Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Unicorn” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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I was already looking forward to this one (unlike last month’s read) and it didn’t disappoint. I must have read it early on in my Murdoch discoveries and love the Gothic qualities of the novel. Back in 2008, I did such a small review it’s not worth sharing, but wrote loads of notes to share in my discussion group – we all liked this one. As usual, there were some differences from my memories of other readings of the book, but it in no way disappointed, so another good month.

I’ve had the same cover image sent to me by Peter Rivenberg and David Mahon, the disturbing 1960s paperback with a face looking into a mirror – does anyone have any others?

Iris Murdoch – “The Unicorn”

(27 February 2018)

Oh, the opening to this book is the most gothic thing ever, isn’t it – the journey to a mysterious place to be a governess of all things, the mysterious pick-up at the station and odd characters to travel with, the wild castle and appalling scenery (just like “The Bell” and “rebarbative”, this book is definitely brought to us by the word “appalling/appalled”). By the way, I can’t understand why I didn’t realise before it was set in Ireland – lots of things point to that but I’d managed to ignore them before. Just shows what a re-re-reading can do. There’s plenty of doom and gloom and even slightly “Cold Comfort Farm”-y warnings – “No one swims in this sea. It’s far too cold. And it is a sea that kills people” (p. 12). The mentions of seven years being up are frequent and everything does seem fairy-tale and overly patterned, and indeed Gerald mentions “the pattern that is what has authority here” (p. 151)

Once Marian is installed, she tries to work everything and everyone out, as we do, and I felt like this passage was almost a commentary on how we find reading Murdoch’s works ourselves (I didn’t draw out a family tree for this one but started last time quite soon after this!):

There were many matters for puzzlement in the big self-absorbed house and she found herself still, sometimes disconcertingly, unable to ‘work out’ the relations of the individuals to each other. (p. 30)

Marian’s journey from thinking “This is mad” (p. 64) falling under Gerald’s spell as much as if he’d beaten her is fascinating and a portrait of what can happen when you get isolated from real, sensible living conditions and people. It’s a kind of mass hysteria which is fascinating but unsettling to read about. In a way, the small and tight community with its slightly sinister woman overseer reminds me of “The Bell”, but without that book’s honest and useful sense of purpose.

Who is the enchanter? Is it Peter, holding the strings from so far away, Gerald, manipulating and controlling everyone, or Hannah? Max seems to be Effie’s enchanter figure, along with Hannah perhaps, although Effie has come away from the blind adoration he had for Max as a younger man. Hannah is described near (although not at) the end of the action as having “so beautifully sent them all away in their different directions” (p. 208) – although she’s something of a blank at the centre of the novel, used for characters to project their feelings onto, some of them do create her as an enchanter for themselves, Marian and Effie chief among them, and maybe also Max, who is inexorably drawn to Gaze.

One really important feature here is perhaps the first real mention of “Ate” (p. 98-99) and the idea, so central I think to Murdoch’s novels that-

Good is non-powerful. And it is in the good that Ate is finally quenched, when it encounters a pure being who only suffers and does not attempt to pass the suffering on.

Also important to Murdoch’s themes is Effie’s vision, which unfortunately fades,

Love holds the world together, and if we could forget ourselves everything in the world would fly into a perfect harmony, and when we see beautiful things that is what they remind us of. (p. 173)

However, this does get a bit lost and there is no love left at the end, is there, with everyone dispersed, whereas there’s an important hint that Denis is the saint of the novel:

And with Denis’s words she had an eerie sense of it all beginning again, the whole tangled business: the violence, the prison house, the guilt. It all still existed. Yet Denis was taking it away with him. He had wound it all inside himself and was taking it away. Perhaps he was bringing it, for her, for the others, to an end. (p. 262-3)

There is humour still, although maybe not so much as previously (savage irony seems to rule the roost in this one, especially in the plot denouements near the end). I did like it when Effie meets Pip, Denis, Marian and Alice, Jamesie and Gerald and “bristled with dislikes” (p. 85). There’s also a rather amusing scene when Effie, quite unnecessarily, attempts to let Marian down gently.

