As it happened, I read two books in a row that were debut novels written by authors writing about their own profession. One of them was As Swallows Fly, based partially in a hospital, and written by a Professor of Nephrology (see my review here), and the other is The Imperfectionists, set in an English-language newspaper published in Rome, written by a former International Herald Tribune staffer. As you might expect, the language and narrative was handled much more confidently in this book which uses the chronological rise and decline of the un-named newspaper founded in 1954 by an American industrialist named by Cyrus Ott as the narrative structure for a series of chapters about different characters involved with the newspaper.
Each ‘character’ chapter has a catchy title, sometimes (but not always) referencing an article being written by the particular journalist, or more often referencing the article which bumped the character’s own work from the columns of the newspaper. In ‘Bush Slumps to New Low in Polls’ we meet Lloyd Burko, who is at the end of his career, while in ‘World’s Oldest Liar Dies at 126’ we see the career rise of Arthur Gopal, originally employed as the obituary writer who becomes fascinated by Gerda Erzberger, a dying Austrian intellectual. ‘Europeans are Lazy, Study Says’ introduces Hardy Benjamin, an insecure woman who settles for a boorish boyfriend for fear of being left alone and disappointing her father. ‘Global Warming Good for Ice Creams’ features Herman Cohen, the Corrections Editor and his relationship with his old friend Jimmy, a scammer and blow-hard. Kathleen Solson, the Editor-in Chief, is the main focus of ‘US General Optimistic on War’ and the foreign correspondent Winston Cheung, based in Cairo, meets the egotistical Rich Snyder while on assignment in ‘The Sex Lives of Islamic Extremists’. Ruby Zaga, the Copy Editor is unhappy and fears that she will be fired in ‘Kooks with Nukes’, while Craig Menzies the News Editor is besotted with Annika but they destroy their relation through their demands of each other in ’76 Die in Baghdad Bombings’. The story that I liked most was ‘Markets Crash Over Fears of China Slowdown’, where Abbey Pinnola, the Chief Financial Officer, finds herself seated on a flight next to a man who she had organized to be fired from the newspaper as part of cutbacks. ‘Cold War Over, Hot War Begins’ moves away from the writers to the reader- in this case, Ornella de Monterecchi, who read each page of the newspaper, column by column, refusing to move to the next issue until she had read the last. (This reminds me of myself, and the two last editions of the Saturday Paper still in their plastic because I haven’t finished the preceding one). Oliver Ott, the grandson of the paper’s founder, features in ‘Gunman Kills 32 in Campus Rampage’ where he is charged by the rest of the family with closing the failing newspaper down after more than sixty years.
Although each character has their own focus chapter, they are threaded through the other chapters as well, sometimes as walk-on parts, at other times as background. Meanwhile, the shaky start of the newspaper, its success and decline, are traced in the connecting chapters, and we learn from the final story that the newspaper has only ever been an act of love, and not intended to make money. But it is an act of love within an industry that is spurred by technology and communication change, but eventually sidelined by the digital media.
I enjoyed this book. Although not particularly fond of short stories, I like it when they are tied together by a theme, and when characters appear and disappear in other stories. The story-telling was very assured, capturing in short brush-strokes the personalities and career trajectories of its characters, while making an ultimately futile plea for the humble, paper-based newspaper.
One of the delights of being in a bookgroup is when you find yourself loving a book that you would never have chosen otherwise. One of the burdens of being in a bookgroup is when you find yourself gritting your teeth to get through a book that you would never have chosen otherwise. City of Friends falls into the latter category.
The narrative revolves between four middle-aged, successful, middle-class London-based women, who met years earlier in an economics course at university, where they were vastly outnumbered by the other male students. Gaby is an investment banker, married with three children. Melissa is a management consultant and single mother of a teenaged son. Beth is an author and academic, expert in business psychology and in a relationship with a younger woman, while Stacey is a senior partner at a private equity firm, married but without children, and suddenly called upon to care for her mother with dementia. Does that entice you to follow them over 327 pages? I didn’t think so.
I’m not a reader who has to like the characters, but I do need to have a frisson of interest in them. I’m aware that Trollope is trying to illustrate modern life and dilemmas – the role of daughters in caring for aging parents, step-children, flexible working, ‘having it all’- but really, I found that I just didn’t care.
If I dislike a book, I don’t usually review it, especially if it is a new writer. But Joanna Trollope OBE has sold more than 7 million copies of her books, so I think that she can do without this reader.
