Category Archives: Non fiction

In Death There is Still Joy: Dear Life by Rachel Clarke

Dear Life by Rachel Clarke

We live in an age when people share the most deeply personal aspects of their life with complete strangers.

Magazines are plastered with articles detailing celebrities’ experiences of eating disorders/sexuality/mental health/abuse just to mention a few. And I’m not sure how daytime television would survive if it didn’t have a steady stream of guests willing to open up on issues that a few generations ago would have been considered taboo.

But there’s one topic about which we are strangely reticent even though it affects every one of us. Death. 

t’s a form of denial, a basic human instinct to avoid what is uncomfortable. We even avoid using the actual word. Instead we turn to euphemisms which sound less direct, less harsh, less final in a sense. We don’t say a friend/relative died, they “passed away” or “passed over” or simply “passed”. 

The Fear Factor

Our own death is more difficult to contemplate than that of our loved ones. So we don’t prepare for it. We treat it a bit like those tax return demands, a task we know we have to deal with – but at heart we’re afraid. So the longer we can delay the task, the happier we are.

Few of us would, out of choice, spend our days surrounded by people whose time on this earth can be measured in weeks or days. 

But that’s exactly the world Rachel Clarke decided to embrace. After more than a decade as a doctor who fought to save lives, using every drug and machine at her disposal, she changed direction. Now as a consultant in palliative medicine she cares for people whose battle for life is over. A specialism that’s little understood or valued.

If neurosurgeons are the rock stars of the medical hierarchy – its sexy, alpha, heart-throb heroes – then palliative care doctors are the dowdy support act. A low-rank medical speciality, we lurk in the shadows, too close to death for comfort …. No one in the hospital is quite sure what we get up to, and usually does not wish to know either. Death is taboo for many reasons, not least the fear that it might just be catching.

Dear Life begins as an autobiography, charting Rachel Clarke’s life as the daughter of a hard-working dedicated GP. She considered following in his footsteps but instead followed the path of literature and the arts, becoming a television documentary maker. 

Rachel Clarke, author of Dear Life

In her late 20s she re-assessed her life, abandoned the broadcasting world and retrained as a doctor. What she witnessed in the emergency unit, convinced her to make palliative care her specialism. 

Despite my love of acute and emergency medicine, I found myself drawn to patients with life-limiting illness precisely, in part, because some other doctors ran a mile.

Learned Detachment

Clarke is critical of doctors she heard curtly despatching their patients to the “palliative dustbin” as if they felt that once in a terminal phase of illness, human lives were no longer worth engaging with. But she tempers her censure; acknowledging that from detachment is an essential requirement in the medical profession. It’s a lesson that begins the day that an aspiring doctor begins their medical training.

We might have chosen medicine because we wanted to help people, but doctors could not and should not allow their compassion free rein. … The challenge then for every doctor was to acquire sufficient detachment to be useful while maintaining one’s essential humanity.

That need for detachment is put severely to the test when death comes right to the door of Rachel Clarke’s own life. In his 70s her father was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Clarke was ever the professional as they discussed at length his diagnosis and his treatments. But as his health deteriorated and it was clear he was close to death, it was the daughter who took over, who bathed him just as he had once bathed her in childhood.

Candid and Sensitive

Dear Life is candid yet overwhelmingly sensitive and moving account of what it’s like to work in the world of the dying. A uncomfortable book to read you might think, one that would be far too depressing; too emotional, too heartbreaking. 

Of course it’s emotional. Of course it tugs at the heart. How could it not? But Rachel Clarke shows that even when people are at their lowest ebb, they have the capacity to love and embrace moments of unadulterated joy.  Dear Life gives us a wedding, a fiercely independent woman coiffured and dressed in pearls for her final bridge session and an elderly woman who had lovingly frozen portions of fruit and fish so her husband would be able to survive without her.

These anecdotes were the ones that brought the tears to my eyes. Because they’re not about death, but about life and how people like Rachel Clarke help us prepare to say goodbye in a way that truly means we can rest in peace.

Dear Life is quite simply a stunning book. I urge you to cast aside any fears it will touch on too many nerves and get yourself a copy. I guarantee you will not regret it.

Poison pens: When writers’ friendships turn sour

When writers’ friendships fall apart there is often acrimony and – being writers – details of their differences and bitterness are sometimes committed to print. How voraciously we gobble up these traded insults, verbal dust-ups and flurries of bitchiness!

It’s been going on for ages. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were great pals until the former insisted on getting solo billing on the collaboration that resulted in Lyrical Ballads.

