Booker 2015: small town tragedy is literary success

Did You Ever Have a Family
Bill Clegg
Random House UK, Vintage Publishing
Jonathan Cape
Pub: Aug 2015

“It occurred to me that night and since that we no longer live in a town, not a real one anyway. We live in a pricey museum, one that’s only open on weekends, and we are its janitors”

Clegg’s debut novel is the story of the aftermath of a tragedy. Set in a small Connecticut town the central event is a wedding – or at least that what it should have been. A house explosion on the morning of the wedding of June Reid’s daughter Lolly kills Lolly, William, Lolly’s fiancé, June’s boyfriend, Luke, and her ex-husband Adam. Through June, friends, family and others who encounter June, we learn of what happened before and in the immediate aftermath of the explosion: how people look to apportion blame; how guilt and ‘what if’s ‘ can eat away at you and make the living seem as if they too are dead, at least emotionally, how selfishness and stubbornness invade us all; and about the power of grief and loss can starve us of life.

As is identified from the book’ s title this is a book that is about family – how we love, how we hate; how we are born into one family but then can also start our own; how families can make us strong, and how they can bring us down; how we are ultimately defined by them.

Whilst June has lost a daughter, a boyfriend and an ex husband; she is not the only one suffering. There is: Luke’s mother, Lydia, who herself had had a strained relationship with her son and can longer be reconciled with him; William’s parents; Cissy someone who knew William as a young boy; and Silas a young local stoner who had worked for Luke and is haunted by his own knowledge of what happened.

This book made me think back to 2013’s Booker longlist and Donal Ryan’s excellent book “The Spinning Heart” which also employed this method of storytelling (indeed as did his follow up novel) It is a method of storytelling , that if done well, as it is here allows you to see a bigger picture, you are not confined to one right or ‘true’ version of events. Like Ryan, there is a plainness to much of the dialogue and inner thoughts, but also a real sense of emotional honesty and believability.

Clegg, a successful US literary agent, has shown himself to be a talented storyteller – although judging by the praise for his best-selling memoirs this is perhaps no surprise.

Like Ryan, Clegg has failed to make the Booker shortlist, and as with Ryan I feel this was probably an error.

“Some tress love an ax … she disagreed and though instead that the tree gets used to the ax, which is nothing to do with love. It settles into being chipped away at, bit by bit, blade by blade, until it doesn’t feel anything anymore, and then, because nothing else can happen, what’s left crumbles into dust”

Review copy supplied by Random House / Netgalley

Doomed I tell you …

[Wrote this yesterday but then wasn’t going to post as Ian Clark wrote a piece that summed up much of my thinking and was better worded, but then thought, I’ve written it, why not just post it]


Yes. In case you missed the news Jeremy Corbyn is the new Leader of The Labour Party. As you can see the news that “veteran left winger” Corbyn had basically kicked the arse of the three other candidates for labour leader had resulted in this calm, balanced and measured tweet from our PM. Yep, forget cistISIS, it’s Jezza and the Labour Party you need to worry about. Whatever you do don’t answer the door to them. If you do they will put your family to death #fact [either that or that’s complete and utter bollocks]

I didn’t vote in the labour leadership contest. I’m not a member of the party and didn’t do the £3 registration to let me vote. Corbyn would not have been my choice to lead the party. But, that was actually one of my reasons for not registering. Given the options and the policies and views expressed by the four candidates, I would have found it hard to pick anyone. It seems a lot of people felt the same. It was, of course, the reason why people fought to get Corbyn on the ballot because they feared otherwise you’d have three candidates all saying slight different versions of the same thing. He got on, and yet they still did.

Corbyn took hold of the campaign early on – by a sneaky tactic: actually expressing opinions about stuff: saying what he thought, without running it by a committee of 30 people checking every syllable of every word to make it as bland, soulless and lifeless as possible. Burnham, Cooper and Kendall in response said nothing; no, this is not true, but it might as well be, as very quickly their combined campaigns became more focused on ‘anyone by Jeremy’  and less about why anyone should actually vote for them instead. Corbyn set the agenda.

To be fair to Kendall and Cooper, when they could break out of their own ‘we need to talk about Jeremy’ shackles they tried to set out what they might do as leader, even if this fell on mostly deaf ears outside the parliamentary Labour Party. Burnham meanwhile seeing a bandwagon jumped on and quickly started selling himself as the Corbyn Lite option. He came second.  I think he has shown himself to be willing to do anything to win. Some might find this admirable. I find it shallow. I’m glad he’s not leader.

