Monthly Archives: April 2017

Book Review: The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High Castle is a classic, written in 1962, about a world where Germany and Japan won the Second World War. The USA has been split into three sections; the East is run by Nazis, the West by Japan, and the central zone is independent territory. A really marvellous Amazon series was made, based on the book, and I really think I ruined the novel by watching that first. If you haven’t watched the TV series, I would make sure you read this first.

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We follow the slightly interconnected lives of several people living on the west coast and in the neutral zone. They are Frank Frink a metal worker who has just lost his job. He is Jewish and has changed his name from Fink. In his former job he was involved in making counterfeit civil war guns for a lucrative antiques market. He lives in Japanese ran San Francisco.

Also in San Francisco is Robert Childan, an antiques dealer. He is desperate to be accepted by the Japanese in society, whist simultaneously being repulsed by his desire to fit in. One of his clients is Nobusuke Tagomi, a high ranking Japanese trade official.

Over in the independent zone, we meet Juliana Frink, she is Frank’s ex wife. Juliana is a judo instructor and she becomes involved with Joe Cinnadella, an Italian truck driver from the Nazi east coast.
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There is also the recurrence of a novel within the novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Several characters are engrossed by this book about an alternate reality where the Allies won the second world war. It was written by Hawthorne Abendson. He is the Man in the High Castle. The alternate reality offered by Grasshopper is nothing like our world. It is, even for us, an alternate reality.

I’m not going to give away any of the plot but you do get some exciting action. There are many more characters than I have mentioned. It is a really interesting book.

The issue with having seen the TV series first is that the series (now 2 seasons of it) naturally has had to expand on the book. Unlike a film version that would have taken up 2 hours, the series is 10 hours per season. The characters have more family, they have expanded, and sometimes adjusted back stories. There are more Nazis in it! Part of the action takes place in the Nazi ruled parts of the world. The main characters have much more overlapping lives. It’s really, really good if you haven’t seen it yet.

Also, the weirdest book dedication:

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Book Review: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – John le Carré

A classic Cold War espionage thriller from John le Carré. Gripping and, though I could predict some of the twists and turns, I didn’t get all of them and found it an enjoyable read.

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lunchtime desk reading

Alec Leamas is a British spy, but not one of those poncey, Etonion ones, he’s a bit of a rugged, no-nonsense blokey spy.  He doesn’t want to talk about his FEELINGS, ok? Now pass the whisky.

Leamas has a mission to act as a defector from the British and to set up someone high up in East German intelligence. Plotting, double agents, and peril ensues.

We can kindly say the book is ‘of its time’ in terms of gender stereotypes. The women are either simpering fools, or ugly, battle-axes. This isn’t to say all of le Carré’s early books offer no strong female characters. His second book, A Murder of Quality, is much better in this respect. Here we have a female main character. An independent women who has achieved well in her field. We’re reading this for some exciting adventures though, so we don’t need to worry too much about it here.

This is a great book (appearing in top 100 book lists) and a very thrilling, enjoyable adventure in cold war era Germany and the UK. I read it because I have a very slow mission to read all of le Carre’s books. This is book three, and helpfully facebook memories tells me that I finished book 1 (Call for the Dead) 4 years ago today! Oh dear. I must make it less than a year before I start the next!

 

Book Review: Welcome to Biscuit Land: A year in the life of Touretteshero – Jessica Thom

Jessica Thom has Tourette’s syndrome. This means she has involuntary physical and vocal tics. She is one of 10% of Tourettes sufferers who say obscene things in her vocal tics (coprolalia, if you want to be fancy about it), but these obscene tics only make up a small part of her daily ticcing. Mostly she says ‘biscuit’ a lot, hence the title of her book. This is a book about a year in her life, taken as extracts from her blog, and it gives a fascinating insight into the life of someone with a condition like this.

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I first heard of Jessica Thom because she was on a Stephen Fry BBC program about language – Fry’s Planet Word. It really helps to see a video of Jessica before reading her book. It gives you a real idea of what talking to someone who, amongst other things, says biscuit around 16 times a minute would be like. You also get to see just how her physical tics manifest.

Reading Welcome to Biscuit Land has given me a window into Jessica’s world. Most of us have some awareness of Tourettes syndrome and know the stereotype of a continually swearing youth. I know for me (and probably most UK people above a certain age!) the only thing I knew about Tourettes was from the QED documentary ‘John’s Not Mad‘ from 1989, and honestly, what I took from this was the comedy of swearing all the time without being able to stop it.

