Tag: history

A Silent Fury – Yuri Herrera

“Silence is not the absence of history, it’s a history hidden beneath shapes that must be deciphered.”

Yuri Herrera, A Silent Fury: the El Bordo Mine Fire (2018)
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (2020)

It’s July, which means Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog and Richard from Caravana de recuerdos. Today I’m returning to Yuri Herrera, who wrote one of my very favourite novels, Signs Preceding the End of the World. His latest book is a non-fiction account of a tragedy that took place in his hometown of Pachuca, Mexico.

On 10 May 1920, there was a fire in the El Bordo mine. After a short period of evacuation, the authorities decided there was no possibility that anyone else trapped in the mine could have survived, and the shafts were sealed. When they were reopened, 87 bodies were removed from the mine, and seven other men found in there were still alive. The subsequent report exonerated the authorities of all blame, and even suggested that the miners might have been at fault.

Herrera’s project in this book is not so much about telling the story of the fire – though he does that in part, and it’s vivid and harrowing. He is most focused on the historical documents: the case file and newspaper reports. Herrera aims to show how the victims, survivors and their families have been obscured by the official record.

Sometimes this becomes evident because the record does not acknowledge that these are human lives which were lost. Sometimes it’s the contradictions which draw the investigators’ focus into question. Sometimes people were spoken for by others, such as the female relatives who had to give statements of their relationship to the deceased in order to apply for compensation. These statements mostly “appear only in the voice of some court clerk who interprets, edits, formalizes” – and they all had to be witnessed by a man.

The English title A Silent Fury is well chosen. It appears in the text when Herrera is describing an official photograph of the survivors:

They don’t look like they just escaped from hell: their week of underground starvation is not reflected in their expressions or on their bodies, with the exception of one, the first man on the left, who seems to betray a silent fury: lips clamped together, brows arched. But, again, no one recorded what they thought or felt at that moment.

The “silent fury” is then the kind of reaction that doesn’t appear in the official record, at least not without an act of recovery like this book. It’s also there in Herrera’s writing, a controlled anger verging on sarcasm, which is one of the powerful qualities of Lisa Dillman’s translation.

In some ways, A Silent Fury reminds me of Han Kang’s Human Acts, in that both books confront the question of how to put a human disaster into words, and the implications of doing so. The resulting work brings the victims of the El Bordo fire into focus, allows them to be seen.

Published by And Other Stories.

Reading round-up: early January

Happy New Year! To kick off my blogging in 2014, I have a new Reading Log page for the year; and here’s a round-up of some of the books I’ve read lately…


Taste of Apple SeedsKatharina Hagena, The Taste of Apple Seeds (2008)
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch (2013)

When her grandmother dies, Iris inherits the old house. She returns to the village of her childhood to sort through everything; but finds that stepping back into her old world is not as easy as trying on her aunt’s dresses – and that there are family secrets to be uncovered. There’s a nice sense of place about Hagena’s novel, and some poignant reflections on loss (Iris’s grandmother had dementia before she died; her forgetting stands in contrast to Iris’s remembering and learning). Characters and memories circle around Iris in an intriguing dance, which ends with the prospect of further hope and sadness to come.

Matthew Hart, Gold (2013)

Journalist Hart brings together history, economics, and reportage in this account of gold’s changing role in the world economy. It’s a fascinating story to someone like me who doesn’t know about the subject; the way Hart tells it, it’s almost as though the idea of gold has become more important than the substance itself. I’m impressed with the range of Hart’s book, and with how deftly he ties all the threads together.

Ash Cameron, Confessions of an Undercover Cop (2013)

Another book in the Friday Project’s series of professional memoirs, this is a collection of tales from the author’s twenty-year police career, in both London and northern England, and in various sections of the force. Typically for this series, Cameron’s stories are a mixture of the humorous and dark, but always make for fascinating reading.


Ken Kalfus, Equilateral (2013)

In the last decade of the 19th century, British astronomer Sanford Thayer leads a grand engineering project: the construction of a giant equilateral triangle that will be seen from Mars -a signal to the great civilisation believed to reside there.  As Kalfus chronicles the scheme’s trials and tribulations, the ironies are plain to see – not just that of the great faith in the Martians’ existence and superiority (a faith which looks rather more misplaced to us), but also that Thayer remains enamoured of the Martians while having no regard for his Arab workers. The cool tone of the writing makes Equilateral a novel to savour.

