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Posts tagged ‘Memory’

The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder by John Ironmonger

This book was chosen for me by my good friend Philip Walmsley (@M2Phil) when I put a request out on Twitter for a recommendation for my next read. And am I glad he recommended it!

Lovely parcel through the post!

Lovely parcel through the post!

This is one of those books that makes you think, “This is unique. There is nothing else out there quite like this.” And I think I’m right.
The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder is compelling, gripping, vivid, emotional, heartbreaking, funny, philosophical, and, quite frankly, genius. It was so much more than what I thought it was going to be when it first came through the post. It made me think and evaluate life, and brought back all the philosophical musings I had back in college when I was studying Philosophy at A-Level. It lead to discussions with my family and friends. It also introduced me to a biscuit I’d never tried before – the madeleine! (I read about it for the first time in this book, and then by sheer coincidence they were selling them at a charity bake sale at work the next day. Well, I had to try one. Purely for philosophical research, you understand.)

On his twenty-first birthday, Maximilian Ponder shut himself away from the world to embark on his greatest project: an attempt to record every memory in his brain. It should have taken just three years. But three long decades pass. Now Max lies dead, surrounded by his magnum opus – The Catalogue – a library of notebooks and journals that he hoped would form the map of a single human mind. And before his friend Adam Last can call the police and inform them of Max’s death, one rather gruesome task remains for the project to be complete…

Interspersed with extracts from Max’s Catalogue, Adam tells the story of the man he knew – a man whose life changed dramatically the day he buried a dead labrador and fought a duel with his father. What emerges is both the story of a friendship and also of a lifelong obsession, a quest to understand the human mind, memory, and how we construct the story of our lives.

The other night as I sat reading the book, my boyfriend turned to me and remarked, “That doesn’t look like it’s got a very happy ending.” And I guess he’s right – how can a book that immediately starts with a passage referring to the protagonist’s dead body have a happy ending?! – but this didn’t put me off at all. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love it when books end happily but my enjoyment of this book didn’t suffer. The substance, the message, the philosophical nature of the story more than made up for the fact that it has a rather unpleasant subject matter. It’s not just about death. It’s about the effects and consequences of death, yes, but it’s also about life and the celebration of life, and how we can make sure that our lives have some kind of impact on the world, even when we’re gone.

While Max’s last name – Ponder – is an obvious little play on words, it doesn’t come across as trying too hard. It fits him perfectly – after all, more than half of his life is spent pondering the idea of memory and death.

‘When I become a famous philosopher, I want something more individual than “Ponderian.”‘

‘You could always have “Ponderous”,’ said Ravi.

‘Fuck off,’ said Max.

‘Ponderosan,’ I suggested.

‘You can fuck off too, Last. I want Ponderic.’

And perhaps it’s just the English student in me being far too pedantic and analytical, but I love the idea of Adam Last’s surname reflecting on the fact that he stays with Max until his very last moments, and beyond. In fact, Adam remarks in the book that people found the ironic contrast in his name – Adam, the ‘first’ ever man, with the surname ‘Last’ – amusing, so of course we could analyse names until the cows come home, but that would be taking away from the true beauty of the book.

Memory pops up again as a theme in this book, like in so many books I’ve been reading before it. Of course Max’s project is to record every memory his brain has ever had, every scrap of knowledge, even if he suspects that memory to be disjointed or wrong – if his mind remembers and perceives it that way, then that is what he must write down. As he remarks himself in the Catalogue, “Memory involves all sorts of cross-wiring and quality control before it bubbles up to the surface.”

The reason Max is so preoccupied with the idea of memory and death is because both his uncle and his dad die of a horrific hereditary brain tumour. Through his grief he recognises that memory is all that people have and that memory is what makes a person who they are. It’s this fear and this point of view that drives him to catalogue his own brain.

Every time someone dies it’s like the world loses a big chunk of information for ever. I don’t mean to say that every bit of that information is especially valuable, but it’s surely just as valuable as a fragment of pot from a Roman villa, or a fossil from some riverbed in China.

Despite the questionable (at best) life choice that Max makes in the book, I found myself relating heavily to his thoughts and especially his fears. Scarily, in the past I’ve often found myself thinking these exact things, and on more than one occasion I’ve considered starting my own ‘catalogue’ of sorts. I remember a couple of months back, before ever hearing of this book, driving down the motorway and musing on my life and how many people I’ve known and met and interacted with and had friendships or relationships or working relationships with. I imagined myself putting together a scrapbook or account of everyone I’d known and met and how they’d influenced my life, so that when I died there would be something left behind, and people would know that their lives and mine had some meaning and impact on others. Now, I know this is nothing like the scale of cataloging your own brain, but it’s for this reason that the concept of this book was not completely unrelatable or indeed too far-fetched for me. I understood Max. I understand the value that he places in the power of human experience and memory, and the loss he feels when someone dies and all of that disappears.

