Review: Il Pirata

On Tuesday, my wife and I went to see (and hear) Il Pirata (The Pirate) at Teatro Massimo in Palermo. I mention it because reviewing an opera has much in common with a book review. Teatro Massimo is the largest opera house in Italy

and the third largest in Europe, and as one would expect, it is not lacking in grandeur. Above the stalls there are six levels of boxes!

Il Pirata was written by Vincenzo Bellini, who was a Sicilian, but the premiere of the opera was in 1827 in Milan, because Teatro Massimo was built between 1875 and 1897.

The libretto was written in Italian by Felice Romani – with considerable involvement of Bellini – based on a three-act French melodrama, which, in turn was based on a five-act French play. The opera, however, is in two acts.

For those of you opera fans, the cast we heard was:

Gautiero: Giorgio Misseri

Imogene: Marta Torbidoni

Ernesto: Francesco Vultaggio

Rubini as Gualtiero-IL PIRATA -Oct 1827.jpg
Rubini as Gaultiero in 1827

Synopsis: The pirate captain Gaultiero is shipwrecked on the territory of the Duke, Ernesto, having lost a sea battle to his old enemy the duke. Gaultiero, unaware of where he has landed, confesses his love for Imogene, who, ten years earlier, unbeknown to Gaultiero, became the duke’s wife under duress. Imogene comes to offer hospitality to the shipwrecked sailors. Gaultiero recognises her, but she does not recognise him, singing instead of her love for him. That night Gaultiero reveals his identity to Imogene and she explains that she married the duke to save her father from threatened death. Ernesto becomes suspicious of the identity of the pirate leader because of his wife’s apparent interest in him. Gaultiero manages to meet Imogene before he is permitted to depart, but he refuses to leave without Imogene, who urges him to forgive and forget. Ernesto overhears their duet and challenges his rival to a duel Ernesto is killed in the duel and the duke’s knights sentence Gaultiero to death for murder. As Gaultiero is executed Imogene seems to lose her mind.

This opera is packed with intense emotions: love and hate. The music fully supports those emotions, and while in my opinion it does not achieve the standard of Giuseppe Verdi, it is certainly very good. The voices of the three principal characters were first rate. The libretto, which was projected above the stage in both Italian and English, left out – for me – an important consideration: how did Gaultiero become a pirate? And, what’s to love about a pirate?

(As an aside, the Italian of the libretto is hardly recognisable. My wife, who is Italian, said she had to read the English version to understand what was happening. The Italian language has changed greatly in the last two hundred years.)

Fiction writers have been told: “Show, don’t Tell!”. In opera, generally, and in this one in particular there is a lot of showing: in the demonstrative body language used by the characters – the acting was excellent – and in the powerful orchestral music. This showing reinforced the emotive language of the libretto.

Two essentials of fiction were missing from this opera: a setting, and in-depth characterisation. The ‘sets’ were extremely minimal. There were only two scenes; one for each act, instead of the six scenes in the libretto. One didn’t have the feeling if ‘being there’. The costumes were late 20th century street wear, in some cases altered to show the effect of shipwreck and battle. Imogene didn’t resemble a duchess, and Gaultiero didn’t look much like a pirate. I’m sure these omissions represented real savings for the producers, particularly as the opera was staged for only three nights.

Still, it was a very enjoyable evening.

What Soap Opera Taught Me About Writing

Author Alverne Ball has a post on the Writer’s Digest website in which he describes what he learned about the craft of writing from watching soap operas when he was a child.

Alverne Ball is the author of the crime fiction novels Blue Religion aHe is also the writer of a bestselling graphic novels and the forthcoming, multi-issue comic series, Crook County. Alverne is the 2019 Tin House graphic narrative scholar and the recipient of 2014 and 2015 Glyph Comics Rising Star Awards. Alverne earned his MFA in fiction writing from Columbia College.

Alverne Ball
Alverne Ball

I have provided excerpts from his post below:

“As a young boy who didn’t know much about genre, medium, or even the basics of storytelling, I found that my first brush with a good story and how to tell one occurred every day on my grandmother’s couch watching daytime soap operas, or “stories” as we called them in my household. These soap operas were my gateway into worlds far removed from my own.

