READING FOR OCTOBER - The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut

 THE GOOD DOCTOR by Damon Galgut

You know there will be no happy ending when the opening line is 'The first time I saw him I thought, he won't last.' The first two pages are full of words like -  tall, thin, dusty, empty, frail, wilting, burden of leaves, ragged trees, basic standard issue, ugly, austere -  and the best one of all which sums up the whole mood of the book - bleak. What a writer this man is. From beginning to end the reader is taken on slowly unwinding spool of inevitable tragedy. Danger and a sense of foreboding is all around, as is the disintegration of the physical surroundings and the people themselves.

In the confusion of post-Apartheid South Africa, Dr Frank Eloff is a white doctor who has been working for seven years in a hospital in a remote rural outpost. The town was once the 'capital' of one of the many homelands set up by the apartheid government for self rule by the local tribal groups. There was a president, a flag, a parliament, statues of venerable leaders, in this case the Dictator, in the town square - all the trappings but none of the clout. Now there are no longer the trappings, with empty buildings and bits of statues strewn around the desolate country side. What rules now is violence, suspicion and despondency.

The hospital has gradually been allowed to become more rundown and neglected, staff who leave not being replaced, equipment and fittings slowly disappearing and not being replaced. The black doctor in charge does not want to be there but is powerless to move. Frank no longer really cares, and has come to see the hospital as his refuge from a messed up personal life. Into all this one day walks young recently graduated doctor Laurence Waters, who is on a one year's compulsory community medical practice stint. Being young, idealistic and energetic he wants to make a difference and so has chosen this particular derelict rundown operation to leave his mark.

His arrival, quite simply, upsets the proverbial apple cart. He has ideas, plans, wants to explore, asks too many questions, wants to put things right and in the process upsets the delicate balance between the various groups within the local community. The opposing personalities of Frank and Laurence are at the core of the novel, much like the new South Africa - the old being supplanted by the new. Being the only white men on site, (there is also a doctor husband and wife team from Cuba),  Frank is forced to share his room with him. As a result, both unintentionally and deliberately,  they constantly irritate each other and this becomes the undoing of both of them.

Damon Galgut is South African and grew up during the turbulent and dark times of the 1960s and 1970s, coming to adult hood in the early 1980s. This was his first novel and made such an immediate impression it was short listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2003. He pulls no punches with what he thinks of the current state of his country of birth, and what it has become. He also appears to have little hope for the future of the country.

But the book does end on a hopeful note, with Frank finally having achieved his goal of being head of the hospital and the many challenges that brings. There is a sense of hope and contentment in Frank's world, although maybe after seven years he has become so part of the local community he works in that he can't actually see a way out.


A little book of 129 pages, with the most perfect writing. Seven chapters with deceptively simple titles such as 'Babies', 'Traitors', 'Last Day' that capture so poignantly and sadly the lives of a group of Japanese women, ranging in age from 13 to late forties. Early last century, they journeyed by boat from Japan to San Francisco to marry Japanese men they had never met. Apparently hundreds of Japanese women were such mail order brides to America. The book finishes during World War II with the arrest/internment of all those of Japanese descent into camps for the duration of the war. How does a writer sum all that these women went through in just 129 pages?

The author does not use just one voice, or just one person's story, but brilliantly tells numerous stories at any one time by using the collective 'we'. So the chapter titled 'Babies' which is all of five pages long has a few hundred sentences, each one beginning with the word 'we' describing in just one sentence a different experience of giving birth in this new country. So even though the reader only gets a snap shot of any one woman's life, collectively we learn an enormous amount about the overall life of each woman. It is very very clever, very very effective and hardly surprising that this book has won a number of American writing awards.  

The author, of Japanese descent, herself has based this story on her own family's experiences after the Pearl Harbour bombing.  It is written with such love, tenderness and sense of loss, that the story stays for quite some time after finishing.   This is the shortest review I think I have done, but I don't need to tell you anymore about this book. It can be read in one sitting, and fully deserves to be. Unlike many books I read, I am so glad I bought this one because I get to keep it. 


THE SEALED LETTER by Emma Donoghue

Before she wrote the riveting 'Room', this Irish author wrote 'The Sealed Letter'. And it couldn't be more different from 'Room'. Based on an actual event and real people, this story is about three individuals in Victorian London who, to their peril, find themselves up against the Establishment, fighting for their honour and good names.

