Posted by: Tori | December 3, 2017

WONDER: a personal response  

*warning – some spoilers*

When I first saw the transformation of actor Jacob Tremblay into August Pullman (Auggie), the ten-year-old boy with a craniofacial condition in Wonder, I was shocked.

Shocked at how much his little face reminded me of myself as a child growing up with a similar condition.


Me aged eight

Shocked, too, at how close to home the emotional truths rang throughout the book and film; from navigating school and other children to the shifting family dynamics that come when one child requires extraordinary amounts of support.

Like Auggie, I was lucky enough to have a close and supportive family growing up. The Pullmans even have a dog called Daisy, on hand for cuddles every time Auggie comes home from hospital. My “Daisy” was a beautiful golden retriever, Maisie, who we had for 15 years and was a constant companion throughout the years of medical treatment.

I was also impressed by the good practice shown by Auggie’s teachers. On Auggie’s first day, his class teacher Mr Brown encourages him to speak up so that others can get to know him. He later deftly deflects the unwanted attentions of an awkward school photographer, and reminds Auggie when he’s upset that he doesn’t have to struggle alone. When bullying arises, Mr Brown takes evidence to the headmaster (a twinkly Mandy Patinkin), who takes it up with the bully and their parents in a way that shows zero tolerance.

I didn’t always experience this level of support at school, but the best relationships I had with was with teachers who got to know me, and I remember them with great affection. The most upsetting treatment came from teachers who never even taught me, but assumed I was a difficult child and then said as much to my peers.

The White Stripes’ “We’re Going To Be Friends” provides a touching, uplifting soundtrack to the theme of friendship that for me makes the film so joyful. A semi-comedic moment comes from Julia Roberts as Auggie’s anxious mother, when she’s asked by Auggie at the school gate if the friend he’s made can come home to play. “I’ve got to be cool,” she mutters to herself as they walk ahead, quietly stunned that her previously lonely child has found a gregarious mate.

I understood her reaction. As a devoted parent, she’s spent years watching her child be rejected and excluded, and her heart breaks for him every time. She feels powerless to help him as she can’t control other people’s behaviour. Her expectations for his social life are so low that all she wants is for other children to “be kind” to him. “Please, make them be nice to him,” she whispers in her husband’s ear as they watch Auggie walk into school on his first day.

This message has been rolled out across the campaign surrounding the film – a key related hashtag is #ChooseKind, echoed in Mr Brown’s lessons. Of course, we all benefit from treating each other with kindness, and it’s portrayed here as the antidote to bullying or ostracising someone. And yet, I find myself having some reservations with the message in this particular context.

Because I couldn’t help but notice that Auggie doesn’t especially want people to be “kind” to him; at least no more than anyone else does. He wants friends, just as I did. Friendship is a two-way street; one that can sometimes be messy and shouty and raw – and for children particularly, there can be unkind moments on each side. It’s part of growing up. When Summer goes to join him at the lunch table, Auggie assumes she’s simply being nice because the headmaster asked her to be. He accuses her of this quite angrily (having been hurt by overhearing another child say as much), and she denies it just as angrily as it isn’t true. “So why are you here?” August asks. “I want nice friends for a change,” Summer shrugs, and before you know it they’ve founded their own seasonal name club.

Possibly my favourite performance (and there were a lot to choose from, including Owen Wilson on form as Auggie’s hilarious, loving dad) was from Noah Jupe who plays Jack Will, one of Auggie’s classmates. It’s not all plain sailing, but the two ultimately develop a sincere friendship, with Jack benefiting as much from Auggie’s company as Auggie does from his. Because not only is Auggie a Star Wars fanatic and a fellow gamer with a cracking sense of humour, he also helps pull Jack’s grades up, through licit and illicit means – who doesn’t want a friend like that?

My takeaway from Wonder isn’t just that it’s better to be kind, but that accepting people as they are brings its own very real rewards, and allows everyone to flourish. This is an important film – moving and funny by turn – that tackles the stigma of disfigurement with empathy. I for one am delighted it’s received the Hollywood treatment it deserves.

Changing Faces supports adults, children and families living with disfigurement. Text WOND37 £5 to 70070 if you’d like to make a donation.

