Category Archives: Non fiction
Marking Thanksgiving in the USA, The Broke and the Bookish has decided that the Top Ten Tuesday challenge this week is to identify 10 books for which we are thankful. Many of my choices are non fiction.
1. Roget’s Thesaurus: this has been my lifesaver throughout all the years when I had to write newspaper stories and then speeches for executives or internal articles. I still have the large hardbound version I acquired about ten years ago though often I now use on line synonym/antonym tools.
2. Daily Mirror Style Guide by Keith Waterhouse: Many of the big media outlets create a style guide for their journalists, giving direction on which terms to capitalise, how to represent numbers etc. The Daily Mirror guide is rather different however because Waterhouse (one of their leading columnists) delves into cliches that are too commonly used. For example, tabloid newspapers always write that ‘police swooped’ on a house conjuring up pictures of flying detectives descending from the skies. He also tackles the headline writer’s propensity for puns, complaining that most of them are too obvious like the story where a comedian going into hospital was said to have been bound to have nurses in stitches. It’s great fun to read but was also my guide when I was a young journalist.
3. Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course. A weighty paperback that I acquired as part of a prize from the Economist in about 2001. Delia was at one time a cookery expert that was on the BBC with primetime TV shows, books and other spin offs – a bit like Mary Berry is today. Her inclusion of an item in a recipe was enough to clear the shelves in the supermarket. One tiny company found itself bombarded with orders when Delia recommended their omelette pan. Many food writers leave out some key elements of their method or recipe so the result never looks the way it does in their book. Not so Delia – you know if you follow her step by step, you will have success.
4. Why Most PowerPoint Presentations Suck by Rick Altman. Remember the days when you didnt get confronted by slide after slide in meetings? Today it seems we treat Powerpoint like a dummy without which nothing can ever be discussed in a meeting. The slides are usually rubbish – too many fonts, too much text, etc. Altman’s book doesn’t cover the same ground you find in most other books – he shows how to cut down text and still make it meaningful and how to do clever things with pictures and graphics. The templates he uses are also available on his website. Highly recommended you get this if you ever have to do presentations.
5. Make the Connection: Ten Steps to a Better Body and a Better Life by Bob Greene
Greene is the guy who Oprah Winfrey turned to when she wanted to get her weight back under control. He took her from a 17 minute a mile walking pace to a marathon. I came across this by accident one holiday when I got some time to browse a bookstore in Alexandria, just outside Washington DC. I’d been trying exercise programs for years with not a lot of success – this book was the first time I learned that the key to success was exercising at the right heart rate and I had been doing it all wrong. I immediately went out and bought a heart rate monitor and a new pair of trainers and started following the program. The weight dropped and I felt fitter than ever before. Now,when I have slacked off a bit, this is the book I go back to for help and motivation.
6. Colour me Beautiful Ok, this isn’t a book as such but it is printed material so I’m counting it. It’s the little wallet of colour swatches that I was given after my style session with my sister. I take it with me whenever I’m going shopping as a reminder of what particular shade of red or orange works best for my skin tone. It’s saved me from some expensive mistakes! Other shoppers do give me an odd look though whenever I get it out and start holding up to the garments
7. A-Z of Alternative Words from the Plain English Campaign. Anyone who has worked in the corporate world or in the public sector will know that plans and proposals usually sound stuffy because people use words that they wouldn’t normally use in every day speech. Somehow they have gained the idea that certain words sound more important so if they want their document to have credibility they need to use those words. But often the effect is just to make the document sound stuff at best and at worst impenetrable. All hail to the Plain English Campaign for their tireless efforts to get companies and government bodies to understand that simple words are best. The A-Z of Alternative Words is a slim but effective pamphlet. If you’ve ever been frustrated by colleague who insist on using “as a consequence of” instead of the simpler “because” or “emphasise” instead of “stress”, this is for you.
8. Macbeth by Shakespeare ( as if you needed telling who the author is). I credit this play with setting me off on a path that led to a literature degree and a career where I could indulge my love of words. Until this play was introduced to our class I had been a fairly middling student. But something clicked that day in class. By the next day I could recite all of Act 1 Scene 1 much to the astonishment of the teacher and my class mates.
