People 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…
Does 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.
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.
One 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.
The Comforters was Muriel Spark’s first novel. She went on to write a further 21, gaining a reputation for blending wit and humour within darker themes of evil and suffering.
It contains two broad plot lines.
Once concerns the suspicions of Laurence Manders that his elderly grandmother Louisa Jepp is heavily involved in a diamond-smuggling operation. The other focuses on his on-off girlfriend Caroline Rose, a writer who is a recent convert to Catholicism. While working on a book about 20th-century fiction called “Form in the Modern Novel” she is visited by what she calls a “Typing Ghost”, an invisible being that repeats and remarks upon her thoughts and actions.
Every time Caroline has a thought, it gets echoed by the Typing Ghost. One day she writes: On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena.
“Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her left. It stopped and was immediately followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena.”
Most of the novel is connected to the differing reactions of Laurence and Caroline to these mysteries. Laurence is excited and intrigued when he discovers jewels hidden in a loaf of bread at his grandmother’s cottage and finds her in a conflab with three mysterious figures. Mr Webster the baker and the Hogarths, a father and his crippled son could, he surmises be “a gang … maybe Communist spies”.
Caroline on the other hand is is frightened by her mystery. Her friends cannot hear the noises of typewriter keys being tapped and a voice that sounds “like one person speaking in several tones at once”. Nor do they manage to record them on tape. Caroline thus fears the worst, that the visitations mean she is going mad. This adds to the isolation she feels because of her religious beliefs and the fact other converts she encounters are either distasteful or a bit dense.
With the aid of Laurence, her friends, and her priest, Caroline comes to see that another writer, “a writer on another plane of existence” is writing a story about her. She, and everyone around her, exist as characters within a fictional realm of an unknown author’s imagination. The Comforters is thus about the question of reality versus truth using a variation on the device of a novel within a novel.
I’m conscious that this summary of the plot doesn’t truly convey how complex and convoluted this is as a novel. As it progressed I found it more and more confusing. I reached the final third hoping all the pieces would fall into place but they never did so I abandoned the book.
I noticed that The Comforters was lauded by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, both of whom saw a manuscript of the novel and encouraged Muriel Spark to find a publisher. Greene called it “One of the few really original first novels one has read for many years” while Evelyn Waugh deemed it ‘Brilliantly original and fascinating.’ Waugh did however seem to suggest that the first part of the book worked better than the latter sections.
That was also my reaction.
I enjoyed the light comedy opening where we’re introduced to Granny Louisa and Laurence, a young man which a lively imagination who sees nothing wrong in opening letters addressed to other people or rummaging through the drawers of their cupboards.
There were times when I thought this part of the novel wouldn’t have been out of place in an Ealing comedy film. We get a part-gypsy old lady who relies on pigeons for communicating with her ‘gang’ members, diamonds smuggled inside plaster casts of saints and transported to a London-based fence in granny’s home-made pickles. Stanley Holloway would have been perfect as a gang member with Katie Johnson (from The Ladykillers) as Granny Louisa.
The plot line involving Caroline’s hallucinations was an interesting meta-fictive element but the rest of the book was way too jumbled. I couldn’t work out the point Spark was making through the Baron (a bookseller friend of Caroline’s) who is obsessed by a man he thinks is England’s leading Satanist or the oppressive, malevolent figure of Mrs Georgina Hogg, a former servant to Laurence’s family. Other, more astute readers, will probably have understood the significance but it went over my head, and I wasn’t so deeply engaged with the novel otherwise that I wanted to expend any more energy in trying to work it all out.
About the book: Muriel Spark finished writing The Comforters in 1955 but it was not published until 1957. It quickly became a commercial success, though not to the same extent as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 1961.
Why I read this book: Ann at Cafe Society has embarked on a project to read something from every year of her life. I’m dipping my toe in these waters too. Since 2018 is Muriel Spark’s centenary and her first novel was published in my first year on this planet, I thought The Comforters would be as good a place to begin as any. I’ve also enjoyed the two other Muriel Spark novels I’ve read (Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means) so expected I would be similarly entertained by this one. Hmm.
I’ve watched the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo several times but never realised that this tale of mental disturbance and obsession was based on a French novel called D’Entre les Morts (translated into English as From Among the Dead).
The plot of the film is essentially the same as that of the novel though the characters’ names are different and Hitchcock makes far more about the vertigo suffered by the protagonist. Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac set From Among the Dead in Paris and Marseilles but Hitchcock went for San Franscisco, presumably because its relative proximity to Hollywood made it more economical.