Posted by: Tori | November 1, 2010

The Kindle, the iPhone and me

*** update! ***

Since this post I have upgraded to a fully fledged Kindle, with cover to boot. The cover is great as it gives it a proper book feel. I love how quickly I can download a title I want to the device. My only complaint is the way the e-ink flashes whenever you ‘turn’ a page – an irritation that the iPhone kindle app doesn’t have. But you get used to it, so the benefits by far outweigh the cons.

Admittedly it’s been a while since my last post but then it’s been a while since something really grabbed me. I read Booker-longlisted novel The Slap last month but was completely underwhelmed by it – so in the spirit of only posting about books I loved, I’ll stop there.

Luckily, now I have two things to blog about – one is that the book I’ve just read, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, has given me a bad dose of self-diagnosed PGBS (post good book syndrome). Read it – it’s a brilliant, moving and brave debut novel.

The other is the breath-takingly convenient format I read it in, and it’s the first ever book I’ve read this way: I’m not talking about the the e-reader per se as I’ve not been able to justify spending in the region of £150. But I am talking about Kindle; the iPhone Kindle app that I downloaded for FREE last week and have since downloaded a dozen FREE books (that were all out-of-copyright) and bought The Help, which cost me the princely sum of £2.76 (though sadly, as of only today, Penguin’s new Amazon price-setting deal for e-books has meant that this has jumped up to £6.49 – more expensive than the paperback on Amazon. I probably wouldn’t have paid that…).

Allow me to extoll the virtues of my new reading device (toy). True, the backlight of a phone is unfriendlier than e-reader devices, which are specially designed to be easy on the eyes. But then I realised I spend a heck of a lot of time looking at my phone anyway, through email, google, facebook and even playing scrabble, not to mention the gazillions of other apps to play with. So why not read a book instead?

Also, the Kindle app is sophisticated enough that you can adjust the font size, colour and background; I went for a sepia effect and very nice it was too. Of course, the small size of your phone means you have to turn the pages more often, but at least you are actually turning the pages, just like with an e-reader (a gentle finger swipe whips the page over), rather than having to scroll down continuous reams of text.

The convenience of the format means I’m able to read far more often; no more cramming books into bags, I already have my iPhone up and running and as soon as I tap on the app it opens at the page I was last reading. It even works on the Tube.

In fact the only problem I’ve identified is that I must look ridiculously, tragically obsessed with my iPhone, staring obsessively at it for endless periods on the bus/in the canteen/on my sofa. So, next time you spot me in said pose, I’m just reading a great book, I swear! Or playing scrabble.

Alfred & Emily, by Doris LessingFirst, a confession: a few years ago I started the seminal feminist* text The Golden Notebook; it impressed me but was put aside and never finished. One day, maybe… 

But a Doris Lessing title I did recently see through to the end is Alfred and Emily, published in 2008, which Lessing (now 90) announced was to be her last work. As an introduction to her wide-ranging canon I’d recommend it, combining as it does fact with fiction, and a fine slice of autobiography to boot.

Alfred and Emily are Lessing’s parents, while Alfred and Emily is a book of two halves; the first being a novella in which the pair never marry but are friends, who are allowed by Lessing to live the lives they might have done had the first world war not happened. The second half is a memoir, from Lessing’s perspective, of her parents’ marriage and subsequent difficult life on a farm in Rhodesia, accompanied with snapshots into the author’s own childhood and early life.

It’s a strikingly original, ingenious premise that’s a joy to read. The novella is a masterclass of empathy and imagination, as Lessing achieves a remarkable feat of detachment – and to a certain extent plays God – by giving her parents lives and realised ambitions that, although fantasy, remain true to their passions and personalities, drawing on “signs as slight as those used by skilful trackers” as she comments in her explanatory postscript. It’s a disarmingly easy read that nevertheless ventures to ask how English society would have developed without the Great War; it ultimately seems to suggest that the Edwardian excesses would have continued unallayed, leading to a stultified, restless generation of young people.

