Cover Art – The Vivisector by Patrick White

My late Mum had several books by English-born Australian author Patrick White in her collection which I later inherited. All were ex-library copies, well-used, covered in stamps and flyleafs cut out, so once I decided I would never get around to reading them (they look challenging reads), out they went – but I saved the dustjacket of his 1970 novel The Vivisector to show you, particularly as it was the first edition.

P1020174 (800x560)

It’s a challenging cover, isn’t it – of course not having read the book, I don’t really understand it apart from its Australian landscape. It reminds me of Francis Bacon with those jagged-toothed gaping maws in the sky. It’s by renowned cover artist Tom Adams (whose website you can see here and shows his fascinating range of styles).

Death of Sergeant Kennedy at Stringybark Creek by Sidney NolanThe novel is about a painter, and is dedicated to great Australian artist Sidney Nolan, whom I must admit I don’t know. Looking him up, I find he is particularly famous for his series of paintings featuring Ned Kelly… pictured right is The Death of Sergeant Kennedy at Stringybark Creek. Adams says that his painting is inspired by Nolan.

Apparently White was being considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature, but this novel put the judges off. They didn’t like the big question in it of whether one could be a human being and artist at the same time. They did give him the prize three years later though. White claims that The Vivisector was not about Sidney Nolan, others say it is more likely autobiographical.

Should I have kept one of White’s novels to read? If so, which would you recommend? (I also recycled The Tree of Man (1955) and The Eye of the Storm (1973))

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Source: Inherited. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Vivisector (Penguin Classics)by Patrick White. O/P but S/H copies available.

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The myth of Izanami and Izanagi

The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino

Translated by Rebecca Copeland

goddess My most recent reading of the Canongate Myths series (which now has its own page above) fits in nicely with Women In Translation Month, hosted by Biblibio.

I’ve yet to read one of Kirino’s other books, but she is hailed as a top crime author. After reading The Goddess Chronicle, I think I would enjoy them.

Kirino weaves her story around the Shinto creation myth of Izanagi and Izanami, the divine beings who gave birth to all the islands of Japan. Izanami died giving birth to the fire god, and went to the underworld. Izanagi went to retrieve her, but she couldn’t return as she’d eaten the food of the underworld. He had promised not to look at her, but did – seeing her as an undead hag. In revenge, she vowed to kill a thousand people a day; he retaliated saying that 1500 would be born every day (many of them his progeny).

Izanagi’s visit to the underworld reminds me strongly of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and that of Persephone too – who having eaten Hades’ pomegranate seeds was forced to return each year, but these parallels are only a small part of the tale.

And so to Kirino’s story: Two girls live on the last island in the Japanese chain, a beautiful place shaped like a teardrop, but it is hard to survive in this land and the men spend most of their time at sea. Namima and Kamikuu are the best of friends, however, they are separated on Kamikuu’s sixth birthday when the older girl is sent to live with her grandmother, the island’s Oracle, to be trained to succeed her. Namima is told not to look at Kamikuu now, because she is ‘the impure one’, reinforcing the sense of difference she had always felt between the two of them. When the Oracle dies, Kamikuu becomes the new priestess, however there is a shock in store for Namima. Tradition dictates that she will have to become the new guardian of the dead, helping the spirits onto the afterlife. She is taken and locked into the cave area where the bodies are left to decay.

However, no-one knew that Namima was pregnant, by the one-armed son of the island’s second family. A big adventure begins for Namima with escape, giving birth and her own death. She ends up in the underworld where she becomes a servant to Izanami helping the goddess serve up her cold dish of daily revenge. Eventually she feels compelled to ask to be reincarnated and return to the real world to find out what happened to her own baby daughter … is this something she would be better off not knowing?

Although Namima lives in a matriarchal society, in which a family lineage that produces many girls is revered, it’s not a particularly nurturing one. Life is hard and only the top families are permitted to even have children and if, like the island’s second family, they keep producing boys, disgrace beckons. The role of the oracle seems sacrosanct, everything is geared towards making her life easy, happy and full of children; the life of the poor girl who has to take on the other lonely role is near forgotten. The moment at which it becomes clear to Namima that when Kamikuu dies she must perish too as did her predecessor (the great-aunt she never knew) is heart-rending.

