Archive for the Books Category

Book Review: The Complete Book of Mothers-In-Law – A Celebration by Luisa Dillner

Posted in Books on October 27, 2008 by Johnnie

The Sunday Business Post, October 26, 2008

A witty and overdue celebration of the uncelebrated

‘There was a knock at the door; I knew it was the wife’s mother, because the mice were throwing themselves on the traps.”

So said the late, great Les Dawson, a man whose name was practically synonymous with the mother-in-law joke, which was ubiquitous among comedians during the politically incorrect 1970s.

This was, of course, the humorous extension of an age-old tradition – the fear and vilification of one’s spouse’s mother. Through the ages, men have lived in terror, and often loathing, of what they saw as a future projection of their wives; their contempt for their in-law acted as a misguided warning to their betrothed on how not to grow old.

However, in writing The Complete Book of Mothers-In-Law, the Guardian columnist and former doctor Luisa Dillner has largely, and cleverly, spoken up for a group who have, for too long, been living in relative silence – the daughters-in-law.

To them, their husband’s mother is a much more complicated character than simply the ogre who runs a disapproving finger over unpolished surfaces or makes judgments on how her grandchildren are being mothered. This book is a subtle, painstaking and anecdotal instruction manual on how two women from different generations can smooth over their differences and celebrate their similarities.

Dillner has gathered together a mind-boggling array of stories from history, fiction, personal experience and celebrity culture, on this mythological figure of womanhood, in an attempt to eradicate stereotypes and put its modern incumbents into context.

She introduces the book with a fond ‘‘celebration’’ of her own mother-in-law, Maggie, an actress, magician’s assistant and Pearly Queen, who has gone some way to breaking down stereotypes. All the same, Dillner makes the salient point that, despite her mother-in-law’s pride in Dillner’s career as a writer and newspaper columnist, she still refuses to buy the Guardian.

The potted history and cultural round-up of relationships between mothers and daughters-in-law is brilliantly researched; from the servile daughters-in-law of old China and Japan, to the Indian tradition of meting out beatings, ridicule and hard labour to girls who got too close to their husband, and therefore threatened his mother’s position.

On the other hand, in Italy, where men who aren’t mammoni (mummy’s boys) are practically social pariahs, jealous mothers-in-law are being blamed for the rise in divorce rates. A Milanese psychologist warns that, ‘‘when a mother is crying at the wedding of her son. . . it is from the sorrow of losing him rather than the joy of seeing him happy with another woman’’.

To that end, Dillner makes a point of celebrating famous mothers-in-law who went beyond the call of duty; like Mrs Clemm, who somehow managed to adore her tortured, drunken son-in-law, Edgar Allan Poe, and Queen Victoria, who never underestimated how hard life was for Alix, who had married her ‘‘weak-willed’’ son, Bertie.

There’s even a recipe for ‘‘Mother-In-Law’s Chicken Soup’’ – it would be a brave daughter-in-law who’d attempt to better it.

Faber clearly has an eye on the Christmas gift market with this book, but I’d sound a note of caution; if daughters-in-law are to present this from under the tree, will there be an implication that all is not rosy? This is a marvellously entertaining book – but it could well lead to some uncomfortable moments.


Book Review: The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

Posted in Books on October 1, 2008 by Johnnie

The Gargoyle is a stone-cold classic
From The Sunday Business Post, September 28, 2008
Readers in possession of a pitch-dark sense of humour will find much to adore about Andrew Davidson’s magnificently wicked debut novel of love, death and redemption, The Gargoyle.

From the first page, it wastes no time in arresting our attention and gaining our sympathies as the unnamed narrator describes, in graphic and gruesome detail, his terrible car crash and consequent injuries that have all but destroyed his once much-admired body.

Driving under the influence of cocaine along a dark road, he swerves to avoid a sudden ‘‘volley of burning arrows swarming out of the woods’’, resulting in his car plummeting down a mountainside.

Trapped inside the burning vehicle, he tells of how his ‘‘flesh began to singe as if I were a scrap of meat newly thrown onto the barbecue’’ and how he could ‘‘hear the bubbling of my skin as the flames kissed it.” He then candidly suggests how the reader might show empathy, by laying the side of their face on a hot cooker hob until they too can hear the ‘‘snap, crackle and pop’’ of their flesh.

