Book Review:Six Stories And An Essay by Andrea Levy

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This not perhaps the most exciting title for a new book from the prize winning author of Small Island but it does do exactly what it says on the tin!

The book brings together six of her short stories , most of which have been previously published elsewhere, and all of varying lengths , as Levy points out ,

Because short stories are short it is often mistakenly thought that it does not take long to write them. I was once offered a week to write a story by an editor with the words, ‘It doesn’t have to be long.’ But as the famous quote ( Pascal? Twain? Goethe? Cicero?) says. ‘I’d write you a shorter letter, but I haven’t the time”. Short stories can be as consuming as any novel.

I find it difficult to review collections of short stories…….are you supposed to review each one individually, write an overview of the collection or just pick the couple you liked the best?

In this collection all the stories are written in the first person. Not all of them deal with the ‘immigrant’ experience directly but all of them have the sense of the protagonist being on the outside of what surrounds him/her.

The search for identity is important to all her characters but whilst the stories often have dark undercurrents they do not lack humour. Levy explains the importence of humour in her work which she discovered in the very first writing class she attended ;

But what I really enjoyed when I read it out was that people laughed. It was much more satisfying than the revenge. And once I’d made them laugh they seemed more open to what I had to say. I have never forgotten that.

Each of the stories is preceded by a short introduction by Levy, setting it in a context or giving an indication of what inspired her to write it.

The collection opens with an essay entitled Back To My Own Country . In it Levy sets out her ‘ manifesto’ and details her personal journey as a working class black girl growing up in Britain to her realisation of the importance of the culture her parents had come from and her own need to embrace it.

I am now happy to be called a black British writer and the fiction I have written has all been about my Caribbean heritage in some way or another. It is a very rich seam for a writer and it is, quite simply, the reason that I write.

Through her writing Levy has researched Caribbean history and has come to realise its importance in explaining Britain today

My heritage is Britain’s story too. It is time to put the Caribbean back where it belongs – in the main narrative of British history.

I want to highlight the final story in the collection. This year marks the centenary of World War One and I have already reviewed a number of books dealing with this on the blog. In Uriah’s War, Levy gives us the story of two young recruits from Jamaica who find themselves on the battlefields of France. Walker explains,

You see, the Empire was our protector, that is how we thought. England was great, sort of thing.And she was under threat. You should have heard the stories of the barbarous Germans that swept the breeze. They were burning houses and churches and women and children. Some were eating babies. Well, that was one of the tales. Looking back now perhaps that was a little…..embellished. But everyone believed it at the time.

Of course Walker and Uriah discover that Mother Empire has other ideas about the nature of their contribution to the war effort ,

But our colonel made it quite clear that we West Indian troops would be labourers in France. Now, who wanted to come all tat way and be in a labour battalion? Running back and forth with shells and what-and-what for the front line. No rifle, no combat, but just as likely to die. That would have been a humiliation.

Walker and Uriah instead are sent to Palestine where they fight bravely in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, it is the end of the war and return to ‘normality’  that proves their undoing.

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection which gives much food for thought with the lightest of touches. The collection is published on 23rd October. My thanks to Tinder Press and to Georgina Moore for the review copy.

 

 

 

 

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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This is the latest novel from prize winning Sarah Waters. A taut and nail biting thriller it explores the effect that the arrival of two paying guests, Leonard and Lily Barber, have on the household of Frances Wray and her mother. it is 1922 and ,reeling from the after effects of World War One, the upper-middle class Wrays find themselves in reduced circumstances and forced to take in lodgers ‘ from the clerk class’.

The novel was published on 28th August and the Stylist magazine hosted a special book club event with Sarah Waters to discuss the book. At the outset Waters conceded that this was a very difficult book to discuss without giving away spoilers and so ,rather than a  book review  , I have decided to post a review of that evening in which she talked about her influences and her writing process.


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The event was held at the very upmarket Rosewood hotel in Holborn , central London. In fact, by coincidence, this building used to be the Pearl Assurance offices, which is where Leonard Barber goes to work each day and Waters also explained that right next door at that time was the Holborn Music Hall where Frances and her friend Christina go for a night out during the course of the story.

