Monday, 31 August 2015

A Reading Acrostic

Now here's an enjoyable diversion which came my way thanks to A Life in Books; just what you need when desperately seeking an excuse not to do the ironing on a Bank holiday Monday.

The idea is to make an acrostic out of your name based on some of the books you’ve read recently; all those below are linked to my reviews. 

I did think that, with my name, the task would be quite straightforward; nevertheless I found myself stretching the definition of 'recent' on occasion and blatantly cheating on the letter 'Y'. Nobody's noticed, though, so I think I've got away with it...

C is for Chop Chop by Simon Wroe

L is for Lost & Found by Brooke Davis

A is for A Song For Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

I is for Indian Magic by Balraj Khanna

R is for Revolt by Qaisra Shahraz

E is for Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper 


H is for Honour by Elif Shafak

A is for (The) Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul E.Hardisty

Y is for Testament of Youth (OK, I've had to cheat a bit here, turns out I haven't read any books beginning with 'Y' recently, so this is a way of crow-barring in one of my all-time favourites)

E is for (The) Examined Life by Stephen Grosz

S is for Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson (tr Quentin Bates)

Well, that was fun! Now, why not have a go yourself?

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Book Review: The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz

I'm not a particularly regular reader of non-fiction because I love to lose myself in the imaginative possibilities of stories. And yet, in The Examined Life, psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz's account of his day-to-day consultations with his patients, I'm reminded that factual writing can be every bit as wondrous and revelatory as fiction.


The Examined Life is very aptly subtitled How We Lose and Find Ourselves and subdivided according to the cycle of living - from beginnings to loving and leaving. At one time or another, we all get stuck and feel unable to move forward, Grosz explains, afraid of the very changes we most need to bring about. He demonstrates this with tales of his patients (their names and personal details changed to preserve confidentiality) and also shows how, through reaching an understanding of their situation and the patterns of behaviour that have brought it about, he can help them to make sense of their lives and move on.

And so we learn of Peter, a structural engineer with a deep-seated desire to shock - causing distress to others, no matter what the cost to himself. Of Elizabeth M, who habitually lurches from crisis to crisis, and Professor R, embarking on a gay relationship after forty-four years of marriage, who says 'for the first time in my life, I felt myself.'

Besides these cases, and many more, Grosz muses how praise can cause a loss of confidence and how anger can so often be a mask for other emotions. On why we sometimes prefer ignorance, as well as the positive aspects of paranoia and, inevitably, how we face the losses which come to haunt all of our lives. His manner is calm, reflective, wise; here writes a man who has worked as a psychoanalyst for 25 years and spent more than 50,000 hours with his patients.


With their often unexpected twists, Grosz's tales often read like a collection of short stories which just so happen to be real. At first, I felt as though I was being fed morsels, that I wanted to know more about each individual case, but then Grosz's insights started to creep up on me. First a trickle and then a flood; with psychoanalysis having its roots in Freud, these insights often derive from the interpretation of dreams, which occasionally feel like educated guesswork. My personal favourites are where Grosz uses literature to make his point:
The author Karen Blixen said, 'All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them'. But what if a person can't tell a story about his sorrows? What if his story tells him?
Experience has taught me that our childhoods leave in us stories like this - stories we never found a way to voice, because no one helped us to find the words. When we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us - we dream these stories, we develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we don't understand. 
His references range from William Styron to Beckett to Dr Seuss. In teaching psycho-therapeutic technique, his reading list includes Dickens' A Christmas Carol, to demonstrate people's extraordinary capacity to change their present, once they understand and move on from their past. And, in Herman Melville's short story Bartleby, the Scrivener - a tale which has previously left me bemused - he clarifies the reasons behind the eponymous clerk's negativity; why Bartleby is compelled to respond to quite reasonable requests with the words 'I would prefer not to', despite the growing harm his inaction inflicts on himself and others.