Vice-Admiral Harry Codrington is a career navy man from a family with a sterling military pedigree. He is married to the much younger beautiful and enchanting Helen, with whom he has had two young daughters. Recently returned to London from a posting in Malta, both Harry and Helen are not finding the return to the more restrained and proper society of London very easy.  By chance, Helen one day literally runs into her former confidante and companion Miss Emily Faithfull. Fido, as she is known, is an unmarried woman, late twenties, who is a true blue feminist, involved in various causes, as well as being the owner/manager of a successful printing business.

Suddenly Fido finds herself drawn back into the unhappy marriage of Harry and Helen, and the disastrous fall out that results from Helen's adulterous affairs. As befits the mores of the time, there is a huge scandal, and  a high profile court case as Harry petitions to divorce his wife.  As well as producing the usual evidence gathered by a private detective and bizarrely a dress with a suggestive stain on it (this actually happened - move over Bill Clinton), he also tries to discredit Helen by bringing into question the true nature of the friendship between the two women. Back then, if the woman can be proved to be at fault, as well as being tarnished with the label 'divorcee' she also lost all custody, rights to money, marital property, care and any involvement at all with her children - she may as well be dead. No doubt this kept many marriages together.  But for someone like Fido, fiercely committed to the rights of women, dealing with this and the rumours swirling around, all placed her between a rock and a hard place.

The actual trial and the subsequent mind games don't occur till the last third of the book. So the majority of the book is the background to the situation, the setting up of the relationships, the careful manipulations. It is so well done and so well thought out that by the time of the trial, we realise that all three people are as much victims of each other as well as of the society they live in. Who would want to live in Victorian England? The poor had a terrible time - Dickens - but the rich or richer, especially if female, didn't really have a much better time.

Although based on fact and real people, the author seems to have created her own versions of Harry, Helen and Fido. No doubt they bear some resemblance to the real people, but they may also enable her to highlight the hypocrisy of the times, as well as the dangerous path many women trod, whether they were unhappily married mothers or independent unmarried businesswomen. Were you allowed to be either way back then? I'm just glad that I was born one hundred plus years later! 

READING IN OCTOBER - Rangatira by Paula Morris

RANGATIRA by Paula Morris

It has taken some years for Paula Morris to finish her meticulously crafted and told tale of her tupuna's (ancestor's) journey to England in 1863. Her tupuna was Ngati Wai chief Paratene Te Manu. He was a fierce warrior who fought with Hone Heke against other tribes, and fully embraced the arrival of the European with their muskets and other influences. After a time he converted to Christianity, quickly taking on the mores and ways of the European Christians around him. In 1863, now an exemplary convert, along with 13 other chiefs, he made the long and not very pleasant voyage to England. The chief objective of this tour was to meet Queen Victoria, as was fitting for their chiefly status in Maori society. The trip was organised and funded by members of the Wesley Methodist church in New Zealand, three of whom also made the journey. As well as an audience with the Queen, the other aims of the trip were to allow the chiefs to see what a great nation England was in its industrial and economic development and to allow the English themselves to see first hand the high ranking Christianised chiefs from England's furthest outpost. The whole adventure, that started with such high hopes and I would say honorable intentions, fairly quickly descended into disorder, sickness, exploitation, misunderstanding and tragedy. The story is narrated in the first person by Paratene himself, some twenty years later. He is now an old man and has agreed to undertake a number of sittings for a portrait to be completed by the artist Gottfried Lindauer. This is the picture that is the cover for the book, although apparently the original painting was done from a photo. However we won't let that get in the way of a good story! Mr Lindauer is shortly to leave on a long sea voyage himself and this, combined with the long sitting sessions allows Paratene to reflect on his own life changing long sea voyage. The research the author has put into this book is extraordinary, and it shows in the richness of detail and quality of writing. We experience the discomfort and confinement of being in steerage for the sea voyage through the eyes of Paratene, who has never been in such a situation before, and already sees this an omen for how the rest of the tour will turn out. Hardly an appropriate accommodation for a group of chiefs. We also see the squalor, poverty, violence and ugliness of Dickensian London through the wide-open eyes of Paratene, as well as the luxury and grandeur of the higher echelons of English society they find themselves in. Amidst the chaos the tour turns into, Paratene documents the kindness and concern they receive from perfect strangers who see the Maori chiefs for the symbols of conquest they become. Throughout Paratene maintains his dignity and manners, unlike some of the others in the party. This makes him the perfect narrator for such a tale as at all times he tries to see both sides of what is going on around him. At times I did find his objectivity frustrating - I don't think any person of such intelligence and perception could remain so distanced, almost passive by what was going on around him. Nevertheless, as he is narrating his story some twenty years after the event, it is hardly surprising the urgency, emotion and immediacy of the situation has faded over time. Perhaps what I found most interesting about the whole book was how emphatically and righteously the Christian Maori totally embraced everything European and openly rejected their traditional Maori ways, all in the space of one generation. This included things such as European dress, performance of haka, songs and prayers, learning to read, write and speak English. Quite different from today! As the quote from the Bible on page 137 says 'For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?'