As the author explains in a preface, the word ‘rúin’ can be read in English, or it can be given its Irish meaning. In Irish, it means secret, but it is also a term of endearment. All three elements of the word come in to this debut novel by Irish lawyer Dervla McTiernan, now resident in Australia.
The first one section of the book is set in Galway in1993. Cormac Reilly, a young and inexperienced Garda (policeman) responds to a call to a derelict house, where he finds a mother dead in bed, and two silent, neglected children. The oldest child, 15 year old Maude, is protective of her five-year old brother, insisting that they both be taken to the police station.
Twenty years later, Detective Cormac Reilly is back in Galway, after climbing the promotional ladder in Dublin. He has moved to be with his partner, Emma, who is undertaking a research project based there. His deployment to the Mill Street station is treated with suspicion, and despite his long and successful experience, he is relegated to reviewing cold cases. He is largely side-lined from a new case where the discovery of Jack Blake’s body in the river is treated as a suicide. Jack’s partner, Aisling is devastated – and McTiernan captures this so well – and his sister refuses to believe that it is suicide. And Detective Reilly finds that the two cases are connected: Jack was that five-year old silent boy in the derelict house twenty years ago; his sister Maude is still fighting for her brother – this time rejecting the easy solution of ‘suicide’ that the police are pushing.
Like many detective/crime novels, this book combines the plot line, the personal home life of the detective protagonist, and the office politics of the police station. The book is told in chronological sections, stepping forward a few days at a time. The focus of the action switches between Aisling and Maude in their fight to get Jack’s case investigated more fully. Cormac reviews that early case from his older, more experienced perspective, following up on the cold cases that he has been assigned, and negotiating the resentment and duplicity of his fellow police officers.
There are a lot of characters here, and often found myself stopping to think “Hold on, who’s that again?”. I’m not particularly good with television crime programs either, which have many small characters who may or may not be associated with the plot line, and I found it even harder to keep track of when I didn’t have a clear visual picture of the characters in my head.
Crime is not one of my favourite genres, and I have mainly read it because it has been a book group selection (which is the case here too). Despite my frequent confusion, I was certainly drawn into the story and I liked the way that you were not left reading and re-reading, not quite sure what the ending was and who ‘dun’ it. I found myself thinking of Peter Temple and Garry Disher, two Australian crime authors whom I have read, and I think that I preferred the more layered treatment of characters that McTiernan provides. She’s not writing against a toxic masculinity, the violence is less bloody but more intimate (and disturbing) and there is a depth to the ‘victims’ – indeed, she doesn’t see them as such, but more as individuals in their own right who have been dragged into a mess not of their making. If I’m going to read another crime novel, I think I’d like it to be one of hers.
I must confess that I had never heard of ‘Science and Civilisation in China’, a 24-volume (and counting) series described by its publisher, Cambridge University Press, as “one of the most remarkable works of scholarship in the twentieth century”. Nor had I heard of Joseph Needham, its original author. When I saw the title of this book Bomb, Book and Compass, I immediately thought of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and expected that I would be reading a history of Chinese invention and technology. Joseph Needham, I assumed, would be a missionary/explorer type, perhaps from the 1840s after the Opium Wars, when China was opened up to British trade. But I was wrong on many counts. This is a biography of Joseph Needham, the Cambridge biochemist, who arrived in China in 1943 (100 years after I expected!) and began the research that led to this huge multi-volume work on China which is still continuing, even after his death.
Born in 1900, Joseph Needham was already established as a biochemist and academic at Gonville and Caius College Cambridge when three Chinese postgraduate students arrived at the university in 1936. One of them, Lu Gwei-djen, became his lover and through his fascination with the Chinese language and writing, he was chosen to be a director of the Sino-British Scientific Cooperation Office in Chongquing. This organisation, with its aim to provide practical academic support to Chinese universities during the Sino-Japanese War, gave him the opportunity to travel around central China to remote areas, collecting books and materials and exposing him to the history of invention and technological development in China which had been largely ignored by the Western World. On returning to Cambridge, he embarked on writing a book which expanded into a ten-year seven volume project, that ended up occupying him for the next six decades.