Looking at our themes, of course water in the form of rivers and particularly the sea is very strong here, and the descriptions of the sea, starting at the beginning, are just magical and amazing. Does anyone write the sea like Iris Murdoch does? I loved the encounter with the seal, too. Marian has the red curly mess of hair and Jamesie the boy’s curls, although I think Pip’s baldness/wisps are unique. We have the common duality of the two houses, Riders and Gaze (one suggesting movement and activity, one stillness and passivity) and the contrast of town and country in Effie’s horror at being lost in the countryside (his scene in the bog, though, lasted a shorter time and came earlier in the narrative than I’d remembered).  The bog scene is doubled by Marian’s loss of her shoe in the bog early in the novel, and she finds the glutinous pools similar to those Alice and Effie encounter near the end of the novel.

Max is an academic and Effie was and is now in the civil service, with a frighteningly efficient female underling, two very common Murdochian careers, reminding us of “The Flight from the Enchanter”. Stones are represented by Alice’s shell woman on her bed, and there’s a doubling when Alice resembles this herself later on’ the shells in that scene are described as glittering like jewels, echoing back to Hannah’s scattered jewels, left out on the table on the terrace. There’s another echo of the trinity of women encountered after Effie’s bog experience which I can’t really mention without a huge spoiler: don’t read the Introduction in the Vintage edition if you haven’t read the book before!

In links to other books, we don’t follow any women in pale dresses through the gloaming, although we see Hannah flitting away through the gardens. Marian and Effie’s big plan echoes Dora and Toby’s in “The Bell”. Max Lejour is perhaps a precursor of the tutor whose name I can’t recall in “The Book and the Brotherhood” or John Robert Rosanov in “The Philosopher’s Pupil” or even Bruno in his  yellowing age. Hannah’s psychological entrapment is perhaps hinted back to in “The Message to the Planet” when Patrick Fenman has a mystery illness attributed to another character.

Effie’s Humber getting stuck in the mud at the gates of Gaze recalls very strongly Rain’s Morgan getting into the river in “The Sandcastle” and I do love Murdoch’s slight obsession with cars. More subtly, doesn’t the “mahogany erection containing a mirror surmounted the fireplace and reached almost to the dim ceiling in a converging series of shelves and brackets upon which small complicated brass objects were clustered” remind us of James Arrowby’s similar arrangement in his flat in “The Sea, The Sea”? And there’s a very small mention of a mask, when Effie is too scared to look at a figure in case he sees on the face, “laid thereupon, like a hideous mask, the likeness of his own features” (p. 256). He’s also sent away with a Japanese print – does this mean he’s gained some sort of enlightenment, or is it just a decorative feature for him?

So, a powerful and mature work, frightening, engaging and very readable. A fairy-tale where things seem to drive to an inevitable conclusion which is Shakespearean or Jacobean in general in its savage irony of the events that fly in front of us one after the other. The Introduction to my copy agrees with me on the significance of the house names but sees practical “dear” Alice as the saint and as Denis having to go off to redeem himself; there’s more to it than that and I would like to re-read A.S. Byatt’s thoughts, but that’s for another time.


Please either place your review in the comments, discuss mine or others’, or post a link to your review if you’ve posted it on your own blog, Goodreads, etc. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this book and if you read it having read others of Murdoch’s novels or this was a reread, I’d love to hear your specific thoughts on those aspects, as well as if it’s your first one!

If you’re catching up or looking at the project as a whole, do take a look at the project page, where I list all the blog posts so far.

Book review – Halldor Laxness (tr. Magnus Magnusson) – “The Fish Can Sing” #amreading

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Oh dear, it’s all feast or famine with me, isn’t it? If only I’d KNOWN I was going to end up having a somewhat frantic couple of work weeks (with our weekend away in the middle, the reading time of which I slightly wasted reading that blooming Paul Theroux e-book) meaning that I only really had time to work, eat, sleep and run/volunteer, and didn’t get in much reading. What reading I did was devoted to “Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives”: I’ve submitted my review to Shiny New Books and should be sharing it on here in due course. Things have eased now and I am getting more reading time; this one was a bit of a struggle but I think worthwhile.

