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Cutting for StoneCutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

They say "write what you know." So physician Abraham Verghese, born in Ethiopia from Indian parents, chose for his first novel a narrator born in Ethiopia that was raised by Indian parents and who eventually becomes a surgeon.

Cutting for Stone is an epic soap opera worthy of Sidney Sheldon's best. A nun traveling by ship from India to Ethiopia saves the life of a British doctor onboard. They later become colleagues in an Addis Ababa hospital, Missing, and silently fall in love with each other. The outcome is tragic - the nun gives birth to twins, Marion and Shiva, and dies in the process. The father, Dr Thomas Stone, is overcome with grief and abandons the babies to a pair of Indian doctors - Hema and Ghosh - to raise.

The twin boys grow under the shadows of Missing and experience some of Ethiopia's historical changes. Marion, the virginal and unremarkable twin, is the narrator. He's not as clever and seductive as his brother Shiva (who steals the girl he loves from under his nose), nor is he his adoptive mother's favourite. Fate eventually exiles him from Ethiopia, to a life in a poor hospital in New York where all doctors are foreigners, all patients are on Medicare and all corpses can expect to be organ harvested for rich Americans.

You can really see Ethiopia and its people in Verghese's novel and it is one of its few pleasures, alongside the look at the unfair healthcare system in America. But the plot - full of sentimental coincidences and love making worthy of a Bad Sex in Fiction Award - leaves a lot to be desired. Marion is an unlikeable narrator, but I don't think that was Verghese's intention. The writing only comes alive with the scenes of hospital proceedures, and although these come along quite often they are not enough to hold this long novel together.

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Dead Teens

Aug. 12th, 2013 09:15 pm
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Skippy DiesSkippy Dies by Paul Murray

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This should have really been called Porky Dies because it owes much of its spirit to the 80s Canadian B-Movie "Porky's", with its gang of boys who only think of getting some action with girls, teasing each other, playing pranks and generally being obnoxious teens. Like Porky's, it even has an italian teenager who is the renowned "stud" of the group, though the novel distinguishes itself from the film by being set in an Irish Catholic boarding school rather than 1950s North America.

Skippy drops dead at the start of the novel, soon after arriving at a popular donut shop with his extremely obese and intelligent roommate, Ruprecht van Doren. The rest of the novel is a flashback of Skippy's life, loves, fears and adventures in Seabrook College. Other characters weave into this thread, like van Doren himself and his obsession with String Theory (clumsily cut-and-pasted into the novel from whatever research Murray did); the history teacher Howard "the Coward" and his midlife crisis; the drug addicted and dangerous school bully Carl; the beautiful and popular Lori from the girls-only school next door; and the old, dogmatic school priest who carries a few sex crimes on his shoulders.

I would have given up on this book at the start if this weren't my boyfriend's choice for our bookclub. I persevered through padded pages, teen humour that didn't cut a smile (though its obnoxiousness reminded me of my youth), and subplots that promised much but delivered little. Its small reward came towards the end, with Howard "the Coward" discovering Skippy's connection to the 1st World War and how he could use it to reach his bored students. It was surprisingly touching.

Looking around the internet, I'm surprised at how much people have loved this novel. I've missed something; maybe I'm too far from the teen I was once.

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A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for LoversA Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Z, a young woman from a small village in China, is offered a trip to England by her parents so she can learn English and improve her prospects in life. She arrives in London during a typical grim winter in the mid-noughties, oblivious as to how to behave and comprehend this Western capital. Her hostel is dire and the students in her English course label her a pariah because of her inability to behave in a "Western" way.

Z spends most of her time trying to decode this new world with a Chinese-English dictionary - and the novel itself is also divided this way, with each chapter starting with a word and its dictionary definition (relevant to the chapter in question) that sheds light onto Z's uncovering of this world. Often, Z's misunderstandings are meant to be humorous, but because Z is such a nutter - and a slightly unsympathetic one - the humour is a misfire.

One evening, she strikes conversation with a much older man in a cinema and very soon she's his lover. He's a van driver and part-time artist based in Hackney. They fall madly in love, things get kinky, summer arrives, she travels across Europe under his suggestion (to improve her understanding of the West)... then things get complicated.

The novel is based on Xiaolu Guo's own experience of moving to London in 2002 and keeping a journal. There are some pleasures to be found in its description of Hackney, and an interesting twist relating to the older lover. The cover is deceptively chick lit - this novel is anything but.