Robert W. Greene, The Sting Man (1981)

This book is about Mel Weinberg, a hustler who was recruited by the FBI in the 1970s to work on Abscam, a sting operation that investigated public corruption (and which inspired the film American Hustle). I found the earlier parts of the book, covering Weinberg’s pre-Abscam career, to be the most interesting; Greene portrays Weinberg as an intriguingly ambivalent character: charismatic to an extent, repellent in other ways. Either way, though, Weinberg’s audacity is quite something to read about.

Nicholas Griffin, Ping-Pong Diplomacy (2014)

This is an account of: the development of table tennis as a sport, and the political dimension that was seemingly present from the start as the rules were codified. Griffin (a journalist and novelist) focuses particularly on ping-pong’s role in the thawing of relations between China and the USA during the 1970s, when table tennis players could move between the two countries in ways that diplomats could not. I knew barely anything about this part of history, and found Griffin’s book illuminating.

Reading round-up: books for Christmas presents

This isn’t meant to be a guide to Christmas gift ideas as such (for that, let me direct you to Kim’s excellent series of posts over on Reading Matters). It’s more that I’ve read a few books lately which, it struck me, would make good Christmas presents; so I thought I’d put them together into a blog post, and add in some other titles that I reviewed earlier in the year.


Letters of Note, ed. Shaun Usher

This huge, lavishly illustrated collection of letters (based on the website of the same name) is an ideal gift for anyone interested in the personal side of history, or who likes letters and books as objects. Read more about it in my original review.

Wordsmiths & Warriors by David and Hilary Crystal

This is an illustrated travelogue of significant places in the history of the English language in Britain. I haven’t seen the finished book, as I read a proof version when I reviewed it; but I’ve no doubt that it will look beautiful.

Fred's WarFred’s War by Andrew Davidson

Andrew Davidson’s grandfather Fred was a medical officer of the 1st battalion Cameronians during World War One. Although photography was banned on the front line, Fred and several other officers had cameras with them, and took photographs of their lives at war. Davidson uses these images to tell the story of the 1st Cameronians during the year that Fred was a serving officer. It’s a vivid and intimate account; there’s a real sense of the war gradually coalescing around the men as they march through France. Though Davidson refers to the photographs, he doesn’t caption them, which adds to the sense of this being an unfolding story for the men involved. Fred’s War gives a personal portrait of the conflict which is not quite like anything I’ve come across before.

Girl from Station X

The Girl from Station X by Elisa Segrave

Here’s another book based around personal wartime accounts, this time the diaries of Elisa Segrave’s mother Anne, who was stationed at Bletchley Park during World War Two. Again, it’s a fascinating glimpse into history, seeing Anne move from her privileged girlhood world into her wartime career; but this is Elisa’s story as much as Anne’s. Segrave describes how Anne’s diaries revealed to her a side of her mother that she had never known, and enabled her perhaps to understand Anne as she had not previously been able to. This double story is what particularly intrigues about The Girl from Station X.


The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Yes, I know: any excuse to enthuse about The Luminaries. But it is just the sort of big hardback novel that would make a great Christmas gift, especially for readers who may have been undecided about trying it out for themselves (it may take them well into the new year to read it, too).

If not The Luminaries, then Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch or Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity may also fit the bill (I have heard great things about both, but haven’t read them, so I can’t give a personal recommendation).

Crystal MirrorThe Crystal Mirror by Tim Malnick and Katie Green

From three long books to a much shorter one. This is a crowd-funded collection of “timeless tales for children and grown-ups alike”, written by Tim Malnick and illustrated by Katie Green. The five stories are all about characters changing their outlook on life to find a way forward, from the painter imprisoned in a bare tower room, to a bat fascinated by daylight. Malnick’s prose has the rhythms of a classic fairytale, and Green’s illustrations are gorgeous. I may not be quite the intended audience for The Crystal Mirror, but I found the book absolutely charming.

Non-Fiction about Fiction

Novel Cure

The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin

Subtitled “An A-Z of Literary Remedies”, this book has suggestions for reading to help alleviate a variety of ailments. Some are quite tongue-in-cheek (David Vann’s Caribou Island as a cure for enthusiasm with DIY; Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by B.S. Johnson to treat fear of doing your tax return); others more serious (Wuthering Heights to cure a desire to seek vengeance; Mrs Dalloway to tackle that Monday morning feeling). But the entries are always written with wit (I especially love the entries which spoof the style of the book being recommended; my favourite is the one for House of Leaves) and enthusiasm. After reading The Novel Cure, or even just dipping into it, you’ll almost certainly have some new books that you want to try. Now, what’s the cure for an exponentially increasing to-read pile..?