Halldor Laxness (tr. Magnus Magnusson) – “The Fish Can Sing”

(03 June 2017, Oxfam Books)

A weird, short novel, set in Reykjavik almost before it was developed at all – there are recognisable street names and some shops and houses, but Danish is prevalent and the majority of people seem to lead very poor lives, with a thin overclass of the gentry bobbing above them.

Alfgrimur, our anti-hero, has a simple life living with his adopted grandparents and helping out with the fishing and running their odd kind of guesthouse, until he encounters two rather alarming women and Iceland’s most famous singer. The latter is an odd character, full of fancies and possibly fantasies, but he seems to see something worth bringing out in Alfgrimur, who he thinks is related to him (but how can he be?).  I love the little snippets of saga style, with its stock phrases, something I remember from “Independent People” (the book of Laxness’ I still like the best), and the euphemisms the characters use are like kennings* in their obscurity: “Runolfr looked into the cubicle and saw how things were” (p. 97). The viewpoint shifts, so someone who is world-famous is suddenly described as having missed his opportunity to become the town bell-ringer. Less engaging is the massive debate about barbers inserted part-way through.

Will our (anti-) hero stay in the weird boarding house with its shifting yet constant characters or move towards the gentry or further? Will he find his own way? Who is he actually related to, and who paid for the cream cakes, anyway? None of these questions are answered in this infuriatingly seemingly simple novel. But why should they be?

* A kenning is …

a much-compressed form of metaphor, originally used in Anglo-Saxon and Norse poetry. In a kenning, an object is described in a two-word phrase, such as ‘whale-road’ for ‘sea’. Read more in The Poetry Archive

I have a horrible feeling that I’ve missed layer upon layer of meaning and reference, but I enjoyed it for what I took from it.


I’ve finally started Iris Murdoch’s “The Unicorn” – hooray! It’s so deliciously gothic so far and I’m looking forward to getting properly into it. Has anyone else started – or finished – this instalment of the IMReadalong yet?

 

 

Two quick reviews – “Debbie Macomber – “The Bachelor Prince” and Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen – “Oh my God What a Complete Aisling” #NetGalley #Omgwaca

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Two quick reviews today – I was hoping to make it three but am a bit slow on my Halldor Laxness (he is deeply weird …). One is the second half of the Debbie Macomber I read half of for the Readathon, and the other a light novel that was a lot of fun, happily received from good old NetGalley (hello, 84% review rate!).

Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen – “Oh my God What a Complete Aisling”

(ebook, March 2018)

I enjoyed this fun and lively book and really liked the use of Irish English as the narrative voice is an Irish woman. I think I grasped the concept of an “Aisling” as that woman who buys new teaspoons for the office and puts up those laminated signs about unloading the dishwasher, and can drink herself to perdition but always finds her way home. I loved the fish-out-of-water sections, not really mocking either sensible Aisling or her more pretentious housemates, but showing the funny sides of both. Of course being chick-lit there’s a tragic bit thrown in as there always is, but it is integral to the plot and character development and worked well. I’m sure this will sell well, how clever of the authors to have a Facebook group first. And I couldn’t tell who wrote what, which meant it was very well put together.

Trigger warning: not one to read perhaps if you have a poorly relative.

Thank you to publisher Michael Joseph for making this available via NetGalley and choosing me to read it.

Debbie Macomber – “The Bachelor Prince”

(18 June 2017)

Quite a silly idea really, a prince comes over from a made-up European country to marry a rich American woman; of course someone completely else wins a date with him in a raffle at a romantic novel convention (perhaps the one the heroine of “A Little Bit Country” was trying to attend) and then he falls for her. There are amusing moments for sure, like when the prince keeps escaping his minders dressed as Elvis, and like the other book in the pair, the two women who think they are rivals are careful to be kind to each other. It’s a tiny bit dated as the heroine appears to have invented the latte in Seattle, and there’s an un-Debbie-like slip up in describing someone as “proving she didn’t generally look like an escaped mental patient” which was a bit odd, as she’s usually very careful. So not one of the most realistic, but a fun story.