What do we do with the richest information we have available – the material locked away in the brains of four billion people? You know what we do? Sod all.

He struggles with the notion that we have memories that are actually there, but we can’t access easily and at will. In this passage he talks about how he knows that he used to know the Swahili word for ‘friend’, but try as he might, he cannot remember it. Then, years later, it comes to him:

…and then, like a bloody great tsunami, this word emerged in slow motion and came thundering through the ether towards me, a suffocating deluge of a word, a word that slapped me across the face like a saltwater surge and the word was – ‘rafiki’.  Now, I can honestly swear that you could have strapped me naked to a wheel and threatened to apply ten thousand volts to my bollocks and you couldn’t have coaxed that three-syllable word out of my sluggard brain.

It is the realisation that memory can not always be summoned at will that makes Max come to the conclusion that three years will not be enough to undertake such a massive project. It changes from being a dedicated research project to a simple way of life.

I love the way the book deals with relationships. Obviously Max and Adam’s relationship is quite unlike any other. As Max locks himself away from the outside world, with strict rules that he can never know what’s happening other than within the four walls of his home, he becomes completely dependent on Adam to feed him, take care of his estate, to arrange the binding and organisation of the volumes of his Catalogue, and to make sure that the outside world does not pollute his project. This makes their friendship truly unique, requiring a huge amount of trust from Max and a massive sacrifice from Adam. He gives up a promising marketing career in order to take care of Max’s business and devote himself to the project.

Through a non-linear narrative, Ironmonger builds up a vivid story which allows the reader to fully understand why Adam would make such a huge sacrifice for Max. He takes us back to Africa in the 1960s, the place and time that the two boys first forge a friendship. From there the novel takes us on a journey through both Adam’s and Max’s lives and minds. There is a lot of love and dependence within the novel, and nothing feels unbelievable or out of place. Adam continuously feels that he is working for, and waiting for, Max, but he never wavers in his dedication to his friend. As a reader, you begin to love the men for their strange but strong relationship with each other.

I seemed to spend my life waiting for Max.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I found none of it boring or hard work. It was a real pleasure to read. I would like to thank Phil for recommending this book to me. I could write a much longer review, but whatever I do write won’t do the novel justice. All I can do is urge you to read it yourself. You definitely won’t be disappointed.

The Memory Book by Rowan Coleman

A week ago I posted an interview with the vastly popular Rowan Coleman, author of The Memory Book. (You can read her interview here.) Here is my review of The Memory Book itself…

The Memory Book, part of Richard and Judy's Summer Book Club 2014.

The Memory Book, part of Richard and Judy’s Summer Book Club 2014.

I bought this book in the first couple of weeks into starting my new job. I was staying with a friend’s family at the time while I looked for a new house in a new city, and it provided me with a little escape from my exciting but extremely overwhelming life at the time. I would take a train to work each morning, and before leaving the station I would pop into WHSmith and buy a different book. Generally, I was buying whatever was in the current book charts there. And while The Memory Book was rightfully in those charts, it was actually my introduction to Rowan Coleman personally that lead me to buy her book. Had I not been so busy and in a world of my own, I would probably have discovered the book sooner.

This book was unlike any I’d read before; it was both heartbreaking and heart-warming, hilarious and sad all at the same time. Exploring themes of love, loss, memory and perception, it centres around a woman named Claire, a middle-aged mother of two who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and who slowly deteriorates throughout the novel. Her husband, Greg, buys her a large red scrapbook, in which Claire and the rest of her family write down memories of the past and thoughts of the present.

What made this novel so intrinsically fascinating was that it is written in the point of view of each family member, including Claire herself. Rowan Coleman’s ability to show us a perception of the world through the eyes and mind of someone with Alzheimer’s, alongside those of the family who are suffering around her, is truly breathtaking.

The thing I’m scared about the most is losing words.

Claire hasn’t yet lost her memory for good; it comes and goes, usually at the most dangerous or inconvenient of times. Sometimes it’s just words that slip her mind, other times it’s people, and occasionally Claire still believes that she is a child or a teenager and doesn’t remember that she’s a fully-grown woman with a family. Claire recognises her husband and knows that they are married, but often cannot remember how it felt to be in love with him. She leaves the house to go somewhere and forgets where she’s going, and who she is. Often she feels herself slipping away and tries to cling to her memories and normal consciousness for as long as she can. And when the memories and the world all come rushing back to her, you can almost feel Claire’s relief that she can understand and comprehend the world around her once more. This is what makes the narrative both heartbreaking and fascinating in equal measures.

