Dr Seuss: How The Grinch Stole Christmas | 60th birthday

It’s that time of year again, and this one is a special one, because one of the world’s best-loved children’s Christmas stories is turning 60, and it’s had a special makeover to celebrate.

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This beautiful new edition of Dr Seuss’s Christmas masterpiece ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ is the perfect addition to any Christmas list. The illustrations and charming storyline remain the same, but are joined by a welcoming introduction by Charles D Cohen which explores the origins of the story, and the true meaning of Christmas – this is all contained within a beautiful clothbound cover and presentation box.

I absolutely love the Grinch, I include the 1960s animated short and even the Jim Carey feature in this, but of course nothing is a patch on the original. It is one of Dr Seuss’s best known stories, and with good reason. It took just a month to write, and two months to illustrate, but no other book so perfectly explores and presents the true meaning of Christmas.

You all know the story, and I’m sure I don’t need to bore you all with an explanation of the excellent storyline, writing style, or even illustrations – that said, Dr Seuss’s illustrations never cease to amaze me, in with this book in particular I love the use of red and black, making the pages seem at one dark and festive.

The story itself remains the same, a true Christmas classic, but the really nice thing about this new edition is the introduction.

It is said, and I cannot help but agree, that most people think of Dr Seuss as the Cat in the Hat – but remember that even the happiest people have their bad days. Dr Seuss, whose real name, for those of you who didn’t know, was Theodor Geisel, actually based the grisly, green-eyed character that stalks the page of this Christmas caper on none other than himself.

As his stepdaughter Lark Dimond-Cates once said: “I always thought that the Cat… was Ted on his good days, and the Grinch was Ted on his bad days.”

Seuss created the Grinch as a character at the tender aged of 53, on the day after Christmas day 1956, as an expression of his own concerns about the festive season. It’s an alarming thought, that someone who wrote such wonderful, magical children’s book could struggle with the spirit of Christmas, but Seuss did, and he used the Grinch to help work out exactly how he felt about the holiday.

So the intro says, Seuss was looking into the mirror, brushing his teeth on that Boxing Day morning, when he saw the Grinch peeking back at him.

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“Something had gone wrong with Christmas, I realised, or more likely with me. So I wrote the story about my sour friend, the Grinch, to see if I could rediscover something about Christmas that obviously I’d lost.”

This is, in fact, alluded to a little in the text “For fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now! I must stop this Christmas from coming! … But HOW?”

The introduction goes on to explain a little more about the books notoriety. It was first published back in 1957, an interesting year for Christmas which saw the launch of three separate which encouraged readers to rethink the true meaning of Christmas. These included: The Year without Santa Claus, The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It became a year when people were forced to think about what Christmas really meant to them – and people loved it! All the books received prominent praise, and went on to become films in their own right, but none was quite as special as the Grinch, who became a Christmas staple, paling only in comparison to Santa Claus, and Rudolph.

However, unpleasant the Grinch character may seem at first, the book reminds us of an important fact – Christmas is about more than just presents. There is a deeper meaning to the book, though, expressed through the image of the Grinch, and the Whos coming together, that no one should be alone on Christmas, and that anyone can be part of a community.

The poor Grinch has never had a friend, or a family, and certainly never been part of a community, and cannot understand the Whos. In particular, he hates the Who-Christmas-Sing, a time when the Whos “would stand close together, with Christmas bells ringing. They’d stand hand-in-hand. And the Whos would start singing.”

Through the magic of Christmas, and seeing the Whos resilience even in the absence of presents, the Grinch learns to enjoy the true meaning of Christmas and to spend time and share a meal with the Whos, and as such to become a part of their community.

It is not a religious story, Seuss made sure of this. Like many of his books, Seuss wanted to ensure that the Grinch would teach children that people who look different, and come from different places can still come together as friends. A message we could all do with remembering at such troubling times.

As the intro concludes, most readers can notice a little something of the Grinch in themselves, I know I definitely can. I love Christmas, but I have had my troubles with it in the past, fed up with the endless money, presents and complete and utter faff that comes with it. At some point, though, I realised how I was only depriving myself by feeling this way, and by doing away with my own faff, I learned to enjoy Christmas for what it is, a time to be thankful, to spend time with friends and family and celebrate life, a time for quiet, reflection – and now I love it again.

