34. ‘Shakespeare’ by Bill Bryson.

Shakespeare

It’s safe to say Mum loved this book as she has two copies of it; the first dated 2008, the second copy, 2011 and 2014….obviously Mum mislaid the first copy,  so she bought it again!

I too thoroughly enjoyed this. It is nowhere near as heavy going as many of the scholarly works that have been written about William Shakespeare – and there are certainly plenty of them – and rather than the plays, it focuses on the eternal mystery of who William Shakespeare the man really was. It is truly amazing how little we actually know about him! Even the three likenesses of him are probably wildly inaccurate, and there is virtually no information that we can rely on regarding his personal life, his relationships, what drove him and inspired him…and many theories that suggest he wasn’t in fact the genuine author of the work attributed to him!

The book is easy to read, and quite short, emphasising Mr Bryson’s assertion that we can know little of the man himself despite exhaustive research. It is remarkable that his works even survived,  for which we can thank his friends and colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, who seven years after his death published the First Folio – about which there is a very entertaining chapter giving us a fascinating insight into the literary publishing world of the 16th century. In fact one of the best things about this book is the way Mr Bryson feeds us snippets about what everyday life in Elizabethan and Jacobean England was like – plagues, superstitions and sumptuary laws abound, together with the robust nature of the theatre, and its remarkable accessibility. Of particular interest are the passages about life in London at that time – Mum would have relished that greatly!

All fascinating stuff, and delivered with Mr. Bryson’s characteristically dry humour, backed up by a solid presentation of the very few solid facts we have, and a measured assessment of the theories that abound. I particularly enjoyed his final chapter in the book, ‘Claimants’, in which he discusses the varied propositions that William Shakespeare did not in fact write anything, including the wonderful story of the decidedly unstable Delia Bacon and her conviction that her namesake, Francis Bacon, was in fact the true author of his catalogue!

A great read, and I have two copies to gift forward if you would like to add this lovely little book to your collection – as always, please get in touch either through the Facebook page or here and I will be delighted to send you one. If you have missed out on one of Mum’s copies but would like to read this, here is a link to Amazon to purchase a copy for yourself…

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33. ‘Rubicon’ by Tom Holland, a guest review by Tom Gray.

It is a tired old trope, perhaps because of its enduring truth; history repeats itself. And drawing parallels between the late years of the Roman Republic and the modern United States is almost irresistible to anyone with an understanding of the period; the rise of populist demagogues, the increasing influence of a powerful military-complex, and the steady erosion of democratic ideals are all forces which precipitated the fall of the what at the time was the world’s greatest nation and democracy, and you don’t have to look hard for such trends in the political and cultural machinations of the current western superpower, the USA.

Understanding this history then, could be considered vital if we are to avoid repeating it. But condensing such a volatile, fractious history into an accessible and even enjoyable read is a task verging on the impossible. In Rubicon, Tom Holland does this spectacularly, by articulating centuries of history into a thoroughly entertaining read, and in doing so succeeds where many have failed before him.

As the name suggests, Rubicon begins with one of history’s most familiar scenes; Julius Caesars’ pause on the banks of the Rubicon, as he wrestled with a decision which would have vast and far reaching implications for him, his troops, and for the entire western political trajectory for the millennia to come; to march his troops on Rome and secure his political future.

Many adaptations of this moment and the events which followed, from Shakespeare to HBO, have centred on Julius Caesar, his march on Rome, and the civil wars that followed and eventually culminated in the death of the republic. But Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon did not happen in a vacuum; it was the culmination of almost a century of democratic decay, a period which is almost criminally neglected in popular history, a neglect which Rubicon addresses. The Italian wars of independence, the great rivalry between Sulla and Marius, Pompey’s conquest of the east and the Mithridatic Wars are just some of the fascinating events preceding Caesar, events which rarely get a mention in popular culture and adaptations (Colleen McCullough’s epic 7-volume Masters of Rome is a notable exception, and a must-read for Roman history buffs). This crime of omission is made doubly so by the fact that barely any other period or place in antiquity is so well documented.

