Monthly Archives: September 2010

Screening Books

I am something of a compulsive reader, so have no problem choosing books to read, as I will read almost anything and will force myself through it to the end in the hope that the story improves, as if by slogging through 200 odd pages the author deserves some kind of literary redemption. Though, when a book is dire, there’s only so much you can hope for it to improve…as in the case of James Joyce and A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man, the only book I have ever given up on.

How, though, does the “normal” reader (if we define normal as being someone who doesn’t pick up tubes of toothpaste in bathrooms so they have something to read) go about choosing a book? I read today about the Page 99 Test, which involves reading page 99 of the book you are considering buying to decide if you can read it all the way through.

I suppose this has the advantage of avoiding the disappoinment that comes with books like The Angel’s Game, which have such a strong opening that you feel let down by the rest of the book. I never actually read the first page before buying a book though. I’m very much of the, can I fancy that blurb school of thought. More often than not I can.

Do you have a method for screening books before you read them? I worry that the Page 99 Test could give something away, or put me off a good book before I start it.

Banned Books in Schools

I was browsing the BBC website at lunchtime today and came across this feature on banned books in schools. I never encountered this kind of thing as a teacher, but I have always been profoundly amused at parents who believe that by stopping their children reading books they can somehow shelter them from the more unpleasant aspects of life.

Does anyone have any thoughts or feelings on this? I like to think when I have children I will be able to trust that they are mature enough to read the books and discuss themes like race, sexuality, drugs, violence or religion in an open and supportive way. That’s what my Dad always did with me. No books were off limits. Somehow I’ve managed to avoid ending up pregnant or addicted to narcotics. Go figure.

Seriously though. What do you think of this as a reader? Or as a parent? Or as a child?

Girl Crush

I have a girl crush on Scarlett Thomas. Or maybe it’s a writer crush? Except that I don’t write. Hmmm. Either way, I’ve read two of her books now and think she is amazing.

Her books are intelligent and off the wall. I read The End of Mr. Y while off my face on painkillers following an operation (though it can be enjoyed sober) and I’ve just finished PopCo. I thought that the puff saying that it would change the way you look at the world was bound to be an exaggeration, but… well. A review to follow soon.

Addition- Toni Jordan

Grace is thirty-five years old, single and unemployed following an unfortunate incident when teaching. She is also an obsessive compulsive who must count everything, to quantify the limits of her world. Because if she can’t quantify it, who knows what might happen? From the hairs on her toothbrush to the poppy seeds on her orange cake, everything must be measured. Then she meets Seamus who is thirty-eight, single and working in the cinema. All of a sudden allowing the numbers to rule her life doesn’t seem so much fun…

I’m not sure whether Addition made much of an impact when it was published in 2008. This may be attributable to really bad marketing. It was listed as a Richard and Judy summer read, but let’s face it, you’d be hard pressed to find a book that hasn’t been. When I picked up the book I thought that it must be a bad romp about dieters (the Quiche and graph paper on the cover were responsible for this). Then I thought it must be a teen romance as the characters were described as Grace (19) and Seamus (19). I don’t mind a bit of teen fiction, so I picked it up in expectation of this. I’m pretty sure that some parents somewhere will have done the same and given it to their thirteen year old, only to be horrified by some of the reasonably explicit erotic scenes later in the novel. So yeah, if I was this author I would have sacked my design team and copywriter. A few people failed to do their jobs properly on that one.

However, this is a blog which revels in going beyond a cover judgement and fully exposing the crimes of poor marketing. And this marketing was a crime, because the book inside is actually a decent read.

Toni Jordan tells the story of an obsessive compulsive with refreshing originality. Instead of being depressed at living on the outside of normal society, Grace lives in it, scorning the ants who wander through their existence waiting for life to happen, not realising that life is what is happening around them while they fail to realise, because they are unable to count and therefore measure the wonder of the universe. She has her flat and a picture of her ideal man, Nikola Tesla, by her bed. Though things have been different in the past, which is occasionally hinted at with some degree of subtlety, she is quite happy and has no intention of changing. The drama and dilemma in the story comes when Seamus, meaning well, encourages her to get treatment for her “disorder”.