The Grinch is an important holiday figure, and the Grinch, as a story, is one I can never get through the Christmas season without reading. I didn’t realise, until I saw this new edition, that the Grinch was approaching its 60th year in publication. I had already decided to start a little ‘tradition’ with my youngest nephew, of buying him a Dr Seuss book for his birthday and Christmas each year, this year’s Christmas present was to be the Grinch, and I am delighted that there is a special, beautiful new edition that I can share with him.

 

Millroy the Magician – Paul Theroux

“We do not need magic to transform our world. We carry all of the power we need inside ourselves already.” ― J.K. Rowling

My fiancé (oh yes!) recently finished reading this book and passed it on to me, insisting I read it my first possible opportunity. It didn’t take me quite as long to finish, he seemed to take months and months over it, but I can definitely understand why it might take someone a while to get through. The book is, shall I say, a little bit tricky. This is not a book you would want to attempt in a single sitting; it’s definitely one to take your time over.

Milroy the Magician – Paul Theroux

Our cheering drowned the music, but Milroy did not seem to hear it. He looked dignified, holding the flapping eagle, and he turned to me, and stared as he had before, and leaned over to where I sat in the second row.

Popping my thumb out of my mouth made the sound of a cork being yanked from a bottle.

Even through the cheering crowds his voice was distinct, as he said, ‘I want to eat you.’

So I stayed for his second show.

51WXvY4gl2LJilly Farina was nervous the day she attended the Barnstable County Fair. It was a hot, sticky Saturday in July and she was all by herself. Her Dada was black-out-drunk, so she went on alone, sitting at the back of the bus, quietly sucking her thumb, and thinking about what the fair had in store for her.

She had seen Millroy the Magician once before, he was famous for making an elephant disappear, and had once turned a girl from the audience into a glass of milk and drank her. Jeekers! But when Jilly stepped into the wickerwork coffin during a performance she had no idea that he would transform her life into something magical, and a touch bizarre.

You see, Millroy was no ordinary magician. A magical, eccentric, vegetarian, health fanatic, Millroy was set on changing the eating habits of the whole of America – Millroy could sense the future, and he knew that Jilly had a big role to play.

I was supposed to meet my father at the Barnstaple County Fair, and in a way I did, though he was not Dada.

Paul Theroux presents Jilly as a girl who is very young for her years. The world which emerges through Jilly’s eyes is that inhabited by a scared, lonely child. As a reader you enter the body of Jilly, and stand, absent mindedly sucking your thumb and stroking your ear, while dreamily drinking in the world around you. As a reader, you grow to know Jilly intimately, to understand her innocence and naivety.

It is really no wonder that Millroy chose her.

Jilly’s relationship with Millroy is an odd combination of love and fear, sometimes one, sometimes both, and often shifting quickly from one to the other. The relationship is, on the whole, slightly awkward. While it is obvious that Jilly dotes on Millroy they remain entirely separate beings, always together, but forever apart. It is obvious that she fears him, or at least she fears his magic, but at the same time loves him, as a father or perhaps something more?

Even odder is Millroy’s relationship with Jilly. If Jilly dotes on Millroy, then Millroy obsesses over Jilly. Linked to this is Millroy’s own obsession with food – he is determined to inform the American public of the evils of the American food industry, but more than this, he is obsessed with feeding Jilly.

Food is an underlying and overlying theme. The whole book is brimming with pottage, homemade bread, green tea, broiled fish and herbage. Try reading the book without in some way succumbing to the desire to be regular – I’m sure it can’t be done. I developed such an appetite for leaves! Millroy is forever chewing, munching or gulping some delectable healthy snack, while preaching the importance of a clean, fresh, healthy, regular lifestyle. At the same time, Millroy obsesses over the dark side of food, the insidious nature of the American food industry, the sweating, drooling, gasping, jiggling American population, stuffed full of fat, chemicals, meat and sugar.