…all the ill-fitting, scrambled-up mosaic pieces that make up the world around me fall into place and I see everything.

In writing the character of Claire’s oldest daughter Caitlin, Coleman has managed to create a thoroughly loveable and strong young woman whose internal struggle lies in being strong for her mother and dealing with her own frightening problems simultaneously. She has never known her real father, and so losing her mother in such a slow and painful way is incredibly hard for her to bear. But throughout it all, she never stops trying to protect Claire, and in this way the novel beautifully portrays the interdependence within the family. As strong as she tries to be for Claire, however, the little girl in her still comes out and the reader realises that she still needs her mother as much as her mother now needs her.

I know that, for now at least, I am around ten years old to her, and it doesn’t matter, not now. Because I feel safe.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking of all is the pain that Claire’s husband Greg goes through as his wife treats him like a stranger in his own house. Claire knows who Greg is, in principle, but her love has disappeared and often Greg makes her feel intimidated and uncomfortable, through no fault of his own. The passages written by Greg within the memory book are so heartfelt and emotional and show Greg’s inner strength. Even if Claire does not remember him, he refuses to leave and vows to stick by her until the end. He lives for those few-and-far-between moments when Claire remembers him, and her love comes flooding back. although these moments become less and less frequent.

Throughout all this sadness, however, the book is also very funny. The comic aspect of the novel stops the narrative from being all doom and gloom and gives the reader some regular light-hearted relief.

“I never liked him…I only met him once, but he brought me a box of chocolates when I was on a diet.”

Claire and her family try their hardest to keep things as normal as possible, and Coleman has succeeded in showing the reader how important love, family, and laughter is in life, no matter what is going on around you. Claire realises this herself, and often writes positive and amusing stories in the memory book for her youngest daughter Esther to read, so that the memories she has of her mother are happy ones. Coleman portrays in Claire a selfless, loving, sweet woman and mother, but who often makes mistakes and ill-conceived judgements. These only serve to make her more believable and relatable as a central character.

The book comes at a time when Alzheimer’s disease is becoming more and more topical. (The publishing company I work for, for instance, is sponsoring the Alzheimer’s charity this year.) So much is yet to be learned about this terrible and so far unconquered disease. With the publication and popularity of novels such as this, the literary world can help spread the word and raise awareness.

Charming, sad, funny, and thought-provoking with an unexpected twist of an ending, The Memory Book is a complete triumph for Rowan Coleman.

You can read more about Rowan Coleman here.

Follow her on Twitter @rowancoleman

Follow the publisher @EburyPublishing

More about the publisher here.

Buy the book here.

Have you read The Memory Book? Please tell me what you thought of it in the comments below!

Introducing Popular Author Rowan Coleman

So…I’m back!

And why have I waited until 2015 to post another interview?

To give myself some credit, there is a very good reason for this, and that is why I hope you’ll forgive the silence. You see, in August of last year, after kick-starting a very intensive job hunt for a publishing role, I received invitations to interview for 5 different publishing jobs all within the space of two weeks.

Anyone who knows me and knows just how hard I have been working towards a publishing career will know just how exciting this was for me. It was also very time-consuming and costly as all of these were outside of Hull and most of them were in London (a good 4-hour journey away on train.)

Eventually I was offered the role of Editorial Assistant at Emerald Group Publishing in Bingley (just outside of Bradford.) I don’t think I’ve ever felt so excited and happy in my life.

…Oh, and not to mention overwhelmed. The next four months consisted of finishing my notice at my current job, shopping for and buying a car, house hunting in Pontefract (equidistant from Hull and Bingley), moving to a new city, and starting a brand new (exciting but challenging) career in a strange new location. All at the same time. I was physically and mentally exhausted. Something had to give, and unfortunately it was this blog.

However…

In the midst of all this, my close friend and published children’s author Annie Dalton (whose interview you can read here) managed to help me get in contact with some very established and successful people in the publishing and literature world in order to conduct interviews with them. This is how I managed to get an interview with none other than Rowan Coleman, author of The Memory Book. The Memory Book recently won the Seal of Approval from the Richard and Judy Book Club (and for a good reason – the book is amazing. My next book review will be on The Memory Book.)

Needless to say, I am so very excited that she agreed to do an interview for my blog. This is a Big Deal for me. As a newbie blog writer and interviewer, I may not be the best, but Rowan’s personality springs from the pages through whatever she writes, so this interview is well worth a read as a sneak peak into her life and work. Enjoy!

Rowan Coleman

Rowan Coleman

Can you tell me how you got into writing, and then how you initially got published?