“There is a great difference between a letter to a friend and history written for all to read”

Simon Garfield, To the Letter (2013)
Shaun Usher, Letters of Note (2013)
Kressmann Taylor, Address Unknown (1938)

A few weeks ago I read Tom Standage’s Writing on the Wall, which argues quite convincingly that there are analogues of social media (that is, ways of sharing information through personal networks) going back 2,000 years in history. From that point of view, there’s more continuity between how we communicate now, and how we used to, than one might suppose. But I’ve had cause to think about these issues again after reading a couple of new books from Canongate which are all about the history of letters. I’ve been wondering whether there is something unique about letters that might potentially be lost.

totheletterSimon Garfield has written a number of acclaimed non-fiction books (including 2010’s Just My Type, a history of typography, which I have been meaning to read for ages). His new book, To the Letter, is subtitled ‘A journey through a vanishing world’; so we know that this isn’t going to be just a factual account but – well, a love letter to letters. ‘Letters have the power to grant us a larger life,’ says Garfield (p. 19), telling of how he became intrigued by the story of a magician named Val Walker, after discovering a set of Walker’s correspondence for sale at an auction. There are similar glimpses of different lives and stories throughout To the Letter, as Garfield weaves together the history of postal delivery, the contents of letter-writing manuals, and notable correspondents from throughout the centuries, all into a fascinating tapestry.

If, like me, you have ever enjoyed writing or receiving letters (or both!), there will be plenty to delight you in Garfield’s book. But also, there will almost certainly be something to cause a feeling of regret and disappointment; for me it was learning that the Postman Pat theme has been changed  so he brings ‘parcels to your door,’ rather than letters. (Now I look into this further, it seems that the change came about because the new series is about Pat running a parcel delivery service, which alters my view a little, though I suppose it’s still illustrative of a general trend.) The thing is, though, that I’m really just being nostalgic for the trappings of the physical letter here; if I want to get to the heart of what letters really represent, I think I need to go deeper than that.

Tom Standage’s first example of historical social media in Writing on the Wall is Cicero staying in contact with Rome by copying and sharing letters, some of which were intended to be public documents. Garfield also has a chapter on the Romans, but he make a distinction between the public (in a sense performative) correspondence of a Cicero, and the letters of someone like Pliny the Younger, which were generally more private.  The sense of letters as a private and personal space comes through time and again in To the Letter, perhaps never more so than in the wartime correspondence which intersperses the book. Chris Barker (an RAF communications officer stationed in the south Mediterranean) began writing home to his friend Bessie Moore (who translated Morse code messages for the Foreign Office) in 1943; as time went on, their friendship turned to love – and the expression of that love as we see it in their letters is deeply affecting. I was as captivated by the tale unfolding in their correspondence as I could have been by any fictional story.

Perhaps this is what the personal letter fundamentally represents: a space for an extended, reflective engagement between two individuals. This is something that can also be accomplished by email, of course; but I do think that the act of physically writing a letter encourages it more. Either way, Simon Garfield’s book leaves me appreciating letters anew, and thinking that perhaps I should write more of my own.



The quotation heading this post is from Pliny (as mentioned by Garfield); I think it’s correct, but I was also struck on reading To the Letter (especially the Barker-Moore correspondence) at how letters can turn history inside-out, can give a view that one might not see otherwise. That feeling was brought to mind again when I read Letters of Note, a book based on Shaun Usher’s website of the same name. This book was published in association with the crowdfunding site Unbound; so that’s an online service used to facilitate a printed book derived from a website that celebrates paper correspondence – phew! Letters of Note reproduces the text of 125 letters, often alongside images of the actual documents. It’s a big, beautiful object.

