Bookends #5 April 22

This week’s bookends brings you a novel from the borders of Wales, a taste of new books due for publication in May and some advice for on how to enjoy poetry.

The Book
CreedHonno, an independent press based in Aberystwth, Wales, has been championing Welsh Women’s writing since the company was formed in 1986. Their latest title is a novel published in 1936 by Margiad Evans, a poet, novelist and illustrator who, though of English origin herself, closely identified with the Welsh border country. Creed was her fourth and final novel, all of which are set in the countryside of the Welsh Marches.

Honno describes Creed as a novel set in the fictional industrial Border town of Chepsford. It’s a place characterised by drunkenness and brawls. The theme of the novel is about suffering whith Evans showing domestic life unsettled by strong opinions on love and sin.

I’ve never read anything by Evans but I see that Honno has also published The Wooden Doctor which is about a troubled adolescent girl and her obsession with a doctor. I think I might give myself a treat and buy both…

The Post

I find it almost impossible to keep up to date with the output of publishers in the UK. Fortunatly I can rely on Susan at A Life in Books who does a monthly selection of new titles combined with her knowledge of the author’s previous work. I warn you however that reading these posts could do serious damage to your bank balance.

The May hardback selection is covered in two posts: part one and part two 
Expect to see the paperback selection post any time now.

The Article 

I know I am not alone in my struggles with poetry. I can appreciate the skill involved in compressing imagery into a few words but seldom, if ever, consider it an enjoyable eperience. I’m gratified to learn from an interview in The Guardian newspaper, that Thomas Foster, professor of literature at University of Michigan-Flint, had a similar struggle when he was in his younger days. He’s just written a guide called How to Read Poetry Like a Professor to help people like me overcome their difficulties.

In the interview he shares his tips for understanding and enjoying poetry including the advice not to start with the difficult poets… I wish those who set the school curricula would pay heed…..

WWWednesday 18 April 2018

WWWednesday is hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. I’ve not done this before but it seems an easy one. All I have to do is answer three questions and share a link in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

So here goes….

Currently reading

The Danger Tree by Olivia Manning

The Danger TreeThis is my contribution to the #77club reading week run by Kaggsy and Simon. I managed to get a copy from the library just in time. It’s set in Egypt at a critical moment when the Allied forces are desperately trying to hold back the advancing German forces. Though the war is the background, so far the book is about the response of the Europeans resident in Cairo and their uncertainty about the future. Manning is excellent at evoking the atmosphere of the desert.

 

Recently Finished

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Ocean at End of the Lane

I was looking for an antidote to  the drama of the world of neurological surgery that I’d been reading about in Do No Harm by Henry Marsh.  Gaiman’s book has been on my shelves since December 2013. I can’t remember why I wanted it since it’s a fantasy kind of story and has three ‘witches’ as characters which is not my usual reading material. But I’m now deeply impressed by Gaiman. It was hard to put this book down at night….

 

 

Reading next

The Crystal CaveI’m trying not to plan ahead too much this year but to choose what takes my fancy in the moment. I might return to a book I started just before the Olivia Manning one became available; Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave . It’s another from my shelves that I’ve been meaning to read for some time since I love all the myths around Arthur and Merlin. Or I might pick up one of the Booker prize winners I still have to read. I’m weighing up whether to read How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman (I actually started this last year) or The History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Both make heavy use of dialect so are not going to be easy reads. Any recommendations??

 

The year so far

Booker Prize project: the end is near

If I could get frequent flyer miles for every time I travelled to the land of best intentions this year I’m sure I’d have enough to circle the globe.

So many times I’ve got out of bed with the firm plan to write a review or check out some of the blogs I follow. Then bed-time arrives and I have no idea what happened to all those intervening hours. Other than I never did write the review and the list of unread items in my blog feed doubled.

Instead of blogging I’ve been filling my days catching up with friends from schooldays (I think I know every coffee shop within a 10 mile radius), creating a blog for my family history research; doing a lot of house redecoration (or rather supervising others to do the work) and going to the gym. That’s in between trying to learn German in preparation for a holiday and writing some scripts for performance at a cemetery in Cardiff. I’ve never written anything for performance before so this has been an eye-opening experience. It’s not until you hear the piece delivered by an actor that you realise how clunky some of the dialogue sounds…

Reading has taken somewhat of a back seat. It’s strange but when I was working there were many days where I would think “I’d love to be at home now, curled up on the sofa, just reading.”  But you know what, now that I can, the appeal has diminished….

