Review catch-up

In an attempt to clear my pile of yet to be reviewed books, here are some capsule reviews:

Beryl Bainbridge by Master Georgie

Many consider Bainbridge’s later novel from 1998 to be her best – it won the ‘Best of Beryl Booker Prize’.  Personally, on a first reading, it didn’t do it for me in the same way that her earlier comedies do, but it is undeniably multi-layered and deep.

In brief, it tells the story of Master Georgie, a Liverpudlian doctor and amateur photographer who goes to the Crimea for some excitement. The story is related by three characters in George’s life, Pompey Jones – a ragamuffin thief who becomes a photographer’s assistant, Myrtle – an orphan and his pseudo- adopted sister, we think, and Dr Potter, an intellectual and geologist. The later two travel with him and the rest of their party to the Crimea, where Jones turns up too. Bainbridge contrasts the strange lives of the camp hangers-on so to speak, the families of officers and medics,  renting houses by the lake in Scutari, Varna and the like, with the awfulness of the was at Inkerman and the military hospitals where Georgie performs many amputations. Framed in the chapters as a series of photographic plates, these portraits tell a different story to that of real life, and Master Georgie puts up a good front…

Bainbridge’s writing, as ever, is wonderfully sharp and to the point without ever seeming contrived; she was a master at saying a lot with little. She doesn’t bother announcing which narrator is taking a new chapter – just lets us work it out. We gradually tease out Georgie’s personality from these three characters who all love him, in their own ways. Wonderful writing, but very bleak. One I need to re-read to appreciate fully.  (8/10)

Source: Own copy.    Duckworth (1998).  Abacus paperback, 224 pages.  BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)

Symposium by Muriel Spark

My third Muriel Spark novel for  Heavenali’s ReadingMuriel2018 project.  Symposium begins with Lord Brian Suzy exclaiming:

‘This is rape!’ His voice was reaching a pitch it had never reached before and went higher still as he surveyed the wreckage. ‘This is violation!’
It was not rape, it was a robbery.

Cut to a dinner party for ten in Islington hosted by Hurley Reed, a 50-something American painter and his partner Chris Donovan, a 40-something Australian widow.  They are famed for bringing  excellent guests to their table.  There’s Lord  (nearly 50) and the third Lady (22) Suzy; Ernst and Ella Untzinger, Ernst a Euro-official;  newly-weds Margaret and William Damien; and cousins Roland Sykes and Annabel Treece.  Hurley and Chris have hired in help for the evening, a butler and a young graduate to serve the food.  Brian is telling all and sundry about their robbery, Margaret and William tell about their honeymoon in Italy just a few weeks before, and where they met – in M&S of all places!

I can’t say more about what happens, suffice to say there are hiliarious scenes set in a nunnery and that several of the characters are more than they first appear.  It’s clever and witty – as if Spark could be anything else!  Like Bainbridge, she is another concise writer and this novel at 160 pages is novella length – a short, sharp read that I enjoyed very much indeed. (9/10)

Source: Own copy.   Constable (1990).  Virago paperback, 160 pages.  BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)

My Purple Scented Novel by Ian McEwan

Published to celebrate McEwan’s 70th birthday, this single short story is deliciously wicked – a story of literary betrayal and professional jealousy. It shows that McEwan had huge fun in crafting this story, but it also tickled me that one of the characters is an x-ray crystallographer from Imperial College (Hoorah for a materials scientist in a novel!).  You won’t be disappointed if you come across a copy of this one.  I must admit, I often struggle to read a whole book of short stories, but I love coming across singles – and at just £1.99 this was totally worth it.

Source: Own copy.   Vintage (2018) paperback, 48 pages.  BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)

What’s Your Type by Merve Emre

This oft-fascinating history primarily tells the story of how a mother and daughter went from dabbling in psychology to a position of dominance in the personality testing business.  It was in the 1920s, that Katherine Myers, already a keen amateur psychologist, discovered the work of Carl Jung.  Later she would correspond with her hero as she was inspired to create a personality test based on the personality types he had described.  Jung replied politely, but never endorsed the fledgling test she devised.  Her only surviving child, Isabel. after her marriage to Clarence ‘Chief’ Briggs,  would become her business partner and help hone and market the test which took form during WWII.  The test would go on to be used by US agencies and many big companies, despite lack of clinical validation, and constant criticism of its lack of repeatability, but enough people believed in it for the 93 question MBTI test still being used today, little changed from the original and brining in the dollars.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) grid shows 16 types, based on the four pairs of opposite traits – Extraversion/Introversion; Sensing/Intuition; Thinking/Feeling; and Judging/Perceiving.  The test is strictly protected by a foundation set up by Isabel not long before she died in 1980.  Emre applied to look at Briggs and Myers’ original papers, and was eventually invited to participate in an expensive course to become accredited and then they would let her see the archive – which they reneged on. (This made me think of Scientology!).

The biographical parts of this book were often quite dull, and I’d have loved to read more scientific comparisons of the MBTI against other tests – but Emre is not a scientist.  I do find it rather scary that organisations relied and still rely on the results of tests like this. The tests are so reliant on mood, environment, stress – different days, different situations can give different results. I’ve taken an online free MBTI influenced test (16 personalities) a few times for fun and seem to vacillate between two types!  Like horoscopes, you can read your results and say – that’s me!  This book may be more biography than scientific, but it has made me question the worth of human categorisation in this way. We are all unique!  Long live the individual!  (6.5/10)

Source: Review copy – thank you.    William Collins, 2018. Hardback, 336 pages.   BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)


11 thoughts on “Review catch-up

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I just love her earlier comedies more than her histories (but I will re-read this one as it has depths I didn’t plumb)

  1. Craig Bingham says:

    Great reviews. All the books sound interesting, but the one about the Myer Briggs Type Indicator especially drew me. I know that today the Myer Briggs and other tests with even less scientific evidence behind them are still popular in the corporate world. The story of how this came to be sounds like a good read.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thanks Craig,
      In my former career I worked for an American multinational, and while they didn’t make me do the MBTI I did do the Margerison McCann Team Mgt test… I came out as a Creator/Innovator and used that as an excuse for years for not finishing anything I started.
      This book was interesting, although not always gripping – but you almost had to admire Myers for fighting for recognition as a woman in a man’s world. However, she was blind to the dangers of meddling in people’s lives using unvalidated tests though… Hmm.

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