In Invisible Cities Marco Polo conjures up cities of magical times for his host, the Chinese ruler Kublai Khan, but gradually it becomes clear that he is actually describing one city: Venice. As Gore Vidal wrote ‘Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvellous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant.’
No one appreciates the detail of being alive more than the dead. In Lisbon, a man encounters his mother sitting on a park bench who laughs with the impudence of a schoolgirl. She has been dead for fifteen years. In Krakow market he recognises Ken, his passeur, the most important person in his life between the ages of eleven and seventeen. They last met when Ken was sixty-five – forty years ago. The number of lives that enter any one life is incalculable. In this nomadic and playful book which travels through fictions across Europe, seemingly disparate stories reveal themselves to be linked, mislaid objects find their place and sensual memories penetrate the present.
1911: Inside an asylum at the edge of the Yorkshire moors,where men and women are kept apart by high walls and barred windows, there is a ballroom vast and beautiful. For one bright evening every week they come together and dance. When John and Ella meet it is a dance that will change two lives forever.
Set over the heatwave summer of 1911, the end of the Edwardian era, The Ballroom is a historical love story. It tells a page-turning tale of dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.
Publisher: Black Swan
Francesca Stubbs holds our hand as we take a walk through old age and death. Fran brings us to drinks with her dear friends, dropping off mouth-watering suppers for Claude, her ex-husband, warm and cosy in his infirmity. She visits her daughter, Poppet, holed up as the waters rise in a sodden West Country, and texts her son Christopher in Lanzarote, as he deals with the estate of his shockingly deceased girlfriend. The questions of what constitutes a good death and how we understand it preoccupy this glittering novel.
Saturday, February 15, 2003. Henry Perowne, a successful neurosurgeon, stands at his bedroom window before dawn and watches a plane – ablaze with fire like a meteor – arcing across the London sky. Over the course of the following day, unease gathers about Perowne, as he moves amongst hundreds of thousands of anti-war protestors in the post-9/11 streets. A minor car accident brings him into confrontation with Baxter, a fidgety, aggressive man, who to Perowne’s professional eye appears to be profoundly unwell. But it is not until Baxter makes a sudden appearance at the Perowne family home that Henry’s earlier fears seem about to be realised.
The moving second novel from the author of international hit Still Alice, which explores the life of a woman struck by a brain disorder, Left Neglect
‘I think some small part of me knew I was living an unsustainable life. Every now and then, it would whisper, slow down. You don’t need all this.’
Sarah Nickerson has it all: a high-flying career, a loving husband and children, a second home. But does she have time to enjoy it? Too busy to pay full attention, can she see what’s left neglected?
One fateful day while driving to work, Sarah looks away from the road for one second too long. In the blink of an eye, her overfull life comes to a screeching halt. In the wake of a devastating accident that affects her body and mind in surprising ways, it’s time for her to choose: who does she really want to be?
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK
London 1893. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one, and she never suited the role of society wife. Accompanied by her son Francis – a curious, obsessive boy – she leaves town for Essex, where she hopes fresh air and open space will provide the refuge they need.
When they take lodgings in Colchester, rumours reach them from further up the estuary that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, is immediately enthralled, convinced that what the local people think is a magical beast may be a previously undiscovered species. As she sets out on its trail, she is introduced to William Ransome, Aldwinter’s vicar.
Like Cora, Will is deeply suspicious of the rumours, but he thinks they are founded on moral panic, a flight from real faith. As he tries to calm his parishioners, he and Cora strike up an intense relationship, and although they agree on absolutely nothing, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart, eventually changing each other’s lives in ways entirely unexpected.
In a London flat, two young boys face the unbearable sadness of their mother’s sudden death. Their father, a Ted Hughes scholar and scruffy romantic, imagines a future of well-meaning visitors and emptiness.
In this moment of despair they are visited by Crow – antagonist, trickster, healer, babysitter. This sentimental bird is drawn to the grieving family and threatens to stay until they no longer need him.
What is the difference between friendship and love? Or between neutrality and commitment? Gustav Perle grows up in a small town in ‘neutral’ Switzerland, where the horrors of the Second World War seem a distant echo. But Gustav’s father has mysteriously died, and his adored mother Emilie is strangely cold and indifferent to him. Gustav’s childhood is spent in lonely isolation, his only toy a tin train with painted passengers staring blankly from the carriage windows.
As time goes on, an intense friendship with a boy of his own age, Anton Zwiebel, begins to define Gustav’s life. Jewish and mercurial, a talented pianist tortured by nerves when he has to play in public, Anton fails to understand how deeply and irrevocably his life and Gustav’s are entwined.
Fierce, astringent, profoundly tender, Rose Tremain’s beautifully orchestrated novel asks the question, what does it do to a person, or to a country, to pursue an eternal quest for neutrality, and self-mastery, while all life’s hopes and passions continually press upon the borders and beat upon the gate.
In 1975 art historian Leo Hertzberg discovers an extraordinary painting by an unknown artist in a New York gallery. He buys the work, tracks down its creator, Bill Weschler, and the two men embark on a life-long friendship.
This is the story of their intense and troubled relationship, of the women in their lives and their work, of art and hysteria, love and seduction and their sons – born the same year but whose lives take very different paths.
Inventive in form and timeless in content, each story is moving and thought-provoking. A Canadian university student visiting Washington, D.C., experiences the Vietnam War through an intense musical encounter. Variations of a warden’s letter to the mother of a man he has just executed reveal how each life is contained in its end. A young man’s fascination with the mirror-making machine he finds in his grandmother’s attic is juxtaposed with the reminiscences it evokes from his grandmother. And, in the exquisite title story, a young man dying of AIDS joins his friend in fashioning a story of the Roccamatio family of Helsinki, set against the yearly march of the twentieth century.
Far in the future, the World Controllers have created the ideal society. Through clever use of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs all its members are happy consumers. Bernard Marx seems alone harbouring an ill-defined longing to break free. A visit to one of the few remaining Savage Reservations where the old, imperfect life still continues, may be the cure for his distress…
Huxley’s ingenious fantasy of the future sheds a blazing light on the present and is considered to be his most enduring masterpiece.
With only TAMMY – a slightly tearful computer with self-esteem issues – a software boss called Phil – Microsoft Middle Manager 3.0 – and an imaginary dog called Ed for company, fixing time machines is a lonely business and Charles Yu is stuck in a rut. He’s spent the better part of a decade navel-gazing, spying on 39 different versions of himself in alternate universes (and discovered that 35 of them are total jerks). And he’s kind of fallen in love with TAMMY, which is bad because she doesn’t have a module for that. With all that’s on his mind, perhaps it’s no surprise that when he meets his future self, he shoots him in the stomach. And that’s a beginner’s mistake for a time machine repairman. Now he’s stuck in a time loop, going in circles forever. All he has, wrapped in brown paper, is the book his future self was trying to press into his hands. It’s called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. And he’s the author. And somewhere inside it is the information that could save him.
Graham Forbes is a disappointment to his mother, who thinks that if he must have a wife, he should have done better. Though her own husband isn’t all that satisfactory either. Still, this is Alan Bennett, so what is happening in the bedroom (and in lots of other places too) is altogether more startling, perhaps shocking, and ultimately more true to people’s predilections.
The Greening of Mrs Donaldson
Mrs Donaldson is a conventional middle-class woman beached on the shores of widowhood after a marriage that had been much like many others: happy to begin with, then satisfactory and finally dull. But when she decides to take in two lodgers, her mundane life becomes much more stimulating…
The love story of two runaway teenagers, Gemma and Tar, and their struggles with heroin addiction. Melvin Burgess’ most ambitious and complex novel is a multi-faceted and vivid depiction of a group of young people in the grip of addiction. It is told in many different voices, from the addicts themselves to the friends watching from the outside who try to prevent tragedy.
“For the second time in my life—and I am now seventy—I am embarking on an effort which may well come to nothing but which has possessed my mind, haunts, and will not let me sleep.” From her opening statement, Cam, the narrator of The Magnificent Spinster, declares her grand intentions: to write a novel—a worthy and important one in celebration of her recently deceased friend and teacher, Jane Reid, whose dearth of family threatens the memory of her almost tangible greatness. And so she writes, re-creating Jane’s childhood, adolescence, and years as a teacher—including the one in which Cam was her student. She writes of Jane’s irrepressible spirit and the charming letters Jane penned about her adventures, and she recounts Jane’s growing isolation as she aged, which, rather than softening her, only made her shine brighter.
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
When Laura Spelman learns that she will not get well, she looks on this last illness as a journey during which she must reckon up her life, give up the nonessential, and concentrate on what she calls “the real connections.” The heart of the story is Laura’s realization that for her the real connections have been with women: her brilliant and devastating mother, a difficult daughter, and most of all a woman she knew when she was young.
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
After seventy-six-year-old Caro Spencer suffers a heart attack, her family sends her to a private retirement home to wait out the rest of her days. Her memory growing fuzzy, Caro decides to keep a journal to document the daily goings-on—her feelings of confinement and boredom; her distrust of the home’s owner, Harriet Hatfield, and her daughter, Rose; her pity for the more incapacitated residents; her resentment of her brother, John, for leaving her alone. The journal entries describe not only her frustrations, but also small moments of beauty—found in a welcome visit from her minister, or in watching a bird in the garden. But as she writes, Caro grows increasingly sensitive to the casual atrocities of retirement-home life. Even as she acknowledges her mind is beginning to fail, she is determined to fight back against the injustices foisted upon the home’s occupants.
Publisher: The Women’s Press Ltd
In his brief life, Chekhov was a doctor, essayist, dramatist and a humanitarian. He saw no conflict between art and science or art and medicine. This collection of stories presents powerful portraits of doctors in their everyday lives, struggling with their own personal problems.
Publisher: Kent State University Press
Many of Mates’ characters have experienced some sort of cultural dislocation. In “Theng,” refugees from Cambodia living in Providence, Rhode Island, struggle to maintain their dignity in the face of despair and the bittersweet memories of their former home. In “Shambalileh, ” a Persian woman unable to have children with her American husband, is forced to reexamine her status both as wife and as foreigner. Unifying these incredibly diverse stories is the brave honesty with which the characters confront the tenuousness of their situations. For the most part, they share the tenacity of the woman in “Shambalileh, ” who “with great caution … began to imagine the rest of her life.” The central characters in several stories are doctors, whose candid explorations of the vast moral implications of medical practice make of their lives a sort of psychic battleground between good and evil. In “The Good Doctor,” a doctor torn between her dedication to medicine and her own requirements as a human being – what many of us might call her weaknesses – arrives at an intriguing conclusion. An intern in “Ambulance” risks her own well-being to save the life of a victim of gang violence. The twelve stories in this collection are powerful and durable. The debate between good and evil is so intense that the daily experiences of Mates; characters, transformed and reorganized, become psychic quests. Mates takes us back to the fundamental question that is the fountainhead of all serious fiction: how should we live?
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
And sitting in it are two caravans – one for the men and one for the women. The residents are from all over: miner’s son Andriy is from the old Ukraine, while sexy young Irina is from the new: they each other warily. There are the Poles, Tomasz and Yola; two Chinese girls; and Emauel from Malawi. They’re all here to pick strawberries in England’s green and pleasant land.
But these days England’s not so pleasant for immigrants. Not with Russian gangster-wannabes like Vulk, who’s taken a shine to Irina and thinks kidnapping is a wooing strategy. And so Andriy – who really doesn’t fancy Irina, honest – must set off in search of that girl he’s not in love with.
‘Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcée. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.’
Sisters Vera and Nadezhda must aside a lifetime of feuding to save their émigré engineer father from voluptuous gold-digger Valentina. With her proclivity for green satin underwear and boil-in-the-bag cuisine, she will stop at nothing in her pursuit of Western wealth.
But the sisters’ campaign to oust Valentina unearths family secrets, uncovers fifty years of Europe’s darkest history and sends them back to roots they’d much rather forget . . ..
“It is 1948, and England is recovering from a war. But at 21 Nevern Street, London, the conflict has only just begun. Queenie Bligh’s neighbours do not approve when she agrees to take in Jamaican lodgers, but Queenie doesn’t know when her husband will return, or if he will come back at all. What else can she do?
Gilbert Joseph was one of the several thousand Jamaican men who joined the RAF to fight against Hitler. Returning to England as a civilian he finds himself treated very differently. It’s desperation that makes him remember a wartime friendship with Queenie and knock at her door.
Gilbert’s wife Hortense, too, had longed to leave Jamaica and start a better life in England. But when she joins him she is shocked to find London shabby, decrepit, and far from the golden city of her dreams. Even Gilbert is not the man she thought he was…”
‘Better opportunity’ – that’s why Angela’s dad sailed to England from America in 1948 on the Empire Windrush. Six months later her mum joined him in his one room in Earl’s Court…
…Twenty years and four children later, Mr Jacob has become seriously ill and starts to move unsteadily through the care of the National Health Service. As Angela, his youngest, tries to help her mother through this ordeal, she finds herself reliving her childhood years, spent on a council estate in Highbury.
“Pulitzer-winning, scintillating studies in yearning and exile from a Bengali Bostonian woman of immense promise.
A couple exchange unprecedented confessions during nightly blackouts in their Boston apartment as they struggle to cope with a heartbreaking loss; a student arrives in new lodgings in a mystifying new land and, while he awaits the arrival of his arranged-marriage wife from Bengal, he finds his first bearings with the aid of the curious evening rituals that his centenarian landlady orchestrates; a schoolboy looks on while his childminder finds that the smallest dislocation can unbalance her new American life all too easily and send her spiralling into nostalgia for her homeland…
Jhumpa Lahiri’s prose is beautifully measured, subtle and sober, and she is a writer who leaves a lot unsaid, but this work is rich in observational detail, evocative of the yearnings of the exile (mostly Indians in Boston here), and full of emotional pull and reverberation.”
“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. My murderer was a man from our neighborhood. My mother liked his border flowers, and my father talked to him once about fertilizer.”
This is Susie Salmon. Watching from heaven, Susie sees her happy, suburban family devastated by her death, isolated even from one another as they each try to cope with their terrible loss alone. Over the years, her friends and siblings grow up, fall in love, do all the things she never had the chance to do herself. But life is not quite finished with Susie yet . . . The Lovely Bones is a luminous and astonishing novel about life and death, forgiveness and vengeance, memory and forgetting – but, above all, about finding light in the darkest of places.
“Alice Howland is proud of the life she worked so hard to build. At fifty, she’s a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard and a renowned expert in linguistics, with a successful husband and three grown children. When she begins to grow forgetful and disoriented, she dismisses it for as long as she can until a tragic diagnosis changes her life – and her relationship with her family and the world around her – for ever.
Unable to care for herself, Alice struggles to find meaning and purpose as her concept of self gradually slips away. But Alice is a remarkable woman, and her family learn more about her and each other in their quest to hold on to the Alice they know. Her memory hanging by a frayed thread, she is living in the moment, living for each day. But she is still Alice.”
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK
“When the novel opens, Diana’s twin brother, David, a widower in his mid-sixties, is looking back on his life. As memories swamp him, he decides to take a critical step: to beg for his sister’s forgiveness. Diana has never met David’s two daughters. She has no idea how many grandchildren he has. David doesn’t know Diana’s longtime lover, Constance, housebound by advancing memory loss and for whom Diana writes the day’s events on an erasable board to help her keep track of a life that’s slipping away. Estranged for nearly forty years, David appears at Diana’s dinner table, throwing her life into turmoil. But as she and her brother begin to rediscover each other, they both find the strength to move on with their lives. Told in Diana and David’s alternating points of view, Memory Board makes a powerful case for living in the present and making every moment count.”
“Dr Temperance Brennan, Director of Forensic Anthropology for the province of Quebec, has been researching recent disappearances in the city.
Soon she is convinced that a serial killer is at work. But when no one else seems to care, her anger forces her to take matters into her own hands. Her determined probing has placed those closest to her in mortal danger, however.”
Maud is forgetful. She makes a cup of tea and doesn’t remember to drink it. She sometimes thinks her daughter Helen is a total stranger. But theres one thing Maud is sure of: her friend Elizabeth is missing. The note in her pocket tells her so. And no matter who tells her to stop going on about it, Maud will get to the bottom of it. A debut novel about a mind in the grips of dementia.
Depicting the gradual disintegration of the Compson family through four fractured narratives, The Sound and the Fury explores intense, passionate family relationships where there is no love, only self-centredness. At its heart this is a novel about lovelessness – ‘only an idiot has no grief; only a fool would forget it. What else is there in this world sharp enough to stick to your guts?’
Clara Batchelor is twenty-two. Her brief, doomed marriage to Archie over, she returns to live with her parents in the home of her childhood. She hopes for comfort but the devoutly Catholic household confines her and forms a dangerous glass wall of guilt and repression between Clara and the outside world. Clara both longs for and fears what lies beyond, and when she escapes into an exhilarating and passionate love affair her fragile identity cracks.
Beyond the Glass completes the trilogy sequel to Frost in May, which began with The Lost Traveller and The Sugar House. Although each is a complete novel in itself, together they form a brilliant portrait of a young girl’s journey to adulthood.
From the corner of a darkened room Joy Stone watches herself. As memories of the deaths of her lover and mother surface unbidden, life for Joy narrows – to negotiating each day, each encounter, each second; to finding the trick to keep living. Told with shattering clarity and wry wit, this is a Scottish classic fit for our time.
‘The Golden Notebook’, the landmark novel by Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing, is a powerful account of a woman searching for her personal, political and professional identity amid the trauma of emotional rejection and sexual betrayal.
In 1950s London, novelist Anna Wulf struggles with writer’s block. Divorced with a young child, and fearful of going mad, Anna records her experiences in four coloured notebooks: black for her writing life, red for political views, yellow for emotions, blue for everyday events. But it is a fifth notebook – the golden notebook – that finally pulls these wayward strands of her life together.
Some call him ‘backward’, some say he’s ‘handicapped’, and others just think of him as a joke. But Walter’s parents stand between him and the world. Till one day Jesus comes and takes Eric away and not long after that He comes for Sarah, too. Walter prays to Jesus, asking Him to change His mind- and then Walter and the pigeons sit in Sarah’s room, waiting for her to wake up.
‘The doctor was fated to go back to Bombay; he would keep returning again and again – if not forever, at least for as long as there were dwarves in the circus.’
Born a Parsi in Bombay, sent to university and medical school in Vienna, Dr Farrokh Daruwalla is a Canadian citizen – a 59-year-old orthopaedic surgeon, living in Toronto. Once, twenty years ago, Dr Daruwalla was the examining physician of two murder victims in Goa. Now, two decades later, the doctor will be reacquainted with the murderer…
Publisher: Black Swan
Streetwise George and his big, childlike friend Lennie are drifters, searching for work in the fields and valleys of California. They have nothing except the clothes on their back, and a hope that one day they’ll find a place of their own and live the American dream. But dreams come at a price. Gentle giant Lennie doesn’t know his own strength, and when they find work at a ranch he gets into trouble with the boss’s daughter-in-law. Trouble so bad that even his protector George may not be able to save him …
Nikolai Stepanovich, a famous professor of medicine, narrates his own story. An elderly man, he believes he will die in a few months, although he refuses to consult a doctor about his illness. He knows his wife to be a fat, old busybody, but he remembers her as a young beauty. His daughter Lisa is engaged to Gnekker, an ugly young man who seems to have neither talent nor employment. The professor’s only enjoyment is to spend hours talking with Katya, his young ward, who once ran off to join the theater in Moscow, but later returned to become an indolent do-nothing.
Arrowsmith, the most widely read of Sinclair Lewis’s novels, is the dramatic portrayal of a man passionately devoted to science. As a bright, lonely boy in a small Midwestern town, Martin Arrowsmith spends his free time in old Doc Vickerson’s office avidly devouring medical texts. Destined to become a physician and a researcher, he discovers that societal forces of ignorance, corruption, and greed can be life-threatening obstacles. But he perseveres in his pursuit of scientific truth-even in the face of personal tragedy.Based on a spiritual ideal, Arrowsmith is the story of a visionary, a man of great energy and purpose, courage, dedication, who never loses hope. Lewis’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel illuminates the mystery and power of the medical profession while giving enduring dramatic life to a singular American hero’s impassioned struggle for integrity and intellectual freedom.
Prisoner of war, optometrist, time-traveller – these are the life roles of Billy Pilgrim, hero of this miraculously moving, bitter and funny story of innocence faced with apocalypse. Slaughterhouse 5 is one of the world’s great anti-war books. Centring on the infamous fire-bombing of Dresden in the Second World War, Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through time reflects the journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we are afraid to know.
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Colin Jones HYMS: We fret over individual patient care, but countenance destruction on a mass scale; who writes our histories and claims what is right and what is wrong; where is truth and where is reality? So it goes….
‘I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name’s Simon. I think you’re going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.’
Publisher: The Borough Press
Anna Fitzgerald doesn’t want her sister to die. But she’s sick of helping her to live.
Anna was born to be a perfect genetic match for Kate, who at just two years old was diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia. For thirteen years, she has acted as donor to her sister.
Now, Kate needs a kidney, and nobody is asking Anna how she feels about it, they’re just assuming she will donate.
Until the Sheriff serves the papers that will rock their family’s world: Anna is suing her parents for the rights to her own body . . .
Publisher: Hodder Paperbacks
Generally considered to be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s finest novel, The Great Gatsby is a consummate summary of the “roaring twenties”, and a devastating expose of the “Jazz Age”. Through the narration of Nick Carraway, the reader is taken into the superficially glittering world of the mansions which lined the Long Island shore in the 1920s, to encounter Nick’s cousin Daisy, her brash but wealthy husband Tom Buchanan, Jay Gatsby and the mystery that surrounds him.
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions
Bill Laughey HYMS: Read this in my book club recently and found myself discussing it with two first-year HYMS students.
One told me its final lines were engraved on her iPod.
The other warned of the limitations of seeing characters as literary devices and not appreciating them for their representation of humanity.
It seems the characters in this book – at least those with any sensitivity – fall a good way short of fulfillment. Partly it reads as an indictment of The American Dream, or any dream that sets its store on the attainment of wealth.It’s perhaps a comfort then in medicine we are generally not doing it to be wealthy, and certainly not in academia!
The real hero of this book is the language – it is beautifully written and worth reading for that alone.
The final lines on the iPod? “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
The best time-travel story since H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, by the Grand Master of science fiction, the story of Andrew Harlan, Technician and Eternal.
Andrew Harlan’s job is to range through past and present centuries monitoring and even altering Time’s myriad cause-and-effect relationships.
As a Technician with the Allwhen Council, he initiates Reality Changes that may affect the lives of as many as fifty billion people – and a million or more of them may be so drastically affected as to be considered new individulas. Above all, therefore, a Technician must be dispassionate. An emotional make-up is a distinct handicap. Then Harlan meets Noÿs and falls victim to a phenomenon older than Time itself – love.
Years of self-discipline are cast aside as Harlan uses the awesome techniques of the Eternals to twist Time so that he and Noÿs might survive… together.
Berlin, 1940, and the city is filled with fear. At the house on 55 Jablonski Strasse, its various occupants try to live under Nazi rule in their different ways: the bullying Hitler loyalists the Persickes, the retired judge Fromm and the unassuming couple Otto and Anna Quangel. Then the Quangels receive the news that their beloved son has been killed fighting in France. Shocked out of their quiet existence, they begin a silent campaign of defiance, and a deadly game of cat and mouse develops between the Quangels and the ambitious Gestapo inspector Escherich. When petty criminals Kluge and Borkhausen also become involved, deception, betrayal and murder ensue, tightening the noose around the Quangels’ necks …
When he discovers that he has terminal cancer, retired heart surgeon Ben Givens refuses to simply sit back and wait. Instead he takes his two beloved dogs and goes on a last hunt, determined to end his life on his own terms.
But as the people he meets and the memories over which he lingers remind him of the mystery of life’s endurance, his trek into the American West becomes much more than a final journey.
Author: Guterson, David
Title: East of the mountains
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a murder mystery novel like no other. The detective, and narrator, is Christopher Boone. Christopher is fifteen and has Asperger’s, a form of autism. He knows a very great deal about maths and very little about human beings. He loves lists, patterns and the truth. He hates the colours yellow and brown and being touched. He has never gone further than the end of the road on his own, but when he finds a neighbour’s dog murdered he sets out on a terrifying journey which will turn his whole world upside down.
Jonathan Lloyd HYMS: themes
autism and family, a relatively easy read written from the autistic sons persepctive.
Of all John Fowles’ novels The French Lieutenant’s Woman received the most universal acclaim and today holds a very special place in the canon of post-war English literature. From the god-like stance of the nineteenth-century novelist that he both assumes and gently mocks, to the last detail of dress, idiom and manners, his book is an immaculate recreation of Victorian England. Not only is it the epic love story of two people of insight and imagination seeking escape from the cant and tyranny of their age, The French Lieutenant’s Woman is also a brilliantly sustained allegory of the decline of the twentieth-century passion for freedom.
Dr Jonathan Lloyd HYMS: themes obsession, love, honour, dishonour, duty.
Roseanne McNulty may (or may not) be on the point of nearing her 100th birthday — but there is little certainty about this fact. In her twilight years, her destiny is uncertain, as the Roscommon Mental Hospital — her home for so many years of her life — is on the point of closing. As the fateful hour approaches, Roseanne spends her time of talking to her psychiatrist of many years, Dr Grene. The relationship between the two is strangely interdependent, and the doctor is also attempting to come to terms with the death of his wife. As we learn more about the two principal protagonists, we are presented with a rich and subtle picture of human relationships — and the (often unintentional) damages that we all do to each other
Prof Una Macleod HYMS: Don’t be put off by the accolades for this book. It is worthy of them. A beautifully written, moving story about an old lady, a psychiatrist, the Catholic church in Ireland. Useful to reflect on the power of religion in the lives of doctors and the role of doctors on bearing witness when that power is misused. Reflect on Dr Grene’s analysis: ‘As I do not seem able much to heal, then maybe I can simply be the responsible witness to the miracle of the ordinary soul’.
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Wuthering Heights is a gothic novel, and the only novel by Emily Brontë. The narrative tells the tale of the all-encompassing and passionate, yet thwarted, love between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw, and how this unresolved passion eventually destroys them and many around them.
The novel tells the story of the rise and fall of the mythical town of Macondo through the history of the Buendi family. It is a rich and brilliant chronicle of life and death, and the tragicomedy of humankind.
Title: One Hundred Years of Solitude
Publisher: New York : HarperCollins
Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s Love in the Time of Cholera is a brilliantly crafted, beautifully written story of love and the love-sick. Spurned as a young man, Florentino Ariza has a half century of waiting to fill before a chance to redeclare his love for Fermina Daze comes, when her husband is killed retrieving a parrot from a mango tree.
Author: Garcia Marquez, Gabriel
Title: Love in the time of cholera
There’s a lot more love than cholera in this book (although the vibrio does turn up at critical points in the story).
Many reasons to read this book, from the vivid sense of place, the humour and absurdity, the longest drawn-out ‘will they won’t they?’ I can remember reading. From a ‘medical perspective’ one of the central characters, Juvenal Urbino, is a doctor and you get a strong feel for his position in the society of that time. (I liked the following quote [Having just met the other main male character, Florentino Ariza, and been told he was his wife’s only sweetheart before she married]…‘Dr Urbino replied ….: “I did not know that fellow was a poet.” And then he wiped him from his memory, because among other things, his profession had accustomed him to the ethical management of forgetfulness.’)
The thing I took away from the book though was the enduring importance of sexuality right across the lifespan. The book takes its characters from teenagers to very old age, and in this time they (and you) encounter a whole fantastic catalogue of ‘loves’: romantic, manic, platonic, suicidal, carnal. Although only a minority of doctors have sexual health and wellbeing as the central focus of their work, it is a vital part of the ‘backdrop’ to all medical practice – and this book certainly reminds you that there isn’t an age limit to it!
What do men run away from? Not war, not physical hardship, but the day-to-day emotional demands of impossible domestic situations. That’s women’s work. This is a story of female courage, where black comedy turns to disturbing pathos revolving around the rights of an indomitable woman.
Author: Forster, Margaret
Title: Have the men had enough?
Publisher: London : Vintage
Imagine the world if the Allies had lost the Second World War… Philip K Dick trips the switches of our minds with his vision of the world as it might have been: the African continent virtually wiped out, the Mediterranean drained to make farmland, the United States divided between the Japanese and the Nazis…In the neutral zone that divides the rival superpowers in America lives the author of an underground best-seller. His book – a rallying cry for all those who dream of overthrowing the occupiers – offers an alternative theory of world history. Does ‘reality’ lie with him, or is his world just one among many others?
Mike Hardy HYMS:It is 1962, fourteen years after the end of the Second World War (1939–1948 in this history) which the Fascists won. Germany had the nuclear bomb and used it on the Japan. I Ching plays a role in the novel and there is abook-within-a-book that imagines a world where Allies won World War II. A complex and entertaining novel that is full of characters and ideas. Never been a film unlike much of Dick’s work for example, The Matrix, Blade Runner, The Adjustment Bureau, Minority Report and so forth.
John Lewis HYMS: As an ice-breaker with PBL groups I sometimes ask the students which is the best book they have ever read, I always select the original three books of the Foundation trilogy. Why? I hope that most readers appreciate the two levels. It is a rip-roaring galaxy and time spanning mystery with twists and turns aplenty. I make no apologies for the fact that it is a great and fun read, never mind that it is science fiction. It is also a commentary on how social development can be derailed by statistical anomalies, and how subtle changes result in cataclysmic effects. I wonder, are we all subject to the ‘Seldon Plan’ at this very time?
“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking,” are the famous lines on the first page. This a semi-autobiographical account of Isherwood’s time in 1930s Berlin.
Written as a connected series of six short stories the book, first published in 1939, is a brilliant evocation of the decadence and repression, glamour and sleaze of Berlin society. Isherwood shows the lives of people at threat from the rise of the Nazis: Natalia Laundauer, the rich, Jewish heiress, Peter and Otto, a gay couple andthe “divinely decadent” Sally Bowles, a young English woman who was so memorably portrayed by Liza Minnelli.
Jonathan Lloyd HYMS:The original book on which “Cabaret” was based, on the surface it is about the disintegration of society and the rise of fascism, underneath it is also about hedonism, repression, love, sexuality and growing up etc etc ….. I think you could read the book then watch the film!
It is more than a century since the ascetic, gaunt and enigmatic detective, Sherlock Holmes, made his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet. From 1891, beginning with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the now legendary and pioneering Strand Magazine began serialising Arthur Conan Doyle’s matchless tales of detection, featuring the incomparable sleuth patiently assisted by his doggedly loyal and lovably pedantic friend and companion, Dr Watson. The stories are illustrated by the remarkable Sydney Paget from whom our images of Sherlock Holmes and his world derive and who first equipped Holmes with his famous deerstalker hat. The literary cult of Sherlock Holmes shows no sign of fading with time as each new generation comes to love and revere the penetrating mind and ruthless logic which were the undoing of so many Victorian master criminals. John Cookson HYMS:Holmes was of course modelled on one of Doyle’s Edinburgh teachers but the stories are full of the need for careful observation and the importance of drawing the correct conclusions. for example… ‘you see but you do not observe’ ‘it is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data’ ‘when a fact appears opposed to a long train of deductions it invariably proves to be capable of bearing some other interpretation’
This panoramic work–considered the finest novel in English by many critics–offers a complex look at English provincial life at a crucial historical moment, and, at the same time, dramatizes and explores some of the most potent myths of Victorian literature.
Author: Eliot, George
Publisher: Oxford University Press
An incredible book, certainly one of the most sophisticated and finely crafted novels i’ve ever come across. Eliot creates an entire (albeit small) society during the 19th century’s great changes in politics & economics (the emergence of middle class wealth and political liberalism) and also in Science. One of the main characters is Lydgate a Doctor who arrives in Middlemarch full of the spirit of evidence based inquiry acquired from the then pioneers of medicine in Paris. He soon comes in to conflict with traditional practitioners who feel threatened by the new knowledge and science they do not understand.
To the French Riviera come Dick and Nicole Diver. Handsome, rich and glamorous, their dinners are legendary, their atmosphere magnetic. But something is wrong – Nicole has a secret and Dick a weakness. Together they head towards the rocks on which their lives crash – and only one of them really survives. Fitzgerald worked on seventeen versions of this novel, the obsessions of which consumed his marriage and his life.
Stephen Bradley HYMS:One of Fitzgerald’s best, about the descent into dissapation of a psychiastrist, from his promising youth to obscurity and disgrace.
Publisher: Penguin Classics
It’s not clear to me in the book whether Nicole gains in health at Dick’s cost, or in fact what really leads to his apparent dissolution, but I thought this quote rings true about the affect that caring for a family member can have. (Topsy is Dick and Nicole’s daughter and second child, the quote comes at a point when Nicole has ‘relapsed’)
Having gone through unprofessional agonies during her long relapse following Topsy’s birth, he had, perforce, hardened himself about her, making a cleavage between Nicole sick and Nicole well. This made it difficult now to distinguish between his self-protective professional detachment and some new coldness in his heart.
From what I remember it seemed that by compromising his ethics and getting involved with a patient Diver begins his decline. Fitzgerald seemed to be fascinated by failure and people doing what they want to do rather than what they should do. The beautiful & the damned is another other striking example. They all drink too much and lead dreadful lives not having the discipline to avoid any temptation that comes their way. There is almost a whole genre of books about wealthy americans being obnoxiously aimless in post war europe. Hemmingways ‘sun also rises’ is the best other example I can think of, highsmiths the talented mr ripley is an interesting variation. Fitzgerald & hemmingway are probably guilty of romanticising a fairly silly attidude but they’re enjoyable books.
Not sure why but 2 points are very memorable for me on diver’s trajectory: maybe his lowest ebb when he acts like a bigot and when a colleague’s wife condems him, noting that he is ‘no longer a serious man’.
Interestingly much of this book seems to have been based on Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, and her experiences of mental illness. She has written about this herself elsewhere.
Janine Henderson HYMS: Considered by many to be one of the greatest novels ever written, the French government brought an action against the publisher and author on the charge of immorality, as it deals with themes of infidelity and adultery. It subsequently became immensely popular.
The title character, Emma Bovary, is a narcissistic, histrionic personality, driven to despair by her husband`s dullness, eventually committing suicide when her life unravels around her. Some really wonderful turns of phrase in this book.
Haunting and harrowing, as beautiful as it is disturbing, The English Patient tells the story of the entanglement of four damaged lives in an Italian monastery as the second world war ends. The exhausted nurse, Hana; the maimed thief, Caravaggio; the wary sapper, Kip: each is haunted by the riddle of the English patient, the nameless, burn victim who lies in an upstairs room and whose memories of passion, betrayal and rescue illuminate this book like flashes of sheet lightning. In lyrical prose informed by a poetic consciousness, Michael Ondaatje weaves these characters together, pulls them tight, then unravels the threads with unsettling acumen.
Title: The English Patient
Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth in London, chief city of Airstrip One. Big Brother stares out from every poster, the Thought Police uncover every act of betrayal. When Winston finds love with Julia, he discovers that life does not have to be dull and deadening, and awakens to new
possibilities. Despite the police helicopters that hover and circle overhead, Winston and Julia begin to question the Party; they are drawn towards conspiracy. Yet Big Brother will not tolerate dissidence; even in the mind. For those with original thoughts they invented Room 101. Nineteen Eight-Four is George Orwells terrifying vision of a totalitarian future in which everything and everyone is slave to a tyrannical regime.
Author: Orwell, George
Title: Nineteen eighty four
Publisher: M & S Press
When the downtrodden animals of Manor Farm overthrow their master Mr Jones and take over the farm themselves, they imagine it is the beginning of a life of freedom and equality. But gradually a cunning, ruthless élite among them, masterminded by the pigs Napoleon and Snowball, starts to take control. Soon the other animals discover that they are not all as equal as they thought, and find themselves hopelessly ensnared as one form of tyranny is replaced with another. Orwell’s chilling ‘fairy story’ is a timeless and devastating satire of idealism betrayed by power and corruption.
Jonathan Lloyd HYMS: themes greed, envy, ambition, society, class, equality, democracy, power and corruption.
Philip Roth’s twenty-seventh book takes its title from an anonymous fifteenth-century English allegorical play whose drama centres on the summoning of the living to death and whose hero, Everyman, is intended to be the personification of mankind. The fate of Roth’s Everyman is traced from his first shocking confrontation with death on the idyllic beaches of his childhood summers and during is hospitalisation as a nine-year-old surgical patient through the crises of health that come close to killing him as a vigorous adult, and into his old age, when he is undone by the death and deterioration of his contemporaries and relentlessly stalked by his own menacing physical woes.
Stephen Bradley HYMS:A very painful depiction of a man with terminal disease contemplating his life and impending death. Often difficult and even unpleasant to read, but excellent. Quite similar in tone and themes to Tolstoy’s Ivan Illyich
Summer, 1944. In the ‘stifling heat of equatorial Newark’, a terrifying epidemic is raging, threatening the children of the New Jersey city with maiming, paralysis, life-long disability, even death. Vigorous, decent, twenty-three year old playground director Bucky Cantor is devoted to his charges and disappointed with himself because his weak eyes have excluded him from serving in the war. As polio begins to ravage Bucky’s playground, Roth leads us through every inch of emotion such a pestilence can breed: the fear, the panic, the anger, the bewilderment, the suffering and the pain.
I found this description of the experience and responses of communities and individuals to a polio epidemic quite fascinating, just recent enough for ‘living memory’ but still very much a different world. In particular the response of the main character to the random nature of disease and death and the challenge this lays down to individual’s ideas of meaning and purpose in life. If I read it right the ‘nemesis’ of the title is Bucky Cantor’s need to take on responsibility for ‘chance’ and the harm this subsequently does to himself and others – something I have certainly found myself doing and seen other doctors do too. This isn’t a long read but there is a lot in it – including beautiful lyrical passages and a deep sense of place and people in Roth’s description of the Jewish community in Newark.
When Laurence Waters arrives at his rural hospital posting, Frank is instantly suspicious. Laurence is everything Frank is not – young, optimistic and full of new schemes. The two become uneasy friends, while the rest of the staff in the deserted hospital view Laurence with a mixture of awe and mistrust. The town beyond the hospital is also coping with new arrivals, and the return of old faces. The brigadier – a self-fashioned dictator from apartheid days – is rumoured still to be alive. And down at Mama’s place, a group of soldiers have moved in with their malign commandant, a man Frank has met before and is keen to avoid. Laurence wants to help – but in a world where the past is demanding restitution from the present, his ill-starred idealism cannot last. In gleaming prose Damon Galgut has created a literary thriller out of an unlikely friendship.
Stephen Bradley HYMS:Set in post apartheid south africa, about niaviety and cynicism and the problems of both in situations of great scarcity and civil conflict
This novel by Dr A.J. Cronin (1896-1981) is an excellent entrée into the world of British medicine in the 1920s and `30s, a world in which a character in his 50s can be described as “elderly,” and in which doctors specializing in lung diseases are regularly portrayed cigarette in hand.
Dr Jane Adam HYMS:I have just finished re-reading The Citadel, and it has given me enormous pleasure. I must have been in my early twenties when I first read it, and so – although I thought it was a marvellous read then – I was unaware of just how prophetic it was too, particularly about medical education and training. I also have taken great delight in reading a straightforward and romantic narrative novel (ie a story with a beginning, middle, end); made me realise that these ‘post-modern’ novels are so complex nowadays
“Cry the Beloved Country” is the deeply moving story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son Absalom, set against the background of a land and a people riven by racial injustice. Remarkable for its contemporaneity, unforgettable for character and incident, “Cry, the Beloved Country” is a classic work of love and hope, courage and endurance, born of the dignity of man.
Author: Paton, Alan
Title: Cry, the beloved country
Essential reading for anyone going to Africa. As a political statement it has long been taken over by events but the themes of forgiveness redemption and restoration remain. Set not far from the Charles Johnson hospital in Zululand which at one time did much to foster the ideals expressed in the book. The first couple of pages are classic writing.
This novel by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of World War I, describes the German soldiers’ extreme physical and mental stress during the war, and the detachment from civilian life felt by many of these soldiers upon returning home from the front.
Author: Remarque, E
Title: All quiet at the western front
In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames’s life, he begins a letter to his young son, a kind of last testament to his remarkable forebears. ‘It is a book of such meditative calm, such spiritual intensity that is seems miraculous that her silence was only for 23 years; such measure of wisdom is the fruit of a lifetime. Robinson’s prose, aligned with the sublime simplicity of the language of the bible, is nothing short of a benediction. You might not share its faith, but it is difficult not to be awed moved and ultimately humbled by the spiritual effulgence that lights up the novel from within’ Neel Mukherjee, The Times
Kitty Fane is the beautiful but shallow wife of Walter, a bacteriologist stationed in Hong Kong. Unsatisfied by her marriage, she starts an affair with Charles Townsend, a man whom she finds charming, attractive and exciting. But when Walter discovers her deception, he exacts a strange but terrible vengeance: Kitty must accompany him to his new posting in remote mainland China, where a cholera epidemic rages.
I’m never sure how short (or long) a novella is, but this feels like one. An extended short story, with pared down dialogue and complex, flawed, characters. Whilst Kitty grows throughout the book, Walter is a fascinating cipher – what are his motives (as Kitty wonders at one point is he entirely sane)? There is also a, no doubt realistic, portrayal of colonial life in the 1920s, from the colonists view – the Chinese characters largely carry tea, or Europeans – or die. I think this book gives an interesting twist to the classic ‘self-sacrificing doctor’.
Joe planned a postcard-perfect afternoon in the English countryside to celebrate his lover’s return after six weeks in the States. The perfect day turns to nightmare, however, when they are involved in freak ballooning accident in which a boy is saved but a man is killed. In itself, the accident would change the couple and the survivors’ lives, filling them with an uneasy combination of shame, happiness, and endless self-reproach. But fate has far more unpleasant things in store for Joe. Meeting the eye of fellow rescuer Jed Parry, for example, turns out to be a very bad move. For Jed is instantly obsessed, making the first of many calls to Joe and Clarissa’s London flat that very night.
Author: McEwan, Ian
Title: Enduring Love
Great actors in the film….Daniel Craig and Rhys Ifans…but it’s really rubbish. Hope the book is better.
