Monday, 23 November 2009

Book Club – Review of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and reflections on war.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak was my selection for Book Club. After I’d read it I felt a bit guilty for inflicting such a harrowing tale on a group of mums. I cried when I finished it. I was on a train. The man next to me was very tactful about not noticing the woman next to him dabbing her eyes. But I must have been slightly naive not to have realised that a story of a girl and a Jew in Nazi Germany narrated by Death would be harrowing.

I chose it because it came with enthusiastic endorsement from another book club. All reviews were endlessly positive. On one of my “What are you Reading” postings a mother said she felt it was her “unwavering duty to extol its virtues.” When I read this I was half way through and wondered if I had the right book. I’d loved the opening pages when Death introduces himself. They were obtusely written and made me think about what the words were trying to say. I liked that challenge. I also loved some of the descriptions: “The streets were ruptured veins. Blood streamed till it was dried on the road, and the bodies were stuck there like driftwood after the flood.” I found this very powerful imagery. But then the book went flat, I, and others at Book Club, felt it fell into a rather dull narration of the girl, Liesel’s, life. But it regained momentum to close with an intense ending, the words that made me cry.

At our book club we didn’t rave about The Book Thief. But we were touched. Perhaps we were influenced by the poignancy of the week we discussed it in; our meeting was two days after Armistice Day; the media full of war and its images and emotions. Waiting in a Post Office queue my eye had been caught by The Guardian’s front page. It was a photograph of those watching the parade of coffins through Wootton Bassett. A young woman with short cropped hair is crying, her face crumpled, mouth downturned in anguish. A man in black tie and jacket has his arm around her shoulder, looking towards her with worry and concern. Behind them a man with a white goatee and red beret, medals and badges on his black waistcoat, is saluting, staring straight ahead. For me it encapsulated war – the devastation of loss but the steadfast loyalty. I felt tears pricking my eyes in that Post Office queue. I bought the paper, the image stuck in my journal to remind me of those emotions.

This was the week Mrs Janes was haranguing Gordon Brown about the loss of her son. This was the week I’d read an article describing how soldiers had been killed and maimed in an old mine field in Afghanistan, one laid by the Soviet’s 25 years ago. They’d suffered terrible loss because the wrong helicopter had tried to land on top of them, setting off the mines. I was devastated by the futility – men killed and maimed due to incompetence, and with no apparent gain in the wider war; the war with no tangible front to fight towards, with no tangible enemy to hold back from our borders. A war which therefore makes the phrase “your son died making a huge contribution to the security of our country” seem nothing but political hyperbole.

With these thoughts and images in mind we discussed The Book Thief. It seemed relevant, for The Book Thief is a book about loss.

Like many I studied Hitler and the Second World War at school. When a subject is perceived to be well known, it’s easy to become blasé. The power of The Book Thief is that the story is told from the perspective of Germans, a Jew, and Death. Whereas it’s easy to become numbed by familiarity, through this clever use of alternative angles, Zusak has revitalised events we thought we all knew, illuminating, vibrantly, the rawness of the war and all the terrible suffering. This, we felt, was its strongest point.

It’s the story of the war away from the front, how it affected normal German families; how our bombs hit them. Death is the narrator, but don’t let that put you off. We felt “he” was almost humanised; we saw his compassion for the souls of those he carried away and ironically, through Death we are able to reflect on human nature “I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugliness and their beauty, and I wonder how the same things can be both”. Such astute reflections personify Death; it suddenly seems less harsh and more explicable. “I am not violent. I am not malicious. I am a result.” The message is, don’t be afraid of Death but dying, and it is the human race which controls the rate of that “...sometimes the human race likes to crank things up a little. They increase the production of bodies and their escaping souls. A few bombs usually do the trick. Or some gas chambers, or the chitchat of faraway guns.”

The Book Thief has many themes. The theme we discussed most was the German perspective of the war and Hitler. I loved how Max, a Jewish character, described Hitler in a story he wrote: “There was once a strange, small man. He decided three important details about his life. He would part his hair from the opposite side to everyone else. He would find himself a small strange moustache. He would one day rule the world.” These words said so much, about Max’s bitterness. His clever ridicule of Hitler belittles him despite his absolute power. Words were Hitler’s power. “Without words, the Fuhrer was nothing” Liesel says. Max boxes with Hitler in his mind, a clever scene illustrating Hitler’s powers of manipulation and persuasion. Of soldiers leading a parade of Jews, Death comments “they had the Fuhrer in their eyes”.