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Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of PsychoAlfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On one level, this book is about the making of "Psycho" - from the story based on Ed Gein's killings that germinated the novel of the same name to the massive cultural phenomenon it became upon release, almost turning into a success Hitchcock could never escape from. On another level, this book was to me a great example of how storytelling should work; how to craft a narrative, how to create characters, setting, plot and suspense - all through observing how Hitchcock handled his material.

Film buffs will love the way Rebello shows what happened behind the scenes: the shooting of the famous shower scene, Hitchcock's relationships with the studio execs and stars, and the techniques he used to achieve certain camera shots.

I thought the marketing campaign around Psycho was particularly interesting. Hitchcock filmed a featurette at the house and Bates Motel, giving the viewer a tour of a place "now for sale" after the "terrible events that took place there." It's nicely macabre and tongue-in-cheek. He also did something unheard of at the time: he asked/insisted that film goers watch the film from the beginning, instead of just wandering in halfway through (as was bizarrely the custom at the time.) People were outraged that they had to wait in line until the start of the film, instead of popping in whenever they wanted, but their curiosity won over as the word-of-mouth grew stronger, and a new filmgoing habit was born.

I'd recommend watching Psycho before reading this book, even if you've seen it before.

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Trout Fishing In AmericaTrout Fishing In America by Richard Brautigan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Enjoyable quick, stream of consciousness writing, with chapters loosely connected to each other by a character/notion called Trout Fishing in America. I hear that a fan of this book actually changed his name to Trout Fishing in America and now teaches English in Japan. I hear that Brautigan has many fans and many followers, like the Beat Poets he slots so nicely alongside.

Like Burroughs' novels, it feels like you can read this in any order you like. Trout Fishing in America is equal parts hobo, traveling memories and acute poetical observations of the American North West. A lot of it seems to be inspired on Brautigan's personal life (he sadly took his own life years later.) It definitely needs more than one reading to give away its full power, but it has the potential of alienating some.

A book to be read by rivers.

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commonpeople1: (Sea)
The Testament of Gideon MackThe Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A silent unkept man with a limp stays in a remote guesthouse in Scotland for some days. One day, he disappears into the hills and his body is found frozen some time later. When the authorities investigate his room in the guesthouse, they find 300 pages of his testament tucked away at the top of the wardrobe: a testament of how he grew up in the house of an unloving minister, how he met his wife (and fell in love with her best friend), how he became a minister himself (but without any faith), how he grew to have friends and enemies in his small parish of Monimaskit, how he fell one day inside a gorge while trying to rescue a dog and how he met the Devil in a subterranean cave when everyone else had given him up for dead.

Who was Gideon Mack and can we trust his testament? I didn't care for the first 300 pages - I almost gave up on the book several times. But my curiosity about the Devil kept me going: I wanted to know how James Robertson would choose to depict him, what he would say to Gideon during the 3 days they spent together in a cave under the gorge. This turned out to be a very neat trick on Robertson's part since by the time you get to the Devil's episode you have grown to know more about the people in Gideon's life - a very run-of-the-mill, slightly depressing and all-too-normal life - and care for some of them.

There's an interesting question in the novel about history and its meaning. One of Gideon's closest friends is an old atheist who suffers from severe health problems and relies on his visits once a week to roll up her Marijuana joints. The only thing she believes in are the stories left behind through Archaeology. In a parallel vein, Gideon's first encounter with the supernatural is a mysterious stone he finds in the woods and which nobody else believes exists. Can we only trust what our senses tell us? Does something exist if it can be touched? Or is there a world beyond our own, maybe not necessarily better, but just as strange as the living's?

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Last Man in TowerLast Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The word Shanghai conjures up images of an utopian paradise where all are happy and life is good. In this novel, The Shanghai is a new development planned beside Mumbai's airport by big shot (and unscrupulous) real estate developer Dharmen Shah which will bring to the area smart apartments, shopping malls and other comforts that the rising middle-class in India believe is their right. There's only one obstacle in Shah's way: a retired and grieving teacher, Masterji, who lives in the old building - Vishram - where the new development is planned. Unlike his neighbours, Masterji refuses to take the big payout offered by the real estate developer on principles that sit at odds with modern capitalistic India. His stance sets in motion a chain of events that throws him against his neighbours, leading to tragedy.

Mumbai holds up a surreal mirror to London. Like here, Mumbai is riddled with a greed and fever for property development that leaves winners and losers in its wake. The growing poor and homeless in London may now not be too far from the slum dwellers in Mumbai; the alienated rich in their smart neighbourhoods (where working-class communities used to exist before) could easily be the converted Victorian houses in the West End that sit beside crime-ridden council estates. The lives spent on uncomfortable commuter trains that occasionally grind to a halt because of someone on the tracks is all too familiar to both Londoners and Mumbai residents.

