Book review – The Tent, the Bucket and Me by Emma Kennedy

The Tent, the Bucket and Me was another book that I received in the free book box I picked up last week. I had never heard of this book or its writer, but the write-up on the back looked interesting, so I thought, Why not? I am very happy I decided to read this book, as it was absolutely hilarious. Emma Kennedy wrote down her memories of her family holidays in the seventies. With help from her parents (as some of the memories are from when she was three), she has put together the account of her family’s disastrous attempts to go camping, both in the UK and in France.

It is absolutely unbelievable how much bad luck this family had with camping. It is understandable that going camping in the UK you can have the occasional rained-out holiday, but what the Kennedy’s experienced in the seventies went far beyond that. How they kept going year after year is a mystery to me. After the second disastrous holiday I would have thrown in the towel, but each year Tony packed the car full and the family would set off to yet another camping destination, ever hopeful that this year it would be better.

Camping in the seventies is of course an entirely different experience than camping nowadays. Back then, the tents were monstrosities, hard to put up, barely waterproof and of course not in any way, shape or form aerodynamic. And then there was the bucket. Do we really have to talk about the bucket? Suffice to say I do not understand how people could have gone camping without toilets. And considering the mishaps that happened with the bucket, it was really not a great idea at all.

The book was hilarious and I laughed so much. Emma Kennedy has a great style of writing, and although she makes fun of her parents, you can feel the love and warmth glowing from the pages. No matter how disastrous the holidays were, they provided some great memories, and out of the memories came this great book. I can heartily recommend it, especially if you have ever been camping.

I was born in the latter part of the seventies, but my family went camping too. Not to such disastrous lengths as the Kennedy family, but we had our share of misfortunes. My family had a mobile caravan, but due to the number of children in our family, we also had two small tents in which the older children slept (me included). I remember well the mornings when I woke up, calling to my dad: “Dad, my hand is in water.” Or (a bit more gross), waking up with vomit-encrusted hair. At the time, those incidents are horrible and make you vow never to go camping again. But in hindsight it is all part of the experience. We had some great times camping and I fully intend to take my children camping sometime soon. Thankfully the campsites my parents always took us had fully functioning toilet, although I also vaguely remember a pink bucket with a toilet seat. Was that for midnight emergencies?

This book really brought  home the fact that it is great to create memories for your children. Sure, some of Emma Kennedy’s memories of camping with her parents aren’t wonderful. But judging by how she writes about them, they were not life-altering traumatic and she maintains a sense of humour about it all. I didn’t always like sleeping in a tent myself and I still don’t like sleeping in a tent while it rains for fear of the tent leaking. This despite my husband’s best efforts to convince me that our tent really is waterproof (it is, it has withheld a tropical storm in Australia when everyone else was flooded out). But whenever my siblings and I get together and share holiday memories, it’s invariably the “disaster” moments that make us roll on the floor laughing.

At one point my dad had bought a “bungalow tent”, which was to be used as sleeping quarters for about 5 of us. It looked very impressive, but took ages to set up and of course the thing was anything but waterproof. That year, my parents decided to buy a static caravan, which was probably the best decision they made. A lot of fun memories were created in the static caravan as well, but the disaster stories are still the ones that make us laugh the most.

What are some of your fond camping/holiday memories?

Weekly quote

His whole attitude recalled irresistibly to the mind that of some assiduous hound who will persist in laying a dead rat on the drawing-room carpet, though repeatedly apprised by word and gesture that the market for same is sluggish or even non-existent.

P.G. Wodehouse (The Code of the Woosters)

Book review: Welcome to Rosie Hopkins’ Sweet Shop of Dreams by Jenny Colgan

On Saturday I responded to an ad on freestyle to pick up a box of romance novels for free. I really just intended to use them for BookCrossing, as I am not a huge fan of romance novels,  but to my surprise and delight they turned out to be chick lit books. Now, I am not a huge fan of chick lit, but the recent summery weather has me in the mood for summer reads, and chick lits usually fit the bill.

What I like about picking up free boxes of books (or for a very small price), is that you never know what you will get. I used to get free or very cheap boxes of books a lot when we still lived in Toronto, but Saturday was my first experience here in the UK. I always love coming home with the books and sprawling them out on the ground, sorting them between ones I’d like to read and ones I would pass on. Surprisingly, this box had a lot of books I wanted to read. I never really know what is good chick lit and so I tend to stick with the same authors who I know I will like. But when a book is free…why not try it?

And so it happened that I sat down with Welcome to Rosie Hopkins’ Sweet Shop of Dreams yesterday. I hadn’t expected much from this book, as I said, I am not a huge fan of chick lit. However, I was pleasantly surprised.

Rosie HopkinsThe book is about Rosie Hopkins, an auxiliary nurse who temporarily moves from her beloved city of London to the small town of Lipton to deal with her aunt who broke her hip. The instructions from her mother are clear: sell her aunt’s sweet shop and use the money to get her settled in a good old age home. However, things are rarely that straightforward in life. Before long, Rosie is involved in a few of the town’s issues and as she learns to appreciate life in a small town, she is forced to confront her real feelings for her boyfriend.

Rosie’s tale is interspersed with flashbacks to Lillian’s life (Rosie’s aunt). The reader gets an inside look at why she stayed in Lipton and why she continued to run the sweet shop.