Not so with Rubicon. Rubicon takes the reader back to the 2nd and 1st century Roman Republic, which had existed and prospered for centuries, and whose democratic, diplomatic and military institutions still shape the modern world. He explores the myriad pressures that gradually moulded the Roman psyche, which had for centuries abhorred the very notion of autocratic rule, and steered it towards dictatorship. He explores the demands of Italian nations’ for citizenship, and the civil conflicts that followed (and which would define Roman politics for decades to come).

The subtitle of this book is apt – the triumph and tragedy of the Roman republic – and indeed it is littered with both. The tragedies of Crassus in the deserts of Syria and Cato’s brutal suicide in North Africa, and the triumphs of Rome and her domination of the Mediterranean are explored in equal measure, as Tom Holland humanizes the countless fascinating characters who defined this period, from the populist demagogue Clodius to the patrician heavyweights Marius and Sulla, and the rivalries, hopes and dreams of ordinary men which shaped these events.

Perhaps the only criticism I can make of the book is that it ends so soon; leaving the periods that followed to other historians, many of whom sadly lack Mr Holland’s eloquence. Still, we can hardly blame him for that.

32. ‘sorry’ by Gail Jones.

Oh my goodness. Off to the great Southern Land again, and this time, in tears by the end of the book. That doesn’t happen very often!

Mum had a great interest in Australia, visiting me there several times. She read Australian authors with delight, I remember her joy at discovering the work of Peter Carey, and she particularly loved Bill Bryson’s marvellous book, Down Under, reading it at least twice! This wonderfully lyrical and poetic novel is new to me, however it is one Mum read in 2008, so it ‘made the cut’ so to speak, when Mum down-sized her library. That means she loved it and intended to re read it at some point.

I’ve just finished it – I began during the week, but it is such a ‘big’ read for a fairly slender volume, that I put it aside until I had time to curl up on the sofa with no distractions and thoroughly read it. I am glad I did so, as it is fabulous. The author, Gail Jones, has won many prizes for her work, and this novel was shortlisted for six major prizes in Australia and the UK on its publication in 2008. Her writing style, in this novel at least, is breath-taking. I found myself on many occasions going back and re-reading sentences to fully appreciate them, and her subject matter  provided a brilliant counterpoint to Rabbit Proof Fence which was my last review. Fantastic.

The central character is Perdita, a little girl born to older English expatriate parents who don’t really want her to begin with, they almost hoped she would die at birth. As a result, her principal relationships are not with them, but with the Aboriginal women who nursed her, Billy, the ‘slow’ deaf mute son of the neighbouring farming family, and finally and most importantly, with Mary, a young Aboriginal girl from the missions who is brought in to care for her when her mother is admitted to hospital, having completely lost touch with reality. Stella lives in a world of Shakespeare, frequently quoting great chunks of plays, while her husband Nicholas, who has come to Australia as an anthropologist to study Aboriginal culture, has long since lost interest and become a mean spirited and rather nasty person, raping Aboriginal girls, and becoming obsessed with the progress of the Second World War in Europe.

The brutal murder of Nicholas in their shack is the opening scene of the novel, and the central theme. From page 1 –

‘This is a story that can only be told in a whisper. There is a hush to difficult forms of knowing, an abashment, a sorrow, an inclination towards silence. My throat is misshapen with all it now carries. My heart is a sour, indolent fruit. I think the muzzle of time has made me thus, has deformed my mouth, my voice, my wanting to say. At first there was just this single image: her dress, the particular blue of hydrangeas, spattered with the purple of my fathers blood.’

Perdita, Billy, Mary, and her mother Stella, are all there, but who did it? Perdita is the narrator, but she cannot remember, and has developed a dreadful stutter after the event, rendering her almost completely mute.