Gods and Goddesses from many cultures are renowned for their capricious natures, and the long-lasting torments they inflict upon all who dare to challenge them. Izanami is so hardened by her daily task of choosing those to die, you can’t hope but wish that she and Izanagi would find a way to ease their quarrel. There is also a sense that Izanami and Namima’s work in looking after the dead in both the underworld and on the island is women’s work in this culture, they have a sense of pride in a job well done.

The Goddess Chronicle has every thing you’d want from a mythological fable: a plucky young heroine full of questions who will come to understand her place in the scheme of things as she comes of age, adventure in a beautiful yet cruel world at the end of the Earth, love and vengeance for both gods and humans. Namina’s tale is sad and dark, yet there is hope – and we need that. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Goddess Chronicle (Canongate Myths) by Natsuo Kirino, pub Jan 2014 by Canongate, paperback 320 pages.

 

The first in an Italian trilogy…

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Translated by Ann Goldstein

my brilliant friendI came to reading this book, the first volume in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Trilogy, with more than a little trepidation. Firstly I have only heard good things about it, so I was hoping that it would live up to its reputation.

Secondly, my only previous experience of Ferrante’s work – her early novel, Troubling Love, which I read back in the early days of this blog, was not entirely a success, particularly as I was thrown by the first sentence: “My mother drowned on the night of May 23rd, my birthday, in the sea at a place called Spaccavento, a few miles from Minturno.” May 23rd was my wedding anniversary, and a new relative by marriage died of a heart attack on my wedding night. (I hasten to add that he was already in hospital, not at the wedding and it was his third heart attack, so while terribly sad, it was not sudden nor unexpected.) In fact, having read this book, I’m beginning to wonder if I have a psychic connection with Ferrante, because the major event which takes place at the end of My Brilliant Friend happens on my late mum’s birthday – it’s a happier date in both cases this time.

So, to the books … The Neapolitan Trilogy is the story of childhood friends, Elena and Lila. The first volume opens in the 1950s and follows the story of the girls up until Lila’s marriage while still a teenager. The second sees them mature into young women, and the third volume, which will be published in September, carries on their story.

The prologue to My Brilliant Friend is narrated by Elena, now in her mid-sixties. She is contacted by Lila’s son worried about his mother who appears to have done a disappearing act.

It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means. […] she wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found. And since I know her well, or at least I think I know her, I take it for granted that she has found a way to disappear, to leave not so much as a hair anywhere in this world. […]

I was really angry.
We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write – all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.

We can immediately sense a rivalry between the two women, and that Elena is not necessarily the top dog in their relationship. Let’s go back to the start in the 1950s – and here I can’t help but think of the song Where do you go to (my lovely)? by Peter Sarstedt from 1969, which towards the end includes the lyric…

I remember the back streets of Naples,
Two children begging in rags,
Both touched with a burning ambition,
To shake off their lowly born tags, they tried.

A rough and tough neighbourhood in Naples is the scene. Everyone fights; including the women who fight between themselves. ‘Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.’ Don Achille is feared by all, and the tentative friendship between Elena and Lila is cemented by a series of dares, the most scary of which is to sneak up the back stairs into Don Achille’s house and the little girls hold hands to go together.

Lila’s family run a shoe-repair business. Her older brother aspires to craft handmade shoes rather than only repair them. They are poorer than Elena’s family, her father is a porter at the city hall. Both girls start school and both are clever. The teachers are amazed that Lila has already taught herself to read and write, but Elena soon catches up and the girls study together. Both could get into the senior school, but Lila’s family can’t afford it. This is the first point at which the girls’ lives could split, but Lila has an urge to keep learning – and after she finishes her work in the shop, she continues to study with Elena.

Becoming teenagers, their lives outside school and work begin to take a different emphasis. The arrival of puberty and their periods, Elena before Lila for once, brings boys to the forefront. Getting a good match is the key to elevation in Neapolitan society, and while the girls will get to know most of the boys of most of the local families, their paths are still set by circumstance. Elena, doing well at school, can’t now marry someone uneducated, and Lila has always had her eyes set on the son of Don Achille.

