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.

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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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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?

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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Source: Gift. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

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

Books of the year … so far

As we’re just past halfway through the year, I thought I’d take a quick look back at my favourites so far – all books getting 10/10 from me…

tigermanI’ll start at the top – my book of the year, so far, is one I’ve recently reviewed for issue two of Shiny New Books. Tigerman was the first novel I’ve read by the amazing Nick Harkaway. I loved this book, and I became a complete fangirl (if you can say that of a 54-year-old woman – Ed) when I met him at a recent event (see here). Tigerman is an eco-thriller about an post-empire island paradise and features superheroes and romance in a style Graham Greene would have been proud of. And, I’ve got Nick’s first two novels still to read – Yay!

hangover squareBack in January, I experienced the beautiful prose of Patrick Hamilton for the first time when I read Hangover Square. This story of unrequited love in darkest Earls Court just before the war was simply stunning. Very dark though… See my review here.

Life-After-LifeI’d been put off reading Kate Atkinson by not liking her debut when I tried it many years ago. I’m so glad our book group chose Life after Life – for I loved it. It’s sheer cleverness won me over within pages and then I started to appreciate the writing. See my review here.

It’s back to Shiny New Books for two last favourites – well it is a book recommendations site after all:

bedsit disco queenBedsit Disco Queen is Tracey Thorn’s autobiography of her life in the world of pop and it is such fun and so brilliantly written all the way through (unlike a certain other popstar’s memoir!). You don’t need to be a fan of Everything But the Girl, the band which formed the major part of her musical career, but after reading this you’ll want to be one.

into the treesAnd lastly, Into the Trees by Robert Williams. Everything that forests stand for, both good and bad, is used to great effect in this understated contemporary novel about the effects a forest has on a family living in it. It deserves a wider readership – see my review here.

So that’s my top five so far out of over sixty books read. It’ll be interesting to see if they’re still in my books of the year by the end of December.  There’s some big names coming up for autumn – McEwan, Waters, Amis, and John Cleese’s memoir to mention just a few that I’ll be reading…

What has been your best read of the year so far? Do share …

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To explore any of these titles further on Amazon, click on the author name below:
Harkaway, Hamilton, Atinson, Thorn, Williams.

 

The Savages are back …

American Savage by Matt Whyman

savagesLast summer I had the pleasure of reading one of the funniest YA novels I’ve yet encountered in Matt Whyman’s The Savages – don’t you just love that cover?  Although it was written as a standalone novel, so many people wondered what happened to the family in it, that Matt has now written a sequel – American Savage.

At this point, if you haven’t read the first one – you should click here to see what I’m talking about, and read no further below for now…

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AMERICAN_SAVAGE (2) The first novel started briefly at the end – with an exquisitely cooked feast from which the Savage family had to flee before flashing back to tell their story.

The sequel sees them safely escaped to America where they’ve settled into the quiet seaside town of Jupiter, Florida.  Titus is a property manager and has gone a little paunchy and Angelica is a fitness freak with an adoring Argentinian personal trainer. Ivan is being bullied at school by the jocks on the football team, big sister Sasha is now at university and doesn’t make an appearance this time, baby Katya is now a Disney princess at primary school. Titus’s centenarian father Oleg lives in a nearby old people’s home where he’s found love again at 103.  Lastly there is lodger Amanda, a vegan who recognises that the Savages’ predilection for a particular kind of meat represents the ultimate in local sourcing and makes this exception.  As before it starts with a feast, and Titus is regarding his table:

Right now, Angelica looked quietly satisfied that she had delivered another unforgettable spread. Titus lifted the spoon to his mouth. Sensing his shirt pull tight across his belly as he did so, the slightest hint of self-loathing soured the mouthful. There was no denying that he had put on a few pounds lately. Ever since the family had moved here, in fact, he found himself climbing onto the scales with a heavy heart, but what could he do about it? He had always taken pride in locally sourcing food for their feasts, and it was inevitable that the meat from these parts would carry a little extra fat. There also tended to be a lot more of it on the bone, and the Savages never left anything to waste.