It struck me just how long many of Grosz's patients see him for, their treatment often running into years; how fallible and gradual the process often proves and how costly this must be. But, wherever you stand on psychoanalysis - and I feel I don't know enough to make an informed judgement - The Examined Life is nevertheless an elegantly written, profound and moving exploration of all that it means to be human.


The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz is published in paperback by Vintage Books. Photos courtesy of Stephen Grosz.com

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Book Review: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer

When our personal details are appropriated these days it's no longer big news; cookies flog us that Beyonce fragrance we only googled in a moment of idle curiosity and identity thieves access bank accounts all the time. Data leeches out of screens that are becoming less of an accessory, more an extension of ourselves; Assange, Manning and Snowden have shown just how deeply it's already being mined. Whoever gets the greatest handle on all this stuff flying round the Internet will reap the biggest reward; this is the premise of David Shafer's debut novel Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, anyway - and it sure as hell is a scary one.


There are novels which travel a long way from their beginning to their end, and WTF is one of them. It opens in Burma, with aid worker Leila stumbling upon something she shouldn't have in the country's uncharted hinterlands. In asking for help to decipher what she's seen, she ends up putting both herself and her family in danger. Meanwhile, in Portland, Oregon, Leo loses his job and his grip on what might be considered reality. But, are his paranoid fantasies of a world where his every move is watched so extreme? And in New York, Mark, famous writer of a self-help book, begins to understand the price of his success.

What is it that connects them all? We know they're being being monitored, but why? Despite the relentless pace of Shafer's story-telling, it takes a while for the plot to unfold. Eventually, all the elements come together and the battle-lines between two potentially world-dominating forces start to emerge - but the ride in the meantime is a breathless one.

And this is what really elevates Shafer's debut from the mere thriller I thought I was embarking upon. WTF is adrenaline-fuelled, mind-bending, relentless, desperate and - unexpectedly - very funny. There's no shortage of focus on the personal, either - each protagonist has their own family problems, the struggles that have shaped them. Scariest of all; in its portrayal of the opposing alliances fighting to control the mass of data and devices that run our lives, even as it threatens to drift off into the realms of fantasy, WTF feels so incredibly, subversively plausible - in a way I haven't felt since reading Iain Banks.

I particularly enjoyed Leo's rehab time in Quivering Pines:
They began with a check-in: You were supposed to say your name and ascribe to yourself a feeling word. Keith was clearly having an ongoing disagreement with Kenny, the tracksuited scrap-metal collector, who sat hunched and fidgeting in his chair. Kenny tried to use pissed off as his feeling word.
"Pissed off is not a feeling word, Kenny," said the counselor.
 It's a feeling phrase, thought Leo. 
Fidget-fidget hunch. "But that's how I feel."
"Can you find a less aggressive way to put it?" asked Keith. Kenny scanned the list of feeling words on the sheet taped to the back of his notebook. He chose angry, though it seemed to make him more pissed off to do so.
Leo chose bewildered. He liked the wildness of the word. 
There are weaknesses. Occasionally, the three main characters would benefit from a little more differentiation; the language Shafer uses to inhabit each of them can be strikingly similar. He particularly overdoses on creating adjectives with a -y:
They all sat squished together. Leila was pressed up against Sarah. Leila had diagnosed in herself a minicrush on Sarah, which was ridiculous and inappropriate and probably Stockholm-y.
And, although there are some admirably strong women (Leila's sister Roxana being my out and out kick-ass favourite), it would be so refreshing to find a gutsy female protagonist who doesn't also happen to be beautiful in an effortless, Lara Croft-y kind of way. May she be ordinary; have an average of talents. After all, the central male characters aren't obliged to be jaw-chisellingly handsome; they have that white-male freedom to be messy and last-minute, incidentally heroic.

For all that, WTF is heart-stopping; dividing not along traditional Cold War or newer middle-eastern fault-lines but in the rift between the ideologies of multi-national corporations and security agencies versus mind-bending, new-age hippies with a penchant for puns. The ending may be too open and concerned to make way for a sequel, but WTF nevertheless had me totally in its thrall, convinced that we are creeping ever closer to the apocalypse, one mouse-click at a time.