I’m currently reading my Laxness and the book on Islamic history, which is a well-written and interesting read (thankfully!). I need to get on to the book of Paul Theroux essays that’s about to be published, and of course am itching to start my new Iris Murdoch …

 


			

Book review – Yusra Mardini – “Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian” #Butterfly #NetGalley

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Butterfly cover MardiniAn amazing read which I urge people to have a look at. Although it has quite a lot about the warfare in Syria, the information presented is not graphic in the slightest, although the emotional effects and consequences are very strongly drawn.

Yusra and her sister Sara are ordinary Syrian girls – although they have great talent for swimming. Their dad’s a swimming coach, and actually the descriptions of his work with them, including pushing them very hard and ignoring injuries is more graphic and upsetting than when the bombs start.

When war breaks out, they don’t get much news. There’s gossip on the school bus and at first everything seems far away. Then their mum has to stop working at a spa a little way away, because gunfire and bombs are pushing customers away. Then it gets closer. Suddenly they’re being confronted by tanks when driving to grandma’s or finding their beloved training pool is actually being bombed. Among all this, Sara and Yusra are growing up, Sara’s rebelling a bit, they’re not going for the headscarf (and aren’t compelled to) because they compete in swimsuits (this is an issue, but one they can handle). They seem to get more and more bright and sociable as the war intensifies, but something’s got to give and when they can’t go to swimming practice any more, it’s time to think of a solution.

People have been leaving one by one, and they can see paths to take. These are awful paths that no one would want to take, including matter-of-fact finding of people smugglers and paying over of large sums of money (Mardini is clear that only those with some money behind them can afford to do this). The paths involve putting their lives in the hands of people smugglers and bobbing across the Mediterranean in a small unseaworthy boat. But that has to be better than going over the mountains:

‘We’re girls,’ says Sara. ‘We can’t go sneaking around in the mountains, being hunted by police, and waiting to get our legs broken. We can swim, let’s go by sea.’

Sara has said to Yusra that if it comes to it, they’re swimmers, they can save themselves. But of course they can’t do that, and while what Yusra hates is the myth that they towed the boat full of cousins and new friends across, of course it was less simple than that. They got out to make the boat lighter. They swam for hours, trying to keep it straight. Other people swam, too. Horrible. Again, the descriptions are visceral and haunting, but not graphic.

The struggle across the borders to Germany is as you can imagine – unimaginable in this day and age. They are forced to rely on the kindness of strangers and find this humiliating (wouldn’t we?). Once there, they are welcomed and happy but also treated like almost sub-humans, at the mercy of the authorities. Yusra really struggles with the word refugee and the feeling that that’s the only thing she is:

I sit in silence, struggle with myself for a minute. It’s that word. Refugee. It’s the bomb and the sea and the borders and the barbed wire and the humiliation and the bureaucracy. And yes, it’s the painful charity too.

But she realised that, like her hero Malala, she can talk for thousands or millions of people with the spotlight she’s been given, so she steels herself to do that, for which I salute her.

What’s fascinating but also somehow horrible is the role that social media plays in all this. They’re on Facebook, messenger, texting, sharing videos, but the Facebook posts might be to a Facebook group for boats in distress rather than a jolly book group, or you might be finding out that an old schoolfriend has been killed half-way through their escape. It really brings it home how this is a tragedy happening right now, to people like us, and of course that’s really important to know and remember.

There are a lot of positives – the story is really well-told, Yusra’s voice is lively and confident and bold and she’s so one-track-minded about her swimming, even being worried about making it to the Olympics because she’s a refugee rather than because she’s a brilliant swimmer (not that she’s ungrateful, but I love her aggressive ambition. Fair play to her). The moment when they step into the Olympic stadium in the Rio opening ceremony and the crowd just roars is lovely to read – I remember that moment, and it bringing me to tears. The people that help them in Germany are wonderful and we’re told that it was thousands of volunteers supporting the newcomers. The book ends on a positive note emphasising survival, and like I said at the start, there’s no gratuitous or graphic violence, so you can feel safe to read it and to give it to teenagers to read, I’d say.

This book is published on 03 May and I really do highly recommend it.

