Monday, 27 June 2011

Book of the Week and Bibliography - Andrew Miller, Pure

Pure is the sixth novel from Andrew Miller, and is set in 18th century Paris around a cemetery. Miller is a good example of a novelist who has attracted considerable critical acclaim and success, including winning the IMPAC prize, but probably without reaching a huge readership. I have enjoyed several of his previous books, all of which can still be picked up very cheaply as first editions.

Miller was born in 1960 in Bristol, and has lived and worked in several countries, including Spain, France, Holland and Japan. He studied Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in 1991 and finished a Ph.D. in Critical and Creative Writing at Lancaster University in 1995. His first novel, Ingenious Pain, was published in 1997. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction), the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Italian Grinzane Cavour Prize. Set during the eighteenth century, it tells the story of surgeon James Dyer and his extraordinary inability to feel pain. It was followed by Casanova (1998), a fictional portrait of the infamous libertine and writer. Both novels are currently being adapted for film. His next novel, Oxygen (2001), set in England in 1997, was shortlisted for both the Booker Prize for Fiction and the Whitbread Novel Award. The book narrates two loosely connected narratives, those of a dying mother attended by her two sons and a Hungarian playwright living in Paris. The Optimists (2005), is the tale of a photojournalist who returns to Britain from Africa where he was involved in reporting on an atrocity, and One Morning Like a Bird in 2008. Pure is available now.

“A year of bones, of grave-dirt, relentless work. Of mummified corpses and chanting priests. A year of rape, suicide, sudden death. Of friendship too. Of desire. Of love...A year unlike any other he has lived. Deep in the heart of Paris, its oldest cemetery is, by 1785, overflowing, tainting the very breath of those who live nearby. Into their midst comes Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young, provincial engineer charged by the king with demolishing it. At first Baratte sees this as a chance to clear the burden of history, a fitting task for a modern man of reason. But before long, he begins to suspect that the destruction of the cemetery might be a prelude to his own.”


Ingenious Pain Sceptre, 1997. Under £15.
Casanova Sceptre, 1998. Under£15.
Oxygen Sceptre, 2001. Under £10.
The Optimists Sceptre, 2005. Under £10.
One Morning Like a Bird Sceptre, 2008. Under £15.
Pure, Sceptre, 2011.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Book of the Week and Bibliography - Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger's Child

Alan Hollinghurst is not a prolific author, and The Stranger’s Child is his first novel since A Line of Beauty won the Booker Prize in 2004. He was born in Stroud in Gloucestershire, England in 1954 and his early publications were mainly poetry. His first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), gives an account of London gay life in the early 1980s through the story of a young aristocrat, William Beckwith, and his involvement with the elderly Lord Nantwich, whose life he saves. It was followed by The Folding Star in 1994, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. The narrator, Edward Manners, develops an obsessive passion for his pupil, a 17-year-old Flemish boy, in a story that was compared by many critics to Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice. Spell (1998) has been described as a gay comedy of manners, which interweaves the complex relationships between 40-something architect Robin Woodfield, his alcoholic lover Justin, and Justin's ex, timid civil servant Alex, who falls in love with Robin's son Danny. The action moves between the English countryside and London where Danny introduces Alex to ecstasy and clubbing. The Line of Beauty (2004) traces a decade of change and won the 2004 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

The Stranger’s Child spans almost the whole of the 20th century, tracing the intertwined stories of two families. Advance notices suggest a very strong book, which will certainly come into consideration for the Booker Prize again. Amazon list both a hardcover and a paperback (as well as the now ubiquitous Kindle edition). I would expect a fairly large print run, and signed copies should be fairly easily available if you look around. A 40 copy leather-bound edition is  available, from Tuskar Rock press, and there is also a numbered and signed edition of 500 copies in slipcase availale from Goldsboro Books.

“In the late summer of 1913 the aristocratic young poet Cecil Valance comes to stay at ‘Two Acres’, the home of his close Cambridge friend George Sawle. The weekend will be one of excitements and confusions for all the Sawles, but it is on George’s sixteen-year-old sister Daphne that it will have the most lasting impact, when Cecil writes her a poem which will become a touchstone for a generation, an evocation of an England about to change forever.