The cynical self-confessed drug user, murderer, womaniser and porn star may not be the most sympathetic character ever created, but it’s impossible not to feel for someone who, when faced with such disfigurement and medical treatment involving maggots and the flesh of dead humans and pigs, feels forced to devise for himself quite the most horrific suicide ever described in print.

With all hope of redemption gone, and an evil serpent taunting him from within his spine, he concludes that ‘‘Heaven is an idea constructed by man to help him cope with the fact that life on Earth is both brutally short and, paradoxically, far too long.”

Thankfully, into his life walks the bewitching Marianne Engel, a mysterious sculptress of gargoyles with ‘‘riotously entangled hair’’, chameleonic eyes, and angel wings tattooed on her back.

She instantly recognises the narrator in spite of his condition – and all too convincingly explains how she and he were once lovers in medieval Germany. She captivates him with lively, horrifying stories and fables from her past, taking in Germany, Italy, England and Japan, complete with her skills in text translations and Icelandic folklore until, gradually, his cynicism evaporates and love takes hold.

So far, so preposterous, but Davidson weaves these disparate elements together with such enormous elan that his seductive prose removes the reader’s own cynicism and disbelief. Certainly, it’s a novel about the redemptive and undiminishable qualities of love, yet even when the protagonist utters the saccharine line, ‘‘being burned was the best thing that ever happened to me, because it brought you,” we are still willing him on to a beautiful conclusion.

Davidson employs device after device to continually surprise and haunt the reader throughout the novel: tales of doomed lovers, a tourist trail through Dante’s circles of hell, complete with an array of fascinating type fonts and recurring characters, and a peppering of secret messages with which to enthral and amuse the reader to the final page.

The characters of the hideous burn victim and the gorgeous Marianne, with whom we cannot help but fall in love, are a modern Quasimodo and Esmeralda, every bit as unforgettable. ‘‘Love is as strong as death, as hard as Hell’’, we are told; would that we could all explore such a mad, enticing and rewarding Inferno for ourselves. The Gargoyle is a rich and glorious first novel from an imaginative talent who is destined to be found on bestseller lists for many years to come.

Bits Of Me Are Falling Apart by William Leith

Posted in Books on August 25, 2008 by Johnnie

Confessions of the ultimate hypochondriac

Sunday Business Post, 17 August 2008

We are all doomed. Or, at least, those of us unfortunate enough to be born male now know how doomed we are.

After 202 pages of Bits Of Me Are Falling Apart, a day in the life, body and head of William Leith, we’re certainly suffering: there are twinges in places we never knew we had feelings, a freshly dark pessimism about the state of world has overcome us, and we can just about feel the first scatterings of soil falling over our heads.

Bits Of Me Are Falling Apart could be the most profoundly miserable book this reviewer has ever read – or at least it would be if it weren’t so hilarious, clever and downright entertaining.

As a journalist, Leith has written about a huge variety of subjects in his time, from Middle Eastern politics to Hollywood glitz – but perhaps none with such stark honesty and clarity as his own self-deconstruction. For men either side of Leith’s particular vintage – he is, he reminds us regularly, 47 years old – he offers an incisive terror about the health hazards awaiting each part of our bodies in future years, no matter how we’ve treated ourselves thus far.

Wherever we look, whether in the street, the newspapers or, most terrifyingly, in the mirror, there is decay; and, though there is little in the way of optimistic charity here, it all begins at home.

Leith’s previous book, The Hungry Years, was the tale of his own overindulgence, ending as a salutary warning against eating and drinking too much, and taking too many drugs. Sadly, having put us off all of that, Bits Of Me Are Falling Apart doesn’t find him in much of an improved physical state.

Despite curbing his food and drink consumption, avoiding drugs, going for long walks and taking up pilates, he is now confronted with the awfulness of his middle age, his tenuous mortality, his estrangement from his son and his post-relationship poverty.

