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Neglected Books: ‘The Judgment of Eve’ and ‘The Helpmate’ by May Sinclair

The Judgment of Eve ****
The Judgment of Eve is the shortest Sinclair book yet in my reading of her entire bibliography.  The author sets the scene wonderfully, and introduces the reader at once to protagonist, Aggie.  Aggie herself is well-educated, but in true Edwardian fashion, the first quarter of the plot deals with which of her two suitors she will choose to marry.  She is rather a progressive woman, willing to work if her fiance’s salary fails to rise as he has been promised.  Sinclair’s prose is shrewd, as ever: ‘Nature, safeguarding her own interests, had whispered to Aggie that young ladies who live in Queningford are better without intellects that show’.  

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May Sinclair


After a move to London, the intellect which Aggie prizes above all else disappears once one child after another is born.  Our protagonist rises to the challenge of motherhood, but Sinclair makes us aware that it – and the never-ending domesticity which comes with it – is far from a perfect life for Aggie: ‘It was as if Nature had conceived a grudge against Aggie, and strove, through maternity, to stamp out her features as an individual’.  Sinclair paints the role of the traditional Angel in the House in a very interesting light, essentially turning it on its head.

The Judgment of Eve is a short book, but it unquestionably has a lot of depth to it, and both asks and answers a plethora of question about womankind and their place within the world.  Had it not been so brief, I would have definitely given it a five-star rating; regardless, it deserves to be read by a far wider audience.

 

The Helpmate *****
May Sinclair’s wonderful, and sadly neglected, novel The Helpmate details a marriage from its very beginnings.  Her characters, in their entirety, feel touchably realistic, and their relationships with one another are complex.  Here, Sinclair demonstrates the many different – and sometimes opposing – facets of married love.  There is such emotional depth throughout, and one can never quite tell what is likely to happen next.

The Helpmate is so very compelling, and of course, it is wonderfully written.  There is such a clarity to the whole.  The novel was first published in 1907, but feels incredibly modern; many of the themes are just as relevant today as they were when it was written.  Sinclair writes of love, deception, and grief in such a timely way; the modern reader can learn so much from it.  It is sadly not a book which I can include in my PhD thesis, as it lacks the elements which I am looking at, but it is certainly a fascinating and well-paced read, which – along with all of Sinclair’s work – deserves to be widely read.

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Two Books About Neurosurgery: ‘Do No Harm’ and ‘When Breath Becomes Air’

I have decided to include both of these five star reads together, as they are related in the field of neurosurgery.  Henry Marsh, now retired, was one of Britain’s most revered neurosurgeons, and he writes about his personal experiences of treating patients in Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery.  Paul Kalanithi, on the other hand, was one of the most academically gifted neurosurgeons in the United States, who tragically died of lung cancer at the age of thirty-seven.  When Breath Becomes Air is his memoir, both of his career and his own diagnosis, which was left unfinished at his death, and has been finished with an incredibly touching epilogue written by his wife, Lucy.

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh *****
9781780225920I purchased Henry Marsh’s utterly splendid Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery from a Glasgow charity shop for the princely sum of £2.  I was immediately beset by many, many people telling me how wonderful it was; needless to say it did not remain upon my TBR pile for too long.

Filled with honesty and compassion, Do No Harm… is a fantastic book, which takes one to the next level of illness narratives; rather than reading about a patient’s experience, we are given the expertise and understanding of one of the country’s leading neurosurgeons.  He speaks about his own place within the hospital, and always shows so much empathy toward those he treats, sometimes successfully and sometimes not so.

I thought that I might be a little squeamish for the book, but because Marsh writes so well, the descriptions of surgery are seamlessly joined to the stories either side, which certainly takes emphasis away from drillbits and blood.  Do No Harm… is wonderfully structured and compelling from the outset, and I felt as though I learnt an awful lot whilst reading.  Marsh’s unshakeable enthusiasm for his craft is nothing short of remarkable, and his account of his working life is incredibly human, captivating the reader from start to finish.

