I am a fan of Allen Say, the Japanese- American writer and illustrator. Many of his books are autobiographical in nature and this book is the story of how he became the artist he always wanted to be. The book is an interesting scrapbook of drawings, photos and text that show his journey from boyhood to adolescence when he left for the USA to live with his father.
The influence of his sensei comes through the book. Indeed, he is the most influential person in his life. What is amazing to us now, but should still have been amazing then, is the fact that a school boy with a passion for art follows his dream and takes matters into his own hand. His father was scornful of his son’s ambition but he is a distant figure in his son’s life for most of his childhood. Say (or James Allen Koichi Moriwaki Seii to give him his full name) lived with his mother when she and his father split, and then with his grandmother and then, amazingly, given his age, on his own.
His sensei took on a role in this life as guide, father figure and mentor. This book shows the developing skill of Say as an artist and the development of his identity. Noro Shinpei remained a formative influence throughout his life, even though the young artist left for the USA leaving his mentor behind. The lessons he learned stood him in good stead and it is fascinating to see how the stories from his past informed the books he went on to write. Knowing his work, as I do, it was interesting to see pictures of events that I recognised from elsewhere.
‘Drawing from Memory’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Rohan Candappa has written a book that is both a family history and a history of curry in Britain. As well as this he includes recipes for meals that have significance because of some of the events he relates in the book. He is an entertaining writer who apparently wrote books of humour after a career in advertising. This book, though, has serious things to say about being of Sri Lankan heritage and growing up in South London.
His book covers issues of identity and being a son of immigrants but it also raises the importance of food for uniting people. Families get together over meals and recipes get passed through generations. In such ways are we connected to those we love and to our roots. He is funniest when relating the British ‘involvement’ in the world of curries, from the awful curry he had at school as a child to the supermarket prepared version of his adult life.
Candappa’s family shows the strength from diversity. His father is Sri Lankan, his mother is part of the Indian- Portuguese diaspora born in Burma. He, himself, is British of course and making sense of his own history is part of the narrative of this book. Food, family, identity are all important elements explored here and are all explored with a light good humour.
‘Picklehead’ by Rohan Candappa is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This poem by Brian Patten would make it into my personal anthology.
You lose your love for her and then
It is her who is lost,
And then it is both who are lost,
And nothing is ever as perfect as you want it to be.
In a very ordinary world
A most extraordinary pain mingles with the small routines,
The loss seems huge and yet
Nothing can be pinned down or fully explained.
You are afraid.
If you found the perfect love
It would scald your hands,
Rip the skin from your nerves,
Cause havoc with a computered heart.
You lose your love for her and then it is her who is lost.
You tried not to hurt and yet
Everything you touched became a wound.
You tried to mend what cannot be mended,
You tried, neither foolish nor clumsy,
To rescue what cannot be rescued.
And now she is elsewhere
And her night and your night
Are both utterly drained.
How easy it would be
If love could be brought home like a lost kitten
Or gathered in like strawberries,
How lovely it would be;
But nothing is ever as perfect as you want it to be.
This picture book by Japanese- American illustrator and writer is a gentle evocation of a moment from the past. The story is set after the end of the Second World War when Japan was occupied by American troops. In a remote coastal village the children prepare for their annual sports day.
Into this scene comes two strangers, both American service men, who stay and play awhile before heading off… and that is it! Yet, this simple premise makes for a powerful picture book as memories from childhood do. It stays with you and acts a reminder that somethings, such as the joy of childhood are universal. The strangers in this tale appear threatening to the children at first, they look different after all, but the show they put on for the children wins them over. Through such ways are barriers brought down.
Allen Say was born near Yokohama but now lives in the USA. Many of his books are autobiographical in origin and this one is a treasure.
‘The Bicycle Man’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I am a fan of John Irving and, until ‘In One Person’ came along, this has always been my favourite of his novels. The status of favourite is not an important one since I would hate to have to choose or be in a position where I could only have one of his novels on my shelf; I want them all!
However, this was a three o’clock in the morning book, I just had to finish it. It is the story of John and his best friend, Owen Meany, who grow up together in a New England town during the 50s and 60s. When we meet John, he is living in Canada having escaped the Reaganite USA. We find out about his life in exile and, in the second time frame, about his youth with Owen Meany.
Owen thinks he is an instrument of God and his life is to be lived to fulfill the purpose God has for him. As the son of a working class man his friendship with the more wealthy John is unusual but they are firm friends and Owen spends much of his time at John’s house. In a baseball game, a foul ball hits John’s mother on the head and kills her instantly. The ball was hit by Owen Meany.
As they grow up, the boys’ continue to grow as friends, even the death of his mother does not prevent John from being close to Owen. They move on from High school and, when it comes along, the Vietnam War affects them both. Indeed, it is the war that proves to be a defining point of both their lives; John is against the war and intends to avoid participating, Owen feels it is part of his destiny.
Throughout the book, there are references to the spiritual as well as the John Irving theme of knowing your father. It is essentially a book about friendship and the special people who shape our lives, whether they remain with us physically or not. For the record, I prefer the newer cover, I saw in a book shop recently, to the one I have on my shelves.
‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
There was no way I was going to see the whole of the Heimat series when it was broadcast on British television back in the 80s. However, when given a box set of DVDs as a gift, I had the opportunity to watch the whole series on my own timetable. I thought I would break it up to make it manageable but, instead, I made my way through it in about a week. As there were eleven episodes with a combined running time of 15 hours and 24 minutes, this shows how important it was to me.
The conceit is a good one: the story of a family in a village in the west of Germany from the end of the first world war to 1982, which was more or less up to date at the time of making. The Simon family provided the spine to the series with other families of the village also showing how Germans experienced the 20th Century.
Maria Simon lives in the village of Schabbach for her whole life and we see modern German history through her eyes. The fact that her husband, Paul, abandons her after his return from the First World War affects everything for her ever after. The strands of history sometimes invade and sometimes pass over this family. This may be one of the criticisms of the series, that major events that are hard to ignore when assessing the history of the nation are ignored here. However, the series does not claim to be the definitive history of Germany but the story of a family.
This was a project of film- maker, Edgar Reitz. He did not stop with this first series and neither did I!
‘Heimat’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This is my new favourite book and, even though there is room in my hinterland for so many good books, this one has earned its place straightaway. Becky Albertalli has written a book with an adorable central character, Simon, who comes across as genuinely pleasant without being cute or sentimental. He is a good guy but he also makes mistakes and the story as it unfolds shows us just how wrong he can be with friendships and other people’s feelings. Maybe because he is too busy trying to deal with his own. Simon is gay and quite happy about this but just not yet ready to announce it to the world. When his secret is discovered by a school friend, he has some decisions to make to protect himself.
Albertalli has written an engaging character is Simon but her book is also populated with other characters who come across as real. Collectively this is a group of people to care about.
Most coming out and coming of age books concentrate on the issues rather than the people but here we have the people to warm to. The issues matter, and every gay person coming out knows that this is a big deal however understanding your parents are, but they matter because the people matter.
Simon has two good friends, Nick and Leah, but Abby is new to the area and the dynamic between them changes. As Simon decides what to do about telling everyone he is gay, his friends, too, have to negotiate the routes between romance and friendship.
The best thing of all, this book has an ending it deserves. It isn’t too sweet, too cute, too neat and it works.
‘Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?