Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo

book

After graduating from Harvard with an education degree, Michelle Kuo decided she wanted to make a difference in the world, … to do … straightforward, immediate work in places that needed people. As a result, she joined an organisation called Teach for America, and was sent to the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest regions of America, where there was a dire shortage of teachers.

Helena
The town of Helena

In this moving memoir, Kuo reflects the time she spent in a town called Helena, where she taught English to African-American teenagers, a dumping ground for the so-called bad kids. But, as Kuo puts it in the introduction of the book: Books had changed me … And I believed books could change the lives of my students. It was unashamedly romantic. I was twenty-two.

Michelle Kuo.JPG
Michelle Kuo

Her initial idealism was rudely smashed when she started teaching at the incongruously named ‘Stars’ school where the students swore at her (fuck you, Chinese bitch), got into fights, and arrived at school with bruises and welts on their bodies. Kuo was shocked by all of it, but she was more shocked by how she reacted: I yelled. I got mean, and she wondered what she was doing wrong. In a last ditch attempt to engage her students, she chose to teach them a play called A Raisin in the Sun. The reading level was not too difficult and the story centered on on a black family – and there it was, the students responded.

It was after this breakthrough that Kuo’s creative teaching skills shone through and, as a reader and sometime teacher, I found it a joy to read how the students responded to her and how they slowly opened up, writing about their dreams that extended beyond the Delta, and beyond the reputations that clung to them. She introduced the concept of free writing to them, writing that would not be graded or judged in any way, and in fact, would not have to be shown to anyone if they didn’t want. The students questioned her, disbelieving, but then:

… every student wrote. And during this strange time of silence – the heavy dark sounds of breathing, the arrhythmic scratching of the pencil, the surprising absence of talking – there was a palpable sense of desire.

One of Kuo’s students was a fifteen-year-old boy called Patrick Browning; a quiet boy who Kuo, by her second year of teaching, could see was a child who would respond to even a little adult interest: he wanted to try; he was thirsty for encouragement, yet he had failing grades. Discovering that the main reason he was sent to Stars was for failing to attend school, she went to find him at his home in the area of town called a ‘ghetto in a ghetto’. Patrick promised he would come to school more, and responded with passion to her teaching, reading more and writing voraciously and surprising even himself by winning the Most Improved Student award.

Pat
Patrick and Michelle

However, when Kuo got accepted into Harvard Law School, she left the Delta and immersed herself into university and work life. Three years later, however, she received a phone call to tell her that Patrick was in prison for having killed a man. She felt she had failed him, and a voice inside her said, If you hadn’t left, Patrick might not have ended up in prison. You owe him something, and, despite the fact she was to start a new job in three weeks time, Kuo chose to return to Helena to carry on teaching Patrick poetry, literature and history in prison.

This book isn’t a love story, nor is it a Hollywood-ised account of a teacher changing a person’s life, but it is an incredible reflection of how a person can flourish under another’s attention and how educational guidance can waken a person’s mind. The first bit of writing that Patrick gives Kuo when she meets up with him again is infantile and badly spelled: It was a shock. The writing looked crazed…I did not recognize his handwriting at all. Yet she perseveres, giving him homework and reading study to do after every visit, and loaning him books ranging from ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ to haiku poetry to ‘The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass’. She never is condescending; she challenges him; she gives him Larkin, Dylan Thomas, Pablo Neruda, Walt Whitman and gets him to imitate poems in his own words. The beauty of some of what Patrick wrote is striking.

Towards the end of the book, Kuo writes:

He had come so far, but what struck me then and for many years afterwards was how little I had done for him. I don’t mean this in the way of false modesty. I mean that it frightens me that so little was required for him to develop intellectually – a quiet room, a pile of books, and some adult guidance. And yet these things were rarely supplied.

Her comment made me reflect how this is applicable to so many children around the world, particularly in South Africa where the education system is abysmal. There must be so many Patricks who, with regular access to books, some teachers’ attention and regular instruction, would flourish.

This review merely reflects the story of Michelle Kuo and her interactions with Patrick, but there is more depth to the memoir than this, in that Kuo writes, too, about the failure of the educational and justice systems in America, and about the legacy of slavery as well.