Tall, handsome, driven and charismatic, Needham also enjoyed nudism, morris-dancing and a radical form of Anglicanism at Thaxted parish church. That was not all that was radical about him. His wife, Dorothy, a fellow bio-chemist and his mistress Lu Gwei-Djen lived just a few doors from each other in a congenial relationship. Winchester seems rather sceptical that this relationship was warmly embraced by all three protagonists, but I suspect that this is his own morality at work here, and not necessarily that of Joseph, Dorothy and Lu Gwei-Djen. The arrangement seemed to be open knowledge.
Not only was Needham imbued with a very healthy ego (flattered no doubt by the women with whom he flirted throughout his life) but he also was observant and curious. He plunged headlong into learning Chinese, devising his own rigorous and methodical way of learning a difficult language. On watching a Chinese gardener grafting a plum tree on his first day in China, he recalled that an American missionary had confidently claimed that botany was wholly unknown to the Chinese. This, he realized was one of hundreds of techniques that the Western world discounted:
Needham felt he needed to write his new book largely to overcome ignorance like this and to purge the western world of prejudices against the Chinese that were based on such a wholesale lack of knowledge and understanding. Should a book ever be published, then observations like this, and the scores of others he now knew he would make…would be sure to be included….Everything he was about to see- how a Chinese farmer plowed, how a Chinese bridge was built, how iron was smelted in China, what pills a Chinese doctor handed out, which kinds of kites were to be found in a Chinese playground, what a Chinese siege cannon looked like, how a dam, a haystack, or a harness was built in China- was useful to him….The Chinese, he kept discovering again and again, had the longest imaginable history of invention, creation and the generation of new ideas.
Certainly China gave Needham the experiences and practical examples to develop his project, but this was not a one-way street. He perused markets and purchased books and documents, and sent home a steady stream of documentation -some rare, some freely available- in diplomatic bags. Once he had returned home, he was the recipient of other material, sent to him from a supporter in China. He was aware that some of this material was sold out of desperation, and there is an element of safe-keeping, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. But part of me wonders whether this is not another form of Western culture-stripping, and whether any of it has been the subject of repatriation demands.
So what was his plan for all this material? The original proposal, reprinted in Bomb, Book and Compass, was for a book addressed to
all educated people whether themselves scientists or not, who are interested in the history of science, scientific thought and technology, in relation to the general history of civilisation, and especially the comparative development of Asia and Europe
He identified his question early:
STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM. What exactly did the Chinese contribute in the various historical periods to the development of Science, Scientific Thought and Technology? Why did their science always remain empirical and restricted to theories of primitive or mediaeval type? What were the inhibiting factors in their civilisation which prevented the rise of modern science in Asia? It is suggested that, apart from numerous theoretical and psychological factors which demand attention, the concrete factors which moulded asiatic civilisation differently from that of Europe are: a) geographical b) hydrological c) social d) economic
I think that it’s important to remember that Needham was a biochemist, not a historian. The way that he went about answering his question, I believe, reflects this. He decided initially to make a historical list of every mechanical invention and abstract idea that had been first conceived and made in China. It took him five years. They were, as Winchester notes, “all about detail. They were assembled with a painstaking concern for even the smallest facts of Chinese life.”
The larger question, since dubbed “The Needham Question” was not answered in his own work. As Winchester notes:
Joseph Needham never fully worked out the answers. Perhaps it was because he was too close to the topic, seeing many trees but not enough forest. And though he makes an attempt at offering some answers in his final volume, he never seems fully convinced of his own arguments and never fully explains his reasons. It has been left to others to take up the challenge in his place.
The initial volumes received acclaim even though there were many who, resentful of his discipline-hopping, willed them to fail. His work was seen by many as an eccentric folly, but this view was tempered once they became the jewel in the Cambridge University Press catalogue.
In many ways, the initial volumes salvaged his reputation, which had plummetted in the early 1950s. His interest and language skills may have snagged him the position with the Sino-British Scientific Cooperation Office in the first place, but he was now widely acknowledged as a China Expert. In 1952 he led an International Commission delegated by the World Peace Council to investigate the alleged use of chemical warfare by the US during the Korean War. A committed Socialist throughout his life, and a supporter of the Communist Party, he confirmed the Chinese claim that they had been the targets of American bacteriological weapons. The response of the Establishment was swift. He was declared persona non grata in the United States, his academic position became more tenuous, and the senior members of his college at Cambridge froze him out. He was excoriated in the press, denounced in Parliament and shunned by many.