“Here are five important basics of storytelling I learned from watching those soap operas that translate to just about any type of medium in which you want to create.

Plot

“In every story there is a plot. But no plot is more evident than in a soap opera. For instance, I remember this one plot from Days of our Lives where there was a vigilante called The Pacifier who was catching bad guys in the town of Salem. Years later I’d come across a comic book called The Punisher in which a vigilante was killing bad guys in New York City. The two vigilantes could easily be the same, and yet the plots behind their stories were told in two different mediums and in two different genres.

Characters

“Whether hero or villain or somewhere in between, a good character is the other half of what drives a story forward. Characters are the backbone, the make-or-break of any story. Characters are the reflection of ourselves, our society, and a clear look into our humanity. Through characters we bond and learn more about our world and how we see ourselves in it.

“Soap operas have a plethora of characters who can change on a daily basis based on their needs, wants, aspirations, etc. But one thing that is consistent in these characters is that they are complex, just like any individual. Take for example, the villain Stefano DiMera from Days of our Lives. Some may say (myself included) that DiMera is one of the best and most unforgettable villains in all of villainy history. And yet, when we learn of Stefano’s love for his children and his complete obsession/love for Marlena, a woman he can never seem to have, I understand the affairs of the heart that afflict him and deep down, even though he’s the villain, I’m rooting for him. Think about your own work—where can you add more duality to your protagonists and antagonists?

Tropes, Techniques, and Devices

“Like any good story, soap operas employ a number of storytelling techniques that may go over a casual viewer’s head, but are part of a writer’s literary arsenal. For example, most viewers of soap operas understand the clichéd trope of “the character with amnesia.” But from a writer’s perspective this technique might be utilized to incorporate a dream telling, in which the writer conveys the character’s fears, hopes, or internal thoughts. By using the “dream” technique, information about the character’s past is given to the reader without having to explore that past, especially if it is not in service of the story.

“The same could be said of the “return from the dead” character in any soap opera, in which a character is reintroduced to the viewer as a way of also introducing a new storyline. But from the writer’s perspective, this trope could also be used in a similar way to introduce a new character to a story without diving into the character’s background or past.

Pacing

“Soap operas are a great avenue for studying pacing because the writers have to conmvey so much information in a short period of time. That means Mark Twain’s commonly used phrase, “Don’t use a five dollar word when a fifty cent word will do ” is on display as to how every word matters.

“One good way to measure one’s pacing is to watch a scene from a soap opera and write down everything that you learn in that one scene. Now read a scene from your own work and write or underline everything you learn about that character in that scene. Compare the notes from the soap opera to the one from your own prose.

Cliffhangers

“A cliffhanger is what keeps you hanging on and coming back for more. I learned the art of a good cliffhanger from shows like Days of our Lives, All My Children, and General Hospital. Each one of these shows would reveal something about a character, such as one character believing that her baby had died only to find out that someone had stolen the baby. Or that a character was portraying him/herself to be a person that works in the medical field so that they could sneak into the hospital to poison or kill another character. The list can go on, but the understanding of what makes a good cliffhanger is evident: Leave them wanting more.

“Soap opera episodes are inherently written with at least one cliffhanger in mind because the writers know that they must entice viewers to return the following day, and the day after that, to keep finding out what happens next.

“So, there you have it—a beginning list of things that soap operas can teach you about writing. I challenge you to go watch one and see what else you can learn about storytelling from one of the oldest contemporary forms of entertainment. Oh yeah, and if you still have your grandma in your life, take some time on her couch and watch one or two episodes with her. You may just pick up on the best dialogue and character interaction you’ll ever get to hear and witness first-hand.”

While I agree in principle with Mr Ball’s points and that each of them can be applicable in literary fiction, there may be subtleties at work which affect the technique and the extent to which, for example, a cliffhanger can be applied.

Defining the Characters

There is a post on the Writer’s Digest website written by Brenda Janowicz which offers a different way of defining characters before we bring them to life on the page. She has ten questions for characters.