I’ve been into storytelling and writing stories since I was a child, but my first publishing deal came after I entered and won Company Magazine’s Young Writer of the Year short story competition. Winning was not only a huge boost to my confidence, but it also opened doors to agents and publishers and set me on the road to getting my first novel published.

Did you always want to be a writer?

I have always had my head stuck firmly in the clouds making up stories, but I think I didn’t realise that that translated into being a writer until I was in my late teens – early twenties. And really it wasn’t a firm ambition until I was in my late twenties. I always thought it would be an impossible dream.

Tell us a little bit about your novel The Memory Book.

The Memory Book is the story of Claire, who at the age of around 40 is diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. It sounds like it could be depressing, but really it’s a book about love, in all its forms, but especially maternal love. It’s about learning to live in the moment, to grab hold of life and make sure you leave a legacy behind in the form of happy memories.

The Memory Book, part of Richard and Judy's Summer Book Club 2014.

The Memory Book, part of Richard and Judy’s Summer Book Club 2014.

You’ve just won the Richard and Judy Seal of Approval. What does this mean for you and your career?

Personally it means a great deal to me. It’s something that I think every writer secretly dreams of, and it’s a real boost to my confidence. Professionally it means that hopefully my books will reach a wider audience, and that more people will read The Memory Book. I really hope so!

Which of your (many) awards are you most proud of and why?

I think the award that has the fondest place in my heart is the award for Best Romantic Read from The Festival of Romance. It came at a difficult time in my life, and it meant so much to me. It really helped me pick myself up and dust myself off, and get on with doing what I love.

How important do you find social media to be in the life and career of a published writer?

It’s a great place to meet readers and make writer friends. I think you need to treat it as a kind of virtual cafe, and not constantly try and sell, sell, sell – though all writers have to do that now and then, because our publishers make us!

Do you believe authors need a strong online presence in today’s climate?

Yes, I think a strong online presence for anyone who isn’t already very well established is very important.

How do you deal with this while juggling a large workload and even larger family?

Badly!

Did your life experiences as a mother change your outlook on life? Did it affect your writing at all?

The moment you become a parent the world is a much scarier place. Interestingly, I had my first child shortly before my first novel Growing Up Twice was published, so apart from that book, I’ve always been a mother and a writer at the same time. I don’t think motherhood affected my writing directly so much, but I do think my books have gradually grown up with me.

You also write under the name of Scarlett Bailey, whose writing you describe as more ‘comedic’ in your blog. What do you feel are the benefits of writing under another name?

Well, I think it’s just nice for me to have a very fun romcom persona. I love writing the Scarlett books, they make me laugh a lot, and I love the sort of slightly fantastical and whimsical element in them. It’s very freeing as a writer. The simple reason I write them under another name is that they are very different from my Rowan books, and it’s easy for readers to know what they are getting when they pick one up.

How about the disadvantages? 

Well, Scarlett is very demanding and bossy, and keeps borrowing my clothes!

Which (if any) of your works are you most proud of and why?

Very hard to say! I am proud of that fact that last year I republished a short novella called Woman Walks into a Bar from which 100% of my profits were given to the charity Refuge. I haven’t reached my £10K yet, but I am slowly getting there.

What type of literature do you most enjoy reading?

I love reading, and like most readers, any sort of book can catch my eye. Recently I’ve really enjoyed The Girl with All the Gifts, Dr Sleep, The Killer Next Door, Where Love Lies and The Accident.

Would you say there are any themes running through all of your books, or do they each deal with their own unique themes?

I suppose if there is one theme running through my books it would be it is never too late to make the change that will make you happy.

What advice would you give as a successful writer for others just starting in the industry?

Write every day, if you can. Commit to writing, treat it like a profession, show the industry that you are serious about what you are doing, and be polite – really polite, all of the time. The publishing industry is a small world. Everyone knows everyone.

What are the biggest changes you’ve noticed in the publishing industry since you started writing?

Well, I suppose that would have to be the rise of ebooks and Amazon, which in wake of the demise of the Net Book Agreement means that readers never want to pay full price for a book, and actually they’d like to pay less than the cost of a cup of tea or certainly a greetings card. This is hard to bear for writers who try and earn a living creating quality fiction, but someone let the genie out of the bottle, and now we all have to live with it! It also means that there are greater opportunities for writers who might not always be traditionally published, and many are carving out great careers for themselves, so there is always a bright side.

Follow Rowan Coleman on Twitter @rowancoleman

See what Richard and Judy have to say about The Memory Book here

Find out more about Rowan Coleman here.

Have you read any of Rowan Coleman’s work? Please discuss this with me in the comments below!

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