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Waters explained that she is interested in London’s history and enjoys walking through the city looking at buildings and landmarks. In fact, the characters she feels closest too in her books are those who walk around London on routes she takes and notice what she notices. She has always been fascinated by Champion Hill in Camberwell, where Frances and her mother live ,as it is a little island of upper-middle class gentility in a predominantly working class sea.

 She chose the early Twenties to set the novel as this was a particularly fascinating period in which society was still very much living in the shadow of WW1. There were a lot of challenges to the structure of everyday life, particularly for women. She is also interested in the ability in families not to say things to each other and to ignore or talk round difficult subjects.

In order to start thinking herself into the period she read the novelists of the day – Virginia Woolf, D H Lawrence and Aldous Huxley. These helped her to get a sense of period but all these writers chose more upper class and bohemian  characters  whilst she knew she wanted to write about ordinary peoples lives. The best window into the every day lives at this time, she found, were the celebrated murder trials of the day. In particular Notable British Trials contains court transcripts in which you can hear the commonplace voices of the time and get an idea of how regular households were arranged.

Next she came up with the house, which is almost a character in itself,and then used  the classic scenario of a stranger arriving to upset things. She read newspapers from that period as well as cookery books and fashion magazines to get a sense of the smells and the sounds of the times. The way that people negotiate personal space and how that has changed over time has always fascinated her. In The Paying Guests there are a lot of half heard conversations through walls and chance meetings on the stairs.

The first half of the book crackles with unresolved feelings . Waters explained rather self-mockingly  that she had always thought the URST ( unresolved sexual tension) of romance fiction was not a device she would employ. She then read us an extract starting at p191 in the novel in which the URST positively leapt off the page. In the second part of the novel, however, there is a change of mood when duty and guilt begin to complicate passion and Waters found herself searching for new ways to describe fear.

Waters was asked to name her top three books. Firstly she chose Anna Karenina which figures in her novel as both Lily and Frances become fascinated with the story. In Waters view this is often pigeon-holed as a difficult book when in fact it is more of a soap opera, funny and tragic at the same time. Next she recommended Virginia Woolf’s diaries. These are very witty and insightful, they were very much on her mind when writing The Paying Guests. Finally she chose Katherine Mansfield’s letters. She thought the letters were in fact better then Mansfield’s fiction which, in her view , is a little uneven. They provide an intimate look at the fascinating life of an unusual personality.

As a writer, Waters is extremely disciplined. She aims to write 1,000 words per day and she always makes herself do it. Until the run up to publication, she approaches her writing as a job and works from about 8.30 am to 4.00pm Monday to Friday. Some of that time will be writing and some will be research which can just be reading a novel from the period or a newspaper. Towards the end of a book, however, the writing becomes all consuming. At the end of this novel she found all she was doing was writing and watching episodes of Breaking Bad ! She is now on a writing break and taking the time she read, think and go to the theatre and exhibitions.

Her advice to any aspiring writers in the audience was simple………..just do it! Don’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike, you must carve out a space for it. Whilst a first novel is often a labour of love you have to approach continuing like a job. She revealed that she always feels awful on a Monday morning and has long period of agony and frustration.

She was asked about her favourite of her own novels. She found that a very difficult question to answer . Tipping The Velvet had been very good for her and she enjoyed the TV adaptation in which she appeared as an extra. She re read it recently, the only one of her books she has re read , and found it to be ‘ a complete mess’.Perhaps her favourite is The Paying Guests because she found it more difficult to write than any of the others . In fact the first half was rewritten countless times. There were several scenes that caused particular difficulty, some were excluded altogether in the final draft and some although kept she still does not feel entirely happy with. In the original draft, she revealed, there was lots more sex but this she found slowed the narrative down. Its important to her for a novel to tell a story and her very favourite writers are ones that can create suspense and intrigue with a serious agenda……Daphne du Maurier and Patricia Highsmith came to mind.

This a was a fantastic evening. Sarah Water was an engaging and witty guest. In my own view The Paying Guests is her best novel yet full of suspense and surprises.

My thanks to Susan de Soissons and Virago for the advance copy.

 

Testament Of Youth and Grey Ghosts And Voices

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In the lead up to the centenary of  the start to WW1 I agreed to (re) read A Testament Of Youth along  with some other bookish Tweeters.

I first read the book in 1979 ( I know, say nothing!) following the fabulous BBC adaptation which was a huge hit at the time.

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As a young woman hoping to go to University myself ( the first in my family), Vera’s story really spoke to me.

Testament Of Youth is a reminiscence written in 1933 by Vera Brittain, the mother of the politician Shirley Williams. It tells the story of Vera’s wartime service during World War 1 and the tragic fate of her generation.

The book opens before the start of the War and we find Vera desperate to get an education and attend university. She has encountered hostility to this from her parents although it is naturally assumed that her younger brother, Edward, will of course be sent away to school and then go to Oxford.

Vera was an early feminist and a socialist and she vividly recounts the stifling atmosphere of middle class life in Buxton where the family lived.

‘To me provincialism stood, and stands,for the sum-total of all false values; it is the estimation of people for what they have, or pretend to have, and not for what they are. Artificial classifications, rigid lines of demarcation that bear no relation whatsoever to intrinsic merit, seem to belong to its very essence, while contempt for intelligence, suspicion and fear of independent thought, appear to be necessary passports to provincial popularity.’

She longs for an education and to become involved in intellectual and political life but finds that for women society allows very few options.

‘ It feels sad to be a woman!’ I wrote in March 1913 -the very month in which the Cat And Mouse Act was first introduced for the ingenious torture of militants.’Men seem to have so much more choice as to what they are intended for.’

Vera achieves her dream and goes up to Oxford in October 1914. Over the summer she had fully expected to be there at the same time as her brother, Edward, and his friend ,Roland Leighton ,with whom she has a growing romance. At the outbreak of war both Edward and Roland sign up and so Vera goes to Oxford alone.

With all those dear to her away serving, academic life seems seems increasingly irrelevant to her and in 1915 she defers her studies to become a VAD or volunteer nurse seeing service in London, Malta and France.

Vera and Edward in Uniform

Vera and Edward in Uniform

At the end of the war, Vera returns to Oxford only to find that her once cherished ambitions feel empty to her now and she has little in common with her fellow students who have not experienced war service. She find she is also one of the ‘surplus’ women for whom no husbands or work can now be found in Britain. She reads a newspaper article that suggests such women should seek work abroad to better their prospects and writes to a friend ;

Personally I haven’t the least objection to being superfluous as long as I am allowed to be useful, and though I shall be delighted for any work I may do to take me abroad, it will not be because I shall thereby be enabled the better to capture the elusive male.

Vera finds solace through her work lecturing for the League of Nations and in her friendship with the novelist Winifred Holtby.

The book is divided into three parts with each section beginning with a contemporary poem or quote. Part Two opens with an extract from a poem by May Wedderburn Cannan which reminded me that at about the same time as I read Testament Of Youth I had come across May Cannan’s memoir in our local library.

Grey Ghosts and Voices has long been out of print but I managed to track down a second hand copy and read it as a companion piece  to Vera Brittain.

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May Wedderburn Cannan came from a similarly middle class home to Vera. Her family was , however, a more intellectual one. Her father was head of the Oxford University Press and a close friend of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the novelist and academic.

May’s education was as intermittent and slapdash as Vera’s but she is less of a feminist and more accepting of the status quo.

WW1 offers May an opportunity to enter the world of work that was previously denied her. She serves as a Red Cross volunteer nurse and works briefly at a canteen for the troops in France behind the front-line . She then starts to work for her father at OUP to take the place of male employees now called up to fight.

As the war runs on she longs to get back to France and she ends the war in Paris using her office skills to work for British Intelligence.She relishes the freedom that working gives her and enjoys earning her own living.

Just as the war ends, Bevil Quiller-Couch, Sir Arthur’s son, arrives in Paris to propose to her. They had known each other from childhood but their whirlwind romance in Paris really captured my teenage imagination. May returns to England to prepare for her marriage.

Sadly May’s wedding never takes place. Weakened by four years in the trenches, Bevil dies of pneumonia in February 1919 leaving May staring into a future that seems void.

Her postwar years are very close to Vera’s. She struggles to find a meaning to her life and also feels alienated from the younger generation who did not experience the war.

