Summer reads: GIRL IN TRANSLATION by Jean Kwok

Do you remember where you bought that book? That book which has been lying on your bookshelf for at least six months? Or maybe you (unlike me) don’t buy books on a whim… unable to ignore the temptation of yet another novel?

This one I remember well. It was our last morning in New York last April and we had finally made it to the Tenement Museum in the Lower East side. Not only did the visit totally exceed our expectations (bearing in mind EVERYONE had told us we had to include it in our itinery) but the bookshop, housed within the museum, literally knocked our socks off. [This may have been one of 3 books I lugged home in my already bulging suitcase.]

Kimberly Chang is our the heroine in Jean Kwok’s debut novel. Arriving in New York, fresh from Hong Kong, in the early 1980s, Kimberly’s mother earns two cents an hour in a sweatshop while her 11-year-old daughter faces the challenge of school. Neither of them speak a word of English and they live in what could only be described as extreme poverty.

An immigrant herself, Kwok tells the tale vividly. Her view of the city, her struggles at school, her work in the factory after school and her teenage angst amid it all. As they live and learn to survive straddling two cultures, we journey and empathise with Kimberly all the way.

I was thoroughly absorbed in this novel. Some have called it predictable and criticized the ending for being too clichéd. I would have been disappointed if it had been any less so.

[Next up is The Day Before Happiness by Erri De Luca]

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let’s discuss freedom

The Watch House, Blakeney, Norfolk

The Watch House, Blakeney, Norfolk

Freedom is a funny old thing. What makes you feel free might make me feel trapped. Some feel they can’t escape from the person they feel they should be, others never feel restricted and explore away without limitation. And – I presume because this summer I’m roaming free – it’s made me question our ever-changing (and highly personal) sense of freedom and the impact it has on us.

There’s no doubt that our privileged lives are full of alternative beginning, middles and endings. But I was wondering if this endless freedom might mean a serious lack of perspective? After all, you can only really understand the enormity of any freedom when it no longer exists.

When we were in Norfolk last week I noticed a house on the horizon. Far across the salt marshes, it was clear that reaching this house on foot would be some sort of mission, even with knowledge of tidal times/terrain. I heard from locals that it had no electricity nor running water. But I saw this house as freedom; a remote sort of adventurous freedom.

Freedom from judgement is something many of us try to escape. A need for approval, a confirmation of who and what we are. And social media seems to battle against this type of freedom, particularly for those seeking privacy. But the sharing limit has to be self-imposed so that there is no personal burden or constraint other than what we, as individuals, feel comfortable with. Do you feel as free not to express as you do to voice those opinions?

What would make you feel freer? How does a sense of freedom contribute to your happiness?

For those interested, the house pictured is available to rent for a maximum of 3 nights/£50 per night. I have an idea: let’s trap ourselves there + talk about FREEDOM.


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pond swim

Swimming in the ponds on Hampstead Heath has been on my list for a while. The idea of sharing murky brown water with some ducks and other aquatic life – in the middle of London – feels awfully exotic and, besides, people have been bathing in this open water since 1860, so it’s historic on top of all the other madness.

hampstead swimming ponds

I informed my fellow ‘we need to try everything this summer’ inmates over breakfast that I had a treat for them this very steamy morning. And off we trundled with a large picnic, towels and little else to meet friends.

hampstead swimming ponds

hampstead swimming pondsDeep into the trees and sheltered by excess greenery, we found the mixed bathing pond (there is also one for only women and only men) and from there the Smalls only gaped at a whole new swimming world.

hampstead swimming pondsAt first they really weren’t sure about getting in at all.

hampstead swimming ponds

But then the lifeguards insisted on a swimming test and, from there, it was all screaming and giggles and a mix of both.

hampstead swimming ponds

The water is cold, I can’t lie. But it’s ZINGY cold (at this time of year) and only makes you want to move around a little more once in.

The large picnic followed with a side of frisbee + a true-Brit Mr Whippy to kill off any pond bugs we may have swallowed.

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Summer reads: SHTUM by Jem Lester

A massive part of my summer plans (rd: indulgence) is going to be having my head permanently in a book. My bedside pile has grown + grown over recent months when I just haven’t had the time to read more than a page*. So last week I banned myself from buying ANY MORE… and the binge began.

Shtum was on the top of the pile so I grabbed it (and another) for our week in Norfolk. A debut novel from Jem Lester centred around Jonah his profoundly autistic 11 year old, this darkly comic tale is strangely gripping. As you can probably guess from the title, Jonah can’t speak. But it’s worse than that. He is incontinent, at times angry and wild and certainly making no progress at his primary school. And so Shtum traces the long war his parents fight to get local authority funding for an eye-wateringly expensive specialist residential school which would undoubtedly be the best place for their son.

All this would be bad enough but – adding insult to injury Ben (our narrator and Jonah’s father) is forced out of the family home (with Jonah in tow) by his wife (we learn why later on) and, grudgingly, has to move in with his elderly father. Ben, riddled with self-pity, is also struggling with an alcohol problem and a distinct lack of grip on his life.

Agonisingly heartbreaking and utterly touching, Lester keeps his roller-coaster of a story twisting and turning all the way to the end. No spoilers here as I really want you to read this novel. I more than sense his story is full of first-hand experience, making it all the more poignant and important to read and… let’s face it… we all think there’s something wrong with our kids and wonder how we would cope if there really was.

[*I did read Beyond Happiness by Anthony Seldon… but that’s coming up in a post of its own…  Next up is Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok]



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