Ernest Hemingway was notoriously unkind to former buddy F Scott Fitzgerald. After a toxic combination of jealousy, alcohol and money parted the pair, Hemingway spoke openly of Fitzgerald’s marital difficulties and artistic struggles – and publicly called Fitzgerald a “moaner and a sissy”. 

Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson feuded publicly after Wilson described the former’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin as “uneven and banal.” Nabokov fired back that Wilson was a “commonsensical, artless, average reader with a natural vocabulary of, say, 600 basic words.”

Sisters A S Byatt and Margaret Drabble have never really been friends. They haven’t seen eye to eye since childhood, the latter once saying: “It’s sad, but our feud is beyond repair.” Sad indeed – the sisters are both in their 80s.

Paul Theroux’s long-term friendship with his mentor Vidia Naipaul ended with the American author being snubbed by Naipaul as they passed in a London street. Theroux paused to chat with his old buddy, Naipaul coldly mumbled a grudging response and moved on without stopping. This was in 1997, some 31 years after the pair met at an academic outpost in Uganda when Theroux was 26 and the Trinidad-born writer 34.

In the London street Theroux had asked the recently remarried Naipaul why he hadn’t responded to his last note to him. “Take it on the chin and move on,” said the departing Naipaul.

But Theroux didn’t follow that advice. He nursed the insult, brooded over it and, eventually, wrote a book because of it. Is ‘Sir Vidia’s Shadow’ an account of true friendship won and lost? Or is it a literary exercise in revenge – an attempt to erase the humiliation he felt at Naipaul’s treatment of him?

shadow cover

In days of friendship – Paul Theroux, left, with his mentor V S Naipaul.

As San Diego Reader critic Judith Moore wrote: “I can’t help but believe that the Naipaul whom we meet in ‘Sir Vidia’s Shadow’ is a creature born from Theroux’s wounded feelings.”

For the most part Theroux’s account casts his pal in a favourable light, only occasionally – and subtly – alluding to Naipaul’s legendary and undisputed nastiness. It is only towards the end of this fascinating account of an intense and complex relationship that mud-slinging, however disguised it might be, is evident.

Theroux admired Naipaul immensely, feeling gratitude for the encouragement he had given him in his early writing days. He recognised Naipaul as a brilliant writer who could also be an enthralling companion. Because of this, it seems he attempted to make himself blind to Naipaul’s many flaws – misogyny, racism, meanness and countless forms of rudeness, from the blatant to the subtle.

To put up with all that and, when in Naipaul’s company, to remain an uncomplaining, uncritical friend through three decades creepingly paints a picture of a rather pathetic and needy old dog who keeps coming back wagging his tail no matter what beating or scolding it has suffered.

Theroux is at pains to disguise this, but the evidence builds throughout the memoir. The American elevated Naipaul onto pedestal, took the kicks and was rewarded with a cold rebuff on a London pavement.

Apart from Naipaul’s parting words on that day there is nothing from him here to explain the reasons for that brush off or as to why he turned against his protege. It is clear that Theroux believes Naipaul’s haughty new wife bears much of the responsibility. He finds very little that is favourable to say about her.

The book, by design not accident, builds a picture of Naipaul as a deeply flawed individual notwithstanding his literary brilliance. But what of the book’s author? I’m a long-standing fan of Theroux’s work, greatly enjoying his reportorial travel writing and occasional brilliant novel (The Mosquito Coast for example).

But these days, the term ‘unreliable narrator’ has begun to creep into my assessment of Theroux, fuelled by observations of his behaviour in his travelogues: remaining wisely silent while others prattle out gauche comments; being non-judgemental while those around point fingers; not grumbling like the whining tourists he encounters, and so on. Can anyone be this benign and uncomplaining? Well, they can in print – it’s a kind of artistic licence I suppose. Few, after all, would paint themselves in a bad light.

All of which brings the reader to the question of balance in ’Sir Vidia’s Shadow’. It is, after all, written entirely from Theroux’s point of view; Naipaul is tantalisingly mute.

“He [Naipaul] was always the one who said you have to tell the truth [in writing],” Theroux once remarked. Later, after Naipaul’s death in 2018, he said that he believed his book to be “an unsparing and accurate portrait of the man, minus the instances of racism and physical abuse that I was forbidden by lawyers to publish.”

Responding to a critic’s referring to Naipaul’s “great modesty”, Theroux said: “In 30 years of knowing the man I was never privileged to observe this. I mainly saw his sadness, his tantrums, his envy, his meanness, his greed, and his uncontrollable anger. But I never saw Naipaul attack anyone stronger than himself; he talked big and insultingly but when he lashed out it was always against the weak: people who couldn’t hit back, the true mark of the coward.”