As I said above, this book really surprised me. My experience with chick lit is that it is often badly written with flat characters and a too soppy plot. This book, however, had real flesh-and-blood characters who are true to themselves. The story of Lillian was heartbreaking (it literally made me swallow some tears here and there) and not too sappy where it easily could have been. Which probably has something to do with how strong and hard Lillian is, but that again is due to the writing skill of Jenny Colgan. Rosie’s personal development, while somewhat predictable, did make sense to her as a character and felt very genuine. I also have to give Jenny Colgan props for not making Gerard, Rosie’s boyfriend, an utterly useless and easily unlikeable character, which is a trap that a lot of writers fall into.

Lillian’s story was beautiful too. I am not usually crazy about flashbacks, I am too impatient for those, but Lillian’s story was so interesting and so sad, that I liked it as much – if not more than – Rosie’s story. It also gave the reader a good feel of what a small English town was like during Wold War II, without dwelling too much on the fact. I thought that the story was written very subtly, and it was all the more heartbreaking because of it.

The ending of the book is a bit predictable though. Of course Rosie ends up staying in Lipton and running the sweet shop (it’s even in the title) and of course she dumps her old boyfriend and finds love in the small town. What did surprise me is who she found said love with, I felt a bit like the writer changed her mind at the last minute, as it was a bit abrupt. But it was a good change of mind, as it made it a bit less predictable.

All in all a good summer read and I would definitely recommend it.

Weekly quote

A book should be a garden that fits in the hands. Word-petals of color. Stems of strength. Roots of truth. Turn a page and turn the seasons. Read the sentence and enjoy the roses.
No gardening is easy, however, especially that of words. Weeds sprout and ideas wilt. Some paragraphs need water; others need the shears. There are times when you wonder if this jungle can ever be trimmed.

Max Lucado

Book review – The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Gulag ArchipelagoI have “finally” finished reading The Gulag Archiplelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn only to find out at the end of my book that it was only Part I and II and I still have two more volumes (I believe it goes up to Part VII) before the end of this epic work. I will try to find the other volumes as they seem hard to come by on amazon (and unavailable on the Kindle), but I thought I would let you know my thoughts on the first two parts of this work.

As a bit of background information, Solzhenitsyn wrote The Gulag Archipelago to document the atrocities committed by the Russian government onto its people. His approach is very methodological and he traces the history of the arrests and deportation, the evolution of the mock trials from Lenin to Stalin. He demonstrates how the abuse of the Russian people already started with Lenin, and was interwoven into Russia’s history, rather than being an aberration of Stalin.

The book is gruesome and brutal, there is no denying that. What has happened to the Russian people from around 1918 till 1956 (and later than that even) is too horrifying for words. It is amazing that a country as big as Russia could be so isolated from the world that the Western world did not see – or chose not to see – the large scale holocaust that was happening there. Although I have been aware of the fact that “terrible things happened” under Stalin in Russia, I never realised the extent and the horror and the misery. It is worse than reading about the holocaust perpetrated by Hitler. We commemorate the end of World War II each year and think about the horrible things done by Hitler – and don’t get me wrong, they were horrible – but hardly any attention is given to the millions of victims of the Russian regime. There is not even an accurate estimation of how many people suffered and died during all those years, but because it did not affect us, and we didn’t really lose any of our people, we don’t pay attention to it. I am not saying we need to commemorate every atrocity ever committed anywhere on earth, but I do think it is good to be aware of what happens elsewhere in the world, both in the past and in the present. I don’t intend on this becoming a political rant, I merely wanted to point out that reading this book has really opened my eyes.

And yet. Despite the horror of his subject, and the abject misery of the characters (i.e. real life people) in his stories, Solzhenitsyn is able to write with flair, and wit and even humour in some places. Considering Solzhenitsyn himself had experienced the mock trials, the prisons and the camps, the Russian government – the whole system of dehumanisation – was unable to take Solzhenitsyn’s humanity. It is almost disconcerting to find oneself laughing in the midst of all the misery and yet Solzhenitsyn is able to make the reader laugh, especially by way of his biting sarcasm. The book is technically non-fiction and yet it reads like a novel.

I have to say that this book was very educational (as I mentioned above). It was also gut-wrenching and it definitely made me nauseous in some places – I had to skip the parts where he described the torture. But above all, at the end of the book, I was inspired. Solzhenitsyn’s message throughout, but especially at the end of the book is a sobering one. He urges the reader not to get bogged down in petty irritations, trivial problems and material things, but to savour the simple things in life. After all, as he says (and I paraphrase as I read the book in Dutch, so I can’t really quote here): if you don’t have anything, they cannot take anything away either. And really, shouldn’t we all live like that? Enjoy and savour the things we take for granted, don’t fight with your loved ones, or at least make up with them before you go to sleep, because you never know whether you will be able to tell them you love them in the morning. Reading The Gulag Archipelago made me realise that we truly live in paradise here in England. It is easy to forget how blessed we are with a government who is willing to assist us when times are tough rather than trying to find a way to send us to some camp so they can use us as free labour in order to get railroads finished. We have enough to eat, so much even that obesity is becoming a problem, and we view a lot of material things not as a luxury, but as a basic right.

I know that in the last weeks, as my reading of this book slowly progressed, I have tried hard to remember Solzhenitsyn’s message. Whenever I want to complain about how busy I am with work and studying and the kids, I take a step back and tell myself that at least I get paid well for my job, that my studying will also be rewarded and that I can be with my kids, in freedom and health. I salute Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for not steeping his book in hatred, horror and misery, but to be able to forge a little clump of golden inspiration out of the furnace that burnt so many innocent Russian lives.