To end, a poem of Patrick’s, written in April 2010 while he was in prison (as of now, he is no longer in jail):

I taught myself to feel free and alive/to wake up thankful to be here/and to know everything is a blessing/from my food, my family and visits./When the old man moans in his room/and the white guys tell sad stories,/I insist I’m fine./I have  perfect health and happiness./I instantly realise the peaceful insects/flying across the room noiseless/and the bright light bulb/that shine like the sun for me every day/inside the county jail downtown/Only to a newcomer is it all startling./If you ask me I’m not here/Just in my own world.

Advertisements

The Nix by Nathan Hill

This book was an assault on the senses, a whirlwind tour of modern-day America, warts and all – social media, social narcissism, radical politics, political correctness, gaming addiction, friendship, loneliness, childhood grief, mother-issues, absent fathers, all thrown together in one huge debut novel. It was a roller-coaster of a read, switching rapidly between characters and time periods, at once serious and then very funny, and it is very, very worth reading.

the nix cover

Samuel Andreson-Anderson is a literature professor in his mid-30s, stressed by his life and work, obsessed with online gaming (in particular, a game called ‘World of Elfquest’) and unaware of the viral sensation of the moment: a middle-aged woman pelting a presidential-candidate politician (Governor Packer) with stones. When he receives a call from her lawyer, he finds out that the “Packer-Attacker’ is none other than his mother. The lawyer is phoning to ask Samuel to write a letter attesting to her good character – a problem for Samuel in that his mother walked out when he was 11 and he hasn’t seen her since.

Samuel had been a one-book wonder in his early 20s, had been given a handsome advance by his publishers and had never produced another word. In lieu of having to pay back the advance, Samuel suggests he write an expose on his mother instead, and this is how Samuel reunites with his mother and learns the story of her life, particularly her student protest days. In learning about her, we also learn about Samuel growing up, his friendships and first love, so well captured by Hill.

Yet … this small synopsis reveals very little about the depth and breadth of this book. A chaos of other characters exists within it, all vying for attention, some capturing it more than others. I liked Pwnage, the online gamer who games himself nearly to death, playing a plethora of different avatars in World of Elfquest; I loathed but had to laugh at Laura, Samuel’s student who was caught plagiarising a paper and mounts a defence full of buzzwords – Samuel’s accusation, for example, triggered negative feelings of stress and vulnerability in her, and she hints at sexual abuse. As is symptomatic of so many politically-correct administrations now,  Laura ends up graduating cum laude and Samuel gets fired.

0907_nathan-hill-03-1000x666

This book is a vast, Big Novel and a biting satire of life in America. Yes, it’s long and perhaps it should have been tightened up, but I enjoyed it and hope there’s more to come from Hill. Seeing that he looks young enough to be my son and, with the success of this, his first novel, I’m sure there will be.

 

 

 

Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr, the author of the best-seller All The Light We Cannot See, received notification that he had won a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome when his new-born twins were only 12 hours old. Six months later, he, his wife and the twins boarded a plane in their home town, Boise, Idaho, and flew to Rome to live for a year.

book cover four seasons

This book accounts their year in Rome, divided into the four  seasons, starting with fall. With each season, Doerr details their new life, the challenges they face living in a foreign city where they can’t speak the language, his failed attempts at writing a novel, the relentless demands of being a new parent; all encapsulated by his beautiful paean to Rome.  It is a mix of travelogue, parenting guide, literary criticism, writing guide, with a dose of self-deprecating humour thrown into the mix.

The demands of parenting twins, coupled with insomnia, leaves Doerr so exhausted most of the time that writing becomes a near impossibility, and so he turns to Pliny – “How can fiction compete with this guy?” he says; and he turns his attention to the new city in which he lives. “And now there’s Rome, beginning to seep into everything, flooding my notebooks: the slumbering palaces, the hallucinatory light.” He describes the city in exquisite detail: the residents, the food, the architecture, the history, and often nature within the city; the way the light falls, the colour of the sky, the strength of wind, the rain, the snow. (And how he wishes to see snow fall through the dome of the Pantheon; something he never gets to do.)

Parthenon

He weaves such intricacy into his observations that every sentence about Rome made me feel as though I were walking through it with him – or wish that I were walking with him. He is particularly good at describing the smallest human interactions – whether it be a couple walking past him, a shop keeper, a child holding her father’s hand – and, in doing so, creates an intimate impression of this vast city.

