Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

trainspottingTrainspotting

Irvine Welsh

Norton Paperback.  1996, first published in Great Britain, 1993.  349 pgs with Scots dialect glossary.

Guardian 1,000 Novels:  State of the Nation Titles.

I’ve promised myself that the next three books (at least) are all going to be Guardian novels so I can have some hope of “moving forward” as we like to say, towards  my almost ridiculous goal of reading the 1,000 best!

So, Trainspotting.  I can honestly say I’ve never read anything like this before.  This is a series of stories about a group of heroin addicts in Edinburgh, Scotland in the 1980s.  There is a core group of, well, I’m not sure we can actually call them friends, that the book follows — some of whom are addicts, some alcoholics, and all dysfunctional.  The entire book is written in Scots dialect, which after a while was okay for me, with my American English, once I got used to sounding sentences like the following out loud:

“It wis last Christmas thit Julie died.  Ah nivir made the funeral.  Ah was lyin in ma ain puke oan a mattress in Spud’s gaff, too fucked tae move.  It wis a shame, cause Julie n me wir good mates.”

You get it?

Welsh explained that he wrote this way because he wanted to speak out in the characters’ own voices; in contrast to writing with a “waspish” narrative voice that demeans and talks down to the characters.

It would be a joke for me to try to “review” this book — I have no understanding of the world these characters inhabit.  As a reader, I shifted from being repulsed, frightened, amused, grieved, angry, and once and a while, touched, by these fragments of stories.

There is no real organization to the novel.  You are simply dropped in and out of these peoples’ lives — some characters are constants, such as the antihero, Mark Renton — and some play mere cameo roles such as the tragic mom, Alison.  I found this kaleidoscopic treatment of characters often frustrating.  Everyone seems to have two or three nicknames, plus their real name — and sometimes I wasn’t even sure who was narrating a segment.  But, that was also real to me — very much like real life where people turn up at odd moments of your life.  I found that Welsh’s style worked in that respect, that all these characters were able to describe their view of this dysfunctional society they inhabited.  The chaos of the book reflected well the chaos of their experiences — drugs, welfare, unemployment, crime, violence and pointlessness.

“Basically, we live a short, disappointing life, and then we die.  We fill up oor lives wi shite, things like careers and relationships to delude oorsels that it isnae aw totally pointless.  Smack’s an honest drug, because it strips away these delusions….Eftir that, ye see the misery ay the world as it is, and ye cannae anaesthetise yirsel against it.”

This was a difficult read for me, but books shouldn’t just be pretty presents delivered up in a neat packages to open up and put on a shelf.  Trainspotting was raw,  sometimes incomprehensible, jagged and almost unfinished.  Welsh himself admitted that the heist scene at the end was just a way for him to finish the book — otherwise he’d be still writing it!  I found this insight and others from listening to Welsh’s own discussion during a 2007 BBC World Book Club broadcast.

Another book I probably wouldn’t have read, without the Guardian 1,000 list.  Not the most enjoyable, but one of the most thought-provoking.

 

Dystopian Days: Divergent

divergentDivergent

Veronica Roth

HarperCollins Publishers.  2013.  487 pgs + bonus materials section.

Other books I’ve read by Roth:  none.  Divergent is the first book of a young adult dystopian trilogy.  The other books in the trilogy are Insurgent and Allegiant.

Well, two things to say:  one, I know I am the last person on earth to read this book and two, I loved it!  That latter statement is not cool to say for a serious reader, I guess.  So I guess I’m not a serious reader –and any way I don’t care.

Just in case I’m not the last person on earth who hasn’t read this, and one of my faithful Livritome readers is….the story line is the following (don’t want to give away everything):

  • Some incredible war (or plague?) has happened and the survivors (at least in Chicago, USA!) have decided to reorganize society into groups that represent the characteristics that may help prevent a future war.
  • The characteristics, or factions are:  Erudite (intelligence), Dauntless (courage), Amity (peacefulness), Abnegation (selflessness), and Candor (honesty).
  • All 16 year-olds complete an aptitude test to help them decide what faction they should chose to spend the rest of their lives in.  This may, or may not, mean leaving their birth families and parents forever (what 16 year old wouldn’t love that??)
  • After choosing, teens train intensely for initiation into their new faction.
  • Some folks may not fit just precisely into one faction, and that is a problem.
  • Some very unlucky folks are factionless — and this is quite a state to be feared.
  • War and unrest are brewing….