If the first half has its whimsical moments, the second is a bleak wake-up call – and most definitely anti-war. Although a survivor, Lessing’s father should have had “the War” cited as cause of death on his death certificate, she observes. But although outwardly the victim, having lost a leg, it is his wife who is the most closely scrutinised here, and her daughter comes to the conclusion that, having suffered a mental breakdown following her horrific nursing experiences and disruptive move to Rhodesia, Emily McVeagh could herself lay claim to having the deepest battle scars.

While the first was a pleasure, the second half was a slightly frustrating and melancholic read. The memories are more scattered than chronological, and Lessing tantalisingly brushes over events and incidents that have presumably already been expanded upon at length in her previous autobiographies, which has made me want to learn more about her unconventional life. She is shockingly frank about hating her mother in her youth; the passing of time eventually gives her an objectivity that allows her to instead pity the woman, who certainly tried to be a good parent, if at times overbearing and even crazy.

By far and away, and she does get credit for this, the single best thing Emily does for her daughter is to keep her constantly supplied with books ordered from England, and so the young Doris grew up with the likes of Lewis Carroll, J.M Barrie, Hans Christian Andersen, and later, Dickens, Walter Scott and H.G. Wells. These books are a lifeline to England and beyond, and indirectly contribute to helping Lessing to “get off the farm”, something they all dream of while she grows up. The recognition of the importance of having books to read is something Lessing passionately campaigns on to this day (see her Nobel speech, further down).

One point that she returns to often is that had the “fancy medicines” of today been around, her parents would have been far happier and better able to manage their respective demons. Her father’s diabetes and wooden leg would have been dealt with in a dignified and efficient way, rather than the painful, impractical, downright dangerous methods he had to put up with – and that even with having a trained nurse for a wife. And Lessing would have been the first, you sense, to prescribe both parents with anti-depressants; at the very least to try to prevent them from reliving the war over and over, forcing her to grow up in the shadow of it.

Another observation she makes, apparently in an attempt to reconcile her mother’s plethora of neuroses, is that the condition of women was at a transitory stage during her parents’ lives. They were educated, but not given any employment after marriage other than endless childbearing (Lessing herself escapes this by becoming a writer). It is doubly heartwarming, therefore, to see the fulfilling career-driven future this otherwise truculent daughter bestows upon Emily in the novella (and in doing so, writes herself out of existence).

Along with scores of other journalists, in December 2007 I was at the London ceremony where Lessing was presented with the Nobel prize (ill-health had prevented her from travelling to Sweden). She paid tribute to her parents, particularly her father, but wryly added that she could imagine him telling her not to get too above herself. Later her publisher announced the imminent publication of Alfred and Emily; it’s perhaps fitting that it is to be her last book. Below is a photo I took of her as she listened to the Swedish ambassador extolling her literary virtues. You can read her acceptance speech “On Not Winning the Nobel Prize”, here.

Doris Lessing resting her eyes, Wallace Collection 2007 (Victoria Hunt)

*I should acknowledge here that Lessing dissociates herself from the feminist label and advocates a humanist reading instead.

Posted by: Tori | March 5, 2010

Amorality tale: Boy A

Boy A, by Jonathan TrigellI woke up this morning to a discussion on Radio Four, about the return of Jon Venables to prison after “breaching the conditions of his release”. The furore is over Jack Straw’s decision not to, at the moment, go into any further detail on it, presumably to protect Venables’s identity, from the jury, his fellow inmates and the public. 

The moderate discussion between the presenter and guest Bishop James Jones of Liverpool was interspersed with voxpops from shoppers in Merseyside, where toddler Jamie Bulger was… you know the rest. “We won’t know what to think until we know what he’s done,” said one man, reasonably I thought. But: “Hang him,” said another man, and “The punishment should fit the crime,” said a woman. And there lies the rub for Jack Straw – mob rule.

This news story has prompted me to revisit the prizewinning debut novel Boy A, by Jonathan Trigell. For anyone interested in the fate of “rehabilitated” child killers, it’s a thoughtful, at times heart-wrenching look at the complexities surrounding their reintroduction into society, equipped with false identities and supportive parole officers. For example, on the one hand it makes perfect sense for Boy A’s identity to be hidden, so that he can be accepted by his peers, but on the other, surely there is a case to be made for telling his girlfriend; what about her right to know?