Brenda Janowitz is the author of Scot on the RocksJack with a Twist, and The Lonely Hearts Club. Her work has also appeared in the New York PostPublisher’s WeeklyLong Island Woman Magazine.

Brenda Janowitz
Brenda Janowicz

“The most important part of your novel is the part that will never be seen by the reader. It’s the part that’s just for you. It’s the part that only you know. Well, you and your character, that is. It’s the character study. You simply cannot write a good novel without knowing your characters inside and out.

There are so many ways to do a character study. It can be a letter your character writes to a friend, it can be a confession your character makes to her shrink, or it can even be a list of things you want to know about her.

Sometimes, when I’m away from my computer, I imagine my character walking around with me. Long line at the drug store? Hmm, how would my character react to that? Friend late for lunch—would my character wait, or just walk out in a huff? Car cut you off in traffic? Would my character yell out loud, or take in it stride?

My wonderful editor, Brenda Copeland, recently sent this great Stephen King quote to me:

“The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.” —Stephen King

I love that quote! So, we cut the backstories. Each and every one of them. And it hurt. Man, did it hurt! But, you know what? Their backstories didn’t change. They just made their way into the narrative in a more organic way. Because of those character studies, I know my characters inside and out, and I think that when an author really knows her characters, truly knows them at their core, that comes out in the writing.

10 questions you need to ask your characters

  1. How old is she? (And how old is she mentally? Is she a 40-year-old in the body of a 16-year-old, or vice versa?)
  2. Did she have a happy childhood? Why/why not?
  3. Past/ present relationships? How did they affect her?
  4. What does she care about?
  5. What is she obsessed with?
  6. Biggest fear?
  7. What is the best thing that ever happened to her? The worst?
  8. Most embarrassing thing that ever happened to her?
  9. Biggest secret?
  10. What is the one word you would use to define her?

What are some of your own questions that you ask yourself when it comes to character? Whar do you think every author needs to know about her characters?”

I think there may be other questions which, depending on the story, may be more relevant to ask. For example:

  • What are his/her character traits which support their role in the story?
  • What’s to like about him/her?
  • What’s to dislike?
  • What is s/he good at?
  • What are his/her weaknesses?
  • What are her/his values in order of importance
  • How does s/he behave when under a lot of pressure (reactive behaviour – which may be the flip side of normal behaviour)
  • Is s/he open to change? What kind of change
  • etc.

Review: Shuggie Bain

This novel is another leftover from the summer reading, but I was very glad to have it, in spite of it looking like it had spent many days with a dozen readers, on the beach and in the rain. It won the Booker Prize last year, one occasion, at least, where I felt that what the Booker should be awarding and what the winning novel is merged into consistency. No scholarly text about a different world, with deep philosophical drifts. Rather, a gritty story about real people in a grim place who can’t help themselves. A book which gives us a memorable picture of humanity.

Shuggie Bain is Douglas Stuart’s first novel. A bit like a rookie baseball player hitting a home run in the major leagues in his first time at bat. Mr Stuart grew up in Glasgow, where the novel is set. So, it seems to me that he lived a life very much like that of Shuggie Bain. In any event, after graduating from the Royal College of Art, he moved to New York where he began a career in design. He wrote several short stories for the New Yorker, and his essay on gender, anxiety and class appeared in the Lit Hub. One feels sure we will hear much more from Douglas Stuart/

Douglas Stuart

Shuggie Bain doesn’t have a complex plot. Agnes, a single mother of three is a goodtime girl, who lives for drink, partying and chasing men, and yet we respond to her vulnerability, and maintain our hope that she will reform herself. Her youngest child is Shuggie, a bright, sensitive ten-year-old, who adores, tries to protect, and is blighted by his mother. We hope that he will focus on his school work, and cut his mother adrift, but that never happens. Instead, we watch as Agnes moves from place to place in Glasgow, and man to man, blaming her misfortune on others, and unable to escape the grip of alcohol, until it kills her.