It is also wonderful to read. There are the amusing entries, such as the young Queen Elizabeth II sending President Eisenhower her recipe for drop scones; or an eight-year-old boy’s letter to Richard Nixon (who was recovering from pneumonia at the time) urging him to ‘be a good boy and eat your vegetables like I had too!!’. There are letters which, as I said earlier, open up history in a way that only personal documents can: Francis Crick’s letter to his young son describing the newly-discovered DNA molecule; or a Japanese lady’s farewell to her samurai husband, whom she was sure would fall in battle. There’s the poignant and the inspiring, the romantic and the furious. I could go on, but Letters of Note is something you really have to experience for yourself. It’s difficult to imagine a better demonstration of the power and value of written correspondence.


addressunknownNow seems a good time to talk about what I’d imagine to be one of the most powerful epistolatory stories in the English language. Kathrine Kressmann Taylor’s Address Unknown was first published in Story magazine in 1938; I read it this year in a stand-alone volume published by Souvenir Press. It takes the form of a correspondence between Max Eisenstein, a Jewish American gallery owner; and his old friend and business partner Martin Schulse, who has recently returned to Germany as the tale begins, in 1932. At first, Schulse is hopeful for the future of his country under Hitler, but also expresses his reservations to Eisenstein. Schulse’s attitude soon hardens, though, and he orders Eisenstein to stop writing. The American attempts to appeal to his old friend’s better nature, but Schulse will have none of it – until events take a tragic turn, and the letters become weapons.

I think it’s the epistolatory form that really makes this story; Taylor brings together the personal and performative  aspects of letter-writing, using both to cutting effect. We see the changing nature of the two men’s relationship, and sense the deep personal connection that Eisenstein wishes were still there (and that letters can forge and capture so well). But I’m also struck by how much the letters in Address Unknown don’t show – how they filter out certain aspects of their thoughts. I’m thinking especially of the ending, where the letters advance implacably (you’ll have to read the book to see what I mean), and we have to infer what must be in their writer’s mind. Letters may be able to forge a connection between two people, but Taylor’s story shows how they might also sever one irrevocably.

We Love This Book reviews: Jamie Mason and Tom Standage

In my latest pair of reviews for We Love This Book, I’m looking at a darkly comic thriller that launches the new ONE imprint from Pushkin Press; and a history of social media that finds its subject’s roots to stretch further back than you might suppose.

Jamie Mason, Three Graves Full (2012)

“There is very little peace for a man with a body buried in his backyard.”

In Jamie Mason‘s Three Graves Full, the man with the corpse in his garden is Jason Getty, who killed a conman named Gary Harris in the heat of the moment and hastily buried the evidence. We meet Jason as he is hoping the gardeners won’t come across Harris’s body. They don’t – but they do uncover two more bodies that Getty knew nothing about. These are the remains of Katielynn Montgomery and her lover Reid Tamblin, who were killed by Katielynn’s husband Boyd when he found them in bed together when the Montgomerys occupied Getty’s home. Now the police investigation will bring old and new players back to the house.

Three Graves Full can be divided into two parts: the first manoeuvres the main characters into place and reveals the broad extent of what has happened – even when the book is at its most amusing, Mason never allows us to forget the underlying gravity of the situation. The novel then turns into a breakneck chase which is as thrilling as one could wish; overlapping views of the same scene underline that there are partial perspectives all the way down. Mason explores what may happen when people seek to keep the deepest secrets, in a novel that deftly balances humour, action and contemplation.

(Read the original review here.)

Tom Standage, Writing on the Wall (2013)

According to Tom Standage, digital editor at the Economist, ‘social media’ has been around for a lot longer than you might think.

For most of human history, Standage argues in Writing on the Wall, information has mainly been shared between individuals, through personal networks. From this viewpoint, the 20th century’s centralised broadcast media, transmitting information to large numbers of people at once, are a historical anomaly.

I’ll admit I was sceptical about this book at first, concerned that Standage’s approach might be too anachronistic. In the event, I found it quite persuasive. The author goes chronologically through a number of examples, mostly from Western Europe, highlighting the similarities with contemporary social media. The Romans exchanged information through letters which could be intended for wider circulation; comments may literally be written on walls, and sometimes attracted replies.

Individuals at the Tudor court compiled interesting texts into their own commonplace books, rather like someone today adding content to a social media profile. The coffeehouses of 17th century London served as hubs for debate and the exchange of ideas. Even when the facts are familiar, Standage’s interpretation encourages us to look at the past in a new light.

Perhaps inevitably, Writing on the Wall loses a little of its interest when it reaches the development of the internet, because here Standage is narrating history more conventionally, rather than making those unexpected connections between past and present. But the book ends with a salutary reminder that information-sharing does not stand still, and we don’t know where its fascinating story will turn next.

(Read the original review here.)