The novel is beautifully set in Mumbai, offering the reader a glance to the lives of the very poor all the way up to the new rich.  Adiga's characters quickly lose their humanity to the money offered to them. Where once they lived in harmony in a communal society, helping and looking out for each other, the introduction of a chance to make it big exposes them to dark desires that had remained silent until then. The Vishram's residents love for Masterji's Agatha Christie's novels is a sort of foreshadowing of what's to come.

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My bookclub's next choice is Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens. I originally suggested it a few days ago we read something in 2012 to celebrate his bicentennary. Since his birthday is on 7 February, that's when we'll hold our meeting to talk about the book.

If any of you wish to read it together with me, we can use LJ as a place to discuss the story as we progress through it. Perhaps every week or so we have an online catch up?

I've spent my entire life having people say to me "Oliver? As in Oliver Twist?" Or, "May I have some more please?" Or chirpy singing of "Oliver, Oliver, never before has a boy wanted mooooooore!" (So many original thinkers!)

But this will be the first time I read the book. I'm really looking forward to it.


Oct. 13th, 2011 12:38 pm
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The Lost City of ZThe Lost City of Z by David Grann

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first heard about Colonel Percy Fawcett when I read a biography about his life written by brasilian author Hermes Leal. Fawcett was a celebrity explorer in his time, responsible for braving uncharted territory in the Amazon (he was, for example, responsible for defining the boundary between Brasil and Bolivia) and promoting the idea that a large and complex civilization - the City of Z; or El Dorado - had once existed somewhere under its tree tops. Fawcett, amongst other things, inspired Conan Doyle's Lost World and the character of Indiana Jones.

A few years ago, this new book on Fawcett by David Grann was released and secured a nomination for the Samuel Johnson's Best Non-fiction Award and praise in many newspapers. I'd been wanting to suggest to my bookclub a read to do with Brasil and I thought this would be the perfect choice (even though the author and the main subject were not brasilian.) Although it's a compelling story about Fawcett's disappearance in the Amazon alongside his son Jack and his son's best friend, as well as its effect on his family and the world's imagination, the book's strength in my opinion is in exposing the holocaust that occurred to the Amazon's native tribes. Through Fawcett's diaries, we discover the obstacles Fawcett encountered in the Amazon (killer bugs and snakes; famine) but also why this region fascinated him so much, and why he had respect for native tribes and horror for the ways other explorers were quick to kill them. The book throws into relief the history of the Amazon from its discovery in the 1500s to the present day and the importance of preserving and studying it despite its fast destruction.

The final pages finally reveal where the Lost City of Z was located and how, ironically, Fawcett found what he was looking for without realising it.

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The Judges

Jan. 24th, 2011 08:25 pm
commonpeople1: (March of the Dead)

Village kids
Originally uploaded by daveblume
Thoughts and questions on Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible.

The Judges )
commonpeople1: (Icecream)
A friend of mine is leaving London for New York; he got a well paid job in an arts centre over there. He asked [ profile] wink_martindale and I if we'd like to buy his Wii and games. I asked how much he wanted for them? He understood that I wanted to buy everything and dropped on Wink's lap a box with the whole lot. We already had a borrowed Wii from my landlady so now we currently have an excess of video game consoles in the house. I'm starting to think I don't want any of them - it's just more distraction from the stuff I need to do (study horticulture, write Mills & Boons novels, become a millionaire).

We went for a walk this morning to find a café where we could sit, read the papers and write in our journals. We chose the Rich Mix because it's always empty, has nice big windows that give you a view of Bethnal Green road and nobody bothers you if your coffee mug is empty. I briefly left to buy today's Guardian from a corner shop and walked past Preston from The Ordinary Boys. He's tiny! He went into a new hipster café with three friends. The Rich Mix couldn't attract hipsters even if it tried, bless.

We then hit the local second-hand bookshops for Paul Auster's Timbuktu (for my bookclub) but couldn't find anything. Went to my gym, watched an episode of a new brasilian soap opera while eating toast with peanut butter and now I faff around online while Wink naps on the couch. He was meant to be making carrot cake for us. I might wake him up in a sec.

commonpeople1: (Bookclub)
Thoughts on the second part of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. All non-spoiler comments welcome!

