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MissRibena

The Corrections

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Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections has been sitting in my TBR shelf for roughly two years. At long last the stark red, black and white spine outstared me from across the livingroom and now I'm roughly half-way through. I'm struggling to finish it (and finish it I must - why do I do this to myself :) ) and just wondered whether it's worth my while persevering; whether there might be untold wonders yet in store.

 

My main complaint is with the characters who form the disbanded, disillusioned, slightly surreal Lambert family and we follow them as they try to deal with their relationships with one another and with their father's/husband's descent into Parkinsons disease. None of the characters (so far) have any warmth that make you care about the family's struggle and the themes are not explored properly; Franzen seems to pick them up and drop them again. It reminds me so much of Chuck Palahniuk's handling of contemporary America except it lacks Palahniuk's humour and wacky plot. To be fair, Franzen's writing style is effortless and would be a pleasure to read if the plot and characters were up to the job.

 

I think this book was on Oprah's book club list a while ago and it was a huge bestseller a couple of years back. I guess I must be missing something.

 

Rebecca

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I've got a first edition of this which has been sitting on my shelf for around the same amount of time. I don't feel so bad now. I think one reason I haven't read it is because my dad nicked it off me for a while and dropped it in the bath and its gone all wrinkly, but I did try to read it about a year ago and only managed about three pages, finding it a bit dense, but blaming it on my own tiredness. I think I also resist because Franzen comes across as a bit of a snot in interviews. And as for not wanting Oprah's logo on his book, it seems very precious. If Joe O'Connor had had the same attitude about Richard And Judy, imagine how many people wouldn't have ever got the pleasure of discovering Star Of The Sea.

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I'll complete the hat-trick. I can't remember why I bought it a couple of years ago, but I keep starting it and not getting into it. I think it's one of those that you need to stick with for a good 50 pages and then it might work.

 

Strangest thing is I bought, read, and loved The Twenty-Seventh City, his follow-on. Maybe that was because it was not a family saga but more of a thriller / suspense novel about city politics in St Louis.

 

I borrowed Strong Motion from the library and fared better than TC but it still didn't grab me. It must be the plots, because he writes beautifully, and his sentence structure is almost up there with Sebastian Faulks and Louis de Bernieres. The prose is almost lyrical.

 

Surely somebody here has read it!

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Oh great, I'm not alone. I'm still chugging through it but only in fits and starts. It's just too boring to stick with for any prolonged length of time. I will, in all likelihood, finish it and I'll come back with a follow-up on this thread if someone else doesn't beat me to it.

 

I haven't read (or indeed, heard of) anything else by Franzen, which goes to show you the Oprah/Richard and Judy effect is pretty amazing. I can't help wondering what the Oprah-watching masses made of this or how it came to be on the list in the first place. I think she did East of Eden too, which is a favourite of mine and I can understand how it would be appreciated as a good read even if you didn't want to do an in-depth analysis of the style, themes etc. The Corrections just isn't like that.

 

Rebecca

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Time for the backlash against the backlash.

 

I read The Corrections three years ago and loved it. Not only was the prose style both elegant and flowing, complex and yet easy to read, the stories of the family told from the different perspectives held my interest from the very start. Americans appear to be always on the hunt for the so-called Great American Novel (Philip Roth seems to be making writing one his life's ambition, at any cost), but this is the nearest to it of all the pretenders in recent times. The novel is about the personal and the particular, but also says a great deal about the country as a whole.

 

It helped that I read it on holiday, and so was able to read it for long unbroken periods. I think that if I had read it at home last thing at night, over a number of weeks, it wouldn't have had the same inpact. I read Ian McEwan's Atonement on the same holiday, and I have never read such fine novels back to back before. The spell was somewhat broken by my next read: Bridget Jones: Edge Of Reason. That was bollocks.

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Woohoo, I finished it! It's so satisfying seeing a reduction in the TBR shelf and bonus points for a big book in this case.

