Book No 1 (2017) : The Owl at the Window

owl-at-the-windowHaving a dead wife is not funny. I mean, even I can see that the opportunities to extract humour from being a widower are extremely limited. Which makes ‘The Owl at the Window’ extraordinary. Carl Gorham writes with such under-stated proficiency (he is the creator of ‘Stressed Eric’ and his credentials as a wordsmith are not in question) that  his book drew me in and made me laugh as well as weep.

The autobiography chronicles the author’s relationship with his wife, Vikki, from their meeting at University to her untimely death from cancer. Beginning at Oxford where the couple were undergraduates, to courtship, marriage and successful careers, Carl and Vikki seem to have a charmed life. He is prattling on about an exciting job prospect when Vikki drops the bombshell that she has discovered a breast lump. Through the diagnosis of cancer, chemotherapy, then six years of bi-annual checks and yearly scans, I was willing Vikki to beat the big C. But of course we know the ending of the book; it’s written on the (beautiful) cover. The re-appearance of the disease and Vikki’s death is related through a series of flash-backs, alternating between Carl’s panic and the re-emergence of hope. I felt slightly guilty about giggling at some parts (Cardboard Mummy in particular), and I cried lots of times (his daughter’s memory Box and an imaginary telephone call both reduced me to tears). But no-one wants to read about unremitting despair. Gorham is smart, he knows that for sure.

Despite the sadness of Carl’s experience, this is not a sad book. The author examines bereavement and grief with an honesty and self-deprecating humour which is inspiring. There is no bitterness, no ‘why me?’ but instead an acceptance that shit happens. And sometimes it’s really bad shit, like your wife dying of cancer, so you have to just keep going.

I’m not sure whether it is a good thing that this has been my first review of 2017. On the one hand, I have 11 months to tell people about ‘The Owl at the Window’. On the other, the bar has been set rather high for remaining 49 books of my year.

Book No 10 (2016) : The Last Act of Love

Last Act of LoveSomeone accused me recently of being ‘maudlin’. I say ‘accused’ because although I knew it wasn’t a compliment, it is a word I have most often used in conjunction with inebriation i.e ‘a maudlin drunk’ and so I dashed off to Google a definition. It didn’t look good: ‘self-pityingly or tearfully sentimental‘. As to whether that is me or not, the jury is still out (although I suspect there is a modicum of truth in the allegation. I am sad a lot), but one of the main things I loved about Cathy Rentzenbrink’s ‘The Last Act of Love‘ is that she writes without being at all maudlin. She is depressed a lot of time, confused, unhappy and drunk (occupational hazard of having parents who own a pub) but never self-pitying or sentimental.

The book is autobiographical, recounting Cathy’s younger brother Matty’s life, accident and death. Matty was hit by  car when he was just 16 and suffered a life-threatening head injury. Doctors managed to save his life. Or did they? In fact, what they saved was Matty’s body. After the accident, and despite initial signs that he may come round from his coma, Matty never recovered consciousness and survived in what is known as a persistent vegetative state. Eight years after he was knocked down, he died, after his family won a court case to allow water and nutrition to be withdrawn.

I was quite old before I realised that your sibling relationships are very often the longest of your life. Obvious when you think about it, but the bond with our brothers and sisters is totally unique. Cathy Rentzenbrink’s loss is heartbreaking as she describes in searingly honest prose exactly what it is like to care for a totally unresponsive, 6ft tall young man. At times it makes extremely unpleasant reading, but the telling is important. This is not a book about a court decision, it is a book about family, love and surviving when the worst you can imagine actually happens.

 

 

Book No 6 (2016) : Life After You

Life after youStill on the death theme after ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes‘, I chanced upon Lucie Brownlee’s autobiographical account of her life after her husband died suddenly, leaving Lucie and their small daughter bereft. To start with,  the author is writing from a position of disbelief; staring at her husband’s coffin at the funeral, Lucie can’t believe who is inside it. The realisation of the permanency of her separation from Mark is a slow, painful dawning. With the new knowledge comes acceptance and hope.

The situation when my partner died suddenly was not the same as Lucie’s; we had been together only a few years and the child who lived with us was his, but not mine. Nevertheless, I found myself scouring the pages of ‘Life After You’ for common ground. There seems to be comfort in knowing that your own experiences have echoes of others’. Grief is a personal, private affair with no blueprint but I recognised Lucie’s behaviours as she struggled on. Anxiety, panic attacks, crying in public, visiting a clairvoyant, a tentative and wholly unsuitable relationship just to prove you can get back on the bike, so to speak. And the drinking. Oh yes, the drinking. It’s not cool and it’s not funny to be so drunk you can’t stand up and fall asleep in your clothes, the wise-mummy now tells her teenagers. But in the early days of grief, the mind-numbing relief to be found in the bottom of a bottle sometimes feels like the only way to get through the next few hours.