The book is long – 430 pages – for its simplicity, but none of it seems redundant. Each episode and each scene is relevant to the characters and their dilemmas, and the reader senses impending doom, making it difficult to put the book down. Agnes and Shuggie are flesh and blood characters: their strengths, flaws and vulnerabilities are vibrant and inescapable. Even minor characters like Big Shug and Eugene are three dimensional. The Glaswegian accent and culture are faithfully reproduced. The settings are often painfully clear. Parts of 1960’s Glasgow were not really fit for human habitation. In fact, I could feel the involvement of the author in some of the descriptions of places like Pithead, where the language condemned the place.

I think that Shuggie Bain will remain one of those iconic books about a particular culture, time and place that will be remembered, read and reread well into the future.

Writing Advice from Charles Dickens

The Writers Write website has a series of pages where famous (and not so famous) authors give advice about writing. In this case, Alex J Coyne, a writer, proofreader and card player, has found relevant passages from Dickens’ works and has interpreted them for authors.

7 Bits Of Writing Advice From The Works Of Charles Dickens

1. Nothing Is Impossible (When You’re A Writer) 

‘Consider nothing impossible, then treat possibilities as probabilities.’ – From David Copperfield 

If you believe it’s unlikely or impossible that your pitches and stories will be successful, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

But if you consider nothing impossible, you’ll wake up every day believing something good is about to happen. Keep working at it.

2. Write With Everlasting Curiosity

‘We lawyers are always curious, always inquisitive, always picking up odds and ends for our patchwork minds, since there is no knowing when and where they may fit into some corner.’ – From Little Dorrit 

Charles had a keen interest in law, and this sentence also applies to the average writer. Writers draw heavily on their experiences and research to be good writers who portray these experiences well to readers.

Do you have enough bits and pieces of life experiences, trivia, and research about odd topics to make sure your writing is rich, interesting, and accurate in its details?

3. There’s A Lot Of Bad Writing Out There

‘There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.’ – From Oliver Twist 

The Oliver Twist quote reveals that there was just as much grammatically incorrect (and nonsensically plotted) writing in the 1800s as we have today with the internet.

4. Choose Words With Great Responsibility

‘A word in earnest is as good as a speech.’ – From Bleak House

Another way to say the above would be, ‘One correctly chosen word is worth a thousand.’

Writing should never be lengthier or clumsier than it needs to be. Good writing says stuff, but remarkable writing says stuff with less (and usually more carefully chosen) words.

5. Have a Unique Selling Point

‘It is a hopeless endeavour to attract people to a theatre unless they can be first brought to believe that they will never get in.’ – From Nicholas Nickleby 

Every writing piece that’s worth reading has a unique selling point.

6. Give Characters Depth (& Life!)

Little Red Riding Hood was my first love. I felt that if I could have married Little Red Riding Hood, I should have known perfect bliss.’ – From The Old Curiosity Shop

Fictional characters should have depth, personality, likeability (or the opposite for antagonists!), and history the reader might never get to see.

When readers encounter a character in your story, they should always feel something. Love, hate, disgust, curiosity, interest, wonder, lust, something. Otherwise, you are just not doing your job as a writer.

7. You Should Be Writing

‘Procrastination is the thief of time, collar him.’ – From David Copperfield

Writers write, but many writers also procrastinate.

Every writer has at least one or two excuses to hush their conscience when they should be writing now, but aren’t.

Writing right now is always better than not writing right now. Now go write something!

Review: The Nickel Boys

This novel, by Colson Whitehead, was one that my son-in-law left for me. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2020, and i devoured it rather quickly.

 Colson Whitehead was born in 1969 in New York City; his parents owned an executive recruiting firm. As a child growing up in New York City, he decided that he wanted to be a novelist after reading Stephen King’s novels. He matriculated at Harvard University; after he was not accepted into Harvard’s creative writing seminars, he studied English and comparative literature. Upon receiving a B.A. in 1991, he became an editorial assistant at The Village Voice; he wrote music, television, and book reviews and eventually became the newspaper’s television editor.  He has written eight novels, including The Underground Railroad, for which he was awarded he 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He lives in New York City and Sag Harbor, long Island.

Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys is a work of fiction but it is based on the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, which the author discovered in 2014. It was a reform school operated by the State of Florida from 1900 to 2011. Throughout its 111-year history, the school gained a reputation for abuse, beatings, rapes, torture, and even murder of students by staff. Despite periodic investigations, changes of leadership, and promises to improve, the allegations of cruelty and abuse continued.

The principal character in The Nickel Boys is Elwood Curtis, growing up in the Florida panhandle in the 1960. His parents have deserted him and he is living with his grandmother. He is an idealistic, well behaved boy who does well in school and is preparing to go to college. He is arrested accepting a ride from a car thief and sent to the Nickel Academy, a segregated reform school. There, he meets meets and becomes friends with Turner, a cynic, who cannot understand Elwood’s commitment to Dr Martin Luther Kings instructions to love your oppressor. Trying to intervene in the bullying of a younger boy, Elwood is severely beaten by the school authorities and spends two weeks in the school hospital. The novel lays out in gripping detail what life is like in Nickel. Eventually, Elwood, who has been taking notes of all his experiences, decides to pass them to a state inspector. This leads to an attempted escape by Elwood and Turner which ends tragically.

This novel certainly deserved to win the Pulitzer Prize. It is difficult to set aside, but it is not sensational; it is factual, almost understated, moving on quickly to what happens next. The writing is tight, and the images are sharp. The contrast between Elwood’s and Turner’s attitudes is used to maintain the manageable temperature of the Novel. The school authorities are unembroidered: their action speak for themselves.

The book is a supremely eloquent indictment of man’s inhumanity to man. It leaves us asking ourselves how it can happen to ‘normal’ people. In summary: a great, memorable piece of literature.

Review: The Testaments

I acquired Margaret Atwood’s novel The Testaments from amazon.it just before my son-in-law dumped a pile of his completed summer reading on me. Some of it actually looks quite interesting, but Margaret came first.

This is her novel which won the Booker Prize in 2019, is pretty much a sequel to her The Handmaid’s Tale which was published in 1985, and which I haven’t yet read.

The flyleaf of The Testaments say that ‘Margaret Atwood is the author of more than fifty books of fiction, poetry and critical essays. Atwood has won numerous awards. She has also worked as a cartoonist, illustrator, librettist, playwright and puppeteer. She lives in Toronto, Canada.’

Margaret Atwood

The Testaments is a dystopian novel set in the what was the northeastern United States in the twenty-second century in a military dictatorship which is strongly patriarchal, totalitarian and theonomic. It is called the Republic of Gilead. Women are not allowed to read, write or own property and are divided into classes, each with a distinctive dress. Most importantly, they are deprived of their reproductive function. Wives are the highest class, Marthas are the servants, Handmaids main role to to provide children to male Commanders (infertility is a problem owing to radiation and chemical pollution), Aunts train the Handmaids, and Econowives constitute the major segment of the female population. There are also unmarried girls dressed in white and widows in black. Mayday is a secretive resistance movement in Gilead, and the Pearl Girls are Mayday’s opponents. The Eyes are Gilead’s secret police.

There are three narrators in the novel: Aunt Lydia, an aging, cynical and powerful figure, and two young sisters in training, who become involved in Aunt Lydia’s scheme to bring down Gilead, whose Commanders have become self-serving and corrupt.

The novel is fast-moving and tension-filled. For some one who in not familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale it can be a little bit difficult to get ‘the lay of the land’. Sometimes I also lost track of the historic relationships between characters. Nonetheless, the novel is fascinating in its complexity, its flawed, well-drawn characters, and its ever-shifting plot.

I would certainly recommend this novel to anyone who has read The Handmaid’s Tale. It will surely satisfy your hankering to know what happened next.

It’s my impression that The Testaments was selected as the joint winner with Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo’s of the 2019 Booker Prize as a retrospective recognition that perhaps The Handmaid’s Tale should have won the 1985 prize. After all, the earlier novel was an enormous commercial success, presented the original dystopian landscape, which served as a controversial criticism by the author of the direction in which she saw America heading. It was also as tension-filled, peopled with flawed characters, and undoubtedly as well written as its sequel.

