Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


H is for Harry

I don’t usually go for  alternate realities in my own reading, but my imagination has been captured over the years by the triumverate of The Lord of the Rings, Mervyn Peake’s superb Gormenghast trilogy and the Harry Potter books. I so much loved the latter that I was quite keen to call my third child Harry, but my husband pointed out that Harry Otter is a rough name to live with. So he now has another, rather lovely, name which suits him perfectly, but there is a small part of me that mourns Harry.

I think part of Harry Potter’s universal appeal is that he is an orphan going it alone. Children respond to his ability to cope in an adult world and defeat a great evil. Personally, I just want to mother Harry. I really want to get him home, cook him a nice meal and talk about his day. I’d like to remind him to stop ignoring Ginny Weasley since she clearly is the girl for him and encourage him to listen to that nice Hermione and get on with his homework. I want him to open his eyes and see the good in Snape.

But I think it is more than that with Harry and me. You see, Harry Potter was my birth partner. Long-term blog readers may remember this, but for those who are new here, I’ll retell the story. One of my presents for my 32nd birthday, which is a week before Christmas, was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I wasn’t overly interested in the book, but I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Two days later, when I woke with birth pains and was directed by my doula to get straight into the bath and wait for her to arrive, I started to read it. Several cups of tea and some acute contractions later, I was hooked on Harry. The doula and my husband would pop their heads around the door now and then to check on me or bring me tea, and I’d wave them away, saying I was fine. I dived into Rowling’s world, subsumed myself in her detail, and came up occasionally to do some shallow panting. While I was going it alone in the bath with Harry, the doula gave everyone in the house foot massages.

When the pains finally grew more demanding than Hogwarts, I climbed out of the bath. By then – though we didn’t know it yet – it was far late to leave for hospital. My doula gave me a back massage, and I went to the loo. While I was there, baby coming down the birth canal, though I didn’t know that either, she sent my husband downstairs to put the suitcases in the boot and de-ice the windscreen. She knocked on the bathroom door and told me it was time to leave, and summoning the strength of Harry, I got off the loo, staggered to the door and croaked, “I can’t make it to the bloody DOOR, let alone the hospital!”

Reading my face for the first time, she said, “Put your hand in your pants and tell me what you feel.”

I followed instructions and replied, “I. can. feel. a. HEAD.”

Her surprise was not unlike that of Harry’s when Quirrell unwrapped his turban to reveal he was sharing head-space with Lord Voldemort. “Get on the bed!” she shrieked. Within seconds, my child was born. A few minutes later, my husband reappeared, ready to transport his pregnant wife to hospital, to be met with the news that he had a daughter.

Tucked up in bed with my gorgeous little baby, I finished Harry Potter and started the next one. My newborn’s nickname was Hufflepuff for her badger-like snuffling when she fed. After reading the series myself, I read it aloud to Hufflepuff’s big sister, and now that she is bigger I am reading it to her. Last night, we finished The Order of the Phoenix. Hufflepuff’s little brother sometimes listens in and he recently insulted his grandmother by telling her she was “as old as Neville Longbottom.” It wonderful to me that my kids love Harry as much as I do, since he is their literary uncle.

Maybe if we get a dog, we’ll call it Harry. As homage to our hero.


Garrulous Girls and Other Orphans

I am revisiting my childhood obsession with Anne of Green Gables by reading it aloud to my two enraptured daughters. I’m loving how the book is working its magic on my girls, just as it did on me. My grandmother worked as a school librarian and I was allowed to sit in the library while she worked, or wonder quietly amongst the shelves trailing my hands along the lovely cool spines of the books. Since it was a high school, many of the books were too advanced for me, but then I found Anne and fell in love. I was delighted by her zest, and learnt many useful phrases (“kindred spirit”, “scope for imagination”, “bosom friend”) which I immediately incorporated into my daily life.

It has been interesting reading Anne of Green Gables, which was published in 1908, directly after Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) and Pollyanna (1913), since they all have the same synopsis: garrulous orphan girl goes to live with spinster and bachelor/spinster aunts and eventually wins their chilly unyielding hearts with her unique optimistic world-view and amusing talkativeness. In all three books, the orphaned child must enter a rather adult world and learn to live in it, but not without bringing her own charm to warm the childless household. The orphan gets a family; the spinster a child, and all is well with the world. It was clearly a formula that worked, as all three books were popular in their time and are classics now.