I thought the book was great. As well as being a griping story (partly about a man with a rare mental illness) it’s also a touching portrait of what can happen to a seemingly stable relationship when it is put under great pressure.
This is the story of Joseph Meehan, born cruelly handicapped and known to the world as ‘the crippled boy’. Filled with insight into the soul inside a broken body and warm with the beauties of the Irish landscape it is the story of Joseph’s fight to escape the restrictions and confines of his existence. Under the Eye of the Clock can also be read as the autobiography of its author, Christopher Nolan.
Author: Nolan, Christopher
Title: Under the eye of the clock: the life story
of Christopher Nolan
Humbert Humbert is a middle-aged, fastidious college professor. He also likes little girls. And none more so than Lolita, who he’ll do anything to possess. Is he in love or insane? A silver-tongued poet or a pervert? A tortured soul or a monster? …Or is he all of these?
Jonathan Lloyd HYMS: themes – obsession, lust, love, boundaries of acceptable behaviour in society, consent, inappropriate sexual relationships.
Under the Volcano is a 1947 semi-autobiographical novel by English writer Malcolm Lowry. The novel tells the story of Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic British consul in the small Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, on the Day of the Dead in 1938.
Author: Lowry, Malcolm
Title: Under the Volcano
Publisher: London, etc., Picador, etc.
Hans Castorp is ‘a perfectly ordinary, if engaging young man’ when he goes to visit his cousin in an exclusive sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. What should have been a three week trip turns into a seven year stay. Hans falls in love and becomes intoxicated with the ideas he hears at the clinic – ideas which will strain and crack apart in a world on the verge of the First World War.
Publisher: London, Martin Secker
A chemist by training, Primo Levi became one of the supreme witnesses to twentieth-century atrocity. In these haunting reflections inspired by the elements of the periodic table, he ranges from young love to political savagery; from the inert gas argon – and ‘inert’ relatives like the uncle who stayed in bed for twenty-two years – to life-giving carbon. ‘Iron’ honours the mountain-climbing resistance hero who put iron in Levi’s student soul, ‘Cerium’ recalls the improvised cigarette lighters which saved his life in Auschwitz, while ‘Vanadium’ describes an eerie post-war correspondence with the man who had been his ‘boss’ there. All are written with characteristically understated eloquence and shot through with deep humanity.
(afraid Hull currently only has in the original Italian
“Il sistema periodico”, but you are a cosmopolitan bunch.)
This was the first book I read by Primo Levi, it is a real mix. Each chapter has the title of an element, and develops (loosely) round that topic. If you find one chapter ‘heavy’ (the first one can seem a bit dull on first read) try another, they are all free-standing and all very different. I just re-read the chapter on ‘carbon’ that simply tells the life-story of a carbon atom. I don’t think this is Levi’s best work – his writing on his time in Auschwitz ‘If this is a Man’ is, for me, one of
the last century’s truly great books – but, sticking to our brief of the suggestions for where art throws lights on science and medicine I think its the best fit for ‘Worth a Look?’
This novel is semi-autobiographical with the names of places and people changed. It is often regarded as a roman à clef, with the protagonist’s descent into mental illness paralleling Plath’s own experiences with what may have been either bipolar disorder or clinical depression.
Publisher: Faber and Faber
The hilarious novel of the healing arts that reveals everything your doctor never wanted you to know. Six eager interns — they saw themselves as modern saviors-to-be. They came from the top of their medical school class to the bottom of the hospital staff to serve a year in the time-honored tradition, racing to answer the flash of on-duty call lights and nubile nurses. But only the Fat Man –the Clam, all-knowing resident — could sustain them in their struggle to survive, to stay sane, to love-and even to be doctors when their harrowing year was done.
Steven Oliver HYMS: Law nine of the House of God (there are 13 in total) is ‘The only good admission is a dead admission’. To understand why you may one day entertain exactly this thought – despite your best ‘patient-centred’ intentions – I would recommend this book. It’s not great literature, my copy has the word ‘bawdy’ on the cover blurb, so brace yourself for some very ‘phallocentric’ sex (however ‘my copy’ is in fact my wife’s copy – so it’s not solely for ‘lads’). I’m not sure I now find it a particularly funny book – its humour is very black – it is the writer’s anger about systems that can choke the caring out of medicine, and the impact this has on young doctors that makes this a ‘must read’ for me.
The story of nine-year-old Meena, the daughter of the only Punjabi family in the Midlands’ mining village of Tollington. The novel provides a vision of British childhood in the 1960s, a childhood caught between two cultures, each on the brink of enormous change
Author: Syal, Meera
Title: Anita and me
Publisher: London : Flamingo
Set in the deep American south between the wars, this is the classic tale of Celie, a young poor black girl. Raped repeatedly by her father, she loses two children and then is married off to a man who treats her no better than a slave. She is separated from her sister Nettie and dreams of becoming like the glamorous Shug Avery, a singer and rebellious black woman who has taken charge of her own destiny. Gradually Celie discovers the support of women that enables her to leave the past behind and begin a new life.
Author: Walker, Alice
Title: The Color Purple
Tochtli lives in a palace. He loves hats, samurai, guillotines and dictionaries, and what he wants more than anything right now is a new pet for his private zoo: a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia. But Tochtli is a child whose father is a drug baron on the verge of taking over a cartel, and Tochtli is growing up in a luxury hideout that he shares with hit men, dealers, and the odd corrupt politician or two. Down the Rabbit Hole, a masterful and darkly-comic first novel, is the chronicle of a delirious journey to grant a child’s wish. Peter Knapp HYMS (Christmas 2011):This is probably the best, certainly most memorable novel I have read this year. I wouldn’t say it was a book for Christmas – this no tale of joy and peace. But admire the wit and economy of style. Why might a busy medical student enjoy or benefit from this book? Well. it’s only 70 pages long, so can easily be read in a single sitting if your diary doesn’t normally permit reading for pleasure. And the book is insightful in offering the perspective of a young child (a 7 year old son of a drugs baron) who tries to describe a life – material riches, emotional starvation – he doesn’t understand. Villalobos is a Mexican now living in Spain, where the book has become something of a cult. Expect much more from this writer: ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ was first published in 2010 and has already been translated into 10 languages.
Publisher: And Other Stories
The more startling for the economy of its prose and plot, this novel’s story, set among the manicured lawns and euphemisms of Whispering Glades Memorial Park in Hollywood, satirizes the American way of death and offers Waugh’s memento mori.
Sue Hubbard HYMS:A different view of death? Quite black humour but does make you think about priorities.
On a June morning in 1923, Clarissa Dalloway is preparing for a party and remembering her past. Elsewhere in London, Septimus Smith is suffering from shell-shock and on the brink of madness. Their days interweave and their lives converge as the party reaches its glittering climax. Here, Virginia Woolf perfected the interior monologue and the novel’s lyricism and accessibility have made it one of her most popular works.
