The link below is to an article that takes a look at one man’s love of books.
The link below is to an article reporting on the longlists for the 2019 PEN America Literary Awards.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the origin of Goodreads.
The link below is to an article that reports on the finalists of the 2018 Story Prize.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the biggest nonfiction bestsellers of the last 100 years.
Penguin Books has released two books by Zimbabwean journalists in time to celebrate the first anniversary of the coup that finally put Robert Mugabe’s ruinous reign to an end. These are Ray Ndlovu’s In the Jaws of the Crocodile: Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Rise to Power in Zimbabwe and The Graceless Fall of Robert Mugabe: The End of a Dictator’s Reign by Geoffrey Nyarota.
The books, about the end of Mugabe’s nearly four decades of ruling Zimbabwe, arrive at a time when journalists have to constantly rush to beat tweets and Facebook posts. This haste can work against their claim to be offering something closer to truth’s complexities than can be rendered in 280 characters.
At the time of the coup the international community, the long-suffering urban unemployed and rural peasants, and the business players itching to embrace the graces of a régime “open for business”, hoped that a long-delayed nirvana was just over the horizon.
That vista remains distant: if there was a rainbow – President Emmerson Mnangagwa promised Zimbabwean whites their place back in Zanu-PF’s good books – the pot of gold keeps receding. The long lines of fuel-starved vehicles indicated more about the first birthday of Zimbabwe’s “Second Republic” than Zanu-PF’s comparatively muted celebrations.
‘Queuing after the coup’ seemed an alliteration appropriate to this review of the two books, neither of which does justice to the enormity both of events in Zimbabwe as well as the sheer scale of what’s required to rebuild the country.
‘Romancing the coup’ could also characterise such tales. Ndlovu’s chronicle of Mnangagwa’s adventures bears the hallmarks of a roller-coaster thriller. In the Jaws excurses excitedly through “The Crocodile’s” firing from the vice-presidency, forced exile and escape, his Pretoria-based saviour, corrupt police (contrasted with brave soldier-saints), and his triumphant return to the treasures surely to follow his presidential inauguration.
Nyarota’s more sober historical take characterises former First Lady Grace Mugabe as someone whose treasure map bore little relation to the route she and her fellow plotters in “Generation-40” – the faction conniving to rid their party and country of “Lacoste” (a play on Mnangagwa’s nickname) group – took when they persuaded then President Mugabe to fire his longtime lackey.
Could military commander Constantino Chiwenga save the day and grab the treasure? Now a Vice-President, many credit Chiwenga with organising the “militarily assisted transition” allowing Mnangagwa to cross the river. In The Jaws celebrates the bromance between Chiwenga and Mnangagwa. But circumspection regarding such claims is cautioned.
The real gold lies under Zimbabwe’s putrid piles of economic ruin. Thus hopes are pinned on Mthuli Ncube, Zimbabwe’s new finance minister. These hopes are tied tightly to Zanu-PF’s factional fights for pieces of a Zimbabwean pie as ethereal as the electronic “money” used in the absence of real currency.
Ncube’s fantastical neo-liberal solutions are eerily reminiscent of the economic structural adjustment policies that during the 1990s’ precipitated Zimbabwe’s nosedive. Even the International Monetary Fund had to restrain Ncube’s exuberant “Austerity for Prosperity” plans. Matched with the ruling party’s scrambles and the poor’s impatience, roiling ensues.
Keynesians and neo-liberals alike have little to which they can look forward, although the Confederation of Zimbabwean Industry proclaims that industrial capacity rose by 5% in early 2018. Yet just after mid-year, the little electoral legitimacy on which the global citadels of finance and investment banked slid away. The military killed at least six demonstrators while, as many say, its intelligence corps took over counting the election’s votes.
Neither of the two books portend much of the coup’s consequences. They improve on an unhappy catalogue of books on Zimbabwean politics. But the bar is low. The best that can be said of them is that they are good in parts.
Map still missing
Nyarota’s enthusiasm for the new régime is muted, but he’s very happy to see the back of Mugabe and his unruly wife.