Much of children’s literature centres on the symbol of the orphan. In order for a book to grasp a child’s imagination, the small protagonist must battle alone in an unfriendly or fantastic world, without the help of adults. This gives the reader a chance to imagine herself into that situation and live with the thrilling possibility of a world with no grown-ups, where she has to make decisions and take the consequences. There are three main categories: orphans in the real world like the three books above, orphans in a fantastic world like Peter Pan or Harry Potter, or where children function in the real world but are left to their devices by their parents (most of Enid Blyton’s books, Swallows and Amazons, the Just William series). It is necessary for adults to be dead or absent or threatening in order to make the reading experience a thrilling one.

One book that springs to mind where an adult is present and part of the action is Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World, but even there Danny’s father is a renegade fighting the status quo (a poacher), and the positive outcome of the story depends on Danny alone. There is a scene where Danny must drive his father’s car alone, which resulted in many childhood nightmares for me – clearly a little too much autonomy for me to cope with.

In all good children’s books, the child protagonist must effect a change – defeat an evil wizard, beat the pirates, escape the wicked aunts, win the chocolate factory, find the missing parents – and this allows the powerless child reader to enjoy the vicarious pleasure of being in control, making adult decisions and being given free reign. In last night’s chapter from Anne of Green Gables, Anne’s temper got the better of her and she lashed out at the dreaded Mrs Rachel Lynde:

‘I hate you,’ she cried in a choked voice, stamping her foot on the floor. ‘I hate you – I hate you – I hate you -‘ a louder stamp on each assertion of hatred. ‘How dare you call me skinny and ugly? How dare you say I am freckled and red-headed? You are a rude, impolite, unfeeling woman!’

I can’t tell you how much my children enjoyed that.


How I Love A Booky Meme

Aphra tagged me to write about books. My rubber arm duly twisted, here is the Booky Meme:

Number of books you own:

Between my husband, my kids and I, probably a few thousand. What is visible to the public eye is the proverbial tip of the iceberg, because downstairs in the Keller in the Room That May One Day Be Someone’s Office, there are many many more. I need to give some away, but am ridiculously attached to them. They spark memories and tell stories of other times in my life. I really like owning my own fiction and reference library (with special focus on literary, feminist and film theory, travel, history and all things geeky).

Last book you bought:

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I haven’t read it yet – it’s joined the teetering piles of TBRs scattered around my bedroom.

Last book someone else bought you (I had to add this one. Sorry to the person who invented the meme):

My husband understands the book addiction and his latest treasure trove for me contained: Darkmans by Nicola Barker (which I’m presently reading and can’t wait to post about, so fabulous it is), Mr Pip (which I’m reading next) and the now much pored-over Rough Guide to Berlin (which I must post off to my friend in South Africa as a reminder of our lovely week together).

Last book read:

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult. Strong on narrative, but with superficial characterisation, as always.

Five Books that Mean a Lot to Me:

This is hard because I’m not a great re-reader. I tear through books and move on, and I’m realising now that all those classics I like to say I’ve read, I have completely forgotten.

How To Eat by Nigella Lawson. Despite the tragic lack of photos, this is the book that got me interested in cooking. It is peppered with great wisdom and I love her lack of issues around food. I now have a large cookbook shelf in the kitchen, but this is the one that I always return to and always find inspirational.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by What’s ‘er Name. The book I was reading in the bath when Daisy decided to give us a surprise home birth. It’s a book that’s now understandably close to my heart. For the first few months of her life, I called her “Hufflepuff” which seem to suit her style of being.

The Narnia books by CS Lewis. They lifted my heart, comforted me and assured me that life would go on at a time when I believed it was hardly possible.

Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram. The first book I read to each of my babies. I think I got more out of it than they ever did, and I’m sure it taught me more lessons about parental and unconditional love than any parenting manual. “I love you right up to the moon and back!”

The poetry of William Wordsworth. Hilariously described by AA Gill in last week’s Sunday Times as “lyric brown sauce, an unctuous, fruity slop that’s supposed to be a complement, but actually drowns nature in rhyming sycophancy”, Wordsworth’s poetry was my first experience of words as transcendental. They made my soul tingle and I don’t care if that makes me the literary equivalent of ketchup. I am clearly v. middle-brow.

