To sleep, perchance to dream

Girlfriend in a Coma
by Douglas Coupland

This is a strange novel in many ways. It’s about the end of the world, and this is made clear from the start, and yet it doesn’t feel like a story of apocalypse. The story starts with a group of teenagers and, though it spans 20 years, the characters don’t progress much. Which is the point of the whole story.

Jared died when he was 16 years old. He was a football star with more sexual experience than all of his friends combined, then he died of leukaemia. He narrates the story of his friends’ lives. It is a story of middle-of-the-road ordinariness. Its characters exist on the brink of failure. They don’t fulfill their dreams or achieve greatness. And yet these people are somehow important in the story of the end of the world.

It’s an interesting concept, that the people who have an important role to play aren’t the statesmen or the philosphers or the rich and famous. Instead, they are the lost, lonely people who need some persuasion to see that they are lost and lonely. But it’s also frustrating because you feel that they don’t deserve to be chosen, that they should be handling the survival of the human race better. Or at least I did.

It’s well written and the characters are very very real. For most of the middle section I would recommend not reading this last thing before you go to sleep (you’ll understand when you get to that part). It’s gripping and enjoyable. However, my frustration with the emptiness of the characters overtook my enjoyment of the story at times.

Published 1998 by Flamingo
ISBN: 978-0-0065-5127-0

10 May is World Lupus Day

I have lupus and it sucks. It really does. But I don’t have it nearly as bad as most lupus patients. I am a mild case. I manage to have a full-time job, a social life and fantastic support from my family and friends. Today I urge you to find out more about lupus. Read about it at The Lupus Site, Web MD, Lupus UK, St Thomas’ Lupus Trust and London Lupus Centre. Pass on those links. Talk about it. Stop this from being the disease that no-one knows or understands.

I was diagnosed with lupus three years ago. The blood tests were conclusive (something that is not always the case) and the huge relief at finally having a name for the mysterious ailment that had been troubling me for over a year soon gave way to nervousness at being diagnosed with something I knew nothing about. At the rheumatology clinic I was handed a slim leaflet produced by Arthritis Research (the two diseases share a lot of symptoms and, indeed, patients) and told not to worry, I appeared to be a mild case. But a mild case of what exactly?

The leaflet was essentially a list of symptoms and medications. As lupus symptoms vary from fatigue and headaches to organ failure and death, this was not very comforting. So I turned to Google. The Wikipedia entry was even more worrying. It talked a lot about the more serious symptoms and some unattractive related ailments. One of the doctors I had spoken to had warned me to be wary of looking lupus up on the internet because outside of the UK it does tend to be a much more serious disease. However, a scan through some lupus chat boards proved that there are British lupus patients having a really bad time of it too.

The problem with a disease like lupus is that the symptoms are so many and varied that it can be hard to pin down what is the disease and what isn’t. For those first couple of years, every ache and pain caused worry as well as, you know, pain, because I was concerned that I might have developed a new symptom and if that was true then it might never go away.

Because here’s the thing: lupus is chronic, systemic and there is no known cure. Although my rheumatologist says that the symptoms I first presented with are likely to be the ones I always have, there’s no guarantee I won’t develop new ones. And I can learn ways to limit or cope with the symptoms I do have, but they will never completely go away.

I have learned to cope most of the time. My fatigue specialist has gone from handing me tissues for the inevitable tears to commending me on my healthy appearance. But it comes at a price. My life had to change. In my mid-20s I suddenly had to cut my social life down to almost none. I have to carefully space out what activity I do, but at the same time do enough exercise to stay fit (because fatigue is a big problem for me and the less fit you are, the quicker you tire). It’s a real balancing act that is best explained by the frankly brilliant Spoon Theory. I have to be über prepared for any trip out of the house – in winter, I must take extra care to keep my hands and feet warm and for the rest of the year I have to wear high-factor suncream and cover my head at the merest hint of sunshine. I have learned to love TV in a way I never used to because all-too-often I am incapable of doing more than staring at that screen.

What I haven’t yet dealt with is the guilt. I am constantly letting people down. It’s not my fault and I don’t want to do it, but I am always cancelling plans with a friend or taking time off work on sick leave. I hate that I have to be that person. I am so so grateful to my friends and, most especially, Tim for accepting and caring for the new lupus-fettered me.

