Book No 7 (2021) : The Last Wilderness

With this choice, I don’t want to give the misleading impression that I spend my weekends tramping through the wilderness with my backpack, self sufficient and unafraid. In actual fact, whilst I do like to be out in the countryside, I’m still a nature tourist rather than a traveller. I don’t like to be too far from the nearest Costa or the relative safety of shelter. With this disclaimer though, Scotland is my favourite place in the whole word and I’ve spent a fair amount of time exploring it over the years.

Neil Ansell writes about the Rough Bounds of Scotland, details of separate visits he makes throughout the course of a year. He makes his trips alone, reflecting often on his preference for solo expeditions – something with which I have great sympathy, as I often prefer to walk alone. As he traverses the countryside, the author intersperses his observations about landscape, weather and wildlife with facts. Having been interested in the natural world since he was a youngster, his knowledge is wide and really added to my enjoyment of the book.

There is an under-current in the book though, as Neil is losing his hearing. Initially this has affected only sounds within certain ranges, but is slowly becoming more profound. The effect of this is that he is no longer able to hear some birdsong and animal calls, losses which might threaten to break part of his connection with the natural world. For someone who derives enormous solace from the adventures of camping alone (midges nothwithstanding!), walking and exploring, this is a huge threat to the author’s wellbeing. His eventual acceptance is poignant and profoundly moving.

Reading this book made me realise something about myself; although I look at wildlife and nature, I don’t see very much. The author doesn’t just spot birds, he understands their movements, flight patterns, calls. He can follow tracks and understands what might have caused a change in vegetation, weather or animal behaviour, The author describes sitting watching the waves, which are roughly the same size, until the rhythm is broken by one very large wave. Out at sea, there is a pod of pilot whales. Watching them, Neil figures out that the creatures have systematically surrounded a shoal of herring to hunt. I would probably have seen the whales and been very excited, but not figured out what they were doing. I’ve spotted sea eagles, eagles, deer (never an otter, sadly), seals and have good enough binoculars to be able to bring them closer, but am not observant in my looking. This book gave me a much greater appreciation of what I might be able to actually see, with more time and patience.

Book No 6 (2021) : Close to Where The Heart Gives Out

Another Scottish island experience, this time of a GP who moves from his Glasgow city practice with his wife and children to Eday, one of the Orkney islands. Written retrospectively, the book recounts Dr Alexander’s time on the island.

At the time of starting work on Eday, Malcolm and his wife, Maggie (also a doctor) have four young children, all boys. As you’d expect, life is a bit crazy as everyone adapts to the new lifestyle with wild and windy weather, a slightly rundown cottage and dramatically different lifestyle. The GP’s surgery attached to the cottage isn’t well equipped and takes a while to get organised. Supplies come by boat, weather permitting.

The islanders leave the new arrivals alone for a while, not wanting to bother the doctor while he settles in. Gradually though, the new GP gets to know his patients, consulting in the surgery and visiting them in their homes. The recollections of these home visits allow the reader to learn about Eday life – cottages with no running water, peat fires, hard working islanders – straight talking, uncomplaining and stoic. Doctor quickly earns the respect of the locals and is asked to step up as a preacher, teacher and vet: very few people have only one job!

What I loved about this book is that it has heart. This isn’t a medical journal or textbook. Dr Malcolm Alexander seems genuinely modest and he treats people, not ‘cases’ or symptoms. His writing is reflective and insightful – about his own part in his marriage difficulties, being a good dad, serving his community and where he seeks fulfilment as a medic. When Maggie encounters difficulties in her fifth pregnancy, her husband’s anguish rises from the pages, as all the while he cares for the boys and his patients.

As you’d expect, the book is also shot through with observations about the landscape and wildlife on Eday; wind and sky, otters, owls and gulls. Tempered with the author’s gentle philosophy about the sanctity of life and his duty to do no harm, embracing the pace of island life instead of resisting it, I found this book enchanting.

The irony of me reviewing a book called ‘Close to Where The Heart Gives Out‘ when my partner has died of a heart attack, is not lost on me! Hearts do give out between these pages, and death itself isn’t euphemised, as you would expect from a doctor. But I was touched by the author’s refutation of the view that as death is commonplace for medics, it becomes almost meaningless to them, part of the job. ‘Patients sometimes think they are just one among many but they aren’t. Each life stays with us.’ I imagine this is why Eday took Dr Alexander to their own hearts. How lucky they were.