If the American food industry is insidious, what is even more insidious is Millroy’s interest in Jilly. Why is he so obsessed with her? Why does he want to be responsible for ‘everything’ that goes inside of her? And why does he fall to pieces at the idea of losing her? It is almost as though he is in some way dependent on Jilly, not just emotionally, but physically, as though he is feeding off of her.

This is one of the oddest books I have ever read. It left me with so many questions, which I’m not sure have clear cut answers: Who is Millroy? What is the root of his magic? Does the magic pass on? Does it destroy the bearer? So many questions, and so many potential answers.

Millroy the Magician is a strange book – but one that I very much enjoyed reading. It is absorbing, without much action, and tense, without real drama. Each passage speaks volumes, without relaying much in the way of actual events. I feel as though the story is more of a journey in itself than an adventure – sure, Millroy travels across America and achieves amazing things, but in the end has much changed? Are Millroy and Jilly much different? Or have they merely switched roles?

On the whole, would recommend.

And yes, he did propose ❤

Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami

“People think dreams aren’t real just because they aren’t made of matter, of particles. Dreams are real. But they are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes.”
― Neil Gaiman

Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami

Some time ago, after reading After Dark, I said I wanted to explore more of Haruki Murakami’s work, well I finally got around to it, and I’m very happy I did.

Earlier this year I read Norwegian Wood as a book club selection (review to come, our club has yet to meet due to a few members taking their sweet time to read the book!) and I loved it. I loved it almost as much as The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and you know how much I love that book! I don’t know what it is about certain translations (that they are beautiful maybe?) but I just can’t get enough of them. I was so taken by Norwegian Wood that I began to think that Murakami might actually be one of my favourite authors, but I couldn’t make such a decision based on two books, to find out for sure I needed to read more.

So, I set myself the task of actively reading more Murakami (to begin with I decided I’d read one book a month, but what with all my other commitments that is starting to seem like wishful thinking) and first on the list was Kafka on the Shore. Now, Norwegian Wood is said to be somewhat of an anomaly in Murakami’s portfolio, but Kafka on the Shore is quintessentially Murakami-esque – so I thought this could be the decision maker.

Where Norwegian Wood is a unique take on a classic tale of love, Kafka on the Shore is weird, wonderful and unashamedly unique!

It’s as if when you’re in the forest, you become a seamless part of it. When you’re in the rain, you’re a part of the rain. When you’re in the morning, you’re a seamless part of the morning. When you’re with me, you become a part of me.

kotsIn Kafka on the Shore storylines combine to trace the extraordinary journeys of two seemingly unrelated characters. Kafka Tamura runs away from home on the eve of his fifteenth birthday, haunted by the words of his father’s dark prophecy. Ever since the mysterious departure of his mother and elder sister Kafka’s life has been full of questions. Now his aim is simple, to travel to a far off place and live in the corner of a library. The journey, it seems, may hold the answers.

Elsewhere in Nakano ward, the dim-witted but amiable Nakata tracks lost cats and enjoys the simple things in life, like eels, and pickled vegetables with rice. But this is all set to change with the arrival of a tall man in a top hat and boots, whose interest in the neighbourhood cats is far from innocent. With his simple life turned upside down Nakata is forced to leave Nakano ward, and embarks on journey unlike anything he has ever experienced before, or his simple mind can even comprehend.

As Nakata and Kafka’s stories unwind and intertwine the remarkable interlaces with the ordinary and the world takes on a wholly unusual shape – fish and leeches fall from the sky, and cats converse with people, while WWII soldiers live, unageing, in the depths of unnavigable forest, and living ghosts lurk in the perimeters of consciousness.

Kafka on the Shore is a classic tale of quest and enlightenment, with a wholly unusual twist, which goes beyond the boundaries of classic literature. Murakami’s characters embark on a journey of stunning proportions, a voyage of self-discovery through inexperience. Neither Kafka nor Nakata know what it is they are looking for, but the answer is out there, and the journey introduces them to many strange and wonderful characters, with whom brief encounters prove to be life-affirming.