I (hopefully obviously) don’t think it’s funny at all any more (I was a child when John’s Not Mad aired), and I didn’t really know about the physical tics, which are much worse, in a way, that the vocal tics. The involuntary movements that Jessica suffers from mean many things including:

  • she can’t use anything sharper than a plastic knife. Too dangerous. She hits herself in the face a lot, and does it with whatever is in her hand.
  • one of her ticks is her knees buckling and her falling to the floor. This makes it hard for her to get around and stairs are very dangerous for her.
  • she beats her chest a lot and causes bruising (this is why she wears gloves to protect her hand)
  • She struggles with medical examinations that require you to be still, for example, going to the dentist, or for a smear test.
  • and on, and on…

As well as this constant physical discomfort, she also has the vocal tics, which can be very funny, but also mean she is almost constantly explaining to people that she has Tourettes. She also receives a lot of abuse from people in public who just don’t understand her condition, even after she has tried to explain it. It all adds up to a life that is difficult, constantly challenging, and bloody hard work!

Despite this, Jessica manages to work with children, and their take on her condition will bring a smile to your face. She has embraced her condition and her positive outlook is phenomenal.

The structure of Welcome to Biscuit Land is lots of short, disjointed stories. The chapters are each a month in her year. I found this structure a bit jarring, and it’s clear that the stories are taken from a diary or blog. Overall, I really enjoyed this book and feel like I’ve learnt a lot from it, as well as seeing the comical side to Jessica’s vocal tics (It’s OK – this is encouraged! ). The ones linking a Shakespeare quote with an obscenity are my favourites.

Here is a link to her TEDtalk to get a better idea of Jessica and her life:

Martin Creed Exhibition – Harris Museum and Gallery, Preston.

Art is great. I’m no expert, and I think a lot of it is total BS. But it’s all still brilliant. It’s become particularly brilliant since I’ve been taking my children to art galleries.

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neon excellence.

This Easter week we went to a Martin Creed exhibition at The Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston. There were paintings that looked very simple (like my 4 year old daughter could have done them), a line of cacti,  a light going off and on in a room, a video of people with different disabilities, unaided, getting across a zebra crossing, and a video of people making themselves sick on a floor (ewwww). Immediately we had a conversation about what is art. Everything can be art. My son, who is 6, said ‘art is creativity’ and I felt a bit smug. A bit ‘good job done’.

The next day my daughter asked me why some people have legs that don’t work. I didn’t realise at first that she was thinking about the zebra crossing video from the previous day. I got the link when she sat on the floor and started trying to move herself across the kitchen using her hands to lift herself back a little bit, like one of the people from the video. She was narrating it all, talking about it being difficult, wondering what could make someone’s legs not work, thinking about wheelchairs.

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small child fascinated by videos of people being sick.

I never expected my children to mention what they saw again. We didn’t spend a lot of time there, and we certainly didn’t try and read all the descriptions. Just mooched about having a look, wanting them to just know these things exist and art isn’t just realistic looking paintings and sculptures. I think art should make you think, and this did just that.

The exhibition is on at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston until 3rd June.

Book Review: Bel Canto – Ann Patchett

Oh wow, this book is beautiful. Beautiful. I’m so sad I’ve finished – I wanted to keep reading it for a while longer. I was never bored reading Bel Canto, and I couldn’t wait to find out how it all turned out. You are kept waiting and don’t get any resolution until the last few pages. It’s mainly about love, and falling in love, but it’s more than that and it’s captivating. It’s also about opera. I’m not an opera fan – you absolutely don’t need to be to enjoy this book.

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I won’t give any spoilers here – I wouldn’t want to ruin this book for anyone who hasn’t read it. If you haven’t read it I urge you to put it on your to-read pile and give it a go 🙂 I picked this up in a charity shop a few weeks ago because it is on my book challenge list for this year. I had no idea what it was about, but a twitter friend commented that it was a great book. I was sold, bumped it up my reading list, and it didn’t disappoint.

An unnamed south american country is trying to gain the business of a large Japanese electronics firm by holding a birthday party for its chief executive, Katsumi Hosokawi. He has no intention of investing in the country, but was persuaded to attend because they have managed to secure the internationally famous soprano, Roxane Coss, to sing at the event. Mr Hosokawi is a huge opera fan. Miss Coss is a phenomenal singer and people fall in love with her and/or her voice when she sings. The birthday party is well attended by many internationally important people who want the business of Mr Hosokawi’s company.

After the last note has been sung by Roxane Coss, terrorists storm the room to kidnap the country’s president. Unfortunately he didn’t attend the party because it clashed with his favourite soap opera. The terrorists have no back up plan and decide to keep the party guests hostage. This sets up the main events in the novel, and we are left with a cast of hostages and terrorists all cooped up in the large residence of the vice president.

