Saturday, 31 August 2013

Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes)

 --The blurb--
"Charlie Gordon, IQ 68, is a floor sweeper, and the gentle butt of everyone's jokes, until an experiment in the enhancement of human intelligence turns him into a genius. But then Algernon, the mouse whose triumphal experimental transformation preceded his, fades and dies, and Charlie has to face the possibility that his salvation was only temporary."

--The review--
The recent news story about miniature human brains being grown in laboratories has the potential to spark a flurry of debate. The positives and negatives of such developments are equally legion. On the plus side, such in vitro experiments could allow neurological disorders such as autism and schizophrenia to be much better understood, and also enable a reduction in animal experimentation (ever a hot topic). However, on the more sinister side, others may argue that such experiments are the stuff of science fiction: they play God, pose a threat to our moral and ethical codes, and are the beginning of a slippery slope towards experiments that could have catastrophic consequences (such as the growth of fully-sized human brains). But forty-seven years ago, in true dystopian tradition, novelist Daniel Keyes was already predicting some of the disastrous after-effects of tampering with the human brain, in his debut, entitled Flowers For Algernon

The narrator, Charlie, who tells of his experiences epistolary-style through a series of progress reports, seems part-inspired by Lennie Small, the developmentally-delayed protagonist in John Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men (published nearly 30 years before Flowers For Algernon, so already a classic by the time of Keyes' publication), thanks to the two characters' similarly well-meaning, easy-going attitudes, and their limited means of oral and written expression. However, Keyes does not produce a carbon copy of Lennie in Charlie, who is all his own character thanks to his keenness to learn and the unusual nature of the situation in which he has been placed. Despite Charlie's basic literacy, both his personality and the situation are expressed clearly, inspiring immediate affection in the reader. Sympathy is also invoked, as we are able to see aspects of the way people treat Charlie differently to how he views it; this, though, naturally changes as the story progresses.

As well as Charlie's understanding of the world around him, the style in which he writes also develops, with vocabulary choices becoming more sophisticated and spelling and punctuation errors disappearing, indicating his increasing intelligence. Keyes does not always manage this transition between entries smoothly, but this can be forgiven thanks to the largely uncharted nature of the surgery undergone by Charlie - in these circumstances, the notion of rapid or erratic progress is not entirely unrealistic, especially in the context of the unpredictable behaviour and progress already mentioned by Charlie in relation to murine test subject Algernon.

Algernon the mouse is key to the novel in more ways than simply providing an intriguing title. He provides a realistic basis for the surgery carried out on Charlie (scientific tests and new medicines are always carried out on animals before being tested on humans), but also a powerful precursor and foreshadow of Charlie's own fate. Less literally, the mouse - often perceived as modest and insignificant in both life and literature - symbolises the equally vulnerable position occupied not just by Charlie but by the disabled in general, who often find themselves at the mercy of those who are more powerful or simply more numerous. This is perhaps an even more significant symbol given that the disability rights movement and independent living movement were just beginning to get going in the decade in which Flowers For Algernon was published.

It is hardly surprising that the book has never been out of print since its initial publication in 1966. As well as the pathos evoked and the taut narrative arc being worthy of commendation, there is also the fact that the issues addressed by Keyes are as relevant today as they were almost fifty years ago. The novel's ability to alter perspectives on disability rights in a hard-hitting yet accessible style means that it should be read by every man, woman and teen, with Keyes successfully getting across his message that "foresight may be vain", and that "the best laid schemes of mice and men/Go often awry" - and all through a sci-fi-style ode to a man and a mouse.

other works by Daniel Keyes
The Touch (1968)
The Fifth Sally (1980)
The Minds of Billy Milligan (1981)
Unveiling Claudia (1986)
The Milligan Wars (1994)
Until Death (1998)
Algernon, Charlie and I: A Writer's Journey (2000)
The Asylum Prophecies (2009)

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

O, What A Luxury! (Garrison Keillor)

 --The blurb--
"O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound is the first poetry collection written by Garrison Keillor, the celebrated radio host of A Prairie Home Companion. Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, this volume forges a new path for himself as a poet of light verse."

--The review--
Garrison Keillor's eccentric reputation as a humorist, author and radio presenter tells us to expect the unexpected from this media personality. (This is the same man that played The Beach Boys' "Help Me Rhonda" non-stop as part of a live on-air protest at the radio station where he worked, and who is partly known for his controversial comments about Methodists and the gay community.) It's therefore unsurprising that his first poetry collection, entitled O, What A Luxury!, promises the eclectic mixture of lyricism, vulgarity, profundity and miserable inadequacy, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to as many people as possible. And a mixed bag is just what readers get, with the poems grouped into categories to apparently shape stories from smaller groups of poems - even though these are not always immediately understandable or apparent. This dissonant style makes it unclear as to whether the collection is for adults or children: the sometimes-profound titles of the groups of poems suggest the former, while the unsophisticated nature of the poems' immature subjects and reliance on tongue-twisters implies a more childish audience. Serious poems sadly turn silly at their end, cheapening their premise and making them bathetic rather than amusing. Ultimately, then, this dissonance is unsuccessful, with the multiple layers that Keillor apparently attempts to integrate into his poetry in the end lacking in harmony.

This lack of a clear purpose in this collection is evident throughout, both structurally and semantically. Keillor's rhymes frequently seem juvenile, right from the very first poem, entitled Unification, which debases his talent and makes the poetry at times unmemorable. Equally disappointing is the manner in which he chooses to make his political points, which is unbalanced, deploying either too much force or not enough. However, in a strange way this highlights a strength of the poetry, indicating that tone of voice may be key and that these poems may be better in performance (particularly as in the case of Nobody Loves You and Thong Song). Some poems seem to have deeper meaning (Episcopalian) but lack lucidity and an overall place within the collection, as they don't cohere well with the other poems, reinforcing the volume's lack of purpose.

