Category Archives: Non fiction

Hidden voices of Chinese women [book reviews]

good women of china-1Maybe I was spoiled by the brilliance of Wild Swans by Jung Chang but any thoughts that The Good Women of China by Xinran would be similarly revealing about the lives of Chinese women today were sadly quashed.

Xinran is a journalist who worked for eight years as a presenter at a Chinese radio station. Touched by many letters she received from women she persuaded her bosses to let her reveal some of their stories. It was a bold move because some of those stories were critical of Chinese society and it’s ruling elite — exactly the kind of story subject to the country’s strictly enforced censorship rules. Though Deng Xiaoping had started a process of opening up the country in 1983, it was still risky to discuss personal issues in the media. But Xinran prevailed. She was, she said:

… trying to open a little window, a tiny hole, so that people could allow their spirits to cry out and breath after the gunpowder-laden atmosphere of the previous forty years.

Over time she began pushing the boundaries, taking a risk that one mistake – even one comment – could endanger her career if not her freedom. Such was the popularity of her program that the radio station had to install four answering machines so women could call in and record their comments.  Words on the Night Breeze became famous through the country for its unflinching portrayal of what it meant to be a woman in modern China. Xinran was hailed as the first female presenter to ‘lift the veil’ of Chinese women and delve into the reality of their lives. Her programme dealt with sexual abuse, attitudes towards disability, forcible removal of children from their mothers and a practice of pushing intelligent women into unhappy marriages with government leaders — marriages they could not leave because of the resulting damage to the husband’s reputation. Her stories concerned women of all different classes and ages and degrees of experience.

The most moving for me was the story of  Xiao Ying, a survivor of an earthquake in Tangshan in 1976 which killed 300,000 people.  In the subsequent chaos she was gang raped by soldiers. When her mother found her in a ditch, she kept pulling down her trousers, closing her eyes and humming. Xiao Ying was sent for psychiatric treatment. She seemed better after two and a half years, but the day before her parents were due to take her home, she hanged herself. She was 16.

Xinran was deeply affected by what she discovered, travelling the breadth of the country to track down some of the women whose stories she had heard. One of them lived in a poor shack next to the radio station, keeping body and soul alive by scavenging though Xinran discovered her son was a wealthy party official. Another woman she found in a remote hotel in shock after meeting again the boyfriend from whom she’d been separated 45 years earlier. Xinran sat with her throughout the night, slowly giving the woman the courage to speak about her life.

Centuries of obedience to the principles of “Three Submissions and the Four Virtues” (submission to fathers, husbands and sons), followed by years of political turmoil had made women terrified of talking openly about their feelings. Xinran won their trust and, through her compassion and ability to listen. Repeatedly they told her that she gave them a space in which to express themselves without fearing blame or other negative reactions.

If the ability to tell their stories, changed these women, hearing them also changed Xinran. Her youthful enthusiasm gave way to pain the more she learned and the more she understood.

At times a kind of numbness would come over me from all the suffering I had encountered, as if a callus were forming within me. Then I would hear another story and my feelings would be stirred up all over again.

By 1997, after a particularly traumatic visit to a community where women were denied sanitary product, whose wombs had collapsed through constant childcare,  the pain became too much and Xinran left China for England. She wanted, she said to breathe new air and to feel what it was like to live in a free society. But she didn’t want to abandon the women who’d been encouraged by her programme – so she wrote her book to teach the west what it meant to be a woman in China.

It’s a worthy cause and there is little doubt that Xinran gave hope to thousands of women whose stories she heard and the millions more who listened to her programme. But it doesn’t make for a very good book. By the very nature of its subject The Good Women of China is an episodic book and each of the 15 personal stories she relates is touching. But it lacks objectivity and analysis. Instead of stepping back from a story and reflecting what this tells us about Chinese society, she’s onto the next example and the next and the next. Without analysis and reflection on whether these conditions have changed, it’s hard to comprehend if these are isolated examples or how representative they are of real life. Reading this book left me with too many unanswered questions.


About the bookThe Good Women of China: Hidden Voices is translated by Esther Tyldesley. It was published in 2002 by Chatto and Windus in the UK.

About the author: Xinran (the name means “with pleasure” ) was born in Beijing in 1958 and lived with her wealthy family until the Cultural Revolution separated them when she was seven. After working in a military university she became a radio journalist. Her talk show, Words on the Night Breeze, started in 1988; within three weeks she was receiving 100 letters a day, mostly from women. She moved to the UK in 1997, where she compiled their stories in The Good Women of China. Xinran is a columnist for national newspapers in the UK.