Pope John Paul dies in that same year and Doerr gives us an an account of the millions of pilgrims who flooded the city to attend to the funeral, focusing on the individuals, rather than the pomp and ceremony of the funeral itself. “It’s as if I’ve wandered into the biggest tailgate party in history, three days too long, the enthusiasm faded to a raw-throated, glassy fatigue-some people are crying; many are asleep. Volunteers hand out liters of water. A woman cradles a full grown German Shepherd. A man snores.”

Then there are the accounts of parenting, which are so funny and touching and so full of love for his boys, Owen and Henry, who seem never to sleep. He takes us through their developmental steps: crawling, teething, walking, all against the backdrop of Rome. Wherever they take the twins, people stop to talk to them, admiring the little boys.

“Half a dozen Romans stops me: ‘They are twins?” “How many years do they have?” “where did you buy that stroller?” Half my Italian vocabulary has to do with baby gear.” 

doerr twins.jpg

Doerr recounts he and his wife having to hire a babysitter and go through the agony of leaving their babies with a stranger; his twins start teething and are monstrous; the whole family gets colds and Owen’s is so bad they have to call out a paediatrician; Doerr’s wife collapses and has to go to hospital, where they find it is nigh impossible to communicate without being able to speak Italian; he tells us their lives in small, humorous and very poignant detail.

Doerr walks through the city every day, sometimes with the twins, sometimes by himself and the whole time he observes Rome and how Romans live.

Every time I turn around here, I witness a miracle: wisteria pours up walls; slices of sky show through the high arches of a bell tower … a church floor looks as soft as flesh; the skin from a ball of mozzarella cheese tastes rich enough to change my life.”

And so after a year in Rome, it is time for him and his family to go home.

I know nothing. I lived in Rome four seasons. I never made it through the gates between myself and the Italians. I cannot claim to have become, in even the smallest manner, Roman. And yet I can’t stop myself: a pen, a notebook, the urge to circumscribe experience.

He has circumscribed his year in Rome wonderfully, with nearly every sentence evoking an image of the eternal city; an account that has made me wish to get back to Rome again.

Vue-of-Rome

 

 

 

Days without End by Sebastian Barry

I never thought I would like a book about army life, about brutal battles and vivid descriptions of the atrocities of war, but this book was one of the best I’ve read in a long time. Please don’t be put off by my first sentence; this book is worth reading for the quality of Barry’s writing alone, as well as the extraordinary story that he tells, that of two gay men in the US army in the 1850s and into the American Civil War.

Days without end

The book is narrated by Thomas McNulty, an Irishman who fled to America aged 13 after his family had literally starved to death in Ireland. Thomas talks to us throughout this novel in the conversational tone of one without much education, but with a wisdom of having lived a hard life. He is matter-of-fact, without self-pity. He said that when he arrived in America with others on a ship, “The point is, we were nothing … We were a plague. We were only rats of people. Hunger takes away what you are.” Thomas left the horrors of a starving Ireland but came to the New World to encounter a harsh reality of expansionism in which indigenous people were being slaughtered.

Existing on virtually no food and living in rags, Thomas met a boy called John Cole, who was equally hungry and ragged. A friendship starts and almost right away, Thomas “felt like a human being again“. The boys searched for work and ended up in a mining town, working as dancers dressed up in women’s clothing to entertain the miners. There is nothing sexual about this; they danced for the miners:

Maybe we were like memories of elsewhere. Maybe we were the girls of their youth, the girls they had first loved. Man, we was so clean and nice, I wished I could of met myself.”

But the boys grew into men and could no longer pass for pretty dancing girls, and so at 17 joined the army, a hard life but one that gave them food, clothes and a horse each. Most of the fighting was against Native Americans (Indians), a horrific ethnic cleansing with brutal, physical battles, but Thomas plainly explains his and John’s behaviour:

“…. I don’t think anything can be properly understood. How we were able to see slaughter without flinching. Because we were nothing ourselves, to begin with. We knew what to do with nothing, we were at home there.

soldiers

Much of the novel is about the army, the horrendous hardships the soldiers go through, not only with the fighting but also the hostile countryside and weather conditions. On reading about this life, I wondered how on earth anyone ever survived it, but Thomas and John did, and throughout the novel, the story of their love is woven, a beautifully quiet and tender love story that seems at odds with the setting.

