Thursday, May 29, 2008

Nick Hornby: How to be Good

I enjoyed How to be Good. It deals with lots of those questions that many of us frequently ask ourselves – am I good? What does that mean? How best to deal with the street children problem? etc. And he’s also very funny while he’s about it. I liked the bit about people from Surrey: “All the lonely people… At least we know where they come from: Surrey”. I suppose that’s really an in-joke for people from London. Hornby lives in north London.

It’s also about the rough spots that marriage can get into when you’ve been married for 20 years and have two young children and are working full time. But he’s written it from the woman’s point of view and although I can’t find any serious faults, I’m also not totally convinced that this is how women in such situations think. Why didn’t he write it from the man’s point of view? Is he just trying to be clever? Or does the fact that in this case the woman is the bread earner and has the affair, and her husband the one who works from home and picks the kids up from school, mean that the author finds it easier to write from her perspective?

Whatever. It’s a good book. A page turner. Amusing. Entertaining. It says something about how we live today.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Kate Atkinson: Case Histories

Jackson Brodie, private investigator, is looking into three cases; these bring back memories of the much earlier murder of his own sister – and on top of everything else, someone is trying to kill him and he doesn’t know why.

Case 1: a 3 year old girl called Olivia disappears in the middle of the night from a tent in the garden. Years later, two of her older sisters find her soft toy mouse in the locked drawer of their father’s desk after he dies and turn to Brody for help in solving the mystery. The tale involves the garden of their neighbour, an old woman with the unlikely name of Binky Rain who keeps an awful lot of cats.

Case 2: a young woman of 18 is murdered in her father’s office and her killer is never found. Ten years later her father comes to Brody to see if he can track down the killer. Brody talks to the right people, previously away at the time and therefore left out of the investigation, and of course he identifies the killer without too much trouble.

Case 3: a young mother, in the throes of post-natal depression with a baby who never stops screaming, kills her husband. Her sister takes the baby, but doesn’t look after it as promised, because the dead husband’s parents take the baby girl. The girl grows up, becomes a runaway, and disappears. The sister comes to Brody to ask him to look for the girl. This sister sleeps with him, he figures out that something about her story is off, then he finds out she’s married, so he drops her case. In the meantime, the sister who was in prison is now living under another name and has married again (to a very rich man) and is pregnant.

Binky Rain, from Case 1, is always calling Brody in to look for her lost cats. He often visits her, feels sorry for her, and never charges her for his services. It turns out that the person trying to kill him is related to her - but you'll have to read the story to find out why he wants him dead and how this leads to a happy ending!

The three cases are linked by a homeless girl on the streets of Cambridge, whom some of them give money to and some try to ignore. This girl is, of course, the missing child from Case 3. She ends up saving the life of the father from Case 2, who then takes her in to his home, and they look after each other.

At the very end, Brody, now very rich, is looking for a house to buy in France after retiring and selling his agency. He’s together with Julia, from Case 1, who turns up again as his partner in Atkinson’s next book (One Good Turn) which I read not long ago, set in Edinburgh during the Festival. In that book all the different puzzle pieces do end up being connected, whereas in this one they’re not really connected and all the names get a bit confusing at times (or it could be due to mildew on the brain); in any case, Atkinson is a brilliant and funny writer, and I’m looking forward to reading whatever follows!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Film: Everything is Illuminated
Starring: Elijah Wood and Eugene Hutz

This is my kind of film: hilarious, terribly sad, clashing cultures, set in another country about which I know nothing (Ukraine). It's based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, which tells how he travelled to Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis in 1942. But the story is just as much about the other family - that of the interpreter (Eugene Hutz) who makes glorious mistakes with his English, and his grandfather - and how what they all find is different from what they expected. There is pure comedy, including a deranged t-shirt wearing dog, supposedly the "officious seeing eye bitch" for the supposedly blind grandfather who drives the battered blue car; visual delights - their goal is a small wooden house set in an enormous field of brilliantly yellow sunflowers; a terrible tear-jerking history - the nazis killing and wiping out an entire village; unexpected friendship between the two young men of opposite character; and brilliant music mostly played by Eugene Hutz's own band, Gogol Bordello (read more about them on Wikipedia), which has been described as "like a raging Eastern-European American wedding celebration teetering on the brink of chaos" (College Media Journal, quoted in Wikipedia). I loved it all!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Film: Lady in the Water
Written, produced and directed: M. Night Shyamalan

A cool, rainy Sunday afternoon in a London suburb, and someone else chose the film. That's my excuse. So corny I found myself laughing and making snide comments. I can't recommend wasting your time with this, unless you're a real Shyamalan fan. The Sixth Sense was far better.

The entire story takes place in a large apartment building, seemingly set in a field in the middle of nowhere, although we're told it's Philadelphia. The caretaker lives in a small dilapidated house to the side of the building, looking totally incongruous. Someone is using the swimming pool at night; the caretaker hears splashing but sees no one, until finally he sees the girl. She's a nymph come from another world to help a writer (played by Shyamalan himself), who lives in the building, to finish the very important book he's working on. This book, she tells him, will influence a man who will later become president, so that he can save the world. Having cleared his writer's block, it's then up to the inhabitants of the apartment building to help her get back to her world. Of course there's a very nasty creature waiting to tear her apart the minute she ventures out alone. Told you it was corny.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Patricia Cornwell: Cause of Death
The seventh Dr Kay Scarpetta novel. Begins with a man who dies while scuba diving in a ship yard full of decommissioned navy vessels. Ends with a terrorist attack by New Zionists taking over a nuclear power station to steal uranium to sell to Libya. Meanwhile, Kay’s love-interest, Benton Wesley, is getting divorced from his wife, and Kay and Benton get to spend a night in London together. Excellent writing as usual, the story speeds along with Pete Marino and Lucy included at every turn. Highly recommended for murder mystery addicts!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Tom Reiss: The Orientalist

Tom Reiss is no relation, but I wish he were! Being a detail person I thoroughly enjoyed the abundance of detail and footnotes in this book, and marvel at the author's persistence in tracking down what he could find about the forgotten life of the early-mid 20th century writer, Lev Nussimbaum.

Nussimbaum was born somewhere in the vicinity of Baku, Azerbaijan in the early years of the 20th century, and would have been just a few years younger than my grandmother. His story reflects the revolutionary history of the first half of the century and that of Jews and many others forced to flee their country of origin.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Tracy Chevalier: Burning Bright

I’m rather jealous of Tracey Chevalier. First she took the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia (, then her book Girl with a Pearl Earring was made into a film, and now she seems to effortlessly churn out new books, all while being a mother and looking like she’s still only 25. The Creative Writing MA is one of those courses that I dream about taking “one day” if I were ever lucky enough to be accepted on to it.

I read Girl with a Pearl Earring several years ago, and was lucky enough to be in The Hague and see the painting soon after. Reading the book gave me a greater appreciation for and interest in the painting. Likewise with Burning Bright, which has sparked my interest in the life of the English poet William Blake, whom I’d never been interested in before. The story is set in London in 1792 – 3, while the French revolution is taking place across the channel in France. Although I’d studied the French revolution in high school, I don’t remember learning about how the revolution affected the lives of ordinary people in England at that time. Now I’m tempted to take a look at this – I wonder if anyone has done this as a dissertation topic?