Linking the Sawle and Valance families irrevocably, the shared intimacies of this weekend become legendary events in a larger story, told and interpreted in different ways over the coming century, and subjected to the scrutiny of critics and biographers with their own agendas and anxieties. In a sequence of widely separated episodes we follow the two families through startling changes in fortune and circumstance.

At the centre of this often richly comic history of sexual mores and literary reputation runs the story of Daphne, from innocent girlhood to wary old age. Around her Hollinghurst draws an absorbing picture of an England constantly in flux. As in The Line of Beauty, his impeccably nuanced exploration of changing taste, class and social etiquette is conveyed in deliciously witty and observant prose. Exposing our secret longings to the shocks and surprises of time, The Stranger’s Child is an enthralling novel from one of the finest writers in the English language.”


Isherwood is at Santa Monica, Sycamore Press Broadsheet, 1975. £125-150
A Florilegium for John Florio, Sycamore Press, Oxford, 1981. £125-150.
Confidential Chats with Boys, Sycamore Press, Oxford, 1982. £125-200.
The Swimming-Pool Library, Chatto & Windus, 1988. Under £20.
The Folding Star, Chatto & Windus, 1994. Under £10.
The Spell, Chatto & Windus, 1998. Under £10
The Line of Beauty, Picador, 2004. Under £15.
The Stranger's Child, Picador, 2011. At cost.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Book of the Week - Amitav Ghosh, River of Smoke

Some of the finest writing in English comes from Indian authors, who seem to me to value and champion an elegance of style which has become uncommon in native English writers. There are many fine young Indian authors, some of whom I have highlighted previously – Amitav Ghosh should now probably be considered a senior statesman among Indian authors writing in English, and has increasingly been recognised internationally as an important literary figure.

Many years ago, when I had a little more time, I taught a module on medicine and literature to undergraduate students which featured one of Ghosh’s earlier novels, The Calcutta Chromosome, which dealt with the tension between western and traditional Indian views of science. His previous novel, The Sea of Poppies, was the first in a trilogy set against the background of the Opium wars. It was a blockbuster of a novel, with a rich cast of characters, and was both an exciting and entertaining read. In addition, it managed to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, a tribute to the elegance of the writing. The second novel in the trilogy, River of Smoke, is published by John Murray this week and will be high on my list for the summer. This is a simultaneous hardcover and paperback release – collectors should pick up the hardcover, signed as usual if possible.

Ghosh was born in Kolkata, India in 1956 and attended Delhi University and St Edmund Hall, Oxford, where he was awarded a D.Phil . in social anthropology.His first job was at the Indian Express newspaper in New Delhi. His wife, Deborah Baker, is a senior editor at Little, Brown and Company and they have two children, Lila and Nayan. He has been a Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. In 1999, Ghosh joined the faculty at Queens College, City University of New York as Distinguished Professor in Comparative Literature. He has also been a visiting professor to the English department of Harvard University since 2005. In 2009 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

“In September 1838 a storm blows up on the Indian Ocean and the Ibis, a ship carrying a consignment of convicts and indentured labourers from Calcutta to Mauritius, is caught up in the whirlwind. When the seas settle, five men have disappeared - two lascars, two convicts and one of the passengers. Did the same storm upend the fortunes of those aboard the Anahita, an opium carrier heading towards Canton? And what fate befell those aboard the Redruth, a sturdy two-masted brig heading East out of Cornwall? Was it the storm that altered their course or were the destinies of these passengers at the mercy of even more powerful forces?

On the grand scale of an historical epic, River of Smoke follows its storm-tossed characters to the crowded harbors of China. There, despite efforts of the emperor to stop them, ships from Europe and India exchange their cargoes of opium for boxes of tea, silk, porcelain and silver. Among them are Bahram Modi, a wealthy Parsi opium merchant out of Bombay, his estranged half-Chinese son Ah Fatt, the orphaned Paulette and a motley collection of others whose pursuit of romance, riches and a legendary rare flower have thrown together. All struggle to cope with their losses - and for some, unimaginable freedoms - in the alleys and crowded waterways of 19th century Canton. As transporting and mesmerizing as an opiate induced dream, River of Smoke will soon be heralded as a masterpiece of twenty-first century literature.”