“Words” was my favourite theme of The Book Thief. Words are personified, they have power. Liesel loves books, she’s so desperate for them she steals them, hence the title. She learns the potency of words; she reads to her neighbours as they stand listening to bombs in a cellar, giving comfort with her words. In one of the most poignant scenes of the book she recites passages of one of Max’s stories back to him as he is lead away to Dachau – “to concentrate” (a clever play on words which in itself says so much). Max is part of a parade of broken Jews, marched through the town. Liesel steps out of the crowd to call out his words. It gave me goosebumps, an emotive scene of words empowering Max, giving him pride, a physical and mental lift from his stooping desolation.

There is so much suffering in The Book Thief, so much we can barely comprehend what it must have been like; it is difficult for us to truly empathise with the scale of World War 2, the fear, loss and deprivation that people lived under for years and years. At Book Club we agreed that we had taken much away from the book, some were still thinking about it days and weeks after finishing. I have many terrible images: mothers searching through rubble for lost children, desperately calling their names; Liesel seeing her dead brother; a wife clutching her husband’s accordion through the night, wondering if he will return from the fight; Jews scratching desperately at the doors of gas chambers before Death takes them; a mother told her son has died at Stalingrad; another mother told by Nazi officials “we’ve come for your son”. Would we be able to cope with just one aspect of such suffering? We have no idea what it feels like to, for example, leave our beds and run to a shelter to stand and listen to bombs dropping, wondering if we will survive.

We hear on Armistice Day that it’s important to remember. I agree. Only by reflecting on the horrors of what has passed can we try and avoid a repeat. But as remembered this year, the generation who experienced the horrors of the First World War has now passed on. Dr Rowan Williams said “those with first hand memories are no more, the baton of remembrance will have to be taken up by others...the generation that has passed walked forward with vision and bravery and held together the bonds of our society, our continent, our commonwealth through a terrible century. May we learn the lessons they learned. And God save us from learning them the way they had to.”

Although I cannot join other readers in raving that The Book Thief is the best book I have ever read, I do think it is a book of immense power. There are important messages within it, issues thrown into new clarity by its unique style and different perspective. Reading this book can help us reflect on the reality of war, human nature and the suffering of others.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Remembering to Stop and Play

For three days last week my son B (3) was ill. Nothing serious, he was bright in himself, but enough to keep him from his mornings at nursery. Apart from the school runs that top and tail the day, I didn’t leave the house. I didn’t go outside the village boundary. That might sound limiting, but it was great.

One of the benefits of being a stay at home mum is that when a child is ill it doesn’t cause huge logistical problems, you can just go with it – and actually enjoy it. I lit the fire, made the house cosy, and enjoyed being at home. It was good to be forced to stop chasing around, to drop out of the world for a while. I noticed the autumn colours in the garden and brought some inside, putting berries in a jar. B, a great independent player, created fantastic wooden train tracks across the floor. J loved having a brother at home. They rolled a ball around the floor, giggling with each other. At 18 months J is interacting wonderfully with B; their relationship is a joy as they communicate through smiles and giggles.

I’m creating a picture of domestic bliss, but there was a problem: I couldn’t stop working. B said “mummy, will you play with me” and I answered “when I’ve finished these jobs”. But the jobs never seemed to end. What was I doing? Putting washing in the machine, hanging it out, folding it, ironing. Cooking meals and clearing them up. Cleaning the fire and laying it. Tidying up and sorting out. All the usual housework. Why couldn’t I just stop and enjoy playing with them?

The problem is that normally my day is segmented, carved up by deadlines and routine. I have to slot my chores into the increments of time available between school runs, nursery runs, J’s sleep and mealtimes. It was so tempting to grab the opportunity of clear hours between the school runs to catch up with all those jobs which don’t fit into my normal units of time.

Some things can be done together – I’ve been trying to tidy the garden ready for winter and B was been great at sweeping up leaves. But some things took me away from them, leaving them clamouring for my attention. On day two, aware of my absence, I sat and did puzzles with them. J leant across my lap and smiled up at me and B chatted and chatted about what he was doing, the pieces he was searching for, delighting in my attention. It was an important reminder of what being a mother can be about.