Consider yourself tagged!


Reading in English

My husband and I are both bookworms. We have read to our kids since their babyhood in the hope that they would become readers too. They have grown up around books, watched us read books, slept with books in their beds. They know that books are a Good Thing. So with all this preparation, we have been keenly waiting for them to start reading books themselves.

While we are fairly – if ungrammatically – fluent in German, we both tend to choose to read in English. I have laboured over one or two German books, but seeing that reading is my main leisure activity, I didn’t really enjoy it being such hard work. For me, there is something special about reading in English. It brings me pure joy, relaxation and escape from the not always smooth or easy expatriate life. It’s my island in the sea of Germany, and it has a palm tree, white sands, a view of the sea, cool breezes and Pina Coladas. That’s how much fun it is.

When Lily started school last September, she knew her alphabet in English and could read and write a few English words. We had been loathe to teach her to read in English as the collective wisdom here is that that would confuse her when she started to read in German. We watched with pride as over the months she began to read fluently and without accent in German. She learnt to build words phonetically, as she was taught in school, and she started to bury her nose in German books.

We were thrilled, but also faintly anxious. When and how would she learn to read in English? Would we have to put in some effort and teach her? What would happen if we moved to an English-speaking country and she was behind in her reading? Should we arrange extra lessons?

Then, in May, she picked up an English book and read it with squeals of glee. “I can read! I’m reading in English! I really really am!” Cue huge, but disguised, parental sighs of relief. She really was reading, and began to read everything in sight, progressing quickly from storybooks with pictures to novels like The Magic Faraway Tree and the Secret Seven books.

Once it had dawned on me that my child really, really was reading in English, I asked her what had happened. It turns out that for the two weeks in May when our DVD player wasn’t behaving properly, all the movies that she watched were being shown with the subtitles turned on.

“Mummy, I would hear the words and then see them written on the screen,” she explained to me.

Yes, television taught my child to read. When I thought about it, it made perfect sense. I remember learning to read with flashcards back in 1970-whatever, and the subtitles had had exactly the same effect. We had primed her, made her ready for reading, but the flashcard effect of seeing the subtitles onscreen helped her to make the connections between letters and sounds.

So now when I meet earnest German mummies in the playground who like to say how bad telly is for their kids, I love explaining how Lily learnt to read in English and watching their faces drop.

I’m a bit naughty that way.


The Interview

As a journalist, I spend a good deal of my time interviewing people. I have been interviewing people for 15 years. Last week I interviewed two people, one in India and one in Germany. So when Kit did the interview meme, and offered to interview someone, I was shamelessly jumping up and down, going “Me! Me!” like the most eager kid in class. Finally, I can say, “And now let’s talk about me.”

Without further ado, here is Kit’s interview with me.

Kit: How did you come to make your home in Germany? Is any one of the countries you’ve lived in your spiritual home or are you a natural nomad?

Charlotte: We moved to Germany in 1996 because my husband was offered the chance to work at the head-office of his company, SAP. I had never been to Germany, and like most Anglo-Saxons, I imagined that it was a horrible industrial complex beset with neo-Nazis and beer-swilling, yodelling sausage eaters dressed in Lederhosen. We came to look at Heidelberg one January. I had never been so cold in my life, but I was stunned by how beautiful it was. I knew straight away that I wanted to come and live here, for a while. Now, 11 years later (with a four-year hiatus in England), I have three children who speak perfect German and are deeply attached to this land.

Germany isn’t my spiritual home. I think South Africa is, though the longer I spend in Europe, the harder it gets for me to go home. A few months ago, the 100-year-old grandfather of a schoolfriend of mine was senselessly murdered, and I began to think it would not be possible for me to live in a country where life is taken so lightly. My children are also used to a certain amount of freedom, and it would be hard for me to take that away from them. So while my heart lies in Africa, I will probably always be a nomad. I love travel, I love new places and I like to keep moving.

Kit: If you could make a cocktail of all the best elements of South Africa and Europe, for your children to grow up with, what would you put in it?