It could be worse. I know that. I have a good life, by any standards. I’m happy. But there are bad days. There are days when I am thoroughly fed up with being too tired to do the things I want to do. There are days when I desperately want to read a book or plan a fun trip but my brain is not functioning well enough. And the frequent pain and blood tests are no barrel of laughs either.

So, yeah: lupus sucks. But it gets easier to deal with when more of the people you know understand what you’re going through every day, when your GP has read up about it and can advise you on the little things like flu shots and dry hands. So spread the word. And if you’re feeling generous, a donation to Lupus UK will always be welcome!

Immersed in darkness

The Angel’s Game
by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
translated by Lucia Graves

This is a dark, brooding, action-packed thrill of a gothic mystery. All of the essential ingredients are in place. There’s the unreliable narrator, the setting that’s at once beautiful and dangerous and absolutely a character itself, a host of potential good guy/bad guy switchovers and more than one beautiful woman who life has not treated kindly.

The main character, David Martín, is, appropriately enough, a writer of cheap crime fiction, a writer who has made a name for himself but feels that he can produce something better, worthier of his talent. He describes his home city of Barcelona the way he knows best – as a romantic place filled with dark, crime-filled back streets and a suffocating atmosphere that holds him there against his better judgement. His judgement is of course highly questionable – more so as the story progresses. It can be hard at times to understand the decisions he makes but to truly enjoy this story you have to give in to the almost cheesy gothic craziness of it all.

It would be a shame to reveal too much of the story but, essentially, Martín has always scraped a living, being helped out by kind benefactors more often than his pride would like, so when he is offered a fortune by a stranger (the angel of the title) to write a book it is too good an offer to turn down. Unfortunately the commission and the stranger are both strange forces that Martín underestimates the power of.

This is a very enjoyable, fast-paced read but it does have some down sides. There is some extreme violence that I found off-putting and the lead female character is very weak and feeble. However, there are other stronger females in here and the violence certainly has its place in this type of story. Because the mystery is that of an over-arching evil it is easily maintained even as secrets are revealed, though not all secrets do get revealed in the end. Ambiguity is something I tend to enjoy, particularly when, as here, it is quite subtle to begin with. The broody gothic atmosphere is very effective; many’s the time I had chills run down my spine while reading a scene.

The story is set mainly in the 1930s, adding a certain something to the ambience. Though it is only occasionally mentioned, the political turmoil is somehow part of the darkness of the story. It certainly helps with the feeling that this a film noir on paper.

And that might just be the reason why I didn’t like this quite as much as I had hoped to (having rated Zafón’s previous book, The Shadow of the Wind, extremely highly) – there were too many scenes that felt like they’d been written with film in mind, rather than fiction. Don’t get me wrong – Zafón is not spare in his descriptions. On the contrary, his language is beautiful, evocative, atospheric. But some scenes felt false, with writing akin to stage directions. It’s a feeling I last got when reading Dan Brown, much as I hate to compare these otherwise very different authors.

Published 2009 by Phoenix
ISBN: 978-0-7538-2644-7

UPDATE: For another viewpoint, check out this review on And the Plot Thickens.

Democracy rules

If you do nothing else today

I believe in democracy. I believe in using my vote. I believe in you using your vote, even if I don’t agree with your political views. I am very excited about tomorrow’s election and the possibilities that it holds. Whatever else you do tomorrow, if you are eligible to vote in the UK then use your vote.

Stephen Fry, of course, said all this more eloquently than I could. But I will try to explain briefly. Politics is important because it’s not just boring old men bickering about complicated stuff in London. Politics is everyday life, your life. It’s everything from how much tax you pay to how and when your rubbish gets collected, from the number of nurses staffing a hospital ward to how quickly potholes get fixed. Your biggest opportunity to have your say in all those things is to use your vote.

If you don’t yet know which way to vote there are some great websites to help you make up your mind – VoteMatch, VoteForPolicies, and of course the manifesto of each party is on their website. More specific to your local area, you can read about your MP candidates at TheyWorkForYou.

More chills than Hitchcock

We Need to Talk About Kevin
by Lionel Shriver

I can only imagine that everyone who has read this novel came away with the same dumbstruck combination of awe and horror. It is an absolutely terrifying book. The twists in the story rarely manage to surprise but they do keep it interesting and the narrative remains believable and human at all times.