Anyone who falls in love is searching for missing pieces of themselves. So anyone who’s in love gets sad when they think of their lover. It’s like stepping back inside a room you have fond memories of, one you haven’t seen in a long time. It’s just a natural feeling. You’re not the person who discovered that feeling, so don’t go trying to patent it, okay?

Kafka on the Shore is strange – there is no getting around it. Weird and wonderful things occur and the reasons behind these occurrences are not immediately, if at all, clear. Each chapter harbours events which, however deep and profound an impact they may have, lack any logical explanation. Try and apply a logical filter to Murakami’s and you will no doubt find yourself disappointed and frustrated.

I found it useful, in having read Kafka on the Shore to try and get some insight into  Murakami’s own thoughts on his writing. Murakami has explained his writing process as similar to dreaming, rather than delving into the fantastical: “Writing a novel lets me intentionally dream while I’m still awake. I can continue yesterday’s dream today, something you can’t normally do in everyday life. It’s also a way of descending deep into my own consciousness. So while I see it as dreamlike, it’s not fantasy. For me the dreamlike is very real.”

Kafka on the Shore, then, can be seen as the amalgamation of two different worlds, the combination of the conscious and the unconscious. Think of the book as you would a dream, and suddenly things become much clearer. I was reminded, in reading this, of the talk I went to by Nigerian author Ben Okri last summer in which he spoke of exploring a new way of thinking in his writing, to show that text does not have to follow strict criteria. The world that you create, he said, can be sequential and logical, or circular and dancing. Kafka on the Shore falls firmly into the latter category.

Despite everything, it’s not a difficult book to read. The obscure and the philosophical, which may at times feel somewhat overwhelming, for me were lightened by Murakami’s abstract humour. Here I could give examples of the pimp dressed like Colonel Sanders, or Nakata’s continued reference to going for a ‘dump’ – but for me, the most hilarious part of the book, was Oshima’s fantastic shutting down of two women who refer to him as a ‘typical sexist, patriarchal male’.

My verdict – I liked it. But nowhere near as much as Norwegian Wood. I definitely need to read some more before I make a decision on just how much of a Murakami fangirl I am. The book won’t be for everyone – fans of the logical and sequential and those of you unsettled by violence against animals should steer clear of this one – but I’m certainly not done with my Murakami journey just yet.

Go Set a Watchman – Book review and giveaway!

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

imagesSet during the height of the Great Depression of the 1930s, To Kill a Mockingbird, is the tale of an innocent childhood in a sleepy southern town rocked by scandal. When Lawyer Atticus Finch chooses to defend a black man charged with the rape of a white girl he exposes his children to the reality of racism and stereotyping. The story, which is told through the eyes of Atticus’ six-year-old daughter, Jean-Louise ‘Scout’ Finch, sheds an amusing unfettered light on the irrationality of deep-south traditions surrounding race and class in the mid-1930s. At its heart, To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic coming-of-age tale, which went on to become one of the most famed anti-racist novels of the 20th century. Today the book is widely regarded as a one of the masterpieces of American Literature.

It’s no wonder then, that the release of Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, fifty-five years after To Kill a Mockingbird, was met with such excitement.

Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee

You deny them hope. Any man in this world, Atticus, any man who has a head and arms and legs, was born with hope in his heart. You won’t find that in the Constitution, I picked that up in church somewhere. They are simple people, most of them, but that doesn’t make them subhuman.

81SX8d6vpzLGo Set a Watchman takes up with twenty-six-year-old Jean-Louise, as she returns to Maycomb to visit her now ageing father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, Go Set a Watchman delves into the raw truth of the political turmoil which marred the Southern United States of the 1950s. Jean-Louise’s homecoming, far from being an idyllic break in the country, takes an unsettling turn, as racial tensions rippling through the town come to her attention and she learns some troubling truths about the friends and family close to her heart. As she struggles to comprehend the changes occurring around her, Jean-Louise embarks on a life-changing journey guided by her own conscience.

By now, you will have no doubt read your fair share of reviews and criticism of Go Set a Watchman. Before I get into the controversy surrounding the book’s release, and subsequent criticisms of the book itself, I first want to tell you why I loved the book.