His reputation was rehabilitated largely on the strength of Science and Civilisation in China, and he continued to champion left-wing causes. Even though he was dismayed by the drabness and conformity in Mao’s China when he visited in 1952, he does not seem to have gone through the same crisis of the soul that many left-wing supporters of the Russian Communist Party suffered when news of Stalin’s activities reached the West.
Simon Winchester is a master story-teller, and it comes through in this book. It is as if Winchester has walked around Joseph Needham, describing him from different perspectives: as an academic, as a sexual being, as a political activist, as a researcher. The maps are right where you need them, and they show you just want you want to know. The text is interspersed with photographs of Joseph Needham, which help you to fix him in your mind’s eye. However, I was a little alarmed at Winchester’s blithe acceptance that the Chinese ‘discovered’ Australia, mentioned in passing and without reference to Gavin Menzies, whom I am assuming Winchester is citing. Without footnotes – beyond his quirky asides at the bottom of some pages – the reader needs to put her trust in Winchester alone, something which never sits well with me.
However, both Needham and Winchester were prescient in asking about China’s historical role, and Winchester’s contribution to a better knowledge of it- especially since China is now so prominent in Australians’ sense of security. I found this book fascinating, exposing me to a person and his research that were completely unknown to me. A prolific popular historian/journalist Winchester, is obviously drawn to men who devote their lives to a passion – e.g. James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary in The Surgeon of Crowthorne and William Smith in The Map that Changed the World. Joseph Needham was one such man, and I’m glad that Winchester introduced him to me.
My rating: 8/10
Sourced from: CAE Bookgroups. I read this with my face-to-face bookgroup.
I must confess that the first thing I did after finishing this book was to jump onto Google to see if there ever was a female photographer called Amory Clay. That’s how convincing this book was, with its mixture of real characters and events. I couldn’t tell whether I had just read a fictionalized biography or whether the whole thing was Boyd’s creation- and it was the latter.
The book is two narratives. One is Amory’s journal from 1977 when she is living in a small cottage on the Scottish coastline, within sight of the Isle of Mull. She is widowed, her daughters have left home, she has retired from her career as photographer, and she is getting old. (Not that old- “only 70”, says she for whom 70 is not too far away!) The journal entries are not long, and are more a springboard to her memories, the other narrative, which flow more or less chronologically.
Amory was born on 7 March 1908, her father a writer, and the eldest of three children. Her sister Peggy was marked out early as a musical genius, her brother Alexander (Xan) was a strange, fey lad who collected guinea pigs but later had a career quite unheralded by his childhood. Her father went to World War I and returned mentally unstable. She was sent to boarding school, which she resented, as neither of her siblings were sent away, and she only later realized that there was a financial reason for her exile. On a vacation at home, her father tried to drive them both into a lake, an act that precipitated his committal to an asylum for many years and which, naturally enough, made Amory distrustful of her father and hurt by his heedlessness. If one wanted to play amateur psychiatrist, one could argue that this betrayal by her father shaped her rather distant relationships with men, who were either unavailable, in the case of the wealthy but married Cleve Finzi, or ambivalent in the case of Charbonneau. The pattern was broken when she married Sholto Farr, becoming Lady Farr, but this ended up in a betrayal of both her and her two daughters, of a different kind.
From her adolescence, encouraged by her uncle, she embarked on a career as a photographer which took her to Berlin, New York and Vietnam, ending finally in her cottage on the Scottish coast. The book is both a professional and personal biography. It is liberally interspersed (like a Sebald book) with black and white photographs, mostly taken by Amory. It was probably these photographs more than anything else that made me question whether this was a real autobiography or not. Quite frankly, they are very poor photographs, in no way reflective of a professional or artistic photographer. They are just like the Box Brownie photographs your Uncle Les might have taken in the 1950s.
The narrative of Amory’s life is told against a backdrop of real events and people, not in a Forrest Gump way, but as incidental background, off at an angle. This helps to add to the verisimilitude of the narrative by not straining the reader’s credulity by putting her into the centre of the action but forming a context for the places and situations in which she found herself. It only broke down for me in the last part of the book where it seemed that the author was grasping for a plot development that would encapsulate the 1970s and chose cult-behaviour in America. I don’t know if it was because the book was running out of steam, but this final phase of Amory’s life, where she tries to ‘rescue’ her daughter from the clutches of cult leader Tayborne Gaines, seemed rather melodramatic and superfluous.