She too suffers the stigma of being one of the ‘surplus’ women but is determined to stay in work and earn her living. During one interview she is asked rather snootily if she has a degree :

I thought, ”Well, I’ve lost it”‘ and I thought “surplus two million”; and I collected my bag and my gloves and I looked at them all sitting round that long table and I said “If I had got a Degree it would have been between 1914 and 1918 and I preferred to be elsewhere. And what is more Gentlemen” – I got up now and I pushed back my chair and made them a little bow-“I still prefer to have been elsewhere”

She gets the job!

May’s story is perhaps more conventional than Vera’s but it was great to reconnect with it after all this time. The title of the book is a quote from one of her moving poems summing up her feelings as the war ends and she finds herself alone :

Now we must go again back into our world

 

 Full of grey ghosts and voices of men dying,

And in the rain the sounding of Last Posts,

And Lovers’ crying;

Back to the old, back to the empty world  

 

This First World War reading was an emotional journey but one I am glad I made both books are well worth the effort and the tissues. Thank you to Claire from claire.thinking.blogspot.co.uk for coming up with the idea.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

Book Review : The Wars by Timothy Findley

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This book was a recommendation from another blogger. During the course of 2014 I am reading WW1 related books and I asked for some suggestions particularly any books dealing with the experience of Commonwealth soldiers .

Like The Lie and Wake which I reviewed here this a a novel rather than memoirs. Timothy Findley is described as being one of Canada’s foremost novelists although I have to confess that I had never heard of him before.

The novel follows the fate of young Canadian,Robert Ross. A family tragedy propels Robert to enlist  in the cavalry and after a brief period of training he is shipped off to France.

Even during training Robert soon realises that the image of a glorious and heroic war that he has been sold is probably not what awaits him and his fellow recruits.Whilst out for a run on the prairie, Robert and a comrade bump into Taffler, a former football star and now war hero, throwing stones at a bottle:

‘The distance,’ he said, ‘between our lines and theirs is often no more than a hundred yards. Did you know that?’

‘No sir,’

‘One hundred yards,’ said Taffler. He gestured at the remaining bottle. It was green and had a tall, thin neck. ‘All you get in this war,’ he said,’ is one little David against another.’ Then he threw – and broke the tall, thin neck clean off. ‘Like that. Just a bunch of stone throwers.

Once over in France we see the same picture and chaos that Robert Graves and Hemingway painted of their own War experiences.

‘Not a single man was on his feet. One man lay alive on a stretcher while at the other end the stretcher bearers curled like caterpillars – dead…………… No one spoke. The dead all lay with their faces in the mud – or turned to the walls of the trench. This was the only way they could be told apart from the wounded. ‘

So far so Blackadder , but what is fascinating about this book is the structure of it. The story is circular………it ends as it starts,  although the significance and power of the beginning of the novel are not clear until we have followed Robert on his nightmare journey.

At times his story is told in a traditional 3rd person narrative but it is also interspersed with apparent interviews with  other characters and historical documents all of which  help to bring home how very personal Robert’s story is even though it takes place against a backdrop of global conflict.

Transcript : Marian Turner – 1

You will understand from what took place, why I cannot tell you what he looked like. I suppose such things are of interest. Well- of course they are! (LAUGHTER) Everyone  wants to know what people look like. Somehow it seems to say so much about a person’s possibilities’

Findley also wrote short stories and plays  and at times the descriptions are overwhelmingly vivid. Robert and some comrades become trapped in an overflowing dyke in the pitch dark and on horseback. He is confused by the large objects that keep bumping against his horse’s flanks together with a heavy fluttering sound………only to discover that the objects are the bloated corpses of dead soldiers and the fluttering comes from the crows feeding on them.

As this is a book dealing with war experiences most of the characters are necessarily male. There are two particularly fascinating and not altogether positive women characters however.

The first is Robert’s mother. As we meet her she has already lost one child and fears, with Robert’s departure for the Front that she will lose another.Her descent into addiction and madness is reminiscent of a Eugene O’Neill character.

‘I know what you want to do. I know you’re going to go away and be a soldier. Well-you can go to hell. I’m not responsible. I’m just another stranger. Birth I can give you but life I cannot.I can’t keep anyone alive. Not any more.’

The second is Barbara D’Orsey, his cold, hard hearted lover collecting wounded officers as a badge of honour only to abandon them when they need her most.