More significantly the historical context is eradicated from the film version. From Among the Dead is set against a background of World War 2 and the ugliness of war deepens the sense of displacement created by the plot. The book opens in a period called ‘the phoney war’ when people in France wait uneasily for the hostilities that seem inevitable. Some in France, like the industrialist Paul Gevigné, stand to profit from the war but others, like his old university friend Roger Flavières feel they are living on the edge of an abyss. “The future was … a blank. Nothing had any real meaning except the spring leaves in the sunshine – and love.”
The pair haven’t seen each other for several years but Gevigné, now a prosperous shipbuilder, tracks down his old friend because he needs help. His wife Madeleine is behaving strangely, experiencing attacks which leave her in a frozen, trance-like state . She denies going out in the afternoons but Gévigne has evidence to the contrary. Is she lying (and if so, for what purpose) or is she suffering a mental disturbance affecting her memory? Doctors can’t find anything wrong with her but Gevigné isn’t convinced. Adding to his anxiety is the fact Madeleine’s great-grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac, suffered from a similar mysterious affliction and committed suicide when she was twenty-five, coincidentally Madeleine’s age now. His old friend Paul used to be a police detective so who better to help him by following Madeleine and solving the mystery?
Flavières is initially reluctant to help. But after just one sighting of Madeleine he’s dazzled. This is a woman whose beauty is as mysterious as that of the Mona Lisa, but with a sadness that he finds endearing. “It was no longer a question of watching her, but of helping her, protecting her,” he reflects after seeing her at the theatre one night. And so his fate is sealed. As he trails her through the streets of Paris, Flavières — who has never before been in love — becomes obsessed by his friend’s wife.
He was making a fool of himself of course. Torturing himself into the bargain, living in a constant tumult of painful impressions. Never mind! Beneath that tumult was a peace and a plenitude of joy such as he had never known. It swallowed up the frustrations of recent years, the fears, the regrets.
His delight is short-lived. On an excursion into the countryside, Madeleine throws herself off the tower of a church and dies. Her death brings part one of the book to an end, coinciding with the fall of France to the Nazi invaders.
Flash forward four years. The war is over and people in France are picking up the pieces of their lives. Paul Gevigné is dead and Roger Flavières is an alcoholic, tormented by the loss of Madeleine and his guilt that he couldn’t save her. His doctors tell him that for his own sanity he should get out of Paris. On his last night in the city he goes to the cinema and sees in a newsreel a girl who closely resembles Madeleine.
He persues her, courts her and takes her as his mistress but the relationship goes downhill because Flavières tries to remake her in the image of the dead woman, dictating what she wears and the style of her hair. Believing his mistress is really a reincarnation of his lost love, his hold on reality becomes ever more fragile. Flavières comes across as a bully at this stage, never letting up for moment in his determination to force his mistress to confess that yes, she is Madeleine.
Vertigo is a dark and stylish tale about a man in torment. A man who is destroyed by his infatuation for a woman and his search for the truth. Although we sense from the outset that things are not going to turn out well for Flavières, that feeling of inevitability doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the novel. The first part is a little on the slow slide but the tension ratchets up significantly in the second part, coming to a satisfying twist in the final pages. But by then it is too late for Flavières. His life is in ruins.
D’Entre les Morts was published in 1954. Apparently Boileau and Narcejac wanted to move away from the conventions of Golden Age mysteries. They wanted to turn victims into conspirators and protagonists into perpetrators and operated to a rule that “the protagonist can never wake up from their nightmare”. The English version came out in 1956 and the film in 1958.
In 2015 Pushkin came out with a new edition as part of PUSHKIN VERTIGO, their new imprint for crime classics from around the world, focusing on works written between the 1920s and 1970s.
I’ve come across Reading Bingo several times over the years since I started this blog but never joined in because it seemed the idea was to commit to reading books that fitted the squares. I know from experience I am hopeless at reading to order. But this year I’ve seen a few bloggers Marina at Finding Time to Write , Cleo at CleopatraLovesBooks and Susan at ALifeinBooks fill in the squares in retrospect first. Since I am too stuffed with Christmas pudding to move too far from the sofa it seemed a fun way to look back on the year and see how well I could match my books read with the 2017 bingo card. I’ve done way better than I expected with just two blank squares…
A Book with More Than 500 Pages – weighing in with more than 600 pages is the Booker-award winning Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth
A Forgotten Classic – Gerard Reve’s The Evenings has been called a masterpiece of Dutch literature (I’m not convinced about that). Published in Amsterdam in 1946 it took 60 years before an English language version became available.
A Book That Became a Movie – You may not have heard of the book Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac but I’m confident you’ve heard, and may have watched the version by Alfred Hitchcock.
A Book Published This Year – Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch brilliantly captures the atmosphere of Hull in UK at the time when the poet Phillip Larkin was head of its university library.
A Book with a Number in the Title – one of the best two novels I have read all year is Jon McGregor’s superbly constructed Reservoir 13, A contender for the Booker Prize in 2017, it sadly lost out in the final round.
