“The Waterproof Bible” by Andrew Kaufman (2009)

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The Waterproof Bible

No frogs were harmed in the making of this book.

“The limousine taking Rebecca Reynolds and Lewis Taylor to the funeral had stalled in the middle of an intersection.”

I discovered Andrew Kaufman a couple of years ago with his novella, now a cult classic, All Of My Friends Are Superheroes. Last year, I encountered him again with another novella, The Tiny Wife. So, when I found his name again in Waterstone’s, I picked up the book without even questioning it. He writes with magic, and his ideas are so beautiful, brilliant and romantic that I can’t help feel a pang of jealousy whenever I read him. I wish I’d come up with some of these ideas, although I daresay I’d be unable to achieve what he can.

The Waterproof Bible is the story of three individuals. The first is Rebecca, who naturally broadcasts her feelings to everyone around her. If it’s a particularly strong emotion, you could be three or four streets away and share in her emotion. However, she’s managed to solve the problem by trapping the emotions into personal objects, although that then leaves her with boxes upon boxes of stored emotions that span her whole life.

The second is Lewis, whose wife, Lisa, has just died. He is finding it difficult to grieve, so skips out on the funeral and goes to stay in the second-best hotel in Winnipeg. There, he gets a very important haircut and encounters a woman who claims to be God.

The third is Aby, short for Aberystwyth, who has stolen a car and is driving across Canada to save her dying mother. She’s nervous, not a particularly good driver and very uncomfortable out of the water. Oh, yeah, and she’s green with gills and has lived in the Atlantic Ocean her whole life, where she reads her Bible and follows Aquaticism teachings.

The three characters stories intersect neatly, although the chronology is a little confusing at times, leaping back and forth to show events from more than one point of view. The oddness of some of the situations within the novel (aquatic humans, tiny women swimming in glasses, a radio that broadcasts advice to the owner) are simply taken in their stride, as they’re so novel and compelling that you don’t have the urge to question them.

In all three of his books, Kaufman writes about romance – a very real romance in very unreal circumstances. Although this is not a love story, there are definitely undercurrents about the power of love, and what it can do to ordinary people. I really do think that the best word to sum up Kaufman’s writing is “beautiful”. There’s a marvellous innocence about it, about people facing impossible odds but never giving up, simply getting on with it.

This book is for anyone who believes in love, or feels that their life needs just a little more magic in it. Therefore, it’s for practically everyone.

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“Taken At The Flood” by Agatha Christie (1948)

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Taken At The Flood

The last things taken by a flood were the last unicorns.

“In every club there is a club bore.”

The very method with which this book is in my possession is something of a mystery in itself. I don’t own a copy with the cover shown here, mine is the American version which has the alternate title of There is a Tide. It arrived in the post from Washington, America, complete with a letter claiming to be from Horace Wells, Director of Brainwashing and Agent Recruitment for the Temporal Intelligence and Multidimensional Espionage Organisation for Universal Security (TIMOUS).

The letter claimed that I may have certain skills required to secure a position with TIMOUS, an agency “dedicated to the protection of mankind against destabilisation of the space-time continuum”. All I had to do was read the enclosed novel (an amazing looking and smelling copy of There is a Tide from 1949), solve the riddle enclosed and there would be a message for me.

Once I’d solved the puzzle (it involved a Polybius square for any crypto-obsessives reading) I was greeted with a message from an American friend of mine. All very clever and very sweet, if not a little bit galling that I wasn’t really about to be off solving crime in time and space.

As such, I am still here, recording the details of the book for you. And so, let’s get on with it.

Having read so much Christie lately, I should’ve been more in tune to what was going on in this once, but, as usual, I was flummoxed and it all came out of left field when the clues had been there all along. Flood is about the Cloade family, who have been living with help from their generous relative Gordon. He provides them with whatever money they need, but his sudden death causes problems. While the money should have been split up between the remaining family, it transpires that he married two days before he died and his new wife, the young Rosaleen, already at twenty-four the widow of soldier Robert Underhay, has interited the lot. She and her brother David Hunter have moved into Gordon’s old house in the small village of Warmsley Vale, much to the annoyance of the entire Cloade family, all of whom are now having money problems.