Appropriately named for the character in Shakespeare’s Tempest, Perdita finds herself aligned far more closely with the aborigines, who value life as a whole, ongoing tale, have intricate kinship bonds, and knowledge of the land on a deeper level, than with the white Australians, who have driven them from their ancestral lands and forcibly removed their children.  Aboriginal children, especially half caste, as we saw in Rabbit Proof Fence, were forcibly removed from their families and ‘schooled’ in institutions to provide service to the whites who had stolen their lands.  Perdita is aware of the injustices, having seen her father raping Mary even though she didn’t really understand what he was doing, and she finds a sense of order, love, and care in Aboriginal culture which she definitely does not receive from her own people. Reference is made to the Aboriginal view of the land and the people all belonging together, and Perdita finds solace in their acceptance of her as a part of that whole picture.

The Australian bush is brilliantly portrayed in this book. I could taste the red dust, smell the gum trees, hear the lorikeets, see the cobalt sky, and Ms Jones description of a violent storm was captivating. I loved a chapter where the children were introduced to honey ants by Mary – they are ‘her’ creature so she won’t eat them herself, but Billy and Perdita’s delight is her delight. I remember my children eating honey ants! It is a place like no other, and this author knows it well. Her descriptive passages somehow also manage to convey beautifully the Aboriginal one-ness with the land and emphasise the white Australians inability to cope with an environment they could not control.

I loved this. I recommend it most whole-heartedly. I shan’t say anything about how the story ends. I shall instead add my voice to the countless Australians who have said, sorry. What was done in the last century to the native people of a great country was truly awful – saying sorry is a very small step forward, and Ms Jones, with this magnificent tale, says it from the heart.

As always, if you would like this marvellous book, Mums copy, bought by her and read in 2008, please get in touch with me and I shall be delighted to gift it forward to you. If it has already been claimed, here is a link to purchase a copy on Amazon…

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and seriously, if anyone can talk me through adding this link more simply…please get in touch!!!!!

Don’t forget to like and follow the facebook page Mums Books. Thanks for reading, and I do hope you read this book! Much love, Becky XXX

31. ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’ by Doris Pilkington.

