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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.

Cheltenham Literature Festival Diary: Part 2

Part 1 of this diary is available here.

Tuesday 13th

10.00 am: My first history talk of the festival — Frank McLynn on Marcus Aurelius. I don’t know much about Roman history, so I don’t think I got the most out of it that I could have; but McLynn was interesting and engaging nonetheless.

12.00: Today’s Guest Director is Alice Roberts, and spotting her for my game of ‘Guest Director bingo’ will be easy, as I’m attending two of her events. The first of these is called ‘Journey into Colour’, with a panel consisting of Roberts, the writer Victoria Finlay (who wrote a book on colour which I actually bought several years ago, but have never got around to reading) and Mark Midownik, a materials scientist. Finlay was enthusiastic, and her talk fascinating; but I felt that Midownik was not a good speaker, and his contribution on the science of colour was rather dry. I really should read that book of Finlay’s, though.

4.00 pm: My second of Alice Roberts’s events — geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer on the story of human migration. An interesting subject but, unfortunately, the talk was a little too technical for me.

6.00 pm: Ronni Ancona and Alistair McGowan on football — specifically, on Ancona’s attempts to wean McGowan off it. The readings from their book were excellent, and the whole hour was hilarious.

8.45 pm: My last event of the day, and this time it’s a ‘proper’ author — Sarah Waters. I’ve never read her work, but do have a copy of The Little  Stranger, which I’ve been meaning to read. Interesting stuff, though I stll haven’t got around to reading the book.

Wednesday 14th

10.00 am: Matthew Rice on ‘The Language of Architecture’. I took a chance on this event, and am so glad I did. Rice was hilarious, and gave a brilliant introduction to a subject I’m not well-versed in.

2.00 pm: Sara Wheeler on the Arctic. This was a combined history and travelogue; interesting enough, but perhaps too ‘bitty’.

4.00 pm: Another hsitory talk — Jenny Uglow on Charles II. Uglow illuminated a part of history I never really studied in detail, so I was pleased to go to this.

5.15 pm: Today’s Guest Director is Monica Ali, whom I was due to see now, alongside another novelist, Geoff Dyer. Unfortunately, however, Ali is unable to attend owing to illness, so this event is Dyer on his own. I’d never heard of him prior to this, but he was a highly entertaining interviewee, and reader and he joins my list of ‘writers I must investigate’.

8.45 pm: I was due to see Keith Floyd at this point, but of course he sadly passed away last month. I raise a glass in his honour.

Thursday 15th

10.00 am: Today starts with my best history talk of the Festival — David Horspool on English rebellions throughout history. He’s a great speaker and storyteller, and shows the value of taking a broad historical view of one topic.

4.00 pm: From history to historical fiction, with Tracy Chevalier and Hilary Mantel. I’ve already seen the latter in my first event, of course, and she’s engaging once again. I’m very intrigued by the sound of Chevalier’s latest novel, about the early 19th century paleontologist Mary Anning. The TBR pile grows ever larger…

7.0o pm: Travel writer Christopher Somerville on his new book of walks around Britain. Fascinating stuff, as Somerville covers areas that don’t necessarily come to mind as fruitful areas for walks, such as Canvey Island and the circular walking routes around London. He also relates tales of a walk across Crete in the winter for his 50th birthday, and walking to the very northernmost point of the British Isles for his 60th. Somerville becomes another writer I should read.

8.45 pm: A performance of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World by the Paper Cinema and Kieron Maguire. How to describe this? They film cut-out paper puppets and project the results on to a screen, while Maguire provides a live soundtrack. It was good, but I think I’d have enjoyed it more if I knew the story better.

9.30 pm: I still haven’t spotted today’s Guest Director, Rageh Omaar. I know he is in the middle of a talk now, and I could hang around the signing tent for half an hour until he comes in — but I’m not really that bothered, am I? I decide that I’m not, and head off back to the hotel instead.

Part 3 of the diary coming soon…

Cheltenham Literature Festival Diary: Part 1

For the past week-and-a-bit, I’ve been at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, my first time going to such an event. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and the rather tight separation between writers and audience (no real opportunities for interaction apart from Q&As at the end of each session, and signings afterwards) was a little disconcerting at first (I guess that’s the only practical way to run things with so many events and speakers). The Festival was quite celebrity-led (then again, isn’t contemporary publishing the same?); but, generally speaking, they were interesting celebrities, and there was plenty of other stuff going on. All in all, I had a good time, and went to a nicely varied programme of events.