9. Middlemarch by George Eliot My favourite novel of all time and the one I would take to a desert island if I knew I was going to be stranded. It has such depth of meaning and so many ideas that it rewards re-reading and re-reading
10. The Madwoman in the Attic by Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert My university days coincided with the publication of this landmark text of literary criticism in which the authors examine the idea that women writers of the nineteenth century were confined in their writing to make their female characters either embody the “angel” or the “monster.” It was my first introduction to feminist critics. A complete revelation. I’ve had many occasions since to refer back to this book – hence it looks rather battered around the corners
Through the power of 24-hour international news coverage, the world saw the devastation and human tragedy caused when Hurricane Katrina moved ashore over southeast Louisiana and southern Mississippi early on August 29, 2005. It was one of the deadliest hurricanes ever to hit the United States, causing an estimated 1,833 deaths and leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless.
What the world didn’t know was that at New Orleans’ Memorial Hospital, right in the centre of the maelstrom, life and death decisions were taken that would become the focus of a legal battle. At the heart of the battle lay challenging questions on whether medical practitioners have a duty to protect lives at all costs or whether – in exceptional circumstances – it is acceptable to ease the path of patients to death.
I would have been ignorant of that battle but for an article in The Sunday Times magazine in 2012 (based on Sheri Fink’s award-winning book Five Days at Memorial) which revealed the horrendous conditions at the Medical Centre where thousands of people were trapped for five days without power. Doctors and nurses worked tirelessly in humid, fetid conditions to care for their patients and to get them out as soon as rescue looked possible. But then those very medical staff were arrested and charged with murder when suspicious amounts of morphine were found in the bloodstream of 20 of the 45 patients who died.
Five Days at Memorial grew from a Pulitzer Prize-winning article written by Fink and published in The New York Times Magazine in 2009. She was drawn to the subject because of her experience as a doctor working in areas of conflict and as a journalist reporting on hospitals in war zones. It’s a deeply impressive piece of journalism which draws on more than 2 years of research and interviews with some 500 plus people, from patients to their family members and from hospital staff to legal representatives.
The story she pieces together from emails, phone logs, witness testimonies and floor plans, traces the events from shortly before the hurricane hit land. All her research points to how hopelessly inadequate were the plans of both the hospital, its owners, federal agencies and the city government. Lack of investment in flood water protection and drainage coupled with bad design decisions taken decades earlier meant the hospital quickly lost power for lighting, air conditioning, sewer systems and essential medical equipment. Day after day those trapped in the building waited for rescue by helicopter or boat. Controversially, staff adopted a triage system which saw those with “do not resuscitate” orders placed last in the list for evacuation. What happened on the fifth and final day is clouded with ambiguity. According to prosecutors some medical staff decided to hasten the death of the most critical patients with lethal injections of morphine. Those arrested protested their innocence but for more than two years multiple murder charges were pursued against one doctor and two nurses.
In part 2 of the book, Fink focuses on the investigation against those staff members (a Special Grand Jury refused to indict the three so the charges were dropped) and then examines the ethical issues surrounding euthanasia and health care in disaster scenarios.
Fink doesn’t pull any punches in her assessment of what went wrong at Memorial, seeing it as a microcosm of the larger failures that assailed New Orleans during Katrina, “with compromised physical structure, compromised operating systems, compromised individuals. And also instances of heroism.” She also points to a broader issue in America at that time with emergency preparations skewed, in the light of post-9/11 fears, towards acts of terrorism, not natural disasters.
By 2005, more than a billion dollars had been made available to the nation’s roughly 5,000 hospitals to promote bioterrorism preparedness. Memorial’s most detailed and by far its longest emergency planning scenario was written shortly after the 2001 attacks. This bioterrorism plan ran to 101 pages, as opposed to the 11 pages devoted to hurricanes.
Nor does she let the owners of Memorial off the hook, showing from email traffic how responded with indifference until the acute nature of the problem was staring them in the face. Staff felt their employer had abandoned them despite the extraordinary dedication they had shown in those five days. They received no thank you letter for their efforts and only partial pay when the hospital was closed for a six month clean up.
