February Bookshelf

It's been a busy month for new books, mostly grown-up ones, but a few for the smalls.  So this month we're covering mindfulness, Russian literature, some classics and a very current novel.  Read on...

In Mindfulness for Parents, Amber Hatch offers a practical guide to practising mindfulness as a parent, with the aim of helping you achieve a calmer, more relaxed family life.  Written in a friendly, accessible style, the book teaches what mindfulness is, how to practice it, and how it can help with the challenges of parenthood.  Raising children can be challenging, daunting, stressful and overwhelming, but with mindfulness you can learn how to stay calm in a crisis, feel more connected to your child, be patient, throw yourself into an activity, feel good about how you talk, and keep a sense of perspective.

Topics covered including responding to your baby’s communication in the early weeks, meditation, joining your child in play, preventing mealtime and bedtime stresses, screentime, encouraging outdoor play, developing positive qualities, managing challenging behaviour, and introducing mindfulness to children.  An interesting introduction to mindfulness and how to apply it to parenting, making family life calmer, happier and more connected.

My specialism is early to mid 19th century Russian literature, but Dostoevsky (a bit later) is one of my passions, so I was delighted to receive this new edition for review.  In June 1862, Dostoevsky left St Petersburg on his first excursion to western Europe, for two reasons: to consult specialists on his epilepsy but also to see the source of the western ideas which he believed were corrupting Russia.  He visited Berlin, Paris, London, Florence, Milan, Vienna and more, the impressions he recorded of his travels were originally published in the periodical Vremya (Time) which he edited, and then as the volume Winter Notes on Summer Impressions.

Illustrating Dostoevsky's discursive, acerbic journalistic style and key beliefs and concepts, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions is one of Dostoevsky's most important early works.  This new translation by Kyril FitzLyon comes with extensive notes and a section on Dostoevsky's life, making it ideal for the more general reader as well as the specialist.

Mikail Bulgakov is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, creating his seminal work of surrealist fiction, The Master and Margarita amidst the most dire of circumstances in Soviet Russia.  This is the first translation of Bulgakov's diaries and letters in English, ably collated and translated by Roger Cockrell.  Containing an extensive section on Bulgakov’s life and works, this is the perfect introduction to this mighty writer.

Funny, humane, urbane, astute, perceptive, perspicacious, Diaries and Selected Letters gives an insight to the man and his life, but more importantly it is the tragic tale of an artist living and working (trying to at least) under a totalitarian regime.  Bulgakov readily picks out the inadequacies and foibles of the then young regime, portents of what is to come.  Dogged by censorship and suppression, having his works and even his diary criticised, confiscated and decried, Bulgakov battled on.  After his personal diary was seized in 1926, he encouraged his wife Elena to keep her own diary, many entries influenced by and even dictated by himself.  He also confined many, many thoughts and opinions to paper in letters to friends, family and foes, notably Stalin and Gorky.

This selection from the diaries and letters of the Bulgakovs, many of them here translated into English for the first time, provides an insightful glimpse into this fascinating period of Russian history and literature.  Extensively annotated, making it ideal for academics and students as well as the more general reader, this collection provokes, informs, challenges and angers in equal measure.

From two of my favourites to one I don't particularly like.  Personally I find Tolstoy too heavy-handed, too long-winded, very self-indulgent and slightly distasteful, but I know I am in a minority. Childhood, Boyhood, Youth was Tolstoy's first published work, completed in 1856.  It recounts his early life up to his university days, although it is not a memoir in the strictest sense.

In the style of Stendhal, Tolstoy’s ‘autobiography’ combines nostalgic anecdote with frank personal assessment and philosophical extrapolation, confronting and blurring the notions of reality and imagination.  It is an early display of Tolstoy’s storytelling genius, as well as his desire to fuse personal philosophy with imaginative storytelling.  Dora O'Brien has translated the classically simple yet colourful language vividly, enabling this early work to give a valuable insight into the personal and literary development of this great writer.  Like other volumes in this series, it also has an extensive section on Tolstoy's life and works.

From the greats of Russian literature to one of England's, that great animator of early nineteenth century life and its mores, Jane Austen. Northanger Abbey chronicles Catherine Morland's six week sojourn in fashionable, high society Bath.  Young, inexperienced, na├»ve, she has devoured many of the sensational and macabre literary works of the time, and visits nearby Northanger Abbey expecting to walk straight into a Gothic adventure.  When no dark suspense prevails, she begins to imagine a gruesome and improbable history for the Abbey's former inhabitants.

Published posthumously, this is one of Austen's earlier works, but is a witty comedy of manners in which the characters leap from the page, in the vein of her more famous later novels.  It is also a charming love story, but moreover it is a parody of the overly sensational Gothic pulp fiction of the time, such as the novels of Ann Radcliffe, showcasing Austen's sense of the ridiculous and wicked humour.

A classic of children's literature, Little Lord Fauntleroy was hugely popular when first published in 1886, touching on themes of parental separation, loneliness and becoming your own person.  Since eclipsed by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s more famous The Secret Garden, Fauntleroy remains a witty and charming tale of the cultural clash between old and new.

Cedric Errol is to all appearances a normal American boy, growing up in New York.  But when he meets his grandfather, the Earl of Dorincourt, Cedric discovers that he is in fact Lord Fauntleroy.  Whisked away from his mother, friends and all he knows, he is now expected to become an English gentleman.  How can Cedric convince his grandfather that there is more to life than titles and wealth?  How can he convince him to let Cedric go home?  A delightful novel, perfect for chapter reading.

Similar in theme to the recent film Lion, Lucky Boy is the heart-wrenching tale of two mothers, a young undocumented Mexican woman and an Indian-American wife, who love the same child.  Every year in the US, countless 'illegal alien' parents are detained and deported, forced to leave their US-born children behind.  Thousands of families torn apart, never to be reunited.  Author Shanthi Sekaran has conducted meticulous research into these issues, and in the novel raises explosive issues of immigration, motherhood and class.

In Lucky Boy, 18 year old Solimar Castro-Valdez embarks on the perilous journey to cross the US/Mexican border.  Weeks later she arrives on her cousin's doorstep in California, dazed and pregnant.  Dealing with the uncertainty of new motherhood, her new American identity, and feelings of loss for her baby's father, as well as her old life, Soli clings to her son as her only lifeline in a crevasse of uncertainty.

Across town, Kavya Reddy, a mostly contented chef, is overwhelmed by the unexpected desire to have a child in her mid-thirties and possible infertility.  Her desperate longing for a child sets Kavya and her husband on a collision course with Soli, when she is detained and her infant son comes under Kavya's care.  A 'legitimate' immigrant, Kavya has the authorities' trust whilst Soli elicits only their aggression and suspicion.

Happy reading!  See you next month.

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