 

 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi *****
Abraham Verghese’s foreword to Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is both admirable and fitting: ‘Be ready.  Be seated.  See what courage sounds like.  See how brave it is to reveal yourself in this way.  But above all, see what it is to still live, to profoundly influence the lives of other after you are gone, by your words’. 9781847923677

Certainly, Kalanithi was an incredibly brave, and admirable man who, after gaining degrees in English and Human Biology, and a Master’s in English Literature, decided to devote his career to neurosurgery.  His account, written toward the very end of his life and left unfinished, has been incredibly well written, and is compelling from the outset.

Despite his age of just thirty-seven when he passed away from virulent cancer, Kalanithi comes across as wise and intelligent.  When Breath Becomes Air is important and rich; throughout, he discusses so much – neurosurgery, his training, his childhood, falling in love with his wife Lucy, mortality, and ethics.  The impact of the death of a loved one upon the family left behind is an idea which Kalanithi comes back to time and time again, as is the very idea of ‘dying well’.

Kalanithi is ambitious even during his illness, and his remarkable achievements are all the more inspirational for it.  When Breath Becomes Air should be read by everyone.

 

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One From the Archive: ‘In Falling Snow’ by Mary-Rose MacColl ***

 

First published in 2013, the premise of the novel appealed to me immediately.  In 1978, an elderly widow named Iris Crane, who lives in a quiet part of Brisbane, is invited to a World War One reunion in France, and is quickly ‘overcome by memories of the past’.  As a young woman, Iris travelled to France at the start of the First World War, following her younger brother, Tom, who joined up and left home.  Her intention at first is solely to bring him back to the safety of Australia, but she soon finds herself working at a field hospital at an old Abbey in Royaumont.  She is tasked under the capacity of being a personal assistant of sorts to the sometimes formidable Miss Ivers, merely due to her competence in French.

Part of the present-day story which runs alongside Iris’ memories deals with her granddaughter, Grace, a doctor and mother of three.  Interestingly, Iris’ tale makes use of the first person perspective, while Grace’s is told by an omniscient third person narrator.  This technique worked well to break up the plots and different generations of characters, but Grace’s portion of the plot did also feel rather detached in consequence.  I found myself far preferring Iris’ part of the story; whilst Grace’s had some interesting elements within it, it seemed a little lacklustre, and I could not make myself like her as a person.  Some of the decisions which she made did not seem at all rational for an educated woman in her position, and she did not come across as a believable protagonist.  The only character whom I felt endeared to in In Calling Snow was Grace’s young son, Henry; for the most part, he felt like a realistic construct.  He was also the least predictable of MacColl’s creations, and I believe that this helped towards my liking him.

There is real strength in some of MacColl’s prose, but the conversations let it down somewhat for me.  They did not feel quite balanced, and at times were either unnecessary or unrealistic.  Some of the descriptive phrasing was nice enough, but a lot of the prose lacked depth, particularly given the emotion which should have been packed into every page of such a novel.  I was reminded in part of Kate Morton’s work in In Falling Snow, both in terms of the dual storylines and familial saga aspects of the plot, but I do not think that MacColl quite pulled off the story as well as Morton could have done.  I did find a couple of discrepancies within the plot too – with regard to Henry’s age, for example.

I really liked the general premise of In Falling Snow, but it fell a little flat for me.  Some elements were perhaps not executed as well as they could have been.  The denouement was also quite precitable.  Iris’ gradual memory loss was handled sensitively, however, and I admire MacColl for being able to put this element of the plot, and her sympathy for Iris’ situation, across so well.

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‘Travel Light’ by Naomi Mitchison ***

Travel Light is the story of Halla, a girl born to a king but cast out onto the hills to die. She lives among bears; she lives among dragons. But the time of dragons is passing, and Odin All-Father offers Halla a choice: Will she stay dragonish and hoard wealth and possessions, or will she travel light?”(Amal El-Mohtar, NPR, You Must Read This). 

“From the dark ages to modern times, from the dragons of medieval forests to Constantinople, this is a fantastic and philosophical fairy-tale journey that will appeal to fans of Harry Potter, Diana Wynne Jones, and T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone.”

9780860685623-us-300I borrowed Naomi Mitchison’s Travel Light from my University library for three reasons: firstly, I had never read any Mitchison and felt I should rectify that, particularly as she’s a Scottish author; secondly, its original Virago green spine stood out to me on the shelf; and thirdly, the storyline sounded both weird and wonderful.  I must admit that I don’t ordinarily read books with elements of magic to them (with the exception of Harry Potter, of course), but I read the first page whilst I should have been looking for thesis-applicable tomes, and felt that it sounded rather promising.