The structure of Go Set a Watchman is so completely different to To Kill a Mockingbird; I’ve heard it called jarring, and awkward, but I found it refreshing. The novel is told in the third person, but still awards an amazing insight into the minds of the central characters, with large sections of text given over to Jean-Louise’s hilarious internal monologue, particularly when she finds herself at odds with her insufferable aunt (‘Jehovah!’). As a reader you are able to witness Jean-Louise without being restricted by seeing everything through her eyes. I loved the effect that this had and I feel it allowed for a deeper understanding of her character.  The quick fisted child from To Kill a Mockingbird may have aged some, but her personality and morals remain as rigid as ever. Even as an adult she is far happier in slacks than a skirt, and more than willing to speak her mind to anyone who disapproves. Twenty years on, and the adult Jean-Louise is still a force to be reckoned with.

I also loved the amount of time Lee gave to looking into Jean-Louise’s life in the years in between To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. I loved Jean-Louise’s internal anecdotes about her childhood, in particular the nine month’s spent thinking she was pregnant after being wrongly advised about the birds and the bees by an older girl. Watching the whole debacle unfold is hilarious, but none so much as the exchange between Jean-Louise and Calpurnia when she finally confesses her horrible secret:

“I’m going to have a baby!” she sobbed.
“When?
“Tomorrow!

Calpurnia said, “As sure as the sweet Jesus was born, baby. Get this in your head right now, you ain’t pregnant and you never were. That ain’t the way it is.
“Well if I ain’t, then what am I?
“With all your book learnin’, you are the most ignorant child I ever did see…” Her voice trailed off. “… but I don’t reckon you really ever had a chance.

Little gems like this give Go Set a Watchman a really human feel, which I absolutely loved. It is one thing to witness a character’s story as it unfolds, but another to observe a character revisiting their past. The Jean-Louise of To Kill a Mockingbird exists only in the present moment, whereas the adult Jean-Louise transcends time periods to enable a fuller understanding of the complexities of her character.

Now, on to the controversy.

I know a lot of people are of the opinion that Lee was manipulated into granting permission for the release of Go Set a Watchman, and I’m sure nothing I say will change this, but I, personally, do not believe that this is the case. Firstly, friends and family close to Lee have outright denied that this claim – but this is not the only reason I choose to believe that Lee wanted the book to be published. I think that the presence of anomalies within the text, specifically with regards to the outcome of the Tom Robinson case in To Kill a Mockingbird, suggest that Lee had the definitive choice when it came to publishing the book. For me, the presence of such anomalies show that Lee wanted the book to be seen and to be viewed as it was; true to the time it was written, and not as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. If the release of Go Set a Watchman was nothing more than a money-making plan at the expense of a fragile old lady I do not think this would be the case.

The circumstances surrounding the publication of Go Set a Watchman are not the only thing awarding the book negative media attention. I have read so many opinion pieces that suggest that the book ruins To Kill a Mockingbird and taints the Atticus Finch that we all knew and loved. One US bookstore even offered refunds to anyone who purchased the novel from them, on the ground that their advertising it as ‘nice summer read’ was unquestionably false. This, again, I do not agree with.

When I read To Kill a Mockingbird I fell completely in love with Atticus, and there is no doubt in my mind that the Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman is fundamentally different. But did this new portrayal of his character ruin the former impression I had? No, of course not. The Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird still exists, and nothing will ever change that. Go Set A Watchman may be set 20 years after To Kill a Mockingbird, but it was never intended to serve as a sequel.

The time portrayed in Go Set a Watchman can’t be viewed in a vacuum, but neither should it be completely judged based on To Kill a Mockingbird. The two books are fundamentally different. One gave birth to the other. Go Set a Watchman in itself is an incredible look at the time in which it was written, allowing for amazing insight into the Southern United States of the 1950s.