The main characters are all interesting and the relationships between characters is the driving force of the novel. We don’t get to find out what’s happening outside of the house where the hostages are being held. I don’t want to give away any of the plot, but several characters fall in love, people make discoveries about themselves, and question what they have done with their lives so far.

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his and hers swimming lesson reads

I loved this book and I think I need to re-read the last chapter again just to go over it more slowly. I read it so fast because I just needed to find out how it all worked out. Sobbing, obviously, because it’s that sort of book. It reminded me of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin in that respect (one of my favourites, and the first book that had me in tears at the end). A good look for the swimming lessons waiting area, I think you’d agree 🙂

Book Review: Vinegar Girl – Anne Tyler

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler is a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. It’s funny and an enjoyable read.

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Vinegar girl is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project. There are 6 books published so far; one being Margaret Atwood’s Hag Seed– I’ve heard a lot about this one because it was on the Bailey’s prize longlist. Before picking up Vinegar Girl (for a local book club I’m going to try out for the first time this month) I hadn’t heard of the project. I hadn’t heard of Anne Tyler either, which is probably pretty shameful. Some of the planned books for the project look really good too.

I should also admit that I don’t know much about most Shakespeare plays. I did Macbeth and Julius Caesar at high school, but haven’t formally studied English literature since then, and reading Shakespeare plays for fun has just never taken my fancy! Thus all my other Shakespeare knowledge comes from pop culture. Safe to say before starting Vinegar Girl, I had no idea what the plot of The Taming of the Shrew was. I actually thought there was an actual small rodenty animal in it and have only just found out the shrew is a woman. Charming. I also just found out 10 Things I Hate About You is also a retelling of the Taming of the Shrew. I had no idea. I am a Shakespeare dunce.

Vinegar girl tells the story of Katherine Battista, elder daughter of a dedicated, stereotypically useless at everyday life, scientist. She is 29 and has found herself running the household and being  mostly responsible for her 15 year old sister, Bunny. She also works full time as a teaching assistant in a primary school.  Kate is a great character. She is funny, not a girly girl, and quite acerbic. I know exactly where she’s coming from with the whole not getting your hair cut thing:

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Kate has basically been given up on by her family, friends and acquaintances in terms of getting settled down with a man. Then her Father’s brilliant, eastern European lab assistant, Pyotr, needs help to stay in the USA. Dr Battista wants Kate to marry him so he can get a green card and he can continue working on their autoimmune disease project. He is sure they are on the verge of a magnificent breakthough.

Did I mention Kate is funny?

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I loved the character of Pyotr. He is charmingly portrayed as a scientist, with the usual associated quirks, and also as a foreigner struggled with the nuances of language and feeling separate from the rest of society because he can’t make the language do what he wants it to.

I imagine this book wouldn’t appeal to someone who is already very familiar with The Taming of the Shrew. It’s a bit of an academic exercise to be given a  play to retell, rather than to be inspired to want to do a retelling of a story.  There are characters that, even I can tell, are put in to reference characters from the original play, and they don’t really bring anything or go any where. Actually, maybe these character make more sense if you know the original intimately. Maybe someone can tell me? 🙂 For me, I enjoyed the story and it also made me read a whole lot about the original play. It has acted like a Shakespeare gateway.

This book also looks beautiful. The cover is gorgeous. It’s so photogenic and, you can probably see from my Instagram, that the saturated, high contrast type of picture is my preferred style and this book lends itself so well to these type of pictures.

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Overall, a great, funny easy read. I will definitely be seeking out some more Anne Tyler books. Which should I try next?

and, What’s your favourite retelling of a Shakespeare play?

Book review: The Story of my Life – Helen Keller

Helen Keller had an illness at 19 months old that left her deaf and blind. This book, written when she was 22, and at college, is an account of how she has lived her life and came to be at college. It was published in 1903. It’s the story of how she has flourished, against the odds, with the help of an great teacher.

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There’s no doubt that Helen Keller is a certified bad ass. She graduated from college when not many woman did, and she did it all as a blind and deaf person (the first to hold a Bachelor of arts degree). She went on to be a campaigner and activist.

A member of the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World, she campaigned for women’s suffrage, labor rights, socialism, antimilitarism, and other similar causes.

Having said that, you could have knocked a third off this book and it still been really fascinating. Later parts are a string of mini book reviews from her studies and accounts of all the famous people she has met.

A lot of it is written in very flowery language; lot of smells and feelings, but clearly that’s how she experiences the world and so is totally fine. She describes brilliantly how she felt before she could communicate effectively, and how utterly amazingly life changing her teacher, Anne Sullivan, was. Incidentally, I didn’t realise Anne was also blind! I only realised this when I just looked up her wikipedia entry to check her name.

An interesting short (but still too long) read. 🙂

And I read the whole thing with this song on repeat in my head: