World Lupus Day 2011

Yes, it’s that time of year again. I had forgotten all about it and then Stephen Fry kindly tweeted a reminder. In timely fashion I am struggling to write very much about World Lupus Day because my lupus is flaring a little and stealing all my words. It does that.

You see, when I talk about fatigue I don’t just mean I feel tired; there’s a whole host of fun that comes with the tiredness. I suppose it’s not unlike a bad hangover combined with lack of sleep – there’s the headache, dizziness, nausea, dry mouth, double vision and, of course, the brain fog.

Brain fog? I remember the first time the rheumatologist said the words to me and I felt such huge relief. That bizarre cotton-woolly feeling of not being able to think straight, of losing words, of not being able to answer simple questions – it’s real! And I’m not the only one!

And this is why events like World Lupus Day are so important. Diagnosis is vital even in “mild cases” like mine and, of course it is life-saving in many other cases. But it’s also hugely helpful for other people to know about lupus and what it means for me and others. And a little more support for research into new treatments would also be a good thing.

To brighten up this post, here is a random old picture I took of a butterfly, because they’re the symbol of Lupus UK.

Papilio thoas

Sometimes you shouldn’t probe too deep

by Simon Lelic

This was another book club read and it certainly generated a lot of discussion, even if part of that was our cynical reaction to the marketing surrounding this book – a lot of review copies were sent out and the book includes “book club” style questions at the back. I mean, it worked, we all read it!

I really enjoyed this book but I didn’t note down my thoughts on finishing it, as I usually would, because I suspected it wouldn’t stand up to intense criticism. Turns out I was right. The more questions asked around the table, the more I realised that this was a guilty pleasure rather than a class act.

The story follows policewoman Lucia May’s investigation into a school shooting. It seems to be a cut-and-dried case – teacher walked into assembly, shot and killed five people including himself – and May’s superiors urge her to wind up the investigation quickly so that the community can move on. But May wants to know not just what happened but also why, and that’s a complex question.

Lelic certainly has some skill. I was gripped by the story even though most of the facts are revealed early on. Every other chapter is a transcript of an interview from shortly after the shooting, allowing a lot of characters’ voices to be heard. Certain details are revealed in these chapters that you realise Lucia has known all along (because she conducted all the interviews) while we as readers had to wait to get to that interview, which is the opposite way round to how information in a novel usually works, and I liked that.

Without wanting to give too much away, the key theme of this book is bullying, and it wears its mission statement so plainly that the message can get heavy handed at times. Yes, bullying happens among adults as well as children and I think it’s important to acknowledge that, but I’m not sure that this book gave the most accurate portrayal. I’m also not sure how accurate Lelic’s portrayal of the police is (I’m guessing not very) though I did find the school convincing. Our discussion revealed a number of plot holes, many more than I would ever have spotted alone.

I was glad to find I was not alone in considering the killer, Samuel Szajkowski, to be the most compelling character in this book. Even though he is dead before the book begins, and there are no flashbacks, we get to know a little of him through other people and what emerges is a believable, complex man. It’s a shame that no other characters are quite so fully rounded, but then you could argue that the book is really about Szajkowski even though it follows Lucia’s daily life.

It was suggested that there is a certain element of doggedly following writing guidelines evident in this book, which is Lelic’s first novel. But while reading it I was able to completely suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride. Which is no bad thing, let’s face it.

First published 2010 by Picador.
Finalist for the Crime Writers Association John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award 2010.

A gallop through time

One Hundred Years of Solitude
by Gabriel García Márquez
translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa

This is one crazy book. I both loved and hated it. I took my time over it, reading just a few pages at a time, but I was never bored. Confused, surprised, shocked, maybe.

It is the 100-year-long story of the village Macondo in Central America and the family at the heart of it, the Buendías. The family found the village and ruin it, save it and destroy it, are worshipped by it and forgotten by it. It’s a family saga with a large and fascinating cast, but it’s not just that. Márquez uses magical realism to give added symbolism to certain moments, bizarrely making things literally happen that might have worked just as well metaphorically.