We Love This Book reviews: Andrew Lovett & David and Hilary Crystal

Here are my two latest reviews from We Love This Book:

Andrew Lovett, Everlasting Lane (2013)

When his father dies, young Peter Lambert finds himself with a new life before he has had much chance to make sense of the old one.

Peter’s mother (now insisting that she’s going to be his Aunt Kat) whisks him away to an old cottage on Everlasting Lane in the village of Amberley. Kat tells him that this is his grandmother’s cottage, and that he has lived here before; Peter doesn’t remember that, but the house does seem strangely familiar. And Peter would very much like to know what’s in one particular room which is hidden away behind heavy drapes.

Andrew Lovett’s debut is partly a tale of growing up in the 1970s, and he populates Everlasting Lane with some memorable secondary characters who come into Peter’s life. These include his new teacher, Mr Gale, who comes up with his own insulting nicknames for his pupils (‘Lambchop’ in Peter’s case), and generally treats them shabbily – until a cricket match goes wrong. Most of all, there’s Anna-Marie Liddell, the pretty girl next door who is only a year older than Peter, but likes to act as though she’s far superior. She and Peter become something like friends; their relationship has a thread of uncertainty that’s very well realised.

The mystery of Peter’s new circumstances adds an extra dimension to the novel, a sombre undercurrent stemming from suggestions of tragedy in his family’s past. This turns Everlasting Lane into a dark riff on Famous Five-style tales of children solving mysteries. I’m not sure that the full force of the novel’s adult issues always emerges from Peter’s viewpoint as a child; but there is a clear and poignant sense that he is trapped in his own story. Everlasting Lane is an interesting coming-of-age tale which never quite settles into the shape you might expect.

Original review
The publisher, Galley Beggar Press

David and Hilary Crystal, Wordsmiths & Warriors (2013)

In Wordsmiths and Warriors, linguist David Crystal and his partner Hilary take us on a historical tour of Britain to show us how – and, more importantly, where – the English language was shaped.

Each chapter of Wordsmiths and Warriors focuses on a particular place of significance in the development of the English language in Britain – from the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons at Pegwell Bay in Kent in the fifth century, through to Randolph Quirk’s Survey of English Usage, inaugurated at University College London in 1959. The book is a mixture of a historical accounts, anecdotes and illustrations from the Crystals’ own road trip. There are even directions to each site if you want to make your own visit.

There’s a lot of interesting material in here, whether you are unfamiliar with the history of English or, like me, studied it at one time then headed in a different direction (for those with greater knowledge, I’m less sure; this feels like a general-interest book). Amongst many other topics, the Crystals’ survey takes in the Paston letters; Robert Burns and the development of Scots; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; Dylan Thomas’s contribution to Welsh English; and Roget’s Thesaurus.

The book is arranged chronologically rather than geographically, which (perhaps inevitably) reduces the sense of a journey. But the history is the main thread, and it is fascinating to view that history through its places, gaining a vivid sense of how the story of English in Britain moves (broadly speaking) from battlefields, castles and ecclesiastical establishments to scholarly halls and writers’ rooms. It remains a dynamic story, wherever it takes place, and the Crystals capture that dynamism superbly in Wordsmiths and Warriors.

Original review
The publisher, Oxford University Press

Book notes: Moran, Harstad, Brill

Joe Moran, On Roads: a Hidden History (2009)

I’ve long been interested in social and cultural history, and there will always be a place on my shelves for books that illuminate the more unusual corners of history. On Roads is just such a book.

The British road system in the post-war years may not sound a particularly interesting subject for a work of history, but this is part of Moran’s point – roads are so commonplace that we hardly ever stop to think about them. What Moran suggests, however, is that the road system was a far more pragmatic creation than we might assume, and that the Brits’ relationship with their roads has, from the earliest days of the motorway, been an ambivalent one.

The sheer range of topics that Moran covers is remarkable, from road signs to service stations, caravans to roadside ecology. But, more than this, he tells fascinating stories (I had no idea that the design of British road signs had been so controversial) and makes some astute observations (such as that the image of the straight road has traditionally represented ‘cold modernity’ in England, whereas in America it’s a symbol of freedom and escape). On Roads takes an ostensibly ordinary topic and turns it into a rich and worthwhile book.

Link: Joe Moran’s blog

Johan Harstad, Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? (2005/11)

Stavanger, Norway, 1999: Mattias is a gardener, perfectly content with his lot. Born on the day of the first moon landing, Mattias’ hero is not first-man-on-the-moon Neil Armstrong but runner-up Buzz Aldrin: willing to cede the glory, willing to be the second man. That’s what Mattias is happy to be – a cog in the machine, unconcerned whether others notice him.

