Reading Diary: Apr. 9-Apr. 15

40985726The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell: Phwoaarr. Comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and David Mitchell are just. Follows three generations of Zambian families, exploring how chance, genetics, and politics draw them together and fling them apart. Family trees are provided at the beginning of the book, but the structure is less a straight line and more a series of looping ellipses, as characters appear and reappear. Encompassing interracial marriage, Zambian independence, Marxism, Afronauts, hair, microtechnology, HIV/AIDS, and social media activism, The Old Drift is an ambitious and emotionally compelling masterpiece. Serpell writes like someone who’s been doing this for decades.

original_400_600Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me, by Kate Clanchy: A memoir of teaching at Oxford Spires Academy, where Clanchy runs a phenomenally successful Poetry Group (they’ve won numerous Foyle’s Young Poet awards). She also writes about her time at schools in post-industrial Essex and Scotland, and multicultural London. Clanchy demonstrates how infuriating and patronizing are government decisions re. teaching, a profession of which most of our legislators know nothing, and she’s magnificent on how creative response to literature can ignite a student’s mind–but is tragically ignored now in most schools because it cannot be quantified in a WALT (We Are Learning To…)

51agaxplvnl._sx324_bo1204203200_My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell: My fourth-grade teacher read this aloud to us, and I was instantly enchanted, not just by Durrell’s idyllic childhood on the Greek island of Corfu (all that time to explore, all those hours in which to lie still and just observe), but by his charmingly absurd family: aspiring novelist Larry (aka Lawrence Durrell), gun-mad Leslie, dippy Margo, and long-suffering Mother. Rereading it as an adult, the most immediately striking thing about it is the sheer richness of Durrell’s prose: he’s interested in colour, texture and sound, the “squeak and clop” of oars digging into a silver-blue sea, the noise of cicadas in the cypress trees.

41mnd2bzqu5l._sx320_bo1204203200_The Perfect Wife, by JP Delaney: Lots to say about this psychological thriller with a technological twist, which–like Delaney’s two other psychological novels–has been marketed according to genre rules while sneaking in a high level of literary sophistication, allusion, and experimentation under the radar. Told alternately from the points of view of “Abbie”, a robot powered by artificial intelligence whose builder has designed her to look exactly like his missing-presumed-dead wife, and a third-person plural voice that represents her husband’s employees, a group of Silicon Valley nerds. It’s not perfect: there are several major reveals at the end, one of which is left hanging; Delaney makes stabs at illustrating the machinic nature of Abbie’s mind, but her thought is articulated in a way less linear and logical than any AI would ever be. Still, he admits in his acknowledgments that he didn’t set out to write a techno-thriller, and there’s plenty to unpack here, probably in a longer post soon.

98665Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versaillesby Kathryn Lasky: Another in the Royal Diaries series. Particularly notable is the recreation both of young Archduchess Antonia’s personality–fun-loving and kind, but not especially intellectual–and of Empress Maria Theresa’s relationships with her thirteen children, whom she clearly loved in her own way but each of whom was merely a pawn in the Holy Roman Empire’s consolidation and expansion. Lasky renders the young Antonia relatable and even sympathetic, though also motivated by principles that we no longer really recognize: the honour of an Empire, the pride of nobility.

Currently reading: The Confessions of Frannie Langton, a debut about a Jamaican servant woman accused of killing her mistress in 1820s London.

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9 thoughts on “Reading Diary: Apr. 9-Apr. 15

  1. I wish I could have got into The Old Drift, but I just found the two long sections after the brilliant opening familiar and flat, especially the section about Agnes. The modern bits at the end sounded intriguing, but were so far away! As someone who’s worked on the history of teaching, the Clanchy sounds up my street.

    • Actually, I very nearly gave up on it during Sibilla’s section – it was mostly set in Italy and by far the least interesting (especially as magical realism tends to give me a headache), but I got invested about halfway through Agnes’s section. It was pretty close to being a DNF, though, so I totally get it. Clanchy is wonderful – the book is mostly anecdotal but there is a little bit of educational theory in there (mostly to do with how government guidelines tend to ignore what ACTUALLY works…)

  2. I left primary teaching just before the national curriculum came in, which was probably a very good thing because no way would I have been able to justify the hours we spent reading and writing stories and poetry to the powers that be in NC terms.

    • And yet reading and writing stories and poetry is a demonstrably effective way of teaching children how to engage with texts. Extraordinary.

  3. I’d like to read the Clanchy; I’ve read some of her poetry before. I reckon I’ll give the Serpell a go sometime. (I loved “Unruly,” a magic realist short story by Jennifer Caloyeras about rampant pubic hair growth!)

    How wonderful that you encountered Durrell in your childhood. I only discovered him through my husband, who still has a copy of My Family and Other Animals from his school library that burned down. I’m most fond of the autobiographical trilogy, but have read a lot of his animal-collecting books since then too.

    • We had a really great fourth-grade teacher who taught us all sorts of new words using that book. I still remember some of them: “lugubriously”, “unctuous”, “catarrh”…

  4. Clanchy’s book is next on my pile – can’t wait, and I’ll be seeing her talk about it in a couple of weeks time. Love the cover of the Old Drift, but don’t expect I’ll read it. The early ‘toilet paper’ scene in the Durrell is engraved upon my memory from childhood – oh dear! And one of these days I’ll get around to reading the Delaney books! What a great variety you’ve read this week.

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