Barry’s handling of this gay relationship is so masterfully accomplished that it moves through the story without appearing fantastical, for it is almost unreal – two men in love in an overtly masculine military context where lives don’t count for anything. I didn’t cotton on to the gay aspect of the relationship until, early on in the book, in between descriptions of the army and base camp, Barry throws in the sentence:

And then we quietly fucked and then we slept.

Barry challenges the readers with questions of identity as these men are gay, yet they remain loyal to their army compatriots. They are tender with each other, yet they kill when necessary. Barry stretches us even further when John and Thomas marry secretly and, when John leaves the army and Thomas runs away, Thomas lives for a while as Thomasina, finally dressing in women’s clothing as he had always wished to. He is feminine, yet remains masculine in his attitude to war and the army to which he has to return. And more for the reader to ingest – John adopts a Sioux girl after a raid on an Indian camp in which all the adults were slaughtered, and so the three of them live as a family for a while, happily. It all sounds strange, but Barry makes it come alive and treats the subject in a delicate and open-hearted manner.

This book was inspired in part by Barry’s son, Toby, who came out a couple of years before the book was written. In an interview with The Guardian, Barry said: From that moment on we (his son and Barry) entered into this extraordinary period where he was instructing me in the magic of gay life.” 

Barry listened and absorbed everything his son told him about gay love, cross-dressing and wove it into his novel:

“I was very impressed by the subtlety, the delicacy and the intricacy of the love between Toby and his boyfriend. People talk about tolerance, but it’s not really about tolerance. It should also be about emulation and reverence and learning from.” 

This novel can be read on many levels – a story about war, a description of life in the US army in the mid-19th century, a love story. It is a book about identity, patriotism, and friendship; fear and fervour, ugliness and strange beauty; it is bitter-sweet. It is a book written with such beautiful sentences that a dreamlike quality is evoked even in the most awful scenes; I found myself going back and re-reading battle scenes, because of the imagery that Barry uses; I found myself reading too quickly, compelled to find out what happens to Thomas and John, and I found myself almost unbearably moved by the love they had for each other.

I thought Barry’s books were good before this one, but now I believe him to be a truly great writer. I will read this book again and read it more slowly next time.

Barry

Reference:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/01/sebastian-barry-costa-book-award-2017-days-without-end-interview-gay-son

 

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Nutshell must have the most curious narrator I’ve come across in many years: a nine-month old foetus, pompous and opinionated, yet strangely beguiling. And surely a unique opening sentence:

So here I am, lying upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for.

nutshell

Told from his point of view in the first person, the story line pivots around the foetus being privy to a forbidden relationship and a dastardly plan the couple has devised.

I’ve no choice, my ear is pressed all day and night against the bloody walls. I listen, I make mental notes, and I’m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.

A few pages into the book, I wondered how McEwan was going to get away with writing about a foetus who is so knowledgeable about the world and its affairs, but he rather glibly pulls it off by having the unborn baby listen when his mother tunes into the radio, or when she listens to podcasts and audio books, or plays classical music. He learns about good wine when his mother drinks (which she does fairly often) and pontificates in a snobby way about the merits of a good burgundy or Sancerre. He knows contemporary politics, and surmises things he has not seen, such as colours and lightning.

Thus the foetus talks to us in an adult voice, as a reluctant observer to the plot that is unfolding within earshot and about which he can do nothing to prevent.

The plot is a familiar one to those who know Hamlet, and the epigraph is a quote from Hamlet that gives the novel its title. The mother, Trudy, has kicked her husband, John, a gormless poet, out of the house (John’s family home), even though she is pregnant with his child. She is now  in a relationship with Claude, John’s banal brother, described by the narrator as thus:

This is Claude as in property developer who composes nothing, invents nothing. He enjoys a thought, speaks it aloud, then later has it again, and – why not? – says it again. 