His potential ailments seem limitless: he worries about his prostate, so checks it by stopping his urination function in mid-flow, even though it’s not a foolproof method, and it duly fails to reassure him; he worries about his knees and whether lumps and bumps appearing all over his body are or can be cancerous; he writes in wince-inducing detail about the state of his teeth, their varying types of filling and the fact that they are about to crack.

Most pertinently and poignantly, Leith analyses the deaths of both his grandfathers from separate smoking-related illnesses and, as a former smoker himself, worries that his lungs’ recovery from such abuse may be too little, too late. His feelings of mortality are compounded by an encounter with the body of his grandfather in his own house; in fact, with only five senses at his disposal, he seems to see a lot of dead people.

Many of his analogies, although grim, are marvellously and humorously inventive. He continually compares the body’s resistance to illness and disease with the German soldiers at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan – relentlessly pounding their advancing enemy with deadly weaponry until, eventually, Tom Hanks gets through and their resistance, bit by bit, crumbles.

But getting older is not all about decay, it’s also about the changing ambitions of males. Leith reflects upon how, when you’re ten, you want to be a professional footballer; at 20, you’d like to be Casanova; at 30, it’s back to being a football ‘‘veteran’’; but when you’re 40, all you want is a well-made, perfectly-ordered bookshelf.

If there is any hope in a book which states that ‘‘everything falls apart because it’s supposed to fall apart’’, it comes right at the end.

Not only does he have an unexpected encounter with a chain-smoking busker, whose life Leith had prematurely written off, there’s a heart-stopping and life-affirming scene where he momentarily loses sight of his young son in a public park and experiences ‘‘the happiest moment of my life’’ in their speedy reunion. We are so wrapped up in the destruction of everything we hold dear that it’s a victorious moment for us all.

Leith’s fundamentally miserable collection of thoughts are powered by snappy precision and darkly fatalistic humour. Like societal collapse, tooth decay, lung failure and, ultimately, death, resistance to Leith’s persuasive and hilariously downbeat analysis is useless.

We may put up our defences, deny that our lives in any way resemble the author’s, and resolve that it could never happen to us – but in the end, we can’t ignore its inevitability and the knowledge that we will all submit. In that sense, we, the readers, really are the Germans.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

Posted in Books on July 31, 2008 by Johnnie
Thundering journey into the mind of man and dog       

Sunday Business Post,13 July 2008

Debut novelist David Wroblewski spent ten years crafting The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle and it was worth every minute of his time. It is a giant and captivating work of old-fashioned storytelling, a family saga based around a child’s deep love and understanding of man’s trusty canine friend.

The story takes place in a small Wisconsin town where Gar Sawtelle and his wife Trudy train their own unusually intelligent breed of dogs, Sawtelles.

After a string of miscarriages, Trudy eventually gives birth to Edgar, an otherwise healthy child who cannot make any sounds, but who develops an immediate and almost telepathic relationship with Almondine, one of the female Sawtelles.

In an especially moving early scene, the dog awakes in the night, knowing instinctively that the baby is in distress, and wakes the oblivious Trudy from her sleep.

From this point forward, boy and dog become almost inseparable soulmates. Wroblewski imbues the novel with a rare and beautiful insight into the lives of dogs and the unspoken love between animal and owner; page after page of beautiful prose leads us through their training techniques, the dogs’ innermost thoughts, feelings and even Almondine’s dreams.

Like the humans in this tale, the dogs are fully realised, multi-dimensional characters, and far more than mere devices to carry along the emotional development of the plot.

The peaceful countryside farm setting changes dramatically with the return of Gar’s brother, Claude, who had left the family seat in mysterious circumstances some years earlier. With echoes of Cain and Abel and Hamlet, Gar soon meets an untimely end in the midst of an argument.

In an intensely emotional and terrifying scene, his ghost appears to Edgar during a terrible storm, after which the boy is convinced his father was murdered by his uncle.

As Claude takes control of the family business and wins Trudy’s heart, the distraught Edgar retreats from everything he knows and loves, including Almondine, to plot his revenge.

After a disastrous attempt to exact justice, Edgar flees into the Wisconsin wilderness with three young dogs, beginning an incredible adventure which is, by turns, harrowing, thrilling and shrouded in mysticism.