Aspects of Keillor's poems, though, such as On The Road, are Philip Larkin-like, which proves that Keillor is at his best when being observational in a more serious way. However, this style is unfortunately not always sustained thanks perhaps to his over-keenness to pack the poem with unnecessary quotations from popular culture. Keillor also does well when focusing on real intensity of emotion and solemnity of feeling throughout a poem, as he does in Love Poem, which is further enhanced by truly effective imagery ("Above your head, the universe has hung its lights"), to create something that all people can sincerely relate to and which has a chance of standing the test of time. This is infinitely better than the many pages of forced 'wit' that have gone before. Political name-dropping and casual scattering of brand names across the stanzas do not improve the situation, and in fact serve to make poetry less, rather than more, accessible. Tapping into the vicissitudes of the human spirit gives Keillor more likelihood of posterity. Some sage advice in his 2008 address to graduates arguably demonstrates what one suspects Keillor had hoped to show all along - that he can combine seriousness and flippancy: "Failure is essential, a form of mortality. Without failure, we have a poor sense of reality...And learn what Harvard cannot teach you/Whether you get a bachelor's or a master's:/The fact that being a traveler means learning to weather disasters."

This mixed bag is therefore worth reading for a few hidden gems, but would be even better if it had been streamlined significantly by a more scrupulous editor, with only the best poems being published. The slightly wry tone of Keillor's work also means that fans would do better to seek him out live in action; sometimes poetry isn't written to be read in one's head, and this collection would make a far better performance on stage than book club selection.

other works by Garrison Keillor
  • Happy to Be Here (1981)
  • Lake Wobegon Days (1985)
  • Leaving Home (1987)
  • We Are Still Married (1989)
  • WLT: A Radio Romance, (1991)
  • The Book of Guys (1993)
  • The Sandy Bottom Orchestra (with Jenny Lind Nilsson, 1996)
  • Wobegon Boy (1997)
  • Me, by Jimmy "Big Boy" Valente (1999)
  • Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 (2001)
  • In Search of Lake Wobegon (2001)
  • Good Poems (2002)
  • Love Me (2003)
  • Homegrown Democrat (2004)
  • Good Poems for Hard Times (2005)
  • Daddy's Girl (2005)
  • Pontoon: A Novel of Lake Wobegon (2007)
  • Liberty: A Novel of Lake Wobegon (2008)
  • Life among the Lutherans (2009)
  • 77 Love Sonnets (2009)
  • A Christmas Blizzard (2009)
  • Pilgrims: A Wobegon Romance (2009)
  • Good Poems, American Places (2011)
  • Guy Noir and the Straight Skinny (2012)

Monday, 26 August 2013

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Jean-Dominique Bauby)

--The blurb--
"In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, the witty, gregarious editor of French "Elle", suffered a stroke that left him totally paralyzed, able to communicate only by blinking his left eye. By doing so, he was able to compose this book - at once a record of appalling suffering and a testament to the endurance of the human spirit."

--The review--
Occasionally cases of locked-in syndrome and paralysis make the news. In 2005 it was British man Tony Nicklinson, who campaigned tirelessly in the press for the right to die with assistance (he died naturally mere months after losing his case in the High Court). In 2010, Times journalist Melanie Reid fell from her horse, making her an instant tetraplegic. Her position as a writer for one of Britain's most respected broadsheets has enabled her to not only raise awareness of tetraplegia but also to chronicle her day-to-day existence with humour and pathos. In the late 1990s, memoir The Diving Bell and The Butterfly served a similar purpose, drawing the public's attention to locked-in syndrome as experienced by former ELLE editor Jean-Dominique Bauby. Through painstaking blinks of his eyelid, he was able to describe his days in hospital near Berck-sur-Mer thanks to the dedication of Claude Mendibil, who took down Bauby's story letter by letter after he had memorised each pithy chapter in his head.

Bauby certainly takes pithiness to extremes in this tiny volume, which barely attains 140 small pages, with wide margins. However, this is no bad thing, as the concision of his writing enhances its artistry and poignancy. This combination of brevity and beauty makes the book a portable masterclass for anyone wishing to know how to write well. In spite of the devastating position in which Bauby finds himself, his unique view of the world he now inhabits and his voyage through memory is simultaneously accessible and elegant - a feat in itself considering how despairing such a text could be.

Naturally, though, Bauby does acknowledge the most painful aspects of his new existence, including getting used to feeling like he has a diving bell for a head, not being able to communicate even his most basic needs without someone patient enough to sit through his blinking, managing the vast quantities of saliva that his mouth now suddenly produces, and trying to rebuild his relationship with his children. Readers are buoyed, though, by the fact that he is still so lucid and descriptive, and the butterfly of the book's title seems to represent not only the freedom that he still has in his mind, but also the delicately dancing beauty of his prose and the ever-increasing acuity of other senses (such as his hearing - at one point he marvels "I must have the ear of a butterfly!"). This instils us with the belief that in spite of his near-total immobility and lack of physical independence, he still has so much to live for - and, furthermore, gives us hope that he may recover, which is fuelled by small signs of progress in his physical condition.

Thanks to the dense layering of stunning images and very real emotion with which The Diving Bell And The Butterfly is packed, Bauby leaves a stunning literary legacy which is already rightly remembered even more than his successful career as a magazine editor. While this degree of physical limitation is not what anyone would choose for themselves, Bauby's memoir - which neatly flits, like a butterfly, between his past life and his present experiences - is an inspiring reminder of the fortitude of the human mind and spirit, which is indeed a legacy that writers like Melanie Reid can take even further strength from.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

How To Survive Your First Year In Teaching (Sue Cowley)

--The blurb--
"So you've finished your teacher training and found yourself a job . . . the hard bit is over right? But, hold on, how do you actually survive your FIRST YEAR in teaching?! The NQT year is notoriously difficult and hard work. Challenges include meeting your new colleagues and making the right first impression, preparing and planning your lessons, managing the mountain of marking and most scary of all . . . being in charge of a whole class by yourself for the first time! But don't panic - help is at hand from expert teacher and education writer Sue Cowley. In this new edition of her bestselling book, she supports new teachers through the stresses and strains, and the highs and lows of their first year in teaching. She's there to guide you right from the start of day one, lesson one, with the acknowledgement that 'your stomach feels like lead and your mouth feels as dry as the Sahara desert'. She's there through each term advising on time-saving lesson plans, easy to implement behavior management tips and how to help children who have special educational needs. She's there right until the end of the year when she ensures that you feel triumphantly on top of report writing and your first parents' evening. All of her methods are tried-and-tested and real life case studies exemplify how (and how not) to put them in to practice. This new edition has been fully updated with new diagrams and checklists to boost your organisational and time management skills. It also includes refreshed and up-to-date case studies and extra examples for primary school teachers. Written in Sue Cowley's honest, accessible and down to earth style, How to Survive your First Year in Teaching is a must have for all new teachers embarking on their NQT year."

--The review--
Embarking on your career can arguably be likened - albeit on a lesser scale - to becoming a parent. You are given a bucketload of small tasks which, as soon as they are over, need to be done again; tasks which at times can get a little bit messy and emotional. And all of these tasks need to somehow come together to make one big thing. And just as soon as you've achieved that one big thing - or helped others to achieve it - you can see that there's another BIG THING off in the distance which you feel no more prepared for and which you are under equal pressure to see through without the whole enterprise going off the rails. Such, I'm led to believe, is parenting. 

Teaching also often feels a lot like this. Sue Cowley, the author of How To Survive Your First Year In Teaching, know this, and thankfully is there to take newly-qualified teachers by the hand and lead them through the wilderness. The overall approach taken is practical and positive, while remaining realistic and aware that it's easy to give advice, but not always so easy to take it on board. Equally, Cowley's tone is friendly without being patronising: readers want to benefit from her experience, and so she recognises that she has a delicate balance to strike. This is carried off successfully and maintained throughout the volume, whose readable chapters make it easy to absorb the information being given.

This information is given in a variety of formats, including lists and exemplar dialogues. (The dialogues are, however, perhaps a little too goody-two-shoes at times: not all Year 7s cower when faced with the prospect of a detention, for instance, but instead mouth off with the equivalent of "stfu" and then throw a chair.) It's also organised in a linear, logical format, beginning with the first day with colleagues and first lesson with students, and progressing through to getting involved in extra-curriculars as a teacher, as well as knowing when to say 'no' and when to move on to another job. This all helps to temper the idealism that can sometimes crop up: while I know that NQTs are not supposed to be placed in special-measures or otherwise weak schools, Cowley's book does assume that certain facilities will exist or procedures will be in place to make NQTs' lives easier (a quick scan of the TES fora alone reveals that this is not always the case). Nevertheless, even if the teachers reading find that not everything within applies to their school, How To Survive Your First Year In Teaching still contains many valuable nuggets that are of practical use even to those who have progressed beyond the first year of this profession (she says, from the vantage point of her fifth year).  

This book's reassuring and humorous - yet pragmatic - nature therefore makes it indispensable to all beginning teachers. In the same way that UK children receive a Bookstart pack at birth, new pedagogues should receive a tin that looks like this...
...containing spare red pens (a valuable commodity), emergency biscuits, a rubber ball (don't ask), a pack of playing cards (brilliantly diversionary for both you and the kids), and - of course - a copy of this book.
other works by Sue Cowley
The Seven Ts of Practical Differentiation (2013)
The Seven Cs of Positive Behaviour Management (2013)
The Seven Ps of Brilliant Voice Usage (2013)
The Calm Classroom (2012)
The Road To Writing (2012)
Getting The Buggers To Write (2011)
Getting The Buggers To Behave (2010; 4th ed.)
Teaching Skills For Dummies (2009)
You Can Have A Creative Classroom (2008)
Getting The Buggers Into Drama (2007)
Getting The Buggers To Think (2007)
Guerilla Guide To Teaching (2007)
You Can Create A Thinking Classroom (2006)
Getting Your Little Darlings To Behave (2006)
Letting The Buggers Be Creative (2005)
You Can Create A Calm Classroom (2005)
Sue Cowley's A-Z of Teaching (2004)
Sue Cowley's Teaching Clinic (2003)
Getting The Buggers To Behave 2 (2002)
Starting Teaching (1999)

Friday, 23 August 2013

Great Days At Work (Suzanne Hazelton)

--The blurb--
"Great Days at Work will enable you to become more enthusiastic at work, feel more positive and work more effectively with others. Drawing on the latest insights from positive psychology, and based on hard business results, it outlines the practical day-to-day changes you can make immediately for instant benefit, as well as helping you develop a longer term strategy that means you'll get more out of work. This easily applicable book reveals how to develop an effective perspective on time, embed productive new habits, gain a clear sense of self and build better working relationships. As a result you will make a bigger contribution to your organization, as well as feel more engaged, satisfied and in control of your own work and career. Discover how to have a great day at work, every day!"

--The review--
While growing up, most people have a dream about what they want to do with their lives, and children tend to state adventurous or romantic, generally aspirational and traditional professions that require creativity or bravery as the dream: firemen, astronauts, policemen, teachers, doctors, vets, writers, and artists all tend to feature. A common link between these professions is control, whether it's over other people in an authoritative profession, or over ourselves, whereby creativity allows us to prioritise our personal freedom and control our own destinies. So with those commonly-held childhood dreams in mind, it's understandable that when many of us end up in jobs involving a little more drudgery (sorry to anyone in those professions, but find me a child who wants to be a cold caller, administrator, tollbooth operator...), or just any job that isn't what we'd dreamed of, we may feel like we're losing control or even that some great injustice has been done to us. This logically leads to further negative thoughts, a general sense of despair, and more bad days than good.

Suzanne Hazelton comes to the rescue with Great Days At Work. Rather than being a fluffy version of psychology for dummies, the slim volume is full of surprisingly easy and practical ideas to really create change in our lives. And Hazelton packs a lot in to the 238-page manual, covering everything to checking up on our health to negotiating with others. The tone is friendly and accessible without being patronising, and the content draws on up-to-date research, videos and quizzes, as well as mentioning inspiring figures of today's world that we can all admire, such as Steve Jobs and Andy Murray. 

The only problem with Hazelton's use of these very recent resources is formatting: many of the web addresses she gives are so long as to be unusable, as they will either quickly become outdated or have a high risk of readers typing them into their browsers incorrectly (in this sense, having Great Days At Work as an ebook is more practical). Reducing the links to much shorter ones using URL redirection services is all that's required. Plus, while most of the sources used are reliable, I'm not sure there's any excuse for citing Wikipedia, no matter how occasionally it's done.

Nonetheless, the resources that the author does direct us to are relevant, useful, and easy to use, examining every aspect of our individual approaches to life and work, whether it's quizzing us on spirituality or frequency of physical activity, or encouraging us to watch inspirational lectures. In addition, as personal growth is an ongoing process, there is plenty of food for thought even for people who are already reasonably happy with themselves and their job. 

Hazelton's background in the IT industry means that there is inevitably some focus on this type of business environment. However, the principles of positive psychology involved in this book not only apply to any type of workplace, but also to any stage of one's working life (even though there is a small section on retirement). Further to this, much of what Hazelton advises can apply to virtually any age or life stage too - meaning that as well as using its precepts to help myself have more great days at work, I can also use them as part of my students' social education time in homeroom, so that not only will they be able to manage their lives more effectively now, but also that in future they too will be able to adapt and carry through these same ideas in order to have great days at work themselves.

also by Suzanne Hazelton
Raise Your Game (2012) 

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Vegan Pizza (Julie Hasson)

--The blurb--
"Vegan Pizza is filled with 50 modern recipes from easy-to-make pizza dough (including spelt, whole wheat, and gluten-free crusts), creamy dairy-free cheese sauces, vibrant-flavored pestos and spreads, and meatless and wheat-less burger crumbles. Also included are inventive toppings and pizzas that run the gamut from comfort food pizzas like Chili Mac Pizza, Barbeque Pizza and Eggplant Parmesan Pizza, to fresh vegetable-laden pizzas like Sweet Potato and Kale Pizza, Corn, Zucchini and Tomato Pizza and Asparagus, Tomato and Pesto Pizza. There is even a chapter dedicated to dessert pizzas too, from Babka Pizza, to Berry Pie Pizza and Coconut Caramel Dream Pizza. With helpful information and tips on equipment and techniques, Vegan Pizza shares the secrets to fabulous, easy-to-make, dairy-free, meat-free thin-crust artisan pizza that tastes like it came from your neighborhood pizzeria. Now home cooks everywhere can get baking and make fabulous vegan pizzas in their own kitchens."

--The review--
As a mostly vegetarian consumer of food, pizza can be a tricky minefield to navigate. Sure, there's the ever-classic margherita or quattro formaggi. Pizza bianca is another good option, dealing with mozzarella and ricotta. However, these are all quite heavy on the cheese and many cookbooks aren't that imaginative when it comes to vegetarian pizza options. In her latest recipe book, due out on September 3rd 2013, Julie Hasson takes on the arguably even bigger challenge of vegan pizza. Not only does she have to find a range of tasty toppings that don't rely so much on cheese, but she also has to make a convincing base. So does she manage it?

First, the toppings. One good way around the cheese (apart from vegan cheese, of course, which you can't get in France) is to mix things up by using vegan pesto as a base (if you're making your own pesto at home, this shouldn't be too tricky to achieve). Thankfully, tomato bases also still feature strongly. However, anyone seeking a book based purely on vegetables will be disappointed: Hasson devotes a whole chapter to the creation and use of meat substitutes (mostly using TVP or soy as a base). Conversely, by addressing the 'vegan cheese' element, she passes on actual recipes, not just a list of vegan products to buy - for instance, she creates a creamy "cheese" sauce using tofu and soy milk as a base. Flavourings such as liquid smoke and tahini are also used to help conjure up varied and tasty sauces. Following this, she gets to the classics - but sadly, they all rely on vegan mozzarella-style cheese and some of them use vegan meat substitutes as well. This is definitely aimed at Americans - there's no way you'd be able to find this stuff in France, even at health food stores (and even if you could, it would be very expensive).

Much more promising is the "farmer's market pizza" chapter, which offers up multiple mouthwatering options, including asparagus and pesto, corn and courgette, broccoli and sundried tomato, pineapple and jalapeno, and wild mushroom and potato. However, only the sweet potato and kale pizza, and the tomato, cucumber and caper pizza, don't rely on processed 'vegan' cheese, which again is a little bit limiting. The 'not the usual suspects' chapter suffers from the same problems as previously, thanks to an overreliance on meat and cheese substitutes. The most promising recipe here is the muffuletta pizza, which uses a tomato, chilli and garlic base and toppings of olives, capers, pickled vegetables, and fresh herbs. The global chapter is more complex than previous chapters in terms of both sheer number and variety of ingredients, meaning that whenever the dreaded 'vegan mozzarella' is mentioned, it can be left out. The Bibimbap pizza, inspired by the Korean rice dish, sounds excellent: who wouldn't love a pizza that has a gochujang base, sesame seeds, garlic, spinach, shiitake mushrooms, scallions and beansprouts? The Thai peanut pizza is equally commendable thanks to its creative use of sriracha, peanuts and peanut butter, broccoli, scallions and agave nectar.

The dessert pizzas are also a wonderful idea that I never would have thought of - even if it isn't strictly Italian and you'll find me sneakily substituting the vegan margarine for butter. The berry pie pizza can also be made with no substitutions whatsoever thanks to its elegant ingredient list of berries, sugar, water, cornflour, pizza dough and icing sugar. In fact, most of the dessert recipes can be made by the average human with no interest in vegan margarine.

All of these pizzas are supported by the base. Hasson recognises that this is a classic recipe to not be messed with and sticks with the components of the base that you will find in Italy: flour, salt, olive oil, yeast, and warm water. She also explores other equally interesting options, though, such as wholewheat, spelt, and gluten-free bases, meaning there should be something to suit everyone. All of the recipes are easy to work through, too, and are accompanied by beautiful photographs.

Suffice it to say that this is probably not a recipe book for the beginning vegan, in the sense of far too many specialist products being required to pull these recipes off (the meat and cheese substitutes are one such example, but the tofu and the vegan margarine and the soy milk can prove equally obscure). However, the good news is that vegetarians and even meat-eaters can just adapt the recipes to suit their own needs - by using regular butter or cheese, for example. It's worth noting that even putting slightly marginal ingredients aside, the book is packed with delicious ideas, and as a vegetarian sympathiser myself (even if apparently I can't live without cheese), I feel that the message of vegetarianism and veganism is important: we don't NEED to eat meat, so stand back, experiment with new vegetables or sauces or flavours, and just let the new taste experiences roll in.

other books by Julie Hasson
150 Best Cupcake Recipes (2012)
Vegan Diner (2011)
The Complete Book of Pies (2008)
300 Best Chocolate Recipes (2006)

cross-posted to Ferret Food and Wines

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

When God Was A Rabbit (Sarah Winman)

 --The blurb--
"1968. The year Paris takes to the streets. The year Martin Luther King loses his life for a dream. The year Eleanor Maud Portman is born. Young Elly's world is shaped by those who inhabit it: her loving but maddeningly distractible parents; a best friend who smells of chips and knows exotic words like 'slag'; an ageing fop who tapdances his way into her home, a Shirley Bassey impersonator who trails close behind; lastly, of course, a rabbit called God. In a childhood peppered with moments both ordinary and extraordinary, Elly's one constant is her brother Joe. Twenty years on, Elly and Joe are fully grown and as close as they ever were. Until, that is, one bright morning when a single, earth-shattering event threatens to destroy their bond forever. Spanning four decades and moving between suburban Essex, the wild coast of Cornwall and the streets of New York, this is a story about childhood, eccentricity, the darker side of love and sex, the pull and power of family ties, loss and life. More than anything, it's a story about love in all its forms."