Thank you to Pan Macmillan for making this book available via NetGalley in return for an honest review

Book review – Deena Kastor – “Let Your Mind Run” #amreading

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I know, I know, another running book, AND one I only received the other day (see the story here). But it’s signed to me! And the lovely Wendy from the Taking the Long Way Home blog has a book club, and this was her April read, so it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. Anyway, you had some fantasy and romance to read about yesterday, right, and it’s Iris Murdoch Readalong time later today (packing ’em in!) so it’s not all running, running, running.

Deena Kastor – “Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking my Way to Victory”

(April 2018)

Kastor is an Olympic marathon medallist and has held American records in every running distance from the 5k to the marathon. But, as runners tend to be, she’s very down to earth and very keen to share what got and kept her to those dizzy heights. It’s worth mentioning that she’s also generous in her thanks to her co-writer, Michelle Hamilon, and we know by now that I always like that, working with ghostwriters myself.

Deana was a very promising runner at school but she never really learned about running and especially training, always going out at full tilt and pushing and pushing herself. Unsurprisingly, this led to and injuries, and she didn’t seem to understand why, although she’s got a clear-headed view on it now. It was only when she started working with coach Joe Vigil in Colorado, having taken a big chance, that she started to understand the power of planned training and also embraced the power of really what is down to positive thinking, and that’s when she made huge improvements and stayed pretty well injury-free.

I will have to admit now that some of the almost relentless positivity did make me a bit uncomfortable. She reads a lot of books I would consider to be on the “woo” side of things. However, she does make a very powerful point about turning I can’ts into I cans, and you can use these techniques to try to work against ingrained negative thinking. She’s also good on joining up mind and body and on visualisation, which I use in a slightly less aggressive way (but hooray for aggressive running in women!) and she is a relentless cheerleader of other runners, something I identify with very fully.

Woo aside, she’s a very down-to-earth woman and writer, as I mentioned above. My favourite sentences in the whole book were these:

The food was intended for the volunteers, since the elites had already eaten and moved on to obsessing about pooping before the gun.

and

On the way out of the hotel, I stopped in the lobby bathroom before loading the bus. It was an unsuccessful stop. There’s still time.

What runner hasn’t known this? There’s also a description of an ENTIRE MARATHON where she needs the loo and has to make a pretty horrendous choice (again, we’ve all been there to one extent or another). She also tries lots of fuelling options when training for her first marathon, with some reminding her of recovering from flu and others making her sick. She gets scared each time she has to run a longer distance when training for the 26.2 and again that’s something anyone who’s done that has experienced. Did she need to mention this? Probably not – but I loved it. I loved all these very clear and earthy descriptions that make this a real runners’ book.

I also found a real personal connection with Deana when she’s forced to pull out of the Bejiing Olympics marathon very early on. She then gets really antsy and can’t run, and her doctor tells her “You had all this fitness built up and never released it” and mentions how in the taper she’d built up all this kinetic energy and potential she was unable to use. This was nice to read as I wondered what made me do my DIY marathon a few weeks ago – and it was also very good for me to read about her taking A MONTH OFF RUNNING after marathons.

It’s also lovely to see lots of the star runners of her time appear, with our own Paula Radcliffe popping up and beating her (and she’s gracious about not noticing Paula drop out of the Athens Olympics marathon). She also takes the time to mention how the officials are the only ones out at a freezing cross-country event, checking the course for downed branches etc. and the volunteers at the big city marathons – it’s always lovely to see that work acknowledged – and mentions how it’s great to start with the masses in those city marathons where the women aren’t set to run on their own.

So on balance an excellent read with a lot to love and a lot of great lessons. Sorry this is yet another obsessive running read, and hope I haven’t bored the non-runners too much. I’m currently reading a book about a Syrian refugee swimmer and another Debbie Macomber, with a light Irish novel to come …

Read the book club review and other people’s comments and links here.

Dewey’s Readathon update and book reviews Paul Magrs – “Fellowship of Ink”, Debbie Macomber – “A Little Bit Country” @readathon

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So I posted a little teaser about this yesterday and here’s my report. I was going to do an update post that I updated as I went along, but then I hadn’t actually finished a whole book by the time I went to bed and left it to round up today.