The novel follows Beatrice Prior, a girl from Abnegation whose choice of faction has dramatic ramifications for herself, her family, and several other key individuals.  Not only must Beatrice square her choice of faction with the suspicion that her aptitude test results actually point towards a more troubling future choice — but she must prepare herself to take part in a greater world struggle that is lining up outside of her individual concerns.  Along the way, Beatrice meets several other young people who are struggling with their faction choice, which includes a possibility of not being accepted by the faction if they do not pass initiation — a fear Beatrice also shares.

So much has been written about why dystopias are popular.  The attraction seems simple to me, especially for younger readers.  With so many dysfunctions in our current, real world – global warming, terrorism — the possibility of the world we know devolving into some other hideous form seems quite plausible.  Additionally, I think Divergent and the Hunger Games novels resonate as classic coming of age tales.  Leaving your family behind, finding your identity, participating in a mighty struggle — aren’t those themes as primal as fairy tales and legends of the past?  Roth has just added the wrecked Sears Tower and ghostly El trains to the mix.

I also liked the love story in Divergent.  Beatrice’ love-interest turns out to be a anti-hero with a tragic, dark past that only she understands.  How classic is that theme — Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre, anyone?  Albeit with tattoos and a knack for jumping off moving El trains.

I guess it is the presence of these simple, archaic themes that sparked the criticism of Roth’s massive commercial success with Divergent.  Yes, and some of the characters are, to put it mildly, thinly drawn.  Having admitted this, I still would recommend this read.  It moved along briskly, it compelled and it presented a female hero I learned to care about.  For this non-serious reader the judgment’s on the book shelf:  I just bought the second book.

Dystopian City Falling into Ruins.  Photo Credit:  Torley Linden, Creative Commons License.

Dystopian City Falling into Ruins. Photo Credit: Torley Linden, Creative Commons License.

 

Tragic Triage: Five Days at Memorial Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital

five daysFive Days at Memorial:  Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital

Sheri Fink

Crown Publishers.  2013.  559 pgs including detailed footnotes and index.

Other books I’ve read by Fink:  none.  She received the Pulitzer Prize for journalism for her 2009 article in the New York Times magazine on this same subject.

Fink is a Stanford University-trained doctor and PhD researcher.  She has provided aid and medical relief in combat zones.

This is  one of the most disturbing books I have ever read.  It is also a book that will have to substitute for a criminal trial, since the people accused of ending the lives of helpless hospital patients were never brought to justice.

Hurricane Katrina was one of the worse natural disasters in U.S. history.  Almost 2,000 people lost their lives in the 2005 storm and subsequent flooding.  This book is about the effect of the storm on Memorial Hospital,  located in uptown New Orleans.  When the levies broke, Memorial was completely surrounded by flood waters almost to the second story — trapping patients, staff and visitors and destroying the emergency electrical generators located in the basements.  Plunged into darkness, heat and chaos, the stranded staff endured five days of terror and confusion.  While stories of valor and clear-thinking emerged (the entire NICU was evacuated by helicopter with every baby saved) a darker picture emerged as the flood waters receded.

After all staff and patients had been evacuated, 45 bodies were discovered in the hospital chapel — the highest number of any of the New Orleans hospitals caught in the flood.  Autopsies revealed a deadly level of morphine and other sedatives in the bodies of a number of the deceased, and patient records determined that these drugs had not been prescribed.

What was determined much later, through detailed investigations and even the free admission of several of the doctors — was that seriously ill, fragile patients were euthanized instead of being evacuated, because there seemed to be no way to move them out of the hospital.  Their continued presence and stubborn clinging to life meant the staff could not leave the heat-choked, stinking hospital.  And in the doctors’ minds, they were going to die anyway.

“I gave her medicine so I could get rid of her faster, get the nurses off the floor…There’s no question I hastened her demise.’  — Dr. Ewing Cook, (p. 161).”

Memorial Hospital, New Orleans

Memorial Hospital, 2007. Photo Credit: Infrogmation. Creative Commons license.

The majority of the patients who received the high doses of morphine and midazolam occupied the floor of the hospital set aside for nursing home occupants.  They were primarily elderly and had DNR (“Do not resuscitate”) orders in their charts.  But even a younger, very obese patient was euthanized.  Many patients were alert and cognizant.  Several had family members present who were forced away from their bedsides — either by police who were supervising the evacuation, or by staff members.   Chillingly, they all died the same morning — even while rescue helicopters were landing on Memorial’s roof.

