16 August 2016

We Die Alone by David Howarth, UK, 1955

This amazing true story tells how, in March 1943, Jan Baalsrud, a Norwegian expatriate resistance fighter, sails from the Shetland Islands to the northern coast of Norway with three other Norwegians and the crew of the small fishing boat. The idea is to help train Norwegians within the resistance movement; however, after making landfall above the Arctic circle, plans go horribly wrong, and Jan is forced to flee across the inhospitable winter wasteland of northern Norway. With Nazi soldiers pursuing him and not knowing whom he is able to trust, Jan has no choice but to push on.

Wounded, without proper clothing and with very little food, he survives almost six weeks in conditions that would have seen the death of most people after only a few days. Freezing temperatures, blizzards, avalanches, snow blindness, frostbite, gangrene were only some of the hurdles that Baalsrud encounters as he desperately tries to take himself across occupied Norway into neutral Sweden.

That he succeeds is dependent to a great extent on his own strength of character but it is also thanks to the many people who help him. These people offer their help even though they are fully aware that discovery will most surely result in a death sentence for both themselves and their families. We Die Alone is a wonderful example of courage against formidable odds but also a celebration of ordinary people's charity and self sacrifice.

Although this is not a novel of great literary merit, We Die Alone is definitely worth reading for the suspense and the descriptions of bravery and resilience that go far beyond what we believe could be possible.

 Photo of Jan Baalsrud from

01 August 2016

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet by Colleen McCullough, Australia, 2008

I am not a fan of anyone taking characters from another author's book – in this case one of the classics – and writing a so-called sequel to that book. I can imagine that Jane Austen turned in her grave when this book hit the shelves: the writing is mediocre, the characterization is extremely poor and the plot is both superficial and unbelievable, to say the least. However, for anyone with hours to whittle away and a penchant for third-class romantic novels that follow the Mills and Boon requisite for a happy ending, this book may possibly tick all the boxes.

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet picks up twenty years after the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice, focusing on the middle daughter, Mary, who has undergone some kind of transformation and, after being the plain one in the family, is now considered beautiful, possibly even more beautiful than Elizabeth. Mrs Bennet dies on page two, leaving Mary (her carer) the option of moving in with her sister Elizabeth, and becoming a live-in spinster aunt, or pursuing the possibility of independence (a no-no for young ladies of the early nineteenth century). Of course, in keeping with the title of the book, Mary chooses the second of these two options. As an unaccompanied lady, she endures a hair-raising trip across England and ends up being imprisoned by a religious maniac.
Photo of Colleen McCullough from
While we are following the trials and tribulations of Mary, we are also reintroduced to the other characters of Pride and Prejudice – all of them completely at odds with or, at the very least, caricatures of their original incarnations. Fitzwilliam Darcy is obnoxious, Lydia is a drunk, Elizabeth is frigid, Jane seems to be completely without backbone… add to this a number of senseless murders, a surprise sibling, thousands of pounds worth of hidden gold and fifty uncivilized orphans, and the scene is set for one of the worst novels I have read this year.

I am not recommending this book, but I do suggest you read (or reread) Pride and Prejudice and enjoy a well written and well crafted novel.

15 July 2016

The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett, UK, 1989

At ninety-two very small pages, this is a 'book' that can easily be read in an hour or so. Bennett, a playwright, wrote The Lady in the Van from a collection of diary entries he made over a fifteen year period. It is non-fiction and tells about eccentric, elderly Miss Shepherd, who parked herself and her van in Bennett's London driveway; both stayed there for fifteen years until she was eventually removed by the undertaker and the van was towed off to a fate unknown.

 Bennett retains the diary-entry format, with many, possibly not so interesting, entries obviously removed. What remains tells the story of the strange relationship that developed between Miss Shepherd and Bennett, and we are given small glimpses of who Miss Shepherd might have been in her pre-van days and why her life mayt have spiralled so miserably out of control. There is sadness, but there is also a lot of humour, and as we turn the pages we become more and more aware of the bond between these two vastly different people.

