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review 2017-08-18 19:14
A Writer's Diary, Virginia Woolf
A Writer's Diary - Virginia Woolf,Leonard Woolf

For lovers of Virginia Woolf, but also those interested in writing itself, as well as history (Woolf details the approach and beginning of World War II, including the bombing of her home in London). This "writer's diary," edited by husband and first reader, Leonard Woolf, comprises those entries where Woolf discusses her writing and reading as well as encounters with literary acquaintances.

 

There is a pattern to her writing process whereby she's excited about a new idea (which sometimes comes while she's working on another project) and rides a sort of high until she completes it. This is followed by depression and ambivalent feelings about reviews. Some books come easier than others, but the overall pattern remains the same. Every one feels like it might be a failure or badly reviewed, and she attempts to convince herself she doesn't care. The ups and downs in her mood suggest bipolar disorder, which contemporary psychologists believe afflicted her. Knowing her fate (she drowned herself not long after the last entry of this diary) made reading portions very sad.

 

On the other hand, Woolf felt she had just begun to know her own mind in her 40s, which gives me hope! Elements of her process and the way one negative review overrode all the positive responses created a sense of affinity for me as a writer. Woolf changed literature, and I'm glad she kept such a diary.

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review 2017-08-14 10:10
A contemplative look at the life of a village for those who love a different kind of writing.
Reservoir 13: A Novel - Jon McGregor

Thanks to NetGalley and to Haper Collins UK Fourth State for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I had never read one of Jon McGregor’s novels before but I was curious by the description of this novel and more curious when I saw it had been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The biography of the author intrigued me even more and I finally managed to read the book.

The book starts with the disappearance of a thirteen-year-old girl, a visitor holidaying, with her parents, to a village in Britain (not too distant from Manchester and also near enough to Leeds and Sheffield for those cities to make appearances, so probably in the general area where I live). Despite a large search party and much publicity and community effort, the girl does not appear. At first, everything is stopped: Council meetings, Christmas celebrations, the lives of her parents who remain in the village for a long time. Slowly, things go back to almost normal, with only the anniversary of her disappearance as a reminder that something tragic happened there. Life returns to its natural rhythms. There are births, deaths, people get married, separate, get new jobs, are made redundant, people move into the village and out, cricket matches are lost (mostly), the weather is very wet, and occasionally dry, the reservoirs are checked, the quarries exploited or not, there are pantomimes, well-dressing, Mischief nights, birds come and go, clocks go back and forth, foxes are born, bats hibernate, crimes are committed, crops harvested, farm animals looked after…

The novel (if it is a novel) is a slice of the life of the community of that village. The story is told in the third person from an omniscient point of view, and one that seems to be an objective observer that peeps into people’s heads (and observes animals) but without becoming over involved with feelings, just describing what people might think, but not going any further than that. The style of writing is peculiar, and perhaps not suited to everybody’s taste. There are very beautiful sentences and a particular rhythm to the paragraphs, which are not divided according to the different characters’ points of view or stories and can go from weather to animals to a person’s actions. Each anniversary of the girl’s disappearance marks a new year, but, otherwise, there is little to differentiate what happens, other than the chronology and the passing of time for the characters, the houses, and the village itself.

There are no individual characters that have a bigger share of the limelight. We have the youngsters, who had known the missing girl, and we follow them, but we also follow the female priest, the teachers at school, several farmers, a potter, the newspaper editor and his wife, the school keeper and his sister… We get to know a fair bit about each one of them but not at an emotional level, and we become observers too, rather than putting ourselves in the place of the characters to share their feelings and thoughts. It makes for a strange reading experience, and not one everybody will enjoy. It is as if we were supposed to let the words wash over us and explore a different way of reading, pretty much like the passing of life itself.

There is no resolution (there isn’t in life either) and I have read quite a few reviews where readers were disappointed as they kept reading waiting for some sort of final reveal that never comes. We are used to classic narratives with beginning, middle, and end, and being confronted by a different kind of structure can make us uncomfortable. This novel reminded me, in some ways, of the film The Tree of Life directed by Terrence Malick, although in that case, the story was more circumscribed and here it is more choral (and less involved).  Reviewers who know McGregor’s previous work are not in agreement about this novel, as some feel it shows a development of his style and is the best of his yet, whilst others prefer some of his earlier work. My advice to those who have never read him would be to check a sample of the novel and see how they feel (although, remember that the earlier focus on the search for the girl dies down later). This is not a spoiler as the author has said saw in quite a few interviews and it is clear from the description that this is not a mystery novel.

In sum, this is a novel for people interested in new and post-modern writing, rather than for those looking for a conventional story. If you are annoyed by head hopping and strange writing techniques and like to find a clear ending, then stay away from it. If you enjoy meditation and savouring every moment and are prepared for a different type of reading, you might be in for a treat.  

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review 2017-07-06 18:35
My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier
My Cousin Rachel - Daphne du Maurier

I thought to read this, my second du Maurier novel, after recently seeing the film adaptation with Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin. The story balances upon the question of whether or not Rachel is a villain. I was interested to know if the novel might be more definitive about the answer, and it seems to me it is. (Also, I enjoyed reading Rebecca.)

 

Perhaps because I saw the film first, it felt more like a mystery than the novel. The novel illuminates even more the influence of perspective, as it's written from Philip's (English, young, male landowner) first person point of view. I was most engaged with the novel in those moments when I questioned his perspective and instead considered Rachel's. I've started keeping a reading diary, and many of my notes focus on the ways in which Philip is ignorant: for example, he finds Rachel (like all women) to be mercurial and emotionally manipulative while he himself is often moody and simply ignorant of the effect his words and actions can have. Though almost 25, he's childish, and like a child, grows churlish when his immaturity is pointed out to him.