The book also contains flashbacks to “Jack”(as he is now known)’s earlier life, and his growing association with fellow-killer Child B, who was “exactly the kind of boy your mother told you never to play with”. The latter is depicted as being a different kettle of fish from Child A, who came from a respectable family but had physical problems that made him a target for playground bullies, which when combined with a weak character made him susceptible to being led astray.

However, Child B, we are at first sure, is just plain evil. Or is he? As we learn that he is a victim of the worst kind of abuse at home, his crimes begin to look like a continuation of an endless cycle.  Life doesn’t get any better for Child B in prison. To avert spoilers, let’s just say that he doesn’t make it as far as Jack in this story.

So this in turn raises another truth; that even if convicted of the same crime, the killers cannot necessarily be tarred with the same brush – some are better candidates for rehabilitation than others. This brings us back to Jack and how he is getting along, on the other side after the rehabilitation process (which even includes corrective medical treatment). Perhaps inevitably, throughout the novel I found myself rooting for him to overcome the odds and succeed – in short, to redeem himself.

In the end, his biggest adversary and the arbiter of his downfall is not the people around him, or even himself, but the press’s relentless quest to expose him. Times having moved on, it’s not just newspapers, the medium around when he was a child; the rise of the internet plays its torrid part in this tale, and today makes me think that our Justice Secretary’s injunction, though well-meaning, is somewhat futile.

Posted by: Tori | March 4, 2010

Backlist: We need to talk about Eva

This is a review I wrote a while ago for the Society of Young Publishers following a book club discussion of what I think is Lionel Shriver’s best piece of writing: We Need to Talk About Kevin.

I’ve met the author and can’t help but associate her with the novel’s protagonist: she’s something of a conundrum. A well-known media figure, she tends to eschew glamorous events (though she did turn up to a black-tie do at the Wallace Collection dressed in a leather jacket, jeans and trainers, which you had to admire). She kindly agreed to give up an evening to speak for free to a small group of publishing students, but then spent an hour listing everything she disliked about being a published author. (Being written about was one of them!)

By the way – Happy World Book Day! Here’s to lots of stories in the year to come.

We Need to Talk About KevinWe Need to Talk About Eva

Every mass-murderer has a mother. If she abandoned her child at birth, or subjected them to an unstable home, poverty, or abuse, then she would inevitably be cited as a contributing factor to the killer’s unnatural psyche. This seems logical enough, particularly if, like Kevin, he is just sixteen years old: she must have done something wrong.

But We Need To Talk About Kevin, made up of haunting, retrospective letters from Kevin’s mother to her estranged husband, challenges the status quo: this troubled parent is no trailer-trash. Eva Khatchadourian is a class act: a strikingly articulate, highly educated and financially independent woman, who, we learn, was fulfilled both professionally and in her marriage. Yet while her first-hand tale of woe feels both engaging and honest, the reader must be suspicious, for this could prove to be one spectacularly unreliable narrator.

The book club was divided by those who admired Eva’s spirit and those who detested her apparent egomania; and also by those who blamed her – at least partly – for KK’s Columbine-style crimes, and those who would exonerate her. We Need To Talk About Kevin is Eva’s complex account of the years leading up to the euphemistic Thursday, but while her tone borders on being confessional, it is peppered with conflicting doses of self-justification. And as the readers of Shriver’s prickly creation, we automatically become Eva’s judges.

When did the trouble with Kevin start? The reluctant mother writes candidly of the reservations she has towards him even before he is born; she resents the intrusion of pregnancy and later diagnoses herself with postnatal depression, but never deigns to seek medical help. We debated whether a small child could ever be held accountable for his actions, regardless of his extended unwarranted tantrums or apparently pernicious behaviour. Is Kevin born bad, as Eva would have us believe, or is he instinctively responding to her inability to bond with him? It would be easy to sympathise with Eva for being cursed with such a “horrible” child. But Shriver, herself childless and perhaps more objective, writes too inscrutably to justify a straightforward reading.