SEPTEMBER READING: Various Pets Alive and Dead; Aloft; So Many Books and So Little Time


Despite the title, there are actually very few pets alive or dead in this story, but it does make for a catchy title and a very striking cover design. The one pet that is a regular fixture in this story is a hamster. Not the same hamster mind you, but a number of different hamsters. The hamster, as a pet, in its little cage, being man-handled by children, adults and others, going round and round endlessly and vigorously on its little wheel, is of course a very metaphoric way of looking at the way everyday life goes - "Putting all your heart and skill into running round inside a spinning hamster wheel is fine for a while, if your're making money, but demoralising and exhausting when you're pushing flat out and getting nowhere." How many people spend their lives in exactly this type of situation? This is the central theme of the story. Beginning with the very idealistic, young and energetic Marcus and Doro way back in the 1960s who are looking for a new way to live a meaningful life. With a few others they create a commune in the vicinity of Doncaster, sharing everything, literally, until the commune self implodes some 20 plus years later. It is now 2008. Marcus and Doro have three children who want to have nothing at all to do with the politics or lifestyles of their childhoods. After all if you had spent much of your childhood eating lentils, doing chores and sharing you would want to escape too! Clara is about as far removed from the carefree existence of hippies by becoming a primary school teacher, trying to bring about order and stability to her lower decile students; Serge, a brilliant mathematician supposedly doing a Ph.D at Cambridge has been sucked into the money-go-round vortex of London's financial markets - naturally his parents do not know; and younger sister Oolie-Anna, who has Down's Syndrome,is desperate to claim her own independence and live in her own place on her own terms. Marcus and Doro have never got married. For some reason, one day they decide to get married. And this leads to each member of the family having to come to terms with certain things that happened in the past. Much of the novel focuses on Serge, as his carefully constructed facade gradually comes crashing down, along with the entire financial services industry. Clara's issues focus on keeping her students on the straight and narrow, and taking Oolie Anna's side in her bid for independence. In the middle of all this is Doro, her left wing fighting spirit just as bright as ever as she takes on the local council who wish to build over a much loved and cared for allotment area. This is an easy to read feel good story, a lovely commentary on money not being everything, and much like Justin Cartwright's "Other People's Money" actively ridicules and mocks the big city so-called money makers. Her characters are very, very human, as are the relationships between them. In fact I think this is her greatest strength. In the books of hers I have read, the plot is not always memorable, but the characters drawn with such fondness and care, do stick in the mind. Thoroughly enjoyable.