So, back to Corbyn. Is western civilisation as we know it know in immediate peril? Should we be stocking our cellars or cupboards with supplies for the apocalypse? Seriously you’d think so if you read our papers today or glanced at twitter, and to be fair to the PM, most of this scaremongering tosh is coming from inside the Labour party not outside. As the old saying goes, with friends like these who needs enemies.

Is it likely that Corbyn and Labour will win the next General election? Probably not. Then again, a few month ago it wasn’t exactly likely that he’d be elected leader, and outright on first ballot at that too, either was it. Unlikely doesn’t mean impossible.

But, here’s an idea. How about all the people that “know better” in the Labour party just shut the fuck up for a few months and see how the man does. Why not respect the outcome of a vote where he poled over 50%.

Yes some prominent members have said they just don’t have enough in common with Corbyn to have served in his cabinet. It some ways this is fair enough – if clearly a calculated move. Others are more transparent and have clearly skulked off in the hope that ‘when’ (because they see no other outcome) he fails they can say proudly that they are not tarnished, they didn’t get involved. This is what I call the no I in team brigade. Those who are in the party but are not really going to try and contribute whilst Corbyn is Leader.

The Party’s membership grew by 14,500 in under 24 hours after the announcement of Corbyn’s victory. I’m sure not all these were pro-Corbyn, but in an age where people have stopped joining political parties, this is impressive. Maybe all these folks would have joined if Cooper, Burnham or Kendall had won too – who knows. I doubt it, but we’ll never know. But they have joined. In most organisations a headline “almost 15,000 new members sign up in a day as new leader appointed’ would be a celebratory event. You’d be saying incredible. It is and people should say so. You may not understand it but it doesn’t stop it being impressive.

A Corbyn Labour party may well turn out to be a unmitigated disaster, but it might not. The odd thing is it seems to me that there are an awful lot within as well as outside of the Labour party who seem more afraid of this outcome than of the more popular ‘we all doomed Capt Mainwaring’ scenario.

This book saves lives delays associated death and raises relative scepticism.

Doctoring Data: How to sort out medical advice from medical nonsense
Malcolm Kendrick
Pub: August 2015

‘Cholesterol lowering may change what is written on your death certificate, but it won’t change the date.’

I decided to take time out from Booker reading to read the latest book from Macclesfield GP, Malcom Kendrick. His last book was entitled ‘The Great Cholesterol Con’, where he took aim at the perceived medical wisdom that lowering your cholesterol was good for you.

In this latest book he aims wider and tries to:

  • alert readers to look beyond the headline and surface of any medical claim to find the evidence behind the claim
  • association does not mean causation: Just because something is associated with a condition/diseases is not the same as saying it causes or automatically results in that condition/disease.
  • recognise the difference between relative and absolute risk in claims: “If the absolute risk is hidden away, then you can confidently assume that it is so vanishingly small that the authors chose not to highlight it, as it would significantly weaken their message.”
  • beware of the words: words ‘lives saved’, or any version thereof: “You cannot save a life, all you can do is delay death.’ You will also know that anyone who combines the words ‘saved’ and ‘life’, or any version thereof, with regard to a clinical trial, is no longer a scientist. They have effectively – if unconsciously – become a drug salesperson. However academic they may claim to be.”
  • look for the mortality effect:  does treatment  ‘cure’ a supposed symptom but shorten your life? If it does not state the mortality effect it is because it was negative.

This is a highly entertaining read, with views on cancer screening, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity, mastectomies, and high cholesterol and more – and how the expert opinion and guidelines on all of these have been formed, fascinating. Even covering my favourite –  the old fashioned method of moving the goal posts:

“Narrowing the boundaries of ‘normal’ is a technique used in many different areas of medicine. When I graduated in medicine, a high cholesterol was 7.5 mmol/L. Then it became 6.5, then 5.5, now it is 5. Or 4, if you have had a heart attack or stroke. In the latest US guidelines ‘optimal’ cholesterol level for healthy people is 4.4 mmol/L (In US units this is 170 mg/dl). By driving the definition of high cholesterol ever downwards, we have reached the point where more than 85% of people now have a ‘high’ cholesterol level, which needs to be lowered. This is fine so long as you do not question the inherent nonsense that the vast majority of the population can possibly have a dangerously high level of something. Ever come across the concept of ‘average’ guys?”

The most interesting claim/fact in the book? “in no statin study done has there been an impact on overall mortality in women. None, ever.”