Consequently I’ve read less this year than I have in all the years since I started blogging.  I refuse to get worked up about that however. It’s not about quantity but about enjoying the reading experience.

Since we’re now just over a quarter of the way through the year it seems like a good time to give you all an update on what I’ve been reading and what the future holds

State of the personal library

Let’s start with the good news …

… the TBR hasn’t gone up (round of applause please)

The not so good news … it hasn’t gone down.

I’m at exactly the same number with which I started the year – 245 to be precise.

I’m still acquiring books though at a vastly lower rate than has been the case over the last 5 years. And have off-loaded some that no longer appealed to the library book sale. Which has given me the space to accommodate the books I get through my monthly subscription to the Asymptote book club (I have yet to any of them so far) and those I need for the two book clubs in which I participate.

Year of Reading Naked

At the start of this year my only plan for 2018 was not to have a reading plan. Instead of creating lists of books to read (and then failing to read them) I decided to make 2018 my year of reading naked. By which I meant choosing what to read based on my mood at the time. I’ve stuck to that more or less. I did join in with the Reading Ireland Month hosted by Cathy at 746books but that didn’t involve making a list in advance. I just went to the shelves and found something by an Irish author. Job done.

This is so much more enjoyable than making a list and then finding when I come to read the books, they have lost their appeal…..

Read so far this year

I read the first of the books in my ‘Year of my life’ project as initiated by Cafe Society. It didn’t get off to a good start. I chose Muriel Spark’s The Comforters to represent 1957. Some of the characterisation was excellent but generally I thought the plot overly complicated and I lost interest long before the end. You can see my review here.

I’m now down to the last four books in my Booker Prize project, having read Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. 

That leaves me with G by John Berger, History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst and James Kelman’s How Late it Was How Late.

Best book of the year so far? That’s a toss up between A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola.

On the horizon

Today marks the start of the #1977club hosted by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’sbookishramblings, a week where we read, discover and discuss books from this particular year. I wasn’t going to join in because when I looked at the list on Wikipedia of books published that year the only ones that were of interest were ones I had already read. There seemed a lot of short story collections, science fiction and ‘popular’ fiction. But then HeavenAli drew my attention to The Danger Tree by Olivia Manning, an author I have long intended to read. This is the first title in her Levant Trilogy and is set in Egypt where the British forces are engaged in a fierce struggle  against the German forces. The conflict provides a backdrop against which one couple, Guy and Harriet Pringle,  struggle with their marriage. The stars must have been in alignment because I have just finished my current book and was wondering what to pick up next and then discovered my library has a copy languishing in its archive.

After that it will probably be back to the Booker Prize and I have Eleanor Oliphant is Absolutely Fine by Gail Honeyman to read for the next book club meeting. And that’s as much as I want to plan right now.

From geishas to servants in six steps

Time for another Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate in Kew and for once we are starting with a book I know.

memoirs of geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden was the first novel I read which gave me an insight into Japanese culture. I don’t remember anything about the plot, I just recall that the book described extensively how geishas are trained to act as entertainers and hostesses. As part of their role they are expected to demonstrate great skill in Japanese classical music and traditional dance as well as witty conversation.

housekeeper

Conversation of a very different kind is at the heart of The Housekeeper and the Professor by the Japanese author Yoko Ogawa. It’s a novella set in modern day Japan about the relationship between a Professor who was a brilliant mathematician until he was injured in a road accident and the woman who becomes his 10th housekeeper (all the previous holders of that job found him too strange). They bond over prime numbers and number sequences.

Rebecca

For an alternative model of a housekeeper let’s turn to one of Daphne du Maurier’s best known novels, Rebecca. In it we encounter Mrs Danvers, head housekeeper at Manderley, the grand mansion in Cornwall belonging to Maxim de Winter and his dead wife Rebecca. Mrs D (we never learn her first name) is a fearsome looking character with a “skull’s face” of high cheekbones and sunken eyes. Not exactly the kind of person to make Maxim’s new wife, a young and naive girl, feel comfortable in her new home, especially when, at every stage, Mrs D is ready to point out how poorly she compares to the glamorous Rebecca.

little-women

Maxim met his new wife while on holiday in the French Riviera. It’s during a holiday in that part of the Mediterranean that one of the characters in my next book, meets her future husband. Amy March is the youngest of the four sisters in Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women.  She’s vain and self-centered, the daughter least likely to sacrifice her own pleasures for the good of others.  But on holiday she matures and reaches a decision about her artistic ambitions and her future. Her reward is to be courted and hitched to Laurie, a rich and handsome boy who lived next door to the March family.