US Supreme Court Rejects First Amendment Case

On July 6, Andrew Albanese reported In Publishers Weekly on a decision by the US Supreme Court that preserves protections for authors and journalists, but raises questions about the future of such protections.

US Supreme Court Justices

The case in question involves Guy Lawson’s 2015 book Arms and the Dudes: How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History, the basis for the movie War Dogs.

In 2017, Shkelzen Berisha, the son of the former Prime Minister of Albania, sued Lawson and Simon & Schuster arguing that the book’s portrayal of his involvement in corrupt arms deals was defamatory. In December, 2018, a district court judge dismissed the lawsuit, holding that Berisha, as a “limited public figure,” failed to show “actual malice”.  In other words, by the standard set in the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1964 decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, Berisha failed to show that Lawson and S&S had published statements they knew to be false, or with “reckless disregard” as to whether or not they were false.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the decision in September, 2020. And with the Supreme Court’s denial of Certioari last week the case is now over.

In a brief statement, S&S officials said they were gratified by the Supreme Court’s 7-2 ruling. “[The decision] affirms long held rights and protections for authors and journalists under the First Amendment and puts an end to a lawsuit that should never have been brought in the first place,” the statement reads.

But the biggest takeaway from the case may be that two of the court’s conservative justices apparently believe there should be more cases like Berisha’s.

In dissents that take aim more at today’s fractured media landscape than the merits of the case, Justices Thomas and Gorsuch question how well the standard articulated by the court in 1964 in Sullivan holds up today.

“What started in 1964 with a decision to tolerate the occasional falsehood to ensure robust reporting by a comparative handful of print and broadcast outlets has evolved into an ironclad subsidy for the publication of falsehoods by means and on a scale previously unimaginable,” Gorsuch writes. “If ensuring an informed democratic debate is the goal, how well do we serve that interest with rules that no longer merely tolerate but encourage falsehoods in quantities no one could have envisioned almost 60 years ago?”

While today’s media landscape is obviously different and challenging, the standard articulated in the New York Times v. Sullivan is widely regarded as a pillar of the American free press. Before the decision, handed down in March, 1964, public officials in southern states had effectively used the threat of libel and defamation actions against news organizations to suppress coverage of the civil rights movement. But the actual malice standard adopted by the court effectively mitigated the risk from costly defamation claims.

Gorsuch and Thomas are far from the only federal judges to urge a re-thinking of the Sullivan standard in recent years—though it is unclear from both dissents how the court’s intervention—as opposed to Congress’s—would alleviate the problems that have emerged in today’s media—a point Gorsuch acknowledged.

“I do not profess any sure answers. I am not even certain of all the questions we should be asking,” Gorsuch conceded in his dissent. “But given the momentous changes in the Nation’s media landscape since 1964, I cannot help but think the Court would profit from returning its attention, whether in this case or another, to a field so vital to the ‘safe deposit’ of our liberties.”

So, it seems to me that there will eventually be changes in the level of free speech protections now enjoyed by authors and journalists.

Review: The Pull of the Stars

As usual, I ran out of novels to read while on holiday in Sicily. I scoured the English shelves of the local bookstore and this time I found a winner: a novel by Emma Donoghue. The title, The Pull of the Stars did nothing for me but the back cover sounded promising: ‘Dublin1918 . . . unfamiliar flu . . . Best Novels of 2020 Daily Telegraph’.

According to the inside back cover, Emma Donoghue was born in Dublin in 1969 and was an Irish emigrant twice over, having spent eight years in Cambridge, England before moving to London, Ontario. She is best known for her novels, which range from the historical to the contemporary. Her international best seller Room, was the New York Times Best Book of 2010 and was shortlisted for the Booker, Commonwealth and Orange Prizes.