Rabbit Proof Fence
Firstly, massive apologies to all my followers for the looooong wait between reviews! As many of you know, I work full time in primary education, and the start of the first term back after the long summer holidays is always absolutely exhausting, plus I am working hard on growing my little online side hustle…there are never sufficient hours in a day, really! I have also been rewarding myself with short reads from a fabulous book of Mum’s, a compilation of the 100 best short stories ever, which is highly engaging and somewhat controversial in its selection…but is taking me an age to get through, it’s a hefty volume! Excuses aside though, here I am with my thoughts about a slim yet deeply moving and issue raising narrative non fiction book, Doris Pilkington’s ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’.
Ms Pilkington is the daughter of one of the protagonists in this book, the half caste Aboriginal girl, Molly. The book recounts the forcible removal of Molly and two other girls from their families to a Native Settlement, their subsequent escape, and their long walk home following the rabbit proof fence. Shortest summary ever for a book that touches on so many sensitive issues. And the author herself was taken from her mother at the age of four and sent to the Moore River Settlement, only being reunited with her mother over twenty years later.
In the opening chapters, Ms Pilkington gives us an account of the initial interactions between the Aborigines and the first white settlers, and on through to the 1930’s when the incidents related in it occurred. Then things get much more specific, and she recounts, almost as if from a distance, the astonishing story of her mother and her aunt’s epic walk to freedom, as told to her by her mother.
I think this book is well worthy of reading purely because, with no fuss, it recounts the story of what happened to so many mixed race children in Australia. The assumption was made that the children of white fathers and Aboriginal mothers would be better off being removed from the ‘natives’ and raised in camps to be trained as domestic servants and so on – it’s important to note, not to be educated as white children were. The idea, inconceivable though it now seems, was to ‘assimilate’ them into white society, marry them to other half castes and eventually ‘breed’ them into white people. This continued in some parts of Australia into the 1970’s, and is often referred to now as the Stolen Generation. It is absolutely tragic, the more so because so many of the white men who fathered these children, enabled it.
Despite their families trying to keep them out of sight and thus safe from being taken, the girls were found and taken south in July 1931. Interestingly, in August 1930, a year earlier, the Government official responsible for the removal of mixed race children in that area, which had been assumed to be good for them as the pure blood natives rejected the half castes just as much as their white fathers generally did, wrote that the children ‘lean more towards the black than the white and on second thoughts, nothing would be gained in removing them’. A blinding flash of intuition for its time – nothing more than common sense to us today, when we understand that despite teasing or bullying because they are ‘different’, children are much better off staying with their own families as far as possible.
In this case, Molly, who was 15, and the two girls, Gracie aged 11 and Daisy aged 9 who were taken with her in 1931, manage to escape the camp after only a short time there, grisly place that it is, and although they had been taken down the coast by sea, she knows that the rabbit proof fence follows a north-south axis, and that if they find it and follow it north, they must arrive eventually home at Jigalong, from where they left, as it is on the fence.
The rabbit proof fence incidentally is another example of the white mans folly in Australia – the early colonists brought over rabbits amongst other things, initially to breed for meat, but then released to provide a ‘spot of hunting’. In the absence of significant natural predators, and with the warmth of Australia allowing them to breed year round, they ran absolutely riot across the land (a bit like the white man did). An attempt to stop rabbits invading Western Australia from the Eastern States was made by building a supposedly rabbit proof fence that ran between Starvation Bay near Esperance on the south coast up to Ninety Mile Beach, east of Port Hedland, effectively cutting off the bottom left hand side of Australia. 1,139 miles of flimsy barbed wire fencing – it failed to stop the rabbits, but provided a lifeline for these girls.
They did better than most kids their age these days would, surviving a thousand mile trek through the harsh Australian bush, feeding themselves on bush tucker and food they scrounged from homesteads, being careful to arrive and leave said homesteads and farms from different directions to avoid being retaken.
I shan’t give away the ending. I believe this is a book that should be read by all Australian school children certainly. The movie was an OK adaptation, but for me it is the matter of fact tone of the book that drives home the bloody awfulness of the truth. After years of campaigning, by the 1990’s things were changing, but even as of today,  Australian Aborigines are mostly still living in far worse conditions and with a much lower life expectancy than white Australians.
In 2000, Phillip Knightley summed up the Stolen Generations in these terms:

This cannot be over-emphasized—the Australian government literally kidnapped these children from their parents as a matter of policy. White welfare officers, often supported by police, would descend on Aboriginal camps, round up all the children, separate the ones with light-coloured skin, bundle them into trucks and take them away. If their parents protested they were held at bay by police.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stolen_Generations
I recommend reading the Wikipedia article above to learn more about the Stolen Generation. And although John Howard may not have found it in himself to apologise for his predecessors actions, I am genuinely sorry that this happened, not only to these three girls, but the countless others who were lost forever by their families, as was my Mum, who after reading this in 2005 rang me up to see if it was all a bit exaggerated ( I lived in Australia between 1985 and 2012). I was so sad to have to tell her, no, it’s all true.
It’s not a depressing read, for all that the subject matter is appalling. There is a great deal of humanity within its pages, and I recommend it to you all. I have Mum’s copy here which I should love to gift forward to someone – please contact me through here or on the Facebook page, Mums Books, if you’d like it, and in case it has already been claimed, here is a link to Amazon to purchase it for yourself.

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29.’Sapiens’ by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari.

My third son arrived for a flying visit from Australia this weekend, my second son who is currently living in the UK came to stay as well, and we had an absolutely wonderful time hanging out together! What’s that got to do with a book? Well, Tom arrived bearing with him this non fiction book which he had read on the plane and recommending it highly…I began reading his copy, and then, (he was perusing the bookshelves full of Mum’s books,) it turned out Mum had a copy too, a hardback. I’m not at all surprised, its a great, thought provoking, eye opening kind of a book, and enthralling enough that I did another ‘marathon’ read, not moving until I’d finished it! It was especially enjoyable having Tom to discuss it with as well, since he had only just finished it. Always enhances the pleasure of a good read, having a fellow reader to talk about it with, it’s something I shall always miss about sharing books with Mum.