Having your husband die on you is clearly not funny, yet ‘Life After You‘ is shot through with a gentle humour which endeared me to the author and her situation. The tone of the book is frank, matter-of-fact and I laughed, and cried quite a lot as well.

Now I have finished ‘Life After You‘ I am reflecting upon the fact that there are very few people to whom I would recommend it. Not because of the quality of writing, which is insightful and poignant, but because of the subject matter. All I can think is that if you have a friend or acquaintance who has been suddenly widowed, this book will give you a little window into their world. Knowledge which would be invaluable should you be unfortunate enough to ever need it. Because if there is one thing I learned from my bereavement is that what gives strength is the people around us and what remains. Not what has gone.

Book No 4 (2016) : Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Smoke gets in your eyesDeath has always been a big part of my life. My Mum will tell you I was quite a morbid child at the best of times. Having suffered a number of significant bereavements by the time I’d reached my early twenties, my preoccupation with the Grim Reaper was well, set in stone. I don’t think anyone who knows me well was particularly surprised when I decided to pursue a qualification in Civil Funeral Celebrancy.

Studying for the celebrancy course revived my interest in many things death-related and so I came across Caitlin Doughty’s fascinating autobiographical book ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematorium’. The author was in her early twenties when she made an unlikely career move and become a crematorium operator. The book not only recounts Doughty’s experiences at the pointy end of disposing of dead bodies, but also lays the foundations for a much wider debate about the whole business of death. Although set in the US, the issues she raises are also relevant to the UK. As well as examining the death rituals of historical and contemporary cultures and belief systems, Doughty also challenges the modern ways of disposing of the dead. We have become distant from the actual processes involved in caring for our loved ones after death, preferring instead to entrust those final ministrations to strangers, whom we pay for their skills. Doughty cites some 10 pages of sources for her work, testament to her meticulous research and obvious knowledge of her subject. I was particularly fascinated by the references to Jessica Mitford’s seminal work ‘The American Way of Death‘, which criticised what Mitford saw as funeral directors’ profiteering and led to national debate.

It all sounds as if it would make very heavy reading, but that is not the case at all. Whilst the author does not shy away from some of the detail you would expect – decomposition, the disposal of medical remains, embalming and dressing a body, there is no salaciousness or irreverence. Instead, Doughty writes with compelling conviction about a subject which she has clearly made her life’s work and which is an important one for all of us. There is even humour, although never a lack of respect for the dead.

In some ways it is difficult to recommend this book as I have no doubt that most will shy away from even thinking about the subject matter. After all, death is the only certainty in life and most of us would prefer not to think about the realities. But I believe the discussions Doughty initiates are essential ones for 21st Century society and reading such a frank, passionate and enlightening book is a great way to open the debate. Go on. Read this book and then talk about it with your loved ones. It might just change your life. Or your death.

Book No 1 (2016) : Call of the Wild

Call of the WildTo celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, my husband and I stayed in The Scotsman Hotel in Edinburgh. It used to be the head office of the eponymous Scottish daily newspaper. And the connection with Guy Grieve’s autobiographical book ‘Call of the Wild‘ is….? Well, Grieve was working as the Head of Strategic Marketing at the paper, but becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the daily grind. Although happily married with a young son, he yearned for freedom, open spaces. Having formulated a plan to travel to Alaska where he would build a cabin, then live in it for the winter, Guy approached his boss. Grieve told Iain Martin he was quitting his job, and wondered whether the Editor would be willing to commission a regular column from him. Despite thinking the plan a little more than foolhardy, the hack agreed. And the rest, as they say, is history. Soon, the adventurer had landed at Galena, a tiny village on the Yukon.

After some difficulties with locating a suitable plot, but with the help of some local contacts, Grieve finally started work on constructing his cabin. Now my DIY skills are to all intents and purposes, non-existent: I famously axed my hand whilst taking my Girl Guide Camping Permit and a bow saw is about as much use to me as bicycle is to a fish. So I was surprised to discover myself enthralled by the author’s descriptions of the actual building of his winter home. Felling and moving trees, cutting logs and piecing them together like a massive 3D jigsaw, I could visualise the whole process. What Grieve had to accomplish in order to survive, his encounters with wildlife, descriptions of the Yukon and mastering a husky team, are  all fascinating

Grieve writes with a clarity and self-deprecating humour which I found enchanting. He says himself that he survived his time in Alaska largely due to humility, and this comes across so clearly. Although determined and focused, Guy acknowledges his limitations, accepts help gratefully and is unself-conscious about his feelings of despair and loneliness, as well as the more uplifting times. This insight, combined with the unlikely subject matter, makes this an absorbing read.

Actually, this book has acquired something of a mythical status in our house. It is the only book, other than Michael Morpurgo’s ‘Shadow‘, that my now 14-year old son has ever read voluntarily. As the parents of reluctant teenage readers will attest, ‘Call of the Wild‘ needs no other endorsement.

