Friday, 21 September 2012

The Evolution of the Biography?

As the name suggests, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects: The Life and Collected Works of Thomas Darwin (1857-1879) is the biography of the short, yet eventful, life of one Thomas Darwin, youngest son of the celebrated evolutionary scientist, Charles Darwin. 

Except it’s not. The book is, in fact, a novel, and the character of Thomas Darwin is entirely fictitious, the product of the rather lively imagination of author, Harry Karlinsky - as is the account of Thomas’s struggle to emerge from his father’s imposing shadow, his slow descent into madness, and his tragic early death in a Canadian asylum.

However, Karlinsky’s construct is so utterly convincing, the story so absorbing, that I would challenge any reader not to lose sight of the book’s fictional nature at least once during the reading.  I, for one, had to remind myself several times that this tragic life had never, in reality, been lived.

This blurring of the lines between reality and illusoriness is achieved by combining actual biographical data of the Darwin family with wholly factitious sources, including the invented correspondence of Charles and his wife, Emma.  In taking this approach, the author deftly weaves a tangled web of fact and fantasy, which mirrors the deluded mind of his subject, as it oscillates between the realms of sanity and insanity.

This is a gem of a novel – eccentric, discombobulating, delightful.
'The Evolution of Inanimate Objects' is published by The Friday Project. It has been longlisted for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize.

For more information of on the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, click here:

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The First 30 Minutes of Anna Karenina - A Review

I don’t go to the cinema much anymore.   The reason for this is two-fold. 

Firstly, I find that most movies coming out of Hollywood these days tend to have quite a limited target market, of which I am emphatically not a member (nor, it seems, is anyone other than teenage males with violent sociopathic tendencies).

Secondly, the older I get, the more misanthropic I become - and therefore less enthusiastic about the prospect of spending two hours of my dwindling life penned up in a dark, uncomfortable, claustrophobic room with OTHER PEOPLE.

However, every once in a while, a movie comes along which simply cannot wait to be viewed on Sky Box Office.  And if there was ever a film to force me off the sofa and into the movie theatre, it was Anna Karenina, the new blockbuster adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic novel of the same name. 

Directed by Joe Wright (whose previous credits include Atonement and Pride and Prejudice), and with a screenplay written by Tom Stoppard, this is a movie that promised much.  Add to this an all-star cast - which includes Keira Knightley as the eponymous heroine, Jude Law as her cuckolded husband, and the up-and-coming Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the dastardly Count Vronsky – and one would be forgiven for thinking that this would be the movie event of 2012.  What could possibly go wrong?

Well, quite a lot, actually…

Alarm bells were ringing from the outset.  Fully expecting to be dazzled by fabulous location shots of Moscow and St Petersburg, I was rather puzzled when the opening sequences instead showed a rather grungy theatre set.  Instead of vast marble staircases, there were rickety wooden ones. Scenes that should have been set in stunning mansions took place on a stage, completed with wobbly backdrops.  Extras stumbled clumsily into scenes, as if the actors on the stage were merely rehearsing their lines, as opposed to being filmed. 

Some reviewers have praised this theatrical approach, which no doubt saved the producers a fortune in location costs, and which will probably earn innumerable technical gongs come awards season. I, however, found it only succeeded in making the film visually confusing, not least because these rather dodgy sets were combined with some breathtakingly magnificent costumes, as well as some ‘normal’ outdoor scenes.

Macfayden as Oblonsky
And I wasn’t the only one confused – so, I believe, were the actors.  With the exception of Jude Law, the other main players seemed to forget they were making a film, and instead performed in that over-emphasising way common the stage actors.  Movements were exaggerated, and voices were raised as if they were trying to be heard in the nose-bleed seats of a Shaftesbury Avenue theatre.  Matthew Macfayden, in particular, was guilty of this – his court-jester type portrayal of Oblonsky, a serious character in the novel, verged on the ridiculous.

But for all my misgivings, I was still prepared to stick it out.  Surely, it could only get better.  But then, some 30 minutes in, after another absurd Oblonsky scene, my husband (who has never read Tolstoy) leaned across and whispered “I didn’t realise Anna Karenina was a comedy”.  Anna Karenina, one of the masterpieces of 19th century Russian literature, a comedy?  That was it – we were outta there.