For the three people in the world who don’t know, the story is told in the form of letters from a woman, Eva, to her husband, all talking about their son Kevin; a son who took a gun to school and killed several of his classmates, a son who was always chillingly distant, detached and unreachable, a son who manipulated his parents from a very young age. Eva always felt that he was evil, or at least capable of evil things, but was desperate for that not to be true and tries hard to rationalise Kevin’s actions as a consequence of her parenting.

The details of the horrific homicidal rampage are gradually eked out inbetween tales of Kevin as a baby, about Eva’s life before him; but most of all about her feelings as a mother who cannot connect with her child.

I am not always a fan of books that are quite this introspective and self-examining, but this book is utterly brilliant. I am torn between thinking that everyone should read this to understand a little more about how hard parenting can be and how huge an effect the tiniest decisions can have, and wanting to protect everyone I love from the awfulness of the book’s events and conclusions.

Published 2006 by Serpent’s Tail.
Winner of the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction.

UPDATE: I can highly recommend listening to the episode of the World Book Club podcast in which Lionel Shriver discusses this book. Just click on the link and scroll down to July 2009.

Sketches from the edge

After the Quake
by Haruki Murakami
translated from Japanese by Jay Rubin

Murakami’s style is well suited to the short story, being sparse and slightly distant. These stories are character studies, making the most of his ability to briefly sketch a vividly real human being.

This collection might be termed fragments rather than stories because only one feels like a complete story (Super-Frog Saves Tokyo, which was adapted into a stage play shortly after the English publication) but they are all compelling. The stories are linked by an earthquake that none of the characters experienced directly but all are affected by it. The disaster tugs at their darkest thoughts and memories.

Murakami manages to take very ordinary everyday lives and experiences (again excepting Super-Frog Saves Tokyo) and make them strange, mysterious, beautiful in their darkness. He writes as though an over-arching mystery awaits a resolution that will pull all the threads together, but the clues are never followed through to the end. Because there is no ending, characters are left pondering their dark thoughts or just getting on with life, not very far from where we met them.

For me the one blip was Super-Frog Saves Tokyo. It seemed too randomly weird. Murakami is generally pretty good at incorporating surreal elements into his work without them standing out and usually they have a clear purpose. This story – man comes home to find a giant frog telling him that together they must fight the evil worm to stop an earthquake from destroying Tokyo – was not badly written and could be seen as a nightmare or a psychotic episode or as a metaphor or just plain old surrealism, but for me it just doesn’t work. It jarred.

However, overall this was another great book from Murakami and I continue to rate him highly.

Published in the UK 2003 by Vintage
ISBN: 978-0-0994-4856-3

Time to make those far-off lands distant again

When the news first broke about the Icelandic volcano eruption causing a flight ban across much of northern Europe, I must admit that I was a little pleased about it. Great! I thought. People will turn to the alternatives (trains! boats! holidays close to home! eating locally produced food!) and discover that they’re not so bad. Of course, as the situation has continued and the news has been filled with little else, my naivety has been proven. It is of course miserable for most people affected and may continue to be miserable for some time to come.

The thing is, for the first 48 hours most of the news I heard or read was overwhelmingly positive: John Cleese takes comically expensive taxi ride across Europe, people use the internet to find other travellers to share alternative journeys home with, skies are clear and blue, hot-air balloon flies safely over Bristol Airport. The reality that’s now emerging is that it’s costing a lot of people a lot of money – the extra costs incurred to get home by other means and/or stay in a hotel for extra nights; missing work and therefore pay; African farmers not being able to sell their crops that are usually air-freighted to Europe; businesses reliant on tourism from the US and Canada watching their bank balances with horror – not to mention the non-monetary issues like major operations being postponed; missed birthdays, weddings, funerals, anniversaries; students and schoolchildren missing exams and coursework deadlines.

Obviously a crisis like this is not the way to show the world what life would be like without flying. The world relies so heavily on flight that a sudden ban would never work. Alternatives need to be improved and people need to start using them. Then we can start significantly reducing flights and discover that it’s better all round. Stuart Jeffries paints an attractive picture of this but like many people he concentrates heavily on how we can all change our holidaying habits. This isn’t just about holidays, it’s about business travel, air freight, artists on tour, student exchanges, sports tournaments. So much of modern life relies on air travel and that’s going to be difficult to change.