--The review--
In the wake of 9/11, it was perhaps inevitable that novels centered around this event would follow, with Don DeLillo's Falling Man, Ian McEwan's Saturday and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close. Sarah Winman's When God Was A Rabbit does feature 9/11, but it is just one of a sequence of many events and a backdrop to relationships, which proves a refreshing approach.

Less refreshing is the initial framing of protagonist Elly as a precocious child narrator. Literature is already overburdened with such main characters, and this is beginning to lose its shine. Thankfully, though, as Elly grows up, Winman seems to forget or quietly lay aside this notion, or at least Elly's precocity becomes less obvious. This makes for a more realistic novel, as we're able to focus more on the emotions she feels and the traits she has as a 'normal' human being, rather than on her as a hyper-developed wunderkind. 

This proves the only really weak point of this otherwise compelling novel. Even though Winman lets go of the pet rabbit (who really is called God) physically halfway through the novel, the motif still remains throughout. Despite the fact that When God Was A Rabbit is billed as being about relationships (and specifically the relationship between Elly and her brother Joe), it fits the bill more as a haunting yet uplifting paean to loss, whether it's the loss of friendship or the loss of others, the loss of chances or the loss of childhood - with the latter arguably being symbolised by God the rabbit. In spite of his name, we are not encouraged to look at this innocuous yet magical pet as being a religious representative, although there is scope to assert that it serves as a vessel for a spiritual presence. Even though religion is discussed in the novel, and sometimes even in a quite cavalier and humorous way (with Elly as a child asserting that Jesus was a mistake by virtue of being the result of an unplanned pregnancy), the reader doesn't feel bombarded by moral messages at the expense of events.

Winman keeps up the pace of the novel effectively, with characters' influence still being felt when they have left the stage and are waiting in the wings. Equally powerful is the fact that none of the characters are portrayed as being perfect, with their flaws being brought into sharp focus without the novel taking on the grim tone of a misery lit memoir - even though away from the 1970s some of the adults in the novel would surely be investigated for abuse. This, too, helps the novel to be firmly situated in each of its idiosyncratic time periods, which Winman moves between with ease, even when she comes very close to the present day. September 11th and other world events such as IRA bombings do facilitate certain aspects of the plot, but ultimately do not overshadow the characters and their relationships, which helps the events themselves to avoid seeming hackneyed. 

A gritty road is taken to a happy ending in When God Was A Rabbit, leaving Winman's success as a novelist written in the stars, along with the memories of all those who have been loved and lost. 

Saturday, 17 August 2013

The Great Lover (Jill Dawson)

--The blurb--
"In the summer of 1909, seventeen-year-old Nell Golightly is the new maid at the Orchard Tea Gardens in Cambridgeshire when Rupert Brooke moves in as a lodger. Famed for his looks and flouting of convention, the young poet captures the hearts of men and women alike, yet his own seems to stay intact. Even Nell, despite her good sense, begins to fall for him. What is his secret?"

--The review--
Historical and biographical fiction is a grey area requiring great sensitivity on the part of the author thanks to the great balancing act involved between poetic licence and past facts. Respect for history and the need to create a convincing story is never an easy combination to pull off - and thankfully, in The Great Lover, Jill Dawson largely executes this fusion of fact and fiction with finesse.

 One of the established rules of writing historical fiction is to not overburden the reader with history lessons. By 'framing' the story of The Great Lover with a letter from Rupert Brooke's real-life Tahitian daughter, Arlice Rapoto, Dawson doubtlessly hoped to introduce yet another nugget of fact to the reader. However, this aspect of Rupert Brooke's biography seems shoehorned in messily and in contrast to the rest of the book's succinct yet languorous style, as does the fact that the woman to whom Arlice is writing (Nell Sanderson) encloses Brooke's letters (the sections of the story voiced by Brooke are effective, but do not read in any way like letters). Simply splicing together Brooke's and Nell's versions of the same events is both compelling and competent without the needless addition of these extra elements. The only real narrative boost this opening could provide is to allow the reader to infer the course Nell's life took romantically - but this, too, is revealed by the end of the novel anyway.

Nonetheless, none of this stops The Great Lover from being a thoroughly enjoyable read, couched comfortably between literary fiction and romance. Beyond the more superficial yet still vital aspects of character and plot development, which are generally skilfully done, Dawson gives us much more to be impressed by and to contemplate. Aside from playing ironical mind games with readers regarding the true 'greatness' of the lover of the title, F Scott Fitzgerald-style, and deftly weaving history and poetry through the narrative, Dawson places us in the role of Nell and gradually erodes away at our own resolve. Along with the female protagonist, we begin as cynical stalwarts who are eventually reduced to vulnerable romantics, borne back into our own pasts by the immortal tale of 'the one that got away'. 

The anonymity provided by this classic plotline - which is presented by Dawson in a most original way by bringing together the famous poet and the indeterminate member of the public at his service - means that no prior knowledge of Robert Brooke or his poetry is required. While fans will almost certainly enjoy it, the story is less about Brooke than about the human condition, and the perennial questions of whether it is always right to reveal our true feelings, how far we should put others before ourselves, and if there really is just one person for each of us.

This golden combination of ethical probing, historical portrayal, literary artistry and gripping narrative is all done without resorting to mawkishness, and surely secures Dawson as a key player among today's elite novelists - and that can be said on the strength of The Great Lover alone, before even considering the author's other writings. The interplay between realism and romance as presented in The Great Lover provides ageless appeal, whether one is seventeen - as Nell is in the body of the story - or ninety - as she is at the beginning.

other works by Jill Dawson
White Fish with Painted Nails (1990)
How Do I Look? (1990)
Kisses on Paper (1994)
Trick of the Light (1997)
Magpie (1998)
Fred and Edie (2000)
Wild Boy (2003)
Watch Me Disappear (2006)
Lucky Bunny (2011)

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Bookish Bits and Bobs: Hay-on-Why?

