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    consultant anaesthetist, retired v early due to scleroderma, occasional medico political journalist
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  1. The sections in the school - the banter among the boys - made me laugh out loud, Chuntzy. Obviously the outside events were tragic and awful. For me, marrying the two was brilliant, making a truly great tragi-comedy.
  2. Hate: A Romance by Tristan Garcia, translated from French by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein Garcia is hot property in France where this, his debut novel, won the Prix De Flore. A philosophy graduate, he has previously published a book of philosophy and this is reflected in this novel which is one of ideas and politics more than action. The story, set during the ‘80s and ‘90s, is narrated by Elizabeth, a journalist on the left-leaning paper Liberation, and revolves around her and three friends. Doum is a fellow journalist on her paper. Brought up in a left wing home in Corsica where his intellectual doctor father had links to separatists, he is deeply political, although with the advent of AIDS his left leanings have crystallised into concentration on gay politics, in particular that of prevention. Will is an inarticulate and cerebrally slow but beautiful young man who has an ill-fated relationship with Doum. And Leibo is a married Jewish intellectual with whom Liz has a long affair. Much of the story is narrated via conversations recorded or remembered by Liz. The novel is a Hadron Collider where these four atoms move at great speed and collide in explosions which leave a mass of destruction. The ‘hate’ of the title refers to the dramatic switch from love to hate that occurs when one relationship here sours. Garcia inhabits his female narrator well, creating a woman who is inexorably drawn to the wrong men: ‘I seem to have a weakness for the forty-something routine…Midlife crisis as come-on. Perhaps it’s…maternal instinct.’ This thwarted protectiveness finds an outlet in her devotion to the initially vulnerable Will. At many times during the book her acceptance of Will’s egregious behaviour towards her and others without censure borders on implausible, and only the indulgence of a blindly committed parent renders it credible. As you would expect from a philosopher, the core of the novel is intellectual dialectic. The inherent conflict between contrasting viewpoints provides insurmountable barriers off which characters bounce. Doum is passionate about reducing HIV transmission among the gay community while Will believes – perhaps just to be contrary – that gays should be free to choose whether to toy with death or not. Leibo pours vitriol on the political victim culture whereby any minority can claim it is oppressed and so be automatically embraced by the left; he rails against ‘cowardly totalitarian political correctness’. He clashes with Will’s new lover Ali (who is staunchly pro-Palestinian), and argues the Zionist cause. Garcia’s background is evident in the many philosophers and writers who are referenced by the characters – Montaigne, Spinoza, Foucault, Kant, Pascal, Tocqueville. There are also knowing nudges – Leibo surprises the intellectual world by writing a book about love; an arch reference to Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse – although Leibo’s is – hypocritically – a rhetoric on the importance on commitment. As an illustration of the devastating consequences of clashing ideologies, especially those fuelled by personal feelings, Garcia’s novel is powerful and surprisingly accessible. It’s just a shame it’s so theoretical as opposed to human. We are told what characters feel about each other by Liz rather than seeing this for ourselves: despite the five year relationship between Will and Doum, we only glimpse one domestic scene, towards the end of the relationship, and this seems to be there as a cursory explanation for its demise. There are similarly few illustrations of the relationship between Liz and Leibo – it’s all very cerebral. The saving grace is that since Liz is narrating in the first person, this may be construed as her choice rather than the author’s. Still, the book could have been improved by expansion in the human arena. Garcia offers us fascinating flashes of peripheral relationships which we crave to hear more of: Leibo’s attempt to culture his much-loved but happily working-class parents, for example, or his connection to his children, who must have been one reason why he remained married (although we also know, almost without Liz acknowledging it, that Leibo truly loved his wife as well as Liz.) Another minor problem is occasional lapses of Will’s voice into that of an intellectual: it is clear that he is irrational, illogical, has a low IQ and that he spouts nonsense or incendiary diatribes much of the time, so the occasion where he uses the word ‘paradigm’ jars. Despite these shortcomings there is something about the novel that ensnares. Many of the short chapters end with the promise of secrets and excitement to come: ‘that’s what touched Doume’ and did him in.’; ‘Six months later they’d broken up.’; ‘…that was the day it began.’; ‘That’s how it all got started. That was all it took. That, and of course all the history there was between them…’ At one point Liz tells us of Will ‘for him, falling out was a form of love.’ It’s Garcia’s skill in making us believe in such strange characters as well as the flawless translation that render this novel tight and readable despite its esotericism.
