Monday, 23 April 2018

Review: The Durrells of Corfu

The Durrells of Corfu The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

The Durrell's are one of those well know families that have permeated the British literary culture. There is Lawrence Durrell whose most famous work is The Alexandria Quartet. Then there is Gerald Durrell, founder of the world-renowned Jersey Zoo and author of many books, including My Family and Other Animals, about growing up with animals in the homes in Corfu. The TV series that is proving so popular is loosed based on My Family and Other Animals and the others in the Corfu Trilogy and the books themselves are loosely based on the real-life events that took place when they were living there.

In this book Michael Haag has gone behind the literary curtains to see what really happened, The children were all born in India, to Lawrence and Louise Durrell. Lawrence Durrell was a civil engineer responsible for building some of the railways of India. He died of a brain haemorrhage in 1928, and Louisa and the Leslie, Margo and Gerald moved back to London. They stayed there for a short while before relocating to Bournemouth. By 1935 they had been persuaded to move to Corfu by the eldest Lawrence, who was living there with his wife. It was here that the interest that Gerald had in all thing animals became an obsession. It was aided by his friendship with Theodore Stephanides, a Greek doctor, scientist, poet, philosopher, who nurtured his passion for animals. At the outbreak of war in 1939, they all moved back to the UK.

It is an enjoyable book to read about their slightly chaotic family life in Corfu, full of personal anecdotes and details gleaned from personal documents to fill in the gaps of the stories from the books. He tells the stories of Louisa, Leslie and Margo, the family members often in the shadow of there more famous family members. This unconventional upbringing gave us two world-famous authors, though I did have a wry smile that Gerald Durrell was a best selling author before his more literary brother, Lawrence. Even though my wife met Gerald Durrell once, and we have a lot of his books around the house, I have never read any of them! Something that I am intending on rectifying very soon.

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Sunday, 22 April 2018

Review: The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Surgery prior to the nineteenth-century was brutal and messy. There was no anaesthetic and therefore the best people in the business were the fastest who could remove a leg from the hip in just one minute; yes one minute! Occasionally the knives and other tools were wiped before being used on the next victim, I mean patient, but were often not. Tables were normally covered in the blood and gore of the previous unlucky patients and if the shock of the operation didn't kill you, then the infection that you got probably would. Something had to change and it was a man called Joseph Lister, a quiet Quaker Surgeon who was to start the medical revolution.

He witnessed the beginnings of this revolution when he saw a man operated on under a crude anaesthetic; the operation was fast but he felt no pain waking later to ask when they were going to start. He was educated at University College London initially studying botany, but then registered as a medical student and graduated with honours as Bachelor of Medicine, and entered the Royal College of Surgeons. His first post was at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary where he became the first assistant to James Syme and ended up marrying his daughter.

At this time the commonly accepted knowledge was that infections were airborne, caused by bad air, or miasma. Hospitals were aired to let out the bad air, but there were almost no facilities for washing hands and the bloodstained gowns were worn to show their experience to the watching crowds. But the understanding of how infections are passed was beginning to change with the work of Loius Pasteur. Whilst at the University of Glasgow, Lister undertook his own experiments and realised that cleaning the tools and the area around the wound with carbolic acid. He was one of the first to ensure that the surgeons under him wore clean gloves and wash their hands before and after each surgery. Just these simple acts meant that your chances of survival went from negligible to quite high. As with anything, changing the status quo is often trying to move a mountain, but the new intake were those that were inspired by the work that Lister was doing and were embracing the new way of doing things. Not everyone thought that he was right, so much so that the Lancet cautioned others against his radical ideas. Slowly his ideas were accepted with significant support from others, and he even operated on Queen Victoria herself to remove an abscess.

There is lots of blood, pus and gore in here as Fitzharris does not hold back when discussing the way things were; not one to read when you are having your lunch! Rightly he was called the father of modern surgery as countless people have benefited from his research and innovations. All these new ideas he developed meant that you were less likely to die just from being in the hospital. It is one of the better books that I have read on medical history, Fitzharris writes in an engaging way on a subject that is not going to appeal to everyone, but in amongst all the blood is the fascinating story of Joseph Lister. Can highly recommend this. 4.5 Stars

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Saturday, 21 April 2018

Review: Bel Canto

Bel Canto Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was supposed to be an important gathering, a Japanese businessman has joined the great and the good in the vice-presidents home in a small Latin American country to be persuaded to invest in a factory in their country. The president has called off, preferring to sit at home and watch his favourite soap opera. Mr Hosokawa was wary about attending, but when he heard that his favourite opera singer, Roxanne Coss, had been booked to sing to the private gathering, he decided to attend.