Would Go Set a Watchman have been accepted by a publisher now were it not for To Kill a Mockingbird? I don’t know. Maybe not. The novel is certainly not as ground-breaking as To Kill a Mockingbird – but is that really surprising? It is the history of the book that is really fascinating. As readers we have been given the chance to read the first draft of one of the most famous books ever written. In reading Go Set a Watchman you are given an incredible insight into Harper Lee’s writing process. Needless to say, as a booklover, and a fan of To Kill a Mockingbird, I found Go Set a Watchman to be an incredibly interesting and exciting book to read.

If you haven’t yet read Go Set a Watchman, and haven’t been put off by all the negative media coverage than I have good news for you. I have an extra copy of the book up for grabs for one lucky reader.

Simply comment on this blog post by Friday 4th September, to be in with a chance of winning.

Happy commenting!

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

“In our hatred, we are like bees who must pay with their lives for the use of their stingers” ― Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen

“I hate the Führer,” she said. “I hate him.”

And Hans Hubermann?

What did he do?

What did he say?

Did he bend down and embrace his foster daughter, as he wanted to? Did he tell her that he was sorry for what was happening to her, to her mother, for what had happened to her brother?

Not exactly.

He clenched his eyes. Then opened them. He slapped Liesel Meminger squarely in the face.

“Don’t ever say that!” His voice was quiet, but sharp.

71h2sjik5al-_sl1380_This book just launched itself directly onto my list of favourite books of all time!

The Book Thief is narrated by Death – this is what first drew me towards it. The front cover depicts a young girl skipping hand in hand with the Grim Reaper – how could I not want to read this?

Despite my excitement I was less than enthused by the way the book began. The whole prologue had vaguely unnatural feel to it. I found it really difficult to get into and I worried that the whole book would continue in the same jarring, start-and-stop style. I knew I wouldn’t be able to force my way through the 500+ pages of text if Zusak didn’t grasp my attention soon.

Thankfully, my worries were in vain.

It was as though someone turned on a light, and I suddenly went from being vaguely uncomfortable to completely in my element. The rest of the book is written in a similar style, but whereas the prologue felt awkward and unnatural, the proceeding chapters click perfectly into place.

The book thief’s story begins in 1939 in Nazi Germany. Liesel Meminger is taken to Himmel Street in Molching, to the home of her new foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Her communist parents have been taken away to concentration camps, and her young brother did not survive the journey to their new home.  On her first night in Himmel Street as she lies in her new room, the bed reserved for her brother lying empty next to her, she is plagued by nightmares of her brother’s death, and awakes screaming in a cold sweat. Her foster father, ‘Papa’, comforts her, reading to her from The Gravedigger’s Handbook – Liesel’s first stolen text.

As political tensions in Germany increase, Hans is called upon to fulfil a promise he made years before, forcing him to harbour a deadly secret, and placing the family constant danger. Despite their fears, relationships in the family grow stronger and each night Hans continues to read with Liezel. As her book collection grows, Liesel recognises the power of the written word and slowly begins to write her own story.

Zusak’s style, while perhaps slightly jarring at first, is wonderfully unique. The story is separated into small chapters, each focusing on a very specific point in time, with death drawing out the relevance of each occurrence to the wider story. The text is broken up with pictures, handwritten notes, and regular snippets of background information in amongst the main tale: brief statistics, information on Stalingrad, small observances, and even a pamphlet made from the painted-over pages of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, are all slipped into the flow of the text.

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The presence of Death as a narrator is interesting, and works really well given the context of the book. Throughout the novel the shadow of loss hangs heavy over Nazi Germany and Death himself is a constant feature on every street corner. As a narrator, Death foretells of which characters are due to meet their demise. Zusak allows you to fall in love with characters you know are going to die. And no, this doesn’t ruin the ending, it adds to the overall tension which builds up over the course of the book. It is as though you are placed in the midst of the inhabitants of Himmel Street, knowing that war will claim some of those that you love. Waiting to find out when Death will strike is the real struggle.