I felt that this was an interesting exploration into the nature of obsession and our attitudes towards it. The author forces us to question the extent to which we as society view difference as a condition to be treated, drawing a distinction between people who are largely functional, like Grace, and people who are harmed by their obsessions, like the Germaphobics in the book. This book is a slow, sarcastic round of applause at all the psychiatrists and therapists who try to cure aspects of personality- how far do you go?

Make no mistake, obsessive compulsive disorder is a debilitating condition for many people, and the author acknowledges this. But in an age where many functional, yet admittedly quirky people are labelled with a spectrum of disorders (I saw this all the time in teaching. Shy, rude or uncommunicative? Must be low on the Autistic spectrum. Chatty? Must be ADHD. Bad tempered? Behaviour Emotional Social Disorder…) I think it is healthy to challenge the wisdom which suggests that everybody who is not completely normal, whatever that means, must have something wrong with them.

This is a light-hearted read, but an enjoyable one. It combines some sexy flirtation with scientific thought and philosophical musing on society. If anyone has ever irritated you by questioning your lifestyle choices (You don’t watch Big Brother; you actually enjoy being single, you like children but couldn’t eat a whole one and actually you don’t fancy theirs much) then this is an amusing two finger salute to those who want to turn us all into pop culture clones.

You could eat this with a banana, bought in a bunch of ten and cut into ten equal pieces. Or with whatever you please. You are an individual and fairly unique, after all.

Keeper by Andrea Gillies

keeper by andrea gilliesIf your mother was old and unable to look after herself, what would you do? Take her in and look after her yourself, or would you find a suitable nursing home and admit her to it? This is a sensitive subject in our society which has been described as a ticking bomb due to the vast amount of people over retirement age who are living to be older and older due to better access to drugs which unnaturally prolong their lives. No doubt you have an opinion about what you would do in the hypothetical situation, though whether you would be prepared to share it honestly with your friends is another matter. Les Dennis jokes aside, would it make a difference to you if it were your mother-in-law, and not your own mother, who needed the care?

At first glance, these questions seem irrelevant to Keeper, Winner of the Wellcome Trust Book Prize 2009. Described as “a book about memory, identity, isolation, Wordsworth and cake”, Andrea Gilles’ book with its swirly, feminine, pastel coloured fonts initially looks like common or garden chick lit, unworthy of a second glance. Normally I would have done exactly that, but this book piled on a table in the Medical Reference section of Blackwell’s Oxford seemed profoundly out of place.

The book, you see, is about as far away from chick lit and happy endings as it’s possible to get. A gut wrenching personal account of a struggle to care for an elderly mother in law, retain a sense of your own identity and survive the havoc and destruction that Alzheimer’s disease wreaks upon family life, the book the experiences of Gillies’ family with unflinching honesty. This account, Gillies will be the first to admit, is subjective and that of one particular case. So the book goes further, exploring this history of medical opinion surrounding Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia and the future of diagnosis and treatment. The book is chatty not preachy; full of anecdotes about the workings of the mind, famous dementia sufferers and philosophical musings about the nature of the soul and identity. Hard science is offset by human experience, leaving an end product which both informs and involves.

Despite her efforts in raising awareness of the disease, research into which is pitifully underfunded, Gillies has been as widely criticized for writing the book as she has been praised.

The praise is easy enough to understand. Alzheimer’s is a terrifying disease, but one which people are still reluctant to talk about. Seen as being an illness of the elderly or a natural decline into old age, research on the subject is slow and treatments hit and miss. Such a powerful memoir outlines the nature of the disease for those who have not encountered it themselves showing its crippling effects up on the individual suffer and the people who love them. Why then the criticism?

As an outsider, it’s easy to claim that Gillies was naive in moving their family from the familiar surroundings of Edinburgh to a remote Scottish peninsula to care for her mother-in-law. Naivety is no crime, and is in the most part forgivable. I did however find myself filled with the urge to criticise and judge when Gillies talks about her search for what she terms “the Sublime”. The capital R which characterises the Romantic poets, early in her memoir Gillies speaks of this immense union with nature she believes her mother-in-law will find healing, and which will fill her with the power to write a Great Work of Fiction. At best I found this vaguely ridiculous. I don’t think I need to discuss the vanity and conceit in this notion, that the decision to write a book by the sea will save a dementia sufferer where medicine can’t. Though, who knows what desperate people will do?