A Book Written by Someone Under Thirty – I don’t know Alys Conran’s exact age (it would have been impertinent to ask her when I met her at the Wales Book Awards) but I’m confident she is younger than I am so that’s enough for me to justify including her hear with her multi award-winning debut novel Pigeon.
A Book with Non-Human Characters – Limited options here since I dislike books of this kind. The nearest I can get is Strangers by Taichi Yamada which features ghosts.
A Funny Book – HagSeed by Margaret Atwood is a touching and imaginative retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. There are some genuinely funny scenes set in a prison where the inmates become the cast members and have to decide what swear words will be acceptable.
A Book By A Female Author: The most extraordinary novel I read all year was The Vegetarian by the South Korean author Han Kang. It’s a short novel but deals with some big issues such as the clash between personal desire and society’s expectations.
A Book with a Mystery – an easy one this since the word mystery appears in the title. The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts, comes from the Golden Age of Crime and is part of the British Library Classic Crime series. A meticulously plotted murder mystery that will test your powers of memory and logic.
A Book with a One-word title – Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi won multiple awards and a six figure advance from a publisher (good going for a debut author). I enjoyed many elements but overall felt it could have been an even better novel.
A Book of Short Stories – Failed on this one. I have several collections of short stories but seldom get around to reading them. I did start one collection but only read three stories.
Free square – My Antonia by Willa Cather, a classic of a farming community set in Nebraska. It was so beautifully written I’m keen to read more by Cather.
A Book Set on a Different Continent – Even though I haven’t read as many novels in translation as I would have liked this year, I did read a few set in Australasia. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey was one I highly enjoyed.
A Non-fiction Book – The Good Women of China by Xinran relates the real life stories of women who live within the constraints of a society that doesn’t value women. All the stories were featured on her radio programme.
The First Book by a Favourite Author – Fail again. Although there were a number of authors I read this year whose work I have enjoyed in the past (John Banville, Anthony Trollope, Margaret Atwood for example) none of the books were their first published works.
A Book You Heard About Online – I can’t believe it took me so long to discover We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson but it was only through other bloggers that this came to my attention.
A Bestselling Book – Published in 1930, Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, may well pre-date best seller lists so I can’t tell you how many copies of this have been purchased. But it’s never been out of print and has spawned many tv and screen adaptations including one in 2016 so on the basis of its enduring popularity I’m classing it as a best-seller.
A Book Based on a True Story – Off to Philadelphia in the Morning by Jack Jones is a fictionalised account of the life of Joseph Parry, one of the most famous composers to hail from Wales. Born into the extreme poverty of the iron and coal-mining town of Merthyr Tydfil he moved to Philadelphia with his parents at a young age. On his return to Wales he became the first person from Wales to gain a Doctorate in Music from Cambridge University.
A Book at the Bottom of Your TBR Pile – as a literature student I dipped into A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf regularly but never read the whole essay. I corrected that ommission this year. You could say I left it a bit late after 37 years but at least I got to it …
A Book your Friend Loves – I read By the Pricking of my Thumbs by Agatha Christie as part of the #1968club hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen at kaggsysbookishramblings. My sister, who is a Christie fan, loved it more than I did.
A Book that Scares You – Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel isn’t a scary book in the sense it is populated by aliens or things that hide in the woodshed. But it did send shivers down my spine with its premise that the world is hit by flu pandemic so virulent its victims die within 48 hours. In a few short weeks it claims the lives of 99.99 per cent of the world’s population. What made me nervous was that the survivors find a lot of the objects and technologies they had felt essential to their lives (like mobile phones) prove useless in this new world. I started to worry that I don’t have any of the skills that would help me survive.
A Book that is More Than 10 Years Old – What a joy it was to read Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier. Yes it was sensational and a romp of a story but du Maurier also managed to underpin this with a more thoughtful theme about the female situation.
The Second Book in a Series – Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a prequel to his best seller Shadow of the Wind but was actually his second to be published. It’s more patchy in quality than Shadow of the Wind but is still a fast moving adventure story that can be enjoyed just for its setting in Barcelona.
A Book with a Blue Cover – Snow Sisters by Carol Lovekin. The story is complex (multiple narrators and timelines) but is handled well and is strong on atmosphere. The cover is gorgeous.
If you haven’t come across Reading Bingo before, do give it a go. You might be as surprised as I was. And do take a look at the other bloggers who have participated so far this year:
Marina at Finding Time to Write
Emma at Book Around the Corner
Cleo at CleopatraLovesBooks
Did you have an imaginary friend when you were a child? Apparently I did for a few months when I was about four years old. My friend sat next to me at meals, came out with us in the family car on trips to relatives and the seaside and shared playtimes with my toys. What she never did was ask me difficult questions about physics or tell me my dad’s car was ugly and inefficient. Nor did she help me create astonishing paintings or give me the instant ability to swim. But then my imaginary friend never came from a distant planet unlike Chocky, an invisible presence that disrupts the Gove family in John Wyndham’s novel.