The narrator listens to Trudy and Claude plot against his father, for whom he has developed a tenderness, and whom he is unable to warn. John still visits Trudy at his house, trying to woo her back in a meek manner, oblivious to the plan being devised against him. The narrator, in his distress, mentally pens a letter to his father, finishing it with:

Don’t come down the stairs. Call a carefree goodbye and go. Or if you must come down, decline the fruit drink, stay only long enough to say your farewells. I’ll explain later. Until then, I remain your obedient son … 

The book ends with the narrator being born at home, Trudy crying, Claude panicking in disgust, too late to call an ambulance. The birth is described fantastically,  the narrator describing his agonising journey into the world:

I travel a section where I know a portion of my uncle has passed too often the other way. I’m not troubled. What was in his day a vagina, is now proudly a birth canal, my Panama … not casual cock can compete. For a stretch, I’m deaf, dumb and blind, it hurts everywhere. But it pains my screaming mother more as she renders the sacrifice all mothers make for their big-headed, loud-mouthed infants.

What I enjoy about McEwan is that no book he writes is like another; the story lines differ and so each new book of his is a new adventure. I had a sense throughout this book that McEwan had fun writing it and enjoyed creating this unusual, sometimes irritating, often endearing, narrator. His prose is as smooth as ever and he has retold a classic tale in the most masterful, imaginative manner.

mcewan

 

 

 

The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls shimmers with a dream-like tautness in both its writing and its plot, and I found myself pulled through the book by both, almost unable to stop reading. Cline is young, and this is her first book, but she writes with the aplomb of an experienced writer; her sentences are imbued with a sense of sweet and sour, of pushing you up and pulling you down, of freshness and of dread.

the-girls

The beauty of the prose aside, Cline writes about teenage girls so well that I was submerged within the story, within my memories of being a teenager, desperate to impress and to fit in. I might have been appalled by some of Evie’s behaviour (the main character), but I always understood why she was driven to do what she did.

cline
Emma Cline

Written in the light of the Charles Manson murders, the story centres around Evie Boyd, a fifteen-year-old girl living in California in 1969. Her parents are recently divorced and self-focused. Evie’s life is small and limited; she spends every afternoon hanging out with her best friend, Connie, filling her life with those particular inanities that come with being a teenager:

Every day after school, we’d click seamlessly into the familiar track of the afternoon. Waste hours at some industrious task: following Vidal Sassoon’s sugggestions for raw egg smoothies to strengthen hair or picking at blackheads with the tip of a sterilized sewing needle…We licked batteries to feel a metallic jolt on the tongue, rumored to be one-eighteenth of an orgasm.

It is with these sort of details that Cline so evokes the agonies of being a teenager, when she describes how Evie tries to be noticed in the way she dresses, how she drinks and smokes to fit in older kids, how she creeps into Connie’s brother’s bed at night; but how she also tries for parts of her not to be noticed, such as covering her pimples with thick base and standing with her stomach pulled in.

With these deep feelings of insecurity and boredom filling her life, when Evie one day spots ‘the girls’, she is instantly drawn to them, for being so totally different from anything in her little world, especially the prettiest one, the black-haired girl: There was a suggestion of otherworldliness hovering around her, a dirty smock dress barely covering her ass … They (the girls) were messing with an uneasy threshold, prettiness and ugliness at the same time, and a ripple of awareness followed them through the park.

After longing to enter into the girls’ world and obsessing over Suzanne with the black hair, Evie finally gets herself invited to the ranch,  down a long dirt track and deep into the hills outside town. Here a group – mainly women and a few feral children – lives under the thrall of Russell, whose name Evie hears mentioned with reverence before she meets him, and whose focus dissolves her loneliness by making her feel special at last, giving her the attention she’s needed all her teenage years.

Even later, even knowing the things I knew, it was impossible, that first night, to see beyond the immediate. Russell’s buckskin shirt, smelling of flesh and rot and soft as velvet. Suzanne’s smile blooming in me like a firework, losing its colored smoke, its pretty, drifting cinders.

manson-2
Charles Manson

Suzanne and Russell’s attention, and the inclusiveness of the group on the ranch,  fills that emotional vacuum within Evie, while also giving her an opportunity to exact revenge her mother’s neglect and ignorance of the life Evie is now living.

Cline’s story is shocking within itself, (yet totally believable looking back at the Manson  cult), but because Cline describes with such deep understanding Evie’s teenage years, I could believe – with horror – the sacrifices Evie was willing to take. On finishing the novel, I was filled with admiration for the skill with which Cline has written this book. I hope there are many more to come from her.