The Book Thief is unique amongst WWII fiction as it tells the tale of war-torn Germany from a Nazi-child’s perspective. Liesel Meminger is a wonderfully-developed and complex character who is just beginning to form her own understanding of the world. She understands the importance of doing as she is told out in the street, of Heil Hitler-ing the lady in the sweet shop and attending Hitler Youth in a neatly pressed uniform. But inside, she conceals her own personal judgements and aspirations, harbouring thoughts that must not be spoken outside the walls of 33 Himmel Street.

The Book Thief is marketed as a book for young adults, but I struggle to see how anyone, whatever their age, could fail to enjoy it. If you are interested in WWII fiction, or, like me, in historical fiction in general, then this really is a must read.

Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey

“But the thing about remembering is that you don’t forget.” ― Tim O’Brien

What was it I came for? The loaded shelves frown down at me as I circle them, and the blue and white linoleum stares up, dirty and cracked. My basket is empty, but I think I’ve been here for a while; Reg is watching me. I reach for something: it’s heavier that I was expecting and my arm is pulled down suddenly with the weight. It’s a tin of peach slices. That’ll do. I put a few more tins in my basket, tucking its handles into the crook of my arm. The thin metal bars grind against my hip on the way to the counter.

EIM-pb-jacketMaud’s memory is not as sharp as it once was. She forgets to turn the gas off, eats endless amounts of toast, makes cup after cup of tea which line up, cooling on the side board, and has enough sliced peaches to feed an army – but still she buys more.

To help her to remember, Maud has a ‘paper memory’ – countless notes left by her carers, her daughter and herself. Notes fill her house, her pockets, and the gaps in her arm chair, instructions, reminders, recipes and phone numbers spill from every orifice. In Maud’s pocket, amongst the shopping lists and appointment slips is a note in Maud’s own handwriting that reads ‘Elizabeth is missing’. Elizabeth is Maud’s friend; the only friend she has left. She doesn’t remember when she wrote the note, but she knows that something is wrong. If only she could tell someone, if she could just make them understand.

Elizabeth is Missing is probably not what you expect. I asked a friend if she knew what the book as about, she looked at me in confusion and said, or asked, ‘some girl called Elizabeth who goes missing?’ – She couldn’t be further from the truth. This book is so much more than just a mystery.

Fifty years ago Maud’s elder sister went missing. In Maud’s mind lie the secrets to solving this mystery, and they are desperate to get out, but it’s difficult to solve a puzzle when you keep forgetting the clues. Maud can’t remember the relevance of her thoughts – there is definitely something important about planting marrows, but she can’t be sure what. She struggles to express herself, forgets the word she was just about to say, answers a questions asked hours before, and relives conversations from years past. It’s no wonder no one takes her seriously.

In Elizabeth is Missing the clues are slowly teased from Maud’s damaged mind. The reader is tossed between the present day, and fifty years in the past, reliving, day by day, the disappearance of Maud’s sister, before returning to the present to search for her ‘missing’ friend. The present is confusing, muddled and foggy, while the past is pristine and bright.

Maud’s memories: her parents’ house, the yard, the pantry, and the dusty bedroom floors – are all so clear and picture perfect. Emma Healey creates a rich, colourful background for Maud, clearer and crisper than the black and white photos of her past. The second Maud casts her mind back it is as though you are there with her in the kitchen, stirring the supper cooking on the stove and preparing the table; focus and you can hear the tinkling of tea into china cups, and the soft clink of the tea spoon.

Return to the present, and the scene is much more blurry.

In Elizabeth is Missing, Healey has taken a theme something that many people are incredibly uncomfortable with, and expressed it in a way that I have never seen before. Watching a loved-one grow old and lose their capacities is one of the most heart wrenching and terrifying experiences I have ever had, and it was incredible to view this from the other side. Elizabeth is Missing allows the reader to take on the role of the person whose mind is failing, to see the world through their eyes. The effect is unsettling, haunting and somewhat humbling.

Maud is an amazing character, she is funny, cleaver and mischievous, but her story is so incredibly sad. If you are an emotional reader, as I am, this one is likely to induce a few tear-filled episodes. There were also times when I felt so angry on behalf of Maud, I was furious with the people around her, those close to her who, it seemed, would ignore her, dismiss her, and neglect her. But of course, the events are portrayed through Maud’s mind, you do not see the other times. The times she has forgotten. It is difficult to describe the emotional rollercoaster that this book took me on – I laughed, I cried, and, in the end, I closed the book feeling completely overwhelmed.