If you’ve stayed with me, I assume you have twigged what’s different about the Savages. However abhorrent it may be, like Tony and his family in The Sopranos, there’s something strangely lovable about them. They don’t whack people to eat unnecessarily – they are chosen carefully, people who won’t be missed (a bit Dexter-ish don’t you think), then lovingly prepared and consumed at a feast. They eat normally the rest of the time, except for Amanda.

The trouble starts again when Amanda gets a job as a waitress at a sports bar, and refusing to dance for the patrons manages to get it closed down. Unfortunately the bar was owned by the Russian gangster and used for money laundering. The gangster is rumoured to be a cannibal, who ripped off a guy’s ear in prison and ate it raw. He makes threats to Titus and his family – they need a plan. The answer is to reopen as a vegan restaurant – something totally new in Jupiter, Florida, the land of rib-joints.  The only problem is that they make a success of it, and the Russian gets interested again… Set against the main story is Ivan’s battle with his tormentors. Ivan is at a tricky stage of adolescence and needs, in his mind, a way of getting even – how would a Savage do it?

Necessarily, in reading this book, we are in on the secret, and it loses its initial shock value.  However, Whyman again has huge fun with his characters.  The shock of Titus harvesting a victim gets replaced with a different kind of shock when he realises he’s no longer fit enough to do it in that way – the tables are turned, and more resourcefulness is needed.  Through this and other sequences, Whyman is able to have a discussion about food and healthier lifestyles – even eating less, but better quality meat – ha, ha!  By being quite matter of fact about the cannibalism, the book stays on the right side of goriness. There is plenty to laugh about, but the feasts are always treated with reverence.

This family is too much fun to leave to live happily ever after. I’d love to see them in Hollywood or the frozen north of Canada for another adventure or two, and also to read about how Titus met Angelica.  Please…

Why should teenagers have all the fun in reading about the Savages?  In the tradition of The Radleys by Matt Haig (see my review here), both of these novels ought to be crossover hits with adult readers too. I loved this sequel even more than the Savages’ first outing. (9.5/10)

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American Savage (Savages 2) by Matt Whyman. Published by Hot Key Books, June 2014. Paperback, 288 pages.
The Savages by Matt Whyman
The Radleys by Matt Haig

 

Australia & New Zealand Literature Month

ANZ-LitMonth-200pixANZ Literature Month, hosted by Kim at Reading Matters is nearly over but I’ve finally managed to fit in a short novel by Tim Winton to take part reviewing, although I have enjoyed reading contributor’s reviews which are listed here.

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That Eye, The Sky by Tim Winton

that eye
This short novel was published in 1986, so early in Winton’s writing career – his third book. It’s a quirky little thing – not really a coming of age story, but it is definitely a tale about growing up and learning more about what to believe in for young Morton – known as Ort.

Eleven-year-old Ort is in his final term at junior school. In the autumn he’ll have to take the school bus to the city to join the seniors – something he’s not looking forward to.  He lives a way outside their little town – his hippy parents decided to forsake the city for the country when his Mum was pregnant with his older sister Tegwyn. His ancient Grammar also lives with them. His Dad works at the nearby garage for Mr Cherry, whose son Fat is Ort’s best friend. They’re looking forward to a summer swimming in the creek and doing nothing much at all.  Today starts off as a normal day …

‘Seeyaz.’ That’s Dad going. He revs the ute up. He’s in a hurry, going into town for Mr Cherry.
‘Wave him off, Ort,’ Mum says to me. She always reckons you should show people you love them when they go away because you might never see them again. They might die. The world might end. But Dad’s only going to town for an hour. It’s business for Mr Cherry. And there he goes, out the drive and onto the road.

It’s as well that they wave goodbye, for within a few pages, Ort’s Dad has had a bad car accident and is taken to hospital where he lies ‘crook’ in a coma. Neither Ort nor his Mum believe that he won’t come home – Ort himself was in a coma for a fortnight with meningitis as a babe.