David and Mary Gore are not unduly concerned initially when their 12-year-old son Matthew, begins having conversations with himself. They think it’s just a phase and will blow itself out eventually — after all that’s what happened with his younger sister Polly who once had an imaginary friend named Piff.
But soon they come to realise, Matthew’s new friendship is anything but ordinary. Instead of enjoying his conversations with his invisible pal, they seem to make him visibly distressed. Then his teachers report he is asking questions in class that are way beyond his knowledge level. And then Matthew becomes fixated on topics like the number of days in a week, the physics of vehicles and numbering systems.
He eventually comes clean to his dad; someone called Chocky is living inside his head and keeps asking him questions. Why, Chocky demands to know, are there twenty-four hours in a day? Why are there two sexes? Why can’t Matthew solve his math homework using a logical system like binary code? In the opinion of a psychologist brought in to examine Matthew, Chocky is not a figment of the boy’s imagination but another consciousness who has found a way to communicate with Matthew. It’s a concept David accepts more than his wife Mary can, particularly when she discovers some strange paintings of string-like figures hidden in Matthew’s bedroom. Things take a turn for the worse when the boy saves his sister from drowning during a family day out, a tremendous feat given that he hadn’t been able to manage even as much as a paddle earlier that day. The explanation Matthews gives for his prowess is so mysterious it brings him to the attention of the media and the government. Then he disappears for a week.
Chocky reveals to Matthew’s dad that she/he is as an alien consciousness sent on a mission to locate planets that can be colonised or nurtured to a higher level of intelligence and humanity. But in helping Matthew to be a hero she broke a rule of her mission never to intervene or seek to change what happens on another planet. By doing so, she has alerted the government of Earth to her planet’s existence, presenting a potential threat to its future stability. So she must depart. Her planet’s work on earth will continue, but will be conducted more covertly in future.
A hint here, a hint there, an idea for one man, a moment of inspiration for another, more and more little pieces, innocuous in themselves until one day they will suddenly come together . The puzzle will be solved —the secret out, and unsuppressible.
Wyndham’s novels were famously dismissed by Brian Aldiss, as “cosy catastrophes”. Jaw-dropping catastrophic events are in fact noticeably absent from Chocky; the world does not come to an end nor do whole cities collapse as a result of this visitation from another planet. But it is doing Wyndham a disservice to label as ‘cosy’ a novel that is stuffed to the brim with ideas, from child-rearing and learning to artistic inspiration and the difficulties of communication.
Wyndham suggests that, should there be another form of life on another planet, our ability to connect with them will necessarily be limited. Chocky cannot fully transfer all her knowledge and thus nudge the planet to a more enlighted existence because Matthew’s vocabulary and his experience is limited. It is, as Chocky explains to Matthew’s father, like:
… trying to teach a steam-engineer with no knowledge of electricity, how to build a radio transmitter — without names for any of the parts or words for their functions. Difficult, but with time, patience and intelligence, not impossible.
What was the knowledge that Chocky wants to share? She calls it cosmic power — a infinite source of energy that once developed can help earth reduce its dependency on non sustainable fuel sources. Long before the concept of global warming became mainstream, in Chocky Wyndham is dealing with the issue of man’s impact on the environment and its danger if allowed to continue unabated.
[Your fuels] are your capital. When they are spent you will be back where you were before you found them. This is not progress, it is profligacy. … It is true you have an elementary form of atomic power which you will no doubt improve. But that is almost your only investment for your future. Most of your power is being used to build machines to consume power faster and faster, while your sources of power remain finite. There can only be one end to that.
The ending, which contains an impassioned plea for better human stewardship of the earth, is one of the surprises of this book. Another is that it turns on its head the idea that an alien encounter will necessarily be threatening and scary. The month Matthew spends in Chocky’s presence is a strange experience, but ultimately it has a positive and hopeful experience because it introduces Matthew to new ways of thinking and seeing that enable him to mature and gain confidence.
On one level therefore Chocky is a charming tale about friendship and the rites of passage through childhood but look more closely and it’s evident that this is a book which asks some profound questions about our future.
About this Book: Chocky was first published as a novella in the March 1963 issue of the American science fiction magazine Amazing Stories and later developed into a novel published in 1968. It was the last novel by John Wyndham published one year before his death.
About the author: John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (clearly his parents couldn’t make up their minds about a name for their son) was the son of a barrister. After trying a number of careers, including farming, law, commercial art and advertising, he started writing short stories in 1925. After serving in the Civil Service and the Army during the war, he went back to writing. Adopting the name John Wyndham, he started writing a form of science fiction that he called ‘logical fantasy’. His best known works include The Day of the Triffids (1951) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), the latter filmed twice as Village of the Damned.