This is a harrowing tale of a young man’s quest for life whilst surrounded by insanity.It is hard to say too much more about this book without writing a spoiler, so I’ll stop.

At the end of the novel, ‘ the archivist’ finds a photograph of Robert and his sisters playing with a pony ;

‘On the back is written: ” Look! You can see our breath!” And you can.’

 

 

Book Review : Lest We Forget

photoThis year, of course, marks the centenary of the start of the First World War and ,with this in mind, I decided to do some themed reading over the course of the year. I have already reviewed Goodbye To All That  here but here are two recently published novels both dealing with the subject and both by female writers. This is not a compare and contrast review but, I hope, an appreciation of two fine books that happen to deal with similar themes.

Coincidentally, both are set in 1920, two years after the end of the war, and both deal with the ‘aftershocks’ of the war on the surviving soldiers and the women they left behind.

WAKE by Anna Hope

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Here we meet 3 seemingly unconnected women all, unbeknownst to them, bound together by terrible events at the front.

Hetty earns her living as a ‘dance instructress’ at the Hammersmith Palais, sitting in a cage with other girls until a man will come along and pay the price to release her for a dance. The author explains this particular phenomenon of the times in a note at the end of the book. At home there is Fred , her shell-shocked brother, back from the war but unable to escape the horrors of what he has experienced.

Ada is a housewife who cannot let go of the past and her dead son, Michael, killed in action at the front.

Evelyn is possibly the most interesting character in the book.Upper middle class and single, after losing her lover in the war, she is now regarded as useless by her family.After tasting a freedom of sorts during the war, a return to her former life of waiting to be married is now impossible. She is trapped in a meaningless job as a clerk in the Ministry of Pensions way below her capabilities but a real career is denied her. She is one of the 2 million……..spare women now with no marriage prospects and therefore no future.

The action is centred round the unveiling of The Cenotaph in London and the arrival of he body of the Unknown Soldier. Tensions mount with the arrival of Rowan, another soldier returned from France,and finally the terrible secret that binds the lives of the women together is revealed.

THE LIE  by Helen Dunmore

photoDunmore’s latest novel is set in Cornwall.Daniel Branwell has returned from the war to his childhood village. He is haunted by his memories of the front and of his friend Frederick, killed in France.

The novel explores the way that class lines became blurred in the thick of the battle. In the trenches, Daniel’s boyhood friendship with the son of the family for whom his mother worked as a maid is rekindled.

Dunmore also deals delicately with the issue of ‘shellshock‘. She uses a stream of consciousness style as Daniel increasingly slips between his current reality and what happened to him back at the front, unable to differentiate between the two.

‘The dead aren’t tied to one place………Things ought to stop once they’ve finished, but his won’t stop. They say the war’s over, but they’re wrong. It went too deep for that. It opened up a crack in time, a crater maybe.’

He also meets Felicia again, Frederick’s sister, who he admired from afar as a boy. Felicia can sense  Daniel’s pain and wants to help him escape……but Daniel has told a lie to explain his presence in the village and the truth is catching up with him.

Any Suggestions??

I enjoyed both these novels enormously and was really unable to put them down. I am definitely going to read some more First World War fiction during this year. I am planning to read Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man at some point but I would love any suggestions of other books to read………..particularly dealing with the experience of ‘Commonwealth’ soldiers whose contribution is often overlooked.

Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves

photoI read this book almost by accident. My son had been asking about books about the First World War for a University assignment and I bought him this which wasn’t suitable for his purposes ,so I inherited it.

Born in 1895 Robert Graves was a British poet and novelist and this book, written in 1929 just before he left the UK pretty much for good, is a memoir of his experiences as a soldier in the Royal Welch Fusiliers during WW1.

The book is in three sections . The first deals with his young childhood in Wimbledon and then at a series of boarding schools where he was desperately unhappy. The largest section deals with his experiences as a young officer who joined up within a few days of the declaration of war; in the final part he tells us about his difficult transition into peacetime life and marriage following his demobilisation.

What I found remarkable about the book as a whole is how contemporary his voice sounded.

When talking about his unhappy schooldays, he is frank about he sexual exploitation of boys by older pupils and masters that was rife within the system.

The war passages are extremely powerful.Graves saw active service in the trenches in France and was wounded twice. He returned to France following his second and most serious injury but in a training capacity behind the front line.

