Book Reviews: 7 September
SPELL IT OUT by David Crystal (Profile Books, £12.99)
'English spelling – there's so much of it.' Thus Crystal begins his tour of English language eccentricities. Ever wondered why there's an 'h' in ghost, and an 's' in island? Or why 'i before e except after c'? In his attempt to unravel this, Crystal goes back to the Romans and the sixth-century Anglo- Saxons, and a linguistic collision between a Roman alphabet of 23 letters and a language that had at least 37 phonemes (distinctive sounds).
You had to bridge the gap – and the result is a language that can spell 'fish' as 'ghoti' (work it out, as your spelling master might have said...) and regularly defeats the spell check on a computer.
From these intriguing first shoots, spelling, as Crystal notes, has continued to evolve into the present age – when the largest collection of written words is on the internet, and a Twitter habit means words must be used accurately. He thinks the internet is the 'best guarantor we have of maintaining a standard spelling system, in all languages, because it relies for its efficacy on the orthographic representation of words... if a search term is wrongly spelled, our search may not work.'
So much for the gloomy prophets who think the English language is doomed – it may just be muscling up for another millennium.
BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS: LIFE IN THE ROARING TWENTIES by Alison Maloney (Virgin Books £9.99)
Life in the Roaring Twenties – as we all now know from Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs – was pretty spiffing.
A post-war generation who had grown up shackled by wartime restrictions and the memory of the carnage of the trenches, had exploded on to the scene; they began indulging in wild drinking sessions, over-thetop fancy-dress parties, smoking, cutting their hair short (if they were girls) and generally having a great deal of outrageous fun.
The era is made all the more fascinating, for us, safe(ish) in the 21st century, by the knowledge that the whole bright charade would come crashing to the ground in the 1930s, scuppered by the approaching war, recession and worldwide economic meltdown.
Bright Young Things concentrates on the lighter side of the 1920s. If you were to travel back in time and find yourself at the Gargoyle Cub in London in need of a cocktail, you could whip out this little book and it would tell you exactly what to order.
This is like a guide to the entire decade, including notes on dress, dances, who's giving what parties and brief biographies of the famous. Included among them are: Bert Ambrose: played in the best dance band in London; Louise Brooks: became a style icon and model after starring in the 1926 film A Social Celebrity; and Tallulah Bankhead, siren of the West End stage, who was famed for her cutting wit, gave her wonderful, self-deprecating assessment of herself as 'pure as the driven slush'.
MEDICAL MUSES: HYSTERIA IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY PARIS by Asti Hustvedt (Bloomsbury, £8.99)
A compelling study of 'hysterical' women from Asti Hustvedt, the editor of The Decadent Reader: Fiction Fantasy And Perversion Fom Fin-de-Siècle France.
In belle époque Paris, Blanche, Augustine and Genevieve, patients at Salpêtrière Hospital and under the care of brilliant neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, were thought to be suffering from 'hysteria'.
This was believed to affect half of all women and included such conditions now diagnosed as eating disorders, depression and chronic fatigue.
Charcot hypnotised his 'Medical Muses' into giving public demonstrations of their hysterical symptoms, including cataleptic trances, convulsions, spasms and contortions into sexually provocative 'passionate attitudes' – with their hair and clothes wildly disarrayed.
As a result, excited crowds would flock to the Salpêtrière Hospital every week to see these medical celebrities.
Charcot's 'hysterics', as they were termed, inspired novelists and they were also photographed, sculpted and painted.
Although his treatments with tuning forks, ether, hypnosis and even an 'ovary compressor', today seem rather peculiar, his philosophy of regarding his 'hysterical' patients' as suffering from a neurological disorder – rather than mental illness – was revolutionary at the time and later praised by Sigmund Freud.
Being poor, neglected and unmarried, these women were society's outcasts and received food, shelter and devoted attention from the doctors.
They all improved and his patient Blanche even stayed on as a ward assistant.
WIVES AND STUNNERS by Henrietta Garnett (Macmillan, £20)
The Pre-Raphaelites and their muses coincide with a new exhibition at Tate Britain: auburn-haired beauties gaze into the distance, sit by water, or float in it, decked in flowers.
This is a joint biography of the women who inspired the Pre-Raphaelite painters Rossetti, Holman Hunt, William Morris, Burne-Jones, Ruskin and Millais. The story begins in 1848, the year of the last Chartist petition when the Royal Family had been exiled to the Isle of Wight; it sets the scene for the Bloomsbury Group, who led tangled love lives, like the Pre-Raphaelites. The public loathed these dreamy girls, but by the end of the century the Muses were considered beauties – or stunners, as contemporary jargon had it. Garnett, a descendant of Vanessa Bell, paints an intriguing story.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
A cultural intrigue
Lola Sinclair dips into Edinburgh's art scene with the city's favourite sleuth, Isabel Dalhousie
THE UNCOMMON APPEAL OF CLOUDS by Alexander McCall Smith (Little, Brown, £17.99)
Back in the 1980s, Mollie Hardwick wrote a series of detective novels featuring Doran Fairweather and her vicar lover/husband. Doran was an antiques dealer and stumbled across a lot of Lovejoy-ish crime in and around the junk shops and bric-a-brac fairs of southern England.