Photo of Alan Bennett from

Miss Shepherd obviously had an enormous effect on Bennett. Not only did Bennett turn a selection of his diary entries into a small book, he also, in 1999, wrote a play (also entitled “The Lady in the Van”) for which he was nominated for a number of prizes. In 2015, the play, under the supervision of Bennett, was turned into a film with Maggie Smith in the title roll.
A thought-provoking look at those relationships that we do not choose but that choose us.

Image from the film from 

05 July 2016

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, USA, 2009

Verghese says about his book: “My ambition as a writer was to tell a great story, an old-fashioned, truth-telling story. But beyond that, my single goal was to portray an aspect of medicine that gets buried in the way television depicts the practice: I wanted the reader to see how entering medicine was a passionate quest, a romantic pursuit, a spiritual calling, a privileged yet hazardous undertaking”.

Cutting for Stone is an ambitious work about a small, intimate group of people living and working at a hospital called Missing in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Although only two of them are biologically connected, and the group is racially divergent (Ethiopians, Indians, Eritreans and British Indians), these people constitute what could be called a family, and the novel traces their lives from the 1940s through to the early 2000s.

The title can refer to a phrase taken from the Hippocratic Oath: "I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art… " a phrase which refers to the travelling stone cutters of earlier centuries who cut out kidney and bladder stones, using unsanitary tools; it can also refer to the two sons of the story, cutting for their father, Thomas Stone.

At the centre of the novel are Marion and Shiva Stone, the twin sons of a British surgeon and an Indian nun working at Missing hospital. Fate decrees, however, that the boys should be brought up by others (also doctors at the hospital), and it is not surprising that both boys choose medical careers. Much of the story is played out against a background of political unrest in Ethiopia, an unrest that eventually sees the twenty-five-year-old Marion move to USA. Marion grows up hating the father who abandoned him as a baby, and after an unfortunate episode when he is in his teens he also bears a grudge against the brother who he actually loves more than anyone else in the world. While he is in USA, circumstances force him to come to terms with both his hate and his grudge.

Abraham Verghese is a Professor of Medicine at Stanford, USA, and he is, therefore, qualified to write about ailments, operations and everything medical. I found the amount of medical jargon and reference to medical procedures – especially in the beginning of the novel – to be a little overwhelming, but as the book proceeds the medical aspects of the story become so integrated with the characters that the novel would probably seem lopsided without them. This is, after all, a story about doctors.

Even though the novel is basically fiction, it was interesting reading about Ethiopia, particularly from the point of view of health care, and, later in the book, it was equally interesting to look at the two-tiered approach to health care in USA and the gulf between well-equipped university hospitals and hospitals set up to care for poorer patients.

The story, though interesting, is not of the page-turning variety (not until the final thirty pages of its five hundred and thirty-four pages), and, at times, I found it slightly tedious. Certain episodes lack credibility: for example, the promiscuous activities and thoughts of thirteen-year-old children and the relationship between the surgeon and the nun, which, although it is at the centre of the novel, remains both surreal and nebulous.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the novel, and I respected what Verghese was trying to do – even more so after reading the following comments of his from an interview:As we’ve gotten very fancy in technology and the incredible detail with which we can see the body, we sometimes lose sight of how much we can see about the body just from examining the patient. The physical exam really allows you to order tests more judiciously and to ask better questions of the test” (...)… We’re all intrinsically prone to allowing technology to take the place of common sense and I think that’s a danger. … The tests have become an easy shortcut. They’re an efficient, quick way to get information. But the great danger I see is this: I think that people fail to really connect with patients when they don’t examine them. I think the carefully done physical is a wonderful way to convey your attentiveness to the patient”.
 Photo of Abraham Verghese from

21 June 2016

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, USA, 2014

This is a beautifully written and extremely thought-provoking book where poetry mixes with technical wonders against the tragic background of war. Set in the 1930s and 1940s in France and Germany, the novel follows two characters: a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, whose father, Daniel, works at the Paris museum as a locksmith, and Werner, a German orphan who, because of his amazing technical ability, wins a place at the National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta. Although Werner is hoping to be able to develop his technical skills and involve himself in maths and science, the Institute is in reality a place where youth are educated to be faithful to the Nazi cause.