Life continues for the Flack family, with added visits to the hospital, when Mr Cherry agrees to take them – although the relationship between the Flacks and the cherries will go sour when Mum finds out what the errand was. Meanwhile, Ort and Fat muck around in the creek and spy on a bum who’s sleeping under the bridge.

Sure enough, one day Sam wakes up. The hospital soon ship him home – he breathes – voicelessly through the tracheostomy hole in his windpipe. He sees, but doesn’t appear to look. He’s little more than a vegetable in appearance, although Ort is sure he hears and understands everything. He’s going to need a lot of looking after.

Help arrives – but not the kind they’d been expecting. Henry Warburton turns up on the doorstep – saying he’s a volunteer. Ort recognises him – but his Mum accepts the offer as she’s getting desperate. So Henry joins the Flack household, an enigmatic stranger, big, grubby and with a speech impediment – he seems to fight with himself a lot. Should they trust him?

Big things in life tend to happen in clusters – and that’s what happens in this novel. Everything coincides that summer and for Ort, that means a certain loss of innocence, yet also an opening of his mind to new things – not always for the better perhaps. Ort has to man up and act as the head of the household. For his Mum, it’s the realisation that their hippy dream only works with both her and Sam in it – and it knocks her for six, making her extremely fragile emotionally and open to suggestion.

Henry brings with him a definite sense of threat; its hard to put your finger on exactly what it is, but intermittently I was reminded of Reverend Harry Powell as played by Robert Mitchum in the film Night of the Hunter, but I don’t think Henry was inherently evil in that way. Certainly creepy though. Winton leaves much to our imagination…

Ort is a great child narrator though, on the cusp of becoming a teenager soon, but not until after that transition year when you start seniors. He’s a practical nature boy too, looking after his ‘chooks’, catching lizards and looking up at that sky…

The sky is the same colour as Mum and Dad’s eyes. When you look at it long enough, like I am now with my nose up in it, it looks exactly like an eye anyway. One big blue eye. Just looking down. At us.

I loved Ort’s voice narrating the story. The contrast between long and short sentences. Winton captures the beginnings of his adolescence perfectly, and his rebellious sister Tegwyn too – she is confused and isolated living out there. Naturally, you cross your fingers when reading a story like this, hoping for a happy outcome – but you’ll have to read it for yourself if you want to find that out.

Although this probably wasn’t the best Winton novel to start off with, it’s the only one I had to hand. If it represents a writer beginning to find his stride, I have high hopes for his later books, as I enjoyed this one. (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
That Eye, the Sky by Tim Winton (pub 1986, Scribner paperback 160 pages.)

Two *Five* Star Books for you …

One of the greatest pleasures of reading and blogging is to discover books that I adore, that few will have heard of, and then to bring them to a wider audience. Recently I read and reviewed two such novels for Shiny New Books. Below are tasters of my reviews with links to the full thing…

American Sycamore by Karen Fielding

american sycamore
It is lovely to be able to heartily recommend a début novel published by a smaller independent publisher – American Sycamore is exactly that and it deserves a wide readership.

Set in the 1970s, it’s a coming of age story of two siblings, Alice and Billy Sycamore who grow up in a small town by the Susquehanna River in north-eastern USA. I know that coming of age novels aren’t to everyone’s taste, but this one is very special. The descriptions of character, landscape and the river which runs through it are amazing and the meandering story is told by a narrator you warm to instantly. (10/10)

Click here to read the full review.

Into the Trees by Robert Williams

into the trees

Imagine a house in the middle of the forest, somewhere you feel safe, at home; somewhere to hide away perhaps? What springs to mind? One such place I instantly thought of was the seven dwarves’ cottage in Snow White. Then I thought of the gingerbread cottage in Hansel and Gretel – except that wasn’t exactly a safe house until they’d disposed of the wicked witch.