  3. I actually don't mention in either review the bit which possibly bugged me the most: there's a chapter entitled The Sikh, about a Sikh surgeon who struggles to place a central line (iv in neck) in her. I've been on the giving and receiving end of these - I've put in many hundreds as it's a common procedure in anaesthetics, and had a few in myself. I was a bit uncomfortable with her mention of the guy being a Sikh (both in the title and the substance of the chapter) since she then goes on to paint him negatively for taking ages to put a line in. I know some people can be tricky to get a line in, and felt uneasy about the juxtapositioning of the guy's being a Sikh with Manguso's obvious low opinion of him - she mentions his turban, and one line near the end - '...and sweated onto me and stunk up the entire room with his frustration' - made me really cringe. I wonder if I'm being too sensitive. I know the book is like a memory album for her, so her visual and other sensory memories are important, but at the very least it strikes me as insensitive and cruel/ungrateful, since the surgeon will easily be able to be identified. There can't be that many vascular surgeons who wear turbans in a small hospital in Boston.And to my eyes, it sounds almost borderline racist, since surely the guy's wearing of a turban and his religion/race had nothing to do with his competence -especially since even competent operators sometimes struggle to place neck lines, and the guy was under increased stress because, unusually, Day's parents were present and watching with horror.There's no way parents would be allowed to watch a procedure like this in the NHS or private sector here - and Day was 21; an adult, not a child.
  4. Anyone who enjoys books about dysfunctional families might appreciate journalist Elizabeth Day's debut. It starts with promise and captures the tensions of a fraught mother-daughter relationship well, and also deals sensitively with the issue of an inappropriate father-daughter relationship. Occasionally the writing feels rushed or simplistic. I've read some of Day's journalism and she can write very well, so I think perhaps she was in a hurry to get this manuscript finished: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-e...ay-2200097.html
  5. Thanks Jen. There were a few things about her tone and what she said that made me uncomfortable - eg derogatory comments about a surgeon who she twice specified was a Sikh, and she said he 'sweated on her and stunk up the room with his frustration' or words to that effect, which I found unnecessary - his race/religion struck me as irrelevant to his competence, plus he wasn't incompetent in any way in any case, he just took a while to get a line in, which happens to any surgeon/anaesthetist from time to time . I shudder at him reading the book, especially because presumably he will be easily identified since she's specified that he was a vascular surgeon, wore a turban and the hospital was in Boston. I've written some more of the comments that made me say hmmm on my facebook page if you're on facebook? But comments like apart, Manguso writes beautifully and is very sharp witted.
  6. Sarah Manguso's spiky little volume about her battle with a rare auto-immune illness is a stark read. My review looks tiny, having started out as it did at 1000 words and being whittled by myself to 400, but here it is: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/the-two-kinds-of-decay-by-sarah-manguso-2198239.html#Scene_1 I saw an interesting debate on the Guardian book pages recently. Julie Myerson had reviewed Emma Forrest's new memoir about depression/self harm/bulimia, which is based on her affair with a famous actor. Myerson pointed out that Forrest seemed in places to be boasting about having been attractive to a number of very talented men in Hollywood. To my surprise, Myerson was lambasted in the comments section, with some of them being unnecessarily poisonous. Surely a reviewer's job is to review, and if the tone of the memoir seems to the reviewer to sometimes be self indulgent, then it's more honest to point that out than to ignore it? I know that people writing memoirs about illness, especially when there is a component of depression, are highly vulnerable to negative comments, but my view is that if an author places their book out there then criticism is fair enough. I do realise that with a memoir there's a real risk that the negative comments might be seem to be of the *author* rather than the book, but it's a fine line, and if an author is seen to be being disingenuous about their motives in writing the memoir, then isn't it the right thing for the reviewer to pick up on it? I had a similar problem with the Manguso: although I felt it was very well written, she was very free with criticism of bad doctors and nurses (as well as being free with praise for good ones.) Because she drew attention to examples of a few clinicians not being empathetic, I pointed out that she herself wasn't very considerate when she drove the wrong way up a busy road and into a van full of kids on purpose to try and kill herself. Obviously anyone who is suicidal is very vulnerable and not thinking straight, but it struck me as an action that could have had horrific consequences - of which, bizarrely, she makes no mention. I felt guilty writing it and I wonder what other people think? On one hand I think perhaps that might be construed as a criticism of her rather than her writing, but on the other, if she's criticising others for being inconsiderate then it seemed fair enough to point it out. I'm still undecided. I have a longer review of this book coming out in the British Medical Journal where there's more space to analyse the book in more detail. I wonder what other people think?