Worst of all though, was the dark hints between the lines that the situation might be somewhat manufactured. Cooking Julie and Julia style had been done, so let’s uproot the family, settle in the middle of nowhere with our vulnerable elderly relatives and see what happens.. sinister references to “the experiment” end early into the book, which was a relief, quite frankly, as they made me feel quite hostile towards Gillies. When they ended, along with the vainglorious wittering about the sublime, the account becomes less impersonal and more human.

Jo Brand described the book as being “darkly comic”, and Gillies herself admits that people have criticized her for writing about her mother in law who is unable to agree or disagree with the publication for the book. Personally, I don’t feel that the book was darkly comic. I certainly don’t feel that Gillies is poking fun at her mother in law. What might pass for slapstick in a tasteless Hollywood comedy is a bleakly tragic. The reader is not so much invited to laugh at the crazy old lady, but gently persuaded to see the frustration and terror that dementia sufferers live with day in and day out. Not knowing friends and family, losing your whole sense of self.

Don’t expect a happy ending, but do read the book. This is a topic which will affect us all before too long and merits deeper consideration.

Mr Rosenblum’s List- Natasha Solomon

Mr Rosenblum’s List: Or Friendly Advice for The Aspiring Englishman is a debut novel from a writer so new that she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia article to allow us to learn everything about her life in two minutes. But give it time, this lady is set to become famous. Rumour has it the Mr Rosenblum’s List had publishers squabbling to offer Natasha Solomon a deal, and queuing up to contract a second novel. So what’s that all about?

Jack, Sadie and their daughter Elizabeth are a young family of German Jews fleeing persecution by Nazis in their homeland. Arriving in London with a few suitcases and a small amount of money they are met by a member of the Jewish Refugee Committee who presents them with a pamphlet advising them on how best to assimilate to life in England.

Jack, a committed anglophile is incredibly grateful to the land and people that he sees as having saved his small family from a horrific fate, and sets about with steely determination to make himself a worthy Englishman and British citizen. However, becoming an Englishman is not as easy as the list would imply; especially when your wife resists Anglicization, no one will let you join their golf club and your every move is scuppered by a Dorset Woolly Pig… Soon Mr Rosenblum learns that there is more than one kind of English gentleman, and his pamphlet evolves from a helpful list to a detailed anthropological guide upon fitting into the strange world of the English.

Based in part upon Solomon’s grandparent’s experiences during the Second World War, Mr Rosenblum’s List is a charming mixture of family history, folklore and good old-fashioned story telling. Very often when you read books set during or related to the holocaust, it is the tragedy which understandably dominates the story, becoming a focal point which wipes out the bitterness of human experience in a deluge of history and statistics.

An immensely clever part of Solomon’s story telling was to allowing the character’s feelings to hint darkly at the memories of the holocaust and loss, but to focus on the human experience and highlight the loss of generations, of families of a culture and way of life through the guilt of the survivors and the ways that this manifests itself. The end result of this? A vision of hope.

In many ways, Mr Rosenblum’s List reminded me of The Wizard of Oz film. London is a monochrome city, grey and bleak, scarred by the war and haunted by the ghosts of those who were not so fortunate. Despite every effort by Jack, he cannot make himself the perfect English gentleman. His German accent and name give him away at every opportunity, and it seems that no one will let him belong. In contrast, Dorset is the strange Technicolor dreamland, the England of which Jack has dreamed, though like Dorothy he learns that beautiful new lands are not as welcoming as they first seem.

The story starts quietly, but rapidly gathers force and I soon found myself rooting for the indefatigable Mr Rosenblum who had initially irked me with his endless optimism and determination to affiliate himself with his new countrymen. The characters are vivid and real. It is rare that you read a book and become so wholly invested in the characters, and I wonder if this is in part due to Solomon’s memories of her grandparents and emotional investment in the story? Either way, the relationships between characters are beautifully imagined. By the end of the novel I had an overwhelming fondness for Mr Rosenblum’s sidekick Curtis, poacher, cider guzzler and last of the old Dorset men.

