The Jewish Chronicle
Funny body language
a resource, a rich seam of thoughts, memories, associations, physical and emotional perceptions, that enhance her writing life.
She wants to rid herself of the sweats, the twitches, the restlessness, the tossing and turning and invasive turmoil of her nights — but she couldn’t live without them.
Like Scheherazade, whose nights are filled with stories that keep her alive, so Benjamin recognises — in spite of the sleep clinics and drugs and herbal remedies and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and mind-trickery she tries out — that her life would become emptier, more desolate, without the stimulation that insomnia bestows.
There are glimpses beneath the dazzling surface of the text of deeper disturbances at work in her night restlessness: a “temperamentally insomniac”, anxious mother; her childhood rebelliousness against the six o’clock “bedroom curfew”, knowing “that sleep was a cursed thing sent to bring the curtain down on the material pleasures of my world — on play, adventuring, company…” (no wonder her favourite tale was of the princess kept awake by the pea); and, in later life, the unconscious teeth-grinding that “has worn down my front three bottom teeth to chalky stumps”.
Yet, whatever the roots of her insomnia, in this book, Marina Benjamin embraces her condition and effects an alchemical transformation of it into something rich and strange. Like the cover of her book, that one tilts to reveal myriad luminous silver dots which disappear from another angle — a brilliant visual metaphor — Benjamin’s willingness to look at her world “at a tilt” allows her a vision of profusion and creative potentiality to illuminate, and set against, the terrors of the night.
Howard Cooper is a rabbi and psychotherapist
RYAN, THE naughtiest boy in Bracket Wood School, accidentally switches bodies with evil new headmaster Mr Carter, just before Offhead (Office for Fine High Education and Daftness-proofing) is due to inspect. Cue lots of new school rules (only running, shouting and bumping allowed in the corridors…) and unusual school dinners (finally that ice-cream scoop gets used for something sweeter than mashed potato). Everybody loves a life-swap story and Head Kid by David Baddiel (HarperCollins, £12.99) is spot-on for eight to 12-year-olds, with lavatorial humour, cake-mix-over-head incidents and a great running gag about the Gruffalo.
Pickled Watermelon by Esty Schachter (Kar-Ben, £6.99) is a slim and surprising novel. Molly’s parents take her to Israel for the first time (it is 1986, which seems random). They stay with Saba and Savta, meet cousins, try the food, see the sights. So far, so elementary guide-book. But it is not only Israel that the family explores, as Molly and her relatives — whose views on Zionism vary— begin, in a gentle, accessible way, to examine what it means to be a diaspora Jew, albeit from an American perspective. Bold move, in a book for nine to 12 year olds.
Also exploring Israel is a curious young crane called Alexandra and her family, who stop off, as so many real-life birds do, on their migration to Africa.
by (Kar-Ben, £5.99) is illustrated by Chiara Pasqualot, who captures the grace of the birds. A low-key picture book for ages three to seven.
Shona is a new girl in a big, confusing school. by Michael Rosen (Scholastic, £6.99) takes her story and intercuts it with Dickens’s Oliver Twist, which Shona is studying in English lessons. As Oliver becomes drawn into a life of crime, so does Shona, creating a new way for the contemporary reader to understand the classic text. Along the way, we get a brief, inconclusive class discussion about whether or not Fagin is portrayed in a racist way and whether we should no longer read Dickens’s novel. Stimulating stuff for age 11 up, with an appealing English-teacher character.