I read this as a bookgroup read (in fact, I chose it on the basis of Restless which I very much enjoyed when I selected it as an earlier bookgroup read). Some of us felt rather uncomfortable that a male writer was writing from a female perspective, particularly in sex scenes. This didn’t worry me at all – I don’t like where you end up when you prohibit people from writing from anything other than their direct experience- and I thought that he wrote sex from a female perspective particularly well.
So did I feel cheated when I found that Amory Clay was a figment of William Boyd’s imagination? No, not at all. He did it well enough to make me wonder, and he created a credible female character against a backdrop of world events.
I’ve often noticed that, by chance, I read two books in a row that seem to ‘speak’ to each other, even though I had not selected them for that reason. This happened again on reading Sofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep for my bookgroup, just after finishing Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. At first glance, there may not be much of a link between a young boy growing up in Melbourne’s Altona in an unspecified time (1980s?) and a ‘smart’ mannequin marketed as an Artificial Friend for teenagers during another unspecified time in the future. What links them them is the narrator’s voice: flat, literal and yet crystal-sharp at the same time. Underlying their blinkered vision is a deep well of sadness and pain.
Author Sofie Laguna does not offer a diagnosis for Jimmy, but today we would probably say that he is “on the spectrum”. We meet him as a six-year old, obsessed with his instruction manuals for the household appliances, puzzled by other people, who he sees mechanistically as a series of ‘pipes’ and networks, linked by strings to other people. We see the world – his baffling, frustrating world- through his eyes, but it is not hard to imagine how he appeared from the other side to his teachers and other children. Here he is, when his teacher Mrs Stratham, knowing that he liked threes, asked him the answer to ‘three times thirty-three’.
The class went very quiet as they waited for me, the Detective of Threes, to solve the problem. I closed my eyes and saw more and more threes everywhere I looked. In every line of threes there was one other number- six, four, one, nine, seven, seven, one – but was the answer in the diagonal or the straight? Nobody in the class made a sound.
The threes kept coming. I couldn’t see beyond them; it was an infinity of threes. I went from still to running, with no time in between. I got off my seat and ran around the chairs and around Mrs Stratham’s desk and past the windows to the door and back again. “Three three three three!” I shouted, touching everything I could. The answer lay on the surfaces and every surface was a clue “Three, three, three”. The answer lay on the surfaces and every surface was a clue. “Three three three!”
Crash! The lizard’s aquarium shattered behind me. “Three, three, three!” I shouted.
Jimmy is frustrated at school, and home offers little respite. His mother, morbidly obese and asthmatic, smothers him with love. His father, who works at the nearby oil refinery, drinks too much Cutty Sark and abuses his wife: something that Jimmy and his older brother Robbie are powerless to stop, escaping into the flat grasslands behind their house or cowering in bed together at night until the violence stops. It is harrowing, and Jimmy responds in his own way:
Panic streamed through her and was transmitted to me. I ran from wall to wall, my cells spinning me around the rooms, one after the other. Hallway! Kitchen! Bedroom! Bathroom! Sitting room! Hallway! Nobody could stop me! …I was faster than the speed of light. I knew if it went on much longer I would disintegrate.
Jimmy is labelled as being “slow” and yet, he is too fast. He is not well-equipped for when his life spirals out of control, through no fault of his own. I found myself fearing for this child and I was spurred to keep reading to keep the story going so that he would be safe (yes, I know that’s illogical). I ended up in tears.
The real strength of this book, which won the Miles Franklin, is the power of the narrator’s voice, which doesn’t slip for a second. The author has disappeared completely behind this guileless yet perspicacious character, who becomes real: someone I cared and worried about enough to lie awake at night, thinking of him. Her book is an exploration of class and deprivation, but also love and fear, strength and weakness. It deserved its Miles Franklin Award.
My rating: 9.5/10
Read because: CAE bookgroup selection. (The other Ladies Who Say Ooooh (my daughter’s name for my Bookgroup) loved it too)
Perhaps this post should be titled ‘Re-reading The Corrections’, because I read it in 2002- think, nearly twenty years ago. I was interested to see what I wrote about it in my pre-blog reading journal back then:
I can’t remember having such varying feelings about a book. It is really a tragedy mixed with farce. In its tragic parts, I felt uncomfortable at the harsh glare of reality: in its farcical sections I felt bored and tired of the author’s look-at-me cuteness and self-conscious wittiness. It is, as the author admits, five novellas and for me, the sections dealing with the cruise and the Lithuanian venture could easily have been dropped.