 

The good news is that it is a much better book than I thought at first although I wouldn't go as far as to say I loved it. MadDog is spot on with the all-american novel thing but Franzen's attempts to do this by an attempt at chronicling pretty much all the sociological and political issues of the American twentieth century through the family's story. In fact, it's a rampage through all kinds of topics. A few that just come to mind gender roles and feminism, mental health and psychiatry, care of the old, references to Vietnam vets, the Depression, Wall Street Crashes, consumerism, changing family and marital dynamics, Eastern Europe's emergence from communism, presciption drug dependency, the changing role of the corporation, the importance of engineering, technology and the web ... anyone familiar with Billy Joel's We Didn't Start the Fire will understand the breathlessness that comes from such a whirlwind. There is more than a touch of fin de siecle/millenium madness there too and maybe I've just read too many books with similar concerns but it has begun to feel samey and even corny.

 

My earlier problems still stand; the core story of the family dealing with a seriously ill father and the drawing of these characters are what let The Corrections down. The first half of the book dealt mostly with the male characters in the family, who are given little, if any, redeeming features (until the very very end) and are never fully explored. Franzen deals with women much more sympathetically, if with less brutal honesty, but at least you can find something to identify with.

 

The prose is definitely the best part of this book. I would never have made it to the "good stuff" otherwise. I am glad I have read it but I couldn't imagine recommending it to a friend.

 

Rebecca

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I think I wrote this before. I didn't like the book at all. Usually, I quite like Oprah's suggestions. When I read this, I didn't know he was the guy who didn't want to be on her list. Anyway, I do understand him in that way, it wasn't a book that would fit in with the other books on that list.

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Just to confuse things, here are some more posts from the original thread, including Momo's

 

Momo 26th January 2006 01:30 PM

Originally Posted by MissRibena

My main complaint is with the characters who form the disbanded, disillusioned, slightly surreal Lambert family and we follow them as they try to deal with their relationships with one another and with their father's/husband's descent into Parkinsons disease. None of the characters (so far) have any warmth that make you care about the family's struggle and the themes are not explored properly; Franzen seems to pick them up and drop them again.

 

I think this book was on Oprah's book club list a while ago and it was a huge bestseller a couple of years back. I guess I must be missing something.[/Quote]

 

 

I read this book a while ago and didn't like it very much. Similar to MissRibena, I couldn't really connect to the people, none of them seemed "real". The whole writing style seemed unconnected. Maybe this was what Frantzen tried to portray but he should let you feel the disconnection among the family members not between the reader and the book.

Actually, Oprah had Franzen on her list but he declined. I think that was part of the reason I read it. In general, I have enjoyed quite a few of the Oprah books and I just wanted to know why he made such a fuss about being on the list. I do understand now, he just doesn't fit in there.

 

Beerqueen 30th January 2006 01:12 PM

I think this was the book that was a revelation like a thunderbolt to me - I don't on the whole like American books!! I will still read them and enjoy some (Anne Tyler, We Need to Talk about Kevin) but usually prefer British books - don't know why, it's never been a conscious thing but realise that the only American books I like are not big, American corporation type things - can't quite explain but know in my mind what I mean!!!

Momo 30th January 2006 01:55 PM

Originally Posted by Beerqueen

I think this was the book that was a revelation like a thunderbolt to me - I don't on the whole like American books!! I will still read them and enjoy some (Anne Tyler, We Need to Talk about Kevin) but usually prefer British books - don't know why, it's never been a conscious thing but realise that the only American books I like are not big, American corporation type things - can't quite explain but know in my mind what I mean!!![/Quote]

 

??

Can you give us an example what you mean? I am neither British nor American and I enjoy both - or I don't. It really depends on the story.

 

Beerqueen 1st February 2006 01:17 PM

Originally Posted by Momo

??

Can you give us an example what you mean? I am neither British nor American and I enjoy both - or I don't. It really depends on the story.[/Quote]

 

 

I really struggled with Bonfire of the Vanities and have never really managed to get into any of the other "big" books which have subsequently been made into films, LA Confidential, The Firm etc. I also often find that although I quite like some American crime novels, I find the language and cop routines so different that I really have to concentrate to understand - it sounds daft but sometimes the jargon and slang are offputting to me. Thinking about it, it is probably when an author uses a lot of slang etc that I find it too "alien". God, I sound so pathetic and parochial but as I said, it's not a conscious thing.