The subtitle is ‘A Brief History of Humankind’, and Dr. Harari does indeed condense hundreds of thousands of years into about 400 pages, dividing our history into four main sections – the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, the Unification of Humankind, and finally, the Scientific Revolution. He opens with a big question – why did we, Homo Sapiens, become the dominant ‘human’ species of the many versions of us that existed in pre-history? To quote the inside cover,

How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations, and human rights; to trust books, money and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, consumerism and the pursuit of happiness?’

It is fascinating material, and Dr. Harari has used it to produce a well researched and thought out volume addressing the pro’s and con’s of each step we took as a race along the way. As an example, we tend to think that the agricultural revolution was a massive step forward for the human race – Dr. Harari argues convincingly that the average persons diet actually significantly decreased in nutritional value as a result – when we were hunter gatherers, we ate a wide range of foods, rather than becoming dependent on a single cultivated staple, rice for example. I immediately thought of the potato famines in Ireland – those poor souls would certainly have been better off foraging and hunting in the way our ancestors did.

I remember reading a book called The Human Animal by Desmond Morris years ago, (another volume I highly recommend), which addressed from an anthropological perspective the way we consider ourselves to be somehow superior to all other forms of life on Earth – this is a similarly ‘disinterested’ analysis of who we are, where we have come from, and where we might be heading, equally significant and worthy of reading. It closes with an afterword aptly headed ‘The Animal that became a God’; making the point very strongly that for all our so called advances, we have not necessarily improved the well being of our fellow ‘humans’, and have managed in the process to cause immense misery and suffering to other animals, and potentially destroyed the eco system of our beautiful planet. Minor stuff that we often ignore in our relentless pursuit of happiness. Personally I have often thought that we should strive for contentment, not happiness, but that’s another topic entirely.

I have a strong suspicion that Mum didn’t actually read this book, but listened to it on Radio 4 and as a result considered it worthy of addition to her library, since she has not initialled the inside cover with the date of reading. I certainly believe it is one of those books that genuinely gives one cause to stop, think, and learn from, something that never hurts.

Dr Harari offers a free course related to this book, it’s available on Youtube, link below. And, as always, I’m gifting this book forward to anyone who would like to read it – please simply get in touch below or through the Facebook page –

https://www.facebook.com/mumsbooks/

– and I will send it to you with much love. And if it has already been claimed but you would like a copy, there is also a link to Amazon below!

Much love, Becky X

Link to the Youtube videos…

Link to purchase on Amazon…

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26. ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khaled Hosseini.

What a wonderful follow up to The Kite Runner, but this time this story of Afghanistan is told through its women. Mum and I both loved this when it was first published in 2007, and her copy is dated January 2008. I have enjoyed re reading it more than I can express; although I again found it very disturbing in its depiction of the brutality of the regime and of the men, especially the particularly nasty and unpleasant Rasheed, husband to the two women who tell the story.

We begin with Mariam’s childhood on the outskirts of Herat, the plain, illegitimate only daughter of her bullying, epileptic mother. She lives for the visits her charming but insincere father makes, and for her lessons with the local mullah, a kindly man. Her bitter and resentful mother does her best to erode any hope Mariam might have for her future by continually reminding her that as a female and illegitimate to boot, she basically has nothing to hope for, with comments such as, ‘like a compass needle that points north, a mans accusing finger always finds a woman’, but the young Mariam still dreams of a day when she may live with her fathers other children and go to his cinema.

Everything unravels and Mariam realises the truth behind her mothers bitter words when she runs away to Herat to see her father, is shunned by him, and returns home to find her mother has hung herself. Forced to take her in, her father and his wives quickly marry her off to the revolting Rasheed, thirty years older than her, a widowed shoemaker from Kabul with rotting teeth who immediately makes fifteen year old Mariam wear a burqa, and when she fails to provide him with a child, treats her with contempt and brutality.