But life won’t stand still and, when Mattias’ partner leaves him and his employer goes out of business, he accepts an invitation to go to the Faroe Islands with his friend Jørn’s band. However, instead of acting as the band’s soundman (or, as Jørn wanted, their singer), Mattias falls in with a psychiatrist named Havstein and the three inhabitants of his institution for those not quite ready to live independently – and now Mattias’ life is set to change.

Johan Harstad’s debut (translated by Deborah Dawkin) is a big, baggy novel which is unusually structured insofar as the narrative beats are not quite where one might expect them to be – but this gives the novel a distinctive flow. The story is told so thoroughly from Mattias’ vantage point that it distorts the very shape of what we learn; we gain only brief, distant glimpses of the other Mattias, the one who (for good or ill) is no quiet mediocrity.

There may be times when the prose drags, but some of the best moments are also the most densely written; overall, Harstad paints an interesting portrait of a man whose life is ordinary and remarkable all at once.

This review first appeared in We Love This Book.

Link: Video interview with Johan Harstad

Marius Brill, How to Forget (2011)

Magician Peter Ruchio was humiliated, and his career derailed, by a prank played by Titus Black at the latter’s eighth birthday party; fifteen years later, Black has grown up to be a famous illusionist (though he is not above committing murder to preserve his secrets), whilst Peter is performing tricks in restaurants and old people’s homes. A chance encounter with Kate Minola, a grifter on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, gives Peter the opportunity to take his revenge on Black; but his experiences ultimately lead  Peter to seek the help of Dr Chris Tavasligh, a neuroscientist working on a way to ‘reboot’ the human brain, thereby erasing all memories. That was three years ago, and Tavasligh subsequently disappeared; the book in our hands purports to be the scientist’s collected papers.

As befits a novel about a magician, How to Forget is full of misdirection; one is never quite sure which way the characters will turn, who can be trusted – and there’s a sense at the end that the real story is not the one we thought it was (the allusions to The Taming of the Shrew in the protagonists’ names serve, as far as I can tell, to highlight the idea of a story within a story). Not everything in the book works so well: the larger-than-life tone and occasional comic interludes tend to rub against the more serious episodes, rather than working with them; and it seems to me that Brill’s material on memory doesn’t quite integrate successfully with the plot. Better is the author’s comparison of Peter’s and Kate’s professions, which leads them to face up to some difficult questions; and the caper narrative has all the page-turning tension and momentum one could wish.

Link: Marius Brill’s website

Book notes: Politycki, Skloot, Langford & Grant

Matthias Politycki, Next World Novella (2009/11)

Matthias Politycki’s Next World Novella (translated from the German by Anthea Bell) is the latest title from Peirene Press, which would be enough on its own to interest me in reading the book, as I’ve enjoyed all their previous selections. Add to this that it’s a tale with shifting realities, and my interest only increases. Having read it now, though, it didn’t quite work for me, and I’m not sure I can put my finger on why.

Academic Hinrich Schepp finds that his wife Doro has died at her desk, where she has apparently been editing the attempt at a novel that he abandoned years before. Reading the manuscript, Schepp discovers that Doro’s edits constitute a commentary on their marriage, and that his wife was far from as content as he’d assumed.

The beginning of Next World Novella is especially potent, as the reader is a fraction behind Schepp in realising that Doro has died, and anticipates the jolt which is to come. There’s also effective interplay between the gradual unfurling of Doro’s true feelings and Schepp’s inability/reluctance to perceive the truth (e.g. he refuses to acknowledge the extent to which his abandoned novel reflected his own life). Yet I finished the book feeling that I hadn’t quite grasped something about it, and I can’t put into words what that might be. Next World Novella is well worth a look, though.

Interview with Matthias Politycki (Worlds Without Borders)
Next World Novella elsewhere: Just William’s Luck; Cardigangirlverity; The Independent.

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010)

A brilliant fusion of biography, social history, and history of science, that tells a fascinating story. Henrietta Lacks was a poor African American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951; as with other cancer patients at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, a sample of the cells from Henrietta’s tumour was taken, without her knowledge, for research purposes. Those cells were the origin of the HeLa cell line, the first human one to be propagated successfully in the lab (‘immortal’ because they can divide indefinitely in culture). Henrietta’s cells facilitated many medical advances, but it was twenty years before her family even learnt that a sample had been taken.