Grammath 1st February 2006 02:18 PM

We've had a similar thread on this topic in Crime section here .

 

As a student of American literature, I've often wondered where the urge a lot of American authors seem to want to produce "the Great American novel", some kind of definitive summary on the state of society or the family, comes from. "The Corrections" certainly aspired to do this.

 

After all, you don't hear some hot new book described as "The Great British [or English] novel".

Momo 1st February 2006 03:30 PM

Originally Posted by Beerqueen

I really struggled with Bonfire of the Vanities and have never really managed to get into any of the other "big" books which have subsequently been made into films, LA Confidential, The Firm etc. I also often find that although I quite like some American crime novels, I find the language and cop routines so different that I really have to concentrate to understand - it sounds daft but sometimes the jargon and slang are offputting to me. Thinking about it, it is probably when an author uses a lot of slang etc that I find it too "alien". God, I sound so pathetic and parochial but as I said, it's not a conscious thing.[/Quote]

 

Well, that explains it. I don't like crime stories on the whole, therefore I cannot judge that. The sort of American novels I like are probably more similar to the British novels I read, e.g. when they portray the Deep South, the slang they use is not necessarily bad, it's just their accent which I think is quite friendly. I don't watch those kind of movies, either. I'm more a classic type of reader and moviegoer.

 

Originally Posted by Grammath

As a student of American literature, I've often wondered where the urge a lot of American authors seem to want to produce "the Great American novel", some kind of definitive summary on the state of society or the family, comes from. "The Corrections" certainly aspired to do this.

After all, you don't hear some hot new book described as "The Great British [or English] novel".[/Quote]

 

That's probably because there are so many great British novels already in the past, no one would try to aspire to write anything better than Shakespeare has or any of the other classic authors. Or maybe it is not very British to try to be "Number One of all times".

Also, this might have been the reason why I wasn't too keen on "The Corrections". :yup:

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Just to confuse things, here are some more posts from the original thread, including Momo's
No, no, no confusion at all. Thanks, Jen, for finding this. I tried to but with no success.

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I read this book a couple of years ago when the media were describing it as the "first great novel of the 21st Century." With a build up like that it was bound to be a bit of a disappointment. I got through it but theres very little, two years on that is particularly memorable. The really good books tap into a mood or a feel for a place or time. This book just didn't have it for me. It's not a bad book, it's just average.

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With a build up like that it was bound to be a bit of a disappointment.
You are so right. That is often the problem, lately I am almost convinced I will be disappointed if a book has been praised too much.

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I loved this book. At 650 + pages it's not a quick read but I found it satisfying at every level - hilarious, horribly realistic about dysfunctional family dynamics, and almost unbearably sad. Will aim to write a full review sometime soon.

*****

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I read this during the summer and i thoroughly enjoyed it.

 

of the male characthers, i though gary did come off as being a sympathethic characther in terms of how him and his family interact.

 

i liked it.

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I loved this book. At 650 + pages it's not a quick read but I found it satisfying at every level - hilarious, horribly realistic about dysfunctional family dynamics, and almost unbearably sad. Will aim to write a full review sometime soon.

*****

 

I agree with these comments. It's a long while since I read the book but unlike a lot of people I know I enjoyed it and felt involved with the family.

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Thanks, Chuntzy. I'm keen to read more Franzen now. Here is my review:

 

Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections exploded into life in 2001, garnering the National Book Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and a massive following. Franzen's invitation to appear on the Oprah show was famously rescinded when he expressed doubts about the merits of this honour, saying (quite reasonably, imo) that being embraced by Oprah might label the book as one for women. Imagine the UK equivalent - who amongst us wasn't in the past slightly put off by seeing a Richard and Judy sticker on a book, knowing the TV duo's choices were catapaulted into the mainstream and assuming, perhaps unfairly, that the book must be populist bordering on pulpy?

 

But The Corrections is one of those bestselling books that subverts the notion that mass appeal equates with trash. It is impeccably written in a way that makes you shake your head with disbelief at Franzen's smartness, and is simultaneously hilarious and tragic.