I wasn’t entirely successful in this. There were more distractors than I’d hoped for and, while I can’t stay up late or do without sleep, I slept more than I usually do! Here goes with the report, and I’ll do brief reviews of the two books I finished.

1.00-2.00 pm – in a course for Run Leaders put on by England Athletics – it would have seemed a little rude to whip out a book.

2.00-3.00 – After eating my sandwiches, I managed 6 pages of “Fellowship of Ink” on the bus back into town.

3.00-5.00 – At the BookCrossing meetup. Pictured above are me and Heaven-Ali, a good booky friend of mine who was also doing the challenge (read her report here). Although we did get everyone around the table reading a few pages, I’m not sure I actually got any proper reading done. Then got the bus home with lovely friends and wanted to talk to them rather than read!

5.00-6.00 – Sat on the sofa with the cat for the whole hour and read 100 pages of “Fellowship of Ink”

6.00-7.00 – I had to do some work which took out an hour and a bit of reading time.

7.00-8.00 – Part of the hour spent reading 20 more pages of “Fellowship of Ink”

8.00-9.00 – Eating my dinner and reading – 47 more pages

9.00-10.00 – Husband phoned for a chat and so 6 pages read. And then I fell asleep at 10.00 pm which has not happened for aaaages! Oh dear!

10.00-07.00 am – Asleep for longer than usual. Didn’t wake in the night awake enough to have a little read as planned.

07.00-08.00 – Breakfast with “Fellowship of Ink!, 50 pages down and not many to go.

08.00-09.00 – Finished “Fellowship of Ink” 82 pages done. Phew! But it was good (review below).

09.00-10.00 – Picked up Debbie Macomber’s “Summertime Dreams” which is made up of two books. Read 90 pages of “A Little Bit Country” through most of the hour.

10.00-11.00 – Finished “A Little Bit Country” – 111 pages and my most pagey hour. Very easy reading but a good one (review below).

11.00-1.00 – Took my Kindle to the gym and did post-marathon non-impact cross trainer and static bike while reading “Butterfly” by Yusra Mardini. I ended up reading 65%, the equivalent of 187 pages.

So in total a nice round 700 pages (I did not plan that). The experience was OK – the amount of info on the website, Goodreads group and Facebook page was a bit overwhelming but if you asked a question, someone was right on it answering kindly and patiently. I didn’t take part in hourly competitions etc as was just reading, and I know Ali tweeted a bit and got more interaction out of that. Because I can’t stay up late and because of the time zones, I felt a bit distanced, but that was my fault, not the fault of the group or organisers.

Paul Magrs – “Fellowship of Ink”

(17 June 2017)

A glorious romp of a book, with nasty creatures, fusty professors and heroic young men abounding. When Professor Henry Cleavis and his friend John arrive in Darkholmes, a university town in the north of England, they start encountering odd things right away. Will they be able to do their usual trick of investigating oddities or was Henry actually invited for his intellect and books? Alongside Evelyn Tyler, a downtrodden professor’s wife and, well, a certain fairly scarred lady called Brenda … they slip through holes in time and have a whale of a time.

Paul Magr’s trademark style is all over the book; he has a way of writing that instantly identifies itself and I love that he’s retained that over his career. Who else would write, “He went berserk in a very fastidious fashion, wreaking havoc in a quite localized area”? I loved the tying together of imagination and reality – when John enters a particular world, he almost recognises the worlds of magical animals that he used to draw as a child. How lovely!

There are loads of nods to other writers, from the worlds between worlds of Narnia and the endless winter there, and the Inklings themselves to Diana Wynne Jones’ Derkholm and Evelyn’s maiden name, Fisk. But the rest is of course highly original, funny, diverse and fascinating.

The book ended a little abruptly and looked as if it was heading for a sequel. Will there be one?

Debbie Macomber – “A Little bit Country”

(18 June 2017)

Rorie breaks down in the middle of Oregon and is rescued by a hunky horsebreeder and his sweet brother. Will she fall for their rural charms or head back for her city boyfriend? Well, we know the answer but it’s really nicely done as ever, with the addition of a friend/rival and a nice library background. A good read, fun and reliable.