 

I was also interested by the character of Louise, the daughter of Philip's godfather. She's clearly interested in marrying Philip, and the whole county, including Rachel, is behind the idea. Philip is resistant; he at first wants to remain a bachelor as his beloved cousin and guardian Ambrose was for so long. He's also unused to the company of women and has a narrow view of them and marriage. What interested me most was that Louise is the first character to voice suspicions about Rachel; later in the story, at a key moment, she once again wonders about Rachel's character and possible misdeeds. This novel is not one in which all the men or all the women are wrong; it's more nuanced, thankfully.

 

My Cousin Rachel low-key critiques privileged male perspectives and women's roles through its storytelling techniques. The writing and narrative are engaging as well, and I look forward to my next du Maurier.

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review 2017-06-21 17:39
Intriguing!
The Parkhurst Years: My Time Locked Up with Britain’s Most Notorious Criminals - Bobby Cummines

Bobby Cummines is a British ex-con who, during the 1970's and 1980's, served twelve years in some of the UK's maximum security prisons. He has penned a memoir of his early years of crime, his time in prison, and how he used those experiences to turn his life around. Upon release from prison, he founded a company to help people with criminal convictions reintegrate into society. A program similar to whats being tried now in America, only 30 years earlier.
Cummines pulls no punches, he is very honest about his life of crime, and what he has done and seen. No "I'm a victim of a set-up", he accepts his actions wholeheartedly.
The book is full of interesting stories and characters. The author relates his dealings with the infamous British inmates of the time. I especially liked hearing his language, and some of the terms he used that were unfamiliar to me. Screws, banged up, a bit of work, loo, bird, bum smuggler, nicking, Old Bill; the list goes on and on.
After working in US Federal Prisons for 21 years, I found this story to be very engaging. Even as different as British and American prisons are, there were still times I found myself thinking, "yeah, that happened to me, too". Cummines has a way of pulling you into what he is experiencing.
All told, this is an interesting book. I recommend it.

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review 2017-06-08 12:19
A great book for researchers of the topic and anybody curious about the history of psychiatry and psychiatric treatment in the UK in the XIXc
Lunatics, Imbeciles and Idiots: A History of Insanity in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Ireland - John R F Burt,Kathryn Burtinshaw

Thanks to Pen & Sword for gifting me a copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I have read and reviewed several books by Pen & Sword and have commented on their great catalogue before. As you know, I’m a psychiatrist and could not resist it when I saw this book.

The authors, who are well-known for writing about genealogy, note in their introduction that when people try to trace their ancestors and find that some of them seem to have disappeared from records or be lost, a possibility worth considering is that they might have had a history of mental health problems or epilepsy. If that is the case, checking the records of lunatic asylums, workhouses and the poor law records might provide plenty of information not available elsewhere. Their book focuses on mental health care during the XIX c. although there is a chapter about the pre-nineteenth century situation (that chapter, in particular, is very hard, and the way patients were cared for at the time until new reformers came along, is scary to read).

The book is divided into chapters that revise the laws in different areas of the United Kingdom, the asylums that were built, who run them, how they worked, and always offers some case studies, that share the stories of some of those patients, for the most part, voiceless and lost to history.

Later chapters look at the life in asylums (that as a psychiatrist, I found fascinating), the staff and their work, and then at different types of patients (the criminal lunatic, imbeciles and idiots, epilepsy, general paralysis of the insane, puerperal insanity, suicide). The chapters on diagnostic and causes, and treatments were particularly illuminating for me (even though I had read of some of them, the case studies and the details brought it to life).

I started working in psychiatry in the UK in 1993 and by then many of the asylums had disappeared, but, although I’ve only ever talked to people who had worked in them in the late XX century, I’ve had a chance to visit some of those fascinating buildings (some are listed buildings now and have been transformed into apartments and offices) and some are still dedicated to caring for people with mental health disorders, although, evidently in a very different form. With the changes to the philosophy and theory of caring for people with mental health problems, the discovery of new medications and a more enlightened attitude towards learning difficulties, it is important to record and revise how much the situation has changed, and not lose sight of the history of those places and particularly of the people (reformers and especially patients). In my professional capacity I’ve heard many discussions as to the advantages and disadvantages of the different models of care, and after reading this book I have gained perspective and feel much better informed.

As I read, I highlighted many points and quotes I wanted to share, but some are so extreme (when talking about ‘care’ pre-asylums) that they put horror movies and books to shame. I did not want to sensationalise a book that is, above all, a chronicle and a study that reflects changed social attitudes and laws, and that is invaluable to anybody who wants to have a good overview of mental health care in the UK in the XIX c.  and part of the XX (a recent book about R.D. Laing reminded me that even with the discovery of new medications, some things had changed little regarding the care of the mentally ill until the later part of the XX century).

This is a good compendium of the care of people with mental health illnesses, learning disabilities and epilepsy in the XIX century, and it encompasses laws, reformers, workers, buildings, and more importantly, patients. It is a great resource for researchers looking to gain a general view of the subject and offers biographies of the main players, a glossary and bibliography. The paperback copy also has great drawings and also pictures of ledgers, buildings, patients. I recommend it to anybody looking for information on the subject, to genealogists interested in researching in depth some of the lesser known records and to anybody interested in the history of psychiatry and psychiatric care, in particular in the UK.

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