This continues through fifteen years of Afghan history, during which the Russians leave, the mujaheddin take over, a bloody struggle ensues between tribes, and the Taliban assume control…and that is really a massive precis, Mr Hossain paints an illuminating picture of the tumultuous political backdrop to the lives of his characters.

Laila is the beautiful, wilful and educated daughter of an intellectual father and an unbalanced mother; her brothers die fighting the Russians, her boyfriend loses a leg to a landmine, and at fourteen, she finds herself orphaned by a rocket strike on her home. Worse, she is pregnant by her boyfriend, Tariq, who has fled to Pakistan with his family, and, convinced he is dead, she becomes Rasheed’s second wife, passing off the baby as his.

Initially at odds with one another, after baby Aziza is born Mariam and Laila develop a deep, mutually supportive relationship, allied by their fear of their husband and the daily struggle to survive in an increasingly terrifying Kabul. Mariam’s mothers words haunt her as one man after another points an accusing finger at them, and the frightening reality of life under the Taliban is brought home when Laila has her second child by C section with no anaesthetic.

The story is, as with the Kite Runner, a tale of a deep relationship against the backdrop  of the turmoil that has characterised the recent history of Afghanistan. It tells of the resources these women find to enable them to survive the terrifying realities of their lives. It reminds us how lucky we are to live in the West, the freedoms we take for granted. And, as you may not yet have read it, I am saying nothing about the ending!

As always, now I have read it again I am gifting Mum’s copy forward, and if you would like to add this marvellous novel to your own bookshelf, please get in touch either here or on the facebook page @mumsbooks and I will be delighted to send it to you. Here is a link to it on Amazon if its gone and you feel the need to purchase it!

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24. ‘Diary of an Ordinary Woman’ by Margaret Forster.

A marvellous read, and a very interesting concept – this novel was conceived by Margaret Forster after she was contacted regarding nearly a century’s worth of diaries kept by no-one famous or notable, just an ordinary woman of 98 who had lived through the turbulent twentieth century. In fact, the lady in question remains as anonymous as she ever was, because the proposition to ‘make something’ of the diaries was retracted. However, the seed had been sown, and as a result we have this magnificent book, a fictionalised memoir of Millicent King. What a read! and from an author deeply interested and engaged in chronicling the lives, the thoughts, the feelings of women, it is a winner on every level. Mum gave me the book years ago, I loved it then, and I found her copy deep in one of the bookshelves that are groaning with her library last week, did a little happy dance and then devoured it in a four hour sitting, moving only once or twice for a fresh cup of tea. The Mr had to go and buy fish and chips for his supper. Magnificent.

We meet Millicent in 1914 when she is a precocious and opinionated thirteen, and from the start she captures one’s attention – ‘her’ prose is dryly observational, at times extremely funny, and definitely captivating. She bemoans her fate, criticises her family and friends ruthlessly, and in short sounds exactly as one would expect a thirteen year old diarist to sound. Definitely very petulant and self centred. she records her disappointment at not being able to go to college, her resentment at having to take care of her younger siblings, her disgust that there are so many younger siblings – didn’t her parents have any self control? As she matures, the tone of ‘her’ writing changes as we would expect it to, and becomes more observational and less passionate.

However, the tale she is telling is against the backdrop of the two wars, the tensions in Europe between them, the horror of the Blitz, the civil rights movements, the Greenham Common women’s camp. Millicent is not a political creature, nor is she a romantic heroine. She is simply, as the title states, an ordinary woman doing the best she can with her ordinary life. And as in real life, there are great gaps where a terrible loss has left her silent.

It’s a wonderful read. Regardless of the fact that it is a work of fiction, it is nonetheless so plausible and so well written that Millicent comes alive on the pages as a believable representative of her generation, and of the ordinary people who make a nation what it is.

This one is not available to gift as usual I’m afraid; my eldest daughter arrived the day after I had finished it, listened to me raving about it, and nabbed it immediately, however, here’s a link to Amazon, or ask for it at your local library (goodness knows we need to be using our libraries or they’ll all close!). But seriously, read this. It’s amazing.

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