 

Pilgrims Progress

The original readers of Little Women were of course left in no doubt that this is a book designed not just to entertain but to instruct them about how to be better women, ones who put domestic duties and family above self interest. To help them in their journey they have the wisdom and good sense of their mother and a copy of John Buynan’s Pilgrims’ Progress. 

Bunyan’s work, published in 1678, has been described as the first novel in English. It’s a claim that’s been disputed — there are at least nine other novels which have been similarly described. Ian Watt, a leading literary academic, argued in favour of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, published more than forty years later.

Pamela

The lecturers on my English degree course disagreed and put their weight behind Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded by the printer Samuel Richardson. I don’t know if you’ve ever read this tale of the trials and tribulations of a beautiful 15-year-old maidservant called Pamela Andrews. Her master is a country landowner who pesters her, kidnaps her and tries to seduce and rape her multiple times. Eventually he rewards this robust defence of virtue by marrying her and introducing her into high society.

The story sounds interesting and it was entertaining for a time but I remember struggling to get through it because it felt so repetitive and became rather dull. One of reasons I didn’t care for this book may have been that the version I read is substantially different from the one Richardson wrote. Apparently this novel went through revision after revision because Richardson was extremely sensitive to criticism (of which there was a lot, usually on the grounds of morality or manners) so kept making tweaks. In an article marking a new Oxford edition in 2000  more closely based on that original, John Mullen showed how these changes robbed the book of a lot of its vitality.

pearl earring

For readers in the eighteenth century, however, this book was certainly different to anything else they had ever written. Most notably its ‘heroine’ was a low-bred creature, a mere servant girl, when they were accustomed more to reading about courtly ladies and women of virtue. Some of them were scandalised at the idea that mere servants could become part of a higher class. Who was this upstart some of them questioned?

Pamela may have been one of the first characters in fiction to be shown moving well beyond her station in life and adopting manners felt more suited to her betters. But she was not the last, which brings me another maid servant and my final link in the chain. Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring puts the young girl Griet into the home of the painter Johannes Vermier. Griet is an intelligent girl who shows she has an eye for art. But Vermeer’s wife suspects the girl is up to more than mixing paints when she is alone with the painter in his attic studio. Chevalier could simply have written a story about an illicit affair but she made the novel far more interesting by focusing on the restraint between master and servant. And in the end, Griet does get her reward….

And so we reach the end of a chain which has followed a trail from Japan to America, France and England and ended up in the Netherlands. I never expected this chain to take this route but that’s half the fun of the Six Degrees meme, you never know where it’s going or where it will end.

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Do No HarmPeople who tend to be squeamish or prefer not to know about the internal workings of the human body, wouldn’t enjoy reading Do No Harm by Henry Marsh. It’s also probably best to avoid this book if you have a friend or relative who has been diagnosed with a neurological condition or is about to have surgery.

Marsh is a neurological surgeon with more than 30 years experience. In Do No Harm he offers insight into the joy and despair of a career dedicated to one of the most complex systems in the body. This is a candid account of how it feels to drill into someone’s skull, navigate through a myriad of nerves that control memory, reason, speech and imagination and suck out abnormal growths. If successful he can save someone’s life or extend their projected life span. But often he is millimetres away from catastrophe. One false move and the result could be death or paralysis.

Marsh frankly admits that in his career he has made mistakes. A few years ago, he prepared a lecture called “All My Worst Mistakes.” For months, he lay awake in the mornings, remembering the patients he had failed. “The more I thought about the past,” he recalls , “the more mistakes rose to the surface, like poisonous methane stirred up from a stagnant pond.”

On a visit to a nursing home for people with extensive brain damage he sees the result of some of those mistakes in the motionless forms of patients in their beds “To my dismay I recognised at least five of the names.” One of them is a schoolteacher in his fifties whose life he ‘wrecked’ (Marsh’s word) during a fifteen hour operation to remove a large tumour. In the final stages he tore part of the artery that keeps the brainstem, and thus the rest of the brain alive. The patient remained in a coma for the rest of his life. The experience haunted Marsh for years.

Yet without mistakes, he says, there would be no progress. And without the willingness of doctors to take risks, many of the greatest advances in his field would never have happened.