The day after I started reading Vernon God Little a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers at a music festival in Las Vegas, causing multiple fatalities and injuries. It made reading this book about a (fictional) mass killing at a school inMartirio, Texas, especially thought-provoking because it opened up questions about the way in which society respond to such events.
In the aftermath of Las Vegas, the initial desire was to understand ‘What happened?” and “How could this have happened?” This was quickly replaced by questions of responsibility. ‘Who is to blame?” and “How could they have let this happen?” asked people around the world. This need to identify the person or people responsible and bring them swiftly to account for their failings, is a response that has become all too common in a world which has in recent years experienced a multitude of calamities.
The ‘blame culture’ is very evident in Vernon God Little. Jesus Navarro, a college student, shot and killed 16 students at his school before turning the gun on himself. His 15-year-old friend Vernon becomes the town’s scapegoat and is almost immediately charged as an accessory to the crime. As the book begins, Vernon has been taken into custody and is being questioned by police officers who are under pressure from an angry and grieving community to identify the guilty party. Vernon steadfastly maintains his innocence but his behaviour over the course of the following few months, simply acts as further evidence to the police and the news media that he is guilty. He flees to Mexico but is captured and put on trial as Texas’ most notorious serial killer. As a death row prisoner his fate will be decided in a Big Brother-style programme.
This is a story told from Vernon’s point of view. You’d think, given the subject matter, that this would be a fairly somber tale but actually it contains a surprising amount of humour. I don’t mean humour of the belly-aching, laugh out loud kind, but the type that has you wincing — if you’ve ever watched eposides of the BBC sit com The Office (the original British version that is) you’ll have an idea of what I mean. The behaviour of the central character is ludicrously funny but we also cringe at some of his antics. We laugh with Vernon and at him but often feel guilty about the latter because he’s in essence a nice kid whose been given a rough deal. His father disappeared some years previously and his mother is, well let’s be kind and say she’s not really there. Instead of protecting her son and doing her damnest to get him the best legal help possible, she goes all dewy-eyed about a video repairman who masquerades as a news reporter. “Lally” Ledesma is clearly a sleaze who befriends Vernon only to further his own career but Vernon’s mother doesn’t see the damage this guy is doing to her son. Vernon isn’t well served by the girl he fancies — she leads him on then shops him in order to further her own aspirations to be a media personality — or by his mother’s friends. They’re more concerned with junk television and, perhaps aptly in a town nicknamed ‘the barbecue-sauce capital of Texas’, stuffing their faces with ribs and fried chicken. Vernon’s mother and her chums fret endlessly about whether he is getting enough to eat. Her closest friend Palmyra is a wonderful larger-than-life character who bellows at police officers when she finds they’re not feeding him enough:
So the door flies open. Pam wobbles in, bolt upright like she has books on her head. It’s on account of her center of gravity.
‘Vernie, you eatin rebs? What did you eat today?’
‘O Lord, we better go by the Barn’
Doesn’t matter what you tell her, she’s going by Bar-B-Chew Barn believe me.
Pam just molds into the car. Her soul’s already knotted over the choice of side-orders you can tell.
No-one in this novel really comes across in a positive light however; they’re either fat, stupid or conniving. In fact, Vernon God Little is rather scathing about American society in general, portraying it as full of slobbish incompetent law enforcers and gun-obsessed gullible citizens. Everything in this world can be turned into a form of entertainment — even the death penalty. One of the most chilling plot developments comes when Ledesma sells an idea to a television network for a Big Brother style series where viewers get to decide the fate of prisoners on death row. Prisoners are given coaching on how to act when the cameras are installed in their cells.
Internet viewers will be able to choose which cells to watch, and change camera angles and all. On regular TV there’ll be edited highlights of the day’s action. Then the general public will vote by phone or internet. They’ll vote for who should die next. The cuter we act, the more we entertain, the longer we might live.
I wish I could believe such an idea will never materialise outside the world of fiction. But then who could have imagined a program about a bunch of misfits who live together in a custom-built home under constant surveillance??
No wonder that at the end, Vernon wonders: “What kind of a life was that? A bunch of movies, and people talking about movies, and shows about people talking about movies.”
So what did I make of this book? It was certainly an odd book. Frequently loopy, barmy and just plain whacky, it was a tale told with gusto and zest. But the initial novelty of this style wore off half way through and, as much as I was interested in its ideas, I just wanted to get to the end as quickly as possible.
About the book: Vernon God Little was the debut novel by DBC Pierre. Published in 2003 it won the Booker Prize the same year in the face of competition from Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut and Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller.