Graceless is more about their drawn-out fall than the coup per se. The elder Nyarota’s world-weary schadenfreude contrasts vividly with Ndlovu’s youthful exuberance. Nyarota’s historical depth, if meandering, gives necessary context to last year’s events. His insight into the near-coups in the 1970s that Ndlovu misses completely – when not misconstruing history – are valuable indeed.
Graceless has no interviews: Mugabe’s minders refused Nyarota’s requests. Yet Ndlovu’s one-on-ones are mostly with the victors.
Of course, purported “Generation-40” leader and former cabinet minister Jonathan Moyo’s unstoppable stream of tweets and interviews from wherever resides his physical self, features prominently. But since they are accessible to anyone with internet they need deconstruction, not replication.
One would expect journalists to criticise Moyo’s nefarious role in his information portfolio (and many others). The elder and the younger don’t disappoint. Unsurprisingly, when the born-again constitutionalist Moyo was interviewed recently he judged Ndlovu’s work as a hagiography for Mnangagwa. Unfortunately, Nyarota’s unpacking of Moyo’s past looks too much like Wikipedia to satisfy.
Moyo’s criticism of In the Jaws goes too far. But both books suggest more questions than answers. Even given publishers’ and the media rushes to keep up with insubstantial and fake news circulating via billions of clicks, this is not enough. Zimbabwe’s treasures haven’t been dug up yet, and these journalists-cum-authors haven’t drawn the map.
The love of reading is one of the greatest gifts an adult can give to a child. Pragmatically, reading proficiently helps with school work. But it also widens children’s horizons. It can help readers to understand their own world better, and to explore other worlds.
Parents often see reading as “school business” – something that teachers are responsible for. But there’s a lot of research that shows the value of reading at home and in the community. Children who read at home with parents or caregivers have an educational advantage that lasts their whole lives. In fact, reading to children helps them develop the language and literacy skills they need to begin formal literacy instruction.
Parents, as their children’s first and most important teachers, can make reading fun and inspire a lifelong love of reading. If parents themselves cannot read, others such as older siblings, friends and relatives can play this role.
Here, based on our own research studies about reading and drawing from the work being done by organisations dedicated to literacy, are some ideas to get kids reading for fun.
Reading as play
Children can have fun with reading even before they can read themselves. Reading feeds their fertile imaginations and they do the rest. In one of our research studies, pre-schooler Shafeek* spontaneously dressed up and acted out a story that his mother had read to him. Ashwariya* played “school” by “reading” a story to her toys. Again, she could not yet read but used the pictures and her memory for her game.
These examples show that reading can be made fun by linking it to play – through acting out, drawing pictures, dressing up, creating objects, or many other creative activities. Sometimes children do this on their own. But parents and teachers can also provide guided play activities.
Reading routines are important at home. This could take the form of “bedtime story”, reading prayers or verses from a sacred book, or regular weekend reading. Young children often love to hear the same story again and again. This is important for their emergent literacy as they learn how stories work, and how to “read” backwards and forwards.
Children enjoy singing songs and rhymes and this is a fun activity for reading development too. These allow children to play with words and sounds which is the first step in developing their phonological awareness, an integral skill to develop for reading.
Children can have fun by joining in family reading activities. This could mean looking at advertisements and, even if they cannot yet read, identifying pictures of items. It could mean turning the pages of newspapers or magazines for a parent and learning how to hold a book the right way up. Family photo albums are also great for learning to “read” pictures and hear family stories. Children learn to respect and handle books by seeing their caregivers do so.
Above all, caregivers should read to their children as an activity that’s designed to make meaning with a focus on understanding.
One of the weaknesses of teaching reading at South African schools, for instance, is that it often does not focus on comprehension. Parents can make reading meaningful getting children to preview a text (look at the title, cover and pictures before they read) and guess what it will be about.
They can also ask questions as they read (“Why did she/he do that? Do you think it was the right thing? What do you think will happen next?”), link the story to children’s lives and experiences, and get them to make up their own endings.
Some older children enjoy keeping a “reading diary” of books they have read with their impressions. Reading can also be a prompt for writing their own stories. Creating and writing for a school newspaper or magazine can be great fun and can be adapted to suit the technology available in the school.