Emma Donohue

Nurse Julia Power, age 30, single, who lives with her younger brother, a shell-shocked casualty of the trenches of World War I, is the principal character. Through staff illness she has been assigned a tiny, three bed ward which is occupied by women in the late stages of pregnancy, and who have the fearsome disease which is taking so many lives. (The virus which causes the disease was not discovered until there was an electron microscope in 1935, and a vaccine was not developed until 1938.) There are two other supporting characters: a young volunteer, Bridie Sweeney, from a Dickensian home for orphaned children, and Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a real person, who violently opposed British rule, was Sinn Fein’s director of public health and founder of a free clinic on Charlemont Street. There is a constant flow of new patients onto the tiny ward. Julia and Bridie face seemingly every complication of pregnancy with the occasional help of Dr Lynn. Nurse and volunteer become attached under the continual life and death struggles they face. Bridie becomes ill with the flu and dies. Her loss for Julia (and the reader) is compensated partially by Julia’s spontaneous adoption of the newborn son of an impoverished woman who died of the flu.

This book is a magnificent piece of fiction. Julia, Bridie, Dr Lynn and all of their patients are real in their humanity and their flaws. One feels nearly suffocated in the tiny ward with it’s primitive medications and treatments. My hat is off to Ms Donohue for her compelling descriptions of early 20th century medication, the hospital culture, and the Dublin environment with its grinding poverty. From about page 30, the tension is unremitting and un-contrived. The reader becomes completely absorbed in this altogether different world a century ago, and its strange yet familiar problems.

I have just two comments about the book. The scene-setting which consumes the first thirty pages of the book lacks the powerful tension which engulfs the rest of the book. It is still very interesting reading; perhaps some foreshadowing would have helped increase the tension. When Bridie becomes ill during the last twenty pages, her death becomes a foregone conclusion and some of the tension disappears. It might have been better to introduce Bridie’s illness earlier with some doubtful symptoms and some denials. This could have intensified Bridie’s loss.

Review: Stakeholder Capitalism

I ordered this book some months ago when it first came out, intending to read it while I am in Sicily. It is one of the few non-fiction books I’ll read this year, and it is worth special mention.

It is written by Klaus Schwab who is the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, the International Organisation of Public-Private Cooperation, best known for its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

Klaus Schwab

Mr Schwab makes the point that Shareholder Capitalism has failed. The form of capitalism which has been practiced throughout the Western World for the past fifty years is no longer fit for purpose. By focusing all the benefits of business on the owners of the business (the share holders), great injustices have been done to employees, the community, the general public, government and the planet.

In the first part of the book, he describes in some detail evidence against Shareholder Capitalism. The focus on giving shareholders nearly all the benefits has resulted in a shift in power away from labour unions and into the hands of management. Employee pay has stagnated, while executive pay has dramatically increased over the last half century. Communities have been devastated by the closure of local businesses and the relocation of the business overseas in order to improve profits for the shareholders. The general public has been injured by unregulated risk taking and non-competitive behaviour of businesses. Government has been unable to collect the taxes to which it would be entitled by tax avoidance schemes which benefit only shareholders. And insufficient attention has been paid to pollution as a cost saving which benefits only the shareholder.

Schwab argues that it is time to change our form of capitalism to one where the benefits are more fairly distributed, where employees have more of a say in their work and receive fairer compensation, where the needs of the community which houses the business are considered, where the government has a stronger regulatory role, and the life of the planet is given full attention.

This change, Schwab argues, can be brought about by repurposing companies so that they benefit their customers, their employees, society at large and their shareholders. He says, “in September 2020, the International Business Council of the World Economic Forum – comprising 140 of the largest global companies -presented the Stakeholder Capitalism Metrics. They are a core set of metrics and disclosures on the non-financial aspects of business performance, including variables such as greenhouse gas emissions, diversity, employee health and wellbeing.”

The book is well written and certainly persuasive. It is also timely. Although it is early days, I think that more attention should have been given to implementation of Stakeholder Capitalism. More examples of companies which have actually done it, and more about the actual metrics.

Left unsaid – likely for political reasons – is the application of stakeholder capitalism to the Chinese version of capitalism, where the main beneficiary is the Chinese Communist Party and its ideals.

The world would be a very different place if stakeholder capitalism were to be universally adopted.