The timeline is not clear but I would guess it is roughly 1860s to 1960s. From humble beginnings the village gains a railway, motor cars, a pharmacy, a cinema. It plays a central role in wars and uprisings and yet its interaction with the rest of the unnamed country is minimal. Which is just one of the many references to solitude. Another example, and a nice example of the writing style:

“Taciturn, silent, insensible to the new breath of vitality that was shaking the house, Colonel Aureliano Buendía could understand only that the secret of a good old age is simply an honourable pact with solitude.”

A lot happens for 400 pages, and it is packed in largely by using a detached, minimal style. In brief scenes we learn the details of a character’s thoughts and torments, then by the end of the chapter their life will have been summarised and dispensed with. There’s a lot of death, much of it untimely.

With characters pairing off, reproducing and dying quickly, and a tendency to name all the descendants by the same three or four names, it can be confusing sometimes who is who. Handily a family tree is provided at the start of the book. As this shows each child’s parentage, many of whom are illegitimate, it might be considered a spoiler. But then Márquez starts the book by telling us the fate of the first character we meet, and teasingly dripfeeding more details through the early chapters. He repeats this with other characters and even with larger story arcs, but often by the time I reached the actual event I had forgotten the precursor.

Márquez manages to be very descriptive and evocative without using a lot of words or ever getting flowery. He creates a whole world for his characters within but somehow separate from the “real world”. It is an amazing, magical but also sad and suffocating place.

I had a couple of problems with this book. One was the speed at which characters were written out. Except for the odd few long-lifers, I would just be getting to know and be interested in a character and bam they would die. My other problem is the, err, sexual proclivities of this family. I’m not a prude, I’m reasonably open-minded and the adultery and whorehouses are one thing, but bestiality? incest? Too far for me to be comfortable with. And once again paedophilia comes up (the reason I was uncomfortable with Márquez’s other major work, Love in the Time of Cholera, and yes I know that in both cases it’s strictly ephebophilia but that’s still something I’m squirmy about). It’s like he’s trying to push as far as he can, see what he can get away with.

I was genuinely moved by but also disturbed by this book. I can see how it generates a lot of discussion but whether I liked it? I don’t know.

Cien Años de Solidad first published 1967.
This translation first published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape 1970.

My booky weekend

Despite not doing nearly as much reading as I had planned, I have done a lot of book-related stuff this weekend. There was book art, a book fair and lots of book-related TV and film. It’s been fun.

First up was BABE; that’s the Bristol Artists Book Event for the uninitiated. Thanks to Joanna of Ephemeral Digest for alerting me to it.

It’s a big event, with more than 100 exhibitors showing their work, which varied from book-related art, to books about art, to books that are art; along with small presses which produce pamphlets, comics, magazines and books with varied levels of artiness. This is a great event for anyone who loves printing, typography and books like me, but it’s mostly about the art. Some of which veered closer to pretentious than inspirational. Sorry. But overall I enjoyed this and it is fantastic that there are so many artists and small presses out there.

A fair bit less pretentious was the books, food and “made in Bristol” day of the Harbourside Market, which I found out about thanks to Martin of Bristol Culture (thank you Martin).

This was a little on the small side. I certainly didn’t see a whole lot of advertising for it. Maybe they were hoping that the natural footfall in that area on a weekend would be enough. There were definitely punters around but not all that many stalls. Which is a shame. A few of the book stalls were just the usual collection of literary fiction erring on the bestselling side, but there were a couple where the stall owners showed something more – carefully chosen well-designed covers, thematic arrangements, a real celebration of books. I hope it’s back again soon.

Also showing wares on the harbourside was local illustrator Tessa Farlow, from whom I bought these very cool pin badges.

Finally, thanks to the BBC Year of Books I sat down to watch TV adaptations of Christopher and his Kind, and The Crimson Petal and the White, plus a fascinating documentary about Frank L Baum. I know it’s not unusual for good TV and film to be based on books (see my other preoccupations this weekend, the films of Atomised and Thirteen at Dinner) and the BBC has for years been churning out Shakespeare and Austen interpretations, but this recent stuff does seem particularly good.