Reading their own texts
Reading is difficult but it can be made more accessible if children are presented with opportunities to develop their own texts to read. An example of this could be to write a story with the child and have them read it themselves. Such a text would consist of vocabulary familiar to the child and it would scaffold comprehension of reading. If children are involved in developing their own texts for reading, it becomes a personal and authentic experience based on their own interests and needs. Producing their own texts also gives children a sense of ownership that helps them to take responsibility for the process.
Finding the right stuff
While there is no shortage of children’s books in English, finding suitable reading material in African languages and about African contexts can be a problem.
Many public libraries stock such books. Nalibali has a great range of stories in South African languages. The Family Literacy Project has developed many wonderful ideas for developing reading, including box libraries, reading clubs and Umzali Nengane (Parent and Child) journals.
Paulo Freire, the great Brazilian educator, talked about “reading the word in order to read the world”. He showed how reading critically and creatively can help people change their lives and create a better world. Something so important should not be left to teachers alone.
*Not their real names.
Each new year, people vow to put an end to self-destructive habits like smoking, overeating or overspending.
And how many times have we learned of someone – a celebrity, a friend or a loved one – who committed some self-destructive act that seemed to defy explanation? Think of the criminal who leaves a trail of evidence, perhaps with the hope of getting caught, or the politician who wins an election, only to start sexting someone likely to expose him.
Why do they do it?
Edgar Allan Poe, one of America’s greatest – and most self-destructive – writers, had some thoughts on the subject. He even had a name for the phenomenon: “perverseness.” Psychologists would later take the baton from Poe and attempt to decipher this enigma of the human psyche.
In one of his lesser-known works, “The Imp of the Perverse,” Poe argues that knowing something is wrong can be “the one unconquerable force” that makes us do it.
It seems that the source of this psychological insight was Poe’s own life experience. Orphaned before he was three years old, he had few advantages. But despite his considerable literary talents, he consistently managed to make his lot even worse.
He frequently alienated editors and other writers, even accusing poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism in what has come to be known as the “Longfellow war.” During important moments, he seemed to implode: On a trip to Washington, D.C. to secure support for a proposed magazine and perhaps a government job, he apparently drank too much and made a fool of himself.
After nearly two decades of scraping out a living as an editor and earning little income from his poetry and fiction, Poe finally achieved a breakthrough with “The Raven,” which became an international sensation after its publication in 1845.
But when given the opportunity to give a reading in Boston and capitalize on this newfound fame, Poe didn’t read a new poem, as requested.
Instead, he reprised a poem from his youth: the long-winded, esoteric and dreadfully boring “Al Aaraaf,” renamed “The Messenger Star.”
As one newspaper reported, “it was not appreciated by the audience,” evidenced by “their uneasiness and continual exits in numbers at a time.”
Poe’s literary career stalled for the remaining four years of his short life.
Freud’s ‘death drive’
While “perverseness” wrecked Poe’s life and career, it nonetheless inspired his literature.
It figures prominently in “The Black Cat,” in which the narrator executes his beloved cat, explaining, “I…hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart…hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin – a deadly sin that would so jeopardise my immortal soul as to place it – if such a thing were possible – even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.”
Why would a character knowingly commit “a deadly sin”? Why would someone destroy something that he loved?
Was Poe onto something? Did he possess a penetrating insight into the counterintuitive nature of human psychology?
A half-century after Poe’s death, Sigmund Freud wrote of a universal and innate “death drive” in humans, which he called “Thanatos” and first introduced in his landmark 1919 essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.”
Many believe Thanatos refers to unconscious psychological urges toward self-destruction, manifested in the kinds of inexplicable behavior shown by Poe and – in extreme cases – in suicidal thinking.
In the early 1930s, physicist Albert Einstein wrote to Freud to ask his thoughts on how further war might be prevented. In his response, Freud wrote that Thanatos “is at work in every living creature and is striving to bring it to ruin and to reduce life to its original condition of inanimate matter” and referred to it as a “death instinct.”
To Freud, Thanatos was an innate biological process with significant mental and emotional consequences – a response to, and a way to relieve, unconscious psychological pressure.