Why I read this book: I’ve been fortunate enough through my job to visit China and to meet many people from that country. The stories of their culture and how this is under pressure as the country becomes an economic power house and a force in international affairs, has fascinated me. I thought The Good Women of China would help me better understand the people of this country. This book is part of my 20booksofsummer reading list.


Thanks to this book…..

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.

dailymirror2. 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

madwoman10. 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


Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink: A Storm of Ethical Questions

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 homelessHurricane_Katrina.

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.

Five_Days_at_MemorialIn 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”

End Notes

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink was published in the UK by Atlantic Books in 2013

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead


I remember vividly the first time I read Middlemarch. It was my second year in university and the reading list for the module on nineteenth century literature was HUGE. They didn’t come much bigger than Middlemarch. With a seminar and then essay looming the only way to get through this text was to lock myself in my room and read – from morning until evening. No time to really absorb the text etc, I just had to get enough of a sense of the plot and themes so I didn’t sit in embarrassed silence in the seminar. I made it but I wasn’t enamoured. And then within a few months had to read the whole thing again in preparation for the end of year exam. I packed it away with a feeling of joy that I’d not have to plough through it again.

Well that wasn’t really what happened. Many years later when I felt the grey cells gathering dust I embarked on a Open University degree  which had a module on nineteenth century literature. Which, guess what, had Middlemarch as a set text. I couldn’t avoid it since it featured in a compulsory question. I gritted my teeth and embarked on my third read.

Whether my more mature self was able to more fully appreciate Eliot’s writing  I’m not sure. Virginia Woolf did describe this as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people” so that may well be the case. The development of literary criticism in the intervening years also helped because they opened up new ways of reading the text. To my my surprise I found I was enjoying this chunkster. I enjoyed it even more on a fourth reading. I’ve now read it seven times and my appreciation of Eliot’s masterpiece deepens every time.

Given that experience I opened Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch wondering if she too had gone through the same learning curve. Part biography, part autobiography, part bibliography, it’s a personal reflection on the novel and how it has impacted her life. She first read it as a 17-year-old living in the southwest of England who, each week went to the home of a retired teacher of English literature to talk about books and prepare her for university entrance exams. From the first words she was enraptured,  continuing to read it through her early career years as a journalist and into love, marriage and a family.  Sometimes the connections she makes between an episode in her life and an episode in Eliot’s life or that of one of her characters, feel laboured. As for example when she draws a parallel between her own role as a stepmother to three sons to George Eliot’s devotion to the children of her partner George Henry Lewes.

Mead is conscious however of the dangers of over identification with characters one encounters in fiction:  “such an approach to fiction – where do I see myself in here? – is not how a scholar reads, and it can be limiting in its solipsism,” she declares. Eliot herself was scornful of women readers who imagined themselves as the heroines and the most admirable character in the novel.She hoped for a more nuanced engagement from her own readers. What Mead argues is that the book is different for each individual reader who makes and re-makes it according to their own experience. So Mead’s Middlemarch is not the same as my Middlemarch or of yours but is no the less valid.

Identification with character is one way in which most ordinary readers do engage with a book, even if it is not where a reader’s engagement ends. It is where part of the pleasure and the urgency of reading lies. It is one of the ways a novel speaks to a reader and becomes integrated into the reader’s own imaginative life. Even the most sophisticated readers read novels in the light of their own experience. and in such recognition sympathy might begin.

As I experienced personally, Mead learned that favourite works can mean different things to us at different stages in our lives. In her twenties she empathised with Dorothea’s admiration of Casaubon as a man of knowledge and experience who could lead her out of the narrow world in which she had lived so far. Bent time she reached her thirties she felt the same scorn towards  Casaubon as do Ladislaw and most of the Tipton community aghast that a young woman like Dorothea should ‘throw herself away’ on this dusty old scholar. As a mature reader however she feels more tender towards a man fearful that the academic work to which he has devoted his life will not be acclaimed by his peers. Moreover a man who feels his wife, in pressing him to publish the work, is deliberately trying to undermine him. Fear of failure seems more tangible as the years advance finds Mead.


This is a thoughtful book which argues for the transformative power of art and of reading in particular. For people who know Middlemarch well, the book may not offer then a significant amount of new information but for those relatively new to the book and Eliot well, there is a lot to discover. Mead has done her research thoroughly, visiting houses and other places associated with different points of George Eliot’s life, delving  through archives, holding the pen with which she wrote her novels and letters and reading Eliot’s letters themselves.