Elizabeth is Missing is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read. Despite the games Healey played with my emotions, I loved every second of it. Each individual aspect of the book combines to create something truly unique and stunning. Even now, weeks after having finished the book I feel completely blown away by the sheer brilliance of it.

Would recommend to anyone and everyone, if you only read one book this year make it Elizabeth is Missing.

The Guest Cat – Takashi Hiraide

“What greater gift than the love of a cat.” ― Charles Dickens
One shining, sunny afternoon, slipping through a crack in the open door, four bright white feet stepped softly onto the room’s insulated drain board, and with a well-honed curiosity rushing through her entire body, Chibi quietly surveyed its meagre interior.

Guest-Cat-2

A married couple in their mid-thirties live a solitary life in urban Tokyo, in a small rented guesthouse on the border of an estate owned by an elderly woman and her ageing husband. Both husband and wife work from home, freelance copy-editing, writing, and proofreading from their solitary desks – it has been a long time since either one has had very much to say to the other.

Late in the autumn of 1988 a small cat, tamed by a young boy who lives next door, invites itself into their humble kitchen and begins to explore its surroundings. The cat becomes a regular feature in the couple’s home, and brings warmth and love into their lives. As the cat comes and goes, seemingly set in her routine, the couple begin to talk about her, to anticipate her arrival and share stories about her. The arrival of the guest cat opens a door which had seemed closed forever.

In his New York Times Bestseller, Japanese poet Takashi Hiraide eloquently explores the remarkable bond between man and cat. When the guest cat enters the couple’s house, she brings with her a feeling of hope; suddenly life seems to hold more promise for the husband and wife, and their days are filled with a new kind of meaning.

It is not out of preference that I use the word fate – or should say, Fortuna – but as the young cat’s visits became more frequent, I came to feel that there were some things only this word could express.

I have been told that cats emit a certain type of pheromone which makes them more attractive to the people they are around. This, some say, is why so many people do not realise how much they love cats until they have one of their own. The husband, whose voice the novella is written in, describes himself and his wife as neither having a particular liking for cats. But this all changes when the guest cat first sets foot into their kitchen.

There’s a photographer who says cat lovers always believe their own cat is better looking than anyone else’s. According to her, they’ve all got blinders on. She also says that, though she too is a major cat lover, having noticed this fact means that she is now hated by all cat lovers, and so these days only takes pictures of scruffy-looking strays.

cat-in-a-tree

It is almost as though the cat fills the empty space between the man and his wife, a space perhaps reserved for a child. I imagine that the cat’s name, Chibi, which we are told means ‘little one’, alludes to her importance to the man and his wife. She is so much more than just a cat to the couple; she is a friend, a companion, something which gives their life meaning. With Chibi in their lives, the house, the garden, the zolkova tree and even the dark ‘lightening alley’ all have more light and colour. Everything brims with a new beauty created by the smallest of pleasures – watching the cat play with a ball, or hearing the gentle tinkling of her collar.

I was bought the guest cat by my father-in-law this past Christmas; he has clearly noticed that my two favourite things in life are books and cats. There was no doubt in my mind that I would enjoy the book –  my father-in-law is an excellent judge of reading material – but I didn’t anticipate just how much pleasure I would take from such a short piece of writing. The book is gentle, and beautiful, simply brimming with imagery and poetics. In just 140 pages Hiraide manages to speak volumes about the complexities of life and the existence of joy in the most unlikely places.

The writing has a stunning eloquence that fans of Japanese literature will admire. There is something I find so appealing about Japanese translations; the words seem to possess a unique flow, a beauty completely their own. The translated words stream effortlessly across the page, swirling into stunning imagery and deeply profound passages of thought, the result of which is a rare and wonderful treasure of a novella.

Needless to say, I would recommend this book. It is gentle and poetic, yet captivating enough to read in a single setting. This one is not just for cat lovers.