Blogging too can be a distraction, although I try to reserve that for the evenings when they are asleep. I feel many conflicting emotions about my writing-blogging-communicating obsession, but I do believe there are advantages. Reflecting on events and developing ideas is important mental therapy for me and thinking about and writing this post has made me focus on certain facts: That T is now 6, B soon 4 and J no longer a baby at 18 months. That they will grow out of these precious first years too quickly. That if I am not careful those unique opportunities will be lost in the endless round of chores. So I need to put a note on my “to do” list to stop and enjoy my family before they are all at school and there’s no daytime chatter left in the house to distract me from all those tasks (blogging included) which seem so endlessly important. It’s not realistic to play all the time – the washing has to be done and it’s my job to do it – but I don’t want to look back and think I processed my children through the years rather than properly appreciating them.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Too Many Toys

It's typical of my over-active mind that a five minute ponder about where we could possibly fit in any new toys the children might be given at Christmas has turned into an analytical self-questioning blog!

The day after I’d stood in the boys’ room wondering how I could shuffle things around to make more space, I read Whistlejacket’s post Not Mad About the Toys and subsequently posted a reply about Operation Christmas Child. But my mind kept whirring - while hanging out the washing, mashing potatoes or trying to get to sleep - about why our children have too many toys, is this a problem and what to do about it.

Whistlejacket wrote about what to say when people ask what your children want for Christmas – “er nothing” was the answer she wants to give. But that’s not acceptable; people like to give children presents and who are we to deny them the excitement of unwrapping them.

At Christmas my problem is with the volume of gifts; extended families becoming increasingly generous. By the end of the day last year my boys were robotically ripping paper off, overwhelmed by what they had already been given but filled with the expectation that there should be more and more to open. I called a halt and they opened the rest on Boxing Day when they were fresh and could appreciate receiving new things again.

Like many children they have so many wonderful things – almost more than they have time to play with, especially now T is at school. We’re not materialistic shopaholics so how has our toy situation got so out of hand?

I think one main reason has to be that nowadays toys are very accessible and much cheaper. Yesterday at the supermarket all toys were half price. I resisted. Today my husband called to ask me what we were getting the boys for Christmas as he was standing in front of a Playmobil police station at a knock down price, did we want it? I went into a panic. I already have something for them but it was a bargain, an amazing opportunity for them to have a fantastic toy. When I calmed down I remembered that the price isn’t everything; just because it’s cheap does not mean we have to fill our house with it. And would they actually play with all these huge pieces of plastic? B loves Playmobil but he doesn’t play with sets in the way “planned” on the box; he gathers up random bits and shoves them in the back of an ambulance.

There is so much choice, too much choice. It becomes tempting to buy them things; you start to think they really should have it, that they need it. Toys R Us is unhelpful in that way. Walking in I feel bombarded. I become filled with an irrational belief that my children must have all this “stuff” for a truly fulfilling life. That’s the time to leave, to escape the clang of mind-curdling jingles and regain perspective. What a pathetic, almost shameful thing to be worrying about when children around the world are dying of dehydration and starvation.

So, what to buy the children for Christmas? Should I be sending a cow on their behalf to Africa, reminding them how lucky they are? That’s unfair. It’s not their fault. They don’t know they have too many toys or buy themselves too many toys. I don’t think they’re over-indulged; if they want something they’re told to put it on their Christmas and birthday lists. But they are children, so they experience the feelings of a friend having something they want, seeing an advertisement on television for something which looks exciting or enjoying unwrapping a gift.

The “too many toys” dilemma is more about parent’s guilt about what we have when we see pictures on the news of emaciated children in refugee camps. By restricting toys or moaning they have too many, we pass that guilt on to our children.

What do children want from a Christmas present? To see a big box under the tree which is for them; the excitement of a new toy. For a parent who thinks too much it is more complicated. What goes through my mind is – do we have space for that, will they actually play with it? Is this what they would like as their most special present, what is the one thing they would be most excited to receive? I try to listen to what they consistently ask for, and watch what they are enjoying.

What to get Baby J is the real dilemma because, as also mentioned by Whistlejacket, younger siblings are not interested in any toys aimed at their age. J only wants to play with what her brothers have left lying all over the floor – all small parts and completely unsuitable but she is endlessly happy and occupied. It would be sensible to buy her something small to unwrap and put the rest of the money in her bank account for when she’s a teenager and believes she “needs” so much. That’s not mean or unfair. Value or size do not actually equate to enjoyment; some of the things they’ve enjoyed most have cost 20p at a nearly new sale.

Because that’s the crux of this whole toy issue - what are all these toys we give them actually for? Entertainment? Enjoyment? To stimulate play? To stop them annoying us by saying they’re bored? That’s impossible. If children want to play they will play, with whatever is around. If they want to whine about being bored they will whine, however many toys are stacked up in their room.

