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The Book Cafe - Van Gogh and Million for a Morgue

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Clare English Clare English | 09:35 UK time, Thursday, 27 October 2011

The books stacked on The Book Café shelves this week were, as ever wide-ranging. Poetry was represented by a comprehensive new collection of Sorley MacLean's work in Gaelic and English (NB a whole raft of BBC programmes have been celebrating the centenary of his birth including Out of Doors). We also had poet turned novelist Christine de Luca on the show to explain why she'd just written a novel. (AND THEN FOREVER)

We kicked off with a vast tome of a book detailing the life and times of Van Gogh; it was written by two Pulitzer prize winning authors, Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. The jacket promises much, with one curator bigging it up as "The definitive biography for decades to come".

Art critic Moira Jeffrey shared my initial shock at the size of the biography but both of us admitted we were hooked after turning only a few pages. We spent the next ten minutes of our chat considering the merits of artistic biographies in general, especially those well known artists whose lives have already been well documented. We arrived at a few basic conclusions fairly swiftly; it helped to be interested in the artist/and or his/her work (a no brainer?). The book had to be readable, not a dry and academic trudge around the facts. And crucially, there had to be a fresh insight or information to reward the reader's effort for ploughing through hundreds of pages. (Over nine hundred pages of text and illustration in the case of Van Gogh - The Life!!) We gave the Van Gogh a thumbs up and noted that you also get the bonus of looking at some rather beautiful pictures too; the words can only paint part of the bigger picture of Vincent's troubled life.

From the sublime Van Gogh we moved on to talk about the big movie sensation of the moment (on a BOOK show???!!!) but with good reason. We wanted to return to the original source for the much reviewed WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, starring Tilda Swinton. Lionel Shriver's book won the Orange prize back in 2005 and even she had misgivings about what the film version would do to her hard hitting material. She needn't have worried and duly gave the film her seal of approval in the weekend press. So what about the book? Was it a good read? This was a job for super mum/book blogger Karen Howlett. Not surprisingly she hadn't rushed to read Kevin's story before. What mother would want to address issues of guilt and evil with a bit of mass killing thrown into the pot? However, the intrepid Ms Howlett stuck with it and found the book to be a bit of a belter. We know that a movie rekindled readers' appreciation for David Nicholl's novel ONE DAY and it looks as if KEVIN can expect the same kind of response..

While we bathed in the darkness of Shriver's mother and child melodrama, two crime sleuths waited in the wings of the Café. Dundee-based forensic anthropologist Sue Black has become a household name thanks to tv programmes like HISTORY COLD CASE. For many years she's gone about her real work, off-screen, in the battle grounds and killing fields of the world. It isn't suprising to learn that her expert help on death and decomposition is sought by fellow academics and crime writers. One such is Val McDermid. Between the two of them, Sue and Val hatched a cunning plan to raise a million quid to build a state of the art morgue in Dundee. Apparently they need one because they've got an amazing new embalming technique (honest!) Obviously raising a million pounds to match a promise from Dundee Uni wasn't going to be easy, so how do you attract attention and cash at the same time? Cue the website MILLIONFORAMORGUE.COM which is now up and running. It's like a sophisticated, albeit black humoured, crowd-funding device involving TEN top crime writers such as Jeffery Deaver, Lee Child and Kathy Reichs plus Val McDermid of course. I rashly offered live on air to throw some money behind the McDermid cause to help raise the tally so I'd better put my money where my big mouth is. Just don't expect me to be buying the coffees any time soon!. ** Do check that website out.. it's a hoot and a brilliant example of scientific/ arts cooperation. More please!


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