Publisher: Penguin Classics
For good or ill this novel forces you to get, and stay, inside people’s heads. Told almost entirely through internal monologue, moving across a range of characters and the events of a single day, the novel includes a number of health and medical references. Central to this is the character of ‘shell-shocked’ Septimus Smith, the description of his thoughts and the two doctors involved in his care (apparently an amalgam of Woolf’s own psychiatrists). I think the following quote gives you a sense of the way in which she captures his disturbed thinking:
[Smith and his young Italian wife, Rezia, are in Regent’s Park, the section starts with her thoughts and then moves to Septimus’s. ‘Evans’ was Smith’s officer during the war, killed shortly before the Armistice]
“For he was gone, she thought–gone, as he threatened, to kill himself–to throw himself under a cart! But no; there he was; still sitting alone on the seat, in his shabby overcoat, his legs crossed, staring, talking aloud.
Men must not cut down trees. There is a God. (He noted such revelations on the backs of envelopes.) Change the world. No one kills from hatred. Make it known (he wrote it down). He waited. He listened. A sparrow perched on the railing opposite chirped Septimus, Septimus, four or five times over and went on, drawing its notes out, to sing freshly and piercingly in Greek words how there is no crime and, joined by another sparrow, they sang in voices prolonged and piercing in Greek words, from trees in the meadow of life beyond a river where the dead walk, how there is no death.
There was his hand; there the dead. White things were assembling behind the railings opposite. But he dared not look. Evans was behind the railings!
“What are you saying?” said Rezia suddenly, sitting down by him.”
In 1831 Charles Darwin set off in HMS Beagle under the command of Captain Robert Fitzroy on a voyage that would change the world. Tory aristocrat Fitzroy was a staunch Christian who believed in the sanctity of the individual in a world created by God: Darwin the liberal cleric and natural historian went on to develop a theory of evolution that would cast doubt on the truth of the Bible and the descent of man. The friendship forged during their epic expeditions on land and sea turned into bitter enmity as Darwin’s theories threatened to destroy everything Fitzroy stood for… Janine Henderson HYMS: A great book tracing the intertwining lives of Charles Darwin and Robert FitzRoy who was the brilliant captain of the Beagle, who shared a cabin with Darwin for 5 years whilst his ship was charting out new maps of the South Atlantic for the Admiralty. The book touches on so many themes: Darwin’s “discoveries” and his increasingly heretical views which challenged everything that FitzRoy believed in, religious arguments, racism and bigotry and Fitzroy`s mental illness. Would recommend it because it is so well written and thought provoking.
Janine Henderson HYMS: “Perhaps one of the most miserable books I have ever read, but gripping nonetheless! Deals with human frailty really, guilt, grief, depression and finally suicide (and a mother with “locked-in syndrome” in the centre of the unfolding plot.”
Steven Oliver HYMS: Everything runs backwards in this short book – from the central character’s ‘birth’ surrounded by doctors to his descent into the confusion of early life. There is humour here, but it is also a very challenging book. The clinician we encounter in New York eventually works back to be the doctor in Auschwitz curing patients by extracting phenol from their hearts. From a consultation that runs in reverse (from prescription to a patient walking away and knocking on the door), to a completely different way of thinking about the terrible actions of some doctors in Nazi Germany this is a book that forces you to think.
The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one function: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire – neither Offred’s nor that of the two men on which her future hangs. . . .
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee tells of Scout and Jem’s childhood in Alabama and how a series of events shook their innocence, shaped their character and taught them about human nature. Lee examines racism and other prejudices through a page turning story told in a wonderful, Southern voice.
Author: Lee, Harper
Title: To kill a mockingbird
Cancer Ward examines the relationship of a group of people in the cancer ward of a provincial Soviet hospital in 1955, two years after Stalin’s death. We see them under normal circumstances, and also reexamined at the eleventh hour of illness. Together they represent a remarkable cross-section of contemporary Russian characters and attitudes. The experiences of the central character, Oleg Kostoglotov, closely reflect the author’s own: Solzhenitsyn himself became a patient in a cancer ward in the mid-1950s, on his release from a labor camp, and later recovered.
Author: Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I.
Title: Cancer ward
This is a fascinating read, especially if you’re interested in history. There’s a lot of details about treatments themselves (I had no idea that radiotherapy was so available back in the 50’s). Other social details are pretty suprising, the medical staff is very female dominated, perhaps because all the men had been wiped out in the war. This contrasts with Douglas’s ‘Houseman’s tale‘, set in Britain in the 70s which I think has one female doctor who is barely mentioned.
One of the most striking things about the book, is what hyms would describe as a lack of “patient centred care”. The doctors, who are depicted as quite noble, even heroic characters (for example suffering radiation poisioning in the course of their work) refuse to discuss diagnosis or prognosis with patients. In fact those kind of discussions are expressly prohibited and they use latin terms (more foreign to russian than english) to keep information from the patients. They interpret the terrible knowledge they have as the doctor’s own burden which it is their duty to shoulder alone. On being treated herself for cancer one of the doctors insists on this rule and tells her own doctor that she has no right to information.
So the socialised medicine in the ‘cancer ward’ is a kind of benign authoritarian regime, where clinicians know best and patients own wishes are overrulled, for their own good. Some have said this is a metaphor for the whole soviet system. I’m not convinced its that simple (Solzhenitsyn suffered dreadfully in the gulag, he clearly admires the doctors in this book, I can’t believe he sees them as stalinist beaurocrats).
At the centre of this epic novel, overshadowing the lives of its huge cast of Russian and German characters, looms the battle of Stalingrad. Within a world torn apart by ideological tyranny and war, Grossman’s characters must work out their destinies. Completed in 1960 but confiscated by the KGB, this sweeping panorama of Soviet Society rejected the compromises of a lifetime and earned its author denunciation and disgrace. It remained unpublished until it was smuggled into the West in 1980, where it was hailed as a masterpiece.
Stephen Bradley HYMS:Overlooked but incredible novel about the Russian experience of wartime life under Stalin. Memorable for the depiction of a doctor trying to care for her fellow victims in a ghetto and later a concentration camp. Also for the threat to independent science in totalitarian
regiemes (the main character is a theoretical physicist who falls out of favour with the state).
Sensational, dramatic, packed with rich excitement and filled with the sweep and violence of human passions, LES MISERABLES is not only superb adventure but a powerful social document. The story of how the convict Jean-Valjean struggled to escape his past and reaffirm his humanity, in a world brutalized by poverty and ignorance, became the gospel of the poor and the oppressed.
Author: Hugo, Victor
Title: Les Miserables
Kazuo Ishiguro imagines the lives of a group of students growing up in a darkly skewered version of contemporary England. Narrated by Kathy, now 31, Never Let Me Go hauntingly dramatises her attempts to come to terms with her childhood at the seemingly idyllic Hailsham School, and with the fate that has always awaited her and her closest friends in the wider world. A story of love, friendship and memory, Never Let Me Go is charged throughout with a sense of the fragility of life.
Jonathan Lloyd HYMS: “themes cloning, organ donation, social class, education, shortly to be released as a film”
Publisher: Faber and Faber
In the summer of 1956, Stevens, the ageing butler of Darlington Hall, embarks on a leisurely holiday that will take him deep into the countryside and into his past . . . A contemporary classic, The Remains of the Day is Kazuo Ishiguro’s beautiful and haunting evocation of life between the wars in a Great English House, of lost causes and lost love.
Jonathan Lloyd HYMS:- themes social class, professionalism, relationships, unrequited love, ageing – beautifully written, also made into a film.