She was terrifically well educated and always ready with a classical/Shakespearean quote; her husband liked the odd pun and took a dim view of Doran's adventures. These books are out of print now, one imagines (if so, why haven't they been reissued or turned into a BBC antiques-cumcrime series?). But if you like that kind of thing, you should give Alexander McCall Smith's Dalhousie novels a go.
The Uncommon Appeal Of Clouds is the ninth in the series featuring Isabel Dalhousie. Like Doran, Isabel is well educated (she edits a philosophical review from her charming Edinburgh home), spends rather too much time mulling over theoretical problems, is always getting involved in other people's scrapes and has a husband (a bassoonist) who disapproves of this habit.
In this book, it's the theft of a painting by Poussin from a Scottish art collector that's niggling away at Isabel's conscience. She's also got to contend with a couple of subplots dealing with the abused male half of a youthful amour, her child Charlie who could be a mathematical genius and another, possibly, disaffected son of the art collector.
The action is set in Edinburgh, a city that McCall Smith knows well – indeed, with its elegant grey stone buildings, cobbled streets and thoroughly British weather, it emerges almost as a character in its own right.
There's much talk of art and philosophy – too much sometimes, for those looking for action on the crime scene – and the moral rights of those who own great paintings.
Anthony Blunt makes a retrospective appearance, and the unravelling of the crime, which involves a dodgy lawyer, a ransom demand, and its solution, rumbles on in the background.
The whole thing is soothing, if not particularly demanding.
NO HIGHER HONOUR: A MEMOIR OF MY YEARS IN WASHINGTON by Condoleezza Rice (Simon & Schuster, £10.99)
One of the more distinguished members of the George Bush administration, Rice, a native of Alabama, reveals much about her time in Washington: 9/11, Iran, North Korea, Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq. It's a roll-call of modern warfare, leavened by an unexpectedly humble tone. There are no easy solutions, she tells us.
THE LIGHTHOUSE by Alison Moore (Salt, £8.99)
Alison Moore earned a place on the Man Booker Prize 2012 longlist with her debut novel about 40-something Futh. Having never recovered from his mother's desertion, he heads off on holiday, with a lighthouse-shaped container that held her perfume. The sense of approaching disaster is almost unbearable. Highly accomplished, this repays attention – even if it's not one you'd want to linger over.
PAST THE SHALLOWS by Favel Parrett (John Murray, £8.99)
Debut by the Australian writer Favel Parrett, this is a tale of three brothers and the heart-wrenching changes that occur in their lives after their mother dies. With a father whose rage is as volatile as the stormy seas they live by, will they survive? Dark secrets threaten. This well-crafted novel will leave a lasting impression.
THE KINGMAKER'S DAUGHTER by Philippa Gregory (Simon & Schuster, £18.99)
Fourth in Gregory's sequence focusing on the Wars Of The Roses. Anne Neville, daughter of the Earl of Warwick, married to Richard III and briefl y Queen of England before she died in her 30s, is a shadowy fi gure, disinterred from the back room of history by Gregory. She reveals her as a woman whose love affair with Richard was played out against a background of intrigue, battles, murders and betrayals.
The Man Booker longlist for 2012 threw up some surprises, as well as some 'must read' titles, such as Skios by Michael Frayn, André Brink's Philida and Hilary Mantel's magnificent sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies. But what other titles can we look forward to this autumn?
Most anticipated of the new novels must be Sebastian Faulks's A Possible Life (Hutchinson, £18.99) in which a diverse collect ion of characters weave and collide across different time zones and countries. A terrified young man in the Second World War, a skinny girl playing the guitar, a father too ashamed to acknowledge his son – all risking their lives in search of love; all in some way connected by history or shared human experience.
In her first novel for three years, the bestselling writer Marian Keyes tells the story of Helen Walsh, private detective. In The Mystery Of Mercy Close (Michael Joseph, £18.99) it's all going to the dogs – work has dried up, her flat is about to be repossessed and then her charmingly feckless ex hoves into view. He's got a missing person's case and loads of cash. The AWOL person in question is Wayne, the 'wacky one' from boy band Laddz, who's vanished from his house and must be found before his band's comeback gig in fi ve days' time.
Knocked sideways by the reappearance of Jay, Helen battles against an increasing attraction to Wayne – a chap she's never even met. Funny, sharp and with a sympathetic heroine, Keyes has come up with the perfect blockbuster.
Other titles to watch out for are: Howard Jacobson's follow-up to his Booker Prize-winning The Finkler Question, Zoo Time (Bloomsbury, £18.99); JK Rowling breaks free from Harry Potter, with the release of her adult novel on 27 September, The Casual Vacancy (Little, Brown, £20). And Zadie Smith makes a welcome return after a gap of seven years with NW (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99), further exploration of the north London territory of White Teeth.
Related tags:Books  Book Reviews  Spell It Out  Bright Young Things  Medical Muses  Wives And Stunners  The Uncommon Appeal Of Clouds  No Higher Honour  The Lighthouse  Past The Shallows  The Kingmaker's Daughter  The Man Booker Prize  Skios  Bring Up The Bodies  Zoo Time  The Lady
Daily tip from the lady archive
“HEAVEN forbid that we should go back to the days when beauty was under suspicion and plain girls were assumed to have angelic natures.”The Lady. With Prejudice. 28th April 1938