Remarkable as this story is, it is Skloot’s treatment of it that makes The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. She moves back and forth between time periods and perspectives, weaving together details  of Henrietta’s and her family’s lives; the wider social and scientific contexts; the ethical issues raised by Henrietta’s story; and Skloot’s own experiences meeting and interviewing the Lacks family. There’s great breadth to the material, and Skloot’s control of it is superb. What an engrossing read.

Rebecca Skloot’s website
Interview with Skloot (Wellcome Trust)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks elsewhere: SomeBeans; Savidge Reads; Take Me Away; Lovely Treez Reads.

David Langford and John Grant, Earthdoom! (1987/2003)

A gloriously over-the-top spoof disaster novel featuring all manner of world-ending phenomena which appear on the scene in quick succession: a spacecraft on a collision course with Earth; an antimatter comet on a collision course with Earth; invading aliens; rabid lemmings; the Loch Ness Monster; a time-travelling Hitler who takes advantage of the handy cloning technology he finds on a Devon farm; sentient superglue… You get the idea.

Langford and Grant relentlessly send up the conventions of the disaster novel, with their cast of gung-ho male scientists and impossibly-attractive-yet-brilliant-except-when-the-guys-need-to-show-how-much-better-they-are female scientists; the plot contrivances which are eventually abandoned altogether when it suits; the characters’ helpful-for-the-reader recapping things they already know; and the prose. For example:

Jeb’s [the Devonian farmer] words rang hollow in his ears, not merely because in these grim days his accent was failing to convince even himself. Ambledyke Farmhouse was sealed against the horrors outside, its boarded-up windows blind as proofreaders’ eyyes. The inner dimness throbbed with a stench of ancient, decaying pizza. (p. 121)

Great stuff.

David Langford’s website
John Grant’s website

Notable books: February 2011

To begin the month, my round-up of forthcoming books that have caught my eye:

Hugh Aldersey-Williams, Periodic Tales

Subtitled ‘The Curious Lives of the Elements’, this book promises to range across art and history as well as science in exploring the chemical elements. Sounds interesting, and a great cover too.

Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

I love fiction that brings a tinge of fantastication to the everyday, so this sounds right up my street: a girl discovers that food carries for her a taste of people’s emotions.

Francesca Beauman, Shapely Ankle Preferr’d

I like books that look at history from an unusual angle, and this history of the lonely hearts ad sounds like just such a book.

Carol Birch, Jamrach’s Menagerie

Canongate publish some great books, and this seafaring historical adventure looks promising.

Ellen Bryson, The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno

It’s the setting — Barnum’s American Museum — that intrigues me about this one.

Lucy Caldwell, The Meeting Point

This Bahrain-set novel sounds as though it could have some interesting contrasts.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood, The Fallen Blade

Grimwood turns from science fiction to fantasy, and I’m interested to see what he’ll do with the genre in this tale of vampires in 15th-century Venice.

Sophia McDougall, Romanitas

A reissue (revised, I believe) of the first volume of McDougall’s trilogy in which the Roman Empire has survived to the present day. I missed it the first time around, but am curious to see what this is like.

Matthias Politycki, Next World Novella

I would read this because the synopsis intrigues me (‘shifting realities’ as a man gains a new view of his marriage after the death of his wife), but I’d also read it just because it’s published by the reliably-excellent Peirene Press.

Gordon Reece, Mice

There’s quite a buzz about this tale of suspense centred on a mother and daughter who have retreated to the countryside, and then find their cottage broken into — it sounds to be  worth a look.

Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb

I read a couple of very good books from Sandstone Press last year (Up the Creek Without a Mullet and Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones), so I’ve high hopes for this new title of theirs, a novel about a girl living in a world affected by bio-terrorism.

Nat Segnit, Pub Walks in Underhill Country

A novel written (at least at first) in the form of a walkers’ guide. I’m interested to see how that works.

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart (2009) by Jesse Bullington: The Zone review

My latest review at The Zone is of Jesse Bullington‘s interesting-but-flawed medieval fantasy The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. This tells the story of twin graverobbers who have run-ins with various entities, both natural and otherwise, on their travels. When magic intersects with the narrative, the results are fascinating; at other times, the novel doesn’t work quite so well.

Read the review in full.

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