Now excuse me, I've just got to check on the price of that Beyonce fragrance...

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is published in the UK by Penguin Books. Thanks to Penguin for my review copy.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Theatre Review: Talking Heads at the Theatre Royal Bath

This review was first written for The Public Reviews


Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads made an indelible mark as a series of BBC TV monologues in the 1980s. Now Theatre Royal Bath, with many a successful Bennett production already under its belt, has revived three of the most highly acclaimed episodes for the second slot of its 2015 Summer Season.
Set somewhere in Yorkshire in the 1980s, these monologues unfold like a succession of short stories; glimpses of the humour and piquancy at the heart of everyday lives, as each character gradually unravels before us. In Lady of Letters, Siobhan Redmond opens as the acerbic Miss Ruddock, a busybody adept at dashing off a letter of complaint about any aspect of society – and  there are many – that she finds fault with. Redmond takes time to fully settle into the role; at first she seems too young and hurried in her delivery but, as Miss Ruddock’s misplaced meddling in the well-being of her neighbours’ child turns toxic, she ends with a greater conviction of her character’s hidden depths.
In A Cream Cracker under the Settee, Stephanie Cole (who appeared in the original TV series as Muriel in Soldiering On) now takes on the part immortalised by Thora Hird of Doris, the hygiene-obsessed widow who comes a cropper when attempting to dust the places her home-help has neglected. Cole’s performance is solid, conveying all the fears of a nursing home and loss of independence. Yet it doesn’t quite reach the heights expected from the final monologue; not helped, perhaps, by the interruptions to its pacing by a series of closed-curtain scene changes which leave the audience unsure as to whether the piece has ended.
The performance of the evening must go to Karl Theobald as Graham, originally played by Bennett himself, in the second monologue A Chip in the Sugar.  A middle-aged man with a history of mental illness, Graham finds life with his elderly mother is thrown out of equilibrium by the arrival on the scene of her unexpected suitor. Theobald effortlessly inhabits the quaintly exasperated resignation of his character, drawing the audience into a world of comically precise routines, where standards are maintained by a cloth on the table and the care of his elderly mother provides the certain world view Graham craves.
A series of everyday scenarios ends in perfectly-timed one liners; when a well-meaning vicar tells Graham’s mother he’s married to God, she retorts: “Where does that leave you with the housework?” Through Theobald’s assured delivery, from the homeliness of cafes and supermarket shopping, “natty” yellow-gloved gent’s outfitter Frank Turnbull vividly emerges as a bullying existential threat, edging Graham ever closer to the well of loneliness that lurks nearby.
Despite small, hard-earned triumphs the common themes of separation, of unfulfilled individuals set on scraping by rather than celebrating, run through all three monologues. They are supported by Francis O’Connor’s intriguing set of disorientating angles which cleverly adapts for each piece; walls reflecting the sky and clouds of an outside world spied upon with suspicion, with only the most utilitarian of furniture staving off the void.
Rather than taking it in new directions, Sarah Esdaile’s direction encapsulates Bennett’s original vision, emphasising its closely-observed humour and pathos. Letter-writing may be a lost art and today Miss Ruddock would perhaps be firing off a series of pithy emails or reviled as a Twitter troll, but the universality of the hollow at the centre of these ordinary suburban lives remains.
Reviewed on July 28th 2015 | Photo: Nobby Clarke

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Theatre Review: Oklahoma! at the Bristol Hippodrome