Yet even the most far-fetched supernatural elements of the young gang’s plight are brought vividly into the realms of credibility by Wroblewski’s stunning descriptive prose and his realisation of Edgar’s formidable, heroic heart and spirit. But Disney this is not.

When it becomes clear that Edgar must go back home (having learned the hard lesson that, “life was a swarm of accidents waiting in the treetops, descending upon any living thing that passed, ready to eat them alive”), the reader should brace themselves for a furious, shocking and stormy finale.

It unfolds, at a thundering speed, to a conclusion that is best read through gaps in interlocked fingers.

At over 500 pages, The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle is a lengthy but incredible journey that seems to have everything going for it; the beauty and flair of a great literary novel, the scale and pacing of a fantasy epic, and the absorbing thrill-ride of any glorious rites-of-passage adventure from our collective childhoods.

Wroblewski’s love for his subjects – in particular dogs and the bewitching Wisconsin swamps and forests – shines through in every sentence, rendering each new page more thrilling than the last.

For a debut novelist, he has hit the literary jackpot; for the reader, this is a sumptuous and rewarding experience. 

Book Review: Disquiet by Julia Leigh

Posted in Books on July 19, 2008 by Johnnie

Sunday Business Post, 1 June 2008

Australian author Julia Leigh’s rich novella centres upon the unsettling reunion of a fragmented family in the surroundings of a rambling French chateau.

After a 12-year estrangement from her family, Olivia unexpectedly returns to the family seat with her two young children, Andrew and Lucy. The otherwise statuesque woman’s appearance – ‘‘the straggled hair, the torn stockings, the broken arm’’ – hint at her flight from a violent marriage in Australia, and the long, treacherous journey back to a place once so familiar to her, but now partially closed, overgrown and forbidding.

Once inside, Olivia faces an awkward reunion with her mother, before introducing her to the grandchildren she’s never met. But the entrance hall of the chateau is festooned in balloons, as the household awaits another arrival, that of Olivia’s brother Marcus and his wife Sophie, returning from hospital after the birth of their first child.

However, as they emerge from their car, it is clear from their demeanour that something is very wrong; tragically, the baby has been stillborn. With the characters thus assembled, Disquiet unfolds in a series of subtle, harrowing and frightening events, right to its nail-biting climax.

While there are references to domestic violence, infidelity and alcoholism throughout, ultimately, the theme of the book is motherhood: Olivia’s struggle to love her children, whose crass behaviour and foul-mouthed utterances infer the disproportionate influence of their father; the grandmother’s stoic sense of loss at the dissolution of and irreparable damage to her relationship with Olivia; and, most tragic of all, Sophie’s inability to let go of and bury her baby, Alice.

The reader is guided on this disturbing journey by Leigh’s masterful narration, and its skilful balancing of the chateau’s surface opulence and grandeur, with a grim underbelly of neglect and gothic horror. At 121 pages, it is done with minimum description and beautiful understatement. Olivia and her children are named only through dialogue; otherwise, they are ‘‘the woman’’, ‘‘the boy’’ and ‘‘the girl’’.

Similarly, the baby is described as ‘‘the bundle’’, a lovingly swaddled object which only leaves its mother’s bosom when it is placed on a silk-lined shelf in the kitchen’s freezer.

Moreover, we are confronted with the strength and fragility of blood ties: the children’s determination to re-establish contact with the father they left behind; Olivia’s hazy willingness to offload her offspring to more deserving parents; and her climactic, selfless act of motherly love when faced with their mortality.

A multitude of underlying plotlines, personal dramas and secret histories bubble just beneath the surface, and Disquiet could easily have evolved into a weighty family saga; yet the things we don’t discover carry the same weight as those we do.

The novella form disciplines Leigh, in choosing which fragments of drama to show and which to imply, her prose purposefully sparse, to the point of barren; yet she evokes so much through simple, short sentences (‘‘Vile baptism’’; ‘‘Ghostly, milky with light’’) that the effect is beautiful, startling and entirely absorbing.

Disquiet is a triumph of poetic subtlety and control, a one-sitting delight from a wonderful storyteller.