The first half of this book is a compulsive, page turning read depicting the events of the storm and the five days of confusion, terror, and death.  The second half traces the criminal investigation, the bungling of the district attorney, the publicity campaigns on behalf of the accused nurses and doctor and eventually, the grand jury’s failure to indict.  This half of the book is somewhat more difficult to get through, but detailed footnotes and a chart of significant individuals and their affiliations helps keep everyone straight.

There are so many layers to this book.  You can read it as a horrific crime  story — from the point of view of the perpetrators and the victims.  It is a stern warning about the lack of emergency planning.  In a larger sense it is the tragedy of an inept local and federal government who failed to respond to a disaster.  It is  also a study in the ethics of disaster management and triage.

But one questions kept coming back to me:  why did the staff at this hospital react in this deadly way?  For these acts were personal choices carried out by several doctors and nurses — and other staff knew the euthanasia was taking place.  Why did Memorial’s staff choose death as an option, when other approaches were possible?  To me, one of most fascinating and tragic “what-if’s” of this tale relates to the comparison between events at Memorial, and those at Charity, another New Orleans hospital.

Katrina evacuations near Charity Hospital, New Orleans.  Photo Credit:  Frogmation.  Creative Commons License.

Katrina evacuations near Charity Hospital, New Orleans. Photo Credit: Frogmation. Creative Commons License.

Charity had a larger patient census and fewer staff during the storm, and was also flooded and stranded.  But fewer than ten patients died at Charity during the storm and its aftermath.

Why the choice of life over death at Charity?  Why the better outcome?  Fink describes specific choices made by the leadership at Charity that were strikingly dissimilar to Memorial:

  • Charity kept their regular shift schedule and as much as possible, continued normal medical care.   Staff were released to sleep and rest.  In contrast, Memorial went into “survival mode” where normal routine was abandoned.
  • Charity evacuated their sickest patients first; Memorial assigned the sickest patients, and those with DNR orders into a perilous “Category 3” status.  Most of the deaths occurred here.
  • Charity had drilled for a category three hurricane.  Memorial’s plan existed primarily in binders no one consulted.
  • Most interestingly to me, Charity kept a positive, upbeat tone with frequent staff meetings throughout the day that included everyone — from doctors to janitorial staff.  Management also forbade rumor spreading.  A “you can only say it if you see it” policy was enforced.  The staff even put on a talent show by flashlight to support morale.  In contrast, dark rumors ran rampant at Memorial.  Staff thought they were under martial law (they were not) and were convinced the hospital was going to be invaded every moment by rampaging gangs.  Leadership was confused and diffused.  Several c-suite staff from corporate headquarters were actually present at the hospital during the storm, but they had found a refuge in a remote office that through some fluke of electrical circuity still had power and air conditioning.

This book made me angry.  Not only the levies collapsed in New Orleans, but at Memorial — standards of ethics, morality, and even human decency collapsed as well.  There are many lessons from this tragic crime.  One of the simplest is that there is always a place for strong, sensible and clear leadership in every crisis.  If only the leaders (if they existed) at Memorial could have stepped up — then some sane choices would have been made and those who depended on the quality of others’ choices would have survived the five days.

Livritome’s Short List: Brain Food and More

 

Photo credit:  Dan Tentler.  Creative Commons license.

Photo credit: Dan Tentler. Creative Commons license.

To balance out these great long challenge reads, we need some sources for tasty short treats.  So for this week’s Short List, I’ve gathered a list of great sources for quick, thought provoking reads that you can gobble up during a commute or on your lunch break.  Bon appetit!

  • Farnam Street blog.  Canadian blogger Shane Parrish produces this treasure-chest of links, organized around the concept of getting smarter.  His Sunday newsletter, Brain Food summarizes his latest finds.  My only problem with this site is that it is so rich I could get lost for hours!  Check out this issue to get an idea:  there’s generally a theme, a list of associated links and also more links to what Shane is reading, which is cool.  Brain Food led me to a great article from the New Yorker on how walking helps you think.
  •  Another source I’ve been noticing is LinkedIn’s Pulse.  I’m just getting into it, but apparently LinkedIn is morphing into a publishing platform  — in addition to providing the business networking it is already famous for.  If you already have a LinkedIn profile, then Pulse will offer a customized news stream, or you can peruse and search on your own. Using Pulse, I found a short, interesting read on how to be more effective in meetings.   I’ll definitely be keeping my fingers on Pulse.