And this is my issue with having too many toys. Dashing to Toys R Us and buying something new is not the answer to having contented children. It may actually be the problem. There is so much good stuff out there. It’s tempting to buy it but it actually becomes an encumbrance in so many ways. Are we nostalgic for the uncluttered days of “I only had a ball of string and sticks to play with and I was happy” because we don’t have room for all this plastic or because we think play was “better” then?

In A Spoonful of Sugar, Liz Fraser talks to her Granny talks about “the old days” to try and discover why we are losing the values of old fashioned parenting and if it really was better back then. It covers many issues and of course, in some aspects of childhood, things have changed in a positive way. But in terms of the burden of toys, I’m not sure.

Liz makes the point that many children don’t actually play with the expensive toys they are given. “Many of these “toys” have so little play potential it’s mind-blowing...they spend more time just playing imaginary games with odd bits and bobs they find lying around”. With my boys that’s true – they’ve had more fun over time with one of M’s old ties than anything. It’s a cliché but they do enjoy the box as much as the toy, making dens or houses, spaceships or boats, annoyed when I say the box has to go in the recycling because I’m tired of tripping over it. B and J have spent the afternoon playing ferociously together with a box something was delivered in, arguing over who gets to go in and out, sitting in it together shutting the lid on themselves. When T came home from school he insisted they “add detail”, cut bits out, drew things on and it is now a “race car”.

Watching them turn this box from a car to a rocket to an alien to a television, into which T sticks his head and says “welcome to the BBC News!” I am reminded that sometimes, as adults, we try and impose our sensibilities and understanding of order onto children. Children have an innate sense of fun, curiosity and exploration, they have not yet learnt how things are supposed to be done, they are just able to enjoy whatever is there. Thus they can gain endless pleasure from wet sand or driving cars through gravel. I’m learning that sometimes, to be better parents, we just have to let go, to give them the freedom to explore and learn and do what comes naturally. For children, life does not yet have to be lived a certain way, in fact, they are happier if they can wallow in the freedom of their instincts.

Of course this is not always possible; our job is to teach them how to function within the boundaries of modern society. But it does transposes directly into the issue of toys – they don’t need to have all the things we think they want to enjoy themselves, they will create their own props.

Liz Fraser’s Granny says “give them less and they’ll play with it more, and use their imagination to make up new games with it. That’s playing. We had so little, you know, but it didn’t worry us. We were happy and we played more than any kids I see playing today, despite all that they have. It’s the playing, not what you play with that matters.”

Inspired by what I’d read – and the rigid Ryan Air luggage restrictions – we tried an experiment and took VERY limited toys with us on holiday. Felt-tip pens, colouring books, card games, books and one car each. It was liberating, for all of us. M and I didn’t become resentful at carrying bags of toys which spent the holiday discarded across the floor by discontented children and the boys had a wonderful time making up games with bungee cords and upturned plastic furniture. This might sound nauseatingly nostalgic but I am becoming increasingly aware that the more we give our children the more we encumber them and stifle their capacity to explore.

A mum commented on Whistlejacket’s blog that she rarely bought her children toys herself - if she did it was because she wanted to get something that she would like them to have rather than something that someone else wanted them to have. I can relate to that; seeing something you think your child would enjoy or benefit from and so wanting to buy it. But I do believe that presents should be limited to Christmas and birthday, not becoming a regular event given to show love or alleviate guilt. My weakness is Nearly New Sales. I’ve stopped myself going because there is ALWAYS a bargain I can’t resist and we don’t have room for any more bargains!

How can you stop people buying your children too many toys? You can’t. And of course it is wonderful for children to be given presents, but there is a sensible limit – and for many of us it is actually just a practical question of space. Then there’s the environmental issue. Last time I was in Toys R Us there was a terrible thought in the back of mind that all the plastic we buy has go somewhere when it has broken beyond gluing. It was unsettling to imagine the contents of Toys R Us gumming up landfill sites for hundreds of years.

So, in conclusion, as well as clearing some space in the children’s rooms, I’m trying to encourage small toys that stimulate imaginative play of their own rather than being prescriptive about what you do with it; Lego, Playmobil (not the vast police station which would probably stand empty in a corner of the room getting dusty and in the way while B drove the hand cuffs around in the camper van), craft things, books (I am biased and could contradict this whole blog by saying you can never have too many books), dressing up clothes - all the old favourites. I don’t want to be a misery about Christmas but I do believe that in our modern world of easy, accessible consumerism, perspective has been lost when it comes to giving and receiving, to the detriment of everyone.