The descriptions of the food that Sadie makes are emotionally vivid, reminding me of Like Water For Chocolate. Food becomes a means of communication for women in the novel, and a reminder of the spiritual as well as physical nourishment that certain foods can provide. In light of this, I think that this book should be read while eating a Baumtorte, though you won’t be able to put the book down to make it. Don’t worry if you don’t know what a Baumtorte is, you soon will- the recipe is in the fascinating Author’s Scrapbook at the end of the book. Read it while eating a Baumtorte- the recipe is at the back of the book.

This is the best book I have read in a long time and I would bet my flat (albeit a rental property… but even if I owned) on this book being made into a film. It is such a beautiful story that undoubtedly some producer somewhere will have to cash in on it and strip mine it of its charm. Pray heaven that it is made in the UK. My advice is buy it now and read it now, so have the satisfaction of not being one of those who hops on the bandwagon when the adaptation comes along.

The Angel’s Game- Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Few people who have read The Shadow of The Wind would question any suggestion that Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a modern day master of elegant lyrical prose.  Translated from Spanish in 2004, The Shadow of the Wind has been a worldwide best seller, selling well in excess of a million books in the United Kingdom alone. Understandably his follow up novel, The Angel’s Game was hotly anticipated, and perhaps these great expectations played on the author’s mind.

The Angel’s Game has been classed by many as a prequel to The Shadow of The Wind, but I would dispute this terminology. It is set in the same world, which is to say we see The Cemetery of Lost Books and there is some small overlap between characters, but the events to not link together insofar as I can see, so I don’t think of it as a prequel. This is just a convenient term for the unimaginative.

The Angel’s Game tells the tale of David Martin, who rapidly rises from an office boy at a Barcelona newspaper to become the celebrated author of many successful penny dreadfuls. His success upsets his colleagues and he is thrown out of the relative safety of the newspaper’s offices to fend for himself on the dark mean streets of Barcelona; writing for a pair of unscrupulous brothers and living in the foreboding shell of an abandoned tower house. We sit with baited breath as a series of cleverly wrought plot twists draw us deeper into the secret web the house has spun for him, and tear him away from his one true love… or so Zafon would wish to think.

The language of the novel is undeniably brilliant. I was breathless with anticipation upon reading the first page of the book, which said something profound about a writer always remembering the first time he manages to sell his writing, because from that moment onwards his soul has a price. It seemed to me that this would be a fitting follow up to The Shadow of The Wind, and at first it seemed to be,

Zafon’s love of Barcelona was a s clear as ever. His descriptions of the city were masterful and were enough to inspire envy in any would be writer. The dark and heady style was there; a pastiche of the Gothic novel and Penny Dreadful, shot through with poetry.

Despite this, I felt there was something lacking. It’s hard to put my finger on any one thing exactly, but if pushed I would have to say it’s the plot. The plot is missing, or so poorly constructed as to seem invisible.  For me the novel lacked any conviction, and I had to force my way through it. Perhaps I was being especially dense, but Zafon seemed to have Martin dart about trying to solve problems which were never even present, and if they were? Well I certainly didn’t care about them. There was nothing sufficiently gripping about the plot to make me care what happened to anyone.

Minor characters are afforded great importance by the writer but totally fail to add anything to the momentum of the narrative, or, I would argue, the plot of the novel. They succeed only in destroying any glimmering sense of intruge which might have been built by diverting the reader’s attention away from one plotline, which wasn’t really going anywhere, to some pointless subplot which definitely isn’t going anywhere.

A clear example of Zafon’s adulation of secondary characters would be the, the Sempere family. They have several small cameo appearances in the novel, which is the only real reason this is called a prequel. The only real reason for using these characters was to allow the protagonist to be introduced to the Cemetery of Lost Books, but this too only added further confusion to the plot. To me there was an element of vainglorious allusion to the author’s previous successes and it dragged the plot deeper into the chaos of poor construction which plagued it.

I found the obvious literary pretentions of the novel really irksome. The first time the boss was described as being as still as a spider was effective, the fifth time was just fricking irritating. This irritation was further compounded by the frequent allusions to Great Expectations, a text Sempere gave the protagonist, who was cruelly deprived of books by his illiterate father. But what do these allusions add to, beyond my growing suspicion that the Zafon is capable of being a tad pretentious? Little. The boss is meant to be a criminal, who gives gifts which destroy the protagonists integrity… fine, a bit heavy handed, since I’d already twigged that, but fine. Cristina is clearly meant to be Estella, but lacks any of the original character’s verve…  and don’t get me started on the intended parallels between Vidal and Miss Havisham. The whole book was filled with poor, unfitting allusions and irritating literary pretentions.