And here’s one more to digest:

Enjoy, busy readers!  See you next week with an update on one of my longer reads.  I’m three-quarters of the way through with Five Days at Memorial and taking a quick look into Trainspotting, which is one of the Guardian 1000 Challenge reads.  As usual, way too much to bite off…

Love, L.

 

Another Challenge Read Done! Loving Trollope….

BarchesterTBarchester Towers

Anthony Trollope

Barsetshire Chronicles, Book 2

Signet Classics.  1963.  535 pgs with afterword by Robert W. Daniel.

Originally published in three volumes in 1857.

Guardian 1000 challenge.  Comedy titles.

Other Trollope books I’ve read:  The Warden (blogged, 11/4/13) and The Way we Live Now (blogged, 10/12/13).

I know I’ve said this before but at the risk of being a little repetitive, I love, love, love this challenge for leading me to books and authors I would never have picked up — but ended up so happy with.

Regarding this particular title, I’m not alone.  Barsetshire Towers is considered one of Trollope’s most-loved, most accessible, books.  It is very funny.  For once I wished I was reading it on the Kindle so I could have marked out the laugh-out-loud passages; there were many!  The book is about power.  Whether it be between church colleagues (huge fighters, here!), husbands and wives, men and women, masters and servants — there is a constant struggle for who has the upper hand.  But Trollope keeps this theme light; no one is going to get deeply hurt here.

Mr_Slope

See more good Trollope goodies and info at this cool website: http://www.anthonytrollope.com/

This is the second book of Trollope’s six novel series, the Barsetshire Chronicles.  The first,  The Warden (1855),  introduced us to several key characters who I assume (and hope) will reappear in the rest of the series.  The Warden focused on Mr. Harding, a sweet and gentle churchman; his son-in-law, fire-breathing and hard-charging Archdeacon Grantly; his lovely but firm daughter, Eleanor, and a host of other characters.  Barchester Towers continues their story and adds in more drama represented by the arrival of a new bishop, Rev. Proudie.  Bishop Proudie’s entourage includes his obsequious and conniving chaplain, Mr. Slope and his strident, forceful and dictatorial wife, Mrs. Proudie (the real bishop!).  A power struggle ensues between the forces of Grantly (high-church) and Slope (low-church).  I confess that the intricacies of nineteenth-century English church politics escapes me, but there are enough references that I can discern the basic principles.  However, these concepts take second place to the human characters who struggle for the upper hand in such a spiritual, religious manner!  I thought a few times, hey, WWJD?

  • Pros:  lots of social satire, wonderful characterizations.  I also love, love Trollope’s use of last names as a clue to the characters:  domineering Mrs. Proudie, slimy Slope, social ladder-climbing Mrs. Lookaloft, and the Quiverful family (fourteen kids!) and many others.
  • Cons:  well, wordy.  Even my Trollope-love gets worn down by the many side-plots and asides.  Trollope likes to appeal to the reader in a blatant way which sometimes grated on my nerves when it didn’t advance the story.

Only one more Trollope on the Challenge list:  book six of the Barsetshire Series.  Now, this will represent a challenge to my OCD tendency to strictly read books series in order….should I read the intervening three books to get at the last one?  I think I’ll spend some more time at:  Anthony Trollope.com to get a feel for the intervening books.  Maybe I’ll reward myself by checking out the BBC’s lovely miniseries based on the first two books, as well!  Stay tuned!

 

Strumpet City

strumpetStrumpet City

James Plunkett

Gill & Macmillan.  1969.   549 pgs with introduction by Fintan O’Toole.

Other books I’ve ready by Plunkett:  none.  Plunkett was a native Dubliner who worked as a producer for RTE, the Irish national radio broadcaster.  He was also active in the Workers Union of Ireland, where he operated as a staff secretary under the famous Irish labor organizer, Jim Larkin.  Plunkett wrote other books and plays; Strumpet City is considered his masterpiece.

And masterpiece it is.  Strumpet City follows  a handful of representative Dubliners — upper class, clergy, lower class — for seven critical years in the city’s history, concluding with the Dublin Lockout of 1913.