Paris is occupied and Marie-Laure and her father flee to Saint-Malo where they find a temporary safe haven with Marie-Laure's great-uncle. Her father is eventually captured, Marie-Laure becomes involved in the resistance, and finally, during the Allied bombing of Saint-Malo, she and Werner meet.

Fairy stories, legends and Jules Verne's wonderful Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea are woven into, and around, the atrocities and the waste of war, while the wonder of technical discovery and life itself, in all its different representations, are pivotal to the novel. In short, it is a story about the doing the right thing when it is difficult to know just what is right and what is wrong.

Photo of Anthony Doerr from
Although comprising more than 500 pages, it is a book that is difficult to put down; each short chapter spurring the reader to find out what happens next. My only comment on the negative side would be that there are some words and expressions, which though completely acceptable in modern-day America, tend to stand out uncomfortably when uttered by a European from the 1940s. Beautiful, sad, thrilling, moving and definitely thought-provoking, it can be possibly summed up in the words of Werner's sister, Jutta: 'Is it right to do something only because everyone else is doing it?'

07 June 2016

The Black Death by Philip Ziegler, UK, 1997

This is an extremely informative text book on the plague that swept through Europe and England in the late 1340s. Ziegler looks at the causes and then traces the spread of the plague across Europe and into England. He examines not only the immediate effects of such a holocaust but also the far-reaching effects on society, politics, religion and education.

Descriptions of plague-infested villages and the horror inflicted upon the inhabitants (most of them sourced from contemporary writings) are interspersed with opinions and contra-opinions, observations, historical facts and statistics. While The Black Death is not a novel, it cannot fail to captivate and educate. For anyone wanting to know more about this period of mediaeval history, this is a definite must read.
Photo of Philip Ziegler from

17 May 2016

Holy Cow by Sarah Macdonald, Australia, 2002

I had a mixed reaction to this book: I really enjoyed the first part, but I found the second part sluggish and slow. The author's attempt to not only give a light-hearted and, at times, horrifying picture of Indian culture and lifestyle but also to give an insight into the many different religious beliefs practised in that country deserves a large amount of praise. Although Holy Cow is written by a non-Indian, many of Sarah Macdonald's observations are the same or similar to observations made by the Indian writers Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance ) and Aravind Adiga (The White Tiger), and are not, as some have complained, the result of an outsider summing up Indian society from the perspective of a more progressive and successful culture. Macdonald's humour is not at the expense of India and its people but is, to a very great degree, the self-deprecating humour of the average Australian.

Sarah, a journalist (who has taken time off from work) is in India with her fiancé who is working as a foreign reporter for the ABC. After the shock of having to absorb a very different culture, a near-death experience with pneumonia and the ongoing loneliness of being separated from her fiancé who spends most of his time on missions outside of India, she begins to investigate India's religious heritage.

Initially, these investigations are simply part of the story she is telling, and information about different religions creeps in as part of something else she is relating; the integrity of the actual story is retained. Halfway through the book, Sarah and her fiancé briefly return to Australia where they are married. Back in New Delhi Sarah takes the conscious step of following up all religions in India, and from this point the novel moves into the realm of the documentary.

Like India itself with its millions of people, impressions, smells and experiences, the information about the various religions is psychedelic with so much happening that it is, at times, difficult to hold on to any kind of central thread. Many incidental people are introduced – some disappear after a few pages, others re-emerge pages further on by which time the connections between that particular person and the story are forgotten. I found that I kept checking to see how many pages I had left to read; I was thrown between genuine interest and definite boredom.

In spite of my disappointment with the second part of the book, I could imagine rereading it, mainly as a general introduction to India's many religions. Reading it from such a perspective could, I feel, be a rewarding experience for most people.

Photo of Sarah Macdonald from