Toward a modern understanding
In the 1950s, the psychology field underwent the “cognitive revolution,” in which researchers started exploring, in experimental settings, how the mind operates, from decision-making to conceptualization to deductive reasoning.
Self-defeating behavior came to be considered less a cathartic response to unconscious drives and more the unintended result of deliberate calculus.
In 1988, psychologists Roy Baumeister and Steven Scher identified three main types of self-defeating behavior: primary self-destruction, or behavior designed to harm the self; counterproductive behavior, which has good intentions but ends up being accidentally ineffective and self-destructive; and trade-off behavior, which is known to carry risk to the self but is judged to carry potential benefits that outweigh those risks.
Think of drunk driving. If you knowingly consume too much alcohol and get behind the wheel with the intent to get arrested, that’s primary self-destruction. If you drive drunk because you believe you’re less intoxicated than your friend, and – to your surprise – get arrested, that’s counterproductive. And if you know you’re too drunk to drive, but you drive anyway because the alternatives seem too burdensome, that’s a trade-off.
Baumeister and Scher’s review concluded that primary self-destruction has actually rarely been demonstrated in scientific studies.
Rather, the self-defeating behavior observed in such research is better categorized, in most cases, as trade-off behavior or counterproductive behavior. Freud’s “death drive” would actually correspond most closely to counterproductive behavior: The “urge” toward destruction isn’t consciously experienced.
Finally, as psychologist Todd Heatherton has shown, the modern neuroscientific literature on self-destructive behavior most frequently focuses on the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with planning, problem solving, self-regulation and judgment.
When this part of the brain is underdeveloped or damaged, it can result in behavior that appears irrational and self-defeating. There are more subtle differences in the development of this part of the brain: Some people simply find it easier than others to engage consistently in positive goal-directed behavior.
Poe certainly didn’t understand self-destructive behavior the way we do today.
But he seems to have recognized something perverse in his own nature. Before his untimely death in 1849, he reportedly chose an enemy, the editor Rufus Griswold, as his literary executor.
True to form, Griswold wrote a damning obituary and “Memoir,” in which he alludes to madness, blackmail and more, helping to formulate an image of Poe that has tainted his reputation to this day.
Then again, maybe that’s exactly what Poe – driven by his own personal imp – wanted.
If you are looking forward to curling up with a heartwarming story this Christmas, you might not necessarily choose anything by Thomas Hardy – you’d be more likely to turn to the seasonal staples of Charles Dickens or Raymond Briggs. While Hardy is renowned for his tragic tales of Wessex life, his brief foray into the world of children’s Christmas fiction is largely unknown.
Published in the Christmas annual Father Christmas: Our little Ones’ Budget, Hardy’s story The Thieves Who Couldn’t Help Sneezing is a tale for children which also has much to delight adult enthusiasts of his work.
Hardy’s story made its appearance in the first edition of the annual in December 1877. By this time, he was working on The Return of the Native (1878), having already published five novels – including Far From The Madding Crowd (1874), which first appeared anonymously and established his career as a successful novelist.
Nonetheless, his contribution to the annual could easily be overlooked. In this extract from the Illustrated London News (December 12, 1877) Hardy’s name is sandwiched between lesser-known literary figures:
A new claimant, entitled “Father Christmas: Our Little Ones’ Budget”, is announced to appear shortly. It comes with weighty claims on the favour of the rising generation, being crowded with amusing tales, songs, riddles and acrostics, by its fair editor, Miss N. Danvers, Austin Dobson, Thomas Hardy, W.H.G. Kingston, Reginald Gatty, and other writers of note in this special field of literature.
The story has received scant critical attention, despite the wealth of Hardy scholarship that exists. Hardy himself does not mention it in his autobiography, although it is included in a list of works compiled by his wife Emma in 1880 (which is available at Dorset County Museum) and categorised as a “Child’s story”.
Unlike Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) where social commentary is cosily bound up within a supernatural fantasy world, Hardy does not spare the reader his trademark realism. The action takes place in the “Vale of Blackmore”, which was described as “a fertile and somewhat lonely district” later to become the famous backdrop for the tragic events of Tess of the D’Urbevilles.