It’s one of the painful truths about neurosurgery that you only get good at doing the really difficult cases if you get lots of practice but act means making lots of mistakes at first and leaving a trail of injured patients behind you. I suspect that you’ve got to be a bit of a psychopath to carry on…

Henry MarshDoes that mean surgery is always the best course? This is a question discussed regularly in the daily case conferences Marsh holds with the junior doctors and radiographers who form his hospital team. Is it kinder to let someone die gradually than to undertake invasive surgery from which they may never recover or if they do, face life changing side effects? The team reach a clinical, unemotional conclusion but its down to Marsh to face the patient and explain the decision. It’s an encounter that requires a delicate balance of compassion and detachment.

Marsh suffers anxiety before such meetings, trying to resist the temptation to be overly optimistic about the likely outcome of any procedure. Often before surgery he is oppressed by “almost a feeling of doom’ and panic which only dissipates at the last moment when he sits in his operating chair and takes up his scalpel.

… full of surgical self-confidence, I press it precisely through the patients scalp. As the blood rises from the wound the thrill of the chase takes over and I feel in control of what is happening.

Marsh never set out to become a neurosurgeon. After completing his medical degree he caught a glimpse through a porthole of a patient “anaesthetized, her head completely shaven, sitting bolt upright on a special operating table.” The surgeon stood behind her, with a light fixed to his head, patting her bare scalp with dark brown iodine antiseptic. The image stayed in his mind, and struck him as “a scene from a horror film.”

But his second visit to a neurological theatre fascinated him. Unlike all the other operations he had witnessed which involved the handling of ‘warm and slippery body parts’, this was done with an operating microscope through a small opening in the side of the head using only a few microscopic instruments.

The brain continues to fascinate Marsh. He is awed by what he sees through his surgical microscope, which “leans out over the patient’s head like an inquisitive, thoughtful crane ” as the infra-red cameras in his GPS system shows he position of his instruments. The internal cerebral veins are like “the great arches of a cathedral roof” and beyond the Great Vein of Galen can be seen “dark blue and glittering in the light of the microscope.”

In Do No Harm he does a grand job of sharing that wonder with his readers and also the drama of the operating theatre. You don’t need extensive biological or medical knowledge to appreciate the level of difficulty involved in these procedures though a schematic showing what bits of the brain lie where would have been a useful addition to the book.

Every chapter is headed with the name of a type of tumour (who knew there were so many?) in which Marsh talks about some of the cases that involved those conditions. In between he shares his many battles with the bureaucracies and inefficiencies he encounters in the British National Health Service (NHS).

Surgeons kept waiting because of a decree that doctors can’t begin a new operation while another is in the final stages in an adjoining theatre. Or theatre staff forced to kick their heels because their next patient wasn’t allowed to change into their hospital gown while there were members of another gender in the same waiting room. The working hours of junior doctors changed without any consultation with the surgical leads. Computer systems that won’t co-operate when a bed is needed quickly. The causes of Marsh’s frustration range far and wide.

In one episode, which would be farcical in any other sector, he describes having to leave his clinic to repeatedly go up two flights of stairs to get a password so he can discuss an X-Ray result with his patient. “Try Mr Johnston’s,” he’s told. “That usually works. He hates computers. The password is ‘Fuck Off 45’.” It marks the forty-five months since the introduction of a highly-expensive computer system.

Back in his office, Marsh tries every possible combination of upper and lower case letters, adding spaces, taking them out, all without success. He runs up the two flights again. One staff member realises there’s been a miscalculation. The system has been in place two months longer than they recalled. So it turns out the password is now “Fuck Off 47.” All of this while the poor patient waits to hear if Marsh can save his life by operating to remove the cause of his elliptic fits.

His railings stem from a deep concern for his patients and a desire to want to do right by them (he even washes and dries the hair of his female patients before they leave the theatre). He tries not to let his feelings show but his mask slips regularly. Leaving the hospital one evening having told one man that an operation was not possible, he rails against the traffic as if it were the drivers’ fault

“ … that this good and noble man should die and leave his wife a widow and his young children fatherless. I shouted and cried and stupidly hit the steering wheel with my fists. And I felt shame, not at my failure to save his life — his treatment had been as good as it could be — but at my loss of professional detachment and what felt like the vulgarity of my distress compared to his composure and his family’s suffering, to which I could only bear impotent witness.

This is a book that I never expected to enjoy but it proved far more readable than I expected. I’m glad however that I didn’t read it before my friend had her own surgery to remove a brain tumour (from which she thankfully recovered). I appreciated there were risks involved, but never realised just how narrow the margin of error would be. Sometimes ignorance is a blessing.

