Reading reflections in the Bookinglass

An expat with a love of fiction

ROOM by Emma Donoghue

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Grandparent's room with flowersIt has been a few months since I ending up sitting down and finishing ROOM. Not that it was a huge effort to finish, but I found the first half of the book much more gripping that the latter half.

What I remember most about this book now is how I imagined Room, the one in which Jack and his Ma, live.

They measure their square living space and find it to be 11ft x 11ft and the objects and furniture are explored in detail by Jack as he plays, sleeps and eats. But I think it doesn’t need a precise size, in my imagination the size and objects are indistinct and are constructed in the way that I think is important, not what I am told by the narrator, Jack, to be true.

Take for example, Eggsnake, a toy made of empty eggshells strung along a piece of thread, who “lives in Under Bed all coiled up keeping us safe”. There is something about the way that what we put or hide under the bed is able to say a lot about you. In Jack and Ma’s case, they are expert home keepers and frugality is their way of expressing creativity. Eggsnake is Jack and Ma’s guardian. Bed and Eggsnake are the two things that I think are most important in Room so they feature a lot when I am imagining Room and the goings-on in the book.

Surprisingly perhaps, I almost instantly fell in love with Room, even though it isn’t a character and certainly should put shivers up my spine, but because they have made it rich and full of life it seems almost welcoming.

Humans are so adaptable! Almost too adaptable, one message you could take away from this book is that we shouldn’t get attached to places just because we happen to live there. Sometimes we shouldn’t be content with what we’ve got or are given. We need to see outside of our mind’s room and step out of familiar places or ways of thinking. At the moment I am looking for a new job, so I have been content to spend a lot of time alone in my room. I think this was the perfect book in which to see that escape is not only possible, it is essential. As Emma Donoghue puts it (just replace ‘motherhood’ with ‘job hunting’):

I found motherhood a crash course in existentialism (what is my purpose in life, am I mistress or slave of my destiny, when the hell do I get some sleep?) and ROOM was the result.

OK, maybe job hunting is not in the same league as motherhood, but it does make you think more about what you make of your life, your opportunities and, of course, the future. Read more of her chat here but don’t spoil the story by reading too much! Really, I have said too much already.  http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/bookclub/2011/01/live-chat-with-emma-donoghue.html#ixzz1eLmLyO5W

Written by bookinglass

February 22, 2012 at 4:34 pm

Jump into View

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I just came back from a lightning fast trip to London for a job interview. I was in the country for under 24 hours all-in-all. Swapping countries for the day is a particularly surreal experience especially if it’s your home country.

I was waiting at West Brompton tube station for a friend and an astonishingly red, comic sans cornered double decker bus stopped beside the tiniest set of run-down houses next to the enormous Earls Court exhibition centre. My mind just hadn’t got used to the idea that it ‘wasn’t in Kansas’ any more. I was giddy with the damp smells of my friend’s stairway to her flat, ‘It just smells so much like London…’ I exclaimed a couple of times. And of course, with smells and sights of buses once ridden on, I couldn’t staunch the memory spurts. Not nice memories I am afraid, the last time I was in London I wasn’t a very happy bunny – an unemployed graduate. Yikes, London without money is very grim indeed, Mr Dickens and George Orwell can tell you all about that.

On a lighter note, London is a multifaceted city and intriguingly so. After that long, cold winter in 2010 I spent a spring time pre-birthday treat with my boyfriend visiting Kew Gardens. It was relatively expensive to get in, over 12 pounds each, but worth it! I am an old soul, I would happily spend my birthday having a picnic in Kew rather than partying in town or bars. I look back at the pictures of Kew and smile, this is the London that I like to remember: that day during the Heathrow airport strikes meant that I could wander around looking at tulips and cedars in glorious silence.

Written by bookinglass

December 15, 2011 at 5:25 pm

Being an ATCK

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Map at Berlin Bus Stop

There is no escaping the label Third Culture Kid (TCK); I am a grown-up one. I would be in good company if more people knew that President Obama is one too.

An Adult Third Culture Kid (ATCK) is an ugly term that means I have grown up in cultures not that of my parents. I have thought for a while that it was best to ignore my rootless conundrum and avoided probing too deeply into the difference it makes to my adult life.

