Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


A Smorgasbord of Reading

I’ve been gobbling up The Hunger Games trilogy in tandem with my two daughters (they’re reading it in German) and while many of the scenes are incredibly moving, there were no parts of the books I needed to reread for the beauty of the words. Collins is brilliant at plot and she has a cast of memorable characters, led by the inimitable Katniss (such a superstar heroine compared to the dweeb who MC-ed Twilight, name utterly forgotten). I have images in my mind from the novels, whole scenes washing around in my head, but no words. Collins is a world-builder, a plotter and an ace at character, but perhaps not a poet.

The second book I’ve bounced through this week is the much-awaited (by me) The Obamas by Jodi Kantor. Longterm blog readers will know that I was an averred Obama fan. I howled big salty tears at his inauguration, had his poster up in my office and even stopped highlighting my hair in solidarity with his peppery side-burns. Like many, I grew disillusioned with his apparent inability to ring the changes and rise above the bipartisan US politics as he promised the world he would. When we moved house, his poster was relegated to the garage.

The Obamas is a very reasoned attempt to explain why this disillusionment happened for so many, how much it frustrated the first couple and how hard they are both still working to bring changes that will make differences in ordinary people’s lives. My respect for him was largely restored (though Guantanamo and the treatment of Bradley Manning are still blemishes), and my respect for Michelle Obama is hugely increased. I read The Obamas for facts and for the insight of Jodi Kantor, a journalist who followed them closely for years and interviewed hundreds of people for the book. It was engrossing, but dry.

Now I’m doing a third kind of reading. I’m late to the party with Lorrie Moore’s A Gate At The Stairs and I knew in advance that I was likely to enjoy it, given the many glowing reviews. But I had no idea how much. Moore is in love with language. She delights in great sentences and I am having to read some of them twice or three times just for the fun, the lightness, the poetry that they offer. Here is one where the main character describes the mosquitoes on her parents’ farm:

Mosquitoes with tiger-striped bodies and the feathery beards of an iris, their wings and legs the dun wisps of an unbarbered boy, their spindly legs the tendrils of an orchid, the blades of a gnome’s sleigh.

And here’s a great pair about the strangeness of coming home after having left for university:

At home in Dellacrosse my place in the world of college and Troy and incipient adulthood dissolved and I became an unseemly collection of jostling former selves. Snarkiness streaked through my voice, or sullenness drove me behind a closed door for hours at a time.

I’m only 63 pages in, so I have a lot of great sentences ahead of me. Sigh! What a lucky, lucky reader I am. I can tell that Lorrie Moore is about to be put on the list of favourites and her back-list hunted out.

To use my husband’s favourite software analogy, reading The Hunger Games is like eating popcorn (light, fluffy, but oddly compelling), reading The Obamas is like eating broccoli (healthy and enlightening), but reading A Gate At The Stairs is like eating the perfect meal at the perfect moment with the perfect person. It’s apt. It’s delicious. And it’s memorable.


Hello January!

Hallo January! Gosh, you’ve been a frisky little month, haven’t you? But I quite prefer you to December, which I am trying to extinguish permanently from my memory. December was flabby and exhausted, and quite, quite grumpy. Smelly also. But we won’t go there. We don’t need to remember it. January, on the other hand, you are fresh and full of promise. You are green. You are fragrant and exciting. You contain possibilities – potential new jobs, potential book deals, potential trips to faraway places that contain sun, beaches and disgustingly alcoholic cocktails. Your tail is twitching with the thrill of the new. And there is nothing I like more than new.

Here are some of the new things that January has brought me thus far:

1. A new handbag. A luscious, velvety object in peacock-feather blue.

2. A trip alone on a train.

3. A night alone in a hotel.

4. A walk around Munich on my own.

5. A large pile of non-fiction reading.*

6. Zumba – going tomorrow, will report back.

7. Pinterest – oh, the allure of this spectacular time-sucker. It is a revolting amount of fun. If you are a pinner, let me know and I will follow you.

8. Having a long-lost cousin from New Zealand find me on the Internet. Hello Amanda! *waves*

Have you done anything new this month?

