Last week I paid a visit to Grimm and Co., the magical apothecary and one-stop festival for the imagination in the centre of Rotherham.
This fortnight’s Literary City is all about this extraordinary place, and I would heartily recommend you stop by.
Our read of the fortnight by Robert Harris will have you gripped to your deck chair this summer; it’s a real page-turner.
And thank you to Pam Davies for sending her brilliant reader review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter Of Maladies.
I hope you’re having a great summer, and getting plenty of reading done.
Get in touch via email email@example.com or twitter @AnnaCaig.
Read of the fortnight: An Officer And A Spy by Robert Harris
An Officer And A Spy is a good, old-fashioned page-turner of a mystery.
This is the story of the infamous Dreyfus affair, one of history’s most notorious miscarriages of justice, told through the eyes of the French army officer who gradually uncovers the truth.
Georges Picquart is on the periphery of the case when Dreyfus is accused and convicted. But he is subsequently put in charge of the Statistical Section, the intelligence division of the French army where, it turns out, the evidence against Dreyfus was cooked.
It’s all absolutely gripping stuff.
For several nights in a row I found myself staying up far too late reading this book to find out what happens.
The mystery is not around whether Dreyfus, who is convicted of selling secrets to the Germans, is guilty. We know he is not.
The mystery is around who did what to frame him, and how the truth will come to light.
Picquart’s journey from total belief in the Jewish Dreyfus’s guilt, through the first seeds of doubt, and into the uncovering of wholesale corruption at the heart of his beloved army, is beautifully told.
This book is so easy to read that it is almost a joy. Until you remember that it is all true.
As someone with pitifully inadequate historical knowledge, almost all I know about antisemitism in Europe is the holocaust during the Second World War.
Taking place 50 years earlier, this book sheds terrifying light on the level of disregard for Jewish life.
The acceptability to the officers of the French army of using a Jewish man as a scapegoat, even if it means imprisoning him in horrific conditions, acts as a frightening precursor to the genocide of the Jewish people across Europe half a century later.
And it provides a vivid reminder from history of the dangers of treating a group of people as the ‘other’ and using that as an excuse for cruelty.
Harris has a real gift for making you believe one hundred per cent that the events he is retelling are all accurately depicted.
His research is worn lightly, but its thoroughness is clear. I love a writer who makes you feel safe and secure; there will be no slip-ups here, and this is a book that places you firmly as a fly on the wall in 1896 in Paris.
I would love to know what you make of it.
Literacy City: The Rotherham Connection
Residents of South Yorkshire may have noticed a rather usual shop in Rotherham town centre.
Grimm & Co. is an extraordinary sight on the high street. Magical apothecary and provider of writing workshops to children, this truly is a place of wonder.
Boasting famous patrons from author Joanne Harris, to Sir Bob Geldof, to The League Of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson, Grimm and Co. was born out of a Sheffield University study into creative literacy. The team behind the apothecary aims to lift children out of their daily lives, show them the importance of exercising their imaginations, and maybe just boost the town’s SATs results along the way.
But any old human being can turn up and look around this magical place. I was lucky enough to pay a visit with my 11-year-old daughter and her friend last week, and I can confirm from personal experience that it is quite something.
From the library of forgotten books where my daughter swapped a couple of her old Enid Blyton doorstops for some awesome-looking, and much more grown-up reads, to the museum of magical artefacts, to the weighing scales that determine what fantastic creature you are, to the workshop making origami wishes, this is a treasure trove of gems to get the imagination sparking, and a superb way to while away an hour or two with children.
My daughter is right on the cusp of that time of life that Eglantine Price in Bedknobs and Broomsticks calls ‘the age of not believing’.
At least half the time now she is a young lady more interested in her mobile phone and make-up than the world of imagination.
But immediately upon entering Grimm & Co. she jumped right back into believing, with bells on.
It was wonderful to see her writing to her hero Hermione Granger with fierce concentration, debating the relative merits of being a phoenix or a unicorn, and wondering whether powdered cloud or extract of genius would come in more handy.
On top of all these wonders available every day in the shop, Grimm and Co. runs innovative storytelling and writing workshops that aim to unleash young people’s imaginations and build confidence, self-respect and communication skills.
They have a programme of events coming up this summer, as well as lots of activities in the apothecary.
All the proceeds from the shop go towards ensuring that the literacy workshops are all free for all children.
For more information about Grimm & Co. including their summer activities, visit www.grimmandco.co.uk
I’ll definitely be back, so see you there. Here’s to none of us ever reaching the age of not believing.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Pam Davies said: This is a marvellous, ensnaring collection of stories on the theme of, as the blurb explains, ‘the emotional confusion of the outsider’.
Its huge gravitational pull is the characters. American, Bengali, Canadian or Indian, child or centenarian – many newly married, they don’t seem to have been created by Lahiri so much as introduced to us face to face from among her friends, relatives and neighbours.
The plots unfurl subtly and then lead round corners we never saw were there. With each story I was surprised, then saddened, relieved or amused and then surprised again.
A small snag I did find in this fantastic tapestry of lives was the one false step that each plot seems to make.
But then the journeys to those points and beyond them were more than worth my while.
Nearly all the stories brought a strong response from me – a lasting smile, a small gasp or a need to close my eyes in sadness.
At its weakest, this collection is absorbing. At its best, which is most of it, it becomes part of you – something you experienced rather than just read.
I think that for a long time I will look out for Mala and her husband in the streets round me, hope to chat to Mr Kapasi in a local café and wish I could join Shoba and Shukumar on their Boston doorstep calling across to neighbours in the powercut.
Thank you to Fargate From The Madding Crowd for another great book recommendation.