One of the lasting impressions for me was a vignette in which Mead asks us to imagine a stout couple waddling along a road in London. To most passers-by they would not have attracted even a glance yet Eliot and her partner Lewes were some of the finest minds of their era and their unconventional lifestyle was considered scandalous. Together this unremarkable looking pair ambling along in suburbia were responsible for some of the most pleasurable moments in my life.

End Notes

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead was published in USA 2014 by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House. 

Rebecca Mead is a staff writer for The New Yorker. My Life in Middlemarch started life as an essay in that magazine.


A reader’s bad habit

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:


Zola victorians

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.


Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad

Austen in BaghdadIt 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.

Vincent Van Gogh in his own words


Vincent van Gogh – Self-Portrait Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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.”

Ever YoursThe 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

End Notes

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

Behind the mask of Tokyo

shibuya-crossingWhen you think of Tokyo, what images come to your mind? High rise office buildings? Flashy electronic gadgets? Kimono clad women? Cherry Blossom trees? You’re likely to see them all if you ever get a chance to visit the capital although as a tourist you won’t touch more than the surface of this city.

Journalist and university professor Michael Pronko  has spent 15 years living and working in the city. The result is a collection of articles first published in Newsweek Japan and now published in English for the first time as Beauty and Chaos: Slices and Morsels of Tokyo Life. Through more than 40 pieces he delves beneath Tokyo’s mask, reflecting on the idiosyncracies of its inhabitants and their predilection for maps, drink vending machines, noodles and posh shopping bags.

Michael claims he’s not a Japan specialist nor is he very good at the language.  Reading these articles however it’s clear that what he does have in abundance is an inquisitive mind and an ability to make the commonplace interesting and often funny. Through him we’re forced to re-evaluate objects and scenes that would otherwise escape our attention, from the narrowest alleyway to the slogans emblazoned on t shirts and the rituals that accompany the handling of money..

Trying to navigate his way to an unknown part of the city, for example, he’s mystified by little pink circles on his street map. Eventually he works out they mark the location of cherry trees in blossom.

It’s not the kind of thing that maps in the west would ever convey — the seasonal colour of trees. Yet. along streets, canals, streams and in parks are the maps indicting the probably rather exact position of cherry trees.

These symbols come to represent for him, not simply an example of the city’s obsession with detailed maps but a deeper desire of its inhabitants to escape, if only for a short time,  “to turn away from the ordered angles of mapped-out, boxed-in lives to walk and sit by flowers with friends, colleagues and family.”

Perhaps its that same desire to escape controls and a regulated life (whee rules and guidelines, instructions and regulations are posted on every conceivable surface) that explains why residents happily toss out their rubbish into the narrow passageways between buildings.

In a city with the best-swept gutters in the world, where neighbours spend as much time netting their trash as reading the morning paper, those gaps are piled with tossed out crap. Broken household appliances waiting for recycle coupons, buckets and mops left over from osoji spring cleaning, unused kerosene containers, and ripped-out PVC piping ally amid some of the world’s toughest, most adaptive urban weeds.

Many of the articles in this collection point to the contradictory nature of Tokyo life. The same people who recklessly dump their unwanted goods meticulously follow a bookshop etiquette of choosing only the wrinkled copies of magazines and books to read while standing, carefully avoiding disturbing the pristine copies at the back which are for purchasers not browsers. The same people carefully choose bags in which to present gifts to friends and family, taking considerable care before leaving the house to find just  the right bag, matching their bags to outfits and treating them as  important an accessory as a necklace or scarf.

It would be fascinating to discover why this is a city of such contrary habits. but the closest Michael Pronko gets is to point to its elusive nature.

Tokyo is an imaginary construct and does not really exist in any single place or in any exact way.  It’s a city whose hugeness refuses even metaphoric understanding. Tokyo slips through words like water through a net

An intriguing collection that I enjoyed dipping into and will be sharing with some of my colleagues in Tokyo to get their reactions.

End Notes

Beauty and Chaos: Slices and Morsels of Tokyo Life was published by Raked Gravel Press in 2014

Thanks to Michael for providing me with a review copy.



Re-igniting a reading passion: perspectives from two authors

Two men with little in common. Paul Cuddihy lives close to Glasgow, has a degree in social sciences, is a published author and works in the multi media department of the city’s football club.  Hundreds of miles away in London is Andy Miller. He has a degree in literature and works for a publishing company.  The lives of these two men never cross but by coincidence they decide 2013 will be the year they rekindle their love of reading and ” fall in love with literature again”.

The result of the challenges they embark upon is documented in Read All About It: My Year of Falling in Love with Literature by Paul  Cuddihy and The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life.