Four books I’ve recently enjoyed

Short  reviews of  books I have recently read and really enjoyed.

lucybarton

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: this is a novel I wish I had written because it is so masterful despite its brevity and simple setting. I’ve enjoyed all of Elizabeth’s Strout’s novels, starting with Olive Kitteridge (because I had watched the series, which is damn fine in itself with Frances McDormand playing grumpy Olive so well), then working backwards and ending up with her latest, Lucy Barton. There is no doubt that Lucy Barton is Strout’s finest, with the quality of writing highlighting her ability to capture the essence of a fraught relationship in such a short novel.

Lucy Barton is in hospital recuperating from a mysterious disease. Her mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for years, comes to visit her and over five days stays at Lucy’s bedside virtually all the time, forcing the two of them to talk. They gossip about people in Lucy’s hometown, they reminisce about events that happened when Lucy grew up; the conversation seems light yet the shadow of their complicated relationship hovers in the background. They avoid subjects that might hurt them and that aren’t talked about in their family; they don’t talk about Lucy’s loneliness, or her unhappy childhood; they don’t mention the poverty and the bullying.

What lies beneath every conversation and every scene in the book, however, is love: the complicated, fierce love Lucy has for her mother  despite what has happened in her past, and the primal love for a child that her mother can’t deny.

“It was the sound of my mother’s voice I most wanted; what she said didn’t matter … I feel that people may not understand that my mother could never say the words I love you. I feel that people may not understand: It was all right.”

This is a beautiful novel, with finely-tuned, sparse prose that never turns over-emotional or florid, an exquisite book from an author at the top of her game.

 

maggie

This Must be the Place by Maggie O’ Farrell: I believe this is Maggie O’ Farrell’s best novel yet. I have always enjoyed her books, but she has notched up a level in this book, portraying a complicated marriage from different viewpoints and with different techniques.

It is, at the bottom of it, the story of an American linguistic, Daniel Hoffman, who is married to a reclusive ex-film star, Claudette, and living in a remote part of rural Ireland. When Daniel hears of the death of a previous girlfriend, he is compelled to go back to America to find out the truth of this old relationship, and by doing so, disrupts every part of his life. The novel travels over continents and time, portraying a vast array of characters, but because of the deftness of O’ Farrell’s prose, never once was I confused or exasperated.

cleave

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave: While I don’t think this novel is nearly as masterful as the ones above, it is a fantastic read and I would recommend it to anyone looking for good love  story set in WWII. It is essentially about the relationship between four  main characters: there’s Mary who volunteers for the war effort, partly to shock her upper class family, partly to give some depth to her socialite life. She hopes to be made a headmistress, yet is assigned to be a teacher in a school for unwanted children: either disabled or mixed race. Hilda, Mary’s equally upper-class friend, also gets involved in the war effort, and becomes horribly disfigured through it.

Mary starts a relationship with Tom, an education administrator, however she is irresistibly drawn to Tom’s best friend, Alistair, when she meets him. Alistair, an art restorer, enlists and goes off to battle, for which he is barely prepared. The war creates a whole new  world for each of these characters and how they cope (or don’t cope) creates the background for the  interplay of their relationships.

blitz

Cleave is particularly good at depicting the social structure of Britain at the time of the war, and he uses the class system as a backdrop for highlighting the racism and snobbishness of society. He also excels at describing the war, depicting London during the blitz and battles in Malta so well that the horrors of it came alive, but at the same time manages to bring humour into some of the scenes. Despite the odd cliche and the tendency to sentimentality, he has written a wonderful contemporary love story set in historical times.

penguin

Penguin Lessons: What I learned from a Remarkable Bird by Tom Michell: sometimes you just need a book to cheer you up and restore your faith in humanity again. This is one such book; it’s a memoir written by a young Englishman who goes to teach in Argentina and on the way finds a tar-soaked Magellan penguin on a beach in Uruguay. Deciding to try and save its life, he takes it back to his rented flat and manages to clean it. When he returns it to the beach and puts it in the sea, however, it resolutely follows him and will not leave him however hard he tries to escape it, and so Tom decides to smuggle it over the border and take it with him to the private boys’ school in Argentina. The penguin, now named Juan Salvador, takes pride of place in the school and is doted upon by the boys and staff. The book is illustrated with sketches of the penguin, although justice was not done to them by my Kindle. It is an utterly delightful, funny, poignant, heart-warming story about how an animal (even a penguin) can have a profound effect on people’s lives.