He is brutally honest abut the mood of the soldiers fighting : ‘Patriotism, in the trenches, was too remote a sentiment,and at once rejected as only fit for civilians, or prisoners. A new arrival who talked patriotism  would soon be told to cut it out.’

In fact he felt alienated on his return to England on leave and found it difficult to adjust to family life : We couldn’t understand the war-madness that ran wild everywhere, looking for a pseudo-military outlet. The civilians talked a foreign language; and it was newspaper language.I found serious conversation with my parents all but impossible.’

He shows us the reality of the war where men were shot for cowardice on the most flimsy of excuses despite government denials : ‘…but cowardice was punishable only with death and no medical excuses would be accepted……….Executions were frequent in France.I had my first direct experience of official lying when I arrived in Le Havre in May 1915 , and read the back files of army orders at the rest camp.They contained something like twenty reports of men shot for cowardice or desertion; yet a few days later the responsible minister in the House of Commons….denied that sentence of death for a military offence had been carried out in France on any member of his Majesty’s forces.’

He is scathing about the Staff Officers safe behind the frontline whose poorly organised attacks and bungled bombardments read more like a plot line from Black Adder Goes Forth than a modern military campaign.

It was during the war that Graves began to write poetry and to be published. He developed a close friendship with the poet Siegfried Sassoon and kept up a correspondence with Wilfred Owen. It was to Sassoon that he was closest and they often went walking when home on leave or sick leave to discuss their work ‘We defined the war in our poems by making contrasted definitions of peace’

By the time of the Armistice in November 1918, Graves had been invalided out of active service and was training prospective officers in North Wales. The announcement of peace brought him no joy however as at the same time he also received the news of a death of a dear friend killed in action as well as that of Wilfred Owen.

He quotes from Sassoon’s poem :

Everybody suddenly burst out singing,

And I was filled with such delight

As prison birds must find in freedom…..

And adds grimly ‘ But ‘everybody’ did not include me’

Graves had got married towards the end of the War to Nancy, an artist and committed feminist who, much to Graves’ family’s disgust refused to change her surname. He describes a visit to the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy who, on being told the above exclaimed ‘Why you are old-fashioned my dear!!” explaining that he had known a couple in his village sixty years before who had done the same thing.

Graves, however, struggled to cope with the return of normality and the start of married. Suffering from what we now know to be shell -shock or battle fatigue he found ‘Shells used to come bursting on my bed at midnight, even though Nancy shared it with me; strangers in daytime would assume the faces of friends who had been killed……..My disabilities were many: I could not use a telephone, I felt sick every time I travelled by train, and to see more than two new people in a single day prevented me from sleeping’

He found , like the other returning soldiers, that the promised ‘land fit for heroes’  had been forgotten. ‘The Herald spoiled our breakfast every morning.We read in it of unemployment all over the country due to the closing of munition factories; of ex-servicemen refused reinstatement in the jobs they left when the war broke out, of market-rigging,lockouts and abortive strikes’

In 1919 he finally took up the Oxford scholarship he had been offered in 1914 where he got to know T E Lawrence then engaged in writing The Severn Pillars of Wisdom.

He had resolved to live by his writing if he could but with a growing family and a failed attempt at shop keeping behind him, he found it increasingly difficult to make ends to meet. Eventually his mother came to his aid buying a cottage in Islip, a small village near Oxford , and letting it out to the couple at a low rent. He was still embittered by his wartime experiences….the local vicar asked him to speak at the church War Memorial service as the resident ‘war hero’ and suggested that perhaps he could read some war poems: ‘But instead of Rupert Brooke on the glorious dead, I read some of the more painful poems by Sassoon and Wilfred Owen about men dying from gas-poisoning, and about buttocks of corpses bulging from the mud. I also suggested that the men who had died, destroyed as it were by the fall of the Tower of Siloam, were not particularly virtuous or particularly wicked, but just average soldiers, and that the survivors should thank God they were alive, and do their best to avoid wars in the future.’

The First World War will, of course, be a very topical subject in the coming year with all sorts of  centenary events planned. Graves’ stand at that Memorial Service seemed incredibly modern . This book came as a complete surprise to me and I definitely recommend it.