Ferrante brings this story of working class Neapolitans to life with an incredible eye for detail. We really get to see what life is like for these families in 1950s Naples. One eye-opening aspect that would never have occurred to me was that they don’t speak Italian as their first language, using a Neapolitan dialect instead. It soon starts to become a barrier for Elena as some childhood friends who don’t go on to the senior school can’t speak Italian, let alone read Latin as she will. This is one reason why Lila continues to teach herself and study with Elena.

They live in a close-knit community, full of feuds, the haves and the have-nots with a hierarchy of families. Every so often events will happen to shake things up a little – Lila will often be involved somewhere, yet as her wedding approaches, she begins to have occasional strange turns (are they symptoms of petit mal? I don’t know). It ends with Lila’s wedding – a mostly happy event, but for the cliff-hanger ending…

In making Elena her narrator writing from memory, Ferrante very cleverly builds the two girls’ characters, with Elena usually looking to Lila to take the lead, yet relishing those occasions when she came in first. We come to realise that Lila does need Elena as much as Elena needs Lila, yet there will be falling-outs aplenty along the way. As I found in Troubling Love, Ferrante is an author very concerned with the physiology of womanhood, there is a power in the coming of monthly blood, here it wasn’t overpowering – it just marked the transition.

Ferrante is famed for her elusiveness – yet in sharing her name with one of the characters, we do wonder how much the Elena on the page is based on Elena herself, or is there more of Lila in her?  We’ll probably never know, but I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the other volumes as soon as I can. (9/10)

I read this book for Women in Translation month. Finally, having mentioned it up the page, I shall leave you with Peter Sarstedt…

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Published by Europa editions, 2012. Paperback original 336 pages.
The Story of a New Name – Volume 2
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay – Volume 3, pub Sept 11.

The world of espionage is a different place now…

The Director by David Ignatius

Director

It’s a while since I’ve read a spy novel set inside the various American intelligence agencies, and they make the British MI5 and MI6 seem totally straight-forward in their organisation of roles and responsibilities in comparison.

This novel is set mainly in the CIA, an independent agency, which itself has many different branches. The Information Operations Center (IOC) in the Intelligence branch is the main one featuring in this novel. The IOC deals with cyber-intelligence and threats to US computer systems – but it also supports DNI activities.  The DNI is the Director of National Intelligence, reporting to the President.  The Director of the CIA reports to him.  The DNI also has his own independent agency to assist him – the ODNI (Office of the DNI).  To find out more about how all the elements of the US intelligence community fit together I advise a trip to Wikipedia here!

To be honest, Ignatius, a long-time journalist and novelist in this arena in the USA does gradually explain things as we go, and you don’t really need any fore-knowledge. You realise very soon that all the different agencies co-operate – or not, have covert – or not activities from each other, and that there are big power games to be played – or not between them.

The Director of the title is the new director of the CIA. A controversial appointment, for Graham Weber is a billionaire businessman, not a career politician or military man. The CIA has had a difficult time post-Wikileaks and after the Snowden scandal, it’s previous director left under a cloud. Weber has been appointed as an agent of change, to cleanse the agency.

He looked too healthy to be CIA director: He had that sandy blond hair, prominent chin and cheekbones and those ice-blue eyes. It was a boyish face, with strands of hair that flopped across the forehead, and cheeks that colored easily when he blushed or had too much to drink, but he didn’t do either very often. You might have taken him for a Scandinavian, maybe a Swede, who grew up in North Dakota: He had that solid, contained look of the northern plains that doesn’t give anything away. He was actually German-Irish, from the suburbs of Pittsburgh, originally. He had migrated from there into the borderless land of ambition and money and had lived mostly on airplanes. And now he worked in Langley, Virginia, though some of the corridor gossips predicted he wouldn’t last long.

Weber is not to get a chance to settle in gently though. Within days a warning note has appeared inside his desk, and then a young Swiss computer hacker walks into the consulate in Hamburg wanting to talk to Weber, saying that there is a mole in the CIA and that their systems are compromised, he has proof. Rudolf Biel refuses the safe house offered, promising to return in three days. (Of course he never does, and his body will be found later.)

Weber immediately appoints James Morris, head of the IOC to fly to Germany and take charge of the investigation. Weber had met Morris once before, when Weber had addressed a hacker’s convention in Las Vegas about business and internet security.

‘I take it you’ve been here before,’ Weber said, joining the stream of the crowd entering the convention space.
‘I’ve been coming to DEF CON for ten years,’ said Morris, leaning toward Weber and speaking quietly. ‘It’s my favorite honeypot.’
‘You recruit here?’ asked Weber.
‘I’ve hired some of my best people off the floor.’ He pointed to an overweight, pimple-faced young man in baggy cargo shorts and sandals, and a Goth girl shrouded in black who was sucking on a lollypop. ‘These people may not look like much, but when they write code, it’s poetry.’

The IOC, now run by Morris, is not your typical government agency, and its employees are not your typical civil servants either. Hacking the hackers is their prime business, and with Morris involved with the DNI too, it’s difficult for Weber to get to grips with this dual role. There is a rivalry between the ODNI and the CIA, and Weber has yet to build a working relationship with Cyril Hoffman the DNI.

Weber is thrust into a race against time. There is a major hack in the offing – it may involve a mole in the CIA which is certainly a leaky sieve. Can the different agencies actually work together to prevent upsetting the new world order? Can they catch the mole? How long will Weber last in his new job?

I found it fascinating to find out about the amoral world of computer hacking, in which they do it primarily because they can. When other people get leverage on the hackers it turns even more sinister. Being a fan of Homeland (well, the first series in particular), and spy thrillers in general, The Director was an interesting read. I have no idea whether the technical details are accurate, but the plot was involving enough to keep me reading, despite the large amount of explanations needed. The characterisation was, I have to admit, totally stereotyped, although I did warm to Weber and found the oily DNI Hoffman great value.

Post Snowden and Wikileaks, Ignatius has written a timely thriller about the state of espionage today, that it is becoming more about cyber-attack and security than traditional trade-craft. The Director was enjoyable but not exceptional. (6.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Director by David Ignatius, pub Jun 2014 by Quercus, hardback 384 pages.
Homeland – Season 1-3 [DVD]starring Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Mandy Patinkin.

 

Words On Rainy Days

WW Intriguing WordsI know you all enjoy a bit of wordplay?  I certainly do, and while reviewing my reference shelves I rediscovered a paperback that will definitely stay there rather than be consigned to the charity shop pile. It’s The Wordsworth Book of Intriguing Words, subtitled The Insomniac’s Dictionary, by Paul Hellweg and  originally published in 1986. It’s full of interesting lists of things such as collective nouns, animal adjectives, phobias, manias, words ending with -omancy, -icide, and all kinds of other groupings, and although being American in origin it is full of fascinating stuff.

Today, inspired by this book, I want to concentrate on one category of words – abbreviations, and in particular – acronyms. Last summer I posted about DITLOIDs – a number/word game in which you get a phrase like 1=DITLOID (One = Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich) to decipher. This time, I’m just going to chat about some of my favourite acronyms, new and old.

If last year you’d asked me what LOL stood for – I’d probably have said Little Old Lady, (remembered in particular from hospital drama ER, where they had lots of other acronyms too including GOMERGet Out of My Emergency Room for people coming with minor complaints). I never did use LOL for Lots Of Love as we discovered that PM David Cameron did to his chagrin. Laughing Out Loud is less fun though – and you can save yourself a character by doing a 😀 smiley.

The acronym du moment seems to be YOLOYou only live once.  Currently popularised from a 2010 song by Canadian rapper Drake called The motto. Apparently Zac Ephron has a YOLO tattoo too. However, it is way older than that, often being attributed to Mae West, but also in usage for around 100 years according to Wikipedia. I prefer to use Carpe Diem (RIP Robin Williams), to mean essentially the same thing.

My favourite zeitgeisty acronym though is MAMIL. You see them out all over the place these days. Last week a company called Fat Lad At the Back (FLAB – truly!) tried to get investment from Dragon’s Den on TV to expand their range of clothing for the larger MAMIL. Yes folks, a MAMIL is a Middle-Aged Man In Lycra™, usually seen from the rear balancing on two wheels channelling his internal Bradley Wiggins.

Another good one, which isn’t in such wide usage is SUMO.  It can stand for loads of things, but its most succinct is as Shut Up, Move On – as popularised in a motivational book by Paul McGee. The premise of SUMO is good, but the contents of his book do sound a little contrived – ‘Fruity Thinking’, ‘Hippo-time’ anyone?

Does anyone still use POETS Day? In the earlier days of my career, we did quite a lot – Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday – every Friday. No longer though!

The_Moon_Is_A_Harsh_Mistress_fI shall finish by going back to an old favourite, which I was reminded of from the Book of Intriguing Words. That is TANSTAAFLThere Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch! Yes, it’s very American and has been in use at least since the 1930s, but its sentiment is true. I chose it specially though as the phrase and acronym are central to the premise of one of the first SF novels I loved as a teenager – that’s Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress from 1966.

Which current acronyms do you love – or loathe?
Do you have a favourite acronym?
Do share!

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To explore the books mentioned above on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Wordsworth Book of Intriguing Words by Paull Hellweg. O/P but S/H copies available.
S.U.M.O. (shut Up, Move On): The Straight Talking Guide to Creating and Enjoying a Brilliant Lifeby Paul McGee
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (S.F. MASTERWORKS) by Robert Heinlein

 

Would you do this on holiday?

Lazy Days by Erlend Loe

loe-lazy-daysTranslated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw. With its irresistible cover I was always going to pick this book up to examine it. I read the blurb on the flyleaf and discovered that the author, new to me, was Norwegian, and that the book was likely to be quirky and probably funny, so that sold it to me.

It’s simply the story of what Bror and Nina Telemann did on their summer holiday, as told to us by Bror.

Bror is in his early forties. He’s stage director at the Norwegian National Theatre, but aims to become a celebrated playwright – soon. He hopes to get started on his magnum opus while on holiday. His wife Nina has booked a house for the family summer holiday in the Alps near Munich in the town that Google Translate calls Mixing Part Churches – Garmisch Partenkirchen to you and me, but Bror only uses the mangled translation. Bror and Nina bicker about her choice of destination…

Do you think Mixing Part Churches is the type of place people lock up their kids, or others’ kids, in the cellar for twenty-four years and rape them three thousand times?
That’s enough.
No, but do you think so?
Stop that now.
For Christ’s sake, no harm speculating.
Stop it.
You don’t think this is a hub for that sort of practice then?
No.
So, those things don’t happen here?
I don’t think so.
So, we just let the kids run about on their own?
I think so.
Good.

That is very representative of Bror and Nina’s conversations. They tend to be very one-sided, as reported by Bror, with him always winding up Nina; sometimes deliberately, other times unconsciously. He’s not happy with her choice of Germany – he considers Bavaria as ‘being the cradle of Nazism’, and doesn’t hesitate to rub it in.

Nina is left most days to go out with their three children and they have a lovely time visiting all the sights. Bror stays behind, supposedly writing – except that he doesn’t. He’s mostly having fantasies about Nigella Lawson, whom he thinks is ‘fascinatingly well-built. She has, for instance, got hips. And a bosum.’

All the above is in the first 21 pages. The book has only 211, so in its small hardback format can easily be read in one sitting. You can imagine, as so often happens on holiday, that tensions simmer and come to the boil explosively, behaviour on both sides of the relationship gets out of hand – can they sort themselves out in time to go home?

This turns out to be quite a dark little comedy – and I could see it working well as a stage adaptation. Bror starts off by being ironic and funny but, as his writer’s block and fantasies take over, Nina is increasingly dismissive of him. Bror’s obsessions take him over, and he gets less likeable by the page; the long-suffering Nina, feeling hard done by, retaliates and does herself no favours either.

To be honest, the whole Nigella thing started to get tedious, but given that the novel was published before the whole scandal, this does give it an added frisson initially but that soon pales. Bror in his mid-life crisis reveals himself to be bigoted, boring and still a big kid for most of the time.

What I did really like though was the author’s dead-pan style of writing, which comes through in the translation. Written in the present tense, Nina and Bror’s conversations in particular, forming much of the meat of this little novel, develop a real sense of anticipation in the reader trying to guess which direction they’ll go in, or what awful thing Bror will say next.

Based on Lazy Days which was fun, I would certainly read more of Loe’s work; a couple more of his novels have been translated. (7/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Lazy Days by Erlend Loe (2009, trans 2013) Pub by Head of Zeus, hardback 211 pages.