I hasten to add that Into the Trees is no fairy-tale. It is a thoroughly contemporary novel, not even a reworking of a fairy-tale and yet, you can’t help thinking of them all the time when reading it. Forests in themselves are potent symbols of nature, spirits and earth-magic, remember the forest of Fangorn, home of the Ents, and Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest in Lord of the Rings for instance. Add a house in a clearing and you’re back in Grimm territory, or is it more like the Cullen’s modern glass sanctuary in the Twilight film? Whichever, you know that something bad happened when someone came knocking at the door looking for Snow White …

This novel isn’t a thriller – you encounter the key event in the prologue.  Instead it explores the effect of living in the forest before and after this event on a family.  Deep, complex and superb writing – dare one hope for a happy ending?  (10/10)

Click here to read the full review.

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Source: Both courtesy of the publishers – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:

American Sycamore by Karen Fielding. Published February 2014 by Seren Books, paperback original 200 pages.

Into the Trees by Robert Williams. Published April 2014 by Faber & Faber, Hardback 352 pages.

Thoughts on my header photo

I’ve been mostly writing reviews for Shiny New Books this week after finishing Frog Music, but wanted to write something on the blog for the weekend…

My eye caught my header photo which when taken a few years ago, I compiled a shelf of favourite reads over the years, mostly those getting a full five stars from me. I’ve read a lot of wonderful books since, but I still think the row above represents a fair selection of the wide range of novels that I like to read, so I’ll probably leave it for now. I haven’t reviewed all of them on this blog, but quite a few do feature, so I thought I’d revisit my old posts on books above. So from left to right and in alphabetical order of their authors too…

death of grassDouble Indemnity by James M Cain. 136 pages of classic noir with a crooked insurance agent, a femme fatale and a husband to murder.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher. The 1956 breakthrough novel from the creator of The Tripods.

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey. It was reading one of the original cowboy novels from 1912 that cemented my love of literary westerns.

SpyMy Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time by Liz Jensen. Jensen is one of those authors who writes entirely different novels every time. This steampunky time travel love story is the funniest thing I’ve read by her so far. A real hoot.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John Le Carre. Possibly my favourite spy novel ever. It feels so authentic, and Alec Leamas is Richard Burton.

peyton placeLet the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Simply the best vampire novel there is (and possibly the goriest too – you have been warned).

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious. This epic novel set the benchmark for every soap opera and small town drama that followed. Beautifully written.

True Grit by Charles Portis. Forget the film, read the book.

The Shipping News - 1st UK paperbackThe Shipping News by Annie Proulx. This novel is still up there in my top ten, love it to bits.

Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve. Written for teens, but a wonderful read for any age, Reeve’s novel puts a different ‘spin’ on Merlin and Arthurian legend.

Blood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick. It’s hard to believe that this fictionalised biography of Arthur Ransome’s time in Russia was written for teens, it’s that good. Sedgwick is my favourite YA author without a doubt.

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. In just 193 pages, you get a slice of how hard life is for a poor family in the Ozark mountains when Ree has to go searching for her pa. The film is also wonderful.

It’s a shame that favourites like Flowers for Algernon and Ray Robinson’s wonderful debut Electricity were books I read just before I started blogging. Perhaps I should revisit them and review them now. It also reminds me that it’s ages since I read a Christopher Brookmyre book.

Having done this, it’s got me thinking of course!
I may just have to start searching out a new set of more recent great reads for my header photo now.
What do you think?

Books in Bath and a French Farce

Yesterday my daughter and I went to Bath, it’s only an hour and a half from us, and the delights of the city are many. Yesterday was all about shopping, dining and theatre – we’ve done the heritage bit on previous visits.  We arrived in time for lunch (Nandos), then got stuck into shopping…

One of the key shops to visit was Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, a rather wonderful and well stocked bookshop, where I indulged a little of course, buying Daniel Woodrell’s new novel The Maid’s Version, and an American import paperback Smonk, by Tom Franklin – a western that’s been on my wishlist for ages.

20130819_154403_resized
Dinnner was at Jamie’s Italian in Milsom Place, which is one of those posh little arcades of eateries and design shops.