And then a stranger comes to town with the suggestion that Rosaleen’s first husband is still alive, and not buried in Africa as everyone presumed. If that’s the case, then Rosaleen is a bigamist and she has no right to the money. All the while this stranger, Enoch Arden, is around, doubt must remain. But then one morning, the man is found dead. The Cloade family needed him alive, which leaves Rosaleen and David as the only viable suspects. In court, Rosaleen sees the body and claims she has never  seen the man before in her life. However, an old army major also views the body and makes a rather startling announcement – that man is none other than Robert Underhay, Rosaleen’s supposedly dead husband!

The conflicting points of view mean that is is almost impossible to know who is telling the truth, so Poirot arrives to see if he can crack the riddle that holds Warmsley Vale ransom.

Quite a clever book, set in the aftermath of the Second World War, when people travelled the globe to settle themselves and papers were easily “lost, “misplaced” or “destroyed in bombings”. While it’s not the most captivating Christie I’ve ever read, it was still an entertaining read, with a twist I didn’t see coming. Red herrings are so abundant here that the novel might’ve been granted status as a reserve for a breeding colony of the crimson fish. If you’re reading Christie’s entire output – as I am – then this is essential, but for a new reader, I wouldn’t begin with this one.

“Londoners” by Craig Taylor (2011)

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londoners

Calling at all stations…

I am not a Londoner, although I did live there for two years during my university days. I’ve always been quite sad that I could never consider myself a Londoner properly. I mean, I had an Oyster card, I voted in the 2008 mayoral election, I’m rude to practically everyone I meet – everything. However, despite not being a Londoner, I have been having a love affair with the city for practically all of my life. I’m not well travelled but I don’t need to be to know that London is the greatest city on the planet – for me, at least. Two thousand years of history smashed together. The fact that you can see the Shard (built 2012) and the Tower of London (built 1078) at the same time is all it needs for one to understand that this is no ordinary city.

But what is a city without its people? In this book, Canadian Craig Taylor – now a Londoner himself – interviews a whole collection of people who live, work or play in the city, throwing new light onto the place. The people come from all backgrounds and all walks of life. Some of them were born there, some parachuted in for work, or love, and some arrived in the back of a lorry seeking streets paved with gold.

Londoners (subtitle: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It) really is magical in that it opens your eyes to the myriad of people who live in London and call it home. This is not a travel guide – parts of this are going to do anything but entice you to the city – but it is merely the stories of the people who allow the city to be what it is, and each one of them is fascinating, taking a new angle and allowing you to see a different part of the city, maybe even one who hadn’t even considered.

There’s everything in here. There’s the American tourist who talks of the immense history and the museums loaded with treasures. There’s the angler who discusses the fish population in the Thames. There’s the policeman who’s had a gun pulled on him, and the student who once got stopped and searched twice in one day as a terrorist suspect. There’s a woman who forages in skips and a hedge fund manager with an office in Berkeley Square.

There’s an artist who collected hair from underground stations, a commuter who talks about the angst involved in train travel, the traders in Spitalfields market, a singer who is haunted by the Tate Modern and a gay man who cruises public toilets for sex. London is a beautiful tapestry of individuals and this book merely scratches the surface, each story focussing on a different aspect of the place, from Canary Wharf to the Tube (one particularly interesting interview is with the woman who did the announcements for the Underground.)

Before this book, I didn’t know that fish has been sold at Billingsgate since the Roman days or that there is a surprising number of beehives on flat roofs across the city. The people have their quirks, but I don’t think there’s one here I wouldn’t like to hear more from. You cannot get a comprehensive version of the city from this book however, as everyone has their own view, some good, some bad.