The critic, Ian Buruma, countered: “If Naipaul was quite the monster he describes, why did Mr Theroux spend decades of his life fawning over him? But then the demolition of an idol by a disillusioned worshipper is never an edifying sight, and in the case of an ageing writer a trifle undignified too.”

theroux copy

Paul Theroux: Unreliable narrator or truth-teller?

’Sir Vidia’s Shadow’ divided opinions but sold in great numbers nevertheless. The British writer Lynn Barber summed-up the to-ing and fro-ing in 2000: “I’ve never known a book to divide people so strongly, between the Naipaul-is-a-shit and the Theroux-is-a-shit camps. The American critics uniformly took the latter view and Theroux’s name in the States is now mud. Theroux believes there was an orchestrated campaign against him, but that’s probably his paranoia. Naipaul stoutly maintains he has never read the book. Anyway, it’s a wonderful book, a modern true version of the sorcerer’s apprentice.”

Just over a decade after this was written there was, it appears, some kind of reconciliation between the two writers. In 2011 the novelist Ian McEwan nudged Theroux and Naipaul, after 14 years of frostiness, to shake hands at the Hay literature festival. A partial thaw ensued and the pair appeared to be were reconciled in 2015 when they met at a literary festival in Jaipur. Theroux’s admiring speech about Naipaul’s ‘A House for Mr Biswas’ (comparing the author to Dickens) brought tears to the eyes of his former nemesis.

Reality Versus Idyll of Owning A Bookshop

The Diary Of A Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

The Diary of A Bookseller is essential reading for anyone who indulges in the fantasy of one day owning a bookshop. Just a few entries from Shaun Bythell’s journal should be enough to convince them that bookselling is an enterprise suited only to people with skins thicker than a rhinoceros and pockets deeper than Loch Ness.

Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Shaun Bythell owns The Bookshop in Wigtown on the remote coast of Galloway, Scotland. He bought the shop when he was 31 years old and struggling to find a job he enjoyed. He was naive, imagining that the world of selling second-hand books was an idyllic existence.

… sitting in an armchair by a roaring fire with your slipper-clad feet up, smoking a pipe and reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall while a stream of charming customers engages you in intelligent conversation, before parting with fistfuls of cash.

The reality is of course nothing like a bookish paradise.

The fistfuls of cash never seem to materialise for one thing. Each day’s entry in the Diary of a Bookseller ends with a total of the number of customers in the shop and the amount they spent. It’s sobering reading.

Diary of A Bookseller

The entry for February 6, 2014 for example shows six customers and till takings of £95.50. That figure doesn’t take into account online sales but since those average only £45 a day you can see that this bookshop owner isn’t rolling in money.

Some days are better, but many are worse. On January 5 the following year Shaun Bythell unlocked the shop at 9am but by 2pm the door had been opened only three times : by the postwoman, his father and the howling wind.

By 3pm I was giving up hope of having even one sale..

Initiatives such as opening his doors to a ladies art class, welcoming eminent writers and renting out a bed in the shop during the Wigtown Book Festival, help. But even on days when the footfall is more healthy, there’s no certainty it will result in more cash in the bank. The bane of Shaun’s life is the customer who spends hours sitting near his fire, taking loads of books off the shelves, but leaving empty handed.

Shaun’s fond imaginings of a profitable prove equally as misplaced as his idea his customers will be charming people with whom he can enjoy robust discussions about literature. Actually, his customers are often boring, particularly when they insist on regaling him with their family history research or want to offload copies of their self-published novel.

Unflattering Picture of Bookshop Customers

Few customers are depicted in a flattering light. Some are stubborn, refusing to accept they got an author’s name wrong. Others are misguided, thinking all first editions are valuable. Some have questionable personal habits or tend to wear strange ensemble of clothes.

The Diary Of A Bookseller is a grumpily amusing account of one year in the shop. The titles of books ordered on line provided me with a constant source of amusement. I can just about understand why someone would want Cuckoo Problems but are there really people keen to own Collectible Spoons of the 3rd Reich or The Colliery Fireman’s Pocket Book (1935 edition)?.

Adding to the humour factor is Shaun Bythell’s assistant Nicky. Invariably late to report for work, she often arrives bearing the fruits of a rummage in the waste food skips outside supermarkets. One entry reads:

Nicky arrived in her black ski suit as usual, with a pasty from the Morrisons skip. It bore more resemblance to a giant scab than to an edible treat. ‘Eh, it’s delicious. Go on, have a bit.’ It was revolting.