My summer holiday this year took in just a few of the many delights of England and Wales, including the Gower, the gardens of Hatfield House, the food of the Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, and the vibrant city of Cardiff. On the day of our exit from Wales, I decided that no self-respecting book lover could possibly leave without visiting the famous Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, whose literary festival attracts thousands every year, as do its many bookshops. I was excited about this visit and had almost been expecting something magical. However, I'd now advise bibliophiles not to bother.

The near-mythical status of Hay-on-Wye is founded more or less on the reputation of its eccentric "king", Richard Booth, who also owns several of the bookshops in the town, including one bearing his own name. This, when combined with the magnitude of its yearly literary festival, leads visitors to expect that they are getting something unique. However, even though parking and tourist information are both plentiful, the town is still something of a disappointment.

I appreciate that we visited on a not-too-summery day in July, and that the place may well be more exciting when the festival is actually on. But given the town's propensity towards bookselling, one is expecting to see bookshops literally everywhere, with books almost spilling out of the town's every nook and cranny. However, what we saw was just an ordinary town that just happened to have a few more bookshops than average - and that was only when you had walked down a few streets. We weren't hit with the immediate feeling of "wow, look at all these bookshops!" that we had been hoping for - and sadly, neither did this feeling develop gradually as we wandered through the town.

But surely the bookshops themselves would be vast treasure troves of bargainous bookish buys to suit every interest? Not really. Many of them just seem to be general bookshops, rather than tailoring stock to suit different topics, so there is a feeling that once you've been in one of the bookshops, they all look pretty much the same, and while the proprietors attempt to organise their books by topic within shops, there again is still a feeling of getting lost amongst books in a negative way. There's the kind of purposeless browsing where you feel you may find a rare pearl at any moment, and there's the kind of purposeless browsing where you lose motivation and think "what's the point? I haven't got a hope of finding the kind of thing I want or like amongst all this".

Even the bookshops' architecture lacked character. Of course there was the blurred vision of the creaky-floored, faux-Tudor establishment, but many of them look like this, meaning that the overall effect is homogenised, not characterful (even though that doesn't seem to stop the hordes of foreign tourists - particularly Americans - being attracted to it and coming and loving it year on year). Equally, the one shop I really had hope for in terms of a memorable experience - the bookshop that used to be an old cinema - had ripped out all of the original features of the building that would have made it unique, leaving you to browse a soulless warehouse.

the book in question
To complete the litany of disappointments, there weren't even any good deals to be had. I appreciate that it's not the point of second-hand bookshops to give you as big a discount as Amazon. But I caught one bookshop selling a book for £30 which I later found for 1p (plus postage, of course) online. Is such a discrepancy in price really justified for a book that wasn't even signed or especially collectable? I don't think so - this to me smacks of Hay-on-Wye trying to milk tourists for all they're worth.

beautiful Hereford
I therefore left the town after two hours' browsing, feeling deflated and without even a single purchase to show for my efforts. All in all, it just seemed like a pointless visit and I was disappointed that I hadn't managed to enjoy it. It's possible that I would try again when the festival is on (although the difficulty in accessing Hay by public transport and the fact that the festival is held out of school holiday time makes it very difficult for working tourists to visit just for a weekend), and that I would find it more exciting then, thanks to the special events and guest speakers that are laid on, and the inevitable change in atmosphere that this likely bringing to the town. However, I'd be more likely to recommend doing what we did afterwards: driving for a bit longer to go to Hereford for lunch, which, while it boasts a vapid chain-dominated high street, also has plenty of cobbled side roads showcasing independent retailers, a beautiful cathedral, and the best cup of coffee we had for the entire trip. Hay could perhaps take a few lessons from Hereford in delivering an engaging town centre all year round - and not just when its world-famous festival is on.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Rest Is Noise (Alex Ross)

 --The blurb--
"The Rest Is Noise is a sweeping musical history from pre-war Vienna to the Velvet Underground. In this comprehensive tour, Alex Ross, music critic for the 'New Yorker', explores the people and places that shaped musical development: Adams to Zweig, Brahms to Bjork, pre-First World War Vienna to 'Nixon in China'. Winner of the Guardian First Book Award, this portrait of an exceptional era weaves together art, politics and cultural history to show how twentieth-century classical music was both a symptom and a source of immense social change."

--The review--
When it comes to works of art, the critical world is frequently split between the separate values of intrinsic and extrinsic reading. Just how vital are the contexts of an artist's personal life and the historical and political scenes in which they grew up to interpretation of their work? Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise is a firm supporter of extrinsic interpretation, but combines both beautifully to add pace, engagement and a multitude of colours to an already interesting cultural mosaic.

Ross treads the fine line between academics and accessibility largely with skill, although some readers may feel lost by the more detailed discussions relating to key signatures and so on. On the other hand, people whose interest is such that they're reading such an in-depth book on the subject will likely already have a good grasp of the meanings of technical terms (even if 'knowing meanings' and 'listening, identifying and analysing' are two very different skills). The interdisciplinary nature of Ross' work is also appealing, with topics as diverse as Stalin, Disney, and John Donne being discussed. The author handles the jumps between topics and countries well, with the possible exception of dwelling too much on Britten (a whole chapter on one composer seems excessive, especially when a good proportion of it was devoted to a long-winded synopsis of Peter Grimes). However, the tome is mostly inspiring and urges us to listen: even though the chapters appear long, these are happily split into smaller chunks.

As the length of the book suggests, Ross covers an impressive range of music. One could argue that the depth of examples given is so great that The Rest Is Noise would be better as an audiobook: a soundtrack list is provided at the end of the book, but to listen and read simultaneously is not always practical, whereas an audiobook could interject with excerpts or even full works appropriately. Despite the limitations of the book's format, though, Ross does an excellent job of proving the present-day relevance of various twentieth-century works, including several by Kurt Weill (think Pirate Jenny and Mack The Knife), and the significance of a number of little-known artists from this century (such as Marian Anderson). Through this historical approach, Ross shows us the value of interpreting music extrinsically, even if at times he delivers his opinions in a manner that dresses them up as fact (which can add expertise and authority, but also takes a text into risky territory).