Finding my inner geek

The Guild volume 1
story by Felicia Day, artwork by Jim Rugg

This is a comic prequel to the web show The Guild created by and starring Felicia Day, a series I haven’t watched by the way. I guess that makes me an atypical reader, but I loved her in Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and the comic was in the car with me on a long drive so, what else was I going to do?

It’s the story of Cyd, a violinist with a loser boyfriend and therapy sessions that are failing to help her depression at all, thanks to a particularly awful psychiatrist. On a whim she buys a computer game, an online RPG that allows her to create a whole new character for herself called Codex, make friends and follow structured rules that make sense.

So yeah, it’s geeky, but don’t let that put the non-geeks among you off. It’s a human story with a lovably flawed character at its centre. Cyd’s mistakes are harder to correct than Codex’s, but by being Codex and interacting with lots of new people, people who for the most part are positive and want to help her, Cyd learns to deal better with her real life.

The important message is, of course, that online friends can be “real” friends even if you never meet them in person. The beauty of the Internet is that it gives you access to the whole world, to find others who share your interests, who lift you up and make you smile. You don’t need to be in a physical bar with someone to swap stories of drunken exploits, or share your baby’s first words, or open your heart.

Which all sounds a little cheesy. Sorry, that’s only my interpretation. The comic is not cheesy, it’s awesome. Day hits just the right balance between sentiment and straight-talking. It helps that her main character is struggling to figure out how she feels, or whether it’s okay to feel a certain way, and her sense of loneliness translates well in comic form.

Well, I’m off to check out the web series. I can feel my geekiness increasing already.

First published as three comics in 2010 by Dark Horse Comics. This edition published December 2010.

Holiday, celebrate

At the risk of boring my lovely readers, I have now been through all of my holiday pictures, plus some taken by other people, and present to you a round-up of my trip to the USA.

We had a good look around Charlotte, North Carolina, which I had not visited before. A recent and thriving banking industry means that the city centre is very clean and new looking, even the old bits. We did meet a local who complained about how many old bits got torn down to built condos but I don’t know enough of the ins and outs to comment on that.

The Inn Uptown

Alexander Michael's Restaurant & Tavern

We also went to the nearby Great Smoky Mountains and did a bit of hiking (hard work in hot sunshine).


The way forwardMile High Swinging Bridge

We went to the US National White Water Center and did some rafting (great fun).

Photo by talkie_tim

And my sister got married so well done her. I was there, I performed my bridesmaidly duties including dancing as much as I could and attempting not to sing the real lyrics to that song by Cee Lo Green when a small person took a shine to dancing with me. Which was tough.

Photos by St Martin Photography (You can click on these pics to view them big.)

There were also some lovely evenings with family and friends, old and new. There were some impressive storms thanks to the big temperature changes. There were some astute observations about different races not mixing a whole lot and some less astute ones about food being a bit rubbish. But we probably just went to the wrong places. I’m sure it’s not all deep fried really.

Questionable influence

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
by Muriel Spark

This book was sent to me by Marie of Little Interpretations as part of World Book Night. In one night a million books were given away for free, with the simple request that they continue to be passed on from reader to reader to spread the joy of reading. I passed on my copy to family while on holiday in the USA so hopefully it’s had a good start at travelling around the world!


I have wanted to read this book for a while and I loved the film starring Maggie Smith but I have to say I did not love the book. It’s an odd little book and not exactly what I had expected. I am grateful for having had the chance to read it, and it’s good, smart and funny, but I didn’t fall in love with it.

Miss Jean Brodie is a schoolmistress at an all-girls school in Edinburgh in the 1930s. She claims that she is a spinster because, following the dramatic loss of her fiance to the Great War, she has chosen to dedicate the prime of her life to the girls she teaches.

Spark only occasionally writes in dialect (the girls are no doubt too well bred to have strong accents anyway) but it is somehow hard not to hear Miss Brodie’s speeches (and she is fond of speeches) in anything but a Scottish brogue, proud and strong.

