In spite of feeling as if I have been busy, there seem to be a lot of items in the ‘finished’ pile:
Mrs Beeton turns out to be Mr and Mrs Beeton, and a curious story of feminine career building, early death and commercial failure lies behind the triumphantly durable Book of Household Management, or BOHM as it figures resoundingly throughout. The Victorian detail is good (I won’t forget a medicament named Peristaltic Persuaders any time soon) and Hughes did well as she revealed a segment of society trying to work its way to gentility while remaining tied to commerce. And no safety nets for the fallers, either.
I had hopes of this, which consists of introductions to a number of major classics supposedly showing the links between said novels and medicine. While I am all in favour of doctors being encouraged to humanise themselves through literature, I was disappointed. For one thing, the author seems to think that doctors can’t cope with a novel unless they have been told exactly what happens in the plot INCLUDING the ending for each one, and these feeble summaries are what Salinsky offers instead of insight. Secondly, while referring to his male authors as Kafka, Joyce, Tolstoy etc., he cosies up with ‘Jane’ and ‘Emily’ when naming the authors of Mansfield Park and Wuthering Heights, and when it comes to Middlemarch he is not only over-familiar but deprives Eliot of her chosen pen name and refers to her as ‘Marian’ throughout. Some people really make your hand itch for slapping. I’m glad that I only paid 50p for his rotten book.
Montgomery waxes lyrical over her subject, and in a way that is fine, as the octopus is indeed a most extraordinary animal and I was longing to hear more about it. I somewhat believed in the intellect she attributes to octopuses (though possibly not the emotion) as on the rare occasions I’ve had a chance to look at an octopus, there was certainly a sense of it looking back at me. The idea of an animal whose intelligence is distributed through its legs and which therefore may be able to think without actually using its brain, and whose legs may also be able to communicate directly and independently with one another, is a glorious imagination-stretcher. To tell the truth I could have done with more about octopuses and less about the author and her friends…
The ash. Robert Penn’s experiment was to see how many items he could have made from a single tree, with no wastage. As he travels from craft to craft, he praises the ash for its various qualities and reflects on the shrinking number of people who still work with wood, although occasionally heartened by new blood like the man who is making wooden frames for bicycles. While reading one is uneasily aware of the spread of ash dieback in Europe and of the ash boring beetle in the United States. Will we have to do without in future?
Next came The reader on the 6.27, a comfy read with a lot of wishful thinking in it. On the other hand, some of the comedy is delicious: the elderly amputee tracking down his missing limbs, smidgen by smidgen (I’m not Salinsky and I’m not going to say what happens), and the security guard who can only converse in alexandrines, are both welcome new acquaintances.
And then there was Love, the second volume in Victoria Hislop’s collection of short stories. With a title like that you know you are in for a pretty gloomy time, and so it proves. The stories are uniformly excellent, however, and a few allow you a little glimpse of cheer; Carol Shields’ Words, for example, while not exactly ebullient, has an enjoyable tale of words heating up the world and having to be rationed, and what happens when someone does his duty too well in this respect. The heart of Denis Noble (Alison MacLeod) was another which achieved optimism, flavoured with a judicious pinch of weirdness.
I’m not entirely sure how I am going to cope with the third volume in this set, though. It is ominously entitled Loss.