This episode came only a few days after she’d offered him a reduced price (out of date) cinnamon roll minus its coating. “I licked the icing off it on my way into work this morning,'” she blithely explained.

Humour Masks Harsh Reality

But beneath the humour, frustrations abound. The chief of which is the near impossibility of a bricks and mortar second hand bookshop competing against the on-line behemoths. The latter’s vast warehouses and heavily discounted postal contract are only part of the problem .

The issue is that customers have become accustomed to discounts and they expect them from shop owners like Shaun Bythell. A refusal usually results in a comment along the lines of ‘DISGUSTING’ as they bustle out of the shop announcing they will buy the book on line. These ‘bargain hunters’ are the target of his most acerbic comments.

Strip away the quotidian dimension and the real heart of the book becomes clear. The Diary of a Bookseller is a heartfelt appeal to book buyers everywhere to wake up to the reality of the impact of the mega-size online providers. Bythell doesn’t set out to have a go at suppliers like Amazon, or to lay all the blame for the woes of the publishing industry, on that company, but does make it clear that the benefits enjoyed by consumers have been to the detriment of authors, publishers and businesses like his.

… authors have seen their incomes plummet over the past ten years, publishers too which means that they can no longer take risks with unknown authors and now there is no middleman. … The sad truth is that unless authors and publishers unite and stand firm against Amazon, the industry will face devastation.

This is a wonderfully entertaining book for anyone who takes an interest in how books are bought and sold. But it also provides food for thought. Shops like The Bookshop, Wigtown, can survive only if every one of us who buys books, support them with our feet and our wallets.

The Diary Of A Bookseller by Shaun Bythell: Fast Facts

The Diary of A Bookseller was published by Profile Books in 2018. It was so successful that Shaun Bythell published a follow up – Confessions Of A Bookseller – in August 2019.

You can support The Bookshop in Wigtown by becoming a customer. If you can’t visit in person, you can give them a helping hand by taking out a subscription to their Random Book Club or buying via their online store at Abebooks.

If you want to get to know Shaun Bythell, take a look at his You Tube channel

Be the Expert: An Introduction to 21st Century Feminism

I have spent my entire academic life focusing on gender history: any essay that I could manipulate to have a sex and gender angle, I most definitely would. It’s the area of study in which I’m most well read on, the idea of feminism (and particularly the world of academic feminism), can be intimidating to many people.

I’m not going to try and define modern feminism here (that would require a thesis word count), but the books I’ve detailed below provide an initial way entry point in exploring different aspects of feminism in the twenty-first century

Now, I admit that all of these books are targeted at a younger audience – particularly towards millennials and Gen-Z in the case of Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Everything I Know About Love. And I know that I am a millennial myself, but I do feel that there is a universality and inclusivity to each work, that hopefully makes them accessible to a wide audience.

Each is flawed in its own way – these are not academic texts, and I’m not claiming that any of these are a bible which provides all of the answers, or is even representative of all types of feminism or all women.

But they’re a good jumping off point.

How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran

Caitlin Moran

Ah, old reliable. Caitlin Moran’s memoir seeks to make feminism more approachable for every woman by telling stories from her own life, and this is the book which first ignited the strident feminist in me.

Mr O’Neill, my Government and Politics A Level teacher, declared to his class of nine seventeen-year-old girls that before we could start studying feminism as a political ideology, we all had to read How to Be a Woman.

By the time we reconvened a few days later, all of our outlooks had changed, and none of us have looked back since that point over six years ago. (I do see the irony in being introduced to the topic by a male teacher!)

The entire book has Moran’s signature style, using humour to tackle serious topics, to make issues such as abortion less intimidating. It’s a riot from start to finish, and is still as relevant as it was when published in 2011.

Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (and Other Lies), curated by Scarlett Curtis

Feminists Dont wear Pink

Considering I have just written an MA dissertation with this book as a case study, there are many things I could say (and have said) on the topic of Scarlett Curtis’ curated collection of essays.

Published in 2018 to an enormous amount of fanfare, the collection Feminists Don’t Wear Pink sees contributions from fifty-two different authors, from many walks of life. Some authors give their verdict on 21st century feminism, others muse on the female body, or offer insight into their own journey to feminism.

So we have Keira Knightley discussing the interpretation of women as the weaker sex. Activist Amika George considers the power of the menstrual cycle while academic Claire Horn provides a ‘short history of feminist theory’.