I dread the possibility that people will think I am showing off at how ‘well-travelled’ I am. I dislike but  try desparately to contort myself into cultural boxes and usually I let the other person do part of the constructing of the box to fit me in.

To that innocent question ‘Where do you come from?” my spiel normally goes something like this:

“I am from England…”

(Wonderfully simple, a nice English Girl, probably from Sussex or Kent, possibly Hampshire.)

“…but at the moment I am living in Germany.”

(My imagination is not stretching too far yet, this is still Europe, she is white, blonde, perhaps even has some German family, perhaps here on university exchange.)

“I cannot speak German.”

(Well, this is getting odd, she isn’t German. She really should attempt to learn some German, it would enable her to fit into the culture more easily, surely it can’t be that difficult.)

“I am working here but my parents lived here a few years whilst I was at university, I wasn’t expecting to be lucky enough to be able to find work and live here with them.”

(She has parents here? Goodness, she is still following her parents around and letting them take care of anything that requires speaking German.)

“They cannot speak German either.”

(Well, they really ought to learn some German, are they just lazy or culturally obnoxious?)

“They are teachers.”

(Ah, that is logical, I was expecting something more like like a diplomat or in the military, but yes English teachers, that makes sense.)

“They don’t teach English, they work in international schools.”

(She is British School educated that explains the accent.)

“So I grew up overseas and went to international schools, not necessarily British, my accent just seems to be because I watched BBC world news a lot…” *fake chuckle*

And, of course, it often goes on. Arduously.

You know how some people come back from their gap years in India or Ghana with dread locks or braids, sporting some wax cloth, beads, bangles, new tattoo or at least just a healthy-looking tan?

I don’t look like that and never have done. I have mousey hair, no tan and a cream tea British accent. My appearance , and my accent accentuates my appearance, is just where the difficulty in fitting back into Europe begins. All the normal cultural cues end with ellipses…

Here are just a few small ways that being a TCK has affected me:

  • When I arrived in Heathrow airport as a teenager after 6 years in the tropics, the chatty coach driver asked my father whether he had been hiding me indoors for all that time because I was so white (not naturally very fair-skinned, just pale).
  • I pointed at all the sheep and cows in the English fields and joyfully exclaimed “How quaint!”
  • I didn’t know how to pay for a ticket on the bus (luckily bus drivers are nearly always lovely, apart from in London where they are nearly always horrid).
  • The idea of being able to walk across the street at zebra crossings and have cars stop for you, that is just too easy!
  • The libraries were so full of books to read for free, my heart could have burst.
  • To be able to go to the cinema and watch the new movies as they came out….ah I thought I would never take that for granted.
  • Only this week I broke the habit of thinking I must stay in the car passenger seat at the petrol station whilst the driver went to pay for the pump. I don’t travel in cars very often and when I was growing up it was foolhardy to walk alone anywhere as a white girl and you wouldn’t leave the car unattended otherwise you wouldn’t find it when you came back, if you came back at all (my parents exaggerated to some extent).

Being an ATCK is like being some kind of naive spy without a purpose other than to act normal.

Being an ATCK is not being understood as being anything in particular.

Being an ATCK is watching all the prejudices against this ‘third culture’ fly under the  radar; how can prejudices even exist if the culture itself against which they are bourne cannot be defined by the average person?

I read an article recently in the Guardian about the every challenges and prejudices faced by an unusual set of British twins, one who is black and one who is white. Perhaps surprisingly, it was the white twin who suffered more from racial prejudice and bullying in school. The mother proposes that other white kids were incited by the audacity of a “black person” appearing to be just like them. I think I can relate to this situation; although I have not been bullied outright, I find that not having a cultural background reflected in my language, accent or appearance means that often people find it hard to accept that I am different in a good way. People rarely acknowledge the difficulties, merits and challenges that having only skin deep cultural belonging present.

I find it hard to accept that I won’t fit into any culture but I know that having a complex cultural background is going to become more and more common and recognised. As I am making steps towards moving back to the UK, my home culture, I find that I am more nervous than ever about fitting in and finding a job. In which job will I benefit from my international experience but not require a second language? Should I continue to ignore my cultural complexity? Should I dreadlock my hair as a nod towards my previous homes in foreign lands? Should I explain all of this in depth to acquaintances and employers? I know one thing for certain is that I seek friendship and connections with others like me.

