I can’t really explain what made me pick up ‘V.’ by Thomas Pynchon from the library shelf three weeks ago. It’s likely to have been a combination of recently seeing a trailer for the film adaptation of ‘Inherent Vice’ and coming across an old article in The Guardian by Ian Rankin about Pynchon as well as the weird and wonderful cover design of this Vintage Books edition. Moreover, although I’ve read a lot of enjoyable and thought-provoking books in the past few months, it’s been a while since I’ve read something that has properly challenged me. Continue reading
Having greatly enjoyed ‘Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery’ by Henry Marsh late last year, I wanted to read ‘Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine, and What Matters in the End’ by Atul Gawande, a book which formed the basis of the Reith lectures entitled ‘The Future of Medicine’ on BBC Radio 4 last year. Gawande is a writer and practicing surgeon based in Massachusetts who has published three other books about medicine. In ‘Being Mortal’, he tackles the wider issue of mortality addressing the process of aging, dying and death, without focusing on a specific area of healthcare or even his own career. Continue reading
‘A Dark-Adapted Eye’ by Barbara Vine opens with the death of Vera Hillyard, one of the last women to be hanged for murder in Britain in the late 1940s. The story is told from the point of view of Vera’s niece, Faith, who was in her early teens during the Second World War when the main events and crime in question take place. Some thirty years later, Faith is approached by a journalist called Daniel Stewart who is researching the case for a book he is writing and she slowly unravels her version of events as well as a number of family secrets.
Until last week, the prospect of Harper Lee publishing a new book fifty-five years after ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ seemed about as likely as Donna Tartt churning out novels at the same pace as Stephen King or E. L. James winning the Man Booker Prize. But this is exactly what was announced by her publishers at HarperCollins last Tuesday.
Few details have been revealed so far other than that the book is about Scout Finch returning to Alabama as an adult twenty years after the events in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. ‘Go Set A Watchman’ was written before ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ but Lee was persuaded by her publishers to focus on Scout’s childhood instead. The original novel was subsequently lost before it was rediscovered last autumn.
Long novels like ‘The Goldfinch‘ by Donna Tartt and ‘The Luminaries‘ by Eleanor Catton received lots of attention last year. But let’s not forget that conciseness in fiction is just as important and effective as the achievements of sprawling epics.
I’ve used the term novella quite loosely here to mean books which are longer than a typical short story but less than two hundred pages or fifty thousand words. Here are four short reviews of short works of fiction I’ve read recently which prove that less can be more:
1. Academy Street by Mary Costello
This is an excellent book which tells the story of Tess Lohan, a shy young woman who emigrates from Ireland to the United States in the 1960s. It has drawn comparisons to ‘Brooklyn’ by Colm Tóibín due to the similar setting, understated writing and introverted main character. The book spans Tess’s life from childhood to old age in less than 180 pages – it could have been twice as long with more detail about other aspects of her life, yet the devastating impact of the ending was so much more powerful due to its brevity without ever feeling rushed.
From the perils of crush loading on the Tokyo metro to road rage in the United States, ‘Rush Hour: How 500 million commuters survive the daily journey to work’ by Iain Gately examines the past, present and future of travelling to and from work. Commuting is an activity which takes up a significant part of everyday life for people across the world. This book outlines how it has developed and, in an era of advanced communication methods, why we still do it. Continue reading
‘This Boy’ is Alan Johnson’s memoir of his childhood growing up in poverty in North Kensington during the 1950s and early 1960s. His womanising father Steve was mostly absent and his mother Lily struggled to provide a better life for her children whilst suffering from a chronic heart condition. After she died at the age of forty-two when Johnson was thirteen, his sixteen-year-old sister Linda fought for them to stay together in their own council flat despite their young age. Continue reading