Authors’ shared surnames…

I got distracted again whilst looking at my bookcases, to see that I have quite a few books by authors with the same surnames. This led to me looking at my Librarything catalogue to see which was the most popular surname on my shelves.

Whilst I have several each of Taylor, Williams, Collins, King, Miller and Wood, one surname appeared in super-abundance…

WILSON

Let me introduce them to you:

wilson andrewANDREW: Author of a highly thought of biography of Patricia Highsmith – Beautiful Shadow. He also wrote this literary psychodrama The Lying Tongue, which I very much enjoyed reading pre-blog.

wilson andrew 2ANDREW (aka A.N.):  I have several of A.N.’s novels on my shelves including Winnie and Wolf, which was Booker-longlisted and his most recent from 2012, The Potter’s Hand. He is also known for his non-fiction e.g. The Victorians. 

wilson angusANGUS: Another Wilson I haven’t read for ages, I adored his novel The Old Men at the Zoo, and family drama Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, both of which had TV adaptations.

CHRISTOPHER: I have a book called The Ballad of Lee Cotton on the shelves. It’s about a black child born with white skin in Mississippi – I don’t know more.

Wilson colinCOLIN: The Outsider, published in 1956 when Wilson was 24, was a phenomenon. It studies the trope of the social outsider in literary works including Hemingway, Sartre and Hesse to name but a few. I’ve not read it though, but used to devour his books about the paranormal and occult in my twenties, which introduced me to Aleister Crowley and the like – sensational stuff!

Wilson danielDANIEL H: Robopocalypse is destined for the charity shop pile, but it does have a great cover. From the reviews it seems like a novel treatment of a yet to be made film script…

EDWARD: Finally – a Wilson I’ve reviewed on this blog already. Edward is an UK-based American author of spy novels. I read The Envoy (review here) and enjoyed it a lot. I have The Darkling Spy to read on the shelf next.

Wilson elizELIZABETH: The first female on the list. War Damage is set, as you might guess in the austere times after WWII.  Hampstead is the location for a well-thought of literary whodunnit.

KEVIN: My most recent Wilson-read is a wonderful novel. The Family Fang is about families and the excesses of performance art. Hilarious, yet moving I reviewed it here in 2011. It made my books of the year list for best debut.

Wilson lauraLAURA: I’ve seen some great reviews of her novel Stratton’s War around the blogosphere which is a crime novel set during WWII in 1940. See Thinking in Fragments to find out more.

LESLIE: She is one of the ‘History Girls’ I recently heard talk at the Oxford Literary Festival (see here). I have both adult and children’s books by her on my shelves. She was fascinating to listen to, having been at Greenham Common.

PAUL: I own two of his books, but know nothing about either except that they have great titles. Do White Whales Sing at the End of the World (1997) was a charity shop find, and was his first novel pubished by Granta.  I see I’ve acquired his new one Mouse and the Cossacks which is newly out in paperback too. Both are set in NW England.

Wilson Robert

ROBERT: A British crime writer, Wilson is best-known for his Javier Falcón series, beginning with The Blind Man of Seville (2003) which are all waiting to be read on my shelves. However I first got to know him with his earlier Bruce Medway series of four novels which are set in Benin, Eastern Africa. Instruments of Darkness is the first and I enjoyed these gritty, hot books a lot.

Illuminatus 1ROBERT ANTON: Co-author of the totally bizarre Illuminatus Trilogy (with Robert Shea) – ‘A fairy tale for paranoids’ the books were full of sex, drugs, magic, tripping through history, time travel and conspiracy theories published from 1975 onwards. I devoured them but didn’t understand them then. He later wrote The Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy (1979-81) which is quantum mechanics and magic, with lots of sex and drugs etc. I don’t think I could read them now – they’ll surely be horribly dated.

wilson sloanSLOAN: My copy of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is the Penguin Modern Classics one with a still of Gregory Peck from the film. It’s about family life and the corporate rat race in the 1950s.

That makes FIFTEEN different Wilsons on my shelves alone and over thirty books, (and that excludes my daughter’s Jacqueline W. books). There must be more!

Do you have a surname that dominates your shelves in this way?