The Lockout was a brutal struggle between employers and workers in Dublin culminating with the eventual starving out and defeat of the workers.  The conflict revolved around the worker’s right to unionize, which at that time was a novel concept.  While the workers’ demands seemed relatively mild, including the right to be paid for overtime, the employers’ response was savage.  A federation of 300 employers, led by the owner of the city’s tramway company, forced workers to renounce their union memberships — or be “locked out” of their respective factories, shops or places of employment.  At the time of the Lockout, Dublin industry was service-based, and fueled by low-skilled, low-wage workers.  Living conditions were abysmalStatue of Jim Larkin.  Dublin had one of the highest infant mortality rates in Europe and tuberculosis was common.  As a result of the Lockout, 20,000 workers, representing about another 80,000 dependents, were thrown out of work.  Employers, in their turn, either shut down their workplaces or employed scab labor who toiled under police protection.  Accordingly, the Lockout resulted in many Dublin businesses declaring bankruptcy.  Many of the clergy, instead of protecting the helpless, connived with the employers by withholding charity from striking families.  To the clergy, the unions represented Socialism, one step away from atheism.  In one memorable scene, Dublin priests prevent a convoy of hungry children from leaving the city for refuge with Protestant trade unionist families.  Starvation, you see, would be preferable to the loss of the Catholic influence.

One of the novel’s strengths is it tapestry of characters — each drawn so skillfully that even the minor players haunt you once the book is over.   Plunkett divides his characters into upper class, clergy and lower class — but of course, nothing about the book is that simplistic.  There are heroes and devils sprinkled liberally throughout all three domains and perhaps even more terrifyingly — the horror of the banality of evil, poverty, disease and disparity between the haves and havenots.  In one of my favorite scenes, the alcoholic priest Father Giffley visits Jim Larkin, Dublin’s union leader and a real life character:

There is something I need advice about,’ Father Giffley said.  “Today, in one of the houses in my parish I found a body of police who were acting like blackguards.  They had beaten a man and terrified his wife and children….”

“Didn’t you know that it happens all the time?”

“Perhaps I did.  But I had never witnessed it before.  I intend to lodge a complaint and if necessary, give evidence.  I want advice on how best to go about it.”

“It would do no good.”

“It can be tried.”

“It has been tried countless times already,” Larkin said.  “by eminent men who have courage and sympathy.  And by a few men of your own calling, too, Father….”

Larkin rejects Father Giffley’s help because later in the interview he recognizes that the priest’s alcoholism disqualifies him as an ally and effective witness.  However, the rest of us are not so easily excused.  The lessons of Strumpet City are that the same disparities of class, education, opportunity and even health keep people as helpless today as the tenement dwellers of 1913 — and these problems still lock all of us out of our true human potential.

 

Focus by Daniel Goleman

Focus by Daniel Goleman coverFocus:  the hidden driver of excellence

Daniel Goleman

Harper Collins.  2013.  311 pgs with acknowledgements, resource list, index.

Other books I’ve read by Goleman:  none, but he is famous for 1995 best-seller, Emotional Intelligence.  Goleman was once a science writer for the New York Times.

Since I’m always wondering why I can’t get enough done, why I can’t concentrate on everything that I need to accomplish — including why I can’t read more of my Guardian list books, I thought I would find out what Goleman had to say about focus, “the hidden driver of excellence.”

Goleman has ton of insights:  some based on brain science, a lot based in management science and then quite a large section of his own semi-philosophical musings.  Plenty to dig into.  Turns out our brains aren’t really set up for big-picture problem solving and long-term focus.  They are set up for alerting us to rustling in the bushes that might turn out to be a predator.  This is why, according to Goleman, we all get a rush of adrenaline when we get a sudden scary shock, but we can blissfully auto-cruise in the face of global warming.

Goleman asserts that successful leaders have “triple focus”:

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 27JAN11 - Daniel Goleman, C...

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 27JAN11 – Daniel Goleman, Co-Director, Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, Rutgers University, USA, speaks during the session ‘The New Reality of Consumer Power’ at the Annual Meeting 2011 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 27, 2011. Copyright by World Economic Forum swiss-image.ch/Photo by Michael Wuertenberg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Listening within, to articulate an authentic vision of overall vision … that energizes others…

Coaching, based on listening to what people want from their life, career and current job.

Listening to advice and expertise; being collaborative and making decisions by consensus ….