Footnotes

About the Book: Do No Harm by Henry Marsh was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2014.  It was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award, the Wellcome Book Prize and the Guardian First Book Prize. Marsh wrote a follow up in 2017. Admissions  was written as he prepared for his retirement.

About the Author: Henry Marsh worked as consultant neurosurgeon in London for about thirty years. In addition he travelled regularly to the Ukraine, donating his time to treat patients in extremely difficult situations and in the face of political opposition. H retired from full time work in the NHS in 2015 but continued to work in private practice until 2017.

Why I read this book: This was a book club choice. I probably wouldn’t have read the book otherwise. But I am so glad I did.

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Three Things About ElsieOne of the most memorable episodes in Alan Bennett’s series of dramatic monologues Talking Heads features an elderly lady who has taken a tumble in her home while doing a little illicit dusting. Though she needs help she is afraid this will mean she is carted off to a residential home because she is deemed no longer able to look after herself.

I was reminded of this tale when reading Joanna Cannon’s novel Three Things About Elsie. It’s set in a home for elderly people, one of whom is now lying on the floor of her room, waiting for someone to find her. As Florence Claybourne waits, she thinks back over the previous month and the events triggered by the arrival of a new resident, a man she is convinced is someone she knew decades earlier but whom she believed was dead.

No-one in the home believes her however. Florence presents a bit of a problem for the staff at the Cherry Tree home. She hasn’t really fitted in with their thinking on how elderly people should behave. She doesn’t care for the TV programmes in the communal residents’ lounge and doesn’t enjoy the organised bingo games. Now it seems she is prone to shouting out loud and disturbing the little welcome speech Miss Ambrose, the home’s manager, likes to give new residents. Miss Ambrose’s patience is tested with Florence begins making claims that this new resident is an imposter who sneaks into her room and moves her things about. Miss Ambrose warns her she is ‘on probation’; she has one month in which to prove she isn’t losing her mind otherwise she will find herself in Greenbank home (a much less desirable residence than Cherry Tree).

Just as she has done throughout her life, Florence turns to her childhood friend Elsie for moral support and wisdom. They’ve been through a lot together. Elsie always knows what to do and what to say in any situation. “I can’t imagine I how I would have coped without her all these years,” admits Florence. Now she needs her friend more than ever because she knows her mind is wandering. “It can’t help itself. It very often goes for a walk without me, and before I’ve realised what’s going on, it’s miles away,” she acknowledges.

Is Florence mistaken? Is the new resident really Gabriel Price as he claims to be or is he Ronnie Butler,  a nasty piece of work from Florence’s past (and possibly a murderer). This isn’t the only mystery in the novel. We learn two things about Elsie fairly early on: The first thing is that “she’s my best friend”; the second that “she always knows what to say to make me feel better”. But the third? Florence can’t quite remember that fact. It’s not until we get to the end of the novel that readers discover the missing piece of the jigsaw (though I suspect many, like myself, will have already guessed the answer).

Cannon divides the narration between Florence, Miss Ambrose the administrator and the young handyman “Handy Simon”. Miss Ambrose’s characterisation is a little predictable. She’s a busy manager who frets about budgets, bustles about organising the residents and gently ‘bossing’ them about. Simon is a loner who makes up for her lack of compassion by developing a natural ability to understand what makes old people tick.

It’s Florence who is the real star of this show. She may be 84 years old but she’s not about to be treated like a child. She’s a witty and sharp woman who has the measure of Miss Ambrose. When one of the residents speculates if the administrator has been up to some fraudulent activity, Florence responds: “Miss Ambrose doesn’t look the type, does she? … She buys all her clothes from Marks & Spencer.”

She’s a bit prickly but she is also vulnerable. Though she is fearful this fall will see her sent off to Greenbank, she really wants to be found. She imagines little scenarios of how she will be discovered and how her rescuers will treat her.

One of them [the ambulance team] will sit with me, as we move along the streets under the spin of a blue light. The light will turn across his face as we travel, and he will smile at me from time to time, and his hand will somehow find mine in the darkness.

Cannon cleverly prevents this novel becoming twee and light by interjecting darker tones when dealing with the nursing home.  The residents at Cherry Tree live under a constant threat they will be ousted from the home and despatched to Greenbank, from which it’s but a short step to death. No more seaside outings, entertainers, healthy hearts exercise sessions or bingo. At Greenbank:

…   each room was a small piece of torment. Eyes were glazed with vacancy. Mouths gaped. Limbs rested on angry, twisted sheets, although perhaps worse were the ones who lay silent in perfectly made beds, the ones who had run out of arguing.