But, when all is said and done, the book gives you the distinct impression that people think that London is a smelly, dirty, overcrowded, unfriendly shithole. But it is their smelly, dirty, overcrowded, unfriendly shithole. They wouldn’t change it for the world.

And neither would I.

“They Do It With Mirrors” by Agatha Christie (1952)

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mirrors

It’s all a simple trick.

“Mrs Van Rydock moved a little back from the mirror and sighed.”

After arriving back from Egypt, I whipped quickly into Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events (I’m re-reading the series this year, but not reviewing them) and then had another urge to read some more Christie. Normally, I can’t read the same author more than once in close succession – I get what I’ve termed “author fatigue”. That, and I mix things up. And so enter They Do It With Mirrors, the curiously titled Miss Marple mystery, of which I own a beautiful, purple hardback copy.

The title seems to have little to do with the events, until a chance comment by one of the policemen sets the final ball rolling. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In this Christie, we follow Miss Marple to Stonygates, an old Victorian manor house that is falling apart and has never been modernised, when her good friend Ruth Van Rydock believes that her sister, Carrie Louise, is in danger. Although she cannot explain why she thinks this, she is adamant. Miss Marple is an old friend to both sisters and so sets off for what she claims is an innocent reunion with a school friend.

At the house, tensions are a little frayed. Carrie Louise’s granddaughter, Gina, has returned to England with her new husband, the sullen and grouchy Wally Hudd. Carrie Louise’s own daughter and Gina’s aunt, Mildred is sniffing around, and then there’s Carrie’s adopted sons Steve and Alexis, her doting husband Lewis Serracold, her bossy companion Jolly, and the completely unexpected arrival of her stepson, Christian Gulbrandsen. Oh, and then there’s the schizophrenic Edgar Lawson. Yes, that’s the other thing worth noting about Stonygates – old house it may be, but it’s also home to a whole raft of psychologists and their patients.

One evening, there is a ruckus in the great hall. Edgar Lawson bursts in with a gun and demands the truth – Lewis Serracold is his father! He always knew it, why wasn’t he told? However, Lawson is unbalanced – he often has delusions that his father is Winston Churchill or Viscount Montgomery. Determined to calm him down, Lewis takes him into his study and the two have a heated argument. Two shots are fired, but when the door is opened … both Lawson and Lewis are unharmed.

Upstairs, however, Christian Gulbrandsen lies dead.

The house is thrown into turmoil as everyone begins to suspect one another of murdering Christian – the only trouble is that no one seems to have a motive. And then things become even more convoluted when it turns out that Carrie Louise has been being poisoned.

Naturally, I was wrong in guessing whodunnit, as it always the case with Christie, but I was pleased to have worked out at least half of the solution. The true murderer was barely suspected by me, and I was all set on another, but nope, once more Dame Agatha and Jane Marple whipped the carpet out from under me with a magician’s flourish. Adding the twist of numerous people with mental illnesses in close proximity gives the whole thing a nasty turn – how can you find out the truth when absolutely anyone could be lying, and maybe not even know that they are?

Reality and illusion become twisted together in this ingenious novel which is sure to leave you maddened, but ultimately satisfied. After all, as one of the psychologists says, “We’re all a little mad.”

“Death On The Nile” by Agatha Christie (1937)

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nile

The crocodile did it?

“Linnet Ridgeway!”

I’ve already mentioned that I am a Agatha Christie fanboy, so I won’t go into all of that again, but this one I knew a little better than the last. There is a very simple reason for that – I’d already seen it. About a year ago, I saw the stage adaptation of this novel, then titled Murder on the Nile. The book came first and was adapted by Christie when one of her friends insisted that it would make a good transition. It did. I recieved the book as a gift around the same time as going to see the show, and after debating which one I wanted to experience first, I settled for the show and left the book a year to let me forget things.

