October 2019 | Books & Links

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Cancer Ward – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

I half read Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago when I was doing my MSc ten years ago. My MSc and PhD were both area based environmental social science, and so I spent a lot of time reading non-fiction about the Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe. I didn’t finish it because I had so many other books and journal articles to read for my studies and because post-grad library loans were six months at a time. Without time pressure to finish it, I ended up returning it unfinished when I graduated. Shorter library loans work better for me as the ticking clock keeps me reading. It’s on my list of books I’d like to revisit and I think the public library has a copy somewhere in the stacks, too.

Whilst I was at the library in early October I found Cancer Ward on the shelf and added it to my pile of books to check out. Cancer Ward is a hefty volume at nearly 600 pages and requires that the reader knows a little about the historical period in question. The translation to English is excellent, providing cultural, historical and linguistic notes alongside the translation from Russian to English, which really helps for a novel which is so deeply embedded in time and place.

Set two years after the death of Stalin and at the beginning of the Krushchev Thaw, the events in Cancer Ward take place over a few months in early 1955 in a dilapidated cancer clinic in Soviet Central Asia. The novel follows the lives of the patients and the doctors and nurses at the clinic, carefully revealing their stories and how their lives were shaped by Stalinism. From the protagonist Oleg Kostoglotov, a semi-autobiographical character for Solzhenitsyn, who has just recently been released from a prison camp and sent into exile on the steppe, to Pavel Rusanov, a Communist Party official and someone who has benefited immensely from the system and is terrified of the repercussions of the thaw, Cancer Ward is both a story of suffering and life in the Soviet Union, and a commentary and critique of the impact of Stalinism and Communism on Russian society. There are sections in the middle where I felt the pace slowed too much as characters have long heart to hearts, discussing philosophy from their death beds, but the ending is perfect.

Although the subject matter is heavy, I really enjoyed Cancer Ward. The writing is tight, the character development is strong and I felt it provides a very human look at the impact of the Soviet system and Stalinism in particular on civil society. Definitely one to read if you’re interested in 20th century history or the history of Russia and the Soviet Union.

The Dutch House – Ann Patchett

I heard about this one from the Guardian’s books podcast and added it to my list, thinking it sounded like an interesting novel. I read a lot but it’s rare for me to find a book that I lose all sense of time reading. The Dutch House is one of those books for me as I read it in just two nights.

I don’t want to give too much away, so very briefly the story is narrated by Danny at various stages of his life beginning with his childhood in ‘The Dutch House’, an elaborately decorated 1920s mansion in the countryside outside Philadelphia. Danny’s relationship with his older sister Maeve and their memories of the house and family form the backbone of the novel, with the house becoming not just a location for the plot to unfold, but a character in its own right.

The Dutch House was my first novel by Ann Patchett, but I’ll be exploring more of her work in the future as I enjoyed The Dutch House so much. Unfortunately, the copy I read (Bloomsbury hardback) hadn’t been proofed very well. It was full of broken sentences where the author or an editor had changed a sentence but not deleted the original, or words were in the wrong order. This was a bit distracting and a bit disappointing too, given how expensive a hardback copy of a book is these days.


James Rhodes – Fire on All Sides

I read Instrumental by James Rhodes in August and really enjoyed it. ‘Enjoy’ is the wrong word, because interwoven with his impressive story of becoming a concert pianist in his early 30s is the detailed, harrowing account of the years of rape and abuse he suffered at primary school. It’s raw, honest and brutally blunt though, and I’m so glad he was able to write it, allowed to publish it, and that I read it. Fire on All Sides came out early last year and is a tour diary, of sorts. James wrote Fire on All Sides between tour dates in Spain, Germany and Austria in the autumn of 2016, and it’s an account of what it’s like for him to prepare for and play a concert, the impact of anxiety and trauma on his everyday life, and his thoughts on the pieces he plays in concert each night as well as the composers who wrote them.

There were so many moments where I laughed out loud, which is something I wasn’t expecting given the subject matter, but he writes really well and is incredibly funny even when writing about anxiety, OCD, extreme self-doubt and imposter syndrome. His passion for classical music and his thoughts on and interpretations of each of the pieces he played on that tour are also really interesting (if you’re a classical music nerd, which I am).

Not a light read, but I’m glad I picked it up and I will read anything else he puts out, should he decide to write another book.