Contemporary observations from other musical spheres also increase the relevance of classical music to fans of other forms of music, or to those who know little about the classical genre. Comparing Copland's Fanfare For The Common Man to Queen's We Will Rock You in terms of rhythm and melody is an astute remark, and on further inspection, readers will find such comparisons wherever they look in the world of music: Puccini's Humming Chorus compares closely melodically to Les Misérables' Bring Him Home, for example.

In light of such insightful assertions, then, the occasional sloppiness in terms of formatting is disappointing. Part Three of the book, which encompasses the years 1945-2000, also seems to cover far too great a passage of time compared to the previous parts, which made more sense in their division (effectively World War Two and the years preceding this conflict). The book's glossary also only seems to be available online, which is a shame: an extensive glossary and cycle of fifths in the paper edition would be most helpful. Syntax is clumsy at times, too, and Ross occasionally generalises or makes ill-considered statements (for example, dubbing the BBC the finest purveyor of classical radio programming in the world, without considering other stations such as Italy's Rai Radio Tre, which plays complete works without adverts). However, none of this detracts too significantly from Ross' apparent belief that music cannot achieve complete autonomy from the society around it, and the convincingness with which he backs this up - naturally composers are not only influenced by and are part of their culture, but also influence what comes after them.

This arena of influence is largely described by Ross as being heavily centred around Europe and America, and it seems difficult to believe that there was really nothing musically significant going on in Australia, Asia and so on during the twentieth century. The closest the author comes to this is mentioning traditional music fro the Andes, Bali, India and Japan in relation to Messaien in Chapter 13. Film music also gets a look-in here, although it (and musicals) arguably deserve more airtime. The link between contemporary and classical is cleverly reinforced in Chapter 14, with Ross highlighting the Beatles' admiration for Stockhausen, Stravinsky's influence on Charlie Parker, and Coltrane's love of Bartok. Naturally, though, we all have different notions of importance and it would have been impossible for Ross to include every even remotely influential figure in The Rest Is Noise: although it doesn't stop the reader from feeling that a few have been unjustly left out, such as Ludovico Einaudi and Joe Hisaishi, who have both been hugely popular since the 1980s. Equally, the impact of the Cultural Revolution on China's ability to have real influence could have been given more attention.

So what is the 'noise' and the 'rest' of Ross' title? Several possibilities can be inferred. What some listeners may consider 'noise' is often used to show off composers' and performers' virtuosity as part of quite lyrical works, rather than acting ostensibly and primarily as a source of pleasure. Composers, as 'invisible' men, often had to become visible (i.e., they had to make some noise), as their future depended on it. Even conversation (also 'noise') has lyrical and musical qualities thanks to phonetics, and conversation can take the form of opposition, which too could seem like 'noise', with the controversy of some classical music at the time of its release perhaps being perceived as 'noise' compared to 'approved' music. Classical music can also be deliberately and literally noise, with Ross pointing out not just the most famous example of John Cage's 4'33", but also the lesser-known examples of Imaginary Landscape #4 (also by Cage) and Cinq Etudes de Bruits (by Pierre Schaeffer). Conversely, classical music could be thought of as something pure and to be revered, with 'the rest' being 'noise' (although the positive links Ross makes between classical, folk, film and rock music make this a more tenuous hypothesis). Finally, all that is going on around composers historically and politically is noise, and as Ross is keen to point out, such noise is influential.

Ross also considers the influence of all this 'noise' in the twenty-first century, depicting a mixed future for the art, although perhaps without fully considering the impact of crossover music (through groups such as All Angels) and publications (such as the Classic FM magazine). Nevertheless, the breadth of his work means that virtually everyone will find something they're familiar with, whether it's the Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Missy Elliott, Public Enemy, Philip Glass, or Michael Nyman. This all-encompassing influence of classical music is nicely summed up by Ross, who simultaneously recognises the role of composition today by way of conclusion, neatly demonstrating its continued relevance in our "decentered culture". And with the formation of history and culture as active and vital today as they ever were, it's crucial that composers continue to tell that story for future generations. With luck, Ross will continue to do the same through his writings.

other works by Alex Ross
Listen To This (2011)

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Islamophilia (Douglas Murray)

--The blurb--
"As the country tries to make sense of the slaughter of British soldier Lee Rigby on the streets of London, Douglas Murray delivers an analysis in Islamophilia of how many prominent individuals have, at some point chosen to abandon any hope or wish to criticize Islam. Instead, they have decided to profess some degree of irrational or misguided love for it and make strategic cultural efforts to rewrite history and promote Islam." 
(adapted from

--The review--
In the wake of the September 11th attacks and others, the rise and rise of Islamophobia has been simultaneously understandable and yet preventable, with it arguably never being right to tar all members of a particular group with the same brush. However, Douglas Murray argues in Islamophilia that too many public figures have gone too far the other way in an attempt to avoid being accused of being 'Islamophobic'. In this short yet well-researched and succinctly-argued ebook, he makes a convincing and thought-provoking case.

This is supplemented well by links to videos and newspaper articles online thanks to the virtues of the ebook format. However, one wonders what will happen if these links become outdated or the publisher ever wants to release the book as a paperback: such supplementary materials are not so easily linked to in this latter case and their availability, as mentioned, can be transient. However, in the current format there's no denying that these sources are helpful (although they are perhaps best read on an iPad or Kindle Fire rather than on a traditional black-and-white ebook reader with a small screen). The sources, too, are well-chosen and complement Murray's argument well.

However, while Murray is frequently convincing, he is also at times borderline aggressive in making his points and is prone to generalization, which may alienate his readers rather than rally them round. Nonetheless, his caustically witty exposé is clever enough to engage and to inspire critical thought, as he brings to the fore examples to support his theory that have hitherto remained largely off the public radar.