This review was first written for The Public Reviews



Oklahoma! two-steps into the Bristol Hippodrome with its much-loved Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook, infectiously energetic dances and a sunnyside-up storyline more complex than the opening boy-meets-girl scenario might suggest.
Director Rachel Kavanaugh and her choreographer Drew McOnie’s new version of this 1943 musical doesn’t so much attempt to update a classic, as transport its audience back into the heart of its turn of the 20thCentury setting, a time when Oklahoma was about to be created as the 46th state of the Union.
So, this is a story filled with the optimism and flirtations of new beginnings, as young cowboy Curly McLain invites farm girl Laurey Williams to the box social dance that evening. But it also touches on deeper obsessions and social divisions, as Laurey decides to play hard to get and go with Aunt Eller’s hired hand Jud Fry instead. Jud has a darker, brooding side and, once she realises she’ll be left alone with him, Laurey begins to regret her decision.
Ashley Day is engagingly winsome as Curly, fluid in the dances and with a clear, bright singing tone in the opening Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’. Charlotte Wakefield is more than his match as Laurey – full of vitality and looking for more from life than just marriage to the closest man, combining harmoniously with Curly in People Will Say We’re in Love. And Nic Greenshields gives magnificent voice to the misery of what it is to be Jud; as Curly goes as far as suggesting in Pore Jud is Daid that he might be better off committing suicide. It’s difficult not to feel some 21st century liberal sympathy for this unremitting villain of the piece, no matter how brutish his acts.
The entertaining sub-plot involves Lucy May Baker as Ado Annie, the girl who “Cain’t Say No” with assured performances from Simon Anthony as her young beau Will and Gary Wilmot as Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler who quickly regrets his involvement. Wilmot masters his role effortlessly as the lovable rogue and his cheeky asides are timed to perfection.
Francis O’Connor’s multi-layered set is a delight, providing real depth to the stage with its timbered backdrop and the bare framework of the school building, which proves a great springboard for the dances of the box social in Act Two, when the pace of this production really picks up. Lighting design by Tim Mitchell also brings outstanding clarity and warmth, although on press night at least, there are initially a few sound issues, with some words and meanings indistinct.
It’s all too easy to view Oklahoma! with its host of familiar songs and out-dated gender roles as a captivating but rather quaint period piece, yet it’s so much more than that. When first staged, it was ground-breaking in musical history for integrating song and dance into the story and using them imaginatively – particularly in the Dream Ballet – to propel the narrative forward. The Rodgers and Hammerstein score still stands the test of time and this touring production more than does it justice.
Reviewed on 14th July 2015.

Book Review: Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson

I really enjoyed reading Charlotte Mendelson's Daughters of Jerusalem a few years back. Though it seems I've now lost my copy (did I lend it out?), I still recall soaking up all its teenage intensity and dark familial strife, the prodigious intellects and claustrophobic cloistering of its hallowed Oxford quads. So, when I saw Charlotte was coming to Topping & Company in Bath to talk about her new novel Almost English, I leapt at the chance to go along.


Charlotte was interesting, engaging and funny and (no surprise here) I bought a copy of her latest book on the spot. But, this proved to be the last I saw of it for a while, as my daughter carted it off to Uni along with the rest of her life. At some stage she returned it to my ever-expanding bedside reading pile from whence, to my shame, it has only just emerged.


In Almost English, Mendelson revisits familiar themes of adolescent uncertainty and family tensions in the form of Marina, a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl who, alongside her mother Laura, lives in a cramped flat in Bayswater with her ancient Hungarian relatives. From the outset, this is a story saturated with the paralysing alienation which Mendelson captures so effectively; Marina may love her grandmother Roszi and great aunts Ildi and Zsuzsi, but their heavy accents, reverence for traditional Hungarian food, noisy socialising with endless cousins and idiosyncratic lack of inhibition all swaddle her in excruciating embarrassment and reinforce the differences between her life and those of her peers:
Despite their absolute silence on matters sexual and the lengths to which they will go to avoid being seen entering a toilet, Roszi and Ildi and Zsuzsi are startlingly relaxed about the female body, keeping each other company when they have baths, stumping around the flat in nothing but supportive Swiss underwear and rubber orthopaedic shoes. Marina may be young but they show her no quarter, continually whipping back shower curtains, patting her popsi, assessing the progress of her breasts. 
To make matters worse, Marina has taken a decision which she almost immediately regrets; swapping her day school attendance at Ealing Girls' for the life of a boarder at Combe Abbey, a traditional English public school in the depths of Dorset. Here, surrounded by honeyed-stone walls and moneyed pupils, Marina feels even more at sea; homesick for the very family she's ashamed to belong to, with a growing obsession about the harm that may befall them while she's away. She develops a crush on one boy but begins a relationship with another; Guy Viney, whose house and family, for all her awkwardness in their presence, begin to assume greater importance to her than Guy himself.