The Poisonwood Bible: The Revelation )
commonpeople1: (Bookclub)

Genesis - Bible
Originally uploaded by S.A.L.
I'm currently reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible with [ profile] verybadhorse . We read one section, stop and comment before moving on. I just finished "Genesis" and I'm now halfway through the second-part, "The Revelation". Some thoughts under the tag on...

Genesis )
commonpeople1: (Psycho)
Roadside Picnic

Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic, 1972
Years ago a friend invited me to see Tarkovsky's film Stalker at a special screening in the National Gallery. The film was made in the late 70s and is still today a thing of beauty, though its slow pace (like all Tarkovsky's films) would drive most current cinema goers insane. It's the story of a group of men - the stalkers - who illegally go into a zone previously invaded and abandoned by aliens (which nobody ever met) to collect items which can be sold in the black market. Bracelets that spin eternally. Canisters that spray weird black liquid. That sort of stuff. The setting - some kind of muddy, gray cemetery for Soviet machines - is nightmarish and fascinating in the film, dangerous to any of the stalkers who make a wrong move (the reason why they are stalkers is because they know how to navigate this "zone"). I made a mental note to check out the novella, Roadside Picnic, after seeing the film but only got around to doing it this month when I suggested it as a read for my bookclub.

The film is based on just the first part of the novella. The nightmarish quality, though, remains in the book - that sense of things being slightly off kilter, reality not making 100% sense and foreboding hanging heavy over every thing. I wondered whether "the zone" stood for Western society, its amazing trinkets the sought-after prizes in a crumbling Soviet world. Or was it the other way round? In less than 130 pages, the Strugatsky brothers conjured a believable and intriguing world where the same questions we have today (science vs profit) rule and propel the planet towards a frightening no-going-back future. The novella's only weakness are female characters that are stereotypical sketches of American housewives and femme fatales from the 1950s. The pulpy element raised by them, though, is welcome.

commonpeople1: (Vicky Park)

Vicky Park's Visitors
Originally uploaded by olliefern
[ profile] wink_martindale and I pottered around the flat this morning then went to a yoga class at 12.45pm. It was the first time Wink visited my gym; we managed to snag him a free day trial as my guest and had no problem finding a spot in the class. It was only an hour long and not that strenuous. Probably perfect after a workout but not good enough as a stand-alone class.

Our landlords/friends then invited us for a coffee in Victoria Park's Pavillion Café. We got our cappuccinos and sat outside, chatting about this and that - but mostly gossiping about people in my bookclub and the quiz night I attended on Friday.

I'm now lying in the bedroom, listening to iTunes, watching episodes of the brasilian soap Passione, reading bits of Tim Moore's Spanish Steps while Wink plays Zelda in the living room.

I discovered this great community which I think all of you photography lovers would enjoy too: [ profile] everyday_i_show
commonpeople1: (Sea)
Every quarter the local primary school holds a quiz night for the parents. Since most of the people in my bookclub have kids in the school, they attend it regularly as a quiz team; last night they invited me to join them (I originally had plans to go karaoking with ex-colleagues from the recruitment agency but I chickened out.)

The school is a beautiful Victorian building with large ceilings and tiny little seats that don't fit your bum. Some of the parents were dressed up in glamorous outfits, which made me wonder if this is "the" night out for them. All tables were covered with snacks, plastic cups and booze. All questions were relevant to people born two decades before me. Have I mentioned before I'm the baby of the bookclub? It amuses me: I've always been the oldest in most of my groups of friends, but in this one the average age is somewhere close to 50.

We came in fourth.

As I sit on this lumpy couch, typing here and surfing the net, a sickly [ profile] wink_martindale draws me. I've had a long week of work towards the arts festival which starts on Monday - I think I did some pretty damn good marketing for it and things are looking up. The Tube strike on Monday, however, is going to royally fuck our launch party. Must remember to not take things so personally. Must imagine myself in a calm, sunny, tropical place where my pale skin goes dark and the ocean is at my feet. Where I slide my naked body into cool water and have absolutely nothing in my mind. That's where I must go for this month of October.
commonpeople1: (Paris)
If you ever happen to be in the Shadwell/Limehouse area (London's Docklands) or you want somewhere unusual to go for a cup of coffee, a meal and a spot of art, then I highly recommend the Wapping Project. It used to be Wapping's Hydraulic Power Station and much of the original equipment and building features are still there. In the back, there's a large warehouse type room where different art projects get showcased from time to time.

Wapping Project Bookshop

We visited the Wapping Project last weekend because [ profile] wink_martindale thought there was a bookshop on its roof. The bookshop is actually on the lawn outside the building, with pillows and chairs scattered about for you to read or drink your coffee/tea in peace.