The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd

I really loved this one. The Living Mountain was written during the 1940s and it is a love letter to the Cairngorms. It’s really quite amazing to think that Nan (Anna) was walking the Cairngorms solo in the 1930s and 1940s as back then life was much more restrictive for women. For me this makes her walks, her writing and her career as an academic all the more inspiring.

In The Living Mountain Nan describes walking in the mountains under wartime blackout, the different shades of green of mountain lakes, the joy of falling asleep on a mountain, and what it feels like to walk barefoot through heather and moss. There’s no arrogance in The Living Mountain, which is something I really appreciated as it’s quite rare to find someone who loves and respects the mountains and an outdoor life without ego and the desire to conquer each peak.

I visited the Cairngorms when I was fourteen and went on a school trip to Scotland. It was an outdoors adventure trip where we camped for a week and went hiking, but I was too young to appreciate the landscape. I’d love to go back sometime soon and do some more walking in the area.

Articles & Links

A photo essay in The Guardian about the everyday life of nuns. The photos are really good and it was interesting to catch a glimpse of what their life is like. It turns out it’s not all austere faith and self-denial, as I had initially thought.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello) and his sister Isata Kanneh-Mason (piano) playing Rachmaninov’s ‘Elégie’.

Hauschka – Who Will Hold Me (2013)

A series of photographs from the 1960s showing the English way of life at the time. I find this collection fascinating. My parents came of age in the mid 60s so it’s interesting to see their generation and what life looked like then. I love looking at old photos, both family photos and photos of strangers.

An interview with Polish author Olga Tokarczuk about her novels. She also discusses growing up in Poland under Communism and identity and belonging. I have Flights and Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead on my reading list and can’t wait to get my hands on them.

Discovered via Kottke, a video about the Norwegian town of Longyearbyen. In Longyearbyen, the largest settlement on Svalbard, burials aren’t permitted as the permafrost prevents deep burial. There are also worries that the melting of the permafrost could cause diseases captured in its layers to be released. This is a really interesting video, although I didn’t like the narration. The interviews are great though.

Hive, an online initiative to support independent booksellers in the UK. Reasons to use Hive: They pay their taxes, and they redistribute a percentage of their profits back to the independent booksellers in the partnership.

About bread. I found this really interesting as I make sourdough quite often. I’ve been using supermarket flour to make it as it’s easy to find in the city, but I’m curious to try some less refined flour to see if there’s a difference in flavour.

An article about air conditioning and climate change.


Badgerlands – Patrick Barkham

I picked up Badgerlands whilst waiting for a librarian to find my reservation for me, as it sounded like something I’d be interested in. In fact, I was, up until page 255 when I threw the book down in disgust. Badgerlands is a book about badgers and our relationship with them in Britain. There are some really interesting sections, and I found the author’s discussion of Bovine TB and the badger cull interesting and balanced. I’m against the cull, but I was willing to explore different sides of the debate. So, discussions with individuals who were pro-cull didn’t bother me. What bothered me was on page 255 when the author confesses to the reader that he wanted to eat badger in order to fully explore our relationship with the animal. At that point I lost my trust in him as a writer, as a journalist, and as someone who claims to be interested in Britain’s wild animals. To me, there’s no difference between eating a cow, eating a chicken or eating a badger as I view all animals as equal in value to one another and to humans. As such, it wasn’t because I think badgers are ‘cute and cuddly’ that I objected to this confession, but rather because of how unnecessary it is to further his investigation of badgers. It just came across like he was pursuing the project in order to collect a quirky experience to share as an anecdote down the pub rather than to truly understand badgers, and so I put the book down and picked up something else. I’ve no time for people who just want to be edgy and controversial for the sake of it. By all means spend time talking to people who hunt and shoot badgers, people who are pro-cull and people who think that they are vermin in order to understand diverse attitudes to badgers, but what does an ‘eat and tell’ actually add to the discussion?

Japanese Ghost Stories – Lafcadio Hearn

I found this collection a bit repetitive and so I didn’t finish it. There are some good stories for example ‘The Dream of a Summer Day’ but I felt that many of the stories were of a theme: a beautiful young woman is let down down, divorced or hurt by a handsome (or wealthy) young man, she dies of grief or poverty and then haunts him. It’s worth dipping in and out of, but it’s not my favourite collection of short stories and I was hoping for a bit more variety.