And so, while the UK was covered in rain and snow, I donned my sunglasses and SPF 30 and headed back to Egypt.

In Death on the Nile, we meet Linnet Ridgeway, a wealthy heiress who is used to everyone bowing down to her and doing exactly what she says. Money is a superpower, and it has given her the ability to behave exactly as she wants. As such, when she meets her best friend Jackie’s new man, Simon Doyle, she decides that she must have him too. She steals Simon from under Jackie’s nose and they are married within months, soon setting off on their honeymoon down the Nile.

However, things turn sour quickly. Everywhere the happy couple go on their honeymoon, Jackie is already there, one step ahead of them, making it impossible for them to enjoy their time. Linnet confides in a bald Belgian detective – none other than Hercule Poirot who is on holiday on the same ship – about the situation and asks if anything can be done. He says that there are no legal repercussions to Jackie’s behaviour if she is not threatening them. She is free to go where she pleases. Linnet is less than amused.

Also on board the ship are many other colourful characters: Tim Allerton and his mother, who have a very close relationship; Rosalie Otterbourne and her novelist mother, Salome; Linnet’s American trustee Pennington; Italian archaeologist Signor Richetti; the forthright and serious Doctor Bessner; a young socialist, Ferguson; American socialite Marie Van Schuyler and her put-upon companion Cornelia Robson, along with several other characters who may or may not know more than they let on.

This being Christie, you know the death is coming and before long, Linnet is dead and everyone is a suspect. Why would anyone want to do away with this beautiful, intelligent young woman with her whole life ahead of her? A crime of passion? Money? Family ties? The clues immediately point to Jackie, the only person with an obvious grudge against her, but Jackie’s alibi is watertight. So who did her in?

This is such a clever book with a beautiful setting and the usual bevy of Christie characters – the foreign doctor, the hot-headed femme fatale, the rich snob. Setting the action on a boat limits the number of suspects, and allows for more of a farcical story which requires a lot of people to be in the right place at the right time (or, indeed, the wrong place at the wrong time). The pay off is excellent though and if you’ve never read a Christie before, this might be a good place to start.

Maybe keep a list of characters on hand – I was still struggling three quarters of the way in with which one was Ferguson, Fanthorp or Fleetwood. The murder is slow in coming, but all the time beforehand is needed to set up the characters and let you begin to suspect them all. It’s well over halfway through the novel before you can begin to count anyone out for definite, but by then, the entire thing has begun to seem impossible. But who is lying and who is telling the truth?

Death on the Nile is one of those books that cements Dame Agatha’s position as Queen of Crime.

“Flatland” by Edwin A. Abbott (1884)

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Maths: now in novel form

Maths: now in novel form

“I call our world Flatland, not because we call it so, but to make its nature clearer to you, my happy readers, who are privileged to live in space.”

First and foremost, I am not a mathematician. I believe that people are divided into two types – numbers people and letters people, and I am strictly a letters person. Syllables, words, sentences and chapters, that’s where I am. I don’t get numbers. They’re too … rigid? There’s no ambiguity with maths. I suppose that is what attracts some people to it.

Flatland is less a novel and more of a mathematical-cum-philosophical treatise. It is narrated by A. Square, a charming and intelligent square who lives in the titular Flatland. This is a two-dimensional world where existence is limited to length and width. Rain flows from the north so pentagonal houses are built with their roofs facing that. Men take the forms of triangles, squares, hexagons and circles, while women are all merely straight lines.

One day, our square narrator is visited by a stranger from Spaceland, a world of three dimensions, much like ours. This stranger is a sphere, and attempts to explain to the square the nature of a third dimension, much to the disbelief of the square, until he sees it with his own eyes. He feels compelled to inform his fellow flat citizens of what he has seen.