 

The novel is based around the Lambert family who hail from St Judes in the US and who, from a distance, look like an ideal unit. It is only up close that the cracks and fissures of a dysfunctional family show up. Alfred is in the clutches of Parkinson's disease, with its life-sapping features of tremor and slowness of movement. The medicines he takes make him hallucinate, and his mental faculties may also be dwindling. His wife, Enid, is his long-suffering carer, but the reader's sympathy for her is diluted by her grasping materialism and miserliness.

 

Alfred and Enid have three children - Gary, 43, is vice-president at CenTrust Bank. He is worn down by his beautiful wife Caroline who manipulates his two older sons into seeing him as a bullying ogre when in fact it is Caroline who abuses Gary's good nature. His younger son, Jonah, is a gorgeous creation, all childish wonder and innocent enthusiasm; call me a heaving mass of oestrogen but I longed to lift him from the page and cuddle him.

 

Chip, 39 years, is Alfred and Enid's middle child. He is an unfortunate type, wandering into ill-thought-out schemes and affairs, choosing immediate gratification with all its inherent problems instead of long-term planning. He has high hopes for a screenplay he's written, despite the ominous warning signs of its direness.

 

Denise is the youngest child at 32. She works as an executive chef in Philadelphia and her private life is a mess.

 

From the start, it's obvious that Franzen is one of these corruscating talents who marries a scythe-sharp intellect with the irreverence and wit characteristic of the new wave of writers emerging since the early '80s. He is as clever and funny as David Foster Wallace but without the latter's endearing neuroticism; as slouchily smart as Martin Amis without Amis's occasional forays into smug self parody; as insightful as Updike but more casual. Franzen's language is assured and confident; he coins neologisms and sees ordinary things in a way that makes you wonder why no one else has come up with those terms - Enid's careful stash of pennies-off coupons is 'an anxiety' of coupons, a well-trodden airport linoleum carries 'a confusion' of tread patterns, a glaring airport light is 'the color of car sickness'.

 

I started off by noting particularly hilarious sections but soon gave up as it would involve mentioning almost every page of this 650+ page novel. Suffice to say that, with almost uncanny insight and a marvelous eye for satire, Franzen conjures up the petty wars and seething rages, the inane comments that drive one to jaw-clenching fury, the pointed digs and elaborate boasts, of an off-kelter family microcosm. Here is one wince-inducing section of many hundred in which the wittering Enid shows what she values most:

 

' Enid said 'I ran into your old friend Dean Driblett at the bank the other day'...

 

'Dean Driblett was a classmate, not a friend,' Chip said.

 

'He and his wife just had their fourth child. I told you, didn't I, they built that ENORMOUS house out in Paradise Valley - Al, didn't you count eight bedrooms?'

 

Alfred gave her a steady, unblinking look. Chip leaned on the door close button.

 

'Dad and I were at the housewarming in June,' Enid said. 'It was spectacular. They'd had it catered, and they had PYRAMIDS of shrimp. It was solid shrimp, in pyramids. I've never seen anything like it.'

 

'Pyramids of shrimp,' Chip said. The elevator door had finally closed.

 

'Anyway, it's a beautiful house,' Enid said. 'There are at least six bedrooms, and you know, it looks like they're going to fill them. Dean's tremendously successful. He started the lawn care business when he decided the mortuary business wasn't for him, well, you know, Dale Driblett's his stepdad, you know, the Driblett Chapel, and now his billboards are everywhere and he's started an HMO. I saw in the paper where it's the fastest-growing HMO in St Jude, it's called DeeDeeCare, same as the lawn care business, and there are billboards for the HMO now, too. He's quite the enterpreneur, I'd say.'

 

'Slo-o-o-o-w elevator,' Alfred said.

 

'This is a pre-war building,' Chip explained in a tight voice. 'An extremely desirable building.'