Then our evening entertainment was at the Theatre Royal, a small but lovely theatre which has a formidable reputation for staging pre-West End runs of plays with top actors. Our mid-stalls seats turned out to be about the best in the house…

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The play we went to see was A Little Hotel on the Side by Georges Feydeau, adapted by John Mortimer (of Rumpole fame). Feydeau was a prolific author in the Belle Époque era, and was famed for his farces.

This was not the first Feydeau/Mortimer farce I’ve been to. Back in 1989, I saw a production of A Flea in Her Ear at the Old Vic starring Jim Broadbent. It was hilarious. Flea, which is widely regarded as his masterpiece, was written in 1907 and involves: mistaken identities, affairs, a seedy hotel, servants and speech impediments amongst its plot elements.

Feydeau HotelHotel, meanwhile which was written in 1894 is about: mistaken identities, affairs, a seedy hotel, servants and speech impediments.  OK, they’re standard farce ingredients – just shuffle them about!

It’s about two couples, the Pinglets, and the Paillardins.  Mr Pinglet (Mr P), a builder, is rather hen-pecked by his domineering wife – he calls her the ‘hornet’, whereas Madame Paillardin feels ignored by her architect husband. Mr P and Mme Paillardin decide to have an affair and as Mr Paillardin will be away on business and Mme Pinglet is going to visit her sister, they set up their assignation at the Free Trade Hotel.  Before all this is to happen, Mathieu, a ‘friend’ of the Pinglets from their holiday turns up hoping to stay with them, and having brought his four daughters with him. Mathieu has a stutter, but only when it rains (loads of scope for f, f, fu, fu*, functioning type laughs there).

Needless to say, with his brood unwelcome at the Pinglets, they decamp to the hotel, where the Paillardin’s nephew Maxime is also planning to lose his virginity with the Pinglet’s maid, and Mr Paillardin has been legitimately hired to investigate poltergeists and ghosts.  So everyone, except Mme Pinglet, is in the same place at the same time. Mathieu and his girls are mistakenly given the same room as Mr Paillardin, who sees the girls in their nightdresses as ghosts and runs away.   There is much door-slamming – and Mr P and Mme Paillardin never manage to get a kiss before the police arrive on a raid and a lively chase ensues. Caught, Mr P says his name is Mr Paillardin, and Mme Paillardin gives her name as Mme Pinglet to the police. Mr P pays FFr5000 bail.

The next day, we’re back at the Pinglet’s house, and Mme Pinglet arrives back from her trip in a real state – her carriage’s horse had bolted and she ended up in a ditch. She declares her love for Mr P, saying ‘You nearly lost me!’ – only nearly he thinks.  Then a writ comes from the police for Mme P saying she must confirm her identity, and similarly one arrives for Mr Paillardin – of course neither were there at the time – how will this all be resolved?

An all-star cast was led by Richard McCabe, fresh from his Olivier award opposite Helen Mirren in The Audience, and maybe familiar on TV as one of Ken Branagh’s Wallander crew.

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In the late 1980s McCabe was at the RSC, and I will forever remember him as Puck in John Caird’s 1989 punky tutus and bovver boots staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (far right, with John Carlisle as Oberon).

Now in his early fifties, he made a wonderfully fleshy Mr P. His comic timing, facial contortions and asides to the audience were brilliant.  He was aided by Hannah Waddingham (whom we last saw as the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz), was his toweringly tall and overbearing wife – a very scary woman!  Robert Portal and Natalie Walter played the Paillardins, he all brusque, she suitably histrionic, Tom Edden was manic as the stuttering Mathieu and, in what is little more than an extended cameo, Richard Wilson (familiar to many as Victor Meldrew in TV’s One Foot in the Grave), was the rather downbeat seen-it-all-before hotel manager.

It had some hilarious moments of slapstick and double-entendre, and everything happened at breakneck pace, yet there was something slightly not quite right about the ending, which was a little sudden.  I wasn’t sure that everything had been resolved satisfactorily – but that was deliberate on Feydeau’s part commenting on the Parisian upper classes habits of bending the rules to fit themselves apparently.

All in all this was a really fun performance in a great little theatre. We had a good time and it made a change from the unaffordable West End at less than half the price, and we were home before midnight.  A great day out.