I do have quite a few issues with this publication which could warrant a blog post of their own (or a dissertation!). Overall however, the contents are inclusive and wide-ranging, and thus provide a more varied introduction to feminism than you would normally get in a singular book.

Everything I Know About Love, Dolly Alderton

Potentially a slightly odd choice, as it is not a book explicitly about feminism. Dolly Alderton’s intimate memoir recounts the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of growing up and navigating a multitude of different types of love along the way.

In its entirety, Everything I Know About Love is truly a testament to female friendship, and the power that comes with realising that you alone are enough. Personal stories, satirical observations and even recipes all weave together to strike a note of recognition with women of all ages – whilst genuinely making you laugh.

To be honest, I also had a series of little cries along the way.

This is just a shortlist of books on this vast topic. If anyone wants some further reading suggestions, particularly on the academic side, I would only be too happy to oblige! I have many bibliographies to call on…

Please comment below if you have any additional suggestions for a jumping off point – it’s a topic I will truly never be tired of, and I would encourage some healthy debate!

Non fiction november

This is the second of two posts for week 4 of Non Fiction November 2019. You can find the first post which is a request for recommendations of top notch memoirs here

Bring Me Your Favourite Memoirs

The Nonfiction November topic this week is an opportunity to take advantage of the wisdom of the crowd. The host, Katie at Doing Dewey, suggests we can “Be the Expert/Ask the Experts/Become the Expert”). 

I’m going to take the “Ask The Expert” path and ask for help with a newly- acquired reading interest I want to develop further.

Memorable Memoirs

Most of my non fiction reading this year has been in the form of memoirs. I never planned it that way and in fact until this year I wouldn’t have even predicted this genre would be a favourite.

But that’s how it’s turned out.

I’ve read some stunning books, vastly different in scope but every one of them written by a person with insight and the ability to let me into their world.

From Adam Kay’s This Is Going To Hurt, I learned how medical practitioners get burned out to the point they give up the profession despite their passion for healing. Through The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, I appreciated how easily you can lose everything – home, money, career – and yet maintain your dignity and courage. And from Becoming by Michelle Obama I saw how, even when you have a high profile role on the world political stage, you can still have doubts about your abilities.

I know I have barely touched the tip of an enormous iceberg. But my appetite has been whetted and now I want more.

So here’s my request to you all.

Give me your recommendations for killer memoirs.

i’m looking for the memoirs that are breathtaking, spell-binding, unmissable etc etc They could be But – and it’s a very big BUT – you’ll have to avoid those from so-called ‘personalities’ or people in sports, show-business or politics. The reminiscences of a member of a girl-band/boy band have zero appeal to me. Nor am I particularly fond of the ‘misery memoir’ which deals with the abuse someone experienced as a child (I find them too painful to read sorry).

What I’m really looking for are books by people who witnessed or achieved extraordinary things. And they can relate this to me in a way that is memorable, engrossing and thought-provoking.

If you know just the thing to fit my requirements, do leave me a comment and tell me why you think your suggestion is special.

2019 In Non Fiction

The time for vacillation is over. My dilemma whether to join Nonfiction November, was resolved by all the reassurances from bloggers that there’s no expectation to read any more non fiction than normal. So I’m diving in with the first week’s discussion topic.

Julz Reads has given 4 questions all on the theme of Your Year In Non Fiction

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

I’m cheating here by choosing two books. They’re both memoirs which deal with sobering social issues (homelessness and health provision) but do so with a huge dollop of humour.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn . This is a spectacular book which traces the way Raynor and her husband Moth dealt with the loss of their home and business. Just days after Moth received a devastating medical diagnosis the couple embarked on a 630 mile walk along the South West Coast Path. They experienced the kindness of strangers but also hostility.

This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay . Who would have thought gynaecology could be so funny? Kay reveals some of the bizarre medical emergencies that confronted him as a junior doctor (read this book and you’ll be astonished the things people manage to insert into their bodies). But this book has a serious message – the unbelievable strains imposed on these doctors through lack of funding and indifference.

Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?

I’ve read 6 non fiction books this year and will shortly finish another; Becoming by Michelle Obama. They had nothing in common except that all but one of these books was a memoir.

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

The Salt Path .

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

There are loads of novels that feature historical figures or episodes I know little about so I’m hoping to get some ideas for non fiction books to help fill in those gaps. Next week’s topic is in fact ‘book pairings’ where the idea is to match a fiction and non fiction book on the same topic. I suspect my wishlist will grow as a result.

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