So there you have it - my review of the first thirty minutes of Anna Karenina. Maybe the movie improved in the hour-and-thirty-minutes I missed – but I doubt.

The short version: A very Baz Luhrmann-like production, except Luhrmann would probably have pulled it off.  Tolstoy purists will hate it.  Flouncy frock lovers and theatre luvvies will simply adore it, daaahling. 

Monday, 17 September 2012

Man Booker Prize 2012 - Shortlist Announced

The literary awards season is definitely upon us!

Hot on the heels of the announcement of the Wellcome Trust Book Prize longlist (see below), the judges of the Man Booker 2012 prize last week revealed their six shortlisted titles.

And the nominees are:

-          Will Self, Umbrella, (Bloomsbury)
-          Hilary Mantel, Bring Up The Bodies, (Fourth Estate)
-          Deborah Levy, Swimming Home, (And Other Stories)
-          Jeet Thayil, Nacropolis, (Faber & Faber)
-          Alison Moore, The Lighthouse, (Salt Publishing)
-          Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists, (Myrmidon ) 

Analysis at a glance:

-          Two of the shortlisted titles are debut novels, The Lighthouse and Nacropolis.

-          Three of the final six titles are published by small, independent houses or a not-for-private-profit publisher (Salt, Myrmidon, And Other Stories).

-          Despite the fact he is one of the UK’s most highly regarded and prolific authors, this is the first time a novel by Will Self has featured on a Man Booker shortlist,

-          Bring Up The Bodies is the much-anticipated sequel to the 2009 Man Booker winner, Wolf Hall. Can Hilary Mantel make history by ‘doing the double’?

-          Perhaps the most controversial exclusion was Michael Frayn’s Skios – once thought to be a contender to win the prize, the fact that this book failed to graduate from longlist to shortlist surprised many commentators.

So, who is likely to win the £50,000 prize?  Currently the two big hitters, Mantel and Self, are hotly tipped.  However, this year’s panel has already proven that they are not influenced by established literary reputations (Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith and Martin Amis all failed to make their longlist) – so this is one competition that is definitely still up for grabs.

The winner will be unveiled at a ceremony at the Guildhall on Tuesday, October 16th.

For a brief description of all the shortlisted books, and to find out what the judges had to say about them, click here:  

Update (17 Oct 2012): Hilary Mantel pipped Will Self at the post to take home the prize.  The win makes Mantel the first woman (and the first Briton) to do the Booker double.  The only other novelists to win the award twice are Peter Carey (Australian) and JM Coetzee (South African).  Well done, Hilary!

Friday, 7 September 2012

The Wellcome Trust Book Prize

Twitter was abuzz this week with news of the longlist announcement for this year’s Wellcome Trust Book Prize. 

Now, I’m usually quite au fait with the various book prizes out there: the Man Booker, the Orange Prize, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Costas – I try to keep an eye on them all, as regular readers of this blog will attest. The unveiling of the longlist for this particular prize, however, caught me somewhat off-guard - mainly because, before this week, I had never even heard of Wellcome Trust Prize.

Fearful that I no longer had my finger on the metaphorical pulse of the literary world, I set about investigating further.  I didn’t have to look very far - a quick Google search of ‘Wellcome Trust Book Prize’ directed me to the award’s official website, and, lo, the mystery was solved.

The Wellcome Prize, it turns out, is a relatively new award – established in 2009, it is now in its fourth year, a baby in comparison to those venerable institutions like the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize for Literature, both of which seem to have been around since the dawn of time.

The award’s raison d’etre is to acknowledge the year’s ‘finest fiction or non-fiction book centred around medicine’.  (This mission statement does not seem quite so left-field when one realises that the Wellcome Trust is a charity dedicated to the advancement of human and animal health through biomedical research and medicine.)  To that end, the winner, which will be chosen by a committee chaired by Radio 4’s Mark Lawson, will be awarded a generous £25,000 in prize-money.
In 2010, the award went to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by American author, Rebecca Skloot – a book which charts the extraordinary journey of a cell line taken from the cervical cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks, who died of the disease in 1951.  This cell line, known as HeLa, is still being used in cancer research today, over 60 years after the death of its progenitor.  Along with the Wellcome Prize, Skloot’s book also picked up the Heartland Prize for non-fiction and the Salon Prize – and, as of 26 August this year, it had spent 75 weeks in the New York Times Bestseller List.  No pressure for this year’s nominees then … 