* The Emperor of All Maladies, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Reading Women, soon to start the Charles Dickens biography.


A Woman in Berlin

Französiche Dom, Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin

I love Berlin. It is so fresh, vibrant and exciting that you feel you are soaking up innovation, ideas and history through your pores as you walk the streets. Berlin has not papered over its cracks, so you see remnants of the Second World War (the bombed-out carcass of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche) and the Cold War (the long, chilly footprint of the Wall) everywhere. I learned that none of the trees in the Tiergarten are more than sixty years old, because the previous forest was razed for firewood in the dying days of the war, and in the freezing winters afterwards.

But this is not about me. During my last visit, I fell upon an amazing book – A Woman in Berlin – a diary of a woman who details her life in the falling city as it was sacked by the Russian army. It starts on 20 April 1945 and ends on 22 June 1945. The writer, who has recently died, chose to remain anonymous when it was published, and the book received controversy, especially in Germany where it was accused of “besmirching the honour of German women.” As you read, you understand why the book might have been hard to swallow in the 1960s. Not only does she describes in exact and excruciating detail what it is like to live in a city under attack: the scrabbling for food, the nauseating fear of being bombed, the chilling anxiety of waiting for the Russians to arrive, but she deals very frankly with the mass rapes that took place, saying that the women began to ask each other not “Were you … ?” but “How many times … ?”.

According to the introduction, over 160 000 Berlin women were raped as the Russians swept through the city. They were considered an acceptable booty for the travails of being a soldier, and all women of all ages are targetted. People in the writer’s apartment building spirited their daughters away in crawl spaces, while only the oldest women ventured out into the streets to fetch water. The writer herself is not spared, and she finally makes a Faustian pact, singling out the most senior – and potentially most cultured and gentlemanly – Russian officer she can find to act as protector. In exchange for sexual favours, she receives food which she shares with the elderly and ailing residents of the building. What Berlin’s liberators come to call “forced intercourse” becomes her only method of survival.

The writer is a journalist and photographer, and her prose builds unforgettable images of war. This means the book can be hard going, since the subject matter is almost unbearable, but it is leavened with her salty sense of humour and astonishing courage.

Here is one excerpt that moved me with its prescience:

I barely glanced at the news from the western front. What does it matter to us now? Our fate is rolling in from the east and it will transfer the climate, like another Ice Age.

On hunger:

I found a letter wedged inside a drawer, addressed to the real tenant. I felt ashamed for reading it, but I read it all the same. A passionate love letter, which I flushed down the toilet. (Most of the time we still have water.) Heart, hurt, love, desire: how foreign, how distant these words sound now. Evidently a sophisticated, discriminating love-life requires three square meals a day. My sole concern as I write these lines is my stomach. All thinking and feeling, all wishes and hopes begin with food.

On the futility of technology:

Our radio’s been dead for four days. Once again we see what a dubious blessing technology really is. Machines with no intrinsic value, worthless if you can’t plug them in somewhere. Bread, however, is absolute. Coal is absolute. And gold is gold whether you’re in Rome, Peru or Breslau. But radios, gas stoves, central heating, hot plates, all these gifts of the modern age – they’re nothing but dead weight if the power goes out. At the moment we’re marching backwards in time. Cave dwellers.

This is a powerful and heart-rending book. It’s also an amazing piece of social history and now that Germany has learnt to be more open about its past, now that other countries have faced up to their roles in the making of war, this is a good time time to be reading this book. It may deal with a very short and very specific period in German history, but it talks to all of us about how far we will go when we are starving, about the bleak impact war has on civilians and about the small sparks of humanity that help people to survive when that seems impossible.


When Economists Talk Parenting

For some reason, I’ve veered off-piste recently to read not one but two books by economists: Freakonomics by the Steph/vens Levitt and Dubner and The World is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman. Both were enjoyable in different ways – the Freakonomics guys like making apparently random connections between things (such as why most drug dealers still live with their mothers or why twenty years after abortion was legalised in the States the crime rate went down) and Friedman wishes to show us that the flattening of the world by the growth in technology can be a positive force not only for business, but for the environment and people everywhere. Both books, surprisingly, contain chapters on parenting.