I would take South African weather, landscape and spontaneity, and mix it with the relative freedom, the travel and the old, wise cultures of Europe. I would like them to grow up with a German sense of independence and disregard of status, a South African warmth and hospitality, and a European appreciation of art, literature and culture.

Kit: Where do you look for inspiration for your writing? Has blogging changed the way you approach your writing?

Charlotte: I am fascinated by people and what motivates them. I like to understand what makes people tick. I believe that life presents us with opportunities to grow into better versions of ourselves, so I tend to be intolerant of people who refuse those opportunities, who choose to stay the same, locked into old mindsets and prejudices. I like to write about the clash between people who grow and people who stay the same. Those who stay the same get short shrift. Growing up in apartheid South Africa helped to forge such a mindset, because the old Nationalist government tried in every way, legal and illegal, to restrict and contain people, but the positive energy of growth was so powerful and compelling that the society had to change. I love the idea of change and growth that is irresistible.

Blogging has taught me that I can write every day. However, with all the other things I try to cram into my day, I leave myself with little time or energy to write creatively. I am stuck with one story, and one set of characters, and anything I write seems to be about or around them. They are a novel waiting to happen. They are hovering in the stratosphere waiting for me to call them down. I have no doubt that I will finish writing about them and move on to the next story, but this story has to get written first.

Kit: What are the favourite books from your childhood that you still enjoy reading today?

Charlotte: I adored the Narnia books with a passion and have recently started reading them to my daughters. It has been wonderful rediscovering their magic.

Kit: What is your best comfort food?

Charlotte: There are different kinds of comfort food. Chocolate is my anti-depressant. When my husband is out of town and I’ve got a girly DVD to watch, I like popcorn. Soup is good on a cold day, or a salad on a hot one. A cup of tea made by someone else always tastes better than a cup of tea made by myself. For a hangover, I like white bread, thick pieces of cheese, salami and mustard. Because, you know, being a journalist, I get a lot of hangovers.

1. Leave a comment saying, “Interview me.”
2. I will respond by emailing you five questions. Please make sure I have your email address.
3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment, asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.


I have also been tagged by Emily for the 10 Best Compliments meme and by Ms Magic Hands for the Five Things I Do To Raise My Vibe meme. I shall interview myself and report back later. Watch this space.


Adults Speak with Forked Tongue

I recently read Richard Russo’s rather brilliant Empire Falls, a book which slowly unravels the secrets, failed hopes and power struggles of the townspeople in a small town in northern Maine. The characters are ordinary, their lives mundane, yet Russo observes them so acutely and so warmly that they become almost better than themselves. Like Russo, the protagonist’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Tick, is a practised observer of human behaviour, having watched at close quarters as her parents’ marriage dissolved hideously in front of her eyes. Here she is having a conversation with her school’s head teacher and watching how he lies to her:

Tick’s strategy for dealing with lying adults is to say nothing and watch the lies swell and constrict in their throats. When this happens, the lie takes on a physical life of its own and must be either expelled or swallowed. Most adults prefer to expel untruths with little burplike coughs behind their hands, while others chuckle or snort or make barking sounds. When Mr. Meyer’s Adam’s apple bobs once or twice, Tick sees that he’s a swallower, and that this particular lie has gone south down his esophagus and into his stomach. According to her father, who’s an old friend of Mr. Meyer’s, the man suffers from bleeding ulcers. Tick can see why. She imagines all the lies a man in his position would have to tell, how they must just churn away down there in his intestines like chinks of undigestible food awaiting elimination. By their very nature, Tick suspects, lies seek open air. They don’t like being confined in dark, cramped places. Still, she likes Mr. Meyer better for being a swallower. Her father, who lies neither often nor well, at least by adult standards, is also a swallower, and she approves that his lies go down so painfully. The snorters, like Mrs. Roderigue, and the barkers, like Walt Comeau, are the worst.

To me, the idea of a lie being either swallowed, snorted or barked is the physical equivalent of moral discomfort of lying. I find it hard to lie. I’m sure I equivocate with white lies, but I really can’t tell big whoppers. It just doesn’t sit comfortably with me.

Like Tick, I was lied to by a head teacher, and she did it on paper, laid it down for posterity so that I could always remember her perfidy. At the end of our final year, she wrote us a kind of reference, that would sum up our character and performance during our years at school. She wrote of me:

Charlotte is a neat schoolgirl, who always looks nice and tidy in her uniform.