  7. Thanks Kim. I know what you mean about Hadley's focus being narrow - that's what I meant by her being admired for her brush strokes if not always the bigger picture (as I'm sure you'll know.) I actually don't mind the absence of much plot, concentration on the everyday or a narrow range of settings/time periods/etc if someone's writing really appeals to me and if they can make the ordinary extraordinary with their prose, but I know some people prefer more adventurousness from a novelist.
  8. Wow Binker, what fascinating anecdotes. With that family history the book must have had extra resonance for you. And the accuracy of Mitchell's details based on your ancestors' experiences hint at how much research he must have done to get things absolutely right. I also very much liked your extremely perceptive point about Mitchell playing with form so that Orito's experience was more gothic horror while other aspects of the book were inclined to historical realism. I hadn't thought of that but it makes perfect sense given his interest in experimenting with form in Cloud Atlas. I did like Cloud Atlas very much indeed, unlike you, but I absolutely loved this novel. As you say, it's so stunningly written. There were so many parts where I shivered inwardly at his ability to evoke mood in unconventional ways - the use of birds and other wildlife was a particularly beautiful example. And yes, his prose is so delicious - some parts glide over the page, others are truly poetic. It is just inexcusable that this book was left off the Man Booker shortlist. What were the judges thinking of? It really makes me think they would be better off having a larger panel, and one made up of literary editors from the most respected literary publications. The use of celebs unlinked to the world of books is really rather stupid for such a prestigious prize. I'm so glad both you and your mum enjoyed it. Thanks for giving me some ideas I hadn't thought of to chew over, and for the history of your family, which makes parts of the book more meaningful for me now. (eg the info about teeth blackening.)
  9. I agree Jen. I note that reviews of the paperback edition have been mainly very positive. I wonder if when it first came out some reviewers were cool about it because they assumed it was sensationalist and even after reading (and seeing it wasn't) somehow still viewed it as too populist to merit real plaudits. I loved it from the start and couldn't understand why so many people seemed to have an almost visceral dislike for it.
  10. After a book that started with promise but ended up being mediocre (by Eliz Day), I read a sparky memoir by a woman with an auto immune disease (Sarah Manguso) and then a wonderfully heart-warming memoir by a woman who grew up in care in Glasgow (Alison Gangel). Am now reading Leo Benedictus's The Afterparty which is the funniest book I've read since Skippy Dies.
  11. Good thinking Jen, that's actually what someone else suggested as an explanation. I had wondered if, as is occasionally the case with normality (UK) and normalcy (US), there might be differing preferences geographically. I actually liked the flow of acuity and articulacy together, and found articulateness horribly clunky, but it all ends up as fish and chip paper in the end so I don't suppose it matters! But I do love words and find them fascinating, so it's great to hear your input - thanks.
  12. Any readers who love the work of Rose Tremain, Hilary Mantel, Anne Tyler or Sue Miller will, I think, really fall for Tessa Hadley as I did. After I wrote the review I read an article she'd written about her interest in social anthropology, and you can really feel that fascination and the way it's honed her perception of everyday detail, behaviour and speech. They changed my use of 'articulacy' to 'articulateness' in the first sentence - anyone know why this would be? I see both are listed as possible nouns in dictionaries but I've always preferred the less clunky-sounding former. Perhaps it's American while the latter is the UK version? Anyhow, never mind, Hadley is an excellent writer. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/the-london-train-by-tessa-hadley-2189894.html
  13. Laughing at this, Grammath. I've read some Roth and am not as keen on him as many. I also find his female characters somewhar two dimensional. But I recognise that he is a very good writer. That's interesting. There was a discussion about Jacobson on the Man Booker forum a while back, and another woman and I both suggested that our tepid attitude to Jacobson when compared with other male writers who also tended to not feature vivid, complex female characters (like Martin Amis, for example), was because basically we find Amis much funnier than Jacobson. A great SOH can make me overlook a lot. On the other hand, as someone above said, Jacobson did seem warm, likeable and friendly in his Man Booker acceptance speech and also in the BBC Culture Show dedicated to the Man Booker shortlist.