The longlist for the 2012 prize are as follows:
  • John Coates, The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, (Fourth Estate)
  • Joshua Cody, [Sic], (Bloomsbury)
  • Nick Coleman, The Train in the Night, (Jonathan Cape)
  • Mohammed Hanif, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, (Jonathan Cape)
  • Peter James, Perfect People, (Macmillan)
  • Harry Karlinsky, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects, (The Friday Project)
  • Darian Leader, What is Madness?, (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Ken Macleod, Intrusion, (Orbit)
  • Professor Peter Piot, No Time to Lose, (W.W. Norton & Company)
  • Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain, (Constable & Robinson)
  • Tim Spector, Identically Different, (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson)
  • Rose Tremain, Merivel: A Man of his Time, (Chatto & Windus)
  • Thomas Wright, Circulation. (Chatto & Windus)
  • Paul Zak, The Moral Molecule, (Transworld)
The shortlist will be unveiled on 11 October, with the prize-giving ceremony scheduled to take place in London on 7 November.

PS – Watch this space for a review of one of the long-listed titles, Harry Karlinsky's The Evolution of Inanimate Objects, published by the Friday Project.
Update (17 Oct 2012): The shortlist, which was announced last week, is as follows:
  • John Coates, The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, (Fourth Estate)
  • Joshua Cody, [Sic], (Bloomsbury)
  • Nick Coleman, The Train in the Night, (Jonathan Cape)
  • Mohammed Hanif, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, (Jonathan Cape)
  • Peter James, Perfect People, (Macmillan)
  • Rose Tremain, Merivel: A Man of his Time, (Chatto & Windus)
  • Thomas Wright, Circulation. (Chatto & Windus)
Sadly, Harry Karlinsky did not make the cut.  For what it's what, my money is now on Rose Tremain.  Winner announced 7 November - watch this space.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

The Classic Novel That Almost Never Was

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Anthony Burgess’s classic dystopian novel, A Clockwork Orange.  (I, however, read it for the first time only this year - no-one can ever accuse me of being ahead of the game, that’s for sure…)

 The novel (or, more accurately, the novella) is set in the near future in an unnamed city (which appears to be a curious mix of the darker elements of New York, London and Gotham).  This hybrid metropolis is over-run by gangs of feral youths, who nightly inflict terror on those citizens who are unlucky enough to find themselves in their path. The novel’s narrator, Alex, is the leader of one such posse, and the book is littered with his sometimes incomprehensible idiolect – an argot deriving from Russian, gypsy patois and rhyming slang.

However, Alex’s reign of terror is brought to an abrupt end when he is betrayed by one of his fellow gang-members (or ‘droogs’).  After being arrested by the ‘millicents’ (police) and charged with murder, Alex is subjected to ‘aversion therapy’ in attempt to ‘cure’ him of his violent urges and sociopathic tendencies. 

The notion of good and evil, and the free will to choose between the two is the central theme of this book.  But in a departure from the ‘good-guy-turned-bad’ approach so common to this theme, Burgess has presented us with a thoroughly bad character who is turned good against his will.  And, it is this rather unorthodox slant which has elevated A Clockwork Orange to its well-deserved status as a modern classic. 

However, the novel’s success was far from a foregone conclusion – in fact, a recently-uncovered document seen by The Independent on Sunday reveals that the book’s publishers suffered a bad case of pre-publication jitters which almost resulted in the book being shelved (!) entirely.

The document was written by Maire Lynd, an in-house fiction reader for the publishing house, Heinemann.  Maire, it seems, could not decide whether A Clockwork Orange, was destined to be a hit or ‘an enormous flop’.  Lynd correctly noted that slang used in the book would pose ‘great difficulty’ to the reader, but by the same token, felt brave enough to predict that some of it may find its way into teenage vernacular. 

As it turned out, Maire’s assessment of the novel’s chances was proved right - on both counts.  The book posted very poor sales figures, and unenthusiastic reviews, when it was eventually published in 1962 – and it wasn’t until Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 movie adaptation that it was embraced by the general public – and it has retained its place among the cannon of modern literary greats ever since.

Interestingly, Burgess was somewhat less enthusiastic about his best-known work: "It is ironic that I am always associated with A Clockwork Orange”, he said in a previously unpublished interview. “This, of all my books, is the one I like least."