But the family dynamics were brilliant: the well-meaning but manipulative mother who wants to bring the family together for one last Christmas; the father bewildered by his Parkinson’s Disease; a psychologically-hypochondriac son bullied by his wife and children; a son who throws away a career because of sexual indiscretion and ends up doing very shady deals in Lithuania, and a daughter who discovers her lesbianism only while wrecking her own career as a chef because of an affair with both her employers. Incisive, current, but very in-your-face. 8/10
So how does it shape up 20 years later? I was more impatient this time of the self-indulgent length of 653 pages, the long lists of objects, and sheer show-off-iness of the writing. I just wanted him to shut up, frankly. Too much talk, too much self-indulgent angst.
It now seems very much of its time – pre September 11 and the GFC, it’s a time of American bombast and certainty, where greed was still good (if somewhat grubby) and the American viewpoint dominated the world. Trump, the non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction and the whole Middle East mess that it gave rise to, and COVID have punctured all that.
The search for the ‘Great American Novel’, fat and sneering and self-important, seems now to be a very masculine endeavour, with Franzen being likened to Saul Bellow, John Updike, Philip Roth, Don de Lillo, Thomas Pynchon etc. (all men, I note). Actually, I think that Elizabeth Strout should be in this list too, and her books are so different from these. Yes, there are deeply flawed and unlikeable characters in her books too, but there isn’t the superciliousness in these other contenders.
Of course, I’m not the same reader either. Twenty years on, Parkinson’s is a much more sensitive topic, given that someone I love dearly has it. Twenty years later, having sat beside both my parents as they died, I understand more about death and age. Hell, twenty years later, I tick the 65+ age box now. Now I’m the grandmother and mother-in-law. Given that Franzen himself is now 61, I wonder if he would write the same book.
This is an unkind book that is far, far, far too long. Twenty years later, I’d downgrade that 8 to a 6.5
I suggested this as a read for our bookgroup about three years ago, and it finally arrived! Fortunately I hadn’t read it while I was waiting, so I came to it ‘fresh’ even though it was published in 2008 and won the Booker Prize that same year. It is told in the voice of Balram Halwai, a village boy made good as an ‘entrepreneur’, who writes a series of letters to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. Describing himself as a ‘half-baked Indian’, he also sees himself as a White Tiger: “the rarest of animals – the creature that comes along only once in a generation”. Unlike the rest of his family, he takes (and makes) his opportunities to get ahead, and escape the destiny of custom and servitude.
He tells us from the very start that he killed his employer, Ashok, one of two brothers who along with their father, hire him as a driver. Forced to leave school despite his intelligence, Balram takes the opportunity to become the main driver when Ashok, and his American wife Pinky Madam move to Delhi. There Ashok becomes enmeshed in the corruption of political figures. When by p.285 Balram does finally kill his master, we have come to share his disdain for Ashok’s weakness and the dog-eat-dog world in which Balram lives. While the actual murder takes several pages, Balram then makes huge mental leaps over the consequences of the murder, especially for his family. He is completely unrepentant, on several levels.
The most striking image that I took away from the book was that of the ‘rooster coop’ where individuals are hemmed in by their family pressures to stay within that coop, and not even seek to escape. It is a self-imposed structure that keeps workers honest, even against their own interests. This is something that I have thought about when travelling in second or third world countries: why don’t people rob me? Why is it acceptable for me to move through their society so heedlessly, when my spending money for just that day could make a change to their lives?
One of the things that I loved most about this book was Balram’s narrative voice, which leaps off the page. He is a sardonic, self-serving and perceptive humble-bragger and like all good entrepreneurs, he takes you along with the dream, no matter your misgivings. The book is told completely from Balram’s point of view, although the author gets in his own critique of post-colonialism, corruption, loyalty and the deadening effect of the supposedly-extinct caste system. It is never really explained why Balram is writing to Wen Jiabao, except as the head of the rising power within Asia as distinct from the rotting and dying power of the old India.
I enjoyed this book, its structure as a series of letters and the sheer vitality and front of Balram himself. The author Aravind Adiga has had a life nothing like that of Balram, but he says that Balram is a composite of the many men he heard talking while they hanging around drivers’ ranks and train stations, in slums and in servants quarters. The narrative voice is so strong that you feel as if you are hearing it direct, even though it is as much of an artifice as the epistolary structure that Adiga has employed. Still- I don’t think that I have read another book quite like it.