The main criticism of this readable treatise is that Murray offers no real solution to the problem of Islamophilia. His conclusion seems rushed and trite, with no practical offering in terms of how readers or public figures ought to be moving forward in the midst of the cultural unrest being experienced in the UK. People feel ill at ease with both Islamophobia and Islamophilia - and quite rightly so. However, just saying the equivalent of "calm down, guys" and "we need to find a middle ground" is insufficient by way of a resolution. This proved a disappointing end to an otherwise intelligent book, and while Murray's other books are worthy of consideration if his methodical and humorous approach is anything to go by, one has to hope that in exploring neoconservatism and the Saville Inquiry, he comes to more pragmatic conclusions than in Islamophilia.

other works by Douglas Murray
Neoconservatism: Why We Need It (2012)
Bloody Sunday: Truth, Lies, and the Saville Inquiry (2011)

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Thank You, Jeeves! (PG Wodehouse)

 --The blurb--
 "The valet Jeeves resigns over Bertie's dedicated but somewhat untuneful playing of the banjo. In high dudgeon, Bertie disappears to the country as a guest of his chum Chuffy - only to find his peace shattered by the arrival of his ex-fiancee Pauline Stoker, her formidable father and the eminent loony-doctor Sir Roderick Glossop."

--The review--
As with any other country, stereotypes about Britain abound: afternoon tea. Strawberries and cream. The Queen. Wimbledon. Oxbridge. Butlers. Posh accents. Red buses and telephone boxes. Public schoolboys. The English breakfast. Black cabs. Country estates. And so on. It would be absurd to suggest that Brits indulge in all of these things every day - but equally, most stereotypes arise from the grain of truth that lurks within them. Thank You, Jeeves!- the first full-length novel in PG Wodehouse's Jeeves series - exploits many of these stereotypes to their fullest in the form of a light-hearted romp that becomes more and more farcical at every turn.

The farce is at times difficult to believe, with the events immediately preceding the ending, in particular, seeming rushed, and thrown together purely to bring the novel to a close, rather than providing intrinsic value themselves. However, it's worth remembering at this point the function of farce: the objective of the events is to place characters in untoward situations, and to observe their reactions as they unfold. While the events can be funny, it is the characters who serve even further as the object of the comedy: they are merely pawns in the writer's game, and thus a source of entertainment for us. To this end, Wodehouse deploys the characters and events extremely well.

Furthermore, there are other sources of pleasure in Thank You, Jeeves! beyond the characters' antics. Politically incorrect plot twists, archaic turns of phrase and the sheer extravagance of the setup just involved in having a butler provides plenty of nostalgia for Brits - even if that is a throwback to a time that never really existed. For foreign readers, it gives them a chance to indulge in the classic British stereotypes - even if they know that these stereotypes are not completely true representations of Brits and British life as it is today. Equally, it's possible that those same stereotypes had a cathartic purpose for Wodehouse, who in reality spent most of his life in other countries. Did the deployment of these stereotypes help to remind him of, and even construct for him, an exaggerated version of his homeland? 

To this end, one can wonder if the author intended the events and characters in Thank You, Jeeves! to be sincere or satirical. Given Wodehouse's public-school background and wealthy parents, it's entirely possible that he would have encountered people like these - hence, perhaps, the sharply-drawn characters. However, these same characteristics, and their roots in stereotype, can seem satirical to others - and this, too, is a source of humour, alongside the acerbic one-liners and fast-paced dialogue. The happy ending that Wodehouse produces, which links neatly with the apparently non-sequitur beginning, rounds off the narrative arc beautifully, and concludes this amusing and stress-free read. Off the back of this first Jeeves novel, the entire collection is to be recommended for light relief all year round - and not just in the summer when we all have more time to read - naturally alongside a pot of tea.

other works by PG Wodehouse
A full list of PG Wodehouse's works can be found on Wikipedia. The Jeeves canon consists of 35 short stories and 11 novels.

Monday, 5 August 2013

The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Eugenides)

 --The blurb--
"Brown University, 1982. Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English student and incurable romantic, is writing her thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot – authors of the great marriage plots. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different men, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead, brilliant scientist and charismatic loner, attracts Madeleine with an intensity that she seems powerless to resist. Meanwhile her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus, a theology student searching for some kind of truth in life, is certain of at least one thing – that he and Madeleine are destined to be together. But as all three leave college, they will have to figure out how they want their own marriage plot to end."

--The review--
Satire of the university campus is common, particularly in the novels of David Lodge. However, in The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides brings the notion of the college satire to an American stage, featuring just about every student stereotype going: the romantic literature student, the depressive outsider, the hippy, and the wealthy helicopterish parents. However, cramming the story with these clichéd characters is not the story's downfall but in fact the recipe for its success, with the reader being left to dangle tantalisingly to discover the true meaning of the novel's title only towards the end of the tale.

Eugenides' slow-burning method of writing novels pays off in this latest title, published in 2011, with every detail being so carefully crafted that it is virtually impossible to find fault. It also provides something totally different to his previous works: the campus tragicomedy contrasts neatly with the horror of The Virgin Suicides and the morbidly fascinating sociological study that is Middlesex, proving that the writer is not just a one-trick pony but a wide-ranging perfectionist.

One thing that remains present across the spectrum of Eugenides' novels, however, is his typically caustic wit, combined here with the classic first-world drama of the problems of mostly privileged youths. Gently mocking of English studies and the type of students and faculty members that one tends to find at university, it's 'funny because it's true' and proves immanently readable. Incongruous motifs contribute positively to the comedy, meaning that the female protagonist's occasionally incomprehensible behaviour is, by and large, forgivable.

The development of Madeleine's love for Leonard is at times slow and unrealistic, but by the end of the novel, the detailed description of Leonard's condition makes us more understanding, and we are completely convinced by their relationship. In describing their union, too, Eugenides possibly gently satirises the unsuitable relationships that frequently evolve in the type of novels that Madeleine enjoys studying, and thus makes a subtle ongoing joke about certain aspects of literature itself - and hence, too, his own construction of the Leonard - Madeleine - Mitchell love triangle (not to mention the Mitchell - Larry - Claire subplot, or the romantic troubles experienced by Madeleine's sister Ally).

In short, Eugenides' latest tome is a success, with a happy ending tinged with melancholy still managing to leave the reader satisfied. It also leaves the door wide open for a sequel, but one suspects that this is not Eugenides' style. His ability to make us truly empathise with aspects of his characters' situations makes for what can be an intense experience, and for that reason, it makes sense to close the door on them completely, in order to allow their impact on readers to fully resonate. His collection of short stories is strongly-awaited, particularly to see what new angle and approach he will come up with next. 

other works by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Virgin Suicides (1993)
Middlesex (2002)