  14. Despite her vast output, Oates’s fiction has never diluted its sense of drama. In these ten chilling stories, she returns again to a subject that has lurked in the wings of much of her fiction – violence, implicit or overt; often with the lingering undertones of non-consensual sex hanging like pheromones in the air. In the title story, an embittered middle-aged woman writes a letter to the eminent academic who seduced and then spurned her in her youth. As the letter unfolds, its obsessive detail becomes more disturbing, the woman’s derangement becoming apparent in the details she knows about her ex’s life and beloved granddaughter. We realise that this is no ordinary rebuffed person but a dangerous stalker on a mission. It’s a spine-tingling if mildly unoriginal opener. In Split/Brain a devoted woman returns home unexpectedly from her sick husband’s bedside and has the sense that an intruder is in her home. A palpable suspense builds up as the reader wonders whether she will act on her instinct or pass the point of no return. Oates’s talent for scrawling the ugly lines of human flaws is in evidence in The First Husband, where she artfully conveys the way doubt, resentment, inadequacy and jealousy seep into and poison the mind. Oates has always had a flair for vivid similes and they are present in abundance in this collection: here, a seething husband savours his private knowledge with grim satisfaction: ‘Smiling to think: like a boa constrictor swallowing its living prey paralyzed by terror, his secret would encompass Valerie’s secret and would, in time, digest it.’ Oates’s mastery of dark matters is so accepted that people sometimes forget she is also a sharp chronicler of the everyday. A real estate salesman’s smile is ‘wide and toothy yet somehow grudging, as if he resented the effort such a smile required’, and ‘when he wasn’t facing Leonard, his sulky mouth retained its fixed smile.’ Nevertheless, it is the black at which Oates excels. In Strip Poker, she revisits a favourite subject, notably the lust a predatory older man feels for an underage girl. The atmosphere is heavy with a grim sense of foreboding. It is these confused female characters Oates portrays so well – while her working-class males are often inarticulate and either idolise, are indifferent to, or abuse women, her female characters are complex. Oates’s victims of sexual threat are rarely paragons of clean living, they are real people with their own burgeoning desires who are often more mature sexually than emotionally, and frequently befuddled by drink. Her depiction of working-class rural life is on par with that of D.H.Lawrence or Faulkner, but her insight into the intricacies of the female mind offers a converse view to that of these classical male authors. There is not always a clear answer to Oates’s mysteries, and that is illustrated here by Smother, in which the reader is left wondering whether a daughter is seriously psychologically disturbed and has false memory syndrome or whether her mother is in staunch denial. At other times she affords us a glimpse of lives wasted without the comfort of the unfeasibly happy resolution fiction often offers, as in Tetanus, where a young boy on the brink of irreversible delinquency rejects the helping hand held out to him by a kind professional. Still, clean living is no guarantor of happiness either, as we find out from the shift to the latter’s own lonely personal life. In fact tragedy is often the outcome in an Oates story. In The Spill, the picture of arduous farming life painted is as tough as that of Mary Lawson, Patrick Lane or David Vann, and the capacity of stress and overwork to push an individual over the edge is shockingly credible. Sometimes, the darkness is unbearable. Any parent or relative of a young daughter will find Bleeed difficult. While Oates is never gratuitous, even a brief factual description of this kind of gruesome crime is too much. In Vena Cava, a haunting tale of a brain-damaged war veteran returning home, Oates leavens the horror to come with a rare flash of humour: ‘sag-faced teary women in puff perms to make their small heads appear larger on their bulky bodies in…stretch Orlon pantsuits observed from the rear you could not easily distinguish between those fat asses.’ Oates’s intensity can leave you devastated and drained, and her taste for melodrama leaves chinks that more nuanced authors might fill – I watched The Remains of the Day after reading this, and the tragic restraint and repression of the film of Ishiguro’s novel was a million miles from Oates. Still, the undeniable disturbance her fiction provokes is undoubtedly testament to her immense talent.
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