It’s a disturbing image. One that is vastly different to all those soft focused, airbrushed pictures seen in marketing literature for such establishments. But as Florence says, there is so much pretence involved with these homes. Cherry Trees home doesn’t even have any cherry trees she points out.

It’s the kind of name you give to these places though. Woodlands, Oak Court, Pine Lodge. They’re often named after trees, for some reason. It’s the same with mental health units. Forests full of forgotten people, waiting to be found again. … It feels like you can call a thing whatever you want to, in an attempt to turn it into something else.

Joanna Cannon’s previous career as an NHS psychiatrist is evidently at work here. She captures so well the forced jollity of residential homes for elderly people where the idea seems to be that because you’re old, your intellectual faculties must be significantly depleted. I’m a long way off Florence’s age but I hope when I get there I’ll have her same spark and feisty spirit. And I hope I’ll also have a friend like Elsie.

 

Top 10 books around the world

blog globe small 1

It’s been a long time since I joined in with the Top Ten Tuesday meme but this week’s topic gives me a chance to talk about a topic of particular interest to me.

I realised a few years ago that my reading was rather limited geographically so I made a conscious decision to look for novels written by authors outside of USA and Uk. Since starting my World of Literature project I’ve read books in 36 countries. Though the Top Ten Tuesday topic is strictly speaking about books that take place in another country, I’m taking a liberal approach and going for novels written by authors from 10 different parts of the world.

 

Belgium: Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb. This slim work from one of Belgium’s leading authors is set in Japan. It gives a fascinating glimpse into the difficulties of navigating the work culture in Japan.

Finland: White  Hunger by Aki Ollikainen. I never realised that Finland had suffered a horrendous famine in the 1860s. This is a grim account of a woman walking mile after mile through waist-high snow to prevent her children starving to death.

India: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. A Booker prize-winning novel that will make you laugh and make you think.

Japan: After the Banquet  by  Yukio Mishima. This was my first venture into Japanese literature. It was enigmatic at times but also a fascinating portrait of a marriage between two people whose interests and perspectives seem diametrically opposed.

Kenya: Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. A savage indictment of the political and government regime in the country post independence.

Nigeria:  Americanah  by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Two young people dream of leaving their country to find a new life in America. Only one of them makes it. But it’s not what she expects.

Norway: The Blue Room  by Hanne Ørstavik  A short psychological novel about a naive young girl and the troubling relationship she as with her mother.

Republic of the Congo:   Broken Glass by  Alain Mabanckou. A lively novel set in a seedy bar where a rag bag of odd characters hang out.

South Korea: The Vegetarian by Hang Kang. A disturbing novel about a troubled girl who decides to stop eating meat.

Zimbabwe: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. A country in the middle of a crisis. Aid workers turn up in their white vans and dish out sweets and toys, take a few photos and then disappear. Some people are lucky enough to leave. But is life elsewhere necessarily better?

 

 

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle [Booker prize]

Is it possible to appreciate a novel and yet not particularly enjoy reading it? To admire the technical prowess of the author and their creativity but be missing the buzz of having a pleasurable experience?

That’s certainly been my reaction to a few of the novels I’ve read as part of my Booker prize project. I’m thinking in particular of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children but to a lesser extent I had the same feeling when I read  In A Free State by V. S Naipaul and S Byatt’s Possession: A Romance  . 

paddy clarkeIt’s happened again with my latest Booker prize read; the 1993 winner Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.

This is a tale of one year in the life of 10-year-old Paddy Clarke who lives with his mum, dad, younger brother Francis (aka Sinbad) and baby sister Deidre in the fictional suburb of Barrytown, North Dublin. It begins with him as a mischievous boy who roams around Barrytown with his mates and ends with him becoming “the man of the house” when his parents split up and dad leaves th family home.

In between lie multiple adventures and episodes involving interactions with family members, friends and teachers. Paddy and his best mate Kevin (the instigator of most of their adventures) like to start fires, write their names in wet cement, harass elderly ladies and occasionally steal from shops.  Their playgrounds are the bushes surrounding the neighbours’ gardens and building sites which sprout and then disappear.