I apologise for picking out Cholesterol based data but as one of those with ‘high’ cholesterol, and not having read his previous book, these were of particular interest to me. But a lot of the hard evidence for claims made in relation to some of the other highly diagnosed and prescribed medicine areas are also demonstrated to be equally flimsy, or at least enough that you should do your own research and digging before being blindly corralled  into taking a handful of pills for the rest of your life.

Good read.

Booker 2015: Yanagihara’s picture of a damaged life shows she’s a talent to watch

A Little Life
Hanya Yanagihara
Pan Macmillan

“I also wanted there to be an exaggeration of everything, an exaggeration of love, of empathy, of pity, of horror. I wanted everything turned up a little too high.”

Hanya Yanagihara’s new novel (her second), “A Little Life” is currently bookies favourite to win the 2015 Booker Prize. Given the bookies record of being way off mark most of the last decade with their picks this favouritism should probably be taken with a huge pitch of salt.  There are many things to be said about this novel, but one thing is for sure: it is hard to argue with Yanagihara’s quote above – emotionally everything is ramped up to 11 in this novel. An alternate title for the book could well have been Love and Pity.

The book starts off as a tale of four men – Willem, Malcolm, Jean-Baptiste and Jude –  who become friends at a small Massachusetts college, and who aspire to great things. Willem, an aspiring actor, hails from a poor farming family, and is the only surviving child of four; Malcolm, an aspiring architect, from a wealthy new York family; Jean Baptiste (JB), an aspiring artist; and Jude, an aspiring lawyer whose background seems more than a little murky. We start of leaning a little bit about each of the four, and wonder what direction the book will go in.

This four-way focus is – sadly in my view – jettisoned also immediately in favour of becoming sort of the Gospel of St Jude (Patron Saint of Hope and impossible causes). This occurs with what becomes a leitmotif in the novel – Jude cutting himself (in a self harm way).As the book progresses the reasons for this coping mechanism become clearer and Jude’s past has left him severely damaged – both physically and mentally. He is a man in almost constant pain – “his body owns him, not the other way around.” As we delve further into Jude’s past we see a picture of continuous horrors. This misery could become quite relentless very quickly were it not balanced with an exploration of love and friendship – primarily with Willem.

In many ways this is a book about love, friendship and the life-long relationships, as well as our scars – both emotional and physical – that blight and shape our lives. Self perception and self worth and how we see ourselves and others is also a strong theme – not just how we talk and interact with one another but also, as demonstrated in the relationships JB has with the three others, through art.  It also explores the interesting question of how much do you really need to know about another person to be in love with them and happy with them. Is it really important to know every detail of someones life before you?

All this is genuinely fascinating but its overall effect is partly neutered by some decisions Yanagihara takes. Firstly, everyone, and I mean Everyone, is or  becomes successful in this book: JB, Willem, Malcolm, Andy, Harold. No one fails and just end up working in the local public library or convenience store, they’re all VERY successful.

There is also an unflinching niceness to all the people she has surrounded Jude with. Bar a few minor excursions into nastiness all the people who love Jude, do so at almost saint-like levels. With the best intentions in the world, this doesn’t ring true. In real life Jude would have succeeded in alienating and pushing away most, if not all of these people. You need an impressive sense of masochism to remain friends with someone like Jude for the length of time the characters in this book do. His past may mean he deserves undying love and affection, and as a reader it is hard not to think so too, but in reality that isn’t how the world works. And that feeling kept creeping back into my thoughts through-out the novel. It almost as if Yanagihara has decided we need this level of saintliness from everyone else to balance Jude’s pain and misery. Despite this, the book still never feels like it is selling out Jude himself though, which is admirable. “What was happiness but an extravagance, and impossible state to maintain partly because it was so difficult to articulate? He couldn’t remember being a child and being able to define happiness: there was only misery, or fear, and the absence of misery and fear, and the latter state was all he had needed or wanted”

Some US reviewers have described the book as a masterpiece: It’s not, far from it, but there is something compelling about it all the same, and I’ll admit I spent much of the books final 100 pages in tears (not something I do very often). That the book had the ability to do this, almost despite itself and my reservations, is worth praising. It’s a long book – pushing 800 pages, but I had no problem getting through it, I wanted to know whether the inevitable was indeed inevitable.

Yanagihara is certainly a talent to watch, and I will look forward to whatever she writes next. Do I think this is the Booker winner? No, although I wont be surprised if it makes the short-list.