Written by bookinglass

November 3, 2011 at 8:35 pm

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Birthday Books

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Bookshop

I was given a voucher for Dussman, the biggest fanciest KulturKaufhaus (books and music store) in Berlin, and so I bought three unbent books straight from their dustfree boardroom-esque English-language room (now on the ground floor, “Take a right at the Sphinx”).

Did you know more books are sold off tartan rugs than….wait, no, the tartan is just in case you forget you are in the English-language section. They had a good choice of books out on display but I only had 10 mins to pick something from those dark wood masculine shelves. I usually take 10 mins to decide what to have for dinner. But I am happy with my choosen ones:

Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Fragoso’s memoir Tiger, Tiger
Egan’s A Visit by the Goon Squad

Challenging, huh?

I was inspired to read the latter book by watching Jennifer Egan’s interview with GoodBooks as her novel was their chosen for their book club these last two months (June/July). I have almost missed out on the book club unless I could pull an all-nighter I don’t think I will get to contribute this time around. Even though I know it is a Pulizer Prize winning novel, I am put off by the featureless book cover. I have two other books with predominantly orange covers recently (Cleave’s The Other Hand and Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns), do they think that it makes a book look more serious or eye-catching? Or perhaps this is just coincidence.

The other two books are a bit of a punt up the river I’ll Give It a Go. They are all currently secured alongside other to-be-reads on the bookshelf. They are meant to be tough reads, especially the memoir, I will have to psych myself for these ones! But as things around here haven’t been too happy of late, I think I will leave them be for the moment. I have just enough funds on the voucher left for one last book. Decisions, Decisions.

Written by bookinglass

July 26, 2011 at 10:25 pm

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Cunning Cat

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I was in the middle of reading a description of a suicide scene in The Last Life, when my mum walks into my room with the cat in her arms asking whether I had let him out. Now this may sound normal (ish)…except we live on the first floor of an apartment building (an old one from 1920s) and the great front door is always closed. Our cat has learned how to pull the handle and let himself out the front door. I am not even very surprised, he is very clever and has already taken to drinking out of the bathroom tap instead of the bowl beside his food. The only thing to do is to swap the lever handle on the front door with the round handle on the tap and our cat will be able to stay indoors and drink water whenever he likes.

This reminds me of a TED talk I watched about the intelligence of crows. It is fascinating stuff, if you have a spare 20 minutes I recommend it. Anyone else have a crazy and cunning animal story?

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Written by bookinglass

June 28, 2011 at 9:06 pm

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An Introvert’s Weekend in Berlin

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The Berlin that is famous for all-weekend parties and underground art scenes, hipsters and fashionistas; it is an extrovert’s paradise. This weekend, I did some of those normal things that you rarely hear people brag about after their trip to Berlin. Nonetheless, I thought I may give you an insight into what goes on in Berlin on my bread-and-butter weekend, since I tend towards being introverted. No reading was done sadly.

I spent Friday evening on an urgent trip to the 24 hour Apotheke (I know, pharmacy, just doesn’t sound as cool) at the Hauptbahnhof (main train station). There was probably a closer one, but I love the Hauptbahnhof and I could travel on the new Ubahn line which is only 3 stops long, made just for tourists to get to and from Brandenburger Tor. Now also handy for trips to the Apotheke, just go up the elevator and past the imposing horse sculpture influeced by Futurism and bam, there it is! I watched a spectacular sunset and now all kitted up with antibiotics, thanking the Germans yet again for their healthcare system. Incidentally, these antibiotics were not for the cucumber scare that is currently striking salads off the menu, although I am kind of glad I am taking them because I laughed in the face of cucumber at lunch before I really understood the implications of the outbreak.

On Saturday, I headed to Potsdamer Platz as the shopping centre there is massive, they always have something cool on display too. Last month there was a collection of ginormous painted eggs, some were even made to look like they were hovering, each was painted a different colour of the rainbow. It sounds twee, but it was actually really beautiful and the artist/s must have had a clinical eye for detail as all the eggs were miraculously arranged amongst flowers and cotton, sticks and other natural ojects.

Anyway, I like this place as it seems like not that many people know about it.