LIES! I was a complete scruff. My socks were always falling down (bad), my hair ribbons never matched (worse), I usually forgot either my hat or my blazer at home (worst), and my desk and my bookbag were filled with Jurassic layers of old Marmite sandwiches and ancient apples. In my final year, my friends told me I brought shame to the prefect body because I looked so untidy and that they “couldn’t punish anybody for their bad uniform” because mine looked so terrible.

Obviously, the lovely Miss B. was casting around for some filler copy because she couldn’t remember anything about me, and sucked that straight out of her thumb. I lost respect for her, and have not set foot back in my alma mater since the day I left. Had she said “Charlotte is not overly bothered about the state of her uniform but has a lovely smile”, I would probably be a leading light in the Old Girls’ Guild (International Branch) to this day.

I’ve been trying to remember any other incidents of grown-ups lying to me, and there are barely any. I think I was lucky to be raised amongst truth-tellers, who perhaps fluffed the truth up a little or covered over harsh realities. I do remember my usually very gentle and sweet grandmother not being able to tell me why she didn’t like Martina Navratilova and resorting to “she’s just a BAD lady, darling”. Clearly, she did not want to answer the inevitable question – “what’s a lesbian, Granny?”. I do remember feeling sure that Martina was not a bad lady, and reminding myself to find out what it was about her that could get my serene grandmother so riled up.

I don’t lie to my children, and, when I have the energy, I try to give them clear and honest answers to their exhausting barrage persistent enquiries. I’ve just read both daughters the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, where there is a high body count, and one question which arose was “Is it okay to kill someone if they are a bad guy?”. My answer – not a good one, I’ll allow, but a truthful one at least – was “It’s not, D, but I’m too tired to tell you why.” Sometimes, Mummy speaks not with forked but with fuzzy tongue.

Henceforth, I’m going to have to make sure I keep telling the truth. I wouldn’t want them trying to assess whether I was a swallower or a snorter.


Jumping On the Podwagon

Never let it be said that Charlotte’s Web is not an early adopter. BlogLily has done it. So has Ms Make Tea Not War. Last night, Litlove published hers. Thoroughly inspired by my fabulous blogging and podcasting friends, I’ve made my first podcast too. Beware, there could be more!

You can hear it here

or here:


Please feel free to comment on the sound quality. I used the inbuilt microphone on my Mac and I’m not sure if it’s adequate. Any other comments also gratefully accepted!


The Eponymous

This weekend I took my daughters to see the eponymous Charlotte’s Web, except in Germany it is called Schweinchen Wilbur und seine Freunde, which really doesn’t have the same ring to it. I was a little nervous because the last time I took them to a movie (The March of the Penguins), Daisy was hideously bored and spent her time breathing hotly down the necks of the people in front of us, craning round to stare at the people behind us, talking loudly, squirming and generally indicating that she would rather be having her toenails pulled out. This time both she and her older sister were gripped.

I wish I could say I had been. While it was delightful and enchanting and well worth seeing, the German habit of dubbing all movies rather than providing subtitles means that, for me, something is always lost in translation. At least, since most of the cast are animals, I didn’t have my usual trouble trying, but failing, not to lip-read in the hope of catching what is really being said. I understand and speak German, but the English-speaking part of my brain is dominant and is always double-guessing the German bit. So instead of relaxing and enjoying the movie, I’m party to an exhausting internal dialogue. This is the main reason why I don’t watch many movies in the cinema anymore (not to mention the small babysitting issue), and why DVDs rule.

I think for a grown-up, half the fun of Charlotte’s Web – the Movie is the actors who voice the animals: Julia Roberts as Charlotte, Oprah Winfrey as Gussy the Goose, Steve Buscemi as Templeton the Rat and John Cleese as Samuel the Sheep. Seeing the German dubbed version also means missing out on Sam Shepard as the narrator and Robert Redford as Ike the Horse, which is a pity. It looks like I’ll be buying the DVD.

The movie, every bit as charming and whimsical as its reviews suggest, is slighter than the book, which I read to my girls last year and which I loved as a child. The movie focuses less on the family (Fern’s troublesome big brother Avery is much more anodyne, Fern’s emotional problems are not intensely dwelt upon) and more on the animals. However, Wilbur’s story is very well told, his relationship with Charlotte is sweet and the scenes of her spinning words in her web are lovely. The three of us wept when she died.