Book No 18 (2015) : The Tent, The Bucket and Me

the tent 2A few months ago, a lovely friend of  mine had a great idea for a fun night; DIY Desert Island Discs. Using the popular Radio 4 programme as inspiration, we guests all arrived armed with our favourite 3 music tracks, a luxury and a book to take with us to our imaginary desert island. One of the guests cited Emma Kennedy’s ‘The Tent, The Bucket and Me’ as her book choice. I’d never heard of it but she was so enthusiastic about it that I downloaded it on to my Kindle.

Autobiographical, the book recounts the exploits of Emma Kennedy and her parents, Brenda and Tony, during the 1970s. Whilst holidaying in the UK and further afield, the author’s family falls prey to a bewildering number of unlikely mishaps, the recounting of which lends a kind of slapstick to the anecdotes. The Holiday Gods are always on their tail.

Be warned – this is a seriously funny book. One of those that you can’t read in a public place or when you are drinking cola, for fear of snorting it out of your nose when you laugh.  Emma Kennedy captures the scenarios brilliantly, usually putting herself at the centre of the shenanigans, with a healthy dollop of self-deprecation. I am not a fan of camping and this book totally vindicates my opposition to sleeping in a damp tent, eating Spam and playing gin rummy whilst trying to ignore the gang of rowdy teenagers smoking hash outside. Whether you camp or not, anyone who has had a disaster on holiday will sympathise with the Kennedys.

And in case you are interested, my Desert Island choices were:

Music:
Can’t Take my Eyes Off You : Engelbert Humperdinck
Headlights : Eminem feat. Nate Reuss
Luxury : Clinique ‘Aromatics’ perfume
Book : A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

Book No 10 (2015) : H is for Hawk

H for hawkOn my blog I have whinged a few times about how critical acclaim for a book rarely guarantees my own enjoyment of it. However, in the case of Helen MacDonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’, I get it. Dear Mr Critic; I totally get it. This book was a presence in my life for the two days it took me to read it and even afterwards it has left a resonance.

When Helen’s father, a journalist and photographer, dies suddenly and unexpectedly, she is plunged into grief. Her misery isolates her; she retreats into herself and in to the training of a goshawk, Mabel. This training requires total dedication and throughout the memoir, the author references a book by another author who undertook to train a goshawk, EH White. Helen finally acknowledges that she is suffering from depression and she seeks help; as Mabel takes flight and struggles to assert some independence from her astringer, so Helen’s spirits slowly begin to rise.

Reading this book seemed to me rather like eating a very rich, dense chocolate mousse. There aren’t many bubbles of light relief and every now and again I had to stop and digest what I’d read, before delving in again. The language of this autobiography is rich, vibrant and intelligent. MacDonald has the ability to bring nature to life as she describes Mabel in intricate detail and transports the reader to the Cambridgeshire countryside. I know that ‘H is for Hawk’ won’t be to everyone’s taste, but this beautiful book has left an indelible impression upon me.

Book No 38 (2014) : Last Days of the Bus Club

bus clubI tell you, if you have yet to discover Chris Stewart, you are in for a treat! ‘Last Days of the Bus Club‘ is the latest in the series of auto-biographical works which began with ‘Driving Over Lemons‘.

Chris, together with his wife, Ana, upped sticks and moved to Las Alpujarras in Southern Spain. The first book tells the tale of their early years in ‘El Valero’, a remote farm. Surrounded by orange and lemon trees, sheep and peasants, the couple begin to carve out a life for themselves. A life, it turns out, full of major and minor disasters, colourful characters and endless optimism. 3 books later and by the time of ‘Last Days of the Bus Club‘, Chris and Ana’s daughter, Chloe, is leaving home for University in Granada, opening up a new phase of life for her and her parents.  The Stewarts make their living at Casa Ana from organic oranges, farming and writing, plus various diverse activities such as hosting walking tours and cookery classes.

Now I don’t think that Chris Stewart’s life is any funnier than mine. It’s just that he spins a great yarn; he would make a fabulous dinner-party guest! His descriptions of the characters he encounters, landscape, journeys, wildlife, conversations are filled with rich and endearing details which bring everything sharply into focus. On top of which, Chris’ writing is hilarious. Well, to me it is. I understand that humour is subjective but I defy anyone not to laugh out loud as he recounts time spent on a building site with a load of uncouth louts, of trying to find a 4B pencil in Granada and of the visit from the Critchley Road kids. The author is not laughing at other people, though – his humour is self-deprecating, poking fun at his own shortcomings. If you are not sure whether you are tempted enough by my review to buy a book, I suggest you check out Chris’ own blog, as it gives you the idea of the way he writes.

The book also has photos – mostly of sheep and oranges, but they break up the text nicely!

I note that there is an audio version of the books and I honestly cannot think of a better source of entertainment for a journey, particularly if the destination happened to be Spain!