Goleman talks about systems thinking and mindfulness, but I didn’t really get a clear idea about how that was all tied together with the concept of focusing on larger problems.  I understand that systems thinking is the ability to see how interconnected parts work together and impact each other, but Goleman lost me in how focus ties into this.

On the other hand, I enjoyed Goleman’s discussions on brain science.  Our older, bottom up brain is intuitive, impulsive, involuntary and “the manager for our mental models of the world” while our top-down brain is voluntary, effortful, and able to create new models and plans.  According to Goleman, it is the bottom up brain that might deliver a sudden flash of insight after the top down brain has been grappling with a thorny problem.  The problem is, we need unstructured down time to allow those insights to bubble up — a commodity that most of us don’t have enough of.

My only other comment is that I found the book poorly organized and ironically, sometimes unfocused.  I wish Goleman had used fewer-briefly mentioned examples and more deeper explorations of examples of good and poor focus.  Still, glad I took time for Focus.

The Warden

WardenThe Warden

Anthony Trollope

Barsetshire Chronicles, Book 1

1855.

I’m reading a public domain version downloaded from Amazon.

The only wardens I know are in charge of prisons — so, boy, I had a lot to learn once I picked up this first novel in Trollope’s Barsetshire Chronicles.  Since I must get cracking on the Guardian challenge and I have an OCD aversion to reading books in series out of order I realized I can’t get to my other two Trollopes on the Guardian list without first reading The Warden.  Because I loved The Way We Live Now I dug right into The Warden — another book I probably would never have read except for the Challenge.

From what I’m learning about Anthony Trollope, this guy was prolific!  He could crank out the stuff — and The Warden was one of the first books that brought him commercial notice.  Trollope got the idea for the story after a visit to Salisbury Cathedral:

Creative Commons license by Ashley Pomeroy.  Source:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Salisburycathedral0246.jpg

Creative Commons license by Ashley Pomeroy. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Salisburycathedral0246.jpg

The story:  Septimus Harding is the elderly, gentle and music loving “warden” (director) of a “hospital” (almshouse) — a Victorian version of a nursing home, located adjacent to Barchester Cathedral (aka Salisbury Cathedral).  Reading this book got me in touch with reams of Victorian English Church vocabulary, which isn’t exactly useful in my life right now, but hey, you never know.  As Warden, he receives a nice salary from the bequest that set up the hospital, and pays for the maintenance and upkeep of its “bedesmen” (inmates) — about a dozen elderly working men.  Warden Harding takes loving care of his old guys and also takes care of music duties at the Cathedral.  His life is serene and focused on his duties, music, and devotion to his younger daughter Eleanor, who lives with him.

But this is not to last.  A young reformer, John Bold (who also has an eye for Eleanor), digs up the fact that the bequest that set up the hospital didn’t really parse out the Warden’s salary in such a generous proportion.  Additionally, it seems that the old men in the hospital are due some money.  Warden Harding becomes immediately concerned and wonders how to rectify the situation.  The bequest that established the hospital is ancient — dating from the middle ages and there was probably some misinterpretation in its terms at some point.  The old guys in the hospital become restive when they learn about the prospect of more cash.  To complicate matters — Mr. Harding’s son-in-law, the strident and know-it-all Archdeacon of the Cathedral, becomes involved and is dead-set on a big time fight with John Bold over the power of the Church.  Lawyers get called and trips get made back and forth to London.  Stories get published in the newspaper.  In general, its a mess.

In the middle of this turmoil is the Warden, a gentle but strong soul.  This story is about questioning the whole premise of your life — was it right or wrong?  Was everything you believed correct?  If it was not, would you have the courage to change almost everything in your life and start over?  Even if you are bullied, ridiculed, and despised for your actions?  I don’t know if I could or not.

I loved this book — another terrific surprise thanks to the Guardian Challenge!  On to Barchester Towers, Book 2!

The Killing of Katie Steelstock

Killing of Katie Steelstock coverThe Killing of Katie Steelstock

Michael Gilbert

Harper and Row.  1980.  241 pgs.

Published in the U.K. under the title, The Death of a Favourite Girl, which I like better.

Other books I’ve read by this prolific master of the courtroom drama and police procedure:  see my earlier review of Anything For a Quiet Life.  I’ve got Black Seraphim on the TBR pile now and I really have to get my hands on his masterpiece:  Smallbone Deceased.  

No, this is not on the Guardian List (sigh) but something by this brilliant writer should be — especially since there is a crime section!