Miss Brodie teaches in the junior half of the school. Her lessons tend to consist of her recounting her personal life and summer holidays, dictating her own taste in art, literature and politics, and a great deal of snobbery. The other teachers suspect that she is not teaching the curriculum but cannot quite manage to catch her out.

Every couple of years Miss Brodie picks a group of girls to become her “set”, and favours them with walks, theatre visits, tea at her house and gossipy confidences long after they move on from her class. The book concentrates on one particular “Brodie set”, one of the last in fact, because we learn early on that one of this set betrays her in some way, leading to her dismissal from the school.

Spark dripfeeds information about certain key events while summarily revealing other facts in a manner that can be disconcerting, a jolt even. Time jumps around so that we meet the girls aged 17, jump back to them aged 11 onwards and forward to meet some of them as adults.

Miss Brodie is a fascinating character, both attractive and repulsive. The way she treats her girls as adults capable of understanding the adult world is likeable but her abrasive dismissal of anything she doesn’t approve of is distinctly unlikeable. She is a modern woman, considering herself “European” more than Scottish and certainly confident in her independence. Yet she clings to classical knowledge of art and Latin. She encourages the girls to obsess over romantic love and sexual intrigue. She often seems to be using her girls to live vicariously, encouraging them to more questionable or exciting relationships than she dares enter; or even just pushing them to learn Ancient Greek, which she wishes she knew but doesn’t.

The book is ostensibly a comedy and it certainly has its comic moments, as well as the horror watching a glamorous teacher use her influence to cajole and manipulate young girls. But it is also tragic, because Brodie’s ideas and influence are not benign.

I expected to enjoy this more than I did. There’s a certain staccato and brevity and even coldness to Spark’s style of writing that I found a little difficult to get on with. It’s a clever, absorbing story but one I couldn’t warm to.

First published in the USA by the New Yorker in 1961.

Holiday reading

And I’m back from two weeks in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I visited some new places to me, remembered how similar but different our cultures can be, and helped my sister to get married (I was maid of honor, I’d say “honour” but we call it chief bridesmaid on this side of the pond). But more of all that later (there’s a lot of pictures to go through). For now, let’s talk holiday reading.

I took six books with me, of which I had already started one – Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns – which I suspected my Mum would like more than me so I took it partly to pass on to her. I finished that and another book – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark – on the journey out, then spent two weeks reading at the slowest pace imaginable so that I am still barely three-quarters of my way through One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. I’m not sure if it’s his writing style or my mood but I just can’t get absorbed.

I am always torn, when picking holiday reading, between light easy reads and big chunky literary works that I have been putting off. This time I tried to pick some of both but the literary monopolised my time somewhat. Which way does your holiday reading lean?

New books

Despite my reading slowness, I still took advantage of our “buy whatever you like while you’re on holiday” rule to buy some new books for my shelves. Well why not? Perhaps surprisingly, half of my new buys came from the excellent (and well named) comic shop Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find. From there I picked up:

Palestine by Joe Sacco, a journalistic account of Palestine in 1991–1992 in graphic novel format.
War is Boring by David Axe, a war correspondent’s memoirs in graphic novel format.
Dollhouse: Epitaphs by Joss Whedon, which I’m saving up until I’ve finished watching the DVD boxset.

In addition, we found a huge secondhand bookstore, Book Buyers, from which my brother dragged me when I had picked up three books from one bookcase alone. I could have spent a fortune in there easily, it was a great place. What I did spend my pennies on was:

Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk, winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award 1993 (I loved her second novel, The Temporary).
Disgrace by J M Coetzee, winner of the Booker Prize 1999 (gotta continue my attempt to read all the prizewinners).
The Romance Readers’ Book Club by Julie L Cannon, a lighter sounding read set in Georgia, which I thought was appropriate while I was in the vicinity.