About the author: D.B.C. Pierre (the pen name of Peter Warren Finlay) has a ‘colourful’ history, admitting to being a drug-taking, hard-drinking, law-breaking tearaway in his past. His misspent youth gave him his nickname of Dirty But Clean (hence the DBC…). Part American, part Australian he now lives in Ireland.
Why I read this book: It was one of the remaining books to read in my Booker Prize project. Just six more to go..
Goodbye Tsugumi is the story of one summer in the lives of two girls who are related by blood if not by temperament.
Tsugumi Yamamoto is a mercurial character. An invalid from a young age she has grown up in a small seaside inn as a spoiled and occasionally mean spirited girl around whom everyone tiptoes, afraid to spark her ill-humour. According to her cousin Maria, Tsugumi “was malicious, she was rude, she had a foul mouth, she was selfish, she was horribly spoiled, and to top it all off she was brilliantly sneaky.”
Maria Shirakawa (the narrator) is a more thoughtful girl, a model of patience and affability who has learned to deal with the uncertain relationship of her parents – her father is a businessman living in Tokyo, her mother is his mistress who lives and works in the inn. She is aghast at some of Tsugumi’s pranks and hurt to be the victim of her acid tongue but she is still drawn to the girl.
It wasn’t narcissism. And it wasn’t exactly an aesthetic. Deep down inside, Tsugumi had this perfectly polished mirror, and she only believed in the things she saw reflected there. She never even considered anything else.
That’s what it was.
And yet I liked her even so, and Pooch [a dog] liked her, and probably everyone else around her liked her too. We all continued to be enchanted by her.
Part of Tsugumi’s attraction is that she has a vivid imagination which makes her fun to play with. She creates wild and inventive games for her and Maria, including their favourite “The Haunted Mailbox” in which they pretend to receive letters from the dead in an old rusted box behind their school.
When her father gets his divorce, Maria and her mother move to Tokyo and Maria embarks on a new path in her life as a university student. But a call from Tsugumi offers her a chance to return to the inn for one last summer before the place is sold. It’s a chance to recapture idyllic summers of the past and to deepen the bond with her difficult cousin. She acknowledges that Tsugumi is “really an unpleasant young woman” but that summer she sees for the first time the inner strength of her friend and has to face the real possibility that she could lose her.
In essence this is a coming of age novel in which Maria comes to appreciate that time does not stand still, that her childhood is in the past and loss is a part of growing up.
Summer was coming. Yes, summer was about to begin.
A season that would come and go only once, and never return again. All of us understood that very well, and yet we would probably just pass our days the way we always had. And this made the ticking of time feel slightly more tense than in the old days, infused it with a hint of distress. We could all feel this as we sat there that evening, together. We could feel it so clearly that it made us sad, and yet at the same time we were extremely happy.
This is a beautifully atmospheric novel rather than one which has a strong plot. We get a strong sense of sadness at the loss of the idyll of one’s youth (the goodbye of the title is not the end of a relationship but the end of childhood innocence) but there is also a feeling of hope as Maria comes to appreciate the potential of her own life in the future.
Yoshimoto’s description of nature and the beaches and the mountains at the resort have a poetic quality which also drew me in.
The whiteness of the flowers seemed to levitate in the dark. Every time the crowd of petals bobbed under a puff of wind you were left with an afterimage of white that had the texture of a dream. And just beside that dream the river continued to flow, and off in the distance the dark nighttime ocean stretched the glow of the moon into a single gleaming road. The black waters before us swelled up and fell back again, glimmering with tiny flecks of light, the dark motion extending all the way to infinity.
I also enjoyed her gentle, yet thoughtful style. Here is just one example:
Each one of us continues to carry the heart of each self we’ve ever been, at every stage along the way, and a chaos of everything good and rotten. And we have to carry this weight all alone, through each day that we live. We try to be as nice as we can to the people we love, but we alone support the weight of ourselves.
I’ve seen some comments from other reviewers that Goodbye Tsugumi isn’t as strong a novel as her debut work Kitchen. Since I’ve not read that or anything else by Yoshimoto in fact I can’t judge how accurate that assessment is. Goodbye Tsugumi may not be as rich in philosophy or big ideas as some of the other Japanese authors I’ve read but I still enjoyed it.
About this book: Published in Japanese in 1989, translated into English in 2002 by Michael Emmerich.
About the author: Banana Yoshimoto is the pen name of the Japanese writer Mahoko Yoshimoto whose debut novel Kitchen was widely applauded on publication in 1988. Yoshimoto began her writing career while working as a waitress at a golf club restaurant. Apparently she adopted the name Banana because of her love of banana flowers, but also because she considers it “cute” and “purposefully androgynous.”. She has written 12 novels many of which deal with themes of love and friendship, the power of home and family, and the effect of loss on the human spirit.