I had earmarked Travel Light to be an inclusion in the final Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon which I will be taking part in (largely because when in the process of PhD studies, your entire life often feels like a readathon in itself), but ended up reading the first three chapters the night before because I was too intrigued to let it lie until morning.  From the outset, I was reminded both of the Icelandic sagas and C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series; it’s a fun and slightly strange amalgamation of the two at times.  There are touches of the general fairytale to it too.

Travel Light is one of those books that continually keeps the reader guessing.  Nothing quite takes the direction you expect, and elements of the plot are therefore quite surprising.  I’m normally very put off with the presence of talking dragons in fiction, but here they just seemed to fit here.  Well written and well paced for the most part (I must admit that it did become a little dull toward the middle, but it did soon pick itself back up again), I have come away wondering why Mitchison’s books aren’t more widely read.   If Travel Light is anything to go by, I feel that they have a lot to offer, particularly for fans of the mythical and mystical.  A strange little book, but a memorable one, which I’m pleased I chose to borrow.

NB. Travel Light might be difficult to get hold of as it looks to not currently be in print, but if you’re after something a little different, it’s well worth the effort!

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Reading the World 2017: ‘A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal’ by Asne Seierstad ****

A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal is the third of Seierstad’s books which I have read to date, and has been translated from the Norwegian by Ingrid Christophersen.  This particular reportage comes from Iraq, where Seierstad stayed for over three months in the beginning of 2003.  A Norwegian award-winning journalist, she had been sent to the country in order to report upon the war and its aftermath; she arrives before said war, and is able to report upon the state of politics, and the way of life for the city’s citizens.  The book’s blurb reads that ‘her passionate and erudite book conveys both the drama and the tragedy of her one hundred and one days in a city at war’.   9780465076017

I was in my early years of secondary school when the Iraq war broke out.  Whilst I remember much of the reportage, and the horrors which it conveyed, I do not feel as though I was given much of an idea about how awful it must have been to live, and to try to survive, in the country at the time.  I haven’t read much about Iraq from a retrospective position, but felt that it was an important thing to do.

In A Hundred and One Days, Seierstad brilliantly details the frustrations and dangers which journalists worldwide faced in trying to uncover the truth behind the all-pervasive propaganda of the regime.  She is humble with regard to her account: ‘No story contains the whole story.  This is just one of many and it gives a fragment of the whole, not more.’  She demonstrates what a hold propaganda had upon the country, and also shows the new, brave breed of people, who wanted to remain anonymous, but found it important to tell her the truth about what they were living through.  She writes, ‘Iraq has become a country of schizophrenics and cowards, a country where people fear their friends, their family, their own children.  Once upon a time Iraq was the lighthouse of the Middle East, but thirty years of Oriental Stalinism and twelve years of embargoes has crushed the country and its people’.

The book’s translation is rather Americanised, and I must admit that I found a few of the past participles and such used rather jarring.  The writing itself wasn’t as good as I have come to expect from Seierstad either; I remember her being rather eloquent in The Bookseller of Kabul, and One of Us, her reportage of Anders Breivik and the Oslo massacre he perpetrated, is incredibly strong with regard to its prose.

At first, the book failed to grip me.  Some of the paragraphs in the initial section were incredibly interesting, but others felt too drawn out, and there was no real sense of cohesion to the whole.  As other reviews have mentioned, much emphasis is placed upon office bureaucracy; whilst obviously pivotal for Seierstad, to allow her to extend her stay in the country, this did not seem overly useful on the whole for the general reader.  Some of the extended interviews also seem to have been cut a little short, or repeat almost entirely the details of others.  Once I had read past the first fifty pages, however, I found the book incredibly compelling.  There was some clumsy phrasing at times, but it was largely rather a fluid piece.  The inclusion of original newspaper pieces was beneficial to the whole, and largely they flowed seamlessly from the main body of prose.

A Hundred and One Days is a fascinating, thorough, and honest portrait of a wartorn city, and whilst it is not my favourite piece of Seierstad’s longer journalistic pieces, it is certainly an important book to read in order to understand the reasoning behind and conditions of the war.

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