After she had finished singing, there is a pause and the house is suddenly full of men with guns, who were there to kidnap the president. When they find he is missing there are incredulous and angry, almost not believing them and thinking he is hidden amongst the people there. As the tension mounts, a hostage dies and the partygoers realise that it is not a game anymore. A day or so later there is a knock at the front door, the soldiers open it and on the other side is a Swiss guy who was supposed to be on holiday, is there on behalf of the Red Cross to begin negotiations. A list of demands is drawn up and he is sent off with them.

The government is not wanting to negotiate unless some of the hostages are released, and the women and children a few others are let out, but they soldiers decide to keep the opera singer, and life in the house settles down into an awkward routine. A chess board if found and Coss decides that she needs to practice her singing to keep her voice in check and it turns out one of the guests is an accomplished piano player; slowly the authority of the Generals and their soldiers begins to ebb away.

This is an interesting take on the usual action-packed hostage trope, Patchett has let the sluggish responses of a government feed into the characters in the home as people on opposite sides start to talk, develop relationships and try to act like this is actually normal life. It isn't but even then, love manages to flourish even under the most trying of circumstances. If I had one quibble, I thought that the epilogue was a little unnecessary as a way of tying things up, otherwise a really enjoyable read.

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Friday, 20 April 2018

Review: Gavin Maxwell: A Life

Gavin Maxwell: A Life Gavin Maxwell: A Life by Douglas Botting
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Gavin Maxwell was born on the 15th July 1914 the youngest son of Lieutenant-Colonel Aymer Maxwell and Lady Mary Percy, fifth daughter of the seventh Duke of Northumberland. As the fourth child he had a sheltered upbringing in the small village of Elrig, in Wigtownshire. He was late being sent off to boarding school and struggled to mix with other children, preferring animals which he always had a natural affinity with. He attended Oxford, leaving with a 3rd class degree shortly before World War II. He managed to get a commission with the Scots Guards, the regiment that his family were associated with and moved down to Pirbright for training. His fitness was suspect though and he was moved sideways into the newly created SOE. He was an ideal instructor after the years spent roaming the wilds of Scotland and his keen eye as a shooter meant he was a crack shot. In the end his fitness meant that he couldn't stay and left the army.

After the war, he borrowed £11,000 from his mother, technically an early inheritance, and bought himself an island. He set up a business to catch and process basking sharks, but it failed and he ended up selling it. He dabbled in car racing, having always had a love of speed, but wasn't hugely successful at that either. He tried various activities to occupy him, including painting, something he loved but wasn't particularly proficient at, but it did lead him to find a place that was to be a part of his life for a long while to come; Sandaig. This idyllic house was located on the coast with pure white sand, springy green turf and with the nearest neighbour two miles away it was to become his refuge, his Avalon. Whilst he was there he put down his brush, picked up his pen, and wrote the story of his attempt at shark fishing, Harpoon at a Venture.

This book was critically acclaimed and was to be the first of many books that he would write. The desire to travel would take him to Iraq with Wilfred Thesiger and Gavin Young and more books would be forthcoming, including the renowned A Reed Shaken By The Wind of his travels around the marshes of southern Iraq with the Arabs that called it their home. It was here he was to encounter the animal that would define the next stage of his life, the otter. He managed to acquire a small cub called Chahala, but it died shortly after receiving it. He asked if another could be found and soon after an another otter was brought to him; this he called Mijbil. This was the otter that he returned to Sandaig with. This animal was to bring him immense joy and a certain amount of chaos and distracted him in his writing. Mijbil was tragically killed, supposedly in an accident, but many knew it was a deliberate act of cruelty.

More otters were sought and it was these that were to inspire his to write his masterpiece Ring of Bright Water, a title taken from a poem by Kathleen Raine called "The Marriage of Psyche". The book about the wilds of Scotland and the otters became an instant bestseller and made Maxwell famous overnight. The income from the book meant that he could clear of some of the debts that he had got from his extravagant spending and it meant that he could fund a series of travels to Morocco for material for the next book he was planning.

Maxwell suffered from bipolar disorder who had massive highs and lows, he was a closet homosexual, something that was illegal at the time and it made him an immensely complex character. He had turbulent relationships with the few women in his life and was even married briefly to Lavinia Renton for a short period. The most intense relationship was with Kathleen Raine who cursed him and the house after a particularly stormy row. He had come from a wealthy family and he could spend money like water, buying cars and properties with no consideration as to the way of securing an income from them. Even though he was a writer of rare talent, he was considered to be very difficult to deal with, asking for large advances, early payments against royalties and frequently very late for submissions. He drank heavily and smoked a great deal, probably a contributory factor to the cancer that he succumbed to at the end of his life.