Why I read this book: I have a feeling I came across the name of Banana Yoshimoto when I was reading about the Japan in January project run by Tony at tonysreadinglist. It’s been stuck on my shelves for a few years now but I dusted it down ready for Japan lit challenge. It also counts as one of my 20booksofsummer reading list.
I tried my best but around page 150 The Finkler Question and I parted company. It’s become only the second Booker Prize winning title that I have failed to finish — in case you’re wondering, the other was The Famished Road by Ben Okri, a book so bad I couldn’t even make it past page 80 (my review explains what I hated about this book).
The Finkler Question is the story of Julian Treslove, a man who once worked on the kind of BBC Radio 3 programmes that no-one ever listens to (if you discount the insomniac man and his dog in the Outer Hebrides). He’s come down in the world and is now making a living as a celebrity lookalike. Not that he resembles anyone famous especially, he just looks like all kinds of people in general. Treslove is a man much inclined to introspection who attacks an idea with the determination and perseverance of a dog with a bone. Treslove has an identity problem. He wants to be a Jew so that he can experience the sense of belonging possessed by his two closest friends who are Jewish.
One of them, Sam Finkler, has become a celebrity as the author of popular mainstream books on philosophy. Treslove resents his friend’s success and hi-jacks his surname Finkler as a shorthand descriptor for the word “Jew” because “It took away the stigma ….The minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say, or the Finklerish Conspiracy, you sucked out the toxins.” Another, much older friend, is Libor Sevcik, an elderly ex-Hollywood journalist who is in mourning for his beautiful dead wife.
In essence the novel deals with Treslove’s obsession with the meaning of Jewishness, politically, socially, culturally etc. He sees it as a club to which his friends belong but from which he has always felt ostracised. But on his way home from dinner with his two pals he is mugged by a woman whose parting words, Treslove believes, are “You Jew”. He takes it as a sign that his attacker knows more than he does —t hat he is, as he has always desired to be — Jewish.
A lot of the novel up to page 150 is taken up with Treslove looking for further confirmation of his Jewishness and with the reactions of friends and family. In between we get discussions between Finkler and Sevcik about the state of Israel. Sevcik is pro, pronouncing the word “as a holdy utterance like the cough of God” whereas the anti-Israel Finkler makes it sound as if the word denoted an illness. They’ve debated the subject so many times even they sound rather tired of it – Finkler responds with a resigned “Here we go, Holocaust, Holocaust” whenever the subject comes up, attracting the equally resigned repost from Libor “Here we go, here we go, more of the self-hating Jew stuff.”
According to The Guardian reviewer The Finkler Question is “full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding.” To me it was just dull, repetitive and self-indulgent. It seemed to move forward at snail’s pace with endless dialogue about what makes a person a Jew. Howard Jacobson opens up an interesting line of questioning here. Is Jewishness a state of mind inherent from the time of birth? Or is it a state of mind acquired over time. Or a set of behaviours? At one conversation Treslove fails to persuade Libor that his boyhood interest in opera and the violin is significant.
That doesn’t make you Jewish. Wagner listened to opera and wanted to play the violin. Hitler loved opera and wanted to play the violin. … You don’t have to be Jewish to like music.
Interesting yes but Jacobson milks this approach, returning to the same kind of conversation over and over again without ever reaching a decision to act. It’s quite tedious. By the time I’d reached page 150 I’d had enough of Treslove’s persistent introspection. He’s not a character I cared enough about to want to know whether his deliberations reached any satisfactory conclusion. I just wanted to grab him by the scruff of his neck and shake some sense into him.
About the Book: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson won the Booker Prize in 2010. Jacobson was the rank outsider for the £50,000 prize – the money was on Emma Donaghue to win with Room or Tom McCarthy’s C .
About the author: Howard Jacobson was born in 1942 in Manchester, UK. He went to Cambridge university studying English under the tutelage of F.R Leavis. He pursued an academic career in Australia and then the UK. His first novel Coming from Behind, was published when he was in his 40s.
Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto makes a grand claim for the power of music not only to sustain the spirit in the bleakest of times but even to transform a life.
In an unnamed South American country, the world-renowned soprano Roxane Coss sings at a birthday party in honour of a visiting Japanese industrial magnate. She’s the bait in a plan by the hosts to persuade Mr Katsumi Hosokawa, one of her biggest fans, to rescue their failing economy by building an electronics factory in their country. Unfortunately the plans go awry because on the night of the party in the vice presidential mansion, a band of guerrillas swarm in through the air ducts. Their quarry is the president but he’s nowhere to be found having decided he much preferred to stay home watching his favourite TV soap opera rather than entertain a room of distinguished and powerful diplomats and leaders from around the world.