In Freakonomics, the writers devote a couple of chapters to the question Do Parents Really Matter? Clearly, they say, bad parenting matters a great deal, but it’s not that evident how much eager parents can accomplish on their children’s behalf. Levitt and Dubner pick up on the nature/nurture debate, using a tool called regression analysis to ascertain that things that parents are (well-educated, successful, healthy) tend to have more effect on children’s early test scores than things that parents do (take children to museums, regularly spank children, allow them to watch television). They say:

But this is not to say that parents don’t matter. Plainly they matter a great deal. Here is the conundrum: by the time most people pick up a parenting book, it is far too late. Most of the things that matter were decided long ago – who you are, whom you married, what kind of life you lead. If you are smart, hardworking, well educated, well paid, and married to some equally fortunate, then your children are more likely to succeed. (Nor does it hurt, in all likelihood, to be honest, thoughtful, loving, and curious about the world.) But it isn’t so much a matter of what you do as a parent; it’s who you are. In this regard, an overbearing parent is a lot like a political candidate who believes that money wins elections – whereas in truth, all the money in the world can’t get a candidate elected if the voters didn’t like him to start with.

Interestingly, one of the factors that doesn’t appear to have any effect on children’s test scores is if the mother didn’t work between birth and kindergarten (the US pre-school year). What does matter though, according to Levitt and Dubner, was if the mother was thirty or older at the time of her first child’s birth. To this they say:

A woman who doesn’t have her first child until she is at least thirty is likely to see that child do well in school. This mother tends to be a woman who wanted to get some advanced education or develop some traction in her career. She is also more likely to want a child more than a teenage mother wants a child. This doesn’t mean that an older first-time mother is necessarily a better mother, but she has put herself – and her children – in a more advantageous position.

Their data also show that having books in the home does affect children’s early school performance, but that reading to children almost every day does not. Once again, this boils down to the who parents are rather than what they do dichotomy.

Friedman, on the other hand, believes strongly that what we do as parents will affect not only children’s early test scores, but their competitiveness in a working world that has grown increasingly flat. He believes that the competition facing the US and the West of hundreds of thousands of clever, well-educated and eager Indian and Chinese graduates means that parents are going to have to be a lot tougher on their children in insisting they knuckle down and work. Western children seem to grow up with a puffed-up sense of entitlement that the world is theirs, and employers will be waiting gratefully for them to shine their brilliance on their place of work. Friedman says:

The sense of entitlement, the sense that because we once dominated global commerce and geopolitics – and Olympic basketball – we always will, the sense that delayed gratification is a punishment worse than a spanking, the sense that our kids have to be swaddled in cotton wool so that nothing bad or disappointing or stressful ever happens to them at school is, quite simply, a growing cancer on American society.

He emphasises that modern schooling no longer seems to focus on character-building, on pushing children beyond their comfort zones in a way that will prepare them for the world ahead. He wants parents to be tougher on their children, and politicians to be tougher on school systems. Friedman apparently does not tell his children to finish their dinner because people in China or India are starving – he tells them to finish their homework, because people in China or India are starving for their jobs.

In Friedman’s flattened world, individuals have to think globally in order to survive. There will be no such thing as an American job, just a job, and it will go to the best, smartest, most productive, or cheapest worker, wherever he or she lives.

If you fancy a little nip of very readable economics, I would strongly recommend the Freakonomics book. The authors have been challenged that they have no over-arching theme, and this is true, but what they do, they do entertainingly. Styled as “rogue economists”, they claim to “uncover the hidden side of everything”. The book is not nearly that broad, but their random connections and general cheekiness make for an entertaining read. They blog here.

The World is Flat is an altogether weightier tome. Friedman is energetically enthusiastic about his topic, and peppers the book with quotes from CEOs worldwide about the changing nature of business. He talks about the democratising forces of blogging and podcasting, which I liked, and while talking up technology and its ability to connect people, he is also very frank about the darker side of all this connectivity. He doesn’t appear to have a blog. I wonder why.