I never had internet access while I was away, otherwise I’d have blogged about the Festival in more detail while I was there. Instead, I present the edited highlights, which are pretty long as it is…

Friday 9th

6.00 pm: My first event, listed in the festival brochure as ‘The Man Booker Winner’, who of course in the end was Hilary Mantel.

I haven’t traditionally had much luck with Booker titles (of all the nominees, and one winner, that I’ve read, I can only truly say that I liked Animal’s People by Indra Sinha), but I certainly became interested in reading Wolf Hall after hearing Mantel read from it, and speak so enthusiastically.

7.30 pm: Leaving the Town Hall, I realise that I’ve just passed a fellow Huddersfielder, the poet Simon Armitage. He is today’s Guest Director (there’s one for each day of the Festival, who has programmed three events for that particular day).

Saturday 10th

11.30 am: I have the morning free, so I’ve been to look around town. As I’m going into the Town Hall, I think back to seeing Simon Armitage last night, and wonder if I could play a little game of ‘Guest Director bingo’, just to see how many of them I could spot over the ten days. At the precise moment I think this (and I swear I’m not making this up), I reliase that today’s Guest Director, Richard Eyre, has just walked past me. That makes up my mind: the challenge is on!

1.30 pm: Off to the Centaur pavilion (what a great pun) at the racecourse to see Michael Palin. He talks about his career in the 1980s, the period covered by the new volume of his diaries. Much as I like Palin’s work (he’s one of the few writers I’ll be seeing who I’ve actually read), I’m more familiar with his travel programmes than this part of his career, so it’s interesting to hear his behind-the-scenes tales of (mostly) the films he made at that time.

4.00 pm: Marcus Chown, the New Scientist‘s cosmology consultant, talks about his latest book, which (says the brochure) ‘looks at what the everyday world tells us about the universe’. The discussion about science is interesting, but I don’t gain much sense of what the book is actually like.

6.30 pm: Readings and discussion from the novelists Diana Evans and Patrick Neate. The latter, I would say, is the better reader; but both books sound interesting, and so my ‘would like to read’ list grows a little longer.

8.45 pm: Quite interesting stuff from John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, the creators of QI. They can’t talk about their new book, because it’s not finished yet; nevertheless, their enthusiasm is infectious.

Sunday 11th

10.00 am: Am I cheating in my game of Guest Director bingo if the only time I see them is when I know I’m going to? Well, it’s my game, with my rules, so I decide that the answer is no. So, here is today’s Guest Director, Sandi Toksvig, interviewing the novelist Kate Mosse. Actually, it’s less of an interview than a chat between friends — and less informative (to me, as someone who has never read Mosse but thought about it) as a result.

12.00 pm: The first of several occasons when I miss out on an event to which I wanted to go. There were no tickets left for Harry Hill; disappointing, but never mind.

4.00 pm: Back to the vast (and full) auditorium of the Centaur, where Mark Lawson is interviewing Mitchell and Webb. I’ve never really watched them, but find them quite funny here; and the talk of how they work as a double act is interesting.

7.30: Time for something different — two hours of dynamic storytelling by the excellent Ben Haggarty. He weaves a wonderful tale that begins with his visting a freak show at a carnival in America, and ends on the moon, where he discovers the truth about his profession. I don’t know how often Haggarty tours, but if he comes anywhere near you, go and see him.

Monday 12th

10.00: A talk by David Elder about an anthology he has put together of writing about Cheltenham. This was one of the events I was less sure about, didn’t know quite what to expect, and ultimately I found it a bit dry. To be fair, I would probably have got more out of it if I were a Cheltonian.

Lunchtime: I’ve been wandering around, trying to find somwhere nice to have lunch, and end up going from one side of town to the other. It’s good for my game of Guest Director bingo, because at one point I pass a group of people which includes today’s Guest Director, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

4.00 pm: A conversation between P.D. James and Ruth Rendell. As with the Toksvig/Mosse event yesterday, these two are good friends; and, though the talk is interesting enough, I once again feel that the writers’ fans will have got more out of it than I did.

8.45 pm: I did want to see Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall now, but the event had sold out. Instead, I’m at the interview of another Channel 4 presenter, Kevin McCloud, who is talking about European architecture and the idea of the ‘Grand Tour’. He’s a marvellously entertaining speaker, even breaking into spontaneous impersonations of Brian Sewell and Prince Charles. I’m not particularly into architecture, but McCloud makes the subject interesting; and he’s not the only person who will do so this week — but that can wait for another instalment…

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