ALOFT by Chang-Rai Lee

On reading this novel I was constantly reminded of the lyrics from Pink Floyd's 'Learning to Fly' - marvellous words that perfectly capture the magic of flying, aloft from the troubles and cares of life on earth below. And so it is for Jerry Battle, middle aged, middle class, European man of south Italian descent, second generation small business owner with plenty of troubles and cares on his shoulders to keep him awake at night. And yet, until these small simmering problems reach a crisis point, which of course in the made up world of the novel they do, dear old Jerry really has no commitment whatsoever to sorting his problems out. So what are the things going wrong? Firstly and probably the most significant is the tragic death of his Korean/American wife Daisy when his children were young. I would say he never really dealt with his grief properly - his wife was probably manic depressive, and was not an easy person to live with. He remains strangely ambivalent about this monumental tragedy which left him a widower and sole parent to a son and daughter. The second major issue, is that Rita, his long time partner/step mother to his children, whom he met after his wife's death, beautiful, loving and probably the most well-adjusted person in the whole story, has just left him. It doesn't take much to figure out why. Thirdly his dear old father, living in a retirement home, truly hates where he lives, and actually strikes me as being far too with it to be there in the first place. Maybe that is what they do in suburban communities in America - pack all the old people off to retirement homes! Fourthly, the family business that his son Jack now manages, is about to hit the wall. Jerry can see it happening, but is unable to really do anything about it. Lastly his lovely daughter Theresa, strange mixed up sort of young woman, is engaged to the perfect son-in-law Paul, and has dropped the twin bombshell of pregnancy and cancer. Plenty of issues in life to deal with? No wonder he spends as much time as possible in the air. The novel gently unfolds with Jerry battling (ha ha) primarily with himself to sort these people in his life out, and of course in the process find his own self. There is plenty of picking away at the facade that each person has put up to get to the core and so begin the process of rebuilding relationships. It is all very tenderly and, and in some instances hilariously done. The tennis match between Jerry and his old school mate Richard over the lovely Rita, is just brilliantly captured. And so so funny. As is another episode at a family birthday party hosted by Jack and his conspicuous consumption wife Eunice. There are beautifully depicted conversations between Jerry and Theresa - the anguish of a father trying to do right by his troubled daughter, but struggling with expressing it, and the daughter still fighting behind the barriers she has erected over the years. I imagine so typical of many parent/child relationships. The author is of Korean descent and I have also read his previous novel 'A Gesture Life'. One of its themes was the alienation those of other cultures experience in modern day America. I was actually expecting more of this in 'Aloft', particularly in light of Daisy's mental health, her death, and her children's experiences, as 1/4 Korean, along with the Italian from their father, in growing up. It is interesting that Theresa's husband to be is Korean/American himself. But there was very little of this. This really could be any family in any middle class community setting. The author's writing is worthy of a review in itself. For me, the book is way too long. Too much pontificating, procrastinating, and philosophising. And his sentences!!! Long, long, long. One sentence has approximately 130 words, three sets of phrases in brackets, and only five commas. And there are many others like it. These long monologues detracted from the story and I did find them annoying! However as a study of a family evolving, being challenged and coming out the other side, it is really well done and quite moving.


How luxurious and set yourself the challenge of reading 52 books a year and then write about it. What makes the journey? The selection and reading of the books; the challenges along the way that either slow down or prevent progress; or the writing about it all; or even what to do once the year is complete? Here we have a woman who could be described as dangerously obsessive and quite simply mad about reading. I have no idea at all how someone like this woman who, at the time of her undertaking this feat, was a senior editor at Glamour magazine, and a columnist for the New York Post, and other bits and pieces on the side. Plus she is married with a young child. Where on earth did she find time to fit all that in!!! At precisely half way through her memoir she has a bit of meltdown - not a surprise - and at another point in the book does mention that she is feeling somewhat isolated and distanced from the world around her. Day to day stuff such as what's on at the movies, the gossip and chit chat about popular TV programmes. She has nothing to contribute because she spends all her time reading, and I mean all her time!

I love reading, it is my favourite past time. I have over a hundred unread books quietly waiting for me to pick them up. I don't read for a living but I would like to. Even so, I would still need a break from time to time. The glaring thing that jumps out to me in this book is that this woman never has a break from reading or anything else for that matter! Her work, her family life, her reading - it seems she never stops, even waking in the night and reading till all hours. A little crazy, obsessive perhaps?

But anyway - the reading itself. She has very wide ranging tastes, interests and reasons for choosing books to read. She is very curious and open to all different types of books and authors. It would take too long to make mention of what she read and wrote about - part of the fun of this book is the surprise factor! Of the books she has read that I have too - not a great many - she thinks deeply and writes well. I can only assume she has done the same with the rest that I haven't read! I very much enjoyed her views and analysis of the love of reading and why people become so addicted to it - in other words I could relate.

Did she manage to read 52 books? According to her epilogue she read more, but that also seems to count those she dipped into or skimmed through. What is interesting and to which she alludes to regularly is that she didn't read what she intended to read, and found that the book was choosing her rather than her choosing the book. The books seem to mirror what is going on in her life at the time, and in her writing she is able to intertwine the two. It would appear she doesn't have as much control over her life as she would like, but she accepts the slightly chaotic existence she lives in and invites the reader in.

Despite her seriously high intellect, her high powered publishing career, the sheer busyness of her life, she seems to be a very down to earth, normal sort of woman trying to keep her career going, her child and husband happy, and like many of us, finding a spare half hour to sit down with a cuppa and a book. How can we not relate?

I enjoyed this very much. It is light, fun, interesting, insightful and stimulating. Each chapter is pretty much self contained so great for dipping in and out of. My list of 'To Read' has grown somewhat...sigh.