Review copy provided by Pan Macmillan/Netgalley

Gaarder’s upcoming tale of climate change just too preachy

The World According to Anna
Jostein Gaarder
Orion Publishing Group
Pub Date: 12 November 2015

I’ve been a fan of Jostein Gaarder from the first moment I read ‘Sophie’s World’ in the mid 90s. It is still a book I like a lot (and not just because of its unfailing ability to start arguments over its merits between anyone with a Philosophy degree). He has always been an author that brilliantly bridges the gap between young adult and adult fiction.

His latest book ‘The World According to Anna’ is a climate change fable.

Two days shy of her 16th birthday (12 December) Anna is a young girl committed to environmental protection. She’s angry. She also has a lively imagination in which she becomes her own grand-daughter in 2086, in a world where climate change has proven to be true and much of the worlds natural resources are depleted and most of its wildlife and fauna extinct. How could you do this to me, the future Anna (Nova) asks her ‘grandmother’. With the help of her boyfriend, Jonas, she decides she has to take action to prevent the future she has ‘seen’.

Meanwhile Anna has also been taken, by her parents, to see a  psychiatrist. They are worried about her ‘visions’. He befriends her after saying that there is nothing physically or mentally wrong with her. He too is interested in climate change as his daughter, Esther, who works for the World Food Programme, has been kidnapped in Somalia. This incident, we are told, is linked to political turmoil caused by climate change.

The idea of climate change is of course quite a good topic for a novel, in fact it has been close to Gaarder’s heart for many years. He and his wife established an environment award, the Sophie Prize, which each year since 1997 has rewarded a person who has made special efforts to create awareness about climate change and the environment, with $100,000  See more at: So he has certainly put his money where his mouth is on the subject. But, there is a fine line – even when aimed at young adults, which this book clearly is – between involving and informing and being too preachy and lecturing. For me, even as a believer, this book is more the latter than the former.

Worst than that however, I didn’t buy into any of the characters. None of the characters seemed remotely believable to me. I didn’t believe in Anna or anyone else. They just felt like empty vessels to deliver a lecture on climate change. Indeed had they been more believable maybe I would have felt less lectured to?

This is not to dismiss the predictions, ideas or some of the comments made in the book. I liked (if that’s the right word) the vision of the future where people had to hand pollinate fruit trees because bees are extinct – the evidence for harm to bee populations is evident even now; I liked the cutting down of a forest to build a wind farm; and I loved the satirical and cutting dig at emissions trading schemes. I even liked some of the proposals for the solution – as espoused in the book by Jonas. But. As a novel it didn’t really work for me.

Even great writers are allowed the occasional dud, and this for me is one of Gaarder’s. A shame as I have a friend whose birthday it is on 12th December, and had this been better this would have a been a great gift.

Review copy supplied by Orion/Netgalley

Booker Prize 2015: Marilynne Robinson – Lila

“She did wonder why dust fell so evenly, more like rain than like snow, since the wind pushed snow into drifts.

I was pleased when I saw Marilynne Robinson’s name appear on this year’s Booker long-list. I was also slightly embarrassed as I have had Lila sat on my book shelf for 6 months without getting around to it. This was odd because her two previous novels, which also take place in the Iowa town of Gilead – Gilead and Home – had been books which I loved: Indeed, Gilead is one of the finest novels of the last 25 years in my opinion (and one in which we first met  – if only in passing – Lila “I mean only respect when I say that your mother has always struck me as someone with whom the Lord might have chosen to spend some part of His mortal time.”)

The eponymous heroine of the latest book, Lila steps into the Gilead church one day to get out of the rain, and immediately find herself fascinated by its preacher, the reverend John Ames. He meanwhile is immediately smitten. She has come a long way. Abandoned as a young child; rescued/stolen by a woman named Doll (“Stealing a child, when Doll had come to her like an angel in the wilderness“). She is flighty and doesn’t really trust anyone.  Her whole life she has been running from her beginnings, living hand to mouth and drifting from place to place with Doll  and a rag-tag of other drifters as her  only family and protectors. It is Doll who gives her her name –  hoping that a pretty name will make her a pretty woman.

The book moves back and forth between this past life and her meeting and growing relationship with Ames. It is a sweet courtship, and one that might feel twee or corny in less skilled hands. She plants flowers on his dead wife’s grave and suddenly there is a marriage proposal: “The roses are beautiful. On the grave. It’s very kind of you to do that.” She shrugged. “I like roses.” “Yes, but I wish there were some way I could repay you.” She heard herself say, “You ought to marry me.” He stopped still, and she hurried away, to the other side of the road, the flush of shame and anger so hot in her that this time surely she could not go on living. When he caught up with her, when he touched her sleeve, she could not look at him. “Yes,” he said, “you’re right. I will.”