‘Twas the night before Christmas
It is Christmas Eve and the 14-year-old protagonist, Hubert, courageous but “a little vain”, is making his way home on “his stout-legged cob Jerry and singing a Christmas carol”. There is barely time for the reader to reach for a mince pie before Hubert is attacked by robbers with “artificially blackened” faces, tied up and thrown into a ditch.
Disorientated and upset that his horse has been stolen, Hubert extricates his legs from their bonds and wanders on until he chances on “a large mansion with flanking wings, gables, and towers, the battlements and chimneys showing their shapes against the stars”.
He enters the house, hoping to find assistance there but – like a scene from a modern-day thriller – suddenly hears the familiar voices of his attackers. Hubert quickly dives under the dining room table and listens as the thieves discuss their plans. It seems they have created a “false alarm” to get the wealthy occupants briefly “out of the house”, giving them time to find a hiding place where they can wait until everyone is in bed before robbing the mansion.
Before long, the “ladies and gentlemen” return to continue their festive celebrations, unaware of the thieves biding their time in a disused closet. Hubert then makes his appearance and starts to tell his story. However, it is met with disbelief – and he is even accused of being a robber himself as there is “a curiously wild wicked look about him…” So the resourceful lad hatches a plan to expose the thieves by pretending to be a magician with the power to “conjure up a tempest in a cupboard”.
While lacking the seasonal sumptuousness of Dickens, Hardy’s tale serves up its own socially subversive Christmas punch. Hubert, a yeoman’s son, manages to singlehandedly outsmart the upper-class family he encounters residing in the mansion. Though the reader is told he feels shame at their mistrust of his story, he accepts their hospitality. Hardy evokes a child’s sense of triumph at being a part of a privileged adult world:
Hubert, in spite of his hurt feelings at their doubts of his honesty, could not help being warmed both in mind and in body by the good cheer, the scene, and the example of hilarity set by his neighbours. At last he laughed as heartily at their stories and repartees as the old Baronet, Sir Simon, himself.
Although the story’s main action concerns a none-too festive attack on a young boy, the tale deals with wider social issues. Born into a working-class family, Hardy did not attend university and felt himself to be an outsider to London’s literary elite. An acute awareness of the divisions between rich and poor colours his work and The Thieves is no exception.
Hubert, outsider to the wealthy party he encounters, not only exposes the thieves through filling their hiding place with sneeze-inducing snuff, he manages to persuade Sir Simon and his guests that he is a magician. Ultimately, it is a child’s successful navigation of an exclusive adult world that is at the heart of Hardy’s narrative.
The Thieves is not Hardy’s only children’s story. Our Exploits in West Poley: A Story For Boys (1883), serialised in The Household ( November 1892-April 1893) lay in obscurity until its discovery in 1952. While Hardy is certainly not known for his children’s fiction, it can provide valuable insights into his career, as writer and poet, which had a foot in both the 19th and 20th centuries.
Writing for children in 1877, Hardy gives us a message, as relevant now as it was in his own time: however young, poor or seemingly unimportant a person is, they are still capable of doing great things.
In this confusing and often conflicted world, children’s author Gillian Cross has summed up what it is about reading fiction that is so important: “Good stories help us make sense of the world. They invite us to discover what it’s like being someone completely different.”
As the author of a children’s novel myself, I’m going to double down on this and say that if this is important for adults, it’s 100 times more important for children.
Children passionately want to understand what’s going on – and fiction is a potent way for them to do this. A study by education professor Maria Nikolajeva found that “reading fiction provides an excellent training for young people in developing and practising empathy and theory of mind, that is, understanding of how other people feel and think”.
In the wealth of recent fiction for children and young adults, here are ten powerful stories for young people, addressing some of the most important, and troubling, questions we face today.
1. The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon (Orion)
Imagine being imprisoned for your whole life. Imagine growing up like Subhi.
The nine-year-old’s world ends at the diamond-shaped fence – the outer edge of the detention centre he is detained in with his Rohingya family in Australia.
Fraillon draws a vivid picture of life inside the fence – vulnerable people fleeing persecution, only to find – instead of the peace and sanctuary they so desperately need – indifference and hostility.