In the case of Cuddihy, who has three published novels under his belt, the challenge was prompted by a feeling of guilt when he looked at the bookshelves in his home and realised he had read so few of them.

I had grown lazy in my reading habits over a period of time, blaming work, children, tiredness and television among other things for having done litle to tackle my ever- expanding collection of books. As I’d grown older,and certainly in recent years, I’ve found that my own love of reading has been equalled or even surpassed by my love of buying books. It’s a habit, a hobby, an obsession or a sickness depending on your point of view…. With each book that I’ve bought, there has been an increase in the guilt I feel at not reading enough.

read all about itIn his introduction to Read all About It, he explains that his original intention was simply to try and read more books in 2013.  Early in the process he discovered he wasn’t alone in his quest, the novelist David Nicholls had similarly spent twelve months trying to get back into the habit of reading, getting up half an hour earlier each day  when he could be sure no-one would disturb him. Cuddihy carved out a different path,  relinquishing time spent on Twitter and Facebook and the number of hours he watched television.

He didn’t set out with a specific reading list in mind, preferring to go to his shelves and to take down whatever caught his fancy. His choices were completely arbitrary initially, selecting things that he had Been intending to read for a long time, or ones he felt he should read because they had some perceived literary merit.

Over time he adjusted this to spend a month reading trilogies ( the experience confirmed  his admiration for Cormac McCarthy’s Border trilogy but disappointed by Roddy Doyle’s Last Roundup trilogy). He read all the shortlisted Booker Prize titles for 2013, concluding  that Eleanor Catton was a worthy winner though he personally favoured Colm Toibin’s Testament of Mary.

By the end of the year he had read 71 books, some of which he considered wonderful  – William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy ( ” …. A massive literary talent who deserves to be recognised on the global stage) and James Kelman’s You Have to be Careful in the Land of The Free).  He hated One Hundred Years of Solitude, comparing  Marquez to a trained chimp who performs the same trick over and over again.  Was the experiment worth it overall? Resoundingly yes decides Cuddihy.

I’ve enjoyed every minute. Having got back into the reading habit I’m not about to let it drop in the year ahead … A book is now my regular companion.

Andy Miller similarly felt his year of reading was a rewarding experience even if, like Cuddihy, he didn’t enjoy everything he encountered.

yearof readingHe began writing a blog to reflect his thoughts on each book he read. Eventually that turned into his book. The title A Year of Reading Dangerously: Fifty Great Books Saved My Life gives the impression that Miller was, until his year of reading, a man in crisis who found enlightenment by reading specific titles. This is rather disingenuous  since none of the books he chose could really be considered  ‘dangerous’  — challenging maybe but subversive, mind bending or inciting violence, no.  Nor is Miller’s life exactly in meltdown. True he hated the grind of his daily train commute and true, he was (like so many parents of young children), exhausted. But he quite liked his job and he loved his family. Better to think of him therefore, not as a tortured soul, but a man who gradually realises there is a missing piece in his life: books.

In the three years since becoming a parent he had meant to read lots of books. But somehow only managed one  (The Da Vinci Code). Others he had pretended to read so he could keep his end up in conversations down the pub.

His plan was to read twelve books, forming what he called The List of Betterment. They were titles he had either lied about reading or felt he should read,  (Moby Dick, Middlemarch, The Sea, The Sea for example). He read the lot in three months (finding excuses to visit the post office just so he could stand in the queue reading) getting so enthused by the whole experience that he decided to expand the list to 50 books. The final 50 included plenty of classics but also some lighter reading such as The Essential Silver Surfer Vol. 1 a comic novel by Stan Lee.

I expected to greatly expand my wish list as a result of reading these two books but that never happened. From Cuddihy’s list I added William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy of crime novels set in Glasgow and Nabokov’s Pale Fire from  A Year of Reading Dangerously.  Either I had already read the books he mentioned or they just didn’t appeal to me (Moby Dick).  But I am very grateful to Andy for helping me reduce my TBR since having read his description and response to The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, 

Neither Miller or Cuddihy provide extensive reviews of the novels  they read. Some readers might feel cheated about that. Others may be unhappy that the book they happen to love is one that Andy or Paul enjoyed. But that isn’t really the point of their books. Their real objective is to tell their personal story of becoming a reader with some diversions into reflections on the experience of connecting with authors in person or via Twitter,  the disappearance of good bookshops; public libraries and why book clubs are dangerous.  Occasionally they give way to a bit of venting — in the case of Cuddihy it’s about the fact that when he went to his branch of Waterstones to buy the titles announced that day as the long listed candidates for the Booker prize to find they not only didnt know of the announcement but they didn’t have the books in stock. Miller has a huff over the book club he attends where the other members didn’t appreciate his choice for the month and takes a pop at non professional book reviewers (people like me presumably):

In the Internet age, where comment is free and everyone is entitled to a wrong opinion, blockheads write zealously, copiously and for nothing. They have a platform unprecedented in human history. The problem faced by ‘old media’, and professional critics in particular, with their years of experience and their skill in fine phrase-making, is that their opinions now carry little more worth than those of the individual with a laptop who has never read any books and who would not recognise a pleasing and insightful cadence if it half-slammed, half-caressed them in the belly with a slippery bagful – well, you know how it goes by now.”