Bookish and not so bookish distractions…

Usually I’m a serial monogamist where reading books are concerned. I have no more than one novel at a time on the go, with just occasionally a non-fiction book on the side.  Stupidly, I started three novels and have got a little stuck with all of them at the moment. The first was because I didn’t want to carry a larger book filling my bag, so I picked up a physically smaller volume, then I wanted a lighter read that I could read in smaller doses and picked up book number three. Now I’m a bit stuck on all of them, although perversely, I am enjoying all three, but can’t decide which to finish first! (Choose, Annabel, choose! – Ed)

I am also taking a serious look at my bookshelves (again), and playing with my books finding the odd volume or three for the charity shop piles (I’ve taken in three bags this week, nearly filled a fourth). I’d like to reduce the number of bookshelves in my spare bedroom which I used to use as a study, so I can redecorate and ultimately put a bed back in. It’s got four Billy bookcases, which all used to be double stacked – now down to two doubled, two not  – so I’ve a way to go, but am definitely making progress.

Then I realised I missed World Cat Day on August 8th – so I have to make amends! Here is Ginny, asleep in the beanbag in the conservatory. All snug and warm now the sun is out after the torrential rain this morning. Her fur is still dyed pink around her neck where she chewed her collar so much one of the pigments from that or the permanent marker we wrote her details on the inside of the collar with ran into her fur. (Chromatography in action folks – cat spit is obviously a good solvent).

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I’ve also been catching up with recorded TV series rather than reading … the hard disk is full so was time to get watching.

FargoFargo with Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton was absolutely fab – very funny, very dark indeed. I didn’t think they could stretch the Coen brothers’ film concept to a ten episode season – but they did, and it worked. Allison Tolman as the deputy Molly Solverson was also great.

Tom HollanderYesterday I watched A Poet in New York, which was a BBC4 film drama from months ago starring Tom Hollander as Dylan Thomas on his last weeks in the city where he died aged just 39. Made to celebrate the centenary of Thomas’ birth in 1914, Hollander, whom I adore in Rev, put on two stone to play the part. Sad, but I enjoyed it a lot – and I guffawed at the filthy limericks he came up with in one scene.

I still have two more whole series recorded to watch – Broadchurch and The Honorable Woman, plus the DVD of the first season of Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards.

Those are my excuses for not getting much reading done – what are yours?

The unsaid side of obs & gynae

Dirty Work by Gabriel Weston

Dirty WorkI was profoundly impressed by Gabriel Weston’s literary debut – Direct Red – a slightly fictionalised memoir of her time as a junior surgeon.

Her second book, Dirty Work, is a novel that looks at one of the toughest things that obs & gynae surgeons may ever have to do – provide abortions. I will say at the outset, that it was not an easy book given its subject matter, but it was completely compelling to read.

Briefly, we follow the life and career of Nancy, a young surgeon who has specialised in obs & gynae.

For the first few months, I only did the occasional abortion, just as they happened to crop up on Mr Kapoor’s general list, among all the other gynaecological procedures I was becoming a dab hand at. But the day came when my boss asked me if I’d be interested in doing more. […] I do remember the deal. For one day per fortnight I would get my own termination clinic in the morning, followed by an operating list in the afternoon. Real independence with the safety net of a consultant working nearby at all times.

This isn’t how the story starts however. It begins on the operating table with a routine operation going wrong. Nancy has a crisis and has to be taken off, suspended pending investigation. Her peers and colleagues will have to supply reports, she will have to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, and the case be assessed by a senior team, possibly referred upwards to the GMC (General Medical Council).

The story of the disciplinary hearings runs alongside that of Nancy’s life and career. These two parallel threads finally converge give a deep insight into this world. During Nancy’s psych session she makes it clear how she sees herself:

‘I can see you’re a plain-talker, Nancy. So. Why don’t you tell me this. What kind of person becomes an abortionist, do you think? What-‘
‘Abortion provider. Not an abortionist, an abortion provider.’

It is important to Nancy to distinguish the terms. She considers herself to be professional, competent, expert at her job; she is proud of her skills and doing it well. The novel never seeks to judge the issue. Our legal system permits abortion under specified circumstances; someone has to do it, to ‘provide’ the operation – but then again, some obs & gynae doctors and surgeons refuse.