I do not think that everything about globalisation is bad. I honestly believe that it broadens the mind to travel as much as you can. I love working with and meeting people from all over the world. I love trying new and interesting foods. If a truly environmentally friendly plane fuel became readily available then I would be fine with flying. However, I do not believe in carrying on as we are, hoping for that magic pill. We, as a whole world, should be trying to fly less. Businesses need to start actually using those expensive teleconference systems that gather dust in meeting rooms, farmers need to be encouraged to grow crops that have a market in their own country (or that can be freighted by ship or train, I suppose)…and 101 other little changes that have been talked about for years but don’t seem to be happening. George Monbiot has covered this in a lot of detail.

The alternatives to flying need to get better, cheaper and more readily available. For example, crossing the Atlantic – there are currently 10 cruises per year from Southampton to New York (and back, obv.), 6 cruises per year from Southampton to Barbados, plus various cargo ships that carry 2–12 passengers. (This website looks like a pretty good source of info if you’re considering a transatlantic boat trip.) Not a lot of capacity for the millions of Brits who travel to the US each year, let alone those visiting other American countries or indeed any other nationalities wishing to cross the Atlantic (I can’t seem to find useful numbers on this – let me know in the comments if you have some). The cruises that do exist are luxury Cunard ones, with the fastest one taking 6–8 days each way and costing over £2000 per person. Cheaper, faster boats are going to be needed for the average Atlantic crosser to even be able to consider it as an alternative.

What should be easier – and arguably more useful – is improving rail infrastructure within each continent. You can currently get to almost anywhere in Europe and a lot of Asia by train. I don’t know about Africa, Australasia or South America but I hear that North America is pretty bad for rail travel (please do tell me in the comments about any experiences you have of rail abroad). The Man in Seat Sixty-One does a sterling job of explaining rail travel (and indeed all land and sea travel options) all over the world (though it does assume you’re starting from the UK). The problem is that it’s slow and expensive compared with flying and, while some train journeys are beautiful and comfortable enough to be a holiday in themselves, many are not.

For reliance on flying to be significantly reduced, we need to find alternatives that suit everyone, not just reasonably well off well intentioned holiday-makers. Everything needs to change, which is frightening and exhilarating. What an opportunity: to create a better world.

The most ancient words can have the strongest effect

Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments
by Sappho
translated by Aaron Poochigian

Sappho lived from 630 until 570 BCE on the island of Lesbos and has been renowned throughout the intervening centuries as one of the greatest poets who ever lived. Sadly, little of her material has survived and what we do have is largely in fragments.

Sappho wrote about love, family, marriage and war with wit and warmth. Her poetry had a huge influence on writers for centuries after she lived. All of the major ancient Greek and Roman writers are name-checked in the notes.

In this new (2009) translation, Poochigian provides a thorough introduction as well as notes on each fragment. I have a tendency to ignore these bits when I pick up a classic book but in this case the background is extremely interesting…so I skimread it. I did find it useful to glance at the notes where fragments mentioned a name or were particularly short.

Poochigian has tried to follow the metre of the original work but has added rhyme where there was none previously to make the fragments more songlike. Because this is a translation, and from an obscure ancient dialect at that (one of the many reasons why so much of Sappho’s work has been lost) it is hard to know how close reading these fragments comes to the original experience of hearing them sung. Probably not that close, but they are still worth reading.

For me not all of the fragments work as poetry. For instance, the shortest fragment included in this collection is the four words “A handkerchief / Dripping with…“, which has an intriguing air of mystery about it but hardly counts as a poem. However, the longer fragments (and indeed the two complete poems) are beautiful and emphasise what a loss we have suffered. Sappho fragments do continue to surface every so often but it seems unlikely that a great deal more will be found.

The book ends, neatly, with one of my favourite fragments:

I declare
That later on,
Even in an age unlike our own,
Someone will remember who we are.

How true.

Published 2009 by Penguin.
ISBN: 978-0-1404-5557-1

Drunken artists and geeks altogether now

I am a little hungover this morning because last night was the preview of Flicklgraphique, an exhibition of photographs from the Bristol Flickr group, in which both myself and the talkie one were lucky enough to have a photo on show. It was a great night and the exhibition looks brilliant. I urge everyone who can to go before it ends next Wednesday.

There was booze and nibbles,
Before the party started
balloons and beach balls,
Flickr colour coded
socialising and speech-making,

and, you know, some people looked at some photographs.

Did I mention there was booze?
Aftermath