Meanwhile, Laura is having her own quiet breakdown, as Marina's term-time absence creates a void in her life - or rather increases the gaping hole that opened when her husband Peter, Roszi's son, deserted her many years ago. Nor are the Hungarian in-laws too afraid of mentioning this:
'Nev-airmind,' the cousin's wife is saying cheerfully, putting her bony hand through Laura's arm and frog-marching her back into the throng. 'One day when you are old vom-an like me you understand. Men leave. Children leave. All that is left is death.'
Mendelson's eye for detail and skilful prose are as much in evidence as ever. For all the similarities of subject matter, Almost English is funnier and not as dark as Daughters of Jerusalem, although the comedic episodes sometimes feel like a mask, obscuring the deeper story that lurks beneath.

Much of the comedy centres around the great aunts; they are overbearing and frequently hilarious, but Mendelson captures them with such affection that they become much more than caricatures. Indeed, the emerging account of why they arrived in Britain after the war with much diminished wealth and the central puzzle of their aversion for the Vineys has the potential to be so captivating, I found myself wondering whether this might be where the real story lay.

Almost English is available in paperback in the UK from Picador Books. Pictures courtesy of The Independent and Man Booker Prize.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Theatre Review: Infinity Pool at The Brewery Theatre, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for Theatre Bristol Writers
Sleep: Dream: Wake: Work: Drink: Eat: Repeat
Welcome to the humdrum life of Emma Barnicott, who works in a plumbing supplies warehouse on a Plymouth trading estate and comes home every evening to Paul, her husband of many years. 
Not that we’re told this in so many words – in fact, in her experimental one-woman show, Bea Roberts takes the concept of ‘show not tell’ to its extreme. She hardly utters a syllable but reveals Emma’s story, to a backdrop of eighties’ bands like INXS and the Pretenders, through the multimedia use of a television, an overhead projector and laptops which project conversations and imagery on to two large screens at the back of the stage – and often on to Roberts herself.
Loosely based on a modern retelling of Madame Bovary, Roberts captures the remoteness of contemporary life; Emma updates her status and tracks her travelling daughter on Facebook and embarks on a witty email flirtation with a builder which threatens to tip over into reality. For all our technological progress since Flaubert ‘s novel was published in 1856, it seems we have not escaped the everyday tedium which leads to Emma shopping beyond her means online and fantasising about an affair with Michael Hutchence.
There are shades of Bridget Jones here as Emma counts the calories, she has mainly expended on wine, in a half-hearted attempt to lose weight. In her dreams, she is always lighter, sexier, more alive. In reality, the highlights of the life she longs to break free from are drunken conversations at a colleague’s leaving do and party rings – and increasingly intimate online exchanges with her builder.
This seamless storytelling is captivating; it’s as intriguing to anticipate the next move in Roberts’ relentless bustle as it is to absorb Emma’s story. The simplest things often work best: slides of her car journey to and from work and the inside of the office lift; pouring water into a Pyrex dish on the overhead projector to signify rain. Adding a sponge turns this into taking a shower – reminiscent of Katie Mitchell’s much larger scale, multimedia production of Virginia Woolf’s Waves.
It is playful, wistful and at moments unexpectedly profound. Maybe Emma’s Dad, gazing at the stars in all their infinity from his caravan, is the one who’s really got it right. Food for thought, that is much more substantial than party rings, anyway. 
Reviewed on 11th July 2015.