Book review – Michael McEwan – “Running the Smoke” @RunBookshelfFB #amreading

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Last weekend, I popped down to London to support the London Marathon. I hadn’t watched it live since I worked in London in the 90s but my friend Bernice was running her first marathon and a few clubmates were running, too, so it seemed like a good opportunity to have a weekend catching up with my best friend Emma and her family and watching a few tens of thousands of runners zip by. It proved remarkably hard to spot people and quite hard work whizzing around Docklands (although it was such a hot day that I didn’t actually wish I’d run a marathon instead; also I had run a marathon the previous weekend!). I saw fellow-blogger and Midlands runner Shaun The Centurion, our lad Adrian, TP from local running club The Swifts, several Bournville Harriers including the lovely Suz, and a fellow endurance official, and, of course, dear Bernice, who did superbly well and sensibly and had a very good run (I nagged her at Mile 14.75 and gave her a gel at Mile 20.25 and also caught up with her at the end). What could have been better reading on the trains to and from London than this collection of 26 tales of running the London Marathon, which I won in a competition on the Facebook Runner’s Bookshelf group a while back?

Michael McEwan – “Running the Smoke”

(prize, 17 Oct 2017)

As it says on the front, this is 26 first-hand accounts of tackling the London Marathon. Presumably because it is sold in support of Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity*, McEwan managed to get a brilliant range of people to take part, from Dick Beardsley, the co-first winner of London, through other top athletes, keen runners like Nell McAndrew, people from other sports like Sir Steve Redgrave to ordinary people who have either suffered personal trauma to come through and do the run or were raising money in memory of or on behalf of someone close to them (and there are some tear-jerkers here, of course). The last story in the book is by a woman who was caught up in the 7/7 bombings and has some fairly graphic detail of that day, and I’m glad I read that one when I was safely back in Birmingham, although to be fair it is heavily signposted and is not gratuitous in the context.

Of course, just like in the marathon itself, you look out for people you know, so I was really chuffed to read Dale Lyons’ chapter – he’s a brilliant local runner in his 80s who is an Ever Present (someone who’s run every London Marathon) and who I met when he was filming a piece about doing London last year, his 100th marathon and his retirement, apparently (he went and did it again this year!). He also does our parkrun and I always give him a shout-out. Blind Dave Heeley is also in the book, explaining how he runs and trains with a guide runner. He’s another local hero of mine, I’ve seen him in races I’ve done and I rather embarrassingly decided I knew him well enough to give him a cheery “Orright, Dave?” when I was officiating at our regional road relays a few weeks ago. I don’t really!

Anyway, all the stories are inspiring and fascinating, with different details of the run coming out. I found it odd and sad when McEwan said that like many people, he doesn’t really enjoy running as such, just the races, because it would be a sorry thing if you didn’t have fun training, but then a lot of people get themselves through one marathon – especially London, I imagine – then don’t run again, so it’s a valid point. The variety was great and the stories short enough but with enough detail. It really did make me want to run London one day!

As well as the stories, there’s a visceral introduction by McEwan, starting with some serious pain, which I’m glad I didn’t show Bernice before the race, a history of the marathon, and, at the back, hints and tips for training, the race and fundraising, which make it a great all-round package for the marathon runner in your life.

Oh, my lovely / terribly book-enabling friend Cari read this book at the same time as me but got her review in earlier! Read it here for a US take on the book.

*I have made a donation to the GOSH charity as I didn’t pay for this book.


I’m currently reading Deana Kastor’s “Let Your Mind Run” because it’s April’s book in another blogger/runner’s book club (she’s already reviewed it here but I’m saving the review until I’ve read it) and Halldor Laxness’ “The Fish Can Sing” because it was next on my TBR (it’s a bit weird, but OK). I gave up on “The Seven Basic Plots” as it was too Jungian and dense and overwhelming.

There will be a few posts over the weekend (it’s all feast or famine with me at the moment, isn’t it – sorry!) because I’ve signed up to take part in Dewey’s Readathon – a 24 hour readathon starting at 1pm on Saturday for me. I’m just going to do a start post and then an update one which I will update during the day, rather than bombarding you, so don’t worry! But it is Iris Murdoch Readalong Update time on Sunday, too.

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