By necessity, there are some medical details that make for very difficult reading indeed. You don’t have to read these passages, but they helped me to appreciate the entirety of what is involved from the surgeon’s point of view. I can understand why O&G doctors don’t freely talk about this side of their work.

Dirty Work is not a long book. Weston’s style is spare, almost clinical at times – particularly when describing the medical matters. But that’s not to say that Nancy is at all passionless, (for Holby watchers, she’s no Jac Naylor – although we all know that Jac is secretly in emotional turmoil inside). Apart from her speciality, Nancy is a normal person, as full of insecurities as the next, and she clearly does care about her patients; she does usually possess that surgeon’s necessary ability to disconnect in theatre though.

I hope that Weston will continue to write thought-provoking books, whether fictional or not, that take us into the world of surgery. Well-written books such as Dirty Work give real insight into these difficult areas. Highly recommended. (9/10)

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Dirty Work by Gabriel Weston, Jonathan Cape 2013. Vintage paperback Jun 2014, 192 pages.

Top Ten Authors Whose Books I Own…

I don’t usually take part in the Top Ten weekly meme, but occasionally they and/or other regular memes will pick a topic that piques my interest. A couple of weeks ago the Top Ten topic was ‘The Top Ten Authors Whose Books I Own’. I’m glad they made the distinction between own and read! Thanks to Librarything this was easy as I could sort my catalogue accordingly. I wasn’t really surprised by the results (except one), but it was fun. So here they are:

beryl bIain Banks BanksReadLeading the charge with 24 books on the shelves each are two of the three authors I am most passionate about. So much so that they have their own pages up at the top of this blog. Of course it’s the late-lamented Beryl and Iain. Have a look above to see more about both of them.

I really must make time to continue my plans to (re)read everything they’ve ever written.

ackroydFollowing close on their heels with 23 books is Peter Ackroyd. I find his books are a little hit and miss with me, but his best are wonderful, and the others are always interesting. Amazingly prolific, I’ve only managed to read/review one of his (The Death of King Arthur) since starting this blog. Others I’ve enjoyed include Hawksmoor, English Music and Dan Leno & The Limehouse Golem.

Then come four authors with twenty books apiece.

Paul auster sh #1:4Top of the list alphabetically is Paul Auster, who happens to be the third of my favourite authors. Again he is definitely overdue another read. See here and here for posts on him and his books.

Don’t you think he has the most compelling eyes?  Married to Siri Hustvedt, he’s a New Yorker, and is the king of meta-fiction. Some people don’t like that, but I do!

Auster shares twenty books with Lawrence Block, John Le Carre and Michael Connelly. Two crime writers and one spy novelist.

liam-neeson-as matt scudderI see that Block’s tenth Matt Scudder novel A Walk Among The Tombstones will be on the big screen soon starring Liam Neeson as the ex-cop, alcoholic but now TT private eye. Again I say to the adapters – why do you always start in the middle of a series?  Actually I’ve read up to about number twelve, so am ahead so to speak, and I really recommend them.

More spies and crime next.  At sixteen comes Ian Fleming – I have a complete set of James Bond naturally, and he keeps company with Elmore Leonard, who is probably the crime writer that makes me laugh the most – his dialogue-driven novels are usually hilarious as well as violent!

Having told you about nine authors, I can’t have a top ten – it’ll have to be a top twelve as three tie on fourteen books each. They are the incomparable Graham Greene, the prolific Stephen King, and the intriguingly named L Du Garde Peach.

l du Garde PeachPictures of Du Garde Peach are few and far between, so you’ll have to make do with this painting by Thomas Cantrell Dugdale (not dated but Dugdale died in 1952, Du Garde Peach in 1974).

LDGP was the author of many plays for radio and stage, having a long association with the Sheffield Playhouse. He also wrote film scripts including the Boris Karloff film The Ghoul (1933).

Nelson ladybirdBut how would I own fourteen books by him?

Well, he wrote thirty titles for the Ladybird Adventures from History series, and I still have a pile of them from my childhood – much treasured (and all bearing my homemade library stickers).

If you want to find out more about old Ladybird books, visit The Wee Web which has them all!

So that’s my top twelve authors whose books I own.  Which authors feature at the top of your lists?