Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: Carnival by Rawi Hage

Rawi Hage's new novel Carnival is the excellently written story of a taxi driver, Fly, as he negotiates relationships with his friends, neighbours and passengers. They are generally representatives of the under-belly of society and Fly is the philosophical leveler when situations get dicey. Set during carnival time in an unspecified city the characters are fairground people, transvestites, criminals, alcoholics, prostitutes, drug addicts and 'spiders', those drivers who sit in their taxis waiting for fares.  

Born into a travelling circus, Fly is no ordinary character. Brought up by the bearded woman, he owns a flying carpet in an apartment which is filled floor to ceiling with books, categorised by his own unique system. Fly often gets drawn into sticky situations but always seems to deal with them in his own philosophical way He is an odd but admirable character and his trustworthy qualities are spotted by his passengers who strike up often more than just a driver/customer relationship with him.  

The stories of the various characters we meet are all woven around Fly's taxi journeys and returns to either his flat or the café where all the drivers eat. This premise is surprisingly effective and Hage deals sympathetically with this lower level of society whilst retaining an edge to his writing. I first encountered Hage whilst reading the IMPAC prize shortlisted books, which he consequently won with his first novel De Niro's Game. An instant fan, this is an equally rewarding read but with more depth and development of character plus a wide variety of reader emotion. Rawi Hage can definitely be considered an author to follow with great interest.

Carnival by Rawi Hage is published by Penguin Books

Review: Black Milk: On Motherhood and Writing by Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is claimed by Orhan Pamak to be 'the best author to come out of Turkey in the last decade.' Her most recent novel Honour, reviewed on this blog last April, was my introduction to her writing and I must say that I became an instant fan ( Black Milk: On Motherhood and Writing was first published in 2007 in Turkish and the English translation version was published in August. It makes compelling reading and is exactly what it says it is- a consideration of how motherhood affects the writer, not just Shafak but other women writers through literary history.

The resume reads:
     "Postpartum depression affects millions of new mothers every year, and - like most of its victims -         Elif Shafak never expected to be one of them. But after her first child in 2006, the internationally           bestselling Turkish author remembers how, 'for the first time in my adult life ... words wouldn't             speak to me'.

     As her despair finally eased, she sought to resuscitate her writing life by chronicling her own                experiences.

     In her intimate memoir, she reveals how she struggled to overcome her depression and how                    literature provided the salvation she so desperately needed."

Shafak's recognition that we are all made up of a combination of characters is illustrated by the conversations she has with her four finger-women; Miss Highbrowed Cynic, Little Miss Practical, Milady Ambitious Chekhovian and Dame Dervish. As she comes to terms with her womanhood and her maternal side two new finger-women whom she has kept in check, Mama Rice Pudding and Blue Belle Bovary, surface to challenge her in relation to her own self-identity. Her finger-women struggle in the art of coexistence and it is for Shafak to learn how to manage them.

Although a potentially 'heavy' subject, Shafak's book is not heavy reading, but rather compelling and thoughtful, drawing the reader in with the interesting research on relation to other women authors experiences and her own journey into marriage and motherhood.

Black Milk: On Motherhood and Writing by Elif Shafak is published by Penguin 

Review: Fred and Alice at Bewley's Café Theatre

With Bewley's upstairs Café Theatre filling on a warm Saturday lunchtime to the background music of  sixties soul and the smooth groove of Billy Paul singing Me and Mrs Jones all the right pointers were set for us to enjoy CallBack Theatre's production of Fred and Alice; Love in the Time of OCD. Callback Theatre was co-founded in 2001 by Cora Fenton who plays the role of Alice and John Sheehy who wrote and directed it. Fred is played by Ciaran Bermingham.


As the soups were finished the chatter stopped as the curtains were pulled and the lights dimmed. Fred bundles onto the stage- plump and awkward limbed, wiggling his fingers and with a stilted monotone voice starts reciting facts about music showing the characters' love of lists. Alice comes on in pigtails wearing a 50s style blouse and skirt, docs and ankle socks, looking a bit like Olive Oyl and all the more disturbing as she is not a young woman. She almost has the look of a girl string puppet about her.

Alice's father died in childbirth (!) and was brought up by her mother alone, never attending school. Going into care sometimes to 'give her mother a break' this is where she meets Fred. The characters perform various aspects of their disorders/skills- Alice has the ability to instantly state the number of letters in a phrase. But the play has its darker moments- Fred and Alice are aware of their own madness and this is the sadder element.

It is a tight fast-paced script which in no way ridicules the characters' conditions but rather shows another story behind those we may categorise as 'special needs' or label in some other way. There is some very creative use of minimal props and music in this both sad and comic play. As an aside, Fred's list skills reminded me of some of the interminable lists in Joyce's Ulysses - genius or OCD?!

