Archive for June, 2012

The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog . . . apparently . . .

In November 1960, Frank Sinatra gave Marilyn Monroe a dog. His name was Maf. He had an instinct for the twentieth century. For politics. For psychoanalysis. For literature. For interior decoration. This is his story.

Maf the dog was with Marilyn for the last two years of her life. Not only a picaresque hero himself, he was also a scholar of the adventuring rogue in literature and art, witnessing the rise of America’s new liberalism, civil rights, the space race, the New York critics, and was Marilyn Monroe’s constant companion.

Above is the synopsis from the publisher. They describe the story in much more length, detail and optimism than I ever possibly could. I’m afraid I can only sum it up in one word and I don’t find that one word appropriate to mention on my blog.

To be polite: this book was dreadful.

Only myself and one other reading group member managed to wade our way through the self indulgent nonsense that was splashed across the page. Most members barely managed to get halfway through. The book is very cleverly written – that I must say – but the book itself just doesn’t seem to work. We felt that the book lead us to believe that we would see Marilyn’s life through the eyes of her beloved furry friend, but this just isn’t the case. Maf is certainly there but doesn’t play the part that we expected considering the title. Plus, his frequent chats with fellow animal friends leaves you somewhat bewildered if not slightly annoyed.

We all agreed that this wasn’t quite what we had in mind and felt that the story was disjointed, puffed out and quite frankly didn’t make a lot of sense. This book was unanimously disliked and I don’t think we’ll be reading anymore of Andrew O’Hagan’s work in the near future.

As a group we struggled to chat about the book for twenty minutes (at which point I was beginning to sweat) but as our group is full of cheery, laid back members we managed to squeeze out some lovely discussions on current books and what we would possibly like to read in the future, and also discussed a great opportunity for members to be part of a new reading incentive from Pan Macmillan. This opportunity is open to any member of any reading group so please follow the link for more information and to register for this new incentive:

Our next meeting is on Tuesday 3rd July and we will be discussing The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson – see you all there!

Night Waking by Sarah Moss

Night Waking is a fascinating book about Anna, an academic who is supposed to be writing a book on 18th century ideas of childhood, but finds herself making copious amounts of bread,   threatening her young child with the act of taking a knife and killing herself, and bribing her ornithologist husband with sex to agree to look after his own children: Raphael and Timothy.

Anna’s days are a round of abandoned projects, domestic drudgery and half-hearted attempts to find solitude; there’s nowhere to hide on such a small island. The bright but troubled Raphael models disaster zones in Lego while Moth demands a constant supply of picture books and biscuits. The book’s action seems monotonous, as life with small children can be, but as you read you begin to feel for Anna and her isolated world of sleepless nights and long days and with the arrival of a dysfunctional family of holidaymakers, complete with anorexic teenager, this puts Anna’s miseries into perspective.

Set in Colsay (which is modelled on St Kilda, that had similar problems with neonatal tetanus), Anna and her son, Raphael, find the skeleton of a young child in their back garden. Anna has more than enough to contend with in her life but finds the child’s body too harrowing to be ignored. Feeling the need to investigate further, Anna spends most of her time researching what she can in the hope of finding a link to this child’s body.

The discovery of some unopened 19th century letters are the final piece to this deathly puzzle and the way in which everything unfolds towards the end is pure genius. There are mysteries to solve – some historical, some fresh – most of which are answered, with the exception of the final chapter where the author leaves it up to the reader to decide on Anna’s next route in life.

The overall feel for this book was of great enthusiasm. It has been a while since our group as a whole have been intrigued, satisfied and thoroughly enjoyed such a good read. We felt that Sarah Moss had succeeded in writing a genuinely good piece of both historical and modern fiction that most, if not all, could relate to in some way. The reality of motherhood and the historical content of the sad tale of the Colsay residents was beautifully written with some dark humour popped in there along the way. A pleasure to read with some interesting topics and valid points bringing some interesting thoughts and opinions to the group discussion. Certainly one for your bookshelf!

I contacted Sarah who kindly agreed to answer a few questions about Night Waking so here they are:

Where did the idea for Night Waking come from?

Several places. I’d always been interested in the history of the Highlands and Islands, where I spent a lot of time as a child. Then one day I saw an advert for a holiday cottage on its own island, which seemed to me a hauntingly horrible idea – great for a new couple, guaranteed to push a tense family over the edge. I didn’t for a moment want to go, but I thought it was an interesting idea.

Do you draw from personal experience for this book or are you very good at your research?!

Well, both, I hope! I’m a young(ish) female academic and a mother, so some of Anna’s situation comes from my own experience. And neither of my children slept much at all for the first few years. But my career never came to the kind of standstill that threatens Anna, my husband has worked part-time since the children were born and has been their primary carer for the last few years, and I would never have gone to an island like that, partly because if I did I could imagine being more like Anna.

Put in Anna’s shoes, do you think you would have coped as she did or would you have done things differently?

I wouldn’t have gone to Colsay, and I wouldn’t have married – or stayed married to – Giles. I like cooking. It matters to me that the house is clean and tidy, and that my children are washed and properly dressed at least first and last thing in the day. When I have a book to write, I arrange childcare. I sometimes say that I couldn’t have written a novel if I were Anna.

Both your novels – Night Waking and Cold Earth – have similar content in regards to setting, archeology and history. Do you see yourself writing a third novel with similar subject matter or would you like to write something completely different?

My next book, out next month, is a memoir about living in Iceland for a year (Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland). I’m now working on a very different novel, set in the nineteenth century. The new novel picks up the story of May and her family from Night Waking, but there’s no modern strand and no first-person narrator. It’s set mostly in Manchester and I’m pretty sure there won’t be any archaeology.

Is there anything that you would change about your book or any of the characters in it?

That way madness lies. You have to let them go and move on to the next one.

Well I don’t know about anyone else but I am certainly looking forward to Sara’s newest book out next month. Thank you once again to Sara Moss for taking the time to answer these questions and I look forward to our next meeting on Tuesday 12th June where we shall be discussing The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog by Andrew O’Hagan.

See you all there!

About the group

The Tees Valley Book Group meets at Stockton Central Library at 6.30pm on the first Tuesday of the month.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit


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