 

'But you know what he told me he's doing for his mother's birthday? It's still a surprise for her, but I can tell you. He's taking her to Paris for eight days. Two first-class tickets, eight nights at the Ritz! That's the kind of person Dean is, very family-oriented. But can you believe that kind of birthday present? Al, didn't you say the house alone probably cost a million dollars? Al?' '

 

 

 

Of course it's not all laughs - Alfred's deteriorating condition and his despair at his failing body provide the tragedy to balance the comedy. Franzen is particularly strong on painting the poignant decline of this once powerful man from the patriarchial head of the family to infirmity. And the sorrowful waste of opportunities for happiness in Alfred and Enid's marriage is masterfully described, Enid loving Alfred physically but not understanding him; Alfred longing for female comfort but not receiving it from his wife and therefore withdrawing into himself. Chances of fulfillment lost, happiness eluded.

 

The family relationships are evoked beautifully - as is the way with many daughters, Denise loves her father unfalteringly and feels less for her mother, and her brothers tend to the opposite.

 

There is a large cast of vividly-evoked supporting characters, many beautifully drole. The mealtimes on the cruise that Enid and Alfred take are a particular joy, with a pedantic and dull Norweigan couple holding forth and being yawned down by a dry Swedish man married to a knock-out woman.

 

This is a stunning novel, one of a very few books I've awarded five stars to this year, and an apt choice with which to while away the enforced tedium of the festive season.

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The Corrections is one of those bestselling books that subverts the notion that mass appeal equates with trash. It is impeccably written in a way that makes you shake your head with disbelief at Franzen's smartness [...]
:yikes:

 

I feel the need to redress the balance on this book, so here's what I posted on amazon.co.uk in February 2005:

A treasure-house of detail - an indifferent whole...

 

 

Reviews on this site of this much-hyped book range from the ecstatic to the excoriating. My own impressions are extremely mixed, although the negative ones slightly outweigh the positive ones: so two stars rather than three.

 

The novel's central preoccupation is the complexity of the generation-gap as experienced by children approaching their middle years and parents approaching old age, and this theme is developed in all sorts of fascinating ways. There is ultimately something King Lear-like about the tragic decline of the father.

 

But given that this is a theme to which surely almost everybody can relate in some ways, why on earth did Franzen have to complicate matters so much by using a narrative structure which is disconcerting to the point of being discouraging? Again and again I found myself turning to the inside-cover reviews for reassurance that I should keep on turning the pages. If Michael Cunningham could compare it to Thomas Mann's brilliant "Buddenbrooks", then, I thought, I should persevere. And if it was "generous spirited" (whatever that means exactly...) ...

 

As for the style... Anyone wanting to widen their vocabulary would find plenty to be going on with here: certain paragraphs can definitely rival Roget's Thesaurus. Maybe I don't read enough American fiction, but I'm afraid "His expression was like a perspectival regression toward a vanishing point of misery" leaves me unmoved. As do "poetic" nuggets like "a vastly ghastly plaid sofa"...

 

And why did Franzen feel an apparently insatiable desire to deal with so much else outside his central preoccupation? The post-Communist eastern bloc, stocks and shares, designer restaurants, designer drugs, designer lesbianism... The list goes on.

 

Henry James famously called George Eliot's "Middlemarch" "a treasure-house of detail" but "an indifferent whole". He was totally wrong. It is a magnificent whole. But his words, for me, sum up "The Corrections". Sorry: it is definitely another over-hyped novel, and not a modern classic.

 

It did find me shaking my head, Leyla, but at Franzen's sheer verbosity rather than at anything it occurred to me to consider as "smartness"...

 

I found some interesting points in his collection of essays rather pompously entitled How To Be Alone. (No, let's make that "very pompously"...)

 

But, again, it's very uneven writing in my opinion.

 

And, despite what someone from Harpers & Queen sticks his/her neck out to say on the back cover of my edition, Franzen is emphatically **NOT**

the Montaigne of our times
Franzen doesn't play in the same league, and nor is he up from promotion, as far as I can see... Montaigne, in the area of the essay, is on a par with Shakespeare for poetry and drama, and you can spend a lifetime going back to him.

 

Franzen is not Montaigne, nor will he ever come close.