I should be generous and point out that the book is a translation from the Spanish, and we might lay some blame at the translator’s door. However, the language was really the only redeeming feature. The author must take credit, if I can call it that, for the insipid plot, full of hopeless leads to nowhere beyond a truly anticlimactic end. I know it’s a work of fiction, but I can’t help myself adding an “its unrealistic” barb here. Who on Earth would spot that they have a secret room hidden inside their house and then not explore it for half a novel? I wouldn’t. Maybe he should write a book about me.

This book is passable. And probably no worse than much of the slush that gets published these days. But if, like me, you were a fan of The Shadow of The Wind and picked this up hoping for more of the same, I would strongly recommend forgoing biscuits and eating something like, raw garlic, a habanera chilli… maybe wash it down with a bottle of Tabasco sauce. Whatever you choose you’ll want to wash the bitter taste from your mouth.

The 100 Best Books of All Time?

I was sent this list in work the other day. Back in 2003 The Guardian claimed, no doubt controversially, that these were the best 100 books of all time. My favourite (Wuthering Heights) made it on there, so in that respect it’s accurate, but obviously this is a very subjective topic.

Of those of us in work I had read the most on the list (27 books) and of the books that we had read in common there was a great deal of debate.

I actually feel fairly strongly that whilst The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a good and interesting book, it does not deserve a place in the 100 best of all time! Likewise Lolita, which I just found to be somewhat sensationalist and actually rather dull. There was also a degree of debate as to whether Rebecca would have been a more suitable listing than Jane Eyre, and I have to say I favour Rebecca.

Looking at the list, what do you think? Are there any glaring omissions? Which books do you feel do not deserve their place?

The Swan Thieves- Elizabeth Kostova

An artist, Robert Oliver, is admitted to a psychiatric hospital having desperately attacked a painting at the National Gallery in Washington. Refusing to speak he spends his days obsessively painting a mysterious and beautiful woman. The novel follows Marlowe, a psychiatrist, as he struggles to treat Oliver, with nothing more to go on than his observations of the patient and conversations with Oliver’s ex-wife and lover, which hint darkly at the insanity which is consuming the artist. Who is the dark lady he paints? And what is the significance of the ancient letters that Robert keeps so close at all times?

Personally I found The Swan Thieves somewhat slow to start as the author was overly keen to establish relationships between minor characters that didn’t really enhance the story, possibly because of a fear of being seen to “tell” the story rather than “show” it. I found the split narrative perspectives lacked cohesion which left the story with a fragmented feel, especially given that the author frequently inserts letters to replace elements of the narrative prior to developing a sequence of chapters which are set in the late 1870s. There are those who will probably attempt to claim that this unity is a clever technique meant to reflect Oliver’s inner turmoil. If so, it’s pretentious, as well as fussy and irritating. It prevented any real sense of urgency developing; something which made Kostova’s debut novel The Historian so enjoyable.

Kostova has clearly researched the art scene carefully, and her presentation of both the modern artists and impressionists are convincing, if not truly engaging. Despite the beautiful language use, her characterisation in this novel is generally poor. The voice of the three main narrators was too similar, and as a result I didn’t believe in the characters. Even when Kostova switched to the third person to narrate the events of Paris in 1870s, I was left with a feeling that the slow progress of Beatrice and Olivier’s relationship was lacking passion and conviction.

The most convincing characters in the novel were the minor characters that were observed by the narrator without a voice of their own, save in sparse dialogue. As the focus of the novel’s quest for truth, Robert Oliver grew in complexity and developed sufficiently to appeal to the reader’s curiosity, though for me this was ruined by the novel’s hurried ending, which was over simplified and somewhat trite.

I have to admit, for me this novel is far too reminiscent of Kate Mosse’s Sepulchre (another disappointing second novel). The time switch in the narrative, the descriptions of painting and the lack lustre characterisation all pulled me back to this.  I was incredibly disappointed, as The Historian suggests that Kostova is the more accomplished writer when developing a unique and compelling story. However, this novel was a far cry from its excellent predecessor.