I just love this sort of writing:  snappy, quick-witted and so evocative.  A great read with a twist at the end.

Pretty Katie Steelstock has become a British TV star but she still comes home to her country village along the Thames to enjoy an occasional tennis game and dance at the club.  Unfortunately, Katie doesn’t come home after this dance — instead her bludgeoned body is discovered along the towpath on the river bank.

Chief Superintendent Charlie Knott descends from London to take the case — and also to look for a stepping stone to his next promotion.  It looks like Knott has his suspect — and his promotion — when some unexpected evidence turns up.  Seems as though Katie isn’t your typical girl next door done good and  there is much, much more to this case than first meets the eye.  Enjoy!

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_River_Thames,_Moulsford_-_geograph.org.uk_-_695707.jpg This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. See this photograph's page on the Geograph website for the photographer's contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by Andrew Smith and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_River_Thames,_Moulsford_-_geograph.org.uk_-_695707.jpg
This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. See this photograph’s page on the Geograph website for the photographer’s contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by Andrew Smith and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Trollope’s The Way We Live Now

way we liveThe Way We Live Now

Anthony Trollope

1875.  According to Wikipedia, The Way We Live Now was one of the last major Victorian novels to appear in serialized form.

I read a public domain version, downloaded from Amazon.  This is a very long novel — with 100 chapters.  A 2012 paper reprint counts it in at 890 pgs.

Other books I’ve read by Trollope:  none!  But the Guardian list contains at least three — and once again, thanks to the List I’ve read something absolutely fantastic that I would never have picked up.  So, more from Trollope as soon as I can get to them.

Guardian 1000 Challenge.  State of the Nation titles.

Where do I begin to try to summarize this huge, fantastic story??  First of all, Trollope’s life is interesting — an unhappy childhood dominated by broke, creative, volatile parents — his father failed taking the bar because of his bad temper and his mother actually went off to America to try to make the family fortune.  She then returned home and wrote novels to try to support them.  Despite not making ends meet, Anthony’s parents were both very concerned with maintaining their gentry status — so Anthony was sent off to the best schools where he was bullied for being the poor kid.  Then, Anthony began a long and somewhat up and down career as

a civil servant in the British Post Office.  He was said to be responsible for establishing the the famous red postal boxes.

Trollope was really upset about the financial crisis of 1873, some of which was caused by speculation—especially in railroad building.  The plot of The Way We Live Now revolves around a huge swindle concerning this very same subject.

Augustus Melmotte has come to London with his family to set up a financial house in the City. He is rumored to be a Jew, fantastically wealthy and somehow connected to the failure of a bank in Vienna — or maybe in Paris.  No one is sure, but every broke aristocrat is dying to get in good with him.  (Shades of Bernie Madoff??).  His daughter, Marie, is rumored to be an heiress worth millions — which attracts a raft of worthless, stupid noblemen hoping to make their fortunes.  Mixed in with this crowd are the Carbury’s — broke gentry who pin their hopes on son Felix (one of the most dissolute, ridiculous characters you will ever meet in fiction) snatching up Marie.  Of course Melmotte has no intention of giving his rich child over to the penniless Felix — never mind the fact that he is Sir Felix — but Melmotte is also intent on playing his own game of stocking a board of directors for his Grand South Central Mexican Railway with stupid and quiescent nobility.  So, Melmotte will use Felix for his own purposes for a while.  What Melmotte doesn’t count on is:

  • Marie’s infatuation with Felix and her own ruthless ambitions
  • Paul Montague’s nagging questions about when actual building on the railway will begin
  • Some impertinent questions from a jealous newspaperman
  • Questions from his faithful and usually complacent clerk about actually how far Melmotte is going to go this time…

This story really has everything:  greed, power, status, love, politics, finance, bigotry, a visit from the Emperor of China….I could go on and on.  There must be almost 50 substantive and fascinating sub-characters, each with his or her own story to tell.  But in the center of it all sits Melmotte.  Is he a swindler?  An anti-hero?  A fatally flawed adventurer who is merely the instrument to punish a corrupt and valueless society?  Read this fantastic story and be the judge yourself.

I have to also add that the BBC produced a luscious adaptation of TWWLN in 2001 starring David Suchet as Melmotte and Mathew Macfadyen as Felix Carbury.  I made myself the read the whole book before watching it, though, and hope you will also.