Ancient Animal Antics

Kalila and Dimna: Fables of Friendship and Betrayal by Ramsay Wood

kalila 1 The animal tales re-told in this volume originated in antiquity. Written in Sanskrit and known as the Panchatantra, they came out of India over 2000 years ago and were later absorbed into Persian and Arabic traditions. Told in five parts, this volume contains the first two sets of tales both of which are about friendship – its loss and gain. The larger part is Kalila and Dimna named after two of the main characters, followed by Zoric and Friends, (Zoric being a rat).

The stories use a framing device.  A young and inexperienced King, Dabschelim, who is not liked by his subjects, is led to an ancient scroll written by King Houshenk which contains thirteen rules of how to be a great king and tells him that the rules are illustrated in a series of stories of which a certain Dr Bidpai is the storehouse. Dabschelim summons the aged Bidpai, a professor who is not a fan of the king, and Bidpai promptly ends up in the dungeon. However Dabschelim’s curiosity gets the better of him and he decides he will listen to Bidpai’s stories.

Thus are we introduced to the world of two jackal brothers, Kalila and Dimna.  Chalk and cheese, Kalila is the sensible one, Dimna is sly and cunning, and a toady to Lion, the King of the Animals.

‘May it please Your Majesty,’ Dimna said, ‘I have come to offer my slender capacities to Your Majesty’s service. Please condescend to use me in whatever way Your Majesty sees fit, for even a little toothpick proves a comfort to the greatest king when food sticks between his teeth.’
The lion was as astonished as he was pleased at these unexpected words, and immediately formed a good impression of Dimna.
‘Well spoken, jackal,’ he said. ‘You have stepped boldly yet respectfully forward, and deserve the trial which you request. You are welcome to this court and to our presence.’
And from that time onward Dimna increasingly enjoyed the lion’s company.

When a giant bull ox gets abandoned by its owner in the Lion’s range, Dimna seeks to convince Lion that the bull Schanzabeh, whose bellowing has perturbed the plains, is a rival – whereas the bull has no intentions of the sort. Later, things will come to a head at the Lion’s mother’s birthday party, when the King leads the hunt…

All along, the conniving Dimna then tells Lion further animal tales to illustrate his scenarios, and in some of these tales, the animals tell yet further tales – so at times there are four levels of nesting!  That may seem complex, but it’s not so, they flow quite naturally into and out of each other.  I gather that some of the stories within the Panchatantra also appear in the slightly earlier Aesop’s fables.

Wood is a natural storyteller, and really these stories deserve to be read out loud – I narrated them to myself in my head.  Working from older translations, in his retelling he has ordered and formatted the tales into one long narrative of modern but respectful language.  On the page they seem simple like Aesop, but in their framing device of a storyteller who may be in peril, they have more in common with the Arabian Nights.  There is life, death, humour and plenty of politics to entertain us in these pages.

CCF06222013_00000A note on the edition – this 2008 paperback from SAQI is a lovely thing.  Squarer than your usual book with French flaps there is plenty of space around the text.  Little illustrations of the animals add to that, and the addition of apposite quotations from authors, thinkers, statesmen etc. in the margins add to the pleasure of reading.  A fascinating introduction by Doris Lessing, and learned postscript and family tree of the Bidpai literature, gives some background to the stories.

Wood, a Texan based in London, is a founder member of the London College of Storytelling and I found his re-telling of these tales to be charming.  Funnily enough, the author contacted me to offer a copy of the second volume of these tales, just as I was contemplating reading the first which I had bought some time previously – serendipity at work! I’m looking forward to the next book which has his re-tellings of the other three parts of the Panchatantra – Fables of Conflict and Intrigue.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Kalila and Dimna: Fables of Friendship and Betrayal by Ramsay Wood, Saqi paperback pub 2008.
Kalila and Dimna, Vol. 2: Fables of Conflict and Intrigue from the Panchatantra, Jatakas, Bidpai, Kalila and Dimnah and Lights of Canopus by Ramsay Wood, 2011.