Monthly Archives: August 2011

You Deserve Nothing- Alexander Maksik

The way he talked, the way he moved around the room, the guy was either a fantastic actor or he believed what he was saying. You just don’t see that very often. Teachers in movies are always leaping onto tables and sacrificing their lives for their students and their love of literature but the truth is that you rarely, rarely take a class from a teacher who cares. It’s just unrealistic. How many people could walk into a classroom year after year and weep for “Ode to a Grecian Urn”? That’s why the ones who stay are so often some of the most depressing people you’ve met in your life. It has nothing to do with their age. They’ve stayed because of their disposition- bitter, bored, lacking in ambition, lonely and mildly insane. With a few exceptions these are the people who are capable of staying in a school. This is what it takes to teach for half a life-time. The ones who care, who love the subjects, who love their students, who love, above all, teaching- they rarely hang around.

You Deserve Nothing- Alexander Maksik

A debut novel, You Deserve Nothing explores influence, obsession and idealism from the perspective of a teacher and two pupils at an international school in Paris. A charismatic young English teacher avoiding his past in Paris, William Silver starts the year with rock star status amongst the staff and pupils of ISF. Over the next few months, he rapidly falls from grace, closely watched by Marie, his teenage lover, and Gilad, an intense young man with a difficult family life.

I was impressed by the subtlety with which Maksik created his characters. Each narrator has distinctive voice which allows you to feel their desperate loneliness and empathise with the characters despite their attitudes and actions . Fierce Gilad with his desperation for approval and identity, who heaps upon others the expectations he wishes he could live up to himself; lonely Marie who craves warmth and affection; idealistic but empty and broken Will who embarks on an impossible love affair to avoid intimacy. Each is credible and profoundly human. Each feeling undeserving.

An intelligent and considered debut, the novel invites you to walk around the lives of others, seeing the darker sights of their psyche against the backdrop of the city of lights without prompting judgement or indicating blame. A truly outstanding debut.

For me, it felt as if You Deserve Nothing made its way to me as if by destiny. I hadn’t expected to receive a copy of it, so was very excited when I did. A few lines in and it felt strangely familiar, a few chapters in and whole passages were resonating so deeply that it felt as if the ideas had been plucked from my head. In fact, there was even a line half way through the novel which described exactly the way I was feeling:

I read the way you read when you’re young. I believed that everything had been written for me, that what I saw, felt, learned was a discovery all of my own.

You Deserve Nothing- Alexander Maksik

Huh. I may have said before that before I got my current job I was an English teacher in a secondary school, which I loved, but I couldn’t carry on with because I was totally burned out. This was partly because of a physical problem, but also because the job is so emotionally and spiritually demanding and for me, that was something that came across really clearly in the novel. As a teacher there is a suffocating pressure to be friend, parent and priest; to guide your students, nurture them and help to widen their horizons and think for themselves while not getting too close or involved. There’s also, or was for me, the fear of failing them somehow, of not giving each individual the attention and support they need, not to mention that you get some students who will always need more than you can give. You have to be able to build a mental wall or it can eat you up. The scenario that Will finds himself in is wildly different to anything most teachers will get involved in (though you do hear about it) but despite that much of it was all too recognisable.

I found myself dreaming about teaching for the first time in months after reading this book, strangely cathartic. My (possible) psychiatric issues aside, I would recommend this to anyone as it really is a fantastic read. I don’t give stars, but if I did this would have five.


Our Tragic Universe- Scarlett Thomas

If you’ve been following this blog from its infancy (I just realised that my hello world post was just over a year ago) you might remember that I decided I had a girl crush on Scarlett Thomas having read The End of Mr Y and PopCo.

What I’ve always liked about Scarlett Thomas’ books is that they mix obscure academic topics with cultural criticism and a good dash of popular science to come up with pacy and engaging novels. This formula worked well for homeopathy and philosophy in The End of Mr Y which paled in comparison to the brilliant PopCo which put branding under the microscope with a healthy dose of mathematical theory thrown in, but when it was applied to my own particular interests (literature and folklore) in Our Tragic Universe it left me a little bit cold.

Meg, an author who was once set to write the great modern literary novel, is rotting in a miserable relationship in Devon where she writes formulaic teen fiction and reviews books for a living while writing and deleting her literary novel which has been sidelined by a variety of non events in her everyday life. That is pretty much the story.

Oh the blurb would have you believe that more than this is going on, suggesting that a connection between wild beasts, knitting patterns of the universe and ships in bottles will help Meg escape the fate of living forever, but in practice this is mostly a lie. What actually happens is that the author witters on for 425 pages about meta fiction and “storyless stories”, apparently trying to write the same. The result is a bland lack of story which left me questioning the authors intent.

Was she trying to test her readers? Perhaps it’s a case of the emperor’s new clothes. Can you see that she’s writing a storyless story? Don’t you think it’s clever? No, not really, if anything it’s pretty insulting. Thomas uses the book to critique modern publishing and frown upon expectations of genre. It doesn’t work like that in Chekov and Tolstoy, you see. She seems to forget that her reader has not picked up her book expecting Chekov or Tolstoy.

This book left a pretty bitter taste in my mouth, and not just because I wasted my money being patronised having my high expectations dashed… I realised in this that Thomas’ books have a distinctly elitist bent. Her books are populated by academics and thinkers- characters who don’t hold PhDs are in the minority. This is no great problem in itself, except that when you get a character who doesn’t fit into the liberal intellectual type or the quirky other mould they are set up to be condemned by the reader. Christopher and Lise, the non reader without a degree and the career driven business woman  are criticised both openly and by implication. Characters such as Georges receive a similar treatment in her other books. It’s not a massive issue, but suggests an intellectual snobbery which is beginning to grate on me.