Wapping Project Cappuccinos

I've been enjoying this summer but I'm no fool in thinking London doesn't need some rain soon. We lay in the park yesterday and all the grass was brittle and dry. Brought back memories of that summer a few years back when everything got scorched and some people passed away because of the heat. That would be terrible! In my ideal world, it rains all week during the day and the nights are balmy and quiet; during the weekends we get lovely sunny weather up there in the 40s Celsius. Wouldn't that be perfect?

On Friday, we had some drinks with [ profile] rosamicula and her friends in Saff London because she's soon off to somewhere that rains all week, has balmy and quiet nights, and the weather can go up to the 40s: Sri Lanka! Or at least that's my guess of what Sri Lanka is like. I didn't think I'd know anyone apart from Rosamicula at the gathering (in a beer garden at the end of Lower Marsh), but quite a few recognisable (and one or two infamous) faces were present. It was a particular pleasure to speak to [ profile] stickette, who has known Rosamicula since they were 11, as well as catch up with [ profile] arkady. Arkady got to meet Wink and our table had some lively discussions on aluminium-made arrows, Sherlock Homes, and a whole lot more - we even rebelled and refused to move when Rosamicula came around and told us we should go sit on the side of the garden that was well lit. I was drinking on an empty stomach all night and unaware until then we were all sitting in darkness.

Today, I'm dropping by Rosamicula's at some point to borrow all her french books. I'm taking care of them while she's in Sri Lanka until 2011.

Scenes from "Chorus" and a brief wander in Canary Wharf afterwards. "Chorus" is a piece by the British collective United Visual Artists, presented at the Wapping Project (16 June - 18 July 2010). Soundtrack is Motoi Sakuraba's "Floating in the Air" (unrelated to "Chorus").

(I really really need to get a new camera.)

London Ice

Jan. 8th, 2010 08:01 pm
commonpeople1: (Toni)
I nearly got run over this evening on my way home. A car skidded close to me and missed the sidewalk by very little. Ice, ice baby. I decided it was safer to walk down Regent's Canal despite it being deserted and nobody being able to hear my screams if I fell through the canal's face. Was about to walk down a ramp leading to the canal when I slipped and saved my bones by holding on to a fence. Three teenagers nearby gave me pointers on where to step until I was safely on the path. Then, up ahead, two boys threw garbage onto the canal in the hope of cracking the surface. As I walked past them, the one in dreads told me matter-of-factly that they were going to commit suicide by jumping in the water.

Only one week left of work!

Yesterday, at our book club meeting, I decided to ask The Playwright if she knew anyone who wrote for EastEnders (it's one of my New Year resolutions to get a job writing for a soap). She laughed and said she'd actually written a few episodes for them ages ago ("during Tiffany's time") but got sacked because they didn't like her episodes. She then said the best way to get in soaps was to attend the competitive Writers Academy, though I'd definitely need at least one proven play, film, TV or radio show under my belt. No pressure then.
commonpeople1: (Cormac)
The Priory

For any of you who were fans of the TV show Spaced and were wondering what Jessica Stevenson is up to at the moment, she's starring in a very good comedy at the Royal Court called The Priory. In a way she revisits her character from the series (a somewhat failed writer) only this time she's older, slightly more melancholic and stuck in a medieval monastery-cum-weekend getaway for a New Year Eve's party with trainwrecked friends. I loved how natural the dialogue felt - the kind of chit chat I have myself with friends, but funnier - and how some of the characters, in particular the women, were fully fleshed and unforgettable. What's meant to be a relaxing holiday with friends descends into drugs, drinks, The Big Chill soundtrack pumped through an iPhone and a menacing hooded figure that may, or may not, be the ghost of a monk. Everything that could possibly go wrong on a New Year Eve's party, goes wrong - with some funny but also slightly shocking consequences. It's been extended until mid January and I highly recommend it.

Afterwards, [ profile] wink_martindale and I hit Sainsbury's for some Xmas food and last minute gifts. Now I'm listening to some Madge while preparing to make the living room off limits for Wink until I've wrapped presents and placed them underneath our spider plant. Later, I will finish a Xmas story I'm writing and which I wish to post here tomorrow. It's a story about one of you!! Wink is drawing some images to go alongside it too...

Last night, we had a Xmas party with our book club. I won some homemade chutney and a strange contraption that makes my ears glow. It will come in handy when I walk down Regent's Canal at night.

Glowing Ears )
commonpeople1: (Margaret)
If you were hosting a Book Club meeting in your home and you wanted to play some background music, what would you choose?

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