We got material from our houses and made headbands. Mine was a tartan one, with a seagull’s feather. We took off our jumpers and shirts and vests. James O’Keefe took off his trousers and rode through Bayside in his underpants. His skin was stuck to the saddle when he was getting off, from the sweat; you could hear the skin clinging to the plastic. We threw his trousers onto the roof of a garage, and his shirt and his vest. We put his jumper down a shore.

Paddy is an exuberant narrator who tells his tale in a sporadic, fragmented style that shifts from one event to another with seemingly little connection. What holds everything together however are the glimpses we get of Paddy trying to make sense of the changes in his world, particularly in the relationship between his parents.

He stays awake every night to listen for raised voices coming from the kitchen or the bedroom.  He doesn’t understand the shouting and the screamed whispers. But he does want them to stop. At first he tries sheer force of will:

—— Stop.

There was a gap. It had worked; I’d forced them to stop. Da came out and went in to the television. I knew the wait of his steps and the time between them, then I saw him.

They didn’t slam any doors: it was over.

When that stops working he decides to become a model student, even if that means getting on Kevin’s bad side. He reasons that if he works hard in school there’d be no reason for his parents to argue. But gradually, when he sees his father hit his mother, he realises that his efforts have been in vain.

He’s a complex boy, often picking on his brother Sinbad, burning his mouth with lighter fuel and kicking him in bed at night. It’s all a front. Paddy doesn’t want to hurt the child, he just wants him to stay awake, to have someone to talk to rather than just listen to the arguments downstairs.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is very much a novel in the Bildungsroman mode. Paddy is  pushed into growing up but he only does so to a limited extent. His knowledge of the world is beginning to change. He sees change but doesn’t understand it. He just knows that his playground is getting smaller, disappearing under concrete. He knows his parents are going their separate ways. But the why eludes him. Understandable really given that he’s still just 10 when the novel ends.

Boyle’s ability to make Paddy an authentic voice is impressive. He captures the bravado and the insecurities superbly. There were some points at which I wanted to laugh out loud (the steeplechase game they play around the neighbours’ gardens is a hoot). And times when I felt saddened by the pain this boy endures.

Plenty to applaud therefore in this novel. So why didn’t I enjoy it more? I think it comes down to my feeling that the narrative was repetitive. Anecdote piled on top of anecdote on top of anecdote with not enough variation for me.  I found I was skimming a lot of paragraphs which is never a good sign. I did find it endearing and touching at the end (where the significance of the book’s title becomes apparent) but getting to that point was often hard work.

Footnotes

About the Book:  Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle was published in 1993 by Secker and Warburg. It won the Booker Prize that year.

About the Author:> Doyle was born in Dublin which has been the setting for many of his novels. He spent several years as an English and geography teacher before becoming a full-time writer in 1993. Doyle’s first three novels, The Commitments (1987), The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991) comprise The Barrytown Trilogy, a trilogy centred on the Rabbitte family. All three novels were made into successful films.

Why I read this book:Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is one of the five titles remaining to be read from my Booker Prize project. Since March is ReadingIrelandmonth hosted by Cathy at 746books.com it seemed like a good time to dust it off the shelves.

Doll Face by Dylan H Jones #WritingWales

Dylan H. Jones - Doll Face_cover_high res

If ever I needed reminding that I have led a (mercifully) sheltered life, I just have to pick up a crime novel. Some of the scenarios dreamed up by the authors working in this genre are not only out of my realm of experience, they don’t even figure in my knowledge bank.

Until I read Doll Face, the second title in Dylan H Jones’ Tudor Manx series, I was blissfully unaware for example that there is a certain section of the population that likes to step into rubberised full body suits whenever they feel like adopting a new persona.

 

Living Dolls … A subculture of men who like to dress like dolls. They wear body suits, masks, anything that makes them more feminine.

I have to believe that Jones has done his homework and not only do such people walk this planet  there are businesses that supply their needs. What a way to make a living!

The habit provides the title of Doll Face, and is responsible for some thoroughly creepy moments.

I read the first novel in this series  — Anglesey Blue  — last year and enjoyed it as you can see from my review . I wasn’t the only one. It was long listed for the Guardian’s ‘Not the Booker Prize’ 2017 and occupied the #1 Best Seller spot in Welsh Crime for a time. Not bad for a debut novel. 

I wondered at the time how this series would progress. It’s hard enough to write one successful novel but coming up with an equally good second in a series is tough. In an interview I did with Dylan Jones he said his plan was to set each book in a different season with his central character, Detective Inspector Tudor Manx, wrestling with his decision to return to his native island of Anglesey in Wales.