Life the previous novels in the series it is a beautifully written and moving narrative. Once again it is hard not to warm to Ames and his thoughtful religiousness – there is a lot religion going on, plenty of quoted scripture – not totally surprising when one of the central characters is a preacher perhaps. And this might not be to some people’s taste, but it is who these people are, and whilst it is clear across the books that Robinson herself is religious, and some have accused her books of preaching I (as a firm non-believer) disagree as there is thoughtfulness and questioning never far from the surface: “And then she thought, Praying looks just like grief. Like shame. Like regret.” Also, it is a nice touch how when Lila shows some interest in the Bible that Ames suggests she read something like St Matthew, but she is drawn to the darker, more conflicted tales of Job and Ezekiel. The latter perhaps is no surprise as she can identify with a child cast out and saved by a stranger, something she feels parallels her own life.

But this is a love story. A love story between two characters who seem to have spent much of their life searching for something – answers, hope, salvation; and in a way both are looking not for themselves but for others: Lila’s interest in religion and the Bible seems to stem more from a fear that  her ‘family’ in her past life will be undeserving of salvation and getting into heaven, than about worries for herself. There is part of her that feels that she doesn’t deserve to be loved and to be happy. But she feels that despite reservations and fears that Ames is a kindred spirit “he was beautiful for an old man. She did enjoy the sight of him. He looked as if he’d had his share of loneliness, and that was all right. It was one thing she understood about him.”

I finished Lila wanting to read Gilead again. I suspect that in turn may want to make me re-read Lila again. This is not to say that Lila fails to stands alone as a self contained piece of fiction, it most certainly does,  but is also  enhanced if you have read Gilead and (to a lesser degree) Home. Is it a Booker winner? I wouldn’t be disappointed if it was, and certainly wouldn’t be disappointed to see it on the short list.

BAAF goes bust

Just seen the sad news that the British Association for Adoption & Fostering (BAAF) has gone into administration, as of 31 July.

The Chair and Trustees of BAAF have had to take immediate action to ensure that some of BAAF’s services helping vulnerable children, their families and those supporting them can continue.

In the face of significant changes and prevailing economic conditions, it has sadly not been possible to sustain the organisation and BAAF closes on July 31 2015.

To secure the future we made an approach to children’s charity Coram and agreed a way forward which will see the transfer of some of BAAF’s functions in England to the Coram Group and to a new and independent entity, CoramBAAF Adoption & Fostering Academy.

CoramBAAF will continue to operate as an independent membership organisation for agencies and individuals in the UK, and the following functions will continue to be provided by CoramBAAF: research, policy and development; membership; professional advice and professional development ; publications; the National Adoption Register for England, the Independent Review Mechanism (England); National Adoption Week, and the Adoption Activity Days.

The Scottish Government has transferred the work of Scotland’s Adoption Register and funded a national adopter information helpline for Scotland to St Andrew’s Children’s Society today. BAAF Northern Ireland and BAAF Wales will continue to trade on a limited basis for a brief period to allow consideration of options to transfer some services and staff to an alternative provider.

This has been a difficult decision for the Board. We appreciate that this is a very challenging time for our dedicated staff and are committed to giving them as much support as is possible during this period.

We would like to thank all our donors, members and partners who, for over 30 years have enabled BAAF to provide services of the highest quality and make a difference to the lives of vulnerable children in care.Your support and involvement will remain crucial as the transition to Coram enables BAAF’s legacy to be taken forward and its core charitable purpose and impact on children’s lives to continue.

For information on the continuation of BAAF services please download a copy of Transferral of BAAF services – who to contact (PDF 40KB)

Even sadder is that many staff say the press release’s claim  to be ‘committed to giving them as much support as is possible’ has so far fell well short of the mark.

It is also interesting that they seem to have been, well taken over, by Coram ( another children’s charity and adoption agency) and a new and independent entity, CoramBAAF Adoption & Fostering Academy has been set up. Coram, started life as the Foundling Hospital in the 1700s after philanthropic sea captain Thomas Coram decided there needed to be somewhere for the homeless and orphaned children of London,  before eventually becoming the Thomas Coram Foundation. Some people will probably question if it as a voluntary adoption agency should now be in charge of the National Adoption Register and The ‘Independent’ Review Mechanism.

Questions also need to be asked of those in charge of BAAF.Anthony Douglas and the board of trustees need to explain why they we so quiet about what was going on: How did things get to this point and why?