Malcolm now lives on Bute, having spent a while working in Stromness before leaving the Orkneys. I’ve started following him on Twitter, where he continues to offer comment on landscape, home comforts, vaccines and duck eggs. In the meantime, I’ve added Eday to my list of places to visit.

Book No 11 (2018) : This is Going to Hurt

this is going to hurtHaving worked for the NHS many years ago, I have had first-hand experience of the stress involved in working for the UK’s largest employer. I did long hours, juggled many conflicting priorities and dealt with people in genuine need of care. All from the relative comfort of my desk. I was a manager, a tiny cog in a huge machine. I lasted a year.

This is Going to Hurt‘ is an autobiographical account of what it is like to be on the real front line of the NHS, as a junior doctor. Tough doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Adam Kay kept a diary from his early days as a House Officer, the lowest rung of the hospital hierarchy, right through to when he became a Senior Registrar some 6 years later. He is a very, very funny writer, describing his daily encounters with the exasperated tone of someone who can’t help but marvel at the oddities (and sometimes stupidity) of his patients. There is no sugar-coating; some of the anecdotes are graphic, messy and often smelly. But funny nevertheless, in a peek-through-your-fingers way.

About half way through the book, Kay’s anecdotes gradually stop being so amusing. Kay specialises in Obs & Gynae and struggles on, poorly supported by senior colleagues, swimming against an endless tide of mothers and babies, caesareans, ventouse and forceps. Yes, the journal entries are still comical, but the writing is shot through with a permanent sense of panic, exhaustion, always feeling on the back foot, being hopelessly ill-prepared and inexperienced. Kay’s relationships with his partner and friends begin to founder, he has no life other than work.

I suffered an obstetric emergency when my son was born (I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say there was a lot of blood) and I will be forever indebted to the team of doctors and nurses who worked around the clock to save my life. Engulfed by the trauma of my own experience, I thanked the staff profusely, but didn’t give a second thought as to how those medics may have been affected by my suffering. They were just doing their jobs. Adam Kay’s book put me right on that score. The diary ends shockingly abruptly.

This is Going to Hurt‘ does hurt. It is a painful indictment of a system which is broken from the inside, and which exploits those amongst us who are willing to take on the responsibility of  studying and practising medicine, for the common good.

Read this book. It will make you want to hug your doctor. Although probably not just after she has performed your colonoscopy.

Book No 6 (2017) : Fingers in the Sparkle Jar

I’m sorry, I haven’t got change of a ladybird” has to be one of the most intriguing openings to a book I’ve ever come across (and remember I’m a du Maurier fan, for whom ‘last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again‘ is the ultimate in classic first lines).

From that initial sentence, Chris Packham’s autobiography goes in only one direction, and that is upwards. It soars like his kestrel, demonstrating a complete mastery of vocabulary and description, permeated with discernible tension.

Packham’s unrelenting recall of events moves from early childhood when he tries to barter a beetle for an ice-cream, through school where he excels at art but skives a lot in favour of exploring and to escape the classroom bullies, to his identification with the rage of The Clash at 18. The author’s attention to detail is awe-inspiring, conjuring up breathtaking images of animals, insects, birds, weather, water.  But this is not a romanticised retrospective: there is dog shit, and fags, and girls “who hung around outside Chelsea Girl on Saturday afternoon smoking and squealing at the men in lumberjack jackets with furry collars.”  and then there is “the thrush’s silver-throated voice fell like pocketfuls of marbles down a church staircase.” And this eloquence from someone who was always anxious, barely spoke and was tormented at school for being weird.

Mr Packham intrigues me; his clearly encyclopaedic knowledge of wildlife and obvious enthusiasm for his subject, contrast with his slightly ‘buttoned up’ manner and awkwardness, unusual in such a seasoned presenter. It all makes a lot more sense now I’ve read ‘Fingers in the Sparkle Jar‘, as interspersed with the wildlife explorations and discoveries, are some very raw accounts of counselling sessions which he undertook in 2003. As a result of the therapy, Chris was found to have Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism. It explains a lot about his obsessions, collections, difficulty fitting in and forming relationships.

Apparently Chris Packham is not keen on his own work, and wasn’t sure whether this book was good enough for publication. Thank heavens for his mentor, whose resounding endorsement of the draft was “you must publish it.” How right she was.

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