The movie does adhere to the message of the book: miracles are possible, friendship can transcend barriers and words are powerful. When my teacher read Charlotte’s Web aloud to my class in Grade 4, I fell in love with the book. I quickly got over the fact that Charlotte was a spider, but what always appealed to me was that she was a writer and a good friend. She was tiny and insignificant, but she made great things happen and she used words to do so. She looked at someone who was ordinary, and by carefully selecting the perfect words to describe him, she showed that he was special. Where everyone else ignored him or couldn’t be troubled to become his friend since he was going to the smokehouse to turn into the Christmas roast, Charlotte made the effort to be his friend. She looked at his heart, instead of at his pigginess, and saw the goodness there.

For what is really just a children’s story, the messages are so powerful and inspirational. When it came to naming my blog in March last year, I didn’t even have to think. It could only be Charlotte’s Web – a place where I come to write, where I try to see the good in the ordinary, where I try to be a friend, where I select my words carefully. I want my world to be a bit terrific, to be somewhat radiant, but also to be a little bit humble and I try to reflect that here.


A Spot of Bother

I’ve come over all warm and fuzzy, and it’s not only because I’ve been overdosing on the Christmas chocolates. It’s really because I’ve just finished reading Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother. Haddon is the author of the hugely successful The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a tale of a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who has to work out how there came to be a dead dog with a fork in it in the neighbour’s garden. It was marketed to both adults and children, won a slew of awards, was the book everybody was reading and talking about for a couple of years, and was voted best book-club book of all time by the Swindon Swingers’ Alternative Reading Group (okay, that bit I made up, but it was very, very, VERY successful, even in Swindon, where it is set).

Haddon is a prolific writer (and cartoonist and artist), and has written many children’s books and scripts for children’s TV. Although Curious Incident was intended for an adult audience, his publishers also marketed it to young adults. So A Spot of Bother, his recently published second novel, is arguably his first book for adults. It is immensely readable; like Nick Hornby, he has an ear for dialogue and how different kinds of people speak. The narrative rockets along in short, sharp bursts, during which he alternates between the points of view of the four main characters. I have read novels where this doesn’t work too well and you’re always struggling to work out who’s speaking next, but with Haddon this is crystal clear. I was briefly irritated with the flipping, but once I gave in to his style (deciding that it was like reading a fiction blog with four bloggers as main characters), I grew to enjoy it. The short sections and the ability to tie point of view so well to each character may be skills he has garnered during his screen-writing years, and he puts them to great use building up tension, which caused me flip faster and faster through the last section of the book, dying to find out what happened next.

The book’s plot – a father going mad, and the rest of his family falling apart in the run-up to a big family occasion (here, a wedding) – calls to mind to the plot of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, where there is a father going mad, and the rest of his family falling apart in the run-up to a big family occasion (in this case, Christmas). Both write with wit and insight, but there is a crucial difference in their styles.

Recently Dorothy was talking about different types of prose, and how writers usually fall into one of two camps – either the Hemingwayesque camp of spare, sparse prose where each word counts or they adopt the more Dickensian style of lush, wordy, descriptive prose. Where Franzen’s prose is funny, lush and lyrical, Haddon’s is equally funny but far leaner. Here is Franzen on his character’s incipient madness:

By the time he’d established that his daughter, Denise, was handing him a plate of snacks in his son Chip’s living room, the next moment in time was already budding itself into a pristinely ungrasped existence in which he couldn’t absolutely rule out the possibility, for example, that his wife, Enid, was handing him a plate of feces in the parlor of a brothel …

And here is something from Haddon, also on the main character’s increasing (in this case, imagined) dementia:

There was oily water in his windpipe.

He put his head between his legs.

He was going to throw up.

He sat back.

His body went cold and the blood drained from his head.

He put his head between his legs again.

He felt as if he were in a sauna.

He sat up and opened the little window.

The woman in the mauve raincoat glared.