The novel is split quite definitely into two parts. The first details the world of Flatland and gives a lot of exposition of the world. It explains how everyone can only ever see a line, so cannot see shapes, and must feel one another to determine their shapes. It explains the hierarchy of the world, with isoceles triangle soldiers at the bottom and priestly circles with (for the sake of argument) thousands of tiny sides at the top. The second half of the novel has the square dealing with his visitor and learning about the third dimension.

Not only am I not a mathematician, I am also not a huge reader of the classics, so this book is a step out of my comfort zone in two ways. However, the book has lasted and I can understand why. It is very clever, although Abbott handwaves many aspects of the universe, such as their writing system or how they build houses, merely suggesting that the narrator doesn’t have time to go into it all. This is a very clever book though, masterfully worded to explain the nature of dimensions, to understand how shapes can see one another, and to give food for thought for us in the third dimension that there may just be a fourth dimension above us that we cannot see. And if a fourth, then why not a fifth, sixth or seventh?

It’s worth a look and can be read very quickly, but it errs on the side of “inform” rather than “entertain” in places, and can be quite dry. Still, when the author is a teacher and theologian whose only other books were school textbooks, that can hardly come as a surprise. There are also some parallels with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which is also said to be a maths essay in disguise. This is just a little more sane (although not much).

“The Dinner” by Herman Koch (2011)

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dinner

Who ordered the lobster?

“We are going out to dinner.”

Already this year, I have ventured to read my first German author and now here I am reading my first Dutch author, Herman Koch. Apparently well known in his own country, this is his first book that has been translated into English. The premise of the novel is simple – the story is told over the course of a single meal and is divided into five sections: aperitif, appetizer, main course, dessert and digestif. From the moment they enter the restaurant to the moment the bill arrives, I was hooked.

There are four people at this dinner. Paul, our narrator with more issues than a glossy magazine. Claire, his destermined, intelligent wife. Serge, Paul’s brother and potentially the next Prime Minister. And Babette, his wife who arrives to the dinner clearly having just been crying.

The four have gathered for a reason, although it isn’t strictly very clear at first what that reason is. As it goes on, events unfold and their meeting is explained. They both have teenage sons, and those sons have been caught on CCTV doing something horrifying. The footage has been shown on the news, all over the country, but only the four parents have identified the culprits. They now need to work out what they should do about it, how they can protect their sons and themselves, and how to keep the family together.

I can’t really say any more than that without ruining the main plot, but it’s certainly a gem. The characters are very interesting, all much darker than one first realises. In fact, the whole novel slides rather quickly into a black hole and never quite gets out of it again. There are naturally flashbacks to moments in their past, and the end has a “what happened next” feel about it, but the vast majority of the action takes place in this very fancy restaurant with the staff buzzing around, trying to keep this important politician happy.

Paul is a great narrator, although it quickly becomes clear that he is disturbed. The reasons quickly become evident once the main course arrives and his story is explored more deeply. Serge and Babette are sympathetic characters, trying to fight back their egotism and desperation to succeed for the sake of their son and nephew. I actually like all four of the main characters (five, if you count Paul and Claire’s son Michel who also appears briefly), although that’s not to say that I would particularly want to go for dinner with them. Still, I find the good guys are rarely the best characters. (Case in point: I will insist to the death that Dolores Umbridge is the greatest thing in the Harry Potter books, and Aornis Hades from the Thursday Next series is a true masterpiece.)

This is an intense novel about family and politics, justice and ethics, innocence and guilt. There are some great discussions on the nature of victims and the arguments surrounding capital punishment. The thread of unhappy families weaves throughout the narrative, too.

This may be the best book I have read this year – at no point was I bored or wished it to hurry along. The narrative is clever in that so little action actually happens, and that mere seconds take pages to occur, but that is the nature of small moments like this. Our minds fill with so many thoughts in every moment that to explain them all would take a while. Koch manages that nicely. The premise of setting it over a meal is also a beautiful touch, as you know when it has to end, and feel with the characters as they try to decide at what point it would be best to discuss the thing they have all come to discuss.

Skip dinner, try this instead.

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