Botting's superb republished biography of Maxwell is timely given the rise of interest in nature and landscape writing. He was a friend of Maxwell, and this shows in the book as he has been able to write about details that someone who never knew him would not have been able to discover. Maxwell lived life to the full and Botting is honest with his profile of him too writing about the good and the bad, the successes and the failures with a critical but not unkind eye. This superb biography reminded me of the one by Artemis Cooper of Patrick Leigh Fermor, another writer who redefined a genre. This book has been given the Eland treatment with their distinctive branding and is a worthy addition to their collection of classic books.

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Thursday, 19 April 2018

Review: Stay with Me

Stay with Me Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As the wife of Akin, Yejide's primary role is to provide a child. It is what her mother in law, Moomi wants too, as well as the wider family and it is the miracle that Yejide wants too. It has driven her to seek answers from God, drag a goat to the top of Mountain of Jaw Dropping Miracles, undertake a pilgrimage and even consult the western medicine that some Nigerians are adopting. Akin's relatives insist that he has to take a new wife to uphold the family honour, this is a step too far for Yejide and she will fight it with all her strength. She has a phantom pregnancy and sails past the usual nine months, but still no baby.

Akin's brother, Dotun, marriage has just imploded, and he has moved in with them. He has a reputation as a womaniser and Yejide begins to consider that this may be the way that she can get the child that she and in particular her husband's family crave.

Is a story full of love, life, death, tragedy with uplifting moments, all with the politics of the country as a turbulent backdrop. Yejide is in between cultures as the old Nigerian ways clash with the new world and Western medicine and there is plenty of deceit and lies as the plot twist and turns and the truths are laid bare for each person in the family to see. I thought it almost had too much going on with the subplots but it was neatly executed. The characters are flawed and believable and occasionally funny and shows the pressure that a can placed on one individual to perform what is expected of her. Adebayo has conveyed the way the county works through this small family is a style that is definitely her own. If you like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie then you should give this a go.

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Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Review: Mayhem: A Memoir

Mayhem: A Memoir Mayhem: A Memoir by Sigrid Rausing
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It read like a storyline from the latest thriller. In a £70 million pound mansion in the plushest part of London, in a drug den sealed with duct tape, human remains were found covered by a tarpaulin and a couple of flat screen TVs. The staff were told not to enter the room and with the discretion that the ultra-rich demand, none thought to question the reason why, nor disobey. This wasn't a bestseller though; it was real life. The remains were the body of Eva Rausing, wife of Hans Kristian Rausing, heir to the multi-billion Tetra Pak fortune. The couple had long been addicted to Class A drugs and had often been in the newspapers with the journeys in and out of rehab. Her death of a heart problem had not been ignored by Hans, but his drug-addled state caused him to take actions that a person in normal circumstances would not have done.

Watching Hans and his Eva's lives implode was Han's sister, the editor and publisher Sigrid Rausing. She hadn't really paid attention when he first had become addicted to drugs in his twenties but saw them both relapse after being married for seven happy years. As the drug use spiralled out of control again they drifted in and out of rehab, she took to writing persuasive letters and emails trying to help them with the predicaments. This supportive help failed, but after taking advice she became the legal custodian of their four children, something that Eva strongly objected to claiming that Sigrid wanted the extra children for herself, something that she rebuts in the book.

It is a very personal and open memoir, with stories of her childhood growing up in Sweden and the small pleasures of life that she recalls in snippets. The core theme of the book though is addiction, and how an individual can become so absorbed that the neglect friends, family and themselves. She asks the question how do you help someone with an addiction? Especially if they really don't want to be helped at all, how the twelve step process does work, but after someone has relapsed and entered rehab again, it is easy to repeat the things that those running the centres want to hear, with no real commitment to their meaning or purpose. There are deeper questions too about where the line is where someone is knowing what they are doing and the point where that stops because of the addiction and mental capacity.

It is not an easy read subject wise, thankfully Rausing's sparse but beautiful writing helps makes this an essential read. She is brutally honest about her own life and the failures in helping Hans and Eva, but also now understands the limits of what she could actually do at the time. She doesn't and cannot provide the answers of where to go to get the help that people need, but does highlight how little is understood about addiction and how society can tackle the pain and anguish it causes.

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