On the whole a disappointment. But don’t blame the author, blame the cultural fact of loud voices shouting the hero myth at the expense of the storyless story so that when something really zen comes along proles like me don’t get it.

My Kindred Spirit

I wish I could meet this guy. If I’m ever Washington I am going to seek out his shop.You have to read the whole article. He speaks so much sense:

“And then, there are the rules of the store. First, you can only get in when it is open. Second, no cell phones. This is a book store and not a phone booth. Third, there are words and phrases that you can’t use in my store: like, oh my God, neat, sweet, have a good one, that’s a good question, totally, whatever, perfect, Kindle or Amazon. These words give me brain damage. I’m serious. When people use them in here, I tell them to get a thesaurus and stop being so mentally lame.

Jim Toole in an interview with People’s District of Washington D.C.

I think if I lived in America I would also want to ban the word neat, but I’m Welsh and suppose I use the word tidy in the same way.


Save The Words

I read about this great website on The Guardian online the other day. It allows you to discover words which are falling out of use in English and make a contribution towards their survival.

Now, very often when you hear that you can make a contribution to a “Save the X” cause, the contribution is financial. Not so with Save the Words. You can adopt a word, pledging to use it as much as possible, or you can subscribe to their word a day email. I’ve adopted tortiloquy n. dishonest or immoral speech, as I suspect that I will have an opportunity to use it regularly.

Oh, and should you be desperate to make a financial contribution to the cause, you can order your own t-shirt with your word on them. Pretty cool in a geeky sort of way.

Everything Alice- Hannah Read-Baldrey and Christine Leech

My Cheshire Cat microwave beanbag

I haven’t been reading as such this week. The reason? Everything Alice: The Wonderland Book of Makes. I picked it up in Waterstones, Oxford on Alice Day, and arrived too early to meet the authors so was left kicking myself that I bought it from the rude and surly Waterstones staff instead of The Alice Shop who also stock it, though I hadn’t realised this at the time.

It’s easy to see why this handbook of Alice in Wonderland themed crafts has spent several weeks at number one in the craft category on Amazon. Not only is it packed with ideas for food, drink, needle craft, accessories, overhauling furniture and more (no really!) but the book is absolutely gorgeous. Decorated with papercut illustrations, full colour photographs, antique looking poster style pages based on the original text and sprinkled with many of my favourite quotes from the Alice stories, this book really is a little gem.

When I was little, my grandmother often used to say (with disdain or admiration, depending on what had prompted the comment) that I could amuse myself for days with just a piece of string. In all honesty, that hasn’t changed very much, and when not reading, I love to fiddle around with some kind of project. But plenty of my friends who have very limited interest in craft have picked the book up and browsed it when they’ve been round for tea (one was even caught “borrowing” it!) so it really does have something for everyone.

So far I have made

  • The lavender dormice- I love them and have lined up a row on the arm of the sofa to freak my landlord out when he shows people around our flat
  •  A giant Cheshire cat handwarmer which also contains lavender and is satisfyingly weighty.

I have attempted to make the duchess macarons but those call for an entirely different blog post!

Prototype dormouse and "sexy mouse"

My only warning is that this book has hidden costs attached. Oh you could make the crafts with the scraps you have lying around the house as I did with the cat and first dormouse. But velveteen will always feel nicer, and who could resist leopard print velour at a knock down rate on ebay to make sexy mice with? Most people probably, but I couldn’t. Oh, and don’t tell my boyfriend but the new food processor is to grind ground almonds into dust…

On the other hand the book might just save you money. I have plans to buy my crafty friend a copy for her birthday, and the family will all be getting dormice in their stockings this year. Not to mention the white rabbit I have planned for my niece’s birthday…

Follow the ladies who wrote the book on twitter @EverythngAlice or visit their website which I will one day send a picture of my dormouse army… they have a new book coming soon. I wait with bated breath.

The macaron saga... to be continued...

Reading and the Riot Act

I think it says a lot about the looters we’ve been seeing mug shots of on the TV that during the riots which have broken out across the country libraries in Manchester and London have been vandalised and damaged, while the only shop at Clapham Junction to avoid looting was the Waterstones. Apparently the looters aren’t big readers.

An incredibly intelligent young woman of my acquaintance posted this quote by Martin Luther King on Facebook earlier:

“When you cut facilities, slash jobs, abuse power, discriminate, drive people into deeper poverty & shoot people dead whilst refusing to provide answers or justice, the people will rise up & express their anger & frustration if you refuse to hear their cries. A riot is the language of the unheard” – Martin Luther King, B’ham, Alabama, Dec 1963

On the surface an apt quote, but with respect, in this instance I disagree. What we have here is not a social protest, though it may have started out as one. I’ve worked in some rough schools in Reading and South Wales, as well as with children from pretty difficult backgrounds in Oxford, so I am aware of the challenges that some children face. Though this might be described as a by-product of these fractured backgrounds, it is not a protest against them.

This is an opportunistic mob run riot, grabbing what they can regardless of who they hurt with no aim to improve their personal circumstances, unless you count material gains such as plasma screen televisions.They are damaging the facilities which they still have left, are destroying people’s homes and livelihoods while exploiting the power of numbers. People have been killed and have had to jump for their lives from burning buildings.

I am disgusted that this is happening in this land where we really are so lucky in the opportunities life presents us when compared to other countries.