What lessons can be learned from the events at Memorial, Fink asks in the final sections of her book. She is in no doubt that some kind of crime took place at the hospital though she tempers this with respect and sympathy for the exhausted medical team and the conditions they endured. They took action for the best of intentions but in the absence of any agreed protocols to decide how to ration medical aid, how could they be sure those were the right decisions? “Moral clarity,” she writes, describing the moment the patients were injected with a powerful cocktail of drugs, “was easier to maintain in concept than in execution.” And therein lies Fink’s key point, ethical questions of this magnitude cannot be resolved in the heat of the moment, under what are effectively war time conditions when judgements can be clouded.
To the extent that protections and plans have been put in place since Katrina, recent events have shown them to be inadequate or misguided. Life and death in the immediate aftermath of a crisis most often depends on the preparedness, performance and decision making of the individuals on the scene.
It is hard for any of us to know how we would act under such terrible pressure.
But we have the luxury to prepare and resolve how we would want to make the decision
Five Days at Memorial is a masterful and compelling piece of journalism though not a comfortable reading experience given its subject matter. It was tough going at times because of the sheer weight of information – I became quickly lost in a fog of names of doctors and patients and the finer points of the responsibilities of each federal agency – but the desire to want to know what happened and why kept me reading. The reviewer for the Star Tribune in Minnesota exactly captured my reaction when he described it as “an important book that will make your blood boil no matter which side of the issue you support”
Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink was published in the UK by Atlantic Books in 2013
Seeing that comment in Simon Heffer’s column in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph column, I nodded in agreement and also felt it was a bit of an obvious comment. Who but a fool (or maybe people with compulsive buying habits) would fork out to buy something they wouldn’t use?
Unless they are someone who buys a book with very good intentions of reading it even though there is that voice in their head muttering “don’t kid yourself you’ll get round to reading this.” Someone like me in fact when the transaction involves the purchase of non fiction books.
Which is why I have a large stack of them. Unread. Not even opened.
Sure I have a large pile of unread fiction titles but I do pick some out and read them (doing pretty well on that front so far this year in fact).
But the non fiction titles? Forget it.
Some date from at least 10 years ago when I thought I should learn more about the sustainability issue than I could glean from newspapers. Others were bought in a vain attempt to keep up to date with the latest business theories (I did manage three chapters of Jim Collins’ Good to Great and about the same with The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen). But some books about the political changes in China remain undigested beyond about page 3.
The only non fiction titles I’ve read in recent years have been either book related like the World Guide to Literature or craft related. I’ve not read a history book in easily 20 years. And yet I still buy non fiction. Last year I bought:
Both seemed eminently readable – I scanned them in the shop to make sure they were not top heavy factual tomes.
Have I read them? Er, no.
Will I do so soon? Er, not likely
And yet what did I do just last week? Why of course, I went and bought some more non fiction. Namely The Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer and Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind ( oh the irony of that purchase).
Most likely they will still be sitting in the same place on the shelf this time next year.
Don’t ask my why I do this. I have no idea. But I know its a bad habit I need to get out of.
It began with a question in an email. Bee Rowlatt, BBC World Service journalist in London, wanted insight on how women in Iraq felt about the recent elections and what was happening in their country. Over the course of the next few months, emails zipped between her and May Witwit, lecturer in English at Baghdad university. May proved a lively correspondent; one minute talking vividly about the dangers of living in the cross fire between the the danger she faced in getting to work each day and the next to
From this unusual beginning, a friendship blossomed as each woman became fascinated by the life of the other and wanted to know more about what was happening in their very different worlds.
In Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad, Bee and May’s lives are juxtaposed as they kept up a correspondence, supplemented by an occasional text message and a rare phone call. Bee learned about May’s fears for her husband trapped in their apartment because he was a Sunni Muslim, the strange regulations imposed at her workplace and her attitudes towards Sadam Hussein. In return May’s in box contained epistles featuring the quotidian life of a mother of three in a London suburb, a woman whose frustrations extended to dealing with sick children, organising fund raising events for the local school and what to wear to work.
The nature of the emails change once Bee hits on a plan to get May and her husband Ali out of the dangers of Iraq. Bee continues to talk about her endless cups of tea, about her lectures on Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ernest Hemingway and about her thesis on the theme of love in Chaucer , but now her emails are also full of the frustrations involved in penetrating multiple levels of bureaucracy to try and get visas. Set back follows set back, sending May into cycles of despair in which she feels there is no way out.