As a reader, I would usually place myself in the Dickens/Franzen camp of tidal, roiling prose that washes over you, but I do love Haddon’s style. He has a strong sense of the ridiculous, which always appeals to me, is not scared of being gruesome, and is brutally matter-of-fact about sex. While his prose may be sparse it is not scant, and he fleshes out his themes of communication, fidelity, fear of dying, fear of commitment and just plain fear most satisfactorily.

It’s also resolutely English (it’s set in Peterborough, which I know, as well as London), where the characters drink tea often, don’t say what they mean, feel embarrassed about their feelings, drop hints and feel let down when their hints aren’t taken. The book is full of understatements, such as the title itself, which make the characters failure to communicate with each other even more poignant. I couldn’t help feeling if it was set in Germany, where people are extremely, scarily frank, there wouldn’t be much of a novel. But in Haddon’s expert hands, the Englishness is real, not twee, and the characters have to scrabble through fear and social embarrassment in order to find a new way to talk to each other.

I hope this book will be very, very successful too. Even in Peterborough.

(Cross-posted at Virtual Red Tent.)


Oooooooooo I Absolutely Love Eloise

I read to children a lot. Over the past seven years, I have spent a large chunk of my person hours reading aloud to small people. There are some children’s books I have grown to love and will happily read over and over again, and others I would prefer to toss into the nearest bin, if not actually onto a burning pyre of ill-written crappery. Some books lend themselves especially well to being read aloud and give the frustrated stage star in me a chance to shine.


One of my all-time read-aloud favourites is Kay Thompson’s Eloise, with its stunning line drawings by Hilary Knight. It’s about a poor little rich girl who lives in the Plaza Hotel in New York with her Nanny. Eloise is knowing and innocent, angelic and out-of-control. Her absent mother “knows The Owner”, as well as the Dean at Andover and Coco Chanel. I read it to my four-year-old last night, and I laughed more than she did, but she also laughed at me laughing. We had fun. Eloise is full of pearls of wisdom, such as:

You have to eat oatmeal or you’ll dry up

Anybody knows that


I have two dolls which is enough

They have to have a teaspoon of water every hour or so, so you can

see they are an extremely lot of hard work

The best thing about Eloise is that there are no full-stops. This would usually irritate me, but there are commas, and capital letters to indicate the start of new sentences. The lack of stops adds to the wild breathlessness and makes it extra entertaining to read.

Other read-aloud favourites in our house for the younger kids are the Doctor Seuss books, the Hairy McClary series and anything by Emma Chicester Clarke (her illustrations are stunning too). I love reading Beatrix Potter’s prose aloud, but somehow, we never really got into the Potter groove – I think her language is lot more sophisticated than her pictures and plots. When the kids were able to understand the slightly stilted, old-fashioned language, they were a bit old for the narrative. However, if anyone thrusts me a Beatrix Potter, I read it happily, as much for my own entertainment as for theirs.

As we’ve moved on to chapter books, we’ve loved everything Roald Dahl wrote, Peter Pan and the Horrible Henry books. I enjoyed reading The Secret Garden and The Little Princess aloud, as they were childhood favourites of mine, but they were hard going in parts for my six-year-old. She and I recently read The Scarecrow and His Servant, by Phillip Pullman, which was great, with lovely shards of humour to keep this grown-up’s attention. We’ve loved the Little House on the Prairie series and Charlotte’s Web, of course. Soon we’ll be starting C.S Lewis’s Narnia books with her.

So many fairy tales have rather wussy princesses as heroines, who sit around moping or cleaning, waiting for their prince to arrive and sort things out. My mother gave us this book: Girls To The Rescue: Tales of Clever, Courageous Girls from Around the World. It is delightful, and delivers exactly what it promises – stories about brave and clever girls who get to do the sorting out: the slaying of dragons, the outwitting of wily merchants, the winning of jousts. They also win the hearts of princes, so it is romantically satisfying. It’s written by Bruce Lansky and published by Meadowbrook Press, if you’re interested in pursuing it for the girls in your life.

As with books for adults, there is a ton of stuff out there for children, and much of it is awful. I especially loathe bad grammar and plots that don’t flow clearly. For me, it takes one read to realise that I’m going to be monumentally irritated by a book but unfortunately my kids often love the crap ones as much as they love the great ones. There is no telling. We are now at the point where I can say “I really don’t like that book, please choose another one” and they generally oblige. How we are all growing up.