With the birth of sweet, compliant Celia, the family’s demarcation seems clear: it’s boys against girls; or the father who adores Kevin against the mother who Celia describes as her “best fwend”. Eva falls into parenting so effortlessly this time that it seems to vindicate all her previous misgivings. So why do we find ourselves dismissing Celia as a pathetic sap, and Franklin as hopelessly naïve, in contrast to the cynical-but-interesting personalities of Kevin and Eva? These pairings are even echoed in their names: Eva and Kevin Khatchadourian; Franklin and Celia Plaskett (the parents can’t agree on a common surname, thus the division). That Eva has chosen to portray her husband and daughter in this way suggests that she is secretly as contemptuous of them as Kevin was. As her son comments, “you can be kinda harsh”.

Lastly, what should we make of the ending, when, after thanking Kevin for his honesty in response to her finally asking “Why?” (“I used to think I knew…Now I’m not so sure”), Eva wearily concedes that, after all, she loves her son. Is this an affirmative portrayal of a mother’s redemptive love, or a sinister condoning of the son’s sins? Are we touched when she thoughtfully puts aside Kevin’s well-thumbed copy of Robin Hood for him as she looks forward to his release? No, I closed the book with a sense of continuing unease that she should co-operatively choose to preserve this, the literary inspiration for his evil.

Still, as Eva ultimately muses, whether she is innocent or guilty makes no difference now: mother and son are inextricably linked by an unchangeable past. But to return briefly to the significance of the protagonists’ names, the final point I’d like to raise is this: is it just coincidence that the letter ‘v’ takes the same shape as the tip of an arrow?

Posted by: Tori | March 3, 2010

Chapter 1: journeying through the Apocalypse

The Road, by Cormac McCarthyI read The Road, the Pulitzer-prizewinning novel by Cormac McCarthy, last week. It’s a bleak vision of humanity existing, barely and brutally, after a cataclysmic event leading to the end of the world as we know it. We aren’t told what happened, but the aftermath is starkly painted; the ash-covered land, the grey seas, the burnt-out trees and bodies scattered in the wind.

Yet there is goodness present in this arid wasteland. It comes in the varying forms of love, hope and memory; but the greatest of these is love.

Before reading, I’d heard a range of personal responses to this novel. A work colleague said she’d found it incredibly disturbing, and that it made her cry. A friend said it was the best book she’d ever read. My father found it ‘a difficult read’.  I wondered if it would be hard-going; after all, what could be so gripping about a (nameless) man and his small son on an unending journey?

It wasn’t just compelling; it was a revelation. The prose rendered new meaning, for me, to the term ‘achingly beautiful’. In a lawless, apocalyptic land, there was faith that the good guys would prevail, though up against starvation, cannibalism and agonising futility. In a godforsaken country, God was there. (The lack of any civilised structure in this sparse world was underlined by a decision to use no personal or place names and virtually no punctuation throughout; lending the already visionary prose a further dreamlike quality.)

I wanted to avert my gaze at times, and won’t be rushing out to see the film; the images in my mind will stay long enough without any help. But I raced through it easily, savouring the descriptions whilst willing the characters on to their tragic but ultimately redemptive conclusions.

There are some calling for McCarthy to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. As a warning of where we’re headed, inexorably, it’s terrifyingly prescient. Only a glance at the headlines of looting and teargas after the Chile earthquake shows what humans in desperate circumstances will do. He’d get my vote.

Posted by: Tori | March 3, 2010


There's no such thing as too many books.Welcome to Tori’s stories!

Starting this blog is fulfilling one of my resolutions for 2010. I’m sure readers will agree that there’s nothing like the feeling of pleasure mingled with nostalgia that comes when you’ve finished reading something that has moved you – but all too soon the memories fade.

For a few years I was lucky enough to be a member of a thriving book club, made up of like-minded friends who enjoyed their booze as much as their books. But we’ve all got busy, and though it is still running, peopled with new members, the prescriptive nature of a book club inevitably makes it restrictive. What about the book you want to read that no one else does? Or the book you’ve read that no one else has, that you desperately want to discuss?

So I hope to capture some of those fleeting thoughts and feelings on here. My logic is that if it’s written down, I can return to it at any time in the future and refer to my former reading self: the Time Traveler’s Librarian, if you will.

Oh, and the remarkable book that inspired me to embark upon this journey? The Road by Cormac McCarthy: the worthy subject of my next post