Then for lunch a box of crispy duck with noodles from Asia Gourmet. Ordering in German is always a bit stressful as they always seem to get pissed off when I forget to specify the details. I don’t care what kind of sauce they put on it, just give me number 9! Ended up with Erdnuss (peanut). Thinking back, if I hadn’tve panicked, probably coriander and lime would have been my preferred noodle flavour.

On out into the sunshine, greasy hot box in hand, and a stroll along past the spanking new theatre complex and onto a more hidden (almost dead) spot with an artificial lake and a beach bar without a beach (or many clientelle for that matter).

The crazy thing and coolest aspect about Berlin is if you go round a corner or even between two buildings and there are blank spaces. Parks that sprang from closed airports or bombed buildings. Places where there was so recently a blank, that people don’t yet know there is now a ‘there’.

I scoffed down my noodles and admired the architecture of the building with mirrored squares that move in the wind. A curious design feature that I can’t find out what were for. There was a plaque saying something like ‘Wandspiegel’, so if anyone has a good idea why the building had moving mirrors on the wall, please enlighten me!

Check out my route on this nifty map.

Finished with greasy goodness, I headed back to the S Bahn and home to do some German homework and admire our flowers on the balcony.

My brother just got home from a weekend trip to Norway sporting a new t-shirt. Viking values and sentiments are rather inspiring. I imagine their CVs must’ve looked impressive. I say “Bis Spater!” leaving you with a couple of their time-honoured phrases.

“Fight envy and laziness”,

and…

“Use only top quality weapons”.

Written by bookinglass

May 30, 2011 at 12:42 am

How not to recommend a book

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There are many ways in which you can put someone off reading a book. The trap I fall into is that of the overly enthusiastic advocate.

“You MUST read this book”

When I read Not Untrue and Not Unkind by Ed O’Loughlin, I was completely enamoured long after I finished reading it. During my honeymoon period with this book I expounded  its brilliance to whomever would listen to my soliliquising. But only my mum has embarked upon reading it.

Here is how I now know not to recommend a good book.

The book is set mostly in the civil war torn Congo and follows the life and career of the Irish journalist who reports from “cities of half-remembered conflicts”.

I have always wondered about the lives of those foreign reporters I saw on the BBC. It is thrilling to imagine seeking out places that most people would run a million miles away from.

More than anything, the poignant imagery and the cynical undertone really struck a chord with me. For example, the title of the book sounds like a cheesy and pretentious memoire that is an extract from the end of Philip Larkin’s poem, Talking in Bed. It is a finely-tuned joke that balances that shallow offhand use of a well-known poem, with the depth of feeling that he borrows from Larkin’s words nonetheless. As you come to realise that the narrator despises the type of bigwig journalists who romanticise their career and experiences in such a nauseating way.

The imagery is surprising and original. From the first page:

“The days and nights mill round like mismatched fighters, short and long, long and short, from summer to winter to summer again…”

I love how the weather in the UK is likened to what I imagine as cold, sweaty, mistrustful, grim boxers skirting around each other in a ring. The lack of daylight does seem like it loses out to the dark in the Winter and the change in seasons plays a unpredicatable role in people’s lives. This author is a master at creating atmosphere and setting.

But it was not until the hilarious scene with the journalists treking into the jungle in search of a gorillas that I truly madly deeply fell in love with this book.

There are few moments when you have to put down a book and wipe your eyes from tears. I was brought to this twice in Not Untrue and Not Unkind, once from laughter (gorilla scene and the unfortunately-worded T-shirt scene) and once from devastation (most of the other scenes to be fair).

But I shan’t give too much away. Therein lies the problem with recommending a book. It’s like when someone tries to inform you about what makes an in-joke funny: it flops like a flat lilo of undrollity. The more someone goes on about something that you can’t participate in, the less you want to know about it.

So my waxing lyrical about Not Untrue and Not Unkind is pointless really until you have read it too (and please tell me if you do!) and can put people off reading it altogether. So for now, as I am still not used to this what books would you recommend and why malarky, I advise you to get over the first chapter, just the first chapter, and get to the gorilla part and then you’ll be hooked.

Do you think you can be put off reading a book by someone who is too pushy?

Written by bookinglass

March 30, 2011 at 11:00 pm