the architecture of Rome in their own way – but it didn’t mean I wanted to listen to them talk about their experience. 

So can you imagine me in a book club if one of my hypothetical friends came out with, “Ja, I liked The Poisonwood Bible. It’s quite good.”?


Other reasons I think book clubs are silly:

  • They are not about the books at all. They are about “having a girls’ night” and drinking wine. Why do people feel they need the excuse? Why don’t they just meet up with their mates and get tipsy on a weeknight for no reason other than that it’s rad?
  • Even if they were about the books, book clubs emerged when hardcopies of books were expensive as a way to pool resources. Everyone has a Kindle now. So why even meet in person? If you want to talk about books you love, online forums are much more convenient. I’m a bit of a Goodreads troll myself.
  • This is probably my biggest gripe – book clubs are almost exclusively female. Why? They’re like the Tupperware parties of the 20-teens. I avoid forced all-female gatherings at most costs these days because they just make me uncomfortable and they usually involve boring, twee things like tea and cupcakes. At least these “book clubs” usually involve wine, which is something I can definitely get behind.