Fred and Alice; Love in the Time of OCD runs at Bewley's Café Theatre until Saturday October 12th, Monday-Saturday at 1.10pm.
Booking 086-8784001

The play will also tour in 2014- over seven weeks to venues and festivals in Ireland and abroad including the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Royal Society Winton Prize for Science 2013- Shortlist

The Royal Society has announced the shortlist for its 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. The shortlisted books are accessible, interesting and compelling accounts about us and the world around us.
The winning book will be announced at a public event on 25 November 2013. The winning author will receive £25,000, while shortlisted authors receive £2,500.
  • Book:Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be a Bird
  • Book:The Particle at the End of the Universe
  • Book:Cells to Civilizations
  • Book:Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory
  • Book:The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary
  • Book:Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea
Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead (Bloomsbury)
A wonderful glimpse into an alien world. Imagine how birds hear, taste and feel.”
The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll (Oneworld Publications)
Fizzing with enthusiasm. Makes you realize what the fuss with the Higgs Boson is all about.” 
Cells to Civilizations: The Principles of Change that Shape Life by Enrico Coen (Princeton University Press)
Daring and ambitious. Succeeds in making transparent the mechanisms of evolution and development.”
Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory by Charles Fernyhough (Profile Books)
Illuminating. This book is not only about how memory works but what memory means to us.”
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson (Granta)
This is a treasure. Encapsulates the pure wonder of discovery and the strangeness of the world around us.” 
Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts (Allen Lane)
A celebration and a wake-up call. The changing state of our oceans has never been made clearer.”

The judging panel:
  • Jon Culshaw, Impressionist and comedian
  • Dr Emily Flashman, Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow, Department of Chemistry, University of Oxford
  • Professor Uta Frith DBE FBA FRS, Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development, University College London
  • Joanne Harris, Novelist and author of Chocolat
  • Lucy Siegle, Journalist and writer on environmental issues

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Review: Mutton by India Knight

'Laugh-out-loud funny' is bandied around in book reviews about a lot of not-so-funny books. In India Knight's case it is the absolute truth. Giggling throatily on the train, in bed and on the sofa as I raced through Mutton in two days I have finished the book thinking that she may be one of the people you list as 'celeb you would most like to have dinner with.'

India Knight's writing is pacy but full of feeling. Her journalism lends itself to the no-nonsense style of story telling whilst her philosophical asides are real thoughts on subjects that go through everyone's minds as concepts are considered.

There is no getting away from the fact that this book is going to appeal to 'women-of-a-certain-age', that age being mid-40s+teenage kids+clothing crisis+am I really old? At a certain age everything becomes a question; is this dress too young for me? vs is this dress going to make me look old and frumpy?, should I try to maintain a youthful image vs should I accept the inevitability of ageing and just try to age gracefully and the pitfalls surrounding mature dating. The list is endless and the teenagers won't be backward at coming forward if you get any of these decisions wrong. The heroine of India Knight's book is Clara; forty-six, feeling to be in her prime, divorced with three kids with a happy supportive family. That is until her old school friend moves in, returned from ten years in LA with an LA yoga body, LA food philosophy (don't eat basically) and in complete denial that she is nearly fifty. Extolling the virtues of the nip and tuck along with the botox and all that goes with it, Clara starts to question her satisfied existence which is not helped by her son's seventeen year old girlfriend wafting around the house radiating youth and firmness.

With a wilting faded rose attached to the collar of the book jacket cover picture of Clara and the statement "Age before beauty. Maybe." this book brings up every question about ageing gracefully, addressing the whole subject with humour, candour and ultimately a big dollop of warmth that will make this one of those books you'll be telling all those 'women-of -a-certain-age' that they will just have to read.

Mutton by India Knight is published  by Fig Tree/Penguin

Thursday, September 19, 2013

FRED & ALICE; Love in the time of OCD

I love Bewley's Cafe Theatre. There's always something thrilling about the way the curtain is pulled across the window overlooking Grafton Street and as the rest of the shoppers and office workers on their lunch hour carry on with their day you are transported to another place through the story told on the small stage. There's also something special about the way you are gathered casually around tables often sharing with a second or third stranger, soup and brown bread is eaten, the play lasts between 45 minutes and an hour and then "hey presto", you are back on Grafton Street joining the crowds again who are oblivious to your lunchtime experience.

Cora Fenton has been in touch recently to promote her soon to be performed show at Bewley's Cafe Theatre. Showing from Monday 23rd September through to Saturday 12th October at 1pm, tickets priced between €10 and €12 can be booked on or at 086 878 4001.