Our face-to-face book went into hibernation during the lockdown throughout 2020, so when received our most recent read, The Chase, an autobiography by Ida Mann, we opened the box with anticipation. But what a smell ! the books had obviously been unread for a very long time (probably pre-dating COVID) and they were very musty. And having finished the book now, there’s probably a good reason why this book has not been particularly popular. Published in 1986, it’s very much a product of an earlier time, drawing on fairly pragmatic and workmanlike ideas of autobiography, and expressing attitudes for which Ida Mann would be condemned today (and indeed, in the 1980s as well).
If you’re wondering ‘Who is Ida Mann?’, you’re not alone. She was a world-famous ophthalmologist, born in 1893 in England, who had already reached the peak of her research career when she emigrated to Australia with her husband Profession William Guy, an acclaimed cancer research in 1949. After her husband died in 1952, she continued her work in ophthalmology, researching the prevalence of eye disease (especially trachoma) in indigenous populations, and speaking at World Health Organization conferences in many places throughout the world. She was also an inveterate traveller.
As might be expected from a woman steeped in the sciences, the book is very much a start-at-the-beginning-and-go-through-to-the-end endeavour. The presence of lines of verse scattered through the text does little to dispel this impression, reflecting the old-fashioned nature of the narrative rather than the author’s literariness. In its tone, the book reminded me of military histories, where every single individual has to be named and acknowledged, and Christmas family letters regaling the reader with travel tales to exotic places (from the days when we still could travel). Neither genre particularly appeals to me. The book (which admittedly has been edited from an even lengthier text) descends into an extended travelogue at the end.
This is not to detract from her professional achievements, which are many. One hundred and forty three published papers, a string of scholarships and fellowships, a CBE and DBE attest to her hard work and professional reputation within the field of ophthalmology. She was, however, no feminist. Just as Margaret Thatcher did little for the cause of feminism, Ida saw the ‘nonsense about women’s rights’ as unnecessary, because if you wanted a job enough, you would get it. She was vehemently opposed to the NHS, and it was its introduction, along with her husband’s ill health, that prompted her shift across the world. She expresses little empathy for patients, preferring the research aspect of her work. She was dismissive of the Australian slap-dash attitude when the pure genetic lines of her research mice were compromised because insufficient care was taken. Particularly repellent was her classification of the Aboriginal people she examined for eye disease into the categories based on their likeness to ‘us’: Similar, Almost, Rather, Hardly and Not-at-all. (p. 150)
Yet this intensely driven and pragmatic woman had a mystical side as well. She writes often of her dreams, particularly one vivid dream where she was presented with two doors. In the dream, she chose the door that opened onto sunshine, blue sky and fear, and this dream changed her life. She rejected the life of an office-worker that her parents had chosen for her, and became proactive in choosing and pursuing her own career. As in most autobiographies, there are elisions and silences, most particularly in her response to her husband’s death and a rather curious allusion to incestuous feelings towards her older brother, Arthur.
You’re unlikely to find a copy of this autobiography very easily. In a way, that is a pity because autobiographies of female scientists are not common. On the other hand, the stilted narrative, incessant name-dropping and dismissive individualism are not appealing features of this autobiography. Perhaps Ida Mann needs a biographer who can rescue her life from her own narrative.
My rating: 6/10
Sourced from: CAE as the March book for The Ladies Who Say Oooh (i.e. my face-to-face bookgroup). The other ladies enjoyed the book more than I did, and were more appreciative of her achievements than I was.
Given that this book was written in 1995, (reprinted in 2008 with a new afterword) I hoped that her analysis of the lives of Islamic Women in Middle East countries might have been rendered redundant. That hope has not been realized. Despite the Arab Spring, the position of women in Islamic countries remains parlous, and possibly even worse than when Brooks wrote this book prior to 9/11, the rise of ISIS and the wars that followed in its wake.
Geraldine Brooks, who was born in Australia, worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent for many years, although she is probably better known now for her historical fiction. While she was working as the Middle East bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, she was frustrated by the customs that made her life as a journalist so difficult, compared with her male fellow journalists. Then she noted that her colleague and translator, Sahar, had begun wearing the hijab. Curious about why Sahar had adopted it, she realized that as a woman she had access to women’s experience that was closed to male journalists.