On an aside, I should mention that by searching out these shops, plus the equally great record shop Lunchbox Records, we ended up exploring parts of the city we wouldn’t otherwise have gone near (not exactly tourist traps) that turned out to be very cool areas full of arty/indie shops and bars.

Back to sifting through those photos…

Humour in the darkest places

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths
by Barbara Comyns

This partially fictionalised autobiography has me torn. On the one hand it was entertaining, funny and moving; on the other the author’s lack of education resulted in writing that was at times stilted or phrased in ways that I felt could have been improved by better editing.

“Sophia” lives in London, eking a meagre living as an artist in a commercial studio. Aged just 21 she and her artist lover Charles decide to marry. He is from a middle class family who disapprove mildly of his bohemian lifestyle but disapprove far more vehemently of Sophia marrying him and becoming a drain on his scant resources. Given the choice between his allowance and his marriage Charles chooses Sophia, which sounds romantic and indeed at first it seems that way. Comyns wittily describes making do with the little they have, the joy of rare treats, the shared humour of learning to cook and keep house. But when she falls pregnant life goes from bad to worse and abject poverty destroys the marriage and threatens her life multiple times.

It seems amazing, given the content (poverty, abortion, serious illness, the threat of having a child taken away) that I could say this, but this is a fairly light read. Comyns is great fun, with an original turn of phrase and genuine warmth, always trying to see the world in a positive light (or almost always; she has her dark times). In some ways book this functions as a brilliantly strong argument for the changes that society has made since the 1930s setting – maternity leave, child support, access to and information about contraception, and free healthcare would have helped her a lot, obviously, but I also mean the general attitude of the book’s characters that Charles has the right to his lifestyle and she has failed him by becoming pregnant, that he has no obligation to the family he has created.

The section about Sophia’s first pregnancy is the part that has stayed with me most strongly. She is summarily dismissed from her job on announcing the news (which her co-workers had all guessed before her because she has shockingly little knowledge on this front). She relies on charity to get to see a doctor, because she and Charles cannot afford it themselves, which means that her labour takes place in a hideous charitable hospital where she is treated like a wicked schoolgirl and given no explanation of anything. For instance, a bath is run for her and she is left alone to take it, but she is too doubled up in pain from a contraction to get in. When the nurse returns and sees this, she shouts at Sophia for being a “horrid, dirty girl” rather than lending her a hand.

For all of the awfulness that she goes through, I could not call Sophia entirely blameless. I know that she is to an extent a result of a certain culture but she so rarely speaks her mind. She never once berates Charles for not getting a job or for spending money unnecessarily when the family is literally starving. And she does let pride stop her from getting a little help sometimes, despite the extreme poverty she endures. There were a few such moments that reminded me of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, though in other respects the two books could not be much more different.

I am certainly intrigued by Comyns, who wrote further volumes of autobiography disguised to varying degrees, as well as some true fiction, but I do not think, on the basis of this book at least, that she was a great writer.

First published in Great Britain by Eyre & Spottiswoode 1950.

I picked this up after reading this intriguing review on Novel Insights.

My next book

One of my favourite things is standing at my bookshelves selecting my next book to read. I can happily stare at my books for far longer than seems reasonable, waiting for a whim to make me choose one over all of the others. But most people don’t have more than 100 unread books sat around in their house, so how do you choose your next book?

In addition to my physical TBR I also have a wishlist of another 50 or so books (from word of mouth, or authors I follow, or reviews I’ve read) and I am constantly adding stars to posts in my Google Reader that mention books I like the sound of. I can’t imagine ever running out of ideas for what to read, and consequently I don’t use services like Goodreads or Your Next Read or even Amazon recommendations. But other people are often mentioning how useful they find them. Maybe if I got through books more quickly…

I also get great pleasure from going to a bookshop without any titles in mind and just browsing until something jumps out at me. Much like my method of choosing from my own library! I am trying to reduce the TBR at the moment and have therefore not yet been to Bristol’s brand new Foyles bookshop, or indeed the almost-as-new The Last Bookshop on Park Street, but later this year I plan to do a bit of a tour of Bristol’s bookshops. Watch this space!