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I'm surprised, JfP. I thought the more intellectual parts were very well thought out and always made sense to me. The quote you mention, 'His expression was like a perspectival regression toward a vanishing point of misery' conjured up a striking image of a spent man with his weary eyes glassily fixed on a point so far in the distance that it could be seen as the 'vanishing point'; the use of the words and the term 'perspectival regression' evoked a powerful sense of geometry and art for me. It all depends on the reader of course but at the time I read it it seemed a potent way of expressing Alfred's dead-eyed gaze. On further reflection now, the words make me think of the straight, practically parallel but in reality infinitesimally converging lines of sight from two eyes meeting at a point way, way ahead, almost in infinity, and perhaps brings to mind De Chirico paintings with their uneasy geometry and warped sense of perspective, their unsettling sense of something being very wrong or on the brink of going very wrong. This secondary thought strays from the image of Alfred's hollow, vacant stare, but still evokes an unhappy atmosphere, so I don't think any of Franzen's words in that phrase (or elsewhere) are unnecessary.

Similarly the word-play element such as the 'vastly ghastly plaid sofa' which you quote is something I find quite stimulating as long as it doesn't overwhelm the whole by becoming too frequent or strained, which I don't think it did here. Many writers I admire have their stylistic quirks and tics; I thought Franzen kept this playfulness to a minimum.

I wasn't aware of any vocabulary that made me think of Roget's thesaurus, nothing seemed forced in that way to me. And that's something I'm quite aware of usually, having felt slightly miffed by the use of 'ziggurats' in the Powers book I'm reading just now :-)

 

As for the many topics which crop up, the ones you mention are 'the post-Communist eastern bloc, stocks and shares, designer restaurants, designer drugs, designer lesbianism'. I thought the parts set in Lithuania were alternately funny and disturbing, but it all struck true going by my own recollections of eastern Europe before and after the fall of the Berlin wall. I thought it took immense talent to make corruption so funny, and yet Franzen didn't belittle the violence that went on in those countries. To be fair to Franzen I don't think he dallied much in the worlds of designer restaurants and designer drugs - yes, perhaps some of those in-depth descriptions of menus Denise was cooking were superfluous, but they added to the atmosphere of her pressured professional life. The drugs part though was minimal - there was none of the young NY crowd showing-off about drugs that were found in some US writers' books in the '80s and '90s, there was just the fact that a character used some tablets and some information later about their provenance.

The least convincing part of the book for me was about Denise's love life exploits. I didn't mention them in my review because I didn't want to have to include spoilers, but I thought her predatory pursual of the objects of her lust wasn't in character with the caring, kind woman we'd seen in Chip's flat who was so decent to her parents. And perhaps the 'flipping' was unlikely, and some of the overpowering lust for

Robin was symptomatic of a young male writer enjoying fantasizing about lesbianism

, but then, people's private lives are often a source of surprise.

I'd put it on your TBRR pile, JfP!

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I agree with Mad Dog and Glory (amazing name - where does it come from?) This is a great book. I read it 3 or 4 years ago and can still remember incidents in it. It is probably one of those books that needs to be read continuously, ie on holiday or, if you are able to, over a weekend. It had far more resonance for me than Roth or Updike. But unlike them, Franzen seems to be a one book author. I recommend it to those who is interested in psychology, family dynamics, and American angst.

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I'm glad you loved it too, virginia123. Have you read any of his other work? I'm quite keen to explore him further - he has such a keen intellect and sharp wit that I would be disappointed if it didn't come through in his other writing.

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I'm glad you loved it too, virginia123. Have you read any of his other work? I'm quite keen to explore him further - he has such a keen intellect and sharp wit that I would be disappointed if it didn't come through in his other writing.
I once read an essay of his, possibly in the Guardian review section, about the importance and value of fiction. It was one of the best things I have ever read on the subject, both erudite and sensitive ( I keep trying to collect such articles as my cousin has no time for fiction but I know she is pretty well a lost cause). Now, where did I put the article...?

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Thanks for that, brightphoebus. Maybe it will come up on googling his name. I'll give it a go tomorrow.

 

Edit - I mean later today - how mad to be trawling bgo at 01.49am.

PS Just noticed the times above the posts are an hour out. Feel better to have only wasted until 12.49 am on the net.

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Mad Dog and Glory (amazing name - where does it come from?)
As far as I know it's a movie with Robert De Niro and Bill Murray.

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