For almost a year I fretted and kicked at the Middle East’s closed doors. Then, thanks to Sahar, I looked up and noticed the window that was open only to me.
p. 7 1995 edition
Taking on Islamic dress herself, she sought out women who were still working as journalists, politicians and activists. Many women told her that, historically, Islam provided an improvement on women’s conditions, that the Prophet himself was pro-women, and that Islamic dress provided a respite from the male gaze. She was not convinced:
Once I began working on this book, I looked everywhere for examples of women trying to reclaim Islam’s positive messages, trying to carry forward into the twentieth century the reformist zeal with which Muhammad had remade the lives of many women (other than his own wives and the Muslim army’s war captives) in the first Muslim community at Medina. It turned out to be a frustrating search. In most places the direction of the debate seemed to be exactly the reverse. Palestinian, Egyptian, Algerian and Afghani women were seeing a curtain come down on decades of women’s liberation as Islamic leaders in their countries turned to the most exclusionary and inequitable interpretations. For those women who struggled against the tide, the results were a discouraging trio of marginalization, harassment and exile.
p. 232, 1995 edition
The title of the book is taken from a quote from Ali ibn Abu Taleb, the husband of Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and the founder of the Shiite sect of Islam. “Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men”. This sounds like an invitation to male lasciviousness to me, and the desires that Brooks explores in this book are not sexual. Each chapter starts with a relevant quote from the Koran.
Chapter 1, The Holy Veil talks about Brooks’ own interview with Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was President of Iran between 1989-1997, for which Brooks wore the chador. She writes about the variations of Islamic dress in different Middle East countries, and the effect of Iran’s theocratic revolution. Chapter 2 “Whom No Man Shall Have Deflowered Before Them” discusses female genital mutilation and its absence in the Koran itself, honour killing, and the paradox between sexual licence for men and repression for women. Chapter 3 “Here Come the Brides” looks at Islamic marriage while Chapter 4 “The Prophet’s Women” looks at Muhammad’s own family life, making the point that many of the revelations from God seemed to be particularly apposite for Muhammad’s own situation. Chapter 5 “Converts” focuses on Janet, an American who had married and converted to Islam, and Janet’s American friend Margaret. Both women complied completely with the demands of their husband and in-laws. Chapter 6 “Jihad is for Women, Too” looks at the paradox of women incorporated into the military forces in Islamic countries, and the empowerment (within limits) that this sometimes provided. Chapter 7 “A Queen” looks at the situation of the American-born Queen Noor of Jordan, a country that at the time offered the most hope for political liberalism. Chapter 8 “The Getting of Wisdom” examines women’s education in different Middle East countries, with differing degrees of segregation and the increasing presence of fundamentalism. Chapter 9 “Risky Business” looks at women’s role in the workforce, and Chapter 10 “Politics, With and Without a Vote” looks at the varied (and decreasing) political roles available to women. Ironically, some Islamic women were elected in hard-line Iran, but I sense that her political acceptability was increased by her persecution under the Shah which made her a striking example of the repressiveness of pro-Western politics. She picks up on the campaign by Saudi women to be able to drive- something that is shamefully still a travesty. Chapter 11 “Muslim Women’s Games” addresses the women-only Islamic Women’s Games and in Chapter 11 “A Different Drummer” Brooks herself gets physical by taking a belly-dancing course.
In her conclusion “Beware of the Dogma” she comes out most strongly with her own conclusions and the question of how we, as Europeans, should respond. She argues that “In an era of cultural sensitivity, we need to say that certain cultural baggage is contraband in our countries and will not be admitted.” (p.238) At the time of writing, America did not have laws banning female genital mutilation (Australia does). She argues – but does not believe that it will ever be accepted – that Islamic women should have a right to asylum on the grounds of “well-founded fear of persecution” as a matter of course.
I have read this book before, and I think that I am even more conscious of the issues that she raises, especially after the Arab Spring sputtered out. Her criticism is most strongly directed at Saudi Arabia, a country which has assumed even more importance on the world stage since Trump. She is strong in her condemnation, especially in her conclusion, but she avoids the reflexive Islamophobia of, say, Ayan Hirsi Ali (who lost me with her association with the American Enterprise Institute). Her interviews mainly deal with middle-class and educated women, but that probably reflects the milieu in which she was working and the contacts that she made. She seems rather oblivious to the effect that her Judaism – something that she does not hide- may have had on her informants.