Overall however I enjoyed the way both these writers try to share their new found enthusiasm for writing. Their style is engagingly self deprecating and witty (Miller cleverly shows what Moby Dick has in common with the Da Vinci Code). If you know someone whose reading habits have fallen by the wayside, either of these books could help get them back on track.


When safety rules don’t add up

imageSafety rules for airline passengers were once a simple matter of confirming that no one had interfered with your luggage and you were not carrying any explosives. Today any flight involves an endless array of questions, an undignified scramble to remove jackets, scarves and belts and a public display of your cosmetics and toiletries. Laptops must be removed from your bag so they can be electronically screened. But what about iPads? Yes in some airports, no in others. Shoes on or off? Depends on how busy the queue is it seems. Those are just some of the hurdles you encounter before you even set foot in the craft itself.

Once on board there follow yet more instructions. Not content with repeated warnings  to switch off mobile devices and electronic gadgets, the steward on my small domestic flight in the USA insisted I could not have my e reader on my lap during take off. It had to be in the seat pocket according to aviation law he said. There is no such law. When was the last time you heard that a flight malfunctioned because a passenger used a mobile phone during take off or landing? I can’t think of a single case even though airline insiders estimate they on a large flight there will be around 20 people who forget to switch off their mobile phone.  If these devices really are dangerous why are they even allowed on board?

Every day, millions of us are subjected to safety rules like these that don’t make sense. We are told they are for our protection but often the risk they are meant to safeguard against is minuscule. Do I really need to be told after a buying a take away coffee that I am carrying a hot drink? Apparently I am too stupid to work this out for myself so the carton carries the warning Caution Hot Liquid. All because a woman in America sued a take away restaurant she believed responsible when she burned her legs while holding the cup between her legs as she drove her car.

Examples like these form the basis of an engrossing examination of global safety and security instructions And regulations by Tracy Brown and newspaper science editor Michael Hanlon. In the Interests of Safety: The Absurd Rules that Blight our Lives and How We Can Change Them, looks at some of the insane rules developed in a risk averse and increasingly litigious world. The authors provide plenty of examples of the kind beloved by tabloids as illustrations of what they like to call “health and safety gone mad.” Bans on parents filming their own children in school plays and sports days, nail clippers removed from airline pilots because they are deemed dangerous (these are people who will shortly be in charge of a machine loaded with gallons of highly flammable fuel),  plastic bottles of soft drinks banned from aircraft while glass bottles of alcohol are permitted. Children not allowed to play conkers in school yards in case they hurt themselves but required to play contact sports like rugby or to throw javelins and shot putts.

We go along with these rules often because we imagine that so where’d there is evidence that they make life safer. The authors show however that often the evidence is contradictory, inconclusive or simply never existed. Some are made up on the spot by an overly officious official and then become urban myths, or are introduced by local authorities to avoid compensation-seekers draining their funds. In general, whenever officials cite terrorism laws to stop you taking photographs in public, a hospital refuses to tell you how your relative is after an operation, or a call-centre worker cites “data protection” as a reason not to tell you something innocuous, the authors recommend you challenge them to cite the rule and explain exactly how it applies. “The core philosophy of the book,” the authors say, “is ask for evidence.”

As amusing as this book is, there is a more serious message amongst the many examples so absurd I winced as well as laughed. The authors research revealed that some rules actually increase risk, creating situations more dangerous than the activity they were put in place to prevent. One Danish architect cited by the book believes that the spatial awareness skills of children are restricted because the equidistant rungs on playing equipment discourage them  thinking where to put their feet.

A book of this nature could easily become a rant about the increasing control being exercised over our lives by government bodies. The authors do temper their criticism however by acknowledging that there are many essential policies and regulations, often introduced as a result of pressure from trade unions, which make our workplaces and streets safer. Their argument isn’t against health and safety regulation as such but what they urge is a more considered approach.

In The Interests of Safety is published by Sphere. My copy was provided by the publishers.

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