Taking advantage of a bad situation the invaders decide to take all the party goers hostage and use them as bargaining tools to secure the release of their comrades held in prison. They’re pretty ineffective negotiators and not much better at controlling the hostages. It soon becomes clear that it’s the soprano who is calling the shots. During the month-long standoff with neither government nor guerrillas giving ground, her singing keeps the atmosphere calm. Soon the guerrillas are running around to satisfy her whims just to keep her singing — one minute they are finding dental floss and herbal throat lozenges for her, the next it’s musical scores she needs.
Unexpected talents and depths of character emerge during the stand-off. The vice president for example assumes the dual roles of housekeeper and gracious host:
He seemed to think that the comfort of his guests was still his responsibility. He was always serving sandwiches and picking up cups. He washed the dishes and swept and twice a day he mopped up the floors in the lavatories. With a dishtowel knotted around his waist, he took on the qualities of a charming hotel concierge … Everyone was very fond of Ruben. Everyone had completely forgotten that he was the Vice President of the country.
Near the end of the stand-off he has a moment of epiphany in the garden, appreciating for the first time the sensation of grass beneath his feet and the scent of flowers. And he resolves there and then to be a better man, a better father and a better husband.
Change comes to the rebels too. Enchanted by the grandeur of their surroundings they begin wandering through the house sniffing hand lotion and snaffling pistachio nuts. They become so hooked on a TV drama (the same one that delights the president) much to the disgust of their commander, they begin missing drills or fitting them in around the program schedules.
Amid the tension, love is kindled. For Mr Hosokawa, proximity to his idol is a dream come true. He has already seen her 18 times in performances around the world, often inventing business trips that will place him in the audience. Hearing her in the close, intimate setting of the besieged mansion, admiration burgeons into love. Captivity also brings romantic fulfilment for his loyal translator Gen Watanabe, in the form of a guerrilla fighter appropriately named Carmen for whom her time in the house is the happiest point in her life.
Roxane and Mr Hosokawa, Gen and Carmen are the novel’s principals but they are surrounded by a strong cast including a Frenchman, Simon Thibault, who weeps into the stole his beloved wife leaves behind when all the women except Roxane are allowed to leave. There’s a Red Cross representative who interrupts his holiday to act as a hostage negotiator though in his suit and tie he looks more like “an earnest representative of an American religion” and a chain-smoking Russian, who makes an unexpectedly delicate declaration of love, regaling Roxane with mournful and meandering childhood stories.
What unites the 50 or so people thrust together in the mansion, is music.
Mr Hosokawa’s eleventh birthday was a life-changing experience. It was the first time he heard opera, a moment imprinted on his eyelids that marked the beginning of his love affair with music, a love that surpassed all other interests and responsibilities.
The records he cherished, the rare opportunities to see a live performance, those were the marks by which he gauged his ability to love. Not his wife, his daughters or his work. He never thought that he had somehow transferred what should have filled his daily life into opera. Instead he knew that without opera, this part of himself would have vanished forever.
In the vice presidential music a young priest undergoes a similar experience when he hears opera sung live for the first time.
It was different in ways he could never have imagined, as if the voice were something that could be seen. Certainly it could be felt … It trembled inside the folds of his cassock, brushed against the skin of his cheeks. Never had he thought, never once, that such a woman existed, one who stood so close to God that God’s own voice poured from her. How far she must have gone inside herself to call up that voice. It was as if the voice came from the center part of the earth and by the sheer effort and diligence of her will she had pulled it up through the dirt and rock and through the floorboards of the house, up into her feet, where it pulled through her, reaching, lifting, warmed by her, and then out of the white lily of her throat and straight to God in heaven. It was a miracle and he wept for the gift of bearing witness.
For her part Roxane comes to appreciate the true power of the music that has been her life’s work, causing her to sing ”as if she was saving the life of every person in the room.” Patchett’s idea of the power of music does strain too far however when Roxane takes an interest in one of the rebels she discovers is a musical prodigy, able to repeat perfectly the notes and lines that she sings. As if her readers don’t really understand that this talent could be his escape route from poverty, Patchett makes the General her mouthpiece:
It makes you wonder, All the brilliant things we might have done with our lives if only we suspected we knew how.
Such a cod piece of philosophy strikes a really duff note in an otherwise absorbing and finely tuned novel about the the various ways in which human connections can be forged, even in the most unlikely of circumstances and situations.
About the book: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett was first published in UK by Fourth Estate in 2001. My paperback copy dates from 2002. Bel Canto won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2002. The novel is loosely inspired by an event in December 1996 when members of a guerrilla group entered the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima, Peru, seized nearly 600 hostages and demanded the release of a number of political prisoners. The resulting siege lasted four months.
About the author: Ann Patchett was born in Los Angeles in 1963. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. Bel Canto is her fourth novel.