What does all this have to do with Austen? This title was chosen by the publishers (Penguin) whose decision to publish the book provided May with the money needed to fund her new life in London. I presume they thought the use of Jane Austen’s name would attract attention but it’s misleading since Austen’s name comes up only a few times. Bee asks at one time “how can you teach Jane Austen in Baghdad?” “How can [your students] make sense of it?”, bringing the response from May that it was for her students a form of escape; a “transportation to another world.” that gave them the strength to continue.
What made this book fascinating was to witness the blossoming of the friendship. The formality of the first emails with their salutation Dear Bee quickly evaporated and became simply ‘ Bee’ or, touchingly ‘dear sis’ . It’s to May that Bee turns when she wants to know should she have a fourth child or to vent after an argument with her husband. Neither Bee nor May hold back from sharing their emotions, littering their emails with strings of exclamation marks or shouty subject lines.
The lack of self consciousness in their exchanges makes this a tremendously engaging book. It wanes a little bit in the final quarter where the bureaucratic machinery gets ever more tortuous and I had the feeling some subjects were introduced just to pad out the story (by then, they knew they had a publishing deal on their hands). But I forgive them because they had been such wonderful company on my drive to work for so many days earlier.
Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad is available in paperback from Penguin Books or in Audio format from Chivers.
If you want to know what happened to May Witwit, take a look at this interview in which she talks about her life as an academic in the UK.
My knowledge of Van Gogh is sketchy to say the least. Like millions of people I’ve stood looking at his paintings in awe and wonder but my understanding of the man behind the work is limited to the facts that pretty much everyone knows (his spell in an asylum, his friendship and then conflict with Gauguin, his close relationship with his brother Theo).
I never realised that he had been deeply religious as a younger man and had aspirations for a career in the church, nor that he had worked for an art dealer in London at one time. Still less did I appreciate how relentlessly he tried to find his true destiny, the fantastically high standards he set for himself and his work and his yearning for recognition.
Fortunately Van Gogh was an inveterate letter writer. By the time of his death in 1890, he had written about one thousand letters, mainly to his brother Theo, through which the character of the man is revealed. More than 265 from more than 800 which have survived, are available in Ever Yours: The Essential Letters published by Yale University Press.
The man who emerges from these letters is clearly one who was not the easiest person to like. According to the three editors of this book, van Gogh was “almost always convinced that he was right”, but he understood what made people turn away from him:
Don’t imagine that I think myself perfect — or that I believe it isn’t my fault that many people find me a disagreeable character. I’m often terribly and cantankerously melancholic, irritable —yearning for sympathy as if with a kind of hunger and thirst – I become indifferent, sharp and even pour oil in the flames if I don’t get sympathy.
But neither you nor anyone else who takes the trouble to think about it will, I hope, condemn me or find me unbearable because of that. I fight against it, but that doesn’t alter my temperament. And even if I consequently have a bad side, well damn it, I have my good side as well, and can’t they take that into consideration too?
Van Gogh attributed his anti social behaviour to a feeling of nervousness when in the company of other people. In one letter he said that he found talking to people and dealing with them painful and difficult. He suffered periods of fragile health and melancholy resulting from over work and lack of rest but viewed them as a sacrifice necessary to stimulate his creativity. In a letter to his brother written in Arles, July 29 1888, Vincent commented: “The more I become dissipated, ill, a broken pitcher, the more I too become a creative artist in that great revival of art.”
The letters show his troubled, intense nature, his relentless quest to find his destiny and his frustration with the lack of recognition of his talent. Evident too is his close bond with his brother with whom he exchanged letters discussing attitudes to art and to whom he revealed his hopes, and then despair, as his friendship with Gaugin collapsed.
Ever Yours: The Essential Letters contains 265 letters, from a total of 820 that still survive. The editors Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker apparently spent 15 years creating a six volume set of the correspondence which was published by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 1999. This (shorter) edition contains historic family photographs, reproductions of some of the letters in chronological order plus sketches by the artist and a general introduction highlighting the main events of his life.
If you want a fascinating glimpse of the man and the artist, this book will deliver. And if it makes you hungry for me, there is a free online transcription of all Van Gogh’s letters at
Ever Yours: The Essential Letters Vincent van Gogh, is published by Yale University Press
Thanks to NetGalley for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review