Though Doll Face takes place in Spring, a season associated with hope and growth, it feels a darker novel to me than the winterly Anglesey Blue. It’s set three months after the first novel with Manx’s detective skills called upon when a body of a young woman is found horribly mutilated. Then gruesome video footage comes to light showing details of how she was murdered.

Suspicion falls on her nasty ex husband and on her employer, the millionaire tech-entrepreneur Kimble McLain. McLain is such a big cheese and philanthropist that the high-ups in the police force want Manx to go cautiously. But of course this is a guy who doesn’t understand the word ‘no’. Besides, when another similarly mutilated body is discovered, it quickly becomes clear that there could be a serial killer on the island. The investigation takes Manx into the world of religious fanaticism and child abuse.

Some of the threads from the earlier novel make a return in Doll Face. There’s  the disappearance of his sister many years earlier which continues to haunt Manx. There was a cliff-hanger at the end of Anglesey Blue which I thought would have been picked up in this second novel but we didn’t get much further forward on that plot line.  But there was a significant development about the hitherto hinted-at reasons why Manx left his previous job with the London Metropolitan serious crime division under a dark cloud of suspicion.

The inspector’s strained relationship with the forensic scientist Ashton Bevan is also shaping up nicely while we got to know more about the two key members of the team: policewoman Delyth Morris and Falklands’ War veteran Detective Sergeant Maldwyn Nader, who is suffering from PTSD. I’m warming to them both as well as to the cigar smoking, sports car driving inspector. Maybe by book four one of the women on the island will have persuaded Manx that it’s time his fashion sense came into the twenty-first century.

An entertaining read with plenty of twists and dangling threads to keep you reading. It can be read as a stand-alone novel though it you want to get under the skin of Anglesey, it would be worth reading Anglesey Blue also.

Footnotes

About the Book: Doll Face by Dylan H Jones is published in March 2018 by Bloodhound Books.

About the Author: Dylan H Jones is a native of Anglesey so he knows a thing or two about the island, its landscape, language and people. He has worked in television and the creative industry, as a producer at the Welsh TV Channel, S4C before becoming creative director  at Channel 4, London. In 1999, Dylan moved to California where he worked a copywriter in LA, writing movie trailers and TV ads. 

More information is available on his website  and in a Q&A with Dylan Jones on this blog site in which he talks about the choice of Anglesey as a setting and his plans for the series.

Why I read this book: It’s a great opportunity to showcase the writing from my native country of Wales. Thanks to Dylan Jones and to Bloodhound Books for providing me with an advance copy of Doll Face in return for a fair review.

 

Bookends #4 March 2018

I didn’t get around to a Bookends post last week but I hope this episode makes up for that deficiency. Once again I bring you a book, a blog post and an article that have caught my attention in recent days.

Article: writers resisting oppression

I came across the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o when I embarked on my World of Literature project with the aim of expanding my reading horizons by choosing books from 50 different countries. I’m up to 36 at the moment.

Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was one of the books that I’ve come across so far. As a tale of a village whose appeals for help go unanswered when the harvests fail and they are left starving, this book was considered so incendiary by the Kenyan government that they imprisoned the author without trial or charge. It took pressure from Amnesty International to get him released.

Interviewed by The Guardian newspaper about his memoir Wrestling with the Devil (out in the UK on April 5) he says that what helped him survive was his power of imagination and determination to resist. “Resistance is the best way of keeping alive. It can take even the smallest form of saying no to injustice. If you really think you’re right, you stick to your beliefs, and they help you to survive.”

Read the interview in The Guardian here but then go out and get a copy of Petals of Blood.

Book: The Book of Tiblisi

Book of TblisiOne part of the world that is all too familiar with oppression is Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet Union. It’s 26 years ago since they declared independence – during that time they’ve experienced two wars with their former ‘master’, a coup d’etat and economic hardship. In The Book of Tblisi published by Comma Press, ten stories from local writers show how the country, and its capital city Tblisi, has recovered its spirit. I don’t normally enjoy short stories but the collections produced by Comma Press in their “Book of …..” series are the exception.

Blog Post: A blogger with courage

Some of you know Jill who blogs at Jill’s Book Cafe, and have been following her posts over the last year in which she described her treatment for breast cancer. There was a lot of humour in the initial posts (one hilarious one dealt with  the difficulties of getting into and out of a bra). She’s needed every ounce of courage in recent months because of the effects of the medication. Do read her latest post called “Hello from the other side of chemotherapy” and give her a virtual hug.

 

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