But Subhi finds hope in his friendship with an Australian girl from outside the fence. (Age: 11+)
2. The Big Lie by Julie Mayhew (Red Ink)
What if Germany had won World War II and the UK was now part of a Third German Reich? This is a coming-of-age story with a difference – 16-year-old Jessika is a talented ice-skater in a high-ranking REICH?family.
But her friendship with subversive, courageous and desirable Clem threatens everything: her family, her future, and her very life. This is a story that paints the dangers of totalitarianism in vivid language. (Age: 12+)
3. Boy 87 by Ele Fountain (Pushkin Press)
Fourteen-year-old Shif lives in a country that conscripts its children into the army. The country isn’t named, but may be in Africa. He wants to play chess with his best friend Bini and race him home from school. But the army comes calling and the two must flee.
Shif experiences at first hand the brutality of a totalitarian government, then the trauma of migration and trafficking. Despite this, the story manages to be hopeful. (Age: 12 +)
4. The Jungle by Pooja Puri (Ink Road)
Sixteen-year-old Mico is surviving his life in the Jungle refugee camp in Calais. Without anyone to look out for him, he must look out for himself, living on his wits and his luck. Using careful research, Puri shows us what life is like as a refugee, owning nothing, not even the clothes on your back or the blanket you sleep beneath.
She shows us the desperation and terrible lengths refugees will go to, to try to find a home. But when Mico meets Leila, we see, too, the hope – and the risk – that friendship brings. (Age: 12+)
5. After the Fire by Will Hill (Usborne)
Moonbeam has lost her mother and she only knows life inside The Fence – it’s a life controlled by cult leader Father John.
But one night a devastating fire burns that life to the ground – the buildings, the people, the leader are all gone and only Moonbeam and a handful of children survive. Moonbeam and the others must now discover the world beyond the fence.
Can she do this when Father John has told her to trust no one outside? Using the WACO siege as his source material, Hill explores the power of brainwashing and cult identity.
Moonbeam’s search is for a truth she can stand by now, and for the mother she thinks must be dead. (Age: 12+)
6. I Am Thunder by Muhammad Khan (Macmillan)
Written in the voice of its smart and self-deprecating heroine, British Muslim Pakistani teenager Muzna, this is both a coming-of-age novel and a thriller. Muzna navigates her life at home and at school, working out how to have her own identity and her own ambitions, not those imposed by her parents, religion, school or friends.
And, as her relationship with Arif develops, the story becomes a thriller, and the stakes become very high. (Age: 13+)
7. The Territory trilogy by Sarah Govett (Firefly Press)
What happens when the sea levels rise? Govett imagines a flooded world with dwindling resources and not enough dry land for everyone. Choices have to be made, about who stays on the dry territory, and who is banished beyond the fence, to the dreaded Wetlands. But when 15-year-old Noa finds herself beyond the fence, she discovers that not everything the adults have been telling her is true. (Age: 13+)
8. Night of the Party by Tracey Mathias (Scholastic)
Following Britain’s withdrawal from Europe, a far-right Nationalist party has come to power.
Only those born in Britain (or BB as they are known) are allowed to live legally – everyone born outside the country is subject to immediate arrest and deportation and failing to report illegals is a crime.
Mathias has set her thriller in a British dystopia that is more scarily plausible than ever.
The young protagonist Zara is an illegal living in this scary new Britain – and falling in love with Ash might be the most dangerous thing she could do. (Age: 13+)
9. Moonrise by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury)
It’s ten years since Joe saw his brother Ed – and now Ed is on death row, facing execution for the murder of a police officer. What do they know of each other now? Ed says he’s innocent of the murder, but everyone else believes he’s guilty.
Crossan’s verse novel explores a single summer, perhaps Ed’s last, as 17-year-old Joe struggles to understand what has been done to his brother – and to himself. (Age: 13+)
10. The New Neighbours by Sarah McIntyre (David Fickling Books)
The only picture book in the list, McIntyre’s delightfully illustrated story explores how intolerance and scaremongering can run like a mad fever